“Being different makes you a target,” says Kenny, the lead character in Salim Busuru’s urban fantasy comic DUNAMIS. But, as DUNAMIS #1 demonstrates, being different might also be what makes you powerful. In the debut issue of the African art collective Avandu (available at Kugali’s website), Busuru introduces a new group of superheroes, all of whom have disabilities that make them targets. However, DUNAMIS, like X-MEN and many other superhero comics, highlights difference as a potential source of power.
Introducing a New Team of Superheroes
The first issue barely scratches the surface for characters Kenny, Charé, Shaddy, Lulu, and Dubuu, but the comic gives readers enough to get excited. Shaddy, who is blind, accompanies the young Lulu, who wears a brace on her leg. They encounter Charé and Dubuu, whose powers (and disabilities) are not yet clear. This is significant because it reminds readers that not all disabilities are visible. There is also Kenny, who is gifted with super-speed, and who also has albinism. Jinamizi, the witch doctor with terrifying powers, encounters the other superheroes only after chasing Kenny into in a large field of shipping containers.
Jinamizi is a formidable antagonist. The powerful witch doctor shoots frightening purple lightning out of his body. Busuru’s artwork makes his heroes cute and his antagonists gruesome while giving an urban feel to his fantasy comic. The large-eyed heroes are manga-esque, with an appealing, almost naïve quality. Conversely, Jinamizi’s hands are claw-like, and his face is severe. The characters fit into the busy Makutano streets that are somewhat grey in comparison to the vividly bright characters.
A Swahili-to-English dictionary will not help readers find the meaning of the word “dunamis” or its etymology. Although the comic is based in Makutano, Kenya, the word dunamis is Ancient Greek. (Any Old Testament scholars out there will know that already, as it appears in the text over 100 times). The word refers to God-given power and emphasizes both physical strength and moral excellence. Additionally, the word implies natural ability. It would seem that DUNAMIS is challenging the idea of what “ability” might mean. Non-disabled people might not consider people with disabilities as potential superheroes, but that’s exactly why comics like DUNAMIS are important.
DUNAMIS: Strength and Power
In Disability Studies discourse, much has been said about problematic portrayals of characters with disabilities. When given the role of the hero, characters often either overcome their disability (inspiration-porn style) or somehow gain superhuman abilities as a direct result of their disabilities. Disability Studies’ scholars, including writer and activist Eli Clare, sometimes refer to this trope as the “supercrip” narrative. Typically, non-disabled creators generate this narrative for largely non-disabled audiences. The narrative obscures the underlying ableism that oppresses people with disabilities. Instead of scrutinizing the issues of systemic inaccessibility, the “supercrip” trope often shows how outstanding people with disabilities triumph “despite” their disabilities. As a result, disabilities are excluded from what is considered a “normal” disabled experience.
A comic about superheroes with disabilities is not inherently following the “supercrip” narrative. Indeed, DUNAMIS presents a great opportunity to go further with superheroes with disabilities. In coming issues, it will be important to see how Busuru depicts DUNAMIS’ heroes. A carefully written comic would challenge the tendency to minimize the experiences of characters with disabilities. DUNAMIS will hopefully strike a balance. Hopefully, it can show the experiences of people with disabilities, and give readers compelling superheroes who have disabilities that may or may not play into their superpowers. With a name that highlights god-given abilities, DUNAMIS runs the risk of having an ableist framework. However, one aspect of DUNAMIS #1 indicates that this may not be the case: the treatment of real-life social justice issues facing Africans with disabilities.
Real Life Dangers: Persecution of People with Albinism
In DUNAMIS #1, Kenny, whose albinism can come with accompanying disabilities including blindness, is targeted by the class bully as well as Jinamizi. On the African continent, people with albinism often face prejudice as well as threats from those who believe their skin possesses magical powers. Although less common in Kenya than in neighboring Tanzania, Busuru’s comic pulls from reality to depict a lead character with albinism and a powerful witch doctor threatening his existence.
DUNAMIS #1, Disability, and African Identities
The Avandu website states, “we are African art collective [sic.] who love telling African stories.” DUNAMIS offers an important opportunity to include Africans with disabilities in African — and comics — narratives. An inclusive representation that does not rely on stereotypes is critical in every culture. If DUNAMIS can continue to provide well-rounded characters with and without disabilities, it will likely accomplish what Squid Mag touts as “hope for the marginalized.”
Like in American comics, diversity matters. DAREDEVIL and other characters with disabilities do not always challenge ableism. DUNAMIS, with its goal to give power to difference, might be able to do what other mainstream American legacy comics do not. It is exciting to see a comic such as DUNAMIS. It has the potential to challenge ableism and prejudice with fantastic new superheroes.
The first issue of DUNAMIS is available here.