When I look at the work of most comic book artists, I generally think to myself, “That’s not my peer group.” I followed the comic strips in the Saturday paper when I was a child, and I definitely bought my fair share of Archie comic books. My brother sometimes shared his Spiderman comics with me but for the most part, I read traditional books. And now, as an adult, that’s what I write. When collaborating with the illustrator who made the sketches for The Deep‘s trailer, I made it clear that I didn’t want Nyla to be hypersexualized as women so often are in comics. I wanted her to be beautiful and powerful without wearing skimpy clothes over bulging biceps and/or breasts.
I’m a fan of the X-Men films and I was far more anxious to see Thor than Best Man Holiday, but the feminist in me knows that women generally don’t fare well in the imagination of most men. But I do have black feminist friends who are comics scholars and the POC Zine Project gives me hope that women are creating their own images to counter the many distortions. Kids constantly ask me when my novels will be made into films and I know just what it would mean to them to see empowered Black girls on the silver screen—girls who overcame obstacles AND survived till the end of the movie! But I also realize that my idea of an empowered Black girl probably looks a lot different than most teenagers’ idea. Ask them to name a powerful Black woman and they say, “Beyonce.” Not Michelle Obama or Shonda Rhimes or Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
When I created the character of Nyla I definitely wanted her to be a blend of confidence, intelligence, and beauty. I felt she was a natural leader, attractive but also intimidating, deeply loyal but also deeply insecure. Lyn Miller-Lachmann just posted an amazing review of The Deep and it’s clear she totally “got” Nyla:
Elliott creates a strong female character with many talents and many difficult choices. Her contradictory feelings toward the mother who abandoned her ring true and leave readers with much to ponder, especially if those readers are missing important people in their lives as well. Nyla’s toughness masks a vulnerability that the author makes clear early on; in the preface that takes place eight months earlier at an Air Force base in Germany, Nyla is sexually assaulted by an older boy at her school whom she believed she could control. This assault is what motivates Nyla’s father and stepmother to bring her back to the States, and to dangers they never could have imagined.
Lyn is an unabashed comics fan, and her passion for superheroes informs her fantastic middle grade novel Rogue. If you don’t yet know about The Pirate Tree Social Justice and Children’s Literature blog, you should definitely check them out. Here’s part of their mission statement:
…we are interested in books and writers that question and rebel against the status quo, argue for peace and reconciliation, take the side of the marginalized and powerless, and use creative solutions to overcome obstacles.
Can comic books offer all of the above AND represent women realistically? I suspect not, which is why I’ll stick with novels…
(Illustration by Cynthia “Thea” Rodgers)