WAR & PEACE: THE GODS LOVE NUBIA
By Robert Jones, Jr.
"The pain of nubia is only of the moment; the desolate, the suffering, the plundered, the oppressed. The gods love nubia, we have to keep believing; the scattered and divided, we are still it's heart." – Elton John.
In the 1970s, amidst rapid social changes along racial and gender lines, the comic book industry began to incorporate black superheroes into their comics. Readers of the era had mixed reactions. Some objected to this darker-skinned presence in their all-white superhero fantasies, while others bemoaned depictions that were stereotypes at best and racist at worst. But how could the depictions be otherwise? These characters were borne out of the imaginations of men whose understanding of black life lacked form, insight or nuance. And if that character happened to be both black and female, the results were doubly insulting because the writers' understanding of women's issues also left much to be desired. Nowhere were those combined deficiencies more apparent than in the figure of Nubia, "the black Wonder Woman."
Nubia was introduced in "Wonder Woman" #204 – 206 in 1973. The story reveals that Hippolyta initially created two clay statues of infants, both of which would be animated by the Olympian gods: one of dark clay and one of light. Aphrodite gives both figures the gift of life, but before the other gods can arrive to bless them both with extraordinary powers, Mars, the god of war, shows up and kidnaps the dark baby. Hippolyta is distraught - for all of one panel - until the gods arrive to bless baby Diana. At that point, she forgets about the dark baby, who is never mentioned again and, as we know, Diana grows up to become Wonder Woman. For Hippolyta, all seems right with the world. The gods love Nubia, indeed.
Years later, a strange, armored, rather angry warrior from a mysterious place called "The Floating Island" shows up on Paradise Island and challenges Diana for the right to become Wonder Woman. The battle ends in a draw and the challenger removes her face-covering helmet to reveal herself as Nubia. Hippolyta senses that she might be the daughter stolen from her many years ago. Diana, meanwhile, is fascinated by this woman who almost bested her in battle (so much so that the next black woman she sees immediately reminds her of Nubia). How it is that Nubia is, without the gods' blessings, as powerful as Diana remains unexplained.
Later, Mars uses his hypnotic sway to force Nubia into fighting Diana again. Diana frees her sister from his control and together they manage to foil his scheme. The two women exchange pleasantries and Nubia returns to her people to teach them the ways of peace, which she presumably learned from her exposure to Diana and the Amazons. Diana returns to Paradise Island and Hippolyta reveals to her that Nubia is actually her sister.
The story was problematic in many ways. To begin, Nubia is a curious choice for a name. It references regions in both Egypt and Sudan, but is also used to describe the skin tone of a specific race of people. What makes it problematic as a superhero codename is that it ensures its wearer is at once defined and limited by the color of her skin. It's equivalent to Wonder Woman being named "Themyscira" or "Caucasia."
The contrasts between Diana and Nubia are striking. Where Diana was raised surrounded by the love of Aphrodite and surrounded by thousands of mother Amazons, Nubia was kidnapped by the war-mongering Mars and raised by a savage tribe of pseudo-Africans. While Diana was raised in a technologically advanced society, Nubia was raised in a society replete with jungle vines, spears and straw huts. On Paradise Island, the Amazons live in peace and harmony and Princess Diana is their greatest hope. On the Floating Island, the men fight each other to the death for the right to become Princess Nubia's betrothed; she's the unwitting vixen and merely their object of sexual desire - and the narrative of the story reveals that none of them are worthy of her.
Nubia would not appear in "Wonder Woman" again for decades. However, she'd make a brief appearance in "Supergirl" #9 in 1974, where the newly crowned Amazon princess, Supergirl, saves her from "shark poisoning." Interestingly, Nubia, a character as powerful, skillful and resourceful as Wonder Woman, is rendered invalid for the entire story.
She would also appear in 1979's "Super Friends" #25. In this story, Wonder Woman, under the control of a villain called "The Overlord," sets out to forcibly free African women from patriarchal oppression. She's intercepted by Nubia, who announces that the women of Africa are under her protection. Diana, shocked, exclaims, "Nubia! My black sister!" (Apparently, the art didn't make that clear enough) and they fight one another to a stalemate. What's interesting here is that while Wonder Woman is the symbol of freedom from oppression for all women (and only women, it seems - a condition forced upon her by the writers who succeeded her creator), Nubia is limited to only black women's liberation. Anti-paternalistic? A form of self-determination? Perhaps. But also uninspired. It was as though the thought of a black woman being a savior that transcends color lines was impossible for the writer to imagine.
Why is it impossible? In what sheltered place do these men live; in what ivory tower? What is writing if not research and empathy, and why did these men exhibit neither? "It was a different time" is not an excuse; not as long as there were those who recognized the injustice even then. And to be certain, those depictions were unjust; abnormalities being passed off as normal.
Nubia would also be included in the Wonder Woman toy line, which was based on the television show starring Lynda Carter. The commercial for the line of toys had its own very revealing narrative: A pretty, pigtailed black girl is playing with the Nubia doll, described in the commercial as "Wonder Woman's super foe" (even though Nubia never appeared in the actual television show). "Gotcha, Major!" the young girl exclaims, as Nubia traps Major Steve Trevor under a book. The cute, freckled boy playing with the Steve doll shouts, "Wonder Woman! Hurry!" Enter one adorable blond-haired girl with the Wonder Woman doll. She announces, "I'll save you, Major, as soon as I tie up a few loose ends." Nubia is lassoed at the wrists; it looks like she's handcuffed. The commercial ends.
