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Representation Matters: Post-Racial Tensions in Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur

By Mary J. Henderson

In 2015 Marvel began a marketing campaign with the branding slogan “All-New, All-Different.” The “All-New, All-Different” advertisements showed images of superheroes who were African Americans (Riri Williams/Ironheart, Lunella Lafayette/Moon Girl, T’Challa/Black Panther), Muslim Americans (Kamala Khan/Ms. Marvel), lesbian Latinas (America Chavez/Miss America), bi-racial heroes (Miles Morales/Spider-Man), and Asian Americans (Cindy Moon/Silk, Amadeus Choo/Hulk). Many comic readers were excited because they saw traditionally marginalized identities playing a central role in the Marvel universe. Fans initially believed that Marvel recognized the diversity of their audience, and more importantly, that representation matters. Historically, from Superman to the X-Men, the superhero has metaphorically represented a hero who was also an outsider. Although predominantly white males, superheroes acted as a metaphor for those on the margins: the immigrant (Superman), the bullied, nerdy teenager (Peter Parker), or any socially oppressed identity (X-Men). The tagline of “All-New” implied that these diverse heroes would not be like their predecessors who primarily played sidekicks, villains, stereotypes, and/or tokens. Superheroes of color and differing abilities could prove to children that people who look like them could be just as powerful as Superman.

Additionally, the “All-Different” slogan gave hope that in addition to new faces, the storylines would be different, diverse, and nuanced. As Ramzi Fawaz points out, it is not enough to just visibly represent marginalized individuals; “From the perspective of readers, however, the demand for greater representational diversity was less about the mere visibility of minorities in comics and more an appeal to creators to develop stories and worlds that explored the cultural politics of identity” (Fawaz 20). This notion of exploring cultural politics is not a new one for comics. Comics have long provided “serious social critique; in this sense the wish fulfillment embodied in the superhero becomes a way of interrogating the problems with modernity” (Bainbridge 85). An “All-Different” comic could be a culturally nuanced narrative containing a hero who mirrors the diversity of the country and who has storylines and scenes that reflect aspects of the modern social issues that many marginalized identities encounter in their everyday lives.

Comics have always had this potential, but given the genre’s history of racism and sexism, and the fact that Marvel is a corporation with a desire to increase profits without offending their largest readership (white, cis males), some of the “All-New, All-Different” heroes reflect post-racial ideology. Post-racialism is “purporting not to see race or to see beyond race and racial distinctions…[thus] dismisses the reality of social injustice and the presence of racism” (Whaley 22). There are times when comic writers and illustrators choose to ignore or downplay the social injustices that these diverse superheroes might face in their everyday life, thereby participating in post-racial discourse. This article explores one of Marvel’s “All-New, All-Different” heroes who has gained a loyal readership among children and strong support in education circles: Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur. Lunella Lafayette, Moon Girl, is a nine-year-old African American girl who is a genius with superhero powers. An examination of the series’ reliance on post-racial discourse reveals how Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur offers a conservative representation of Black girlhood that can be both empowering for readers and dismissive of the social injustices that may impact such a character. In other words, the comic can showcase a gifted African American girl, and yet ignore the systematic racism and issues facing an inner city Black child.

Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur is a progressive comic on many levels. Lunella Lafayette is an African American girl from the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and she is not connected to African iconography, has both parents, is a child so she is not hyper-sexualized, lives a middle-class lifestyle, and is a genius in STEM fields; therefore, the creators have avoided the blatant stereotypes found in older comics with Black women. Older comics with Black superheroes were fraught with ideologies that complicated their overall positive impact. Carolyn Cocca comments on the previous representations of characters of color, explaining that while their representation was a positive step, “at the same time, each in their own ways, these new characters suffered from the ‘contrived exoticism’ and ‘weak emulation of blaxploitation’ not uncommon to characters of color” of the period (10).  Superheroes such as Mari McCabe (Vixen), Nubia (Wonder Woman), Ororo Munroe (Storm), and Monica Rambeau (Captain Marvel) were associated with Africa, seen as closer to nature, animalistic, unable to control their powers, quick tempered, and hyper-sexualized[1]. Many of the discourses undergirding these representations seemed “natural” expressions of black life—from an outsider perspective. They were in some ways “expressions of black life which conformed to a pre-existing pattern or stereotype” (hooks). These superheroes became simultaneously a sign of progress as well as a sign of persisting stereotypes of their periods. Lunella, on the other hand, represents the next generation of Black superhero—she is a sign of progress as her image and storylines avoid blatant racism, but even when the intent is good, benign racism can seep into the dialogue and illustrations. Post-racism disguises itself as an innocuous assumption and often Lunella’s storylines lack cultural nuance and fail to acknowledge the social injustices that a girl like Lunella might face in modern times.

The writers, Brandon Montclare and Amy Reeder, assume that simply presenting a character of color without exploring cultural nuances is acceptable. Such representations imply that revealing contemporary social issues related to race and ethnicity are not necessary. Therefore, Lunella often comes across as a misunderstood genius who just happens to be illustrated as an African American who also just happens to live in a city. By creating a “universal” character who just happens to be Black, they are creating generic stories that will appeal to a wide audience. This strategy can be read as making Lunella “not too Black,” which is coded language based on stereotypes of appearances and behaviors that are deemed “acceptable” by dominant society. Creating a character who is illustrated as African American but contains no other markers or storylines that explore what it means to be Black in America—no attribute that would signal any significant difference from a white, middle-class child—is a common conservative marketing and narrative strategy found in children’s literature. Since Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, with its child protagonist and its school and library support, crosses over from the field of comic studies into children’s literature, it is not surprising to find the downplaying of difference for mass readership.

