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Flying While Black: Female Creator on Inventing (and Reinventing) Black Superheroes

Digital Art

Digital Creatives

April 23, 2021, 9:57 a.m.

‘You Are a Threat to Them’

By Eve L. Ewing | Author of the Marvel series Ironheart

My Twitter notifications were a garbage fire. They said I had no talent, that I was a harbinger of everything that was going wrong in the comics industry. Some of them used coded language like “forced diversity.” Other messages, like a simple image of a burning cross, were more direct.

It was December 2017 and everything was a culture war; the world of comics was no different. Comicsgate had emerged beginning in 2016: a loose conglomeration of hashtags, YouTube channels, and Twitter accounts that derived glee from the targeted harassment of women, trans people, and people of color. That included real people, like me, and fictional people, like the character I’m best known for writing: a Black teen girl from Chicago named Riri Williams who enters the valiant fray of Marvel superheroes under the moniker Ironheart.

As a Black woman with an established public internet presence, I was used to harassment. I had some tried-and-true strategies: block, mute, ignore and go do something else with your day.

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But there was something fundamental that I didn’t understand, and it bugged me. Of all the things I had said and done in public, of all my commentary about policing and politics and education and media, nothing had attracted a firestorm like the one prompted by the mere rumor that I might be writing Ironheart.

Why this? Pretend stories about a girl who flies around the city and shoots energy beams out of her armored super-suit — this was the thing that made them so angry?

Writing for Marvel seemed to me to be about the least political thing I had ever done. To me, this was about fun. It was the stuff of youthful miracles, a shiny new bike, and unlimited arcade tokens rolled into one.

More than anything, I was concerned with the essentials of writing something decent. Riri had an origin story furnished by the writer Brian Michael Bendis and the artist Mike Deodato. She was a teen genius who had tragically lost loved ones to gun violence and was now attending M.I.T.

My job, as I saw it, was to puzzle out the deeper elements of who she is with and without her armor. What fears and desires motivate her? What are her quirks and flaws? Who are the people in her life who love her?

I knew I had to figure out how Riri might see things as someone who grew up in a hyper-policed community, including her thoughts on who gets labeled a criminal. The page pictured above is my remix of the iconic superhero landing pose: Riri transitions from that super aggressive stance with her fist down to a more gentle and empathic stance, down on one knee to talk to a child.

The not-so-hidden secret of superhero stories is that readers want to understand who the person is when they’re not suited up.

Once you figure that out, then you can get to the titanic battles over the future of the universe. But for me, this was all in good fun.

Don’t get me wrong — I knew that what I was doing was historic. At the time I was hired, I was the fifth Black woman writer in Marvel’s nearly 80-year history. Still, why Riri and I were so divisive, I didn’t get it.

I mused aloud about this to Ta-Nehisi Coates, who himself had been targeted for his writing on Captain America.

“If you do this,” he told me, “you will face the most racism and sexism you’ve ever dealt with in your life. And you will also have the most fun you’ve ever had writing anything.”

I told him I was all in on the fun part but I was confused by the racism and sexism part. Why were people so angry?

“No, Eve,” he said. “Don’t you see? They’re right.”

I didn’t see.

“They’re right. About you. About us. About these characters,” he said. “You are a threat to them.”

And when he said that, I was a kid again, walking home from the train station at night, in a time before anyone had apps to track you, before Black girls snatched up from the street had any means to go viral. If you disappeared, you would be gone forever.

In those moments, I always thought of one person: Batman. In my head, he was just out of view, perched atop a darkened church. I almost caught the smallest edge of his cape disappearing around a corner, I reasoned, but I had turned my head a beat too late. When I was scared and alone, that’s who my mind called out to.

Superheroes reflect our shared cultural mythologies: what it means to be good, to be courageous, to face unbeatable odds. In recent years, “representation matters” has become a refrain acknowledging how vital it is that children see possibilities for themselves in media.

But superheroes represent something beyond that. It’s not only that if little Black girls see Ironheart being brave, but they will also understand that they can do the same because they look like her. It’s that superheroes serve as a shared cultural mirror, paragons of what bravery even is.

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For example, in one of my favorite panels from the series (shown above), I wanted to show the unbridled joy Black kids from Chicago would feel if they got to meet Ironheart and experience flying for the first time. It’s important to me to push against the adultification of Black children, and show them being silly and having fun. This is also a full-circle moment because, early in the story arc, Ironheart catches the boy in green committing a petty crime, but instead of punishing him, she wants to help him.

If kids who are scared and alone call out in their heart of hearts for protection and the face they see in their mind’s eye is a Black teen girl from the South Side of Chicago, or a Muslim Pakistani-American nerd from Jersey City (Kamala Khan, a.k.a. Ms. Marvel), or an undocumented Mexican-American kid from Arizona who can fly (Joaquín Torres, also known as Falcon) — if those faces become cultural stand-ins for the ideals we strive for in our society, in the ways that Superman, Batman, and Captain America have been for generations … man, if I was a white supremacist, that would make me mad, too.

There’s a folder of images I keep on my phone. It contains some screenshots from Twitter and Instagram, but not the ones calling me unprintable names. I keep the photos of kids dressed as Riri — kids across the country whose parents posted images of their children reading comics I wrote and tagged me online, and kids who showed up at comic book conventions and store signings.

I keep the pictures of the line that snaked out the door and into the street the first time I did a signing at my local shop, First Aid Comics. I save the photos from the first time I attended New York Comic Con and posed with a squad of other Black comics creators, grinning wildly beneath our thick glasses.

I save the photos from when I posed with the Ironheart who had braces, and the littlest Black Panther, and Ms. Marvel who sat on my lap.

It’s still true that some people are pretty angry about the future of comics, but it doesn’t bother me. I’m on the best superhero team. And as you may have heard, we are mighty.

Originally published by New York Times

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Verny Joy Author

Verny loves to write poetry, fiction and quotes. Her love for writing landed her in journalism. She loves gadgets and travelling to explore new places.

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