Are you a comics fan? My latest project deals with religion in comic books and graphic novels from the Golden Age to the present, where I look for comics characters who possess what might be seen as god-like powers, supernatural abilities, and fantastic technologies. Perhaps we might think of them as modern-day deities. Being obsessed with religion I wonder if there is a way to fit these characters into a comparative religious studies framework. It’s new to me, but here’s the thing. I want to look at Africana religions and black female super-heroes (and maybe, just maybe, squeeze a little Voodoo out of it). Why not? There are comics and graphic novel characters for every religion you could possibly think of. And yes, some are practitioners of Africana religions, and others are spiritual beings of African or African-American origin. Unfortunately for some of us, women tend to be created as decorative add-ons and uninspiring sidekicks in this world, for comics have been traditionally dominated by males and male interests. Nevertheless, black female characters fare slightly better than their white female counterparts, perhaps because they occupy discursive space as women and they play supporting roles to black males who also navigate the perilous mazes of gender and race in the comics universe. This is not to say that black female characters only stand by (or behind) their men. At best, they emerge as autonomous beings with their own stories. At worst they languish at the margins, neglected and waiting to develop into
full buxom physically idealized figures instead of flat, non distinct ones. It is all too easy to find black female characters who lack depth, nuance, and agency. Believe it or not, even Africana goddesses can be conventional. They are beautiful, black, and female – but that’s about it. Although they have super powers their unique characteristics are scripted according to phenotype, just a stone’s throw away from stereotype. But there are some notable exceptions. See for example, Frank Miller’s graphic series featuring Martha Washington, a brilliant one-woman freedom-fighting machine who rocks a futuristic version of Atlas Shrugged, the libertarian manifesto. There’s also Monica Rambeau, a rare black superheroine who crosses universes, picks up the mantle of Captain Marvel, becomes a leader of the Avengers, and cycles through multiple identities as Photon, Pulsar, and Spectrum. Unusual for a woman, Rambeau survives extended transmutations of her character yet remains as multilayered and complex a figure as any. Finally, there is Storm, probably the best known of the current black female action figures, of X-Men fame and African American queen of the nation of Wakanda, whose mutant powers remind us of the orisha Oya, deity of fierce winds and tornadoes from the Yoruba religious traditions. So while black leading ladies in the comics are relatively scarce, they certainly aren’t absent. Happily, one can find an array of African and African-American women superheroes that push against – and beyond – the boundaries of what it means to be black, female, and even human. But why should there be black female super-heroines? Allow me to suggest that if superheroes are simply beings whose powers enable them to challenge the most formidable of opponents while surpassing the limitations of ordinary humanness – then black women are more than able to stand shoulder to shoulder with legends like Superman, Wonder Woman, and Black Panther. (In fact they do.) But what becomes a hero and a god? The idea of superheroes as deities is not something new; it is actually a theme that is currently discussed in numerous venues of academic writing. Some have argued that comic books are a unique literature that brings the reader into direct contact with images of living beings from the vast fields of the imagination. Much like spirits, these timeless astral personages are able to enter the planes of physical existence. Put another way: we theorize that comic book characters are envisioned and created thought-forms that one may literally draw into reality with the power of the will. We might also consider these beings as archetypes from the unconscious mind that are clothed with our attention, the psychic force that brings them to life. However one thinks about this, when we engage comics as virtuous possibilities they become grounded in our reality – and they inspire us. Fans and readers may experience this as a kind of stirring devotion to their favorite themes and characters. Others may lose themselves in an intensely moving and powerful story arc. More often, the imagined beings come to life on film, and now and again we allow them to possess our bodies in cos-plays, rpgs and scripted simulations. It behooves us to consider these characters as inhabiting a collective mythology, for myth is a special kind of story that compels the reader out of his/her mundane time and place. And like myths, comics offer us entertaining tales and deeds of extraordinary persons and provide historical substance to these eternally resilient beings. And of course everyone loves an idol, a rock star who shines ever so brightly, a hero who moves through the world in a different way. It makes sense that comics become the guidebooks for dreamers and adventurers who long to tap into those vivid, otherworldly realms where the action is. Where one can meet superheroes and gods. How else do you start a religion? In any event, we still wonder how black women and religion will fit into this conversation. Religion usually shows up in the comics as flair, as an identity marker, as a way of adding cultural or ethnic flavor to a character – or better yet, as a story device that registers anxieties around difference and power. For my part, I see a fabulous cross-section of race, gender, and religion themes on display when I read the comics. So it’s the same thing. Usually attention to religious topics in the comics goes hand in hand with preachy, heavy handed and predictable stories that enact “faith crises” of some sort or another, that are stuck within conventional theological frameworks. But when I turn to black female characters, I find Africana spiritualities presented in ways that belie the conventional wisdom that most black folk are good church-going Baptists, or, at the other extreme, insurgent/angry/crazy/fanatical in their rejection of any form of Christian piety. In many cases, religion provides the essential framework for understanding a (super)hero’s source of empowerment, be it through an African-styled ancestral orientation (e.g. Vixen, Empress), or the onset of extraordinary abilities delivered by a curse, supernatural forces, or through some ritual process of ordeal or initiation (Nubia, Dominique Laveau, Priscilla Kitaen). In my next post, I will examine the representations of Voodoo and Vodou in the comics, two of my favorite subjects, and see how our black heroes and heroines fare. Hint: It’s not just the characters that are dark and mysterious.