This representational tension has been discussed in the children’s literature field for decades, starting with the scholar Rudine Sims Bishop’s idea of “melting pot books.” Bishop coined this term to describe books, typically by white authors about African Americans, which “choose to ignore anything, other than skin color, that might identify the characters as Black. Therefore, only the illustrations indicate whether the characters are Black or not” (7). Melting pot children’s books represent tension: they signal progress and yet “the refusal to acknowledge cultural differences may be a hint that such differences are undesirable or, at best, to be ignored” (Bishop 7). Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur can be categorized as a melting pot books because it is created by predominantly white writers and seems to be undergirded by post-racism discourse. Post-racial ideology shapes Moon Girl’s image and storylines in a manner that avoids engaging with the reality of social injustice for many inner city African American girls in order to maintain a wide reading audience.

Post-Racial Discourse and Representation

A young African American superhero carrying her own title series is progressive and should be celebrated. Even the most famous Black superheroine, Storm of the X-Men, has not managed to carry her own standalone series despite being around consistently since 1975. Additionally, Lunella’s imagery is less controversial than Storm whose image has been accused of hypersexualization and whitewashing. Initially, Storm was exoticized (African princess/goddess of sorts) and yet represented as/in terms of “Anglo-European ‘ideal’ beauty in a combination both rare and associated with whites: blue eyes and a thin nose; long, full, straight white hair which can be read as platinum blonde; a small waist and hourglass figure” (Cocca 125). Comic artists rely on stereotypical attributes that are culturally and socially ingrained so that the reader can quickly recognize the image. The “easily quantifiable” markers, such as Storm’s skin tone, hair, and eyes, are read as signifiers of race and ethnicity; they are “subtle signals of difference” the reader is meant to notice (Dowling 184). These markers or codes would be iconography that is historically connected to racist assumptions, such as “nappy” or “kinky” hair for African Americans, large “hook” noses for Middle Easterners, or “squinty” almond-shaped eyes or “buck teeth” for Asians. Therefore, even though Storm’s skin tone is illustrated as Black, her eyes and the color and style of her hair read as Anglo-European.

Similar to the art in X-Men and other comics, Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur relies on iconography, yet Moon Girl’s illustrations are more culturally nuanced. Lunella’s facial features are not stereotyped, overexaggerated, or whitewashed. Lunella’s skin tone is darker than some of the characters, yet many of the characters are on a spectrum of shades. For instance, Lunella’s classmate Eduardo and teacher Ms. Dominguez have skin tones lighter than Lunella yet slightly darker than other characters, thereby implying a Latinx ethnicity through naming and skin tones. The characters of Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur represent an array of skin shades, just as the real world does. Additionally, many of the illustrations show Lunella with natural hair that is pulled back in pony tails or braids. The illustrators[2] of Moon Girl made a wise choice in not giving Lunella hair that is long, straight, and platinum blonde like Storm’s hair.

Even though Lunella’s hair is a visual example of a nuanced cultural marker, the comic creates post-racial tension with the dialogue when it focuses on her hair. In “The Smartest There Is!: Part Three: ‘Code’” (Issue 15), Lunella sits on the floor in front of her mother, while her mother does her hair for school (see Figure 1). The depiction of a family member doing a child’s hair is one that many African American readers would relate to and one that is common in children’s books. Bishop’s research on African American children’s literature finds that the “image of a mother or other adult family member braiding a child’s hair, even in books that focus on a topic other than hair” is common and that “[B]oth are images of family bonding and reinforce the thematic emphasis on family so frequently found in African American picture books” (Bishop 11). Therefore, the comic depicts a common, relatable scene that has a history in African American children’s literature even if it is missing in many mainstream superhero comics. The writers probably assumed such a scene would be received as a sweet bonding moment between mother and daughter.

Figure 1
Figure 1.

However, the images and actual dialogue do not necessarily support the happiness of a bonding moment. There are four long thin panels descending down the full page spread with two of the panels showing a close up of her mother’s fingers styling her hair. The second panel from the top shows a close up of Lunella’s eyes. She tells her mother she doesn’t have to do her hair and that it is okay to have messy hair when saving the world. Her eyes do not show enjoyment of this moment; not only does her language show her annoyance at her mother but her eyes are also cast down, almost squinting, and her brow is furrowed, thus visually confirming the tone of the dialogue. Her mother replies to Lunella’s tone with “Don’t be smart,” recognizing her daughter’s sarcasm. Her mother is not smiling while she does her daughter’s hair. This image does not convey a positive bonding moment between the two. The imagery and dialogue of this page takes a moment of African American familial bonding and turns it into a generic point of mother-daughter conflict. Post-racial ideology allows erasure of specific cultural signifiers, the positive aspects found in the tradition of representing African American hair styling, in favor of a generic moment of mother and daughter being annoyed with each other.  

The rest of the dialogue (and lack of certain dialogue) in the scene further demonstrates post-racial tension. Her mother says, “You need to look respectable, Lunella” as she does her daughter’s hair (Issue 15). The diction “look respectable” is loaded language that can be interpreted in multiple ways. If Lunella went to school with her natural hair not pulled back, administrators may read her hair, and by extension her actions, as “improper.” Brooks and McNair point out that due to the intersection of race and gender ideologies in US history, there has been a long pattern of institutions policing Black women’s bodies, including schools policing hair (297). Her mother’s words may be a nod to the racist judgements young African American girls face as they walk into a classroom. Research and personal stories have demonstrated that schools judge Black girls against beauty standards created by whites and based on Anglo American aesthetics[3]. Monique Morris’ research reminds us that “from coast to coast, Black girls tell stories of being pushed out of school and criminalized” for common actions that include “wearing natural hair” (Morris). According to Kimberlé Crenshaw, Priscilla Ocen, and Jyoti Nanda, “a 12-year-old girl was threatened with expulsion from an Orlando private school unless she changed the look of her natural hair” (6). If Lunella’s hair is not styled in some manner administrators deem “respectable,” she could be subject to harsher criticism than her classmates, like the girl in Orlando. If her hair is judged unrespectable and Lunella is pulled from the classroom, her education could be negatively impacted. Her mother’s attempt to style her hair in a particular way may be her method of offering her daughter some protection against a racist and sexist system.

