For nearly a decade, superheroes have been the hottest game in town. Making the jump from comics where they have, of course, been hot stuff since the medium came into existence, they first colonized movies, then made a fair bid for TV, and have been sporadically popping up in written fiction. We might ask why superheroes have proven so enduringly successful, and probably the answer comes down to a confluence of events—the most important of which might simply be that someone finally worked out how to make a sufficiently long streak of successful superhero movies, and after that it was all momentum—but I wonder if another important factor might not be that superheroes gratify certain conservative impulses that lie at the heart of popular culture. Conservative, first, from a storytelling standpoint—unlike other genre McGuffins, superheroes can exist in worlds literally replete with their spandex-clad brethren, not to mention aliens and magical technologies, which will nevertheless be entirely identical to our own except for the existence of said superheroes, aliens, etc. But they also reflect a certain brand of political conservatism, a sort of weaponized ethos of personal responsibility, in which good and evil are not just represented, but embodied, by individuals who have the power of nations. Superheroes can come to stand for streams of political thought and influence, while at the same time perpetuating the notion that change can only emerge from individuals, not systems. Iron Man is the embodiment of twenty-first-century anti-government corporatism, the belief that the private sector can always do it better. Captain America represents American do-gooder militarism, brought to its fullest flower in WWII and increasingly lost and misused since then.
In light of this, it seems impossible to ask—and yet, at the same time, impossible not to know the answer—where are the superheroes who stand for social justice? The superheroes who use their power to represent the anger of disenfranchised populations, and to fight back against oppression? It's been said many times, as the varieties of superheroes on our screens and in our books have proliferated, but a hero who truly cared about justice would be turning their gaze to the profound injustices carried out by the very government bodies they more often end up fighting for. And yet superheroes are inevitably an instrument of the status quo. Even some of the best and smartest recent uses of the genre have balked at challenging that consensus. Marvel's Daredevil claims to be fighting for the poor and disenfranchised, but the series has to make a supervillain out of what in real life is the thoroughly legal practice of gentrification, just so that its hero can have someone to punch. Jessica Jones has been rightly lauded for fielding a villain who is the embodiment of toxic masculinity, but the heroine's almost-myopic focus on thwarting this one enemy obscures the fact that there are greater powers at play, those who created this monster and loosed it on the world, and who remain at large.
In the case of racial justice in particular, the efforts of recent superhero stories run the gamut from the well-intentioned but tone-deaf, to actively hostile. The CW's Arrow, still the closest that recent pop culture has come to a genuine examination of the limitations of superheroism as an engine of social change, has stories that center around economic issues like inequality and urban decay, frequently acknowledging that these problems can't really be solved by a vigilante in a mask. But its underclass is represented by actors like Colton Haynes and Bex Taylor-Klaus, and it completely ignores the role that race has played in America's economic system. The X-Men were famously created as a metaphor for the Civil Rights movement in the 50s and 60s, but from a distance of half a century, the story and its characters seem to say a lot more about white America's anxieties over that struggle than the struggle itself. It's a story in which the radicalism of Martin Luther King Jr. is reduced to the frantic respectability politics of the privileged, human-passing Professor X, while Malcolm X and the Black Panthers' militancy is equated with acts of terrorism and attempted genocide. And, at a time in which seemingly every week the media discovers yet another instance of the police using their power and authority to abuse, rape, and murder with impunity, Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. sees nothing wrong with arguing that what the world truly needs, in order to be safe, is an even more powerful, even more unaccountable police force, whose very first mission ends with its white heroes gunning down a dangerous black man.
In such a cultural landscape, Ayize Jama-Everett's Liminal People novels feel not simply refreshing, but necessary. It's not just that Jama-Everett's superheroes—or, as he dubs them, liminals—are overwhelmingly people of color, from all over the world and drawing on many different cultural traditions and historical backgrounds. And it's not merely that his books so thoroughly counter the prevailing approach of superhero stories on screen and page, which privilege the point of view of a white hero, and sometimes seem to presume a white audience. What feels almost revolutionary about Jama-Everett's books is that they imagine a world in flux, one that is about to change, and in which that change is intimately linked to racial justice. The central question of these books is what kind of world we will all end up living in, one that embraces nihilism, or one that is driven by creativity—where the latter is inextricably linked to racial, global, and cultural diversity. Letting people of color take center stage is thus not merely an act of balancing the scales. It is necessary for humanity's survival.
The Liminal People, Jama-Everett's debut novel (self-published in 2009, and reissued by Small Beer Press in 2012), introduced its titular superheroes, people who exist on the line between normalcy and weirdness. Its hero was Taggert, a liminal with healing powers who had been corrupted and made to use his powers to hurt, hunting down other liminals for his master. In The Liminal War, a reformed Taggert is living in London with his daughter Tamara, a powerful psychic, and his ward Prentis, who controls and communes with animals. When Prentis disappears, and turns out to have been taken by Taggert's old mentor Nardeen, father and daughter discover that this is merely a gambit intended to heat up a cold war between Nardeen's masters—the embodied forces of entropy—and the mannah, the ancient god of connections, whose followers commune with it by smoking a ganja-like substance.
