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Nubia: Real One | Review

Nubia: Real One
Writer: L.L. McKinney
Artist: Robyn Smith
DC Comics; $16.99

A Blade So Black author L.L. McKinney makes her comics debut with Nubia: Real One, a collaboration with artist Robyn Smith that makes a minor Wonder Woman supporting character into the star of an original graphic novel for YA readers.

The Nubia character began her fictional life in 1973 as an Amazon challenger to Princess Diana and is sometimes considered DC’s first black female superhero (only sometimes, because the 1977-created Bumblebee better fits the traditional mold of a superhero, with a costume and codename). McKinney and Smith’s version is at once very different and, at heart, essentially the same, although readers will be kept in suspense about how much their Nubia has with the original—if they even know of the original at all, of course, given how little she’s been used in comics over the last 45 years or so—until Real One nears its climax.

When we first meet Nubia, she’s hanging out with her two best friends outside a convenience store, eating junk food and teasing one another. When she goes in for a refill of her slush, and to maybe try to flirt with the boy she likes, armed robbers hold the place up, and she throws an ATM machine at one of them.

Though she doesn’t know why, exactly, Nubia was born with super-strength, something she tries her best to keep hidden, as, when she’s revealed it in the past, her moms decided they needed to move and start over in a new community where no one knows them. So her use of it here provides a particularly potent problem for her: Nubia likes her current life, she likes her friends, she likes her school and she likes a boy. She doesn’t want to have to start all over again.

That tension between trying to live a normal life while also being true to herself runs throughout the book, and among the conflicts are not only the jerk schoolmate who harasses her best friend and Nubia’s struggle for identity, but also her tension with her mothers, particularly Amera, the adoptive mother with whom she shares her darker skin color…and more than she knows.

Always aiding the small family when it comes to things like staying out of the news and starting over is the mysterious “D”, whom Nubia has never met but hears talked about so often and with such deference that it’s almost like D is a third parent. It…probably won’t come as a surprise as to who D actually is when she appears near the end of the book. Her symbols are all over the cover, after all.

McKinney’s script crackles with authentic, witty dialogue, as well as adolescent angst and energy, and Smith’s art is refreshingly far afield from standard superhero fare, particularly that which is usually attached to Wonder Woman comics. Nubia, her family, her friends, and her world all look and feel real, which gives dramatic import to the occasional departures from the real world, as when a young Nubia lifts a car over her head or attempts to fly out of her bedroom window one night.

That realness also means McKinney and Smith consider and convey what life might actually be like for a super-powered young black woman, as Nubia wrestles with things like police suspicion and brutality, sexual harassment and assault, racism, Black Lives Matter protests, and even a school shooting. It’s frankly a lot for a single book, but it’s all handled so gracefully that it reads as relevant rather than preachy.

DC’s YA-focused original graphic novels have set a pretty high bar, with even the worst of them tending to be quite good. Nubia: Real One easily vaults over that high bar. It is one of, if not the, best of the growing library.

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J. Caleb Mozzocco About J. Caleb Mozzocco

J. Caleb Mozzocco is a way-too-busy freelance writer who has written about comics for online and print venues for a rather long time now. He currently contributes to Comic Book Resources' Robot 6 blog and ComicsAlliance, and maintains his own daily-ish blog at EveryDayIsLikeWednesday.blogspot.com. He lives in northeast Ohio, where he works as a circulation clerk at a public library by day.

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