Wonder Woman’s Black twin, Nubia, inspired Cal professor’s book on superhero comics

The early 1970s comic is among those discussed in UC Berkeley Professor Darieck Scott’s new book, ‘Keeping It Unreal: Black Queer Fantasy and Superhero Comics.’

Darieck Scott. Credit: Stuart Locklear

You probably don’t remember Wonder Woman’s Black twin sister, Nubia. But Darieck Scott does.

In 1973, when Scott was 8 or 9, he purchased Wonder Woman issue No. 206 from an American bookstore in Germany. It shaped his imaginative life as a young child of a military officer, and it continues to inspire his academic work today.

On the cover of the comic are two beautiful women – one Black, one white, one outfitted in leopard prints, the other in a patriotic red-white-and-blue skirt, both shackled together and each brandishing a sword. The caption: “Under Mars’ brainwashing – Wonder Woman finally meets her sister Nubia – in a battle to the death!”

“That first glimpse of Nubia caught my attention,” Scott said, “because I was becoming aware of my own Blackness and how that was signifying in the mostly white world in which I was existing in Germany. [Nubia] was just very glamorous and beautiful and powerful, and the combination of those things was electrifying for me.”

A UC Berkeley Professor of African American Studies, Scott is the author of Keeping It Unreal: Black Queer Fantasy and Superhero Comics, out this month from New York University Press. The book contains a lengthy discussion of Nubia and her impact on Scott and the comics medium, along with ground-breaking Black male characters such as Luke Cage and Black Panther.

The volume also contains a long chapter about erotic fantasy art, with sample illustrations, and is not intended for young readers.

A self-described “Army brat,” Scott resided in various places his father was stationed, like Kentucky, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina and Europe. For the younger Scott, comics provided a welcome refuge from a tumultuous time when his family was continually on the move.

Scott said that reading comics as a child “was a way for me to make sense of the radically changed world I was living in. It seems ironic and maybe counter-intuitive, because comics obviously are not giving you the real world. But they just sparked imagination for me in a way that I needed to have it sparked in order to navigate all these differences that I was encountering as a little kid in this really different environment.”

He’s lived in the Bay Area for most of the past three decades and now resides in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley.

After finishing high school, Scott attended Stanford. Expecting throughout his undergraduate years that he would become an attorney, Scott entered Yale Law School, realizing in his very first semester that he hated it. He decided to study more African American literature than he had as an undergrad biology major, and ultimately earned a master’s in African American Studies at Yale, along with his law degree. Thereafter, he earned his doctorate in Modern Thought and Literature at Stanford, teaching at the University of Texas at Austin and UC Santa Barbara before joining the faculty at UC Berkeley.

Scott said he appreciates his colleagues in his department and others. “I really enjoy getting to know Berkeley students, and am energized by their inquisitiveness and passion for learning,” he said.

Scott currently teaches and researches such subjects as 20th and 21st century African American literature; creative writing; queer theory; LGBTQ studies; and race, gender and sexuality in fantasy, science fiction and comic books. He is the author of Extravagant Abjection: Blackness, Power, and Sexuality in the African American Literary Imagination and two novels, Hex and Traitor to the Race, plus dozens of contributions to anthologies and journals. UC Berkeley awarded him a Mellon Project Grant to support research for his latest book.

Scott first wrote about comics early in his academic career, and he remembers publishing one or two articles about comics when he was a graduate student. Thereafter, Scott said, he didn’t write about comics again for a long time because, “comics studies was really, really young at that point and I didn’t have much knowledge of it.”

It wasn’t until after publishing his first scholarly book, Extravagant Abjection, that Scott returned scholarly attention to comics. Since that book, much of Scott’s scholarship has been somehow related to comics.

‘What is important about fantasy’

Keeping It Unreal straddles the line between general non-fiction and scholarship, and Scott said it’s more accessible to lay readers than his previous work.

While Extravagant Abjection examined texts that display a “sense of total defeat” experienced by African Americans traumatized by enslavement and Jim Crow, Scott said that with Unreal and its discussion of superhero comics, “I wanted to think about what is important about fantasy.”

Fantasy is often dismissed or devalued as an escape from reality, he said, as if when “you’re living in fantasy, you’re doing the wrong thing, not addressing whatever problems you’re needing to deal with.”

By writing about comics and fantasy, Scott said, “I wanted to think about what is the value of fantasy as an active engagement with reality, an imaginative transformation of reality, and to not think of it necessarily as providing a blueprint for some sort of goal you might have.”

Using his own experience as an example, he said, “Somehow reading those comics (as a child) which were completely crazy, with an unreal world with all sorts of fascinating things going on, it helped me to navigate all of the difficulties of an anti-Black, anti-queer environment. I wanted to think about that and to write about it.”

Scott spoke of the current abundance of superhero-based mass media, where “everybody wants to imagine themselves as being powerful enough to determine their own destinies. We’re all living in worlds where, as COVID lets us know, we have no control over anything, for the most part.”

The second major chapter of Keeping It Unreal addresses male Black characters, the newfound popularity of Black Panther and the hidden African kingdom of Wakanda.

Re-energized by the 2017 screen adaptation, Black Panther has spawned a whole series of comics and further movie appearances. Put them all together and readers get what Scott calls “a habitable imaginary.”

Scott calls Black Panther’s homeland “that place where Black people are powerful, sovereign, and not oppressed — certainly one of the appealing (aspects) for Black audiences, but I think also for anti-racist white audiences and audiences of other races as well.”

Scott continued, “Wakanda becomes a very elaborate, well-created image of some place you can imagine living more freely than we do. Maybe not even just Black people, but everyone living more freely and more powerfully.”

Comics characters are also more free to explore their sexuality. Scott said, “We’re seeing more queer characters. Usually they’re white, but not always. But we’ll see more.”

Long-running mainstream characters are displaying more diversity. Tim Drake, one of the incarnations of Batman’s pal Robin, for example, has been revealed to be bisexual, as has Superman’s son. These are examples of how that trend is proliferating in mainstream comics.

Comics are infinitely malleable, their casts of characters changeable in the blink of an eye. Nubia disappeared for decades. Now there’s a new series about her, as well as a young-adult graphic novel.

Scott said, “Even though that character had very little life in the comics world beyond the three or four issues, Nubia always stayed with me. And also with other readers, because now there’s a huge revival of her as a [pop cultural] figure.”

“It’s clear that, for a bunch of us,” Scott concluded, “that figure has remained powerful even though she was never in any comic for long.”

Freelancer Michael Berry has been a resident of Berkeley since the early 1980s. He enjoys writing about Berkeley-based authors and books.