The Liminal War bounces between scenes of high-octane, superpowered battles, and surprisingly low-key interludes. The entire middle of the novel follows Taggert, Tamara, and Mico, the high priest of the mannah, as they travel back in time to 1971 so that Mico can jam with a young Bob Marley. Music, in fact, has tremendous power in this story, and the final confrontation with Nardeen is powered by the music of Robert Johnson, whom the group meet in 1938 in the book's final third. That both of these men are iconic black musicians ties into Jama-Everett's project of stressing not just creativity as a counterpoint to nihilism, but black creativity in particular. Marley, we're told, had tremendous psychic powers, which he expended on "representing the black human life as a full spiritual life" (The Liminal War, p. 99). And while that power still has its limits—in 1971, the epic party sparked by Marley and Mico's jam session is nearly broken up by "one hundred Bobbies with a clear intention of doing no good" (The Liminal War, p. 93) and in 1938 Mississippi Tamara has to play mind-tricks on the white locals to make herself, her father, and Mico appear white, so as not to arouse violence with their conspicuous wealth—it is that very same spiritual life that offers any hope of saving the world.
Though exciting in concept, The Liminal War is somewhat less successful in execution. The book is aiming for fast-paced, but lands on choppy, jumping too swiftly from one set-piece to another and introducing new characters at a breakneck pace that leaves them all feeling like placeholders. Taggert and Tamara feel inert, reacting to events but not learning or growing from them, even though Taggert's emotional journey in particular, of learning to reclaim his identity as a healer, feels central to this series' point. Mico, meanwhile, feels more like a McGuffin than a character, while Prentis, the reason for the entire affair, is conspicuous in her absence, only showing up briefly in the book's final chapters and never quite justifying Taggert and Tamara's love and devotion towards her. Another way of putting it, however, is that The Liminal War suffers from some fairly classic middle-book-in-a-trilogy problems. It is clearly trying to simultaneously expand Taggert and Tamara's world, while setting up the enemies and challenges that they will have to face in the next installment in the series. Combined with the book's brevity, its earnestness, and the palpable energy that runs through it, this is nearly enough to make its flaws forgivable.
Still, it was gratifying to move on to The Entropy of Bones, a standalone volume that fleshes out the backstory of one of War's minor characters, and which is a great deal more grounded, in both its structure and its characters. Chabi is an aimless young woman in San Francisco, who seems to find her purpose in life when her neighbor Narayana offers to train her in martial arts. Narayana's training, however, irrevocably alters Chabi's grasp on and perception of reality. Already disconnected from normal life due to her liminality, she finds herself drifting even further away when he teaches her to see and manipulate the entropy that lies within all living things and inanimate objects. It's only a chance encounter with a family of gruff but kind-hearted pot growers that tethers Chabi back to humanity, and when the family's youngest son becomes ensnared and then destroyed by one of the embodiments of entropy that Taggert and Tamara faced in The Liminal War, Chabi sets out to get revenge on creatures she doesn't fully understand.
The Entropy of Bones is a more traditional kind of coming of age story than The Liminal War, and has some very familiar plot beats. Readers who come to the novel after reading The Liminal War will recognize many of its characters before Chabi learns what kind of creatures they are (they will also know how Chabi's story ends, though hopefully this isn't the last that we will see of her in this series). Nevertheless, the same energy that powers The Liminal War is back in force here, expressed in Chabi's abrasive personality, and in the strong bonds she nevertheless forms with her mother, with Narayana, and with the pot-growers who come to see her as a daughter. That the book is obviously inspired by martial arts movies—and obviously infected with their enthusiasm towards their subject—highlights its similarities to the kinds of bildungsromans produced by Nick Harkaway, such as The Gone-Away World (2008) or Angelmaker (2012). But what Harkaway achieves in hundreds and hundreds of pages of busy, frenetic prose, Jama-Everett lays down in a slim, almost tossed-off volume, powered mainly by the fact that Chabi has more attitude and personality in her little finger than Harkaway's wannabe ninja heroes have in their entire bodies.
Like The Liminal War, The Entropy of Bones is also steeped in issues of race, and its more contained setting and point of view allow it to focus on its handling of this topic. One of the novel's set-pieces takes place during the riots that ensued when the killer of Oscar Grant was convicted only of involuntary manslaughter, reminding us that Chabi’s powers and awesome fighting abilities offer her only a partial escape from the realities of American race relations. Chabi's disconnect from the world, meanwhile, is clearly driven at least in part by her racial identity—she is the daughter of a troubled but loving black mother, and a deadbeat Mongolian father—and by the difficulties that it has posed her throughout her life. Faced with a world that had no place in it for a woman who doesn't answer so many of the requirements of race, beauty, and class necessary to be allowed to participate in it, Chabi instead chooses to drop out, and discovers an equally real world just beneath and to the side of it.
If both The Liminal War and The Entropy of Bones feel more exciting for their project than their execution, there is still a lot here to read for. The mere fact of the attitude that both books take—that people of color are not just capable of being superheroes, but of doing so from within their own culture and history—is downright revolutionary, and it certainly helps that it is the moments in which he stresses this point that Jama-Everett feels most assured as a writer. If the plots that he weaves around this thesis are a little shopworn, and the delivery of those plots a little slapped-together, the settings and characters more than make up for this. Even more importantly, both of these novels are clearly setting up further adventures for their liminal protagonists, and further developments in the war between the forces of entropy and creativity, which will surely serve to more fully develop Jama-Everett's thesis on the necessity of incorporating, and even making way for, people of color in the central stories of our pop culture. Books like The Liminal War and The Entropy of Bones won't make up for the fact that the dominant genre of our pop culture is so completely wedded to the past and the status quo, but they point the way to how that might—if we embrace change and creativity—someday change.