From the release of Netflix’s trailer for Luke Cage to the announcement of Riri Williams as the new Iron Man, the visibility of black people in the comic universe has taken on new levels. One of the most enthralling stories of the past few weeks is the addition of author Roxane Gay and poet Yona Harvey as writers for World of Wakanda. Set as a parallel series to Black Panther, World of Wakanda focuses on the narrative of Ayo and Aneka, lovers and two former members of the Dora Milaje. For Gay and Harvey, their work will be a first for Marvel Comics, who have never before hired black women writers for its publication. In a recent interview, Gay recalls her experience in approaching the project:
“At first, I was really intimidated, but the opportunity to write about black women in a Marvel comic was an opportunity I could not pass up.”
The work of black women in writing for comics is extensive, though like many other literary platforms, their talents have often been set outside of mainstream view.
Over the years, comic book publications such as Marvel, DC Comics, and Dark Horse have produced some of the most memorable black women characters. Despite the representation on page, the industry has historically lagged behind in featuring accurately written perspectives of black women. In Black Women in Sequence: Re-inking Comics, Graphic Novels, and Anime, Deborah Elizabeth Wiley offers insight on the disconnect between writers and black female subjects:
“For the past several decades, comic book writers have used illustrations of and ideologies about the Black female body to signify the fetish, fear, and fabrication of Africa.”
Wiley offers Vixen (Justice League), Storm (X-Men), and Nubia (Wonder Woman) as examples of characters originally conceived using various Western interpretations of Africa. These interpretations center an affinity for Eurocentricity. Wiley notes that regardless of Storm’s East African origin, her character is rendered as a descendant of white haired, blue-eyed African priestesses. While comic and fantasy works are, in part, meant to invoke the fantastical and sometimes whimsical, being represented in both image and word can be endearing for a marginalized group–as exemplified by Marvel’s employing Ta-Nehisi Coates to write their Black Panther series.
In the battle between Marvel and DC Comics, DC employed writers Felicia Henderson and Angela Robinson for Teen Titans and The Web, respectively. However, since then, neither of the comic book heavyweights have employed black women on their writing staff until Roxane Gay’s addition to Marvel. Despite the lack of inclusivity in major publications, black women writers and artists such as Marguerite Abouet continue to take on the mantle of illustrating their own stories, dating from the early 20th century. Noted for comics such as Torchy Brown in Dixie to Harlem and Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginge, Jackie Ormes is celebrated as the first African American woman to create a syndicated comic strip. Since then, independent and self-publishing outlets have become normalized as black women affirm themselves in the comic universe.
Jasmine Sullivan recognized the lack of diverse characters in comics and launched Aza Comics in 2014. Like many other writers, artists, and creators, her goal was increase the visibility of marginalized groups. Sullivan adds:
“Everyone deserves to see themselves represented in the superhero genre. We are fast becoming a global culture in which all ethnicities, languages, and nationalities are being embraced by the average individual and it is time that our entertainment reflects that. Despite the lack of cultural diversity I think that it is a shame that there are so few female superheroes even though women have always been the most marketable in any realm of entertainment. I plan to change that.”
So it can be said for black women in the world of comic books, black women writers and artists are saving themselves.