Readers may give Montclare and Reeder the benefit of the doubt and assume that they are drawing attention to the racism African American women face with regards to their hair. However, the writers’ choice of words is troubling and the dialogue is too underdeveloped to help naïve readers understand the significance of such language. They provide no explanation as to why her hair must be styled just so, and no elaboration on what is exactly meant by “respectable.” African Americans or informed audiences may assume that when the writers select the word “respectable” they know what women go through in terms of having their hair and bodies policed. Unfortunately, good intentions are not good enough when the repercussions are so real for African Americans. As stated earlier, superhero comics have the potential of addressing contemporary problems. Not explaining what they mean by Lunella having to deal with the idea of her hair being “respectable” is post-racial discourse at work. The writers avoid verbalizing the racism a young Black girl faces. S. Gheek at Women Write about Comics explains the troubling diction of “respectable” hair as follows: “even using this type of phrase, regardless of the good intent behind it, can have a lifelong impact in which a child grows up believing her self-worth is tied into what others think about her hair. That has to stop.” The comic’s language does not indict systemic racism; it only teaches that Lunella, and by default, the readers who look like her, must curtail hair to meet the majority’s standards. At other points in the comic, Lunella’s mother worries about her making friends and “fitting in” at school. Her mother curtails her daughter’s behavior and her hair for the sake of the majority. She is not told to take pride in her hair; she is only taught that her hair free of a ponytail or a braid is unacceptable. The imagery and dialogue undermine a potentially powerful tradition in African American children’s literature.

Relying on post-racism and avoiding critical engagement with social issues is troubling, given that Marvel furthered its “All-New, All-Different” campaign by marketing Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur to younger readers in comic stores and through Scholastic book fairs. Scholastic boasts of reaching 35 million children each year (“About Us”). Lunella is nine-years old; therefore, many assume that her target audience will be readers of the same age bracket—an age bracket that is quite impressionable. Jonda McNair and Wanda Brooks inform us that “[B]etween the ages of 8 to 12, African American girls begin forming their teenage identities” (568). Educators may promote Lunella because they see her as potentially a “mirror” and a “window.” Readers need “mirrors” (books), that reflect their image. They need to see that people who look like them can be heroes. Additionally, “it remains critically important that they also have the opportunities to delve into the racial/ethnic backgrounds of others;” they need “windows” into the lives of others (Brooks et al 30). When a comic like Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur is pushed in school book fairs and promoted by educators and librarians as positive role models for children, we need to be skeptical of good intentions that lack follow through. Her comic books often allude to but do not fully engage with social issues that impact African American girls—girls who are developing their sense of self and trying to understand their place in the world. Thus, the comic risks marginalizing significant issues facing African American girls like Lunella. The post-racial silence veers away from culturally nuanced depictions, such as failing to address the actual social injustices that linger between how an African American girl might style her hair and the word “respectable.”

The comic series contains several other instances of post-racial discourse. Certain representations of Lunella and her family, her city, and her school may hint at possible social issues facing Black families, especially gifted African American girls; however, the comic writers choose not to engage with nuanced exploration. Lunella Lafeyette comes into a genre and a market that is demanding diversity with authentic cultural politics of identity. Having a young African American female as the title character of a comic is a positive step; the representation of an African American girl as a superhero matters. However, because post-racial discourse is hard to acknowledge, and because Marvel wants to appeal to the widest audience as possible, there are scenes where Lunella’s representation and storyline become reductive and miss the opportunity to truly do the work that superhero representations do—draw attention to social issues that impact the lives of many girls like Lunella.

“Understand What I Am”: Post-Racism on the Homefront

In the first issue of the comic, “BFF Part 1: Repeat after Me,” readers see Lunella sitting down to dinner with her mother and father. If we use comic iconography to decode their outfits, the imagery implies blue-collar working class. Lunella’s father is in a monotone outfit and glasses. Glasses tend to be comic code for intelligence, and his monotone matching shirt and pants in a drab color conveys blue collar worker. Her mother is in a white polo shirt with pink collar and pink details and a matching pink skirt, reminiscent of a waitress uniform (see Figure 2). Her parents appear in these same outfits again in Issue 4, “BFF Part 4: Hulk + Devil Dinosaur = ’Nuff Said,” when they arrive due to a fire at Lunella’s school, implying they each left work to attend to their daughter. In “BFF Part 6: Eureka!” Lunella’s mother states that she will walk Lunella to school since her father had to go to work early and will be working late. Lunella’s own dialogue indicates that her family is working class with little money to spare. Lunella goes to public school because, according to her, both of her parents work (Issue 15). Her family does not have the economic luxury of one parent not working to homeschool their daughter. These narrative cues point to a lower socioeconomic class or working-class individuals.

Figure 2
Figure 2.

