ABBOTT's Light of Truth Drives Out the Darkness
| In Abbott & Abbott: 1973, journalist sheds light in society's dark corners. |
As noted previously in this blog, reporters were once very common characters in comic books, heroic figures working for the people to expose and stop corruption; the journalist and the superhero have often been one-and-the-same, both identities fighting for truth and justice: Superman is Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent. Spider-Man is Daily Bugle photographer Peter Parker. And The Lightbringer is hard-nosed Chronicle reporter Elena Abbott.
Set in Detroit during the early 1970s, Abbott (2018)- from writer Saladin Ahmed (Black Bolt) and artist Sami Kivelä (Beautiful Canvas) - brings racial politics to the foreground of supernatural noir. Abbott is a hard-hitting, chain-smoking, near fearless, Black and queer reporter who covers the stories that no else will and investigates the crimes that the police try to ignore - crimes against Detroit's poor and Black populations. "Crimes," the publisher's description notes, "she knows to be the work of dark occult forces. Forces that took her husband from her. Forces she has sworn to destroy."
The original Abbott series is a fun occult mystery that pits an urban Black woman in the 1970s against the White patriarchy devoted to the traditions of ancient Greek and Roman lore. In the battle good versus evil, Abbott is "the light" fighting dark forces of not only the occult but also of racism, sexism, and homophobia. Her characterization as The Lightbringer calls to mind Martin Luther King, Jr.'s declaration in Strength to Love (1963),
Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.
Yes, she is gifted with supernatural abilities - but the magical light she brings is realized through the light she shines in the dark alleys of her city as a "detective for the people." She is not just The Lightbringer, she is also a truth seeker.
Abbott is, as the comic covers note, a Black Lois Lane. And this characterization becomes ever more clear in the new Abbott: 1973 (2020) as Abbott chases leads in the racist propaganda blanketing the city against its first Black mayoral candidate. In this latest installment of the story, Abbott, like Lois Lane before her, displays ruthless investigative skills, while negotiating relationship complexities, workplace sexism, and extraordinary dangers.... plus some monsters and ghosts, because this is a horror comic after all.
One reason that Abbott and Abbott:1973 are standout comics is in their treatment of important issues. As Emma Lawson noted for CBR,
Taking place in 1970s America, there’s a lot of casual racism and sexism in Abbott, but it’s delicately used and then immediately shut down either through context or characters’ own words. In his writing Ahmed shows that yes, these attitudes did exist in 1972 and yes, it often was this explicit, but at the same time no, it’s not OK -- and it wasn’t at the time, either. There’s a difference between historical fiction that revels in racism and sexism and that which critiques it; this is the latter and shows us how it’s done.
Abbott is also notable because it celebrates American journalism at a time when Americans express hardening attitudes toward, and growing distrust of, the news media. More specifically, it calls attention to the enormous responsibility of reporting while Black in America and it sheds light on an aspect of the #BlackLivesMatter movement about which many White Americans have too long been in the dark: Racial violence and racial policing have always been part of the country's reality. As journalist Errin Haines told Glamour in June 2020,
A lot of the work I did [at the Associated Press] was around the killings of unarmed Black people by the police and by vigilantes, and when I moved on from that job, I thought I had moved on from that work. I certainly didn’t think I would be doing this work in the midst of a pandemic. But here we are.
She is not alone. After the 2020 killing of George Floyd, a lot of Black journalists struggled with and reflected on the experience of reporting while Black and the emotional toll of having to bear witness to so much violence against their community.
Abbott is also not the only comic art to draw attention to the history of police violence/negligence in race relations. Cartoonist Keith Knight's book, They Shoot Black People, Don't They? collects 20 years of his cartoon strips commenting on police brutality, cartoons such as the one below from 2011.
It will be interesting to see how Abbott:1973 goes on to speak to racial campaign politics in the 1970s and, by extension, the 2010s-2020s. It has so far been kind in linking Klan activity to dark occult forces, rather than to merely darker human impulses - though visually the shadowy tendrils of evil energy seem to be a fair metaphor for the insidiousness of institutionalized racism.
~Christina M. Knopf
22 February 2021