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Sneak Peek: Check out an online-only segment of our interview with Dr. Deborah Elizabeth Whaley on black women in comics

Posted by Rob Cline | Feb 2, 2016 | Arts & Entertainment
Deborah Elizabeth Whaley's new book is out from Washington University Press

Deborah Elizabeth Whaley’s new book is out from Washington University Press

In issue 192, which drops tomorrow, LV features an interview between Rob Cline and Dr. Deborah Elizabeth Whaley, University of Iowa professor and author of the book Black Women in Sequence: Re-inking Comics, Graphic Novels, and Anime. You can read the whole conversation when it hits the stands, but in this teaser, she shares her thoughts on prominent D.C. character Amanda Waller, and her appearance (as portrayed by Viola Davis) in the upcoming movie Suicide Squad. — LV

Little Village: I wonder if you have any thoughts about Amanda Waller, the powerful and problematic (in terms of her shifting loyalties, motivations and worldview) black female character in the DC universe. She has of late (perhaps as a result of casting preferences for television shows and the forthcoming Suicide Squad movie) undergone significant changes in terms of the presentation of her body. Does she raise different issues than other Black female characters like Vixen or Monica Rambeau?

Deborah Elizabeth Whaley: Waller is more of an anti-hero, even though her goals are often in alignment with securing the safety of or in interest of the nation. This aspect makes her congruent with Vixen and Rambeau, but the latter two are more squarely of the superhero archetype because they, unlike Waller, have superpowers. I am excited that Waller will appear in the Suicide Squad movie, but mostly because Viola Davis will portray the character.

Other black female actors have done the character justice, but I honestly would prefer to see the development of Vixen in the Suicide Squad film. The CW animation series and the JLA animated series did great work with the character Vixen, but given the success of Jessica Jones [Netflix], Supergirl [CBS], and the anticipation of Luke Cage and the Black Panther on the small and big screen, I hope production companies and writers will invest in a film that includes a significant Black female superhero. Characters like Waller (in television) and Fish Mooney are complex, but do lean toward a villainous and authoritative characterization that is congruent with the “angry Black woman” depiction that popular culture and the dominant culture creates and relegates Black women to, which I find troubling.

At the same time, as I discuss in the book, Black women’s participation in nation-making, even when problematic, does situate us as essential to or as participants in helping to weave the fabric of the nation and obtain social justice.

As for Waller’s current physical appearance, she is more svelte and what some would consider more attractive by dominant beauty standards than compared to yesteryear. Early depictions of Waller presented her fuller figured, which is positive, but also as grotesque and slovenly, even when well dressed, making her similar to early depictions of Marvel’s Black Mariah. On the one hand, one might say the newer depiction veers away from the mammy, the sapphire or battle-axe, the grotesque, the masculine, or the slovenly Black woman that some audiences enjoy seeing, fat shaming, and ridiculing. On the other hand, one might say that the feminization and toning up of the character makes her more palatable and visually appealing for a culture that values thinness and femininity. There is middle ground. You can have a real size or generous size character without depicting her as grotesque. The comics’ world needs to figure out how to do both.

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