Additionally, the Lafayette home is an apartment that looks relatively well furnished and yet there is no real sense of Black cultural concerns either in the home décor or in their dinner time discussions of what is happening around the neighborhood. The iconography and dialogue imply a middle-class ideology. Her parents often talk to Lunella about her behavior at school; they worry about her “fitting in” and reprimand her for her sarcasm. Angela M. Nelson notices that in Black comic strips that focus on Black urban middle-class life, “a vision of urban Black life in America that is equal to Whites’ socially, culturally, educationally, economically, and (implicitly) politically [gets portrayed]. A Black middle-class orientation, therefore becomes synonymous with racial integration, peace, harmony, and equality” (99). This representation of Lunella’s home life in an urban area carries on the post-racial discourse found in comic strips; it “suppresses social contradictions of inequality, racism, discrimination that exist in society” (Nelson 99). By engaging in this post-racial representation, the comic can illustrate a Black family living in the inner city, yet ignore the inequalities of Lower East Side, Manhattan, a location the comic emphasizes without engaging with in a culturally nuanced manner.

The first page of Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur orients the reader to the city, thus implying that location matters for this particular comic. The first image of the comic depicts a child’s bedroom, and the narrating text in the upper left corner indicates setting: “Lower East Side. Manhattan.” The “Lower East Side” is on its own text line and is in larger font than the city name, thereby accentuating this aspect of the setting as significant. Realistically, her parents’ race and socioeconomics represent the traditional Lower East Side residents who may be at risk of being pushed out through gentrification.

For several decades, the Lower East Side has been racially and ethnically diverse with lower- and middle-class workers, including African, Puerto Rican, Jewish, Italian, and Asian American workers. Over the last several years, the area has seen an influx of gentrification, which often leads to pushing out residents who can no longer afford the rent in the area as gentrification drives up property values. In 2008 the residents objected to rezoning laws that would permit gentrification by severely reducing the number of units that were rent-regulated and subsidized, but their concerns were dismissed (Li 1232-33). Gentrification would impact Lower East Side residents, like the Lafayettes, because they would encounter: “secondary displacement pressures, including high rent, rising evictions, tenant harassment, excessive housing code enforcement, increased policing, and loss of small businesses” (Li 1208-09). Although Moon Girl’s setting reflects the visual diversity in the Lower East Side, the comic engages with post-racial discourse to ignore some of the pressures of maintaining a home in a gentrifying neighborhood. A Black family like Lunella’s who rely on working wages and live in an urban area that is gentrifying at rates that continue to push out the original residents would cause stress on most families, and most children would hear conversations about those pressures within their home. However, the comic ignores those nuanced realities.

The only time Lunella’s parents discuss what is happening in their neighborhood is their conversation about how a gang is making it more unsafe. The reference to gang life in an urban setting is a real concern for families in Lower East Side. However, because the writers chose to ignore the other realities in this neighborhood, the inclusion of gang life in a comic about an African American family living in the inner city seems almost stereotypical. The writers elected not to mention any other issues of life for a family living on working wages in a city: lack of resources, lower job opportunities, lower incomes, and gentrification that can lead to fewer minority owned businesses, fewer job opportunities for minorities, and higher rents. Most gentrification is driven by predominantly white college-educated people moving into the neighborhood (NYU Furman 9, 12, 21). The writers elect not to mention any negative aspects that whites could cause through gentrification but chose to mention inner city gangs, which many people stereotypically assume consist of people of color. Direct gentrification criticism would draw direct attention to white privilege and the problems associated with capitalistic ideology. Given that gentrification and the largest comic audience are both white, pointing out how their desire to be “trendy” by moving to an “up and coming neighborhood” pushes out minorities would be uncomfortable for many white readers. However, references to gangs may be a stereotype that is comforting for non-Black readers as it potentially matches their assumptions about urban life within predominantly African American or other ethnic neighborhoods. This focus on gangs becomes further problematic with the representation of the Killer Folk as the most powerful gang in the neighborhood.  

The Killer Folk of Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur are not original creations. Moon Girl is, in a sense, a legacy character. Devil Dinosaur first appeared in 1978 with Moon Boy, an ape-humanoid creature of prehistoric Earth. Moon Boy is a member of the Small Folk, who abandon him when he rescues and adopts Devil Dinosaur, who has been mutated by a fire caused by the Killer Folk, a more aggressive, rival tribe of similar ape-humanoid creatures. In the first issue of Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, events in Lunella’s time create an opening where the Killer Folk kill Moon Boy and come to Lunella’s time, with Devil Dinosaur in pursuit to avenge his friend’s death. Given the comic’s usage of “Moon Girl,” Lunella implicitly is the next generation of “Moon Boy” and the continuation of his legacy with Devil Dinosaur. If we consider the long history of associating African Americans with ape representations, having Lunella, an African American, be the legacy of an ape-humanoid character is uncomfortable and may point to post-racial discourse. The blending of man and ape often evokes “the traditional stereotypes of African Americans as subhuman” (Wanzo). Basing a modern Black character on a character that resembled a sanitized version of traditional stereotypes can be read as post-racism. If the creators admit they are unaware of the history of Black stereotypes, that is a luxury of white privilege. If they claim they do not have to contend with or acknowledge the history of such imagery, then this is an example of post-racism—racist stereotypes just don’t matter anymore because our society is beyond racism so it doesn’t matter that Blackness was once illustrated as animal-like because no one uses such imagery today. This would be willful ignorance given that the news carries frequent stories about such representation, such as CNN covering the story about a West Virginia county employee posting to Facebook after the Trump election: “It will be so refreshing to have a classy, beautiful, dignified First Lady back in the White House. I’m tired of seeing a (sic) Ape in heels” (Narayan). The “beautiful, dignified First Lady” of the post is Melania Trump, a white woman, who replaced Michelle Obama, the first African American First Lady. Clearly, racist imagery is far from “post.”

