Header image: Lunella Lafayette as seen on the cover of Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur #12.
Credit: Amy Reeder/Marvel ComicsI loved Black superheroines like Storm, Vixen, and Misty Knight as a kid – even though I never felt they were given the attention they deserved by mainstream media. I would thumb through comics and attempt to live my escapism fantasies as I followed the adventures of my favorite leading ladies. It never really seemed to work because, like all kids, it was hard to picture myself as an adult. I also loved movies like The Goonies and Little Rascals, but there were no Black girl main characters and it made me feel frustrated.
A couple of years ago, my oldest daughter became a comic fan and experienced some of the same things I did as a child. We would walk into comic shops and White dudes would stare us down with curiosity and (sometimes) animosity. Why were they always so taken aback by our presence? The comic space was just as beloved and important to us as any other reader. Black girls and women have always and will always continue to be comic book fans. Get over it!
I have taught my daughter to be proud to be Black, so I was not surprised when she started seeking comics with Black girl protagonists. And for the first time since my own childhood, I thought about Black girls and their place in comics. For many years, they seemed to be excluded from many narratives about the adventures of kids – until now. Black girls are bringing their magic to comics with bravery, intelligence, and an overall resolve to effect positive change in the world. These characters are no longer taking a back seat to non-Black protagonists who get to be the heroes. They are facing otherworldly foes and they’re also yet juggling everyday problems that are relatable to girls. There are new comics created every day and it’s impossible to list them all, but these stories are a great start for Black girls and teens.
The recent wave of 80s nostalgia has opened the door for a Black girl badass from 1988 to take on a major role in an all-girl ensemble. Paper Girls (Image Comics) was Netflix’s Stranger Things in print form before the sci-fi series exploded in 2016. The story centers around a girl named Erin whose life becomes intertwined with a group of newspaper delivery girls in fictional Stony Stream, OH. Three girls (Tiffany, KJ, and Mac) save her from being harassed by teenage boys during an early morning route after Halloween.
Twelve year old Tiffany, the sole Black girl of the group, attends the same Catholic school as Erin and comes from a financially secure adoptive family. However, she still has to work her ass off on her route to purchase two CB radios, one of which she ends up losing in a robbery that same morning. This sets off a chain of strange events as the girls find themselves in the middle of a war spanning across time. They may not have an Eleven, but they have each other and that’s enough.
The comic is only 11 issues in as of February 2017, but Tiffany’s character goes through quite a bit of development. She is the perfect balance between her friend Mac, the cigarette smoking, grunge teen who has frequent run-ins with police, and Erin, the preteen who always wants to follow the rules. Tiffany is cautious when the situation warrants pause yet she doesn’t hesitate to get physically aggressive to protect her friends.
Early in the series, she is forced to relive her past. She is disappointed with how she spent her time and says she will make sure she does something with her life. From that point forward, Tiffany becomes the inciting actor amongst the group. She drives them toward help during an emergency, smacks aliens with hockey sticks, and even encourages the girls to take a leap of faith (literally) through a portal to find their friend.
Tiffany is a welcome Black character in a sci-fi/fantasy story. She is featured on several of the comic’s covers, is an agent of change in the storyline, and doesn’t fall into any of the often annoying tropes about Black people in sci-fi stories. In this comic, described by Image Comics as a mashup of “Stand by Me meets War of the Worlds,” Tiffany shows an incredible amount of maturity as she stands her ground and demands to know what is going on in different situations. Paper Girls has a T+ rating (read: copious amounts of cursing by the girls) so it is geared toward tween and teenage Black girl readers. Just like younger Black girls, this demographic needs everyday heroines that show how some kids really are with their friends. These readers are used to the faster pace of TV and movies, so they will also appreciate how Paper Girls jumps right into the action.
Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur
Black girl protagonists are also beginning to make an impact on the Marvel universe. Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur’s Lunella Lafayette is a 9-year-old Manhattanite with a genius level IQ who lives in her own world. She’s bored at school, teased for being different, and misunderstood by her parents. Outside of pressures to be a “normal” kid, there is a cloud floating over the city that is activating her inhuman DNA genes.
Lunella’s also dealing with an ancient race called the Killer Folk who co-exist with dinosaurs and, along with Devil Dinosaur, are running around modern day Manhattan. Armed with self-confidence, Lunella proclaims “My brain is all the super power I need.” And she’s right. Marvel says she is the “smartest person in the Marvel universe” – yes, even smarter than Bruce Banner.
Lunella is an excellent role model for nerdy Black girls – confident, ambitious, and secure with who she is despite the world telling her to be someone else. But her unlikely partnership with a giant red dinosaur and the chaos that ensues helps her accept who she has to become.
Readers can also relate to the dynamic Lunella has with her mother. In Issue #6, Lunella is spending her days acting “normal” and her nights with the Devil Dinosaur as her alter ego Moon Girl – a cruel nickname given to Lunella by her peers and proudly claimed as her own. Her mom believes gangs are rampant in the neighborhood, so she embarrasses Lunella and walks her to school. On the way home, she sees a newspaper article about Devil Dinosaur damaging a museum. She knows Lunella is behind it and returns to the school to confront her in front of everyone.
The scene leads to a brilliant exchange as at the end of the conversation, Lunella bursts out in tears over her mom’s refusal to listen. Her mom believes Lunella is upset about her condition and says she will love her even if she becomes inhuman. Then Lunella counters with one of the most compelling quotes in the series:
“I never wanted you to understand what I might become I want you to understand what I am.”
Lunella’s relationship with her mother becomes less adversarial after this conversation, which allows her to continue her mission with the Devil Dinosaur.
As I read the issue with my daughter, I thought about myself as a Black mom and how I am protective over my both of my daughters out of love and fear. Like Mrs. Lafayette, I am aware of the dangers my daughters face as Black girls. I know their intelligence and outspokenness can be misconstrued as attitude and disrespect by people who inherently see Black kids as more aggressive. But I know I also have to give them space to learn and transform. As much as Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur has taught my oldest daughter about staying true to herself, it also forces me to check myself as a mom and make sure I give her the support she needs to accomplish her goals.
The chance to explore Black girl protagonists is endless. From Malice in Ovenland’s Lilly Brown, a preteen demanding justice in a deceptive kingdom based in her oven, to Marvel’s latest Iron Man who happens to be 15 year old MIT student Riri Williams, Black girls are claiming their place in the comic world. They help girls feel comfortable with flexing their intelligence and embracing their imperfections. Their adventures provide respite from a world that doesn’t take the time to understand them, listen to them, or recognize their worth and beauty. And there are young girls who are reading these stories and imagining a future where they can have a major impact on the world as everyday heroes or through their pens as the ripple effect of Black girl centric stories encourages them to create their own adventures.
Tai Gooden is a freelance writer who has written for several online publications including The Guardian, VICE, Gizmodo, Paper Magazine, Paste Magazine, The Learned Fangirl, The Frisky, and Upworthy. When she’s not writing, she can be found waiting on the TARDIS.