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Reviewed by:
  • Keeping It Unreal: Black Queer Fantasy and Superhero Comics by Darieck Scott
  • Kinohi Nishikawa
Darieck Scott, Keeping It Unreal: Black Queer Fantasy and Superhero Comics (New York: New York University Press, 2022), 268 pp.

In order to illuminate the conceptual stakes of his book Keeping It Unreal, Darieck Scott puts a new spin on a popular cliché: “not only should you bring a knife to a gunfight, but you should bring a velvet camisole as well” (40). The phrase, first uttered in Brian De Palma’s 1987 film The Untouchables, is usually taken to mean being unprepared for or outmatched in a given situation. Here Scott not only discovers a use for a knife in a gunfight—turning a supposed disadvantage to one’s advantage—but also stresses the importance of looking good when taking it up. We can visualize the scenario: our hero gains access to a backup weapon while distracting his antagonist with a bit of flair. This at once covert and fabulous image encapsulates the lines of thought opened up by Black queer appropriation of the superhero comics tradition.

Scott’s preferred term for such appropriation is “fantasy,” or specifically “fantasy-acts.” How do Black queer subjects engage a tradition that was not made for them and continues to exclude them as constituents? Fantasy-acts. Scott devises the concept out of his autobiography and an idiosyncratic assemblage of commentary by Frantz Fanon, Ernst Bloch, Western Zen Buddhism, and Pedro Almodóvar. In its clearest articulation, the concept claims to reorient questions of action, existence, and imagination along these lines:

fantasy’s admittedly largely immaterial “doing” is the creation of the nonactual—such that “doing” is the mining of the possible latent in the actual, or the denomination and use of what does not exist as a resource; and the “nothing” is the nonactual. The “does nothing” of fantasy-acts is the apparently insubstantial process of creating a nonactual world.


World-building, speculation, and, well, fantasy are terms in wide circulation that could be used to refer to this process. But Scott invests heavily in the “act” part of his formulation, for even if unrealized, action is what solidifies his contention that, “a priori,” fantasy “is the stuff of resistance” (35). In other words, he would like readers to see the possibility for resistance “latent” in material deemed at turns trivial, immature, unserious, heteronormative, and, most damningly, anti-Black.

Of course, white-produced superhero comics are themselves objects and vehicles of fantasy, and the invocation of fantasy-acts does little to parse, conceptually, how Black queer readings are distinct from straight white ones, or white queer ones, or Black straight ones, and so on. Take Scott’s reading of Black Panther. The gunfight phrase returns in his analysis of the original Marvel comics, where the racial blind spots of co-creators Jack [End Page 1024] Kirby and Stan Lee give way to an alternative context for signification: “in Wakanda, after all, a knife made of vibranium or a camisole laced with it might stand up surprisingly well against hostile bullets” (146). This pivot toward a Black queer image of Wakanda could have led to a discussion of the Dora Milaje warrior women who were added to the comics’ universe in 1998. Instead, it is only a brief stopping point in a conventional account of how Black artists, writers, and creators have seized the Wakanda mythos from white hands and, to an extent, made it their own. Scott addresses Reginald Hudlin’s 2005 reboot of Black Panther, one that, in keeping with the times, reflected a “‘post-integration, post-Reagan’ hip-hop” sensibility that valorized “black male cultural icons [who] were bad-asses” (100). Scott is loath to acknowledge that this very sensibility is embodied and carried forth by supervillain Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) in Ryan Coogler’s blockbuster live-action film from 2018. That Killmonger is as powerful a vehicle for projection, identification, and desire as the recognized superhero T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is something that fantasy-acts do not account for.

The resistance Scott wants to uncover in comics is perhaps best thought of as opposing a particular kind of content. “An unreal...