Post-racism could also be underlying the assumed acceptability of bringing the Killer Folk into modern NYC and having them be Lunella’s first villains to fight. We could give the writers the benefit of the doubt and believe that they are engaging in cultural criticism and trying to imitate the success that Gene Luen Yang had in American Born Chinese. In his graphic novel, Yang purposefully confronts readers with a blatant long-standing stereotypical representation used against Chinese: a Chinese cousin named Chin-Kee (referencing the racist name-calling “chinky”), who has yellow skin, buck teeth, a queue hairstyle, and wears stereotyped traditional clothing, and speaks fragmented English, and has white take-out boxes for luggage. Yang is explicit in his depiction of the stereotype as a need to confront how harmful these images are to Asian Americans. His protagonist and the character of Monkey King (who was disguised as Chin-Kee) even have a conversation about confronting the stereotypes that harm. The writers of Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur do not engage in this kind of critical discourse. At no point does Lunella have to confront racism, much less address the issue that her first fights are against images that have echoes of a racist past. This lack of engagement makes it hard to read as if she is symbolically fighting the racist stereotypes of the past (and present). It becomes even harder to overlook this post-racial ideology when readers consider the imagery, actions, and speech patterns of the Killer Folk as the comic series continues.   

For example, a close reading of the several violent acts by the Killer Folk demonstrates post-racial discourse that ignores issues surrounding such characterizations. In Issue 2, “BFF Part 2: Old Dogs and New Tricks,” the Killer Folk begin assimilating into modern New York society by studying people in Yancy Street subway station. Panels show individuals at a newsstand saying, “Give me a Snickers!” and “I’ll take a New York Bulletin!” The phrases “Give me” and “I’ll take” are repeated by several individuals, emphasizing New Yorkers’ time efficiency and the lack of polite social exchange as they purchase their goods. People are startled when the Killer Folk run out reaching for things and speaking a non-understandable language. The parallel imagery implies the primitive Killer Folk are not that far removed from New Yorkers’ behaviors. However, the imagery of the scene causes tension. On the two pages where the Killer Folk clearly study the New Yorkers, their eyes are heavily shaded. Although one might assume they are darkened because they are in a corridor, comics encode this imagery as an implication of something sinister in their observation. When they emerge to take things, they are drawn more aggressively. There are speed lines behind them, indicating the abruptness of their emergence, their speech lettering is bolded compared to the New Yorker’s “Give me,” and their fangs are shown, all of which increase their hostile appearance. On the next page they emerge from the subway exit onto the street wearing the people’s clothes (see Figure 3). The Killer Folk have robbed innocent New Yorkers. Prominent social justice blogger and writer “Son of Baldwin” instantly noticed the troubling ideologies undergirding the use of Killer Folk within an African American centered comic. He tweeted on December 28, 2016, “I stopped reading #MoonGirl after they dressed cave people up in hip-hop gear and had them speak black slang.” Writers and illustrators are relying on post-racial discourse to further the plot alongside potentially racist imagery without engaging with the politics of such representations.

Figure 3
Figure 3.

The Killer Folk’s quick adaptation to New York city life is further problematic with some of their other violent depictions. The Killer Folk next encounter two police officers. The Killer Folk jump on the police car, asking where Devil Dinosaur and Lunella are. The police are shocked to see humanoid creatures, and the subsequent panel shows the police laying on the ground with the implied action being that the Killer Folk attacked the police officers. Having a gang in “hip-hop gear” and speaking “black slang” attack police officers is incredibly insensitive or dangerous wish fulfillment during a time when many real-life altercations between African Americans and police officers result in the death or incarceration of Black bodies.

The third encounter of violence by the Killer Folk occurs in issue 4, and they are put in opposition to the Yancy Street Gang, a modern all human gang with members of multiple ethnicities. The battle between the two gangs shows the brutality of both groups. However, the Yancy Street Gang uses language that clearly indicates that the Killer Folk are primitive and worse than human gangs and emphasizes their ape-like aspects. They say that the Killer Folk are “animals,” and they call them a “pack of baboons.” They admit “[T]hey’re making monkeys” of the Yancy Street Gang, and they describe the Killer Folk fighting style as giving a “jungle beat-down.”  Ultimately, the Yancy Street Gang leaves in fear of their lives. Adding in the language of “animals,” “baboons,” and “jungle beat-down” indicates post-racial discourse when white writers can ignore historic imagery as well as the modern stereotypes that are used to oppress African Americans. The Killer Folks’ imagery, language, and actions along with their interactions with Moon Girl risk an assumption that African Americans have not come far from the stereotypes about being primitive, animal like, and uncivilized. Lunella becomes the exception as a superhero and not one of many brilliant Black girls out there. The desire to attain new readership and rely on legacy characters to pull in old readers makes their choices questionable and points to post-racial discourse that ignores cultural nuances that would make such representations unacceptable.

Never Enough Room: Post-Racism and School

Post-racial discourse undergirds the comic’s treatment of other institutions besides family and neighborhood. The comic also avoids a culturally nuanced exploration of what it means to be African American in the education system. In the United States, the myth of equality within education is often circulated. History books teach children that after Brown vs the Board of Education (1954), “separate but equal” was outlawed and schools were integrated, with the assumption that schools were integrated soon after in a balanced manner and that all children now have equal access to the same quality of education. However, numerous families can attest to the myths of quality education that mask the inequality in our schools and how children are treated unequally within the classroom. Similar to Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur’s silence on housing issues facing minorities in Lower East Side, the writers also seem unaware of or afraid to engage with the realities facing Black girls in school settings.

