How to Be an Atheist: Working out the Worldview of a Skeptic, Free for CAPC Members
Mitch Stokes’ ‘How to Be an Atheist’ shows the work of the worldview of a skeptic.
Anyone who follows superhero fiction probably knows this story: After surviving a life-threatening attack, a young man discovers that he has superpowers. Just as he’s getting used to his new abilities, he joins a team of other super people, led by a mysterious mentor who believes the young man can end an ongoing conflict against clandestine forces.
Anyone who follows the news probably knows this other, far more disturbing story: A white police officer guns down three unarmed black men, but he escapes punishment. The incident is just the latest manifestation of systemic American racism, which routinely treats black bodies as exploitable and expendable.
These two narratives, one fantastic and the other all too real, drive the comic book series Black. Created by writer Kwanza Osajyefo and designer Tim Smith 3—with help from veteran illustrator Jamal Igle, cover artist Khary Randolph, inker Robin Riggs, colorist Derwin Roberson, and letterer David Sharpe—Black deploys classic superhero tropes against existing racism.
Their work envisions a world in which special quarks appear only within black people, giving them amazing powers that government and corporate interests try to contain. When young Kareem Jenkins walks away from a police shooting, he discovers not only his own potentially limitless power, but also the existence of The Project, a team of super-powered black people led by the paternal but enigmatic Juncture. Fearing that revelation of his people’s abilities would only result in greater oppression, Juncture tries to keep Jenkins a secret, even as he hopes that the boy’s abilities could finally defeat evil entrepreneur Theodore Mann.
Steadfast in their conviction that black people are image bearers of God, Osaiyefo, Smith, and their collaborators locate inexplicable power in the very same people who have been rejected and exploited.Some may find Black’s combination of real-world violence and heroic fantasy to be distasteful, assuming that it reduces actual suffering into flimsy entertainment. But Osaiyefo, Smith, and their collaborators are following in the steps of Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and of Marvel Comics architects Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. They’re reimagining their existence, using super-hero conventions to create realities in which people with unbelievable abilities right wrongs that seem insurmountable in real life. Where newspapers remind us that the wicked remain protected by money and privilege, superhero stories show us that the just can prevail against even the most intimidating evildoer. Black’s creators have made a universe in which both might and right rest in the hands of a people often disenfranchised and criminalized.
That said, the world of Black is no utopia. As demonstrated by the lynch victims Randolph displays on the cover of Black #2 or the Donkey Kong remix he designed for Black #4, featuring a hooded black teen lunging over flaming barrels hurled by a bellowing Donald Trump, the story keeps one foot in reality. Slavery still existed here, as do lynching and police violence, but Osaiyefo and Smith refigure oppression into a cowardly response to black exceptionalism. In these stories, authorities persecute people like Kareem not because industrial accidents gave European nations inordinate wealth, but because Western nations fear black power. As Juncture explains, white supremacy’s refusal to acknowledge his people’s talents means that public awareness of black superpowers has been “suppressed on a global scale for ages […] Using any means necessary, from slavery to war, as a cover to capture blacks for everything from experimentation to covert military ops.” In the comic’s clash of civilizations, global systematic racism is so pervasive because anything less could be easily overturned by black superheroes.
Even when Kareem briefly works with a team more revolutionary than The Project, led by the violent time manipulator O, or battles against a government-sanctioned super-team that subdues fellow African Americans, he exists in a universe in which people of color are inherently the most powerful on earth.
That fact doesn’t ignore the existence of racist structures that control information and production. Throughout the series, we meet a police thug with artificially enhanced strength, a worldwide shadow government, and clandestine FBI teams who murder anyone who witnesses super-powered black people. All of these elements come together in the form of evil white businessman Theodore Mann, a villain who sees black people only as a resource to exploit. He possesses no superpowers but wields more traditional force, including enormous wealth and influence over world leaders. Black treats these mundane powers as equal to those of Kareem and other heroes, giving Mann the confidence not only to stand up to those who oppose him but to dismiss them as irrelevant. He doesn’t even flinch when nearly twenty heroes invade and destroy his hidden labs and instead chuckles to himself about his still-healthy “third quarter profits.”
But not even this plausibly unstoppable bad guy dampens Black’s optimism, as the book retains its sense of hope, especially when showing off its universe of super-powered black people. The heroes in the teams led by Juncture and O may all be black, but they represent a wide range of backgrounds and experiences. There’s the rodent-like Muslim woman Hood Rat and the simian super-genius Mind Grapes; there’s the trans woman Swerve and the albino Zero, each with perspectives and motivations as varied as their costumes and power sets.
Osajyefo and Smith sometimes overwhelm the reader with the numerous teams and literally dozens of super-people it introduces. But that excess is ultimately a celebration, inundating readers with more forms of blackness than ever before seen in popular culture. So while some of the characters do embody stereotypes, such as the gold-toothed and tattooed muscleman Duke Penn or the country boy Coal, the sheer diversity of characters on display explode readers’ assumptions about blackness, reminding us that the concept contains multitudes.