The commercial raises many questions. Why is Nubia "Wonder Woman's super-foe," and not the Cheetah or Giganta or Mars? Was this the manufacturer's attempt to market to a black audience? Why, then, couldn't they have made Nubia the superhero she was intended to be? Why play into the nightmarish misconceptions about blackness? And then, of course, there's the notion that Diana and Nubia are natural adversaries, rather than natural allies. It seemingly implies that when one gains, the other loses. It's hard to imagine anyone but a man creating that paradigm. Women would know better.
Nubia is a fascinating subject for study because she highlights the essential problem with an all-white, all-male power structure: Because the point of view is incredibly narrow, so is the product. Because the product is narrow, so is the audience. And the audience grows more incestuous by the second. If the goal is to broaden the audience, then it's imperative that the point of view is likewise broadened despite obstacles or resistance. Even today, that is something with which the mainstream comic book industry struggles.
It would be two decades before Nubia would be seen again (perhaps, she was sentenced to twenty years for what she did to Steve in that commercial). In any event, she would return modernized, but not completely free from her stereotypical past.
Doselle Young, a black writer from California, reintroduced the character in 1999's "Wonder Woman" Annual #8. He altered what was one of the more unusual, and perhaps more offensive, aspects of the character: her name. Now pronounced and spelled "Nu'Bia" (nu-BEE-uh, rather than nubee-UH), the name had an urban culture ring to it. It seemed a nod to the period shortly after the Civil Rights movement when, in a quest to forge a cultural identity free from Eurocentrism, African Americans gave their children Arabic and Afrocentric names like "Shaniqua" and "Da'Quan." One would imagine that a black writer, who appeared to be coming to the table with genuine cultural experiences, would add the authenticity sorely missing from Nubia's previous portrayals, or, at the very least, disengage from the racial (if not the gender) stereotypes. Young failed on multiple levels.
For starters, Nu'Bia was reintroduced during DC's company-wide "Gorilla Warfare" event. That it was deemed appropriate to revive the character during an event where gorillas from a secret city in Africa forcibly take over the world and turn many heroes into gorillas, is both puzzling and enlightening. That a black man was solicited to tell this tale - and did - is maddening, but not surprising. As recently as President Barack Obama's inauguration, black people were being compared to all manner of simian life forms. Many, including a good number of blacks, couldn't - or refused to - see why this was problematic. However, that doesn't make the notion any less offensive or racist given the well-documented history of - and reasons for - the comparisons.
Further, in "Wonder Woman" #154-155, Young gave Nu'Bia an updated backstory, defined, once again, in opposition to Diana's. Diana and Nu'Bia are no longer sisters and there's no kidnapping involved. But where Diana wins the tournament to become Wonder Woman and travels to Patriarch's World to deliver the message of hope and peace, Nu'Bia wins an earlier tournament and gets to spend the rest of eternity wandering the past, present and future of Hell, defending the Amazons from the horrors on the other side of "Doom's Doorway," the portal beneath Themyscira leading to Tartarus, like domestic help hired to clean out the basement. And like every mythic Mammy figure before her, she was more than happy to do it. To make matters worse (or better, depending on how you look at it), Nu'Bia failed in her mission and would have died, had a god not come across her battered, bruised and broken body, and nursed her back to health.
She and Diana wind up battling Dr. Echo, Blue Ice, and Ahriman, the Duke of Lies - all people of color - in an effort to get back the stolen heart of Nu'Bia's lover, Ahura-Mazda, the King of Light, a person of a glowing gold color. None of this could happen, however, without Nu'Bia reverting to type. Upset over a miscalculation that causes Blue Ice to die during battle, Nu'Bia, fueled by misdirected anger, punches Diana - hard - and draws blood. Diana, meanwhile, remains ever calm.
Not only did Young's interpretation maintain the racially problematic flaws, but it also seemed to undo some of the feminist aspects crucial to the character's core. At least he gave her a new power; something called "Cold Sight," which gave her the ability to turn mortals into stone. What's mystifying is why she would need that power in a place where there were no mortals. It did help Young to speed past one of the book's plot points, though.
Nu'Bia showed up once more, in a crowd scene, during Phil Jimenez's run, in "Wonder Woman" #177 (2002), before she disappeared into the Hell she was created to inhabit.
Grant Morrison would try his hand at the Nubia concept in the finale of his experimental "Final Crisis" miniseries (2008). This Nubia was dressed in a costume almost identical to Diana's. She was a denizen of an alternate reality where, presumably, everyone was black. Think either the Jim Crow South or Marcus Garvey's Liberian Dream (depending on your point of view), but on a cosmic scale. The idea that a black woman can only be Wonder Woman in a universe where everyone is black (which is - intentionally or unintentionally - what this story seemed to indicate) is as unsettling as it is juvenile. It suggests one of two things: either the writer lacks imagination or he knows that the audience does - and tolerance besides. Neither is an appealing prospect.
Perhaps Nubia, however spelled, is doomed to be burdened with racially- and sexually-suspect baggage for as long as "black" and "female" are viewed as dubious or somehow inferior designations in comic book stories (and outside of them). Yet, however flawed her depictions, there remains something extremely, uniquely powerful in the idea of a Nubia. It's an idea that subverts the notion of black woman as the "mule of the world" (to quote Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison).
Imagine it: A black female figure that transcends stereotype. Powerful, free, and benevolent; not hindered by her race or her gender, but, in fact, empowered by both. Not a vixen or a Mammy or a mad black woman, but an actual human being. What a novel idea. It remains to be seen if there is someone, somewhere in the industry, who is intelligent, sensitive and brave enough to carry out such a vision.
Hopefully, that someone will possess the good sense to come up with a better name.
Robert Jones, Jr. is an avid comic book reader, avowed Wonder Woman fan, editor and aspiring novelist from Brooklyn, NY. He is also webmaster of the psychosexual, sociopolitical blog, Son of Baldwin.