I almost called this one “The Importance of Being Aya,” but Mos Def’s “Life In Marvelous Times” from The Ecstatic is a much better fit. In it, Mos Def paints a picture of the intersection between the past and the present, conjuring images of starving children with gold teeth and life in the projects, before ultimately concluding that “we are alive in amazing times,” despite all of the poison and destruction and hate. This 360 degree view of life allows him to say that we are living in marvelous times, with “wonders on every side.”
Black history, as it was taught to me growing up, was more limited. The picture that was painted for me portrayed a very poor, down-trodden, and miserable existence. An existence punctuated by regular lynchings, scarred backs, and burning towns. We learned about Martin Luther King, Dred Scott, WEB Du Bois, the high points of the Harlem Renaissance (pretty much Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston), a little bit about the Great Migration (black people moved, the end), a little bit about Malcolm X as Boogieman, and maybe a little something about Marcus Garvey, if the teacher was brave. Black history generally stopped with the death of Martin Luther King.
The problem with this teaching is that you don’t get the whole picture. The idea of blacks as victims is left reinforced and ingrained in your head. It turns life into warfare, a constant struggle for life, liberty, and happiness. Due to that, you miss out on hearing about the other parts of black history. The dapper dressed gentlemen taking their lady friends out to cut a rug, the kids in the ’60s who were born into a brand new world, and the normal folks making a normal living. Black is never normal.
It’s fair to say that we’re in a new age of comics now, one that allows for comics that I would’ve never found when I was a kid. Take Aya for an example. I can go out to the store and buy a hardcover book about a black (strike one) girl (strike two) living in the Ivory Coast (strike three) who is basically living a soap opera (you’ve been out for ages kid, get out of here). Back when I was trapped in the bad old days of Wizard and superheroic speculation, the weirdest thing I read was Frank Miller’s Sin City, a book with no capes, a lot of actual curse words, and a healthy dose of nudity. Nowadays, if I want to read a soap opera starring a girl in Africa and her friends, I can do that.
I never saw that kind of thing when I was a kid. Black folks in comics were generally sidekicks or supporting characters. They were Ron Troupe and Robbie Robertson, or Luke Cage and Bishop. Born and bred in misery, but managing to struggle above into the light, or simply there to dispense useful advice or be the token negro in an otherwise all-white cast. Sometimes both. Sometimes neither.
In Aya, you’re looking at an all-black cast in an all-black city. They come in a range of shapes and sizes, they talk funny, they dress funny, and they are instantly relatable. The antics in Aya are natural, ones that many of us have gone through. It’s no different than Inio Asano’s solanin, which portrayed mid-20s ennui through a Japanese lens. Despite being from a different culture, despite being set on a continent that is generally portrayed as being war-torn, AIDS-ridden, and horrible, Aya shows that some things are universal. The words might be different, but the emotions and actions are the same.
The deeper the penetration of more diverse voices in comics, the better, as far as I’m concerned. I love Unknown Soldier, and I like Luke Cage, but those shouldn’t be the only stories we see. Sometimes it’s nice to read about some kids hanging out at their local equivalent of Makeout Point, or reading about Jack Johnson, or anything other than the stories we’ve all heard a million times. Black character vs racists? Boring. Black character educating a kid on good music? Bring it on. Hero with a dark past, darker skin, and a bright future? Yeah, whatever. Talk to me about that cool cat in the fedora and designer glasses from the ’40s.
The highlights of black history, and therefore the highlights of the black story, are made of hate, murder, atrocity, and overcoming adversity. That’s what we focus on, and that created a situation where there simply isn’t enough actual living. You get the poison, but you never see the antidote. You don’t get the full 360 degrees of experience, and you’re left with something incomplete. On the flipside, black is beautiful, and that doesn’t just mean the skin tone. It means the entire experience. All of the hurt, all of the pain, and all of the love. Aya captures that.
Marguerite Abouet and Clément Oubrerie’s Aya series embodies Black Future Month to the fullest degree. It takes an angle, an approach, to black people that’s rarely seen and then knocks it out of the park. These are good books, and their unstated political position can be summed up as “we are people, too.” There is a lot that is foreign to American audiences in Aya. However, there is more that is universal to all peoples, and Abouet and Oubrerie put it right there on the page for you to consume. Aya, more than any other book I read while prepping for this year’s Black Future Month series, is the future. It’s a sign of marvelous times.