These acts of revision may be common to superhero fiction, but they aren’t exclusive to the genre. In fact, much of Jesus’ teaching illustrates the same transformation. We see this clearly in Jesus’ parables, such as the parable of the mustard seed (Matthew 13, Mark 4, and Luke 13) or the parable of the lost sheep (Matthew 18 and Luke 15). In these stories, Jesus takes an image from his audience’s everyday life and uses it to describe a kingdom in which a seemingly insignificant seed or lamb are objects of monumental importance.
This ethos is particularly pronounced in the message that begins Jesus’ ministry: the Sermon on the Mount. To an audience of second-class citizens, whose rights are regulated by the occupying Roman Empire, who themselves denigrate Samaritans as racial half-castes, kingdoms and servants were immediately familiar concepts, not the abstract metaphors they are to modern readers. Jesus’ Jewish listeners regularly encountered Roman soldiers and dignitaries who wielded the power of the state against the weak and the dispossessed. They understood kingdom to be a matter of those with laws and weapons subjecting those without.
Jesus invokes familiar government systems not to enforce them but to revise them, to transfigure the concept of kingdom in the light of his love. The Kingdom of Heaven, he teaches, belongs not to the rich and the armed, but to the “poor in spirit” and the persecuted (Matthew 5:3, 10). This Kingdom is the salt of the world and a city on the hill, a place where anger is the same as murder and lust the same as adultery, where everyone is equally a sinner and equally saved by grace (Matthew 5:14, 21-22, 27-29). It’s a place where material goods have no value and the judges will be judged (Matthew 6:19-21, 7:1-6). It’s a place where the Sovereign God disregards the self-righteous and cares for the sparrow (Matthew 6:16-18, 25-34).
Jesus describes kingdoms not as the tools of oppression that his audience knew so well, but as a means to care for the poor, the rejected, and the powerless.
In other words, Jesus’ creative work mirrors that of Black’s creators. Steadfast in their conviction that black people are image bearers of God, Osaiyefo, Smith, and their collaborators locate inexplicable power in the very same people who have been rejected and exploited. They take the power fantasy inherent to superhero fiction and make it into a love letter to irrepressible blackness, as well as a guidebook for righteousness, for understanding that black lives matter to the God who hates injustice.
We particularly see this in Kareem’s attempts to find a non-violent solution to his people’s plight. Although he’s initially recruited by The Project, Kareem soon learns that Juncture will go to extremes to hide the truth about their abilities, even locking Kareem and others in an underground prison. Conversely, O remains committed to defending black people, but will kill indiscriminately in pursuit of his mission, a value Kareem rejects.
Pacifism can be an uncomfortable fit in a superhero story. After all, the genre usually demands that the villain be beaten into submission, reinforcing that assumption that those in the right have the necessary might. So at times, the book asks us to celebrate violence, as with Igle’s dynamic image of Kareem clocking a bad guy, with boisterous sound effect text declaring “WHOP!” while he shouts “Lemme put some ’spect on that name!”
But earlier panels find Kareem’s mouth gaping with horror as he watches government agents slaughter the white men who tried to lynch Coal. His terrified face peers at the audience while a mostly obscured Swerve dismissively observes, “That’s jus’ how it is, Boo-Boo.”
Both cases feature violence inflicted on racist men who have done unspeakable things to black people like Kareem; and yet one instance prompts cheers and the other gasps.
Black cannot fully resolve this tension. It knows that violence only begets more violence, and rejects both O’s armed insurgency and Juncture’s secret machinations; but the comic can’t see a way out of the conventions of the genre. It ends on a challenge to embrace black superheroes—a challenge picked up by the sequel series Black AF: America’s Sweetheart and Black AF: Widows and Orphans—while still accepting the clobbering these stories often involve.
Ultimately, that’s just one more way that Black mirrors the work of Jesus’ Kingdom stories. As centuries of Christendom prove, we too often apply Jesus’ radical redefinition to existing Kingdoms, effectively ascribing God’s blessing to acts of genocide and plunder. The Kingdom Jesus brings doesn’t fit easily within these established models. But that just puts greater onus on us, his followers, to make real the Kingdom he imagined.
We should take the challenge he gives us, backed by the promise of his supernatural guidance. We should imagine the world as a place where all of God’s creation is cherished and celebrated. And that’s a call that Black can help us answer.
Joe George writes on film, literature, comics, and Christianity for outlets such as Think Christian, Fathom Magazine, Tor.com, and Bloody-Disgusting. He hosts Renewed Mind Movie Talk, collects his work at joewriteswords.com, and tweets nonsense from @jageorgeii.
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