Although not illustrated, Lunella mentions that she is continually placed in this particular public school because “Doctors, teachers, police, parents—they just want a place to stash me” (Issue 11). Her use of “police” in that list may imply that her behavior has been rejected by teachers and principals in the past and she has had the police called on her. Lunella is an example of how Black girls must behave according to mainstream (coded as white) behaviors, or they will be sent to the principal’s office, suspended, or, even worse, arrested. The teacher gets angry with Lunella arriving a few minutes late for school, using sarcasm, and not paying attention in class. Her behavior illustrated in the comic does not warrant police encounters and, because racism in the educational system is often overlooked, it is doubtful that her behavior even warrants a trip to the principal’s office. Within schools, African American girls are held to a different standard than other girls and are punished more severely for behavioral violations. In 2015, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Priscilla Ocen Williams, and Jyoti Nanda released a report entitled “Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected.” They note examples of Black girls being punished for behaviors that white girls were not. For example, they discussed two African American girls who were arrested at school: an eight-year-old girl in Illinois for “acting out” and a six-year-old girl for having a “tantrum” (Crenshaw et al 6). They also reveal that “In New York City, Black girls represented 56 percent of all girls disciplined, compared to white girls, who represented only five percent of such girls” (20). In other words, African American girls were disciplined 10 times more often than white girls (Crenshaw et al., 22 Fig. 5). Lunella’s behavior, though it may be disruptive, is not police-worthy.

Lunella disrupts the classroom in multiple ways, including her tone when she answers the teacher, often coded as sarcastic, and her lack of engagement with the material presented to her. In the first issue readers see tensions between the science teacher, Ms. Dominguez, and Lunella. Throughout the series, the teacher frequently focuses negative attention on Lunella. Lunella attends a school in NYC that is ill-equipped to manage her educational needs, hence her boredom, and she is potentially subject to the systematic racism of those classrooms. Lunella often ignores the lecture because it is too simple for her brilliant mind, or she answers her teacher sarcastically, and she is often threatened by the teacher with trips to the principal’s office or other means of intimidation. African American girls are frequently punished for “talking too loudly” and “talking back” to an instructor, behaviors often coded as disrespectful by education authorities. These behaviors are “threatening” in that they risk undermining the teacher’s authority in the classroom. However, some scholars see these student responses as “localized disruptions” where the student is asserting her voice and expressing her displeasure or boredom with the lesson plan. These localized disruptions, according to Heather A. Oesterreich, may be read as a form of student activism (4). Lunella “disrupts” class by exhibiting intelligence beyond her instructor, but this isn’t read as activism, it’s read as disrespectful and inappropriate.

Later in the first issue, the science teacher reprimands Lunella again, reminding her about their “talk with the principal” and how she needs to “engage with the rest of the class and stop [her] ‘daydreaming,’” and the illustrators put “daydreaming” in quotes and depict the teacher doing air quotes with her hands (Issue 3). However, Lunella’s expression is one of absolute boredom and not one of pleasant daydreaming. In another scene, Ms. Dominguez singles Lunella out and calls on her because she knows the young girl is not listening to her lecture (Issue 9). Lunella is a genius, and the young girl’s knowledge of science is beyond that of her classroom peers and even that of her teacher. Most readers would understand and sympathize with her boredom at listening to a lecture on simple scientific information she already knows.

Instead of recognizing Lunella’s intelligence, her teacher calls her “Little-Miss-Know-It-All” (Issue 1), which is unprofessional and problematic when a Black student’s intelligence is being ridiculed in front of the class (see Figure 4). The teacher’s methodology of singling out a Black student and using threats and even name calling points to more serious issues than just a simple storyline about a misunderstood genius. The scene implies that Lunella has “acted out” and has been sent to the principal’s office for not behaving in a manner acceptable to the instructor. The comic has other students who “act out” occasionally, such as Eduardo who questions the teacher’s decision making skills and constantly teases another girl (Issue 19), but readers do not see him being sent to the principal’s office or see the teacher threatening him and calling him names.

Figure 4
Figure 4.

If Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur is promoted in schools, then it potentially “functions as an important tool in the educative process within schools, and it serves to socialize children and shape their values, cultural norms, and worldviews” (McNair 3). The comic perpetuates the worldview that Black girls are naturally disruptive in the classroom and their behavior is not acceptable and deserves the punishments they receive. Although readers may understand and sympathize with Lunella’s boredom, by not highlighting the unfairness of the teacher’s bias, the comic participates in post-racism and risks normalizing the treatment of Black girls in the classroom. Readers see that they are not allowed to actively or even passively rebel against a system that fails to meet their educational needs. It is only when Lunella repeats what the teacher says and responds in the manner the teacher desires that she is praised (Issue 5), thus reinforcing behaviors established by the majority and ignoring the systematic racism and institutional failure to meet Black students’ (and other marginalized communities’) diverse personalities and education levels. 

The comic’s portrayal of the misunderstood genius storyline overshadows another issue facing African American girls in public school systems: the lack of placement in gifted or advance programs. Lunella tells the reader, “Ever since kindergarten, I’ve tested into the gifted and talented program—but no seats! Never enough room for me” (Issue 15). The institutional denial of placement for Lunella in an advanced program is not an uncommon occurrence for African American students. Alfinio Flores notes that “Unfortunately it is not unusual to see African American and Latino students placed in low tracks even in cases where their standardized test scores or other measures of talent are equal to or better than their White or Asian American peer” (34). Even though Lunella has consistently tested as gifted, she is denied access to advancement, and the people in power ignore what this does to her psyche and potential for intellectual growth. Diane Archer-Banks and Linda Behar-Horenstein elaborate that “African American students are typically excluded from advanced placement (AP), college preparatory, and science technology, engineer, and mathematics (STEM) academic tracks” (201). The fact that Lunella has been consistently denied access to advanced classes implies that this pattern will continue; if she cannot get a seat in elementary and middle school, the likelihood that she will be granted access to college preparatory courses and other resources in high school is low.

