Author and UC Berkeley professor of African American Studies Darieck Scott uses fantasy as an active engagement with reality in his widely appraised book “Keeping It Unreal: Black Queer Fantasy and Superhero Comics,” published in 2022.
The book explores a journey through Black radical imagination and acts as an “impassioned plea” for the value of fantasizing a deep commitment to a transformation of the shared world, according to another author Ramzi Fawaz in an online discussion of the book hosted by the UC Berkeley Othering and Belonging Institute. Scott shared some words of his own about the fantasy genre, which he called a “transforming being.”
“We generally think of fantasy as an escape from reality, as not dealing with what needs to be done, or at best as something that’s a plan or a blueprint for some future (utopian fantasy),” Scott said in an email.
In 1973 West Germany, Scott first came across issue #206 of a Wonder Woman comic. The cover depicted Wonder Woman alongside a similarly looking Black woman, but she was wearing big hoop earrings and a leopard-skin skirt, Scott noted. The Black woman was Wonder Woman’s twin sister called Nubia. She possessed the same powers but was shaped from dark clay, as opposed to the light clay that made Wonder Woman, according to Scott.
Marvel pioneered its first Black superhero back in 1966 with the creation of Black Panther. Nubia appeared shortly after during a period when both Marvel and DC comics were introducing Black superheroes, Scott noted. While other superheroes represented as Black existed on comic covers, including “Captain America and the Falcon” and “Luke Cage,” Scott was especially drawn to the cover image and character of Nubia in many ways.
“I developed this fascination despite, or maybe in part too because of, the fact that Nubia, unlike other black superheroes created during this time, only appeared in three issues of Wonder Woman, and was essentially not seen for 50 years, until the last two years or so, when she’s been recreated (with a different origin story, and without the same powers as Wonder Woman) and features currently in Wonder Woman comics,” Scott said in the email. “So the character, despite her very brief appearance, was of enduring interest not just to me, but to fans of Wonder Woman superhero comics for half a century.”
Scott noted that Nubia never appears in that leopard-skin skirt in any version other than the cover of issue #206.
He said her leopard-skin skirt was a clear effort by writers to identify her with associations to Africa, the jungle and a problematic notion that depicted Black individuals as uncivilized and savage.
“Nevertheless this character became a kind of template, a springboard for my own imagination of myself and for the imagination of my world, as antiracist or as not antiblack,” Scott said in the email.
His fixation on cover Nubia, derived from the heart of the book, Scott noted, was indeed that the character and the image were constructed by racist imagination.
As his family moved from the U.S. to Germany in the early 1970s, Scott attended primary school abroad. He started learning about his identity as a social being and his role and expectations of gender, race and class during his time there.
“A big part of how I made sense of the radically changed world I lived in was through the imagination that was sparked from reading superhero comics,” Scott said in the email.
While he noted his method of understanding may seem counterintuitive, as superhero comics are based on fictitious worlds of “fanciful science,” one must still use the imagination to engage with comics. He added that this type of imagination goes beyond simply believing someone can pass through walls or repel bullets with their skin.
The very structure of comics makes an active and imaginative reading process, Scott noted. Panels of art with text separated by blank gutters required the imagination of the reader to produce movement of static figures. They render readers capable of connecting one panel to the next to derive cause and effect in time and meaning, he added.
“The imagination I needed in order to read superhero comics was key to the imagination I needed to navigate a world constantly reminding me of my difference, and lesser value, as a black boy, and as a queer child,” Scott said in the email. “One thing that might motivate seeing the world differently is recognizing that the world as it appears does not welcome you.”
Superhero comics channel this type of motivation, as each hero engages in a battle for their definition of justice, Scott noted.
From living a brief, “imaginative life” with her, Scott emphasized that Wonder Woman, who was able to identify wrongs in the perception of sexist men who believed she was weak or unable to stop their attacks, allowed himself to identify wrongs in the racist ways of the real world.
“For a number of reasons, engaging in the imaginative space of Nubia helped me, as a child, re-imagine my world,” Scott said in the email. “The book is concerned with describing how that process worked then, and how that process has changed and yet continues now.”
With a Master of Arts in Afro-American Studies from Yale, a Juris Doctor from Yale Law School and a doctorate in Modern Thought & Literature from Stanford, Scott has authored science fiction fantasy novels, queer studies books, anthologies, erotica collections and essays and serves as the co-editor of the American Literature special issue “Queer About Comics.”
His next project is a fantasy novel titled “The Dream-Slaves.”