Why 'Nubia' Is a Step Forward for DC

Nubia Cover
DC Entertainment/Robyn Smith
With the 'Real One' graphic novel, the classic Wonder Woman hero has been reimagined as a fully formed character for the Black Lives Matter era.

What does being a young, Black woman with superpowers mean in America today? That’s the question author L.L. McKinney and artist Robyn Smith tackle in the young adult graphic novel, Nubia: Real One. In reimaging Nubia, Wonder Woman’s long lost twin sister, as a high schooler struggling to find her place amidst the cadre of superheroes she’s admired since childhood, and within the Black Lives Matter Movement, McKinney reexamines the core tenets of Wonder Woman – peace, justice, and truth, through a fresh perspective that both honors DC Comics’ past and helps build a future more aware of how very real threats can be examined and tackled within fictional worlds.

For Nubia, superpowers aren’t a means to avoid tough questions about racial equality, but confront them head on. From encounters with the cops, to the privilege of white men, Nubia’s world isn’t paradise and it isn’t an island. Everything she does is reflected within contemporary America, a place in which the repercussions of seeking peace, justice, and truth, are not always favorable. Yet, she’s all the stronger for it. Nubia: Real One is an ode to the generational power of Black women, and keenly aware of this moment in America in which that power is finally being given the spotlight of recognition. And for Nubia, who debuted as DC Comics’ first Black woman superhero in 1973, that recognition has been a long time coming.

Created by Robert Kanigher and Don Heck, Nubia first appeared in Wonder Woman No. 204 (1973). Her origin, as it existed in this pre-Crisis continuity, was that Hippolyta formed two babies out of clay, one light and one dark, one named Diana and the other Nubia. But while Diana was raised on Themyscira, Nubia was stolen by the god of war, Ares, and eventually used as a weapon to destroy the Amazons. Nubia was freed from Ares’ influence once Diana removed the ring on her lost sister’s hand, leading to their team-up to defeat Ares. In this early appearance, Nubia, is a striking image, clad in silver armor reminiscent of a medieval knight.

The idea of a darker-skinned sister being used as an antagonist, whose freedom from bondage only comes in the form of her white sister is not without its issues, ones that McKinney resolves in Nubia: Real One. But despite those issues, Nubia had a lasting impact, one that McKinney discusses in her introduction, that allowed Black women to see themselves as heroes and gave rise to others within DC’s universe: Bumblebee, Vixen, Thunder and Steel, among others.

Nubia’s appearances after that introductory arc were scant, and she appeared only twice more, in the pages of Supergirl and Super Friends until DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths (1985) in which she ceased to exist. Afterwards attempts were made to reintroduce Nubia, both within continuity, where she appeared as the Amazon warrior Nu’Bia and the Wonder Woman of Earth-23 in Final Crisis, and outside of it, in the pages of Wonder Woman: Earth One and Injustice. There has been some push by Black comic fans to see Nubia introduced within Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman series, and this call is arguably, in part, what has led to the start of Nubia’s return to prominence. L.L. McKinney is also writing the character, as Wonder Woman, in the pages of DC’s current Future State, in which she’s been building a supporting cast for the character that is entirely her own.

And Nubia will not only play a role in Becky Cloonan’s Wonder Woman run beginning in March, but will also lead her own series later this year, Nubia and the Amazons. Nubia’s time is now, but that time needs to exist beyond this moment.

Nubia’s staying power in the pages of DC Comics this time around seems better situated, and McKinney, both through her work on Nubia: Real One, and in the pages of Future State: Immortal Wonder Woman, proves that to be the case. McKinney gives Nubia something she has had very little of before: her own mythology. Yes, she had an origin story, but beyond that she was always just Wonder Woman’s Black twin sister, and for most that was a bit of interesting trivia born of the 70s – an image that was stronger than the character. And Post-Crisis, she was simply another Amazon, one among hundreds. But McKinney highlights what makes Nubia not only special, but necessary.

In Real One, Nubia is crafted as a full person, not just a representation of ideologies, but a character whose struggles with both power and race, through microaggressions and overt racism, are facts of life that she must navigate. And she has a strong support system around her in which to do so, in the form of her moms and her best friends Jason and Quisha. In her writing of teenage characters, and the emotional weight they carry, perfectly captured by Robyn Smith’s illustrations, there is a quality of McKinney’s writing that is reminiscent of Brian Michael Bendis’ in the pages of Ultimate Spider-Man. In fact, Nubia: Real One may be best compared to Ultimate Spider-Man, in which a classic character is reimagined in a contemporary world. Though of course, McKinney and Smith aren’t just reimagining a hero, but reclaiming the personhood of a character.

In lieu of last year’s Black Lives Matter marches around the world, there have been necessary discussions about not making Black people into martyrs. Men and women like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor shouldn’t have to die for their voices to be heard, and they shouldn’t exist as symbols, but be seen as actual people who had full lives. McKinney and Smith have an inherent understanding, through words and art, that while superheroes are symbols, they are also people. And so Nubia, while guided by Wonder Woman’s message, is not simply a Black version of Diana, but her own person, whose view of the world and experiences shape her into a character all of her own. McKinney and Smith craft a work that lives up to its title. Nubia isn’t simply a bit of trivia, a lost character, a darker reflection, or a symbol, but a real one whose legacy is hopefully only just beginning.