Lunella is denied access to gifted programs, and she is denied leadership roles that would showcase her intelligence. The mystery of her placement in standard classes is even noticed by her classmate, Eduardo. Eduardo questions the science teacher’s decisions to not allow Lunella to be a leader and excel. Eduardo recognizes Lunella’ genius and asks the teacher why they do not let Lunella create the Lego plans for a competition, and the teacher dismisses his suggestion (Issue 9). Later Eduardo says, “This is what I’ve been saying since Pre-K…Lunella Lafayette is the smartest there is!” and the artwork of this panel clearly shows the teacher uncomfortable with his proclamation (Issue 12). Again, Ms. Dominguez downplays his words and, by default, Lunella’s intelligence. Lunella experiences outright hostility from her instructor as well as benign neglect. Crenshaw et al. contend that African American girls’ “sense of belonging in school can be undermined if their achievements are overlooked or undervalued” (12). Lunella may not just be bored with the curriculum; her teacher’s lack of appropriate response may cause her to further disengage from school, thus potentially impacting her future at higher institutions.

Ms. Dominguez’s response to Lunella is indicative of institutional racism within schools as well as the challenges facing urban education systems. African American students like Lunella often attend schools that lack qualified teachers and have limited resources. Flores’ research proves “that African American, Latino, and low-income students are less likely to have access to experienced and qualified teachers, more likely to face low expectations, and less likely to receive equitable per student funding” (29). To have a Latina teacher[4] not recognize or at least acknowledge the situation in the school implies the comic relies on post-racial discourse. Furthermore, it misses an opportunity for the supherhero comic to engage in social issues of modernity; it denies a role model that could inspire marginalized readers to bond across identities. Flores’ research shows that an African American and a Latina may share experiences with being oppressed and marginalized by the systematic racism in education. Instead of having Ms. Dominguez be a source of hope and have the two bond, the writers pit the two women against each other. This denies readers an example of women of color joining forces to address inequality. At a minimum, the comic could show how teachers find creative ways to teach and the imaginative ways they produce funding denied by schools; Ms. Dominguez could be an example of the lengths public school teachers go to support their students, especially those like Lunella.

However, maybe Ms. Dominguez should be read as an example of a young, inexperienced teacher placed in an urban setting. Schools in urban areas are most likely to be taught by young and/or inexperienced teachers; that is, teachers with three years or less of teaching experience than teachers at predominantly white institutions (Flores 32). Ms. Dominguez’s responses to Lunella are indicative of, at best, an instructor who is uneducated about systematic racism and the institutional treatment of Black girls and lacks experience and pedagogical resources managing students with different learning needs, or, at worse, a racist instructor. Readers might give the teacher (and the writers) the benefit of doubt and assume the writers want readers to see how ill-equipped the school system is to deal with gifted children like Lunella. However, because the comic once again elects to not directly address such issues and leaves it up to the young reader to come to these conclusions on their own without even a mention of such ideas, the comic’s narrative strategy leans towards a simplified storyline of a misunderstood genius in a public school.

Post-racial discourse assumes that acknowledging the realities facing African American girls in school systems is unnecessary. However, Lunella, and other girls like her, have a right to be angry at their educational situation. The comic further downplays the educational realities facing African American girls through the humor surrounding her superpower. Lunella’s superpower is that she switches brains with Devil Dinosaur at seemingly unopportunistic moments. For example, Lunella has her first transformation—switches brains with Devil Dinosaur—when she gets angry at an alien who disguises himself as a classmate named Marvin (Issue 7). The creators may have seen this mental connection between a Black girl and a Dinosaur as a nod to the STEM movement, a progressive idea. However, during this scene, Lunella is angry at Marvin because he is trying to take over a LEGO League competition where she could win a scholarship. Lunella explains her strong desire to win the competition: “I spent almost my whole life trying to get into a better school. Maybe a STEM program. Anything where I could be with people like me” (Issue 11). Lunella has been repeatedly denied access to such opportunities; she sees this as her only chance to advance her mental capacities.

Additionally, Marvin is illustrated as a white male who is telling Lunella what he will do as self-appointed leader. He is attempting to subjugate Lunella on this project, negating her voice and intelligence. Lunella gets understandably angry, and as she expresses her anger, her mind swaps with Devil Dinosaur so that Devil Dinosaur has control over her body while Lunella’s mind is in Devil Dinosaur’s body. Devil Dinosaur-as-Lunella attacks Marvin and is eventually tied to the nurse’s chair. Although the scene is meant to be humorous, the comic denies Lunella’s right to be angry at the institutional systems that have oppressed her. The writers direct her anger at a boy, who could potentially represent patriarchal oppression and could be suggestive of the inability of white patriarchal society to comprehend a black girl’s experience; however, he is an alien from another planet, which allows readers to excuse his actions. Additionally, her swapping brains with a dinosaur who reacts purely on instinct overshadows Lunella’s intellect and right to be angry. It makes her response to the scene seem animalistic and unjustified because Devil Dinosaur’s brain takes over. Post-racial discourse shapes the comic so that the scene avoids engaging with the institutions that stifle Lunella’s academic growth. The writers turn Lunella’s anger into an animalistic performance for humor. The reason why she might have been angry in the first place is displaced.

