DC Comics releases new ‘Nubia’ graphic novel helmed by L. L. McKinney, Robyn Smith
theGrio talks with the writer and illustrator behind the novel about Wonder Woman's Black twin sister as she struggles with having super powers and being a Black girl
The plight of a super hero is unique. You have to guard your true identity and exuding your powers could result in residual and unforeseen consequences.
Now, imagine adding the everyday plight of being a Black teenage girl in America on top of that. You have to deal with the angst and alienation of adolescence, the sting of prejudice and racism and the bitterness of misogyny.
Last year, DC Comics announced that one of their first Black superheroes of their history, Nubia, would be getting an reimagined origin story for their next graphic novel project. Nubia: Real One tells the story of the turbulent teenage years of the Amazonian twin sister of Wonder Woman as she navigates life in the 21st century.
The new origin story was part of DC’s #OwnVoices Story initiative to attract young adult readers. For this story, the comic conglomerate tapped author L. L. “Elle” McKinney and illustrator Robyn Smith to take on the task of creating this new vision of Nubia. McKinney is the author of acclaimed fantasy novel series A Blade So Black. Jamaican cartoonist Smith has grown a reputation from her The Saddest Angriest Black Girl in Town mini-comic, as well as drawing for Jamila Rowser’s Wash Girl comic.
theGrio talked with the pair about their new DC collaboration, Nubia: Real One, which is the first superhero comic for both of the creators.
“It was a learning experience for me,” McKinney told theGrio, adding that Smith’s presence and ability helped make this an easier experience. “Robin’s art is so beautiful and so evocative, it was like there was a part of the story that I didn’t know. So, I got to be told my own story as we got the art back. So it was the best thing. It really was.”
The feeling was mutual for Smith, who was able to connect with McKinney as a fellow Black female creative. “I feel like Elle and I vibe kind of on the same wavelength when it comes to blackness and our art, and wanting all of that to come together and be something great,” Smith told theGrio.
That “something great” turned out to be a graphic novel that’s follows a Black teen girl with superhuman strength and same-sex parents, who deals with having a crush, bigoted classmates, police profiling and more.
One of the goals for McKinney was to have this superhero connect with the young adult readers on a more human level, understanding the teenagers of color have deeper layers of obstacles to deal with day-to-day.
“This is what everybody is having to deal with,” McKinney said. “These parts of it are what I personally had to deal with as a kid and what I saw other kids—both in my family and just in the neighborhood—having to deal with. [It’s] stuff that you see kids having to deal with today and added stuff on top of what I had to deal with.”
Another aspect that makes Nubia come alive is the attention to detail that Robin makes within the panels. Each little nuance is not only great for character building, but for showcasing specific aspects of culture via hairstyle and fashion.
“I care so much about the details that go into characters because I feel like making something as specific and personal as possible inherently makes them more relatable, because you’re not trying to appeal to everyone,” Smith said. “Because if I think if you give something too general, then there’s nothing to relate to.”
There are several scenes in the comic in which Nubia is torn between using her powers to diffuse a negative situation, or continue to conceal them as people, both friends and strangers, stand to get hurt. This is a parallel between Nubia and many other Black kids who are told be their parents to comply with law enforcement; don’t be the hero.
McKinney explains the speech that Nubia’s parents tell her mirrors the same kind of speech Black kids get when parents tell them about avoiding conflict with police.
“I’m not telling you this because you’re going to do something wrong. I’m telling you this so that when a wrong situation happens, it’s the least wrong that happens to you possible,” she says. “Like, I want this situation where you come home, everything else we will deal with afterwards. And this is not to try and scare you. This is not to try and do anything but prepare you.”
Some of the events from the story hit home so hard for Smith that she had to take a step back from the work. Particularly when she had to draw a scene involving Nubia and her friends attending a police brutality protest that turned violent.
“I feel like I went through something extremely emotional while drawing it,” Robin said. “I had to do all this research and I looked at so many different images of protests while drawing it. And that alone was… I had to take some days off.”
While grounding the Nubia narrative with current affairs is sure to connect with young readers, McKinney hopes that future Nubia stories don’t always have to be steeped in the socio-political subtext that white superheroes don’t have to deal with. However, she feels if those kinds of poignant stories are going to be told, it’s going to be Black creatives telling them.
“I’m hoping that there are dozens of other Nubia stories that don’t deal with this,” McKinney says. “But there’s at least one where these kids now have a hero who knows what they have been through and wouldn’t just be like, ‘Oh, I hear you. Oh, I understand.’ Now, she literally knows.”
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