Don’t get me wrong, I liked Nubia when she debuted in Wonder Woman #204 and I’m glad she’s back in NUBIA: Real One. But I’m a comics nerd and I’m old enough that I bought the debut issue off a drugstore spinner rack. I have lots of affection for characters so forgotten they’d barely qualify for pub trivia questions (the Galactic Golem, the Devil-Fish, the Reincarnators, Jason Bard …). I’d have put Nubia in that category, but no, she has a fanbase. For example, LL McKinney, the Real One writer, who says she was blown away to discover there was a black woman who could hold her own with Wonder Woman.
In hindsight, it’s not surprising Nubia has fans. While many comics readers hate having female/POC characters introduced as spinoffs of established white/male heroes, as writer Devin Grayson once said, a lesbian Batwoman or a black Wonder Woman automatically gets a cachet that a new gay character might not. Maybe that’s less true in the current comics world, but appearing in 1972 Nubia was a lot more unusual, beating Storm out as as the first black female superhero. And she’s also a good character; I doubt anyone remembers the black Legionnaire Tyroc as fondly.
Nubia shows up after the clumsy reboot that restores Wonder Woman to her powers after several years as a (comparatively) ordinary woman. After her martial arts mentor/father figure I Ching is killed by a random sniper, Diana gets the kind of convenient head injury that brings on amnesia, somehow makes it back to Paradise Island (which vanished from the mortal world at the start of the powerless period, something blithely ignored here) and regains her powers. Then up shows an armored warrior who challenges Diana for the name of Wonder Woman. Having Wonder Woman defend her title is one of those ideas that crops up semiregularly in the series. First there was one of Robert Kanigher’s Silver Age stories, then Nubia (created by Kanigher and Don Heck), then a Bronze Age tale, then one of William Messner-Loebs’ stories in the 1990s.
When Nubia challenges Diana, they initially prove perfectly matched. Nubia finally gets the drop on her, as on the cover (and not by a lucky break, as often happens — she beats her fair and square), but then freezes at the killing stroke. Diana disarms her, Hippolyta — who suspects the truth — proclaims a draw. The two warriors embrace but Nubia warns Diana when they meet again until their rivalry is decided.
In the following issue, Kanigher and Heck explore “The Mystery of Nubia” in a backup story. To Nubia’s puzzlement, Hippolyta makes a point of embracing her for a second goodbye before Nubia returns to her home, Floating Island. The inhabitants are a black tribe, two of whom fight for the right to wed their princess, Nubia. She, however, informs the winner that he has another challenger — herself, fighting for the right not to marry anyone. They battle, she wins, but Nubia refuses to kill him: a woman, she says “never forgets that once a life has been taken, it can never return.” She then broods privately on how lonely she feels as an orphan who doesn’t even remember her parents — was that why Hippolyta embraced her, out of compassion?
Cary Bates takes up the writing for the finalé, “War of the Wonder Women” in which we learn Nubia’s origin. When Hippolyta sculpted Diana from clay (an origin Kanigher never used himself, giving her an unseen father) she also created a black twin sister. Mars, however, stole the baby away before the gods blessed Diana with the strength of Hercules, speed of Mercury etc. While that should give Diana the edge, Mars has trained Nubia in every possible form of combat, molding her into a weapon to destroy Wonder Woman and the Amazons. Floating Island attacks Paradise Island; Wonder Woman arrives to help her sisters fight the invasion; Nubia then proclaims their final battle. Diana, however, guesses the ring with Mars’ symbol that Nubia wears is fueling her rage and manages to remove it. Nubia’s war-fervor fades and the two women drive off Mars together. When Diana returns to Paradise Island, Hippolyta reveals the truth.
Although the last caption of the story proclaimed it “the end and the beginning,” the beginning went nowhere. In Supergirl #9, Supergirl gets fed up with men and accepts Hippolyta’s invitation to relocate to Paradise Island before deciding withdrawing from the world is not the solution. Nubia appears, but primarily for Supergirl to save from a deadly poison. Nubia’s final appearance came in Super Friends #25 in which the villainous Overlord has turned the Super Friends into his evil puppets. When Wonder Woman goes to Africa, Nubia confronts her, revealing that she’s devoted herself to becoming the champion of Africa’s women. It’s not a bad idea for giving Nubia her own space — as an Amazon she’s always in Diana’s shadow — but nothing further came of it.And then came Real One by McKinney and Robyn Smith. We meet Nubia as a typical American teenager with two lesbian moms — well typical except that she’s freakishly, superhumanly strong. She’s always hidden it because she’s black and she knows damn well white people react to even non-metahuman blacks as dangerous menaces. Sure enough, when she uses her strength to stop a robbery (one of her friends was in danger), the police are way more concerned about the scary black woman than the crooks.
The story concerns Nubia’s unease about where she fits in the world, her relationships with her friends (made more awkward by knowing she’s different) and an entitled white bigot/misogynist at her school who’s harassing one of her friends. Midway through the story she learns her origin when her moms’ friend Diana shows up and guess who it is? Wonder Woman explains that years ago, she found her lost twin sister in a temple of Mars, kept as a baby in suspended animation. Hippolyta gave the child away to her moms — one’s an Amazon who gave up Themyscira for love of a mortal woman — and raised her normally as possible. But that jerk at school is getting increasingly dangerous so like it or not, it’s time for Nubia to become a hero …
I really enjoyed this. It does a great job fitting Nubia into a real world of social media, date rape and Black Lives Matter. If this Nubia turned up in a future issue of Wonder Woman that would be cool, though McKinney says she’d like to see the original return. I’d be cool with either.