Her brain switches places again when she is at the LEGO competition and about to explain her project. From a plot perspective, the writers denying Lunella this moment to shine creates a humorous and tragic character. However, by doing so, the comic avoids engaging with a more nuanced understanding of what African American girls deal with in educational settings. Flores reports that girls, especially from minority groups, “receive less encouragement and have fewer science- and math-related opportunities both in school and out than do White males” (40). Lunella has dealt with being ignored and ridiculed in the classroom and denied access to advanced courses. The moment is more tragic than the writers may have realized. By selecting her moment to shine and portray her intelligence to her school and to readers as the moment when her body is taken over by an animal that ruins the competition, the creators deny her voice and replace it with an animalistic performance that gets her reprimanded. Black girls “are viewed as ‘inadequately feminine,’ [and] school personnel spend more time correcting their speech and dress patterns, and less time promoting their academic skills” (Archer-Banks and Behar-Horenstein 200). Instead of promoting a Black girl’s academic skills, the comic presents her as animalistic, operating on pure instinct instead of intelligence, for humor. The writers do not recognize how often African American girls must deal with these moments, without finding anything humorous in them. Post-racial discourse makes this seem like a humorous moment instead of addressing the reality girls deal with being seen as unintelligent and “loud” and lacking in “appropriate” social manners by authority figures. The writers illustrate Lunella embracing the dinosaur mentality and calling it fun “going all Fin Fang Foom on those police when I was in your body” (Issue 8). There is danger for Black girls who want to go “Fin Fang Foom” on authority figures, especially police officers. Yet, because of post-racial discourse, the creators assume they do not have deal with those realities.

Lunella states, “Your dreams don’t mean anything. That’s the one thing school has taught me” (Issue 13). Lunella cannot get a seat in advanced programs, she has a teacher who does not engage with her educational needs and calls her names, and she is in a school system that lacks resources that can appropriately serve marginalized communities. Additionally, her animalistic behavior during the brain switches may reinforce views of African American girls as naturally unruly. Although the comic includes these scenes, the lack of direct engagement with the underlying issues that cause these problems may allow readers to reduce this to a common superhero trope of the misunderstood genius. The post-racial discourse undergirding this comic assumes that readers do not need to know the challenges directly facing African American girls in urban schools. To address these issues more directly may highlight the systematic racism of the institutions that are supporting the sales of their comic books. The misunderstood genius plot is more than just a story arc for African American girls; those moments represent institutional racism that Black girls face within the education system. A more nuanced representation needs to occur for readers to garner their true significance.

Representation Matters

Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur’s success reminds us that the comic industry has made positive steps forward in representation. Young readers are embracing the character Moon Girl in hopes of empowerment and Lunella Lafayette is a progressive representation from her predecessors. Her success shows us that readers want diverse characters and that corporations like Marvel are listening to those demands.

However, comics are a business. When discussing the increase in female characters in Marvel universe, Sana Amanat, creator of Ms. Marvel, states, “You can’t ignore half the market, right? That’s pure finance and economics speaking” (Maggs). Creating a character that represents half of the population is a business decision, a way to appeal to current readers and a chance to pull in new readers who originally felt left out. As Cocca suggests, “A superhero-character-owning company will diversify their staffs or their characters not solely because it benefits other people, because it is the right thing to do, nor because it’s an idea whose time has come. They will do it because it’s in their interest too” (218). Marvel saw a boost in their readership and gained increased publicity by diversifying legacy characters such as Miles Morales, aka Spider-Man (2011), a sixteen-year-old Afro-Latino teenager, and Kamala Khan, aka Ms. Marvel (2014), a Muslim Pakistani American teenager. Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur is an extension of this business plan that is succeeding. But part of that success may be due to the post-racial ideologies undergirding the comic. Lunella is not too radical; she’s not too controversial; and she’s not to confrontational. Her comic avoids directly engaging with any African American girlhood issues that might arise living in a city, or anywhere for that matter.

Cocca reminds us that dominant groups, in the case of comics this usually means Caucasian males, have been the primary teller of stories, including the stories about marginalized communities. She warns, “when the narrative’s point of view is consistently at that group instead of from that group, the objectified group’s story is not being told, empathy for that group is less likely, and the group’s power is subverted” (Cocca 5). The challenges Lunella faces in Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur are depicted in such a way that they seem like the typical misunderstood genius, who just happens to be African American. The representations create ideological tensions if readers pause to consider how being Black might impact a genius girl with super powers. The likelihood that her experiences in school, in home, and in her neighborhood, would be the same as a white superhero is low. Post-racial discourse allows those cultural nuances to be subverted and unacknowledged. Lunella has great potential to empower young readers. Her presence on the page matters. However, she needs to be allowed to embrace the superhero agenda. Adilifu Nama suggests that “culturally and ideologically, black superheroes and the comic book pages they occupy are…signifiers that attack essentialist notions of racial subjectivity, draw attention to racial inequality and racial diversity, and contain a considerable amount of commentary about the broader cultural politics of race in America and the world” (136). Lunella’s storylines avoid the issues of social inequality. Although seeing an African American girl as a superhero is empowering and a progressive step for Marvel, allowing post-racial ideology to silence the inequality her real-world peers face is disappointing. In order for Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur to reach its heroic mission, especially since the comic is used in education settings, educators, librarians, and readers need to combat the gaps between Lunella’s Marvel universe and the world surrounding her readers.

Notes

[1] For further information, please see Brown 137; Cocca 10, 125, 206; Davis 204, 206, 208, and Whaley 97.

[2] Natcha Bustos has been the primary artist and Tamra Bonvillain the primary colorist for the series. Marco Failla was the artist for Issue 7; Ray-Anthony Height was the artist for Issue 14 and part of Issue 24; Issue 24 also had sections illustrated by Dominike “Domo” Stanton and Michael Shelfer.

[3] See: Monique Morris, and Kimberlé Crenshaw, Priscilla Ocen, and Jyoti Nanda.

[4] The science teacher’s name is Ms. Dominguez, and she is drawn lighter in complexion than Lunella and slightly darker than a white student thus reinforcing the assumption based on her last name that she is of Latina heritage.

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