Chesya Burke. Hero Me Not: The Containment of the Most Powerful Black, Female Superhero. Rutgers University Press, 2023. 172 pps. https://www.rutgersuniversitypress.org/hero-me-not/9781978821057
Reviewed by Stephanie Burt
When I teach X-Men comics I teach the Dark Phoenix saga, Uncanny X-Men 129-137 (1979-1980), one of the story arcs that established Marvel’s mutants as A-list heroes. And when I teach these comics, to high school and college students, I have learned the hard way that they absolutely require a warning: not about the destruction of an entire species of sentient humanoids; not about suicidality, gaslighting, or mind control, though I warn about them too. At the cost of whole two hour class sessions, I have learned that I must warn students about the two panels in Uncanny X-Men 133 where Jean Grey, manipulated by the evil Mastermind into believing herself an eighteenth century lady, hallucinates that her teammate Storm is enslaved. Chris Claremont and John Byrne, the white men who fashioned this story, likely never expected that two frames of Ororo Monroe in a headscarf and choker would dominate modern students’ take on their work. And yet it can, and will: it’s a sign—as casual as such things often are—that white supremacy is everywhere, that you can’t dig very far into any story without finding some trace of the horrors and crimes on which the West was built.
Storm-- Ororo Munroe—is surely the most famous Black female superhero, and has been since the early 1980s. With her literally planet-shaping (see Planet-Sized X-Men ) [https://www.polygon.com/comics/22537362/x-men-planet-size-marvel-comics-universe] weather control, her status as an Omega Level mutant, and her history as a local goddess and a Wakandan queen, she’s also been the most powerful Black woman in the Marvel comics universe, both in political and in physical terms. Other characters admire and trust her, as a mother-figure, a best friend, or a romantic and sexual ideal. She is, as one podcast has it, “better than you and always will be.” [https://www.xplainthexmen.com/tag/this-might-be-jays-favorite-cold-open-to-date/] She also lives, most of the time, in mostly white spaces, and works with a mostly white team, written, when she’s in a starring role, mostly by white creators (Eric Jerome Dickey, Marjorie Liu and Greg Pak are the exceptions). Is she a role model? Can she be? Is that page from Uncanny X-Men 133 an outlier? Or does it illustrate her consistent failure to do what Black women need and demand?
Chesya Burke says she’s largely a failure. Her new study of Storm, in the comics and in the X-Men films, argues with consistency and clarity that Ororo Munroe has been, almost always, confined to stereotypes that keep Black people (real and fictional) subordinate: stories about Storm display her “containment.” Much of the book—the first fifty pages—does not cover Storm directly. Instead, citing such titans of African American studies as Hazel Carby and bell hooks, Burke introduces major concepts from the study of race and racism, showing how “those with power often use it to create harmful stereotypes against those without power.’  Black women characters fit invidious tropes: the nurturing, asexual, older mammy; the sexually threatening jezebel; the magical Negro, there to inspire white characters; the strong Black woman, “taking care of the community”  without complaining. Citing Anna Saini, Burke lists three more “dominant stereotypes that Black women inhabit within comic books” (that is, company-owned superhero comics): “the quiet queen,” close to nature; “the dominant diva,” impulsive, perhaps revolutionary; and “the scandalous soujourner,” “often the center of a cautionary tale.” 
It’s easy to find, in the comics, panels or plots that match most of these roles. Often Storm shows up as a strong, “magical” or maternal supporting character, what Burke calls “the spiritual Negro woman.”  Burke’s take on Storm supports the much broader critique provided by Allan Austin and Patrick Hamilton’s All New All Different? Race in American Superhero Comics (2019), which argues that company-owned cape comics, generally, have not done as they should. Burke’s argument might also feed the persuasive take on Storm advanced by andre carrington in Speculative Blackness (2016). For carrington, “it becomes useful to interpret the story of Storm as a negation of the negations involved in constructing Black womanhood as a figment of the normative imagination.” [carrington 91] Certain moments and plots in comic books about Storm, written and drawn largely or wholly by white people, cannot present Black women’s lived experience, but those moments and plots (so carrington argues) can negate, complicate, or overwrite the harmful stereotypes that the comics also display.
Storm is, at first, in Len Wein and Dave Cockrum’s Giant Size X-Men 1 (1975), an “African” “magical Negro,” in touch with the land and governing “primitive” tribes: as Burke rightly says, this earliest appearance makes Storm “the ‘good’ Black woman who is wild and needs to be.. brought down from her own high ideas of herself,” by Charles Xavier, a white dude.  In 1980s stories written by Chris Claremont, however, Ororo “is auditioning for various performances of race, gender and power.” [carrington 107] Within these comics Storm finds affinities with (and in fact flirts with) the Japanese anti-hero Yukio. She battles, and then befriends, a leader of underground outcast mutants, Calisto. She proves her courage, in the famous “Lifedeath” (Uncanny X-Men 186), after she loses her weather powers (which she would later regain). And in Uncanny X-Men 180 she tells the teenage white mutant Kitty Pryde, who’s shocked by Storm’s new punk rock appearance, “I am not—must not be—your mother… I must keep learning, striving to find my true self… I must live my life as I see fit.” As carrington says, Claremont’s Storm is not “a coherent vision of Black womanhood,” and cannot be—but she can grow and change.  Burke mentions neither Austin and Hamilton, nor carrington: of her five case studies—Giant-Size; Storm (1996); Ororo: Before the Storm (2005); Astonishing X-Men: Storm (2006); and Storm (2014)— none come from the seventeen-year Claremont run. (Burke promises to discuss “Lifedeath,” but never does). 
It is obviously not for me—a white woman-- to say that a Black woman should feel empowered when she does not, or see empowerment where she does not. As Burke says, Marvel should hire Black women to write Storm: it’s a shame and a scandal that the company has not done so already. Burke’s caustic take on the Fox X-Men-films includes delightful, and accurate, quips: “Jean Grey is the ultimate Karen.”  “Xavier is the villain.”  (Hero Me Not spells her name as Gray, and Mystique as “Mystic,” over and over: [103, 104, 105, 106, 108, 111] all authors make errors—this one’s on the editors.) I see no way and no reason to defend the treatment of Storm in these films, where she’s “simply irrelevant,”  comparatively “silent and seemingly less powerful” (to quote Burke) than in X-comics. 
That said, after re-reading carrington, and re-reading a stack of Storm-centric X-comics, I found myself wondering what Burke would make of comics she does not discuss. For example, Burke opines: “Black woman superheroes, such as Storm, are not offered the sexual freedom that their white female counterparts are given.”  In X-Men comics, at least, I’m not sure that’s true: consider Storm’s thrilling courtship in all but name with Yukio; her troubled, soap-operatic romance with Forge; and her much-remarked tension with Callsto, recapitulated in a much later story by Claremont and Igor Kordy, X-Treme X-Men: Storm; The Arena, which ends with Ororo, Yukio and Calisto in a hot tub. She’s also been the sexual ideal, the unattainable perfect woman, for charismatic villains as diverse as Dr. Doom, Loki and Dracula, all of whom try, and fail, to make her their queen.
When Storm has a sex or romance problem in X-comics, it’s one also faced—alas-- by highly successful women in real life: few potential partners are her intellectual, social or physical equal. T’Challa, the Black Panther, is one of the few: Burke discusses their courtship (in Astonishing X-Men: Storm, written by Eric Jerome Dickey) but not their divorce. I also wonder how Burke’s view of Storm as a figure subordinated to mutant causes would hold up in “Lifedeath,” where Ororo has lost her powers, breaks up with Forge, calls him (in essence) a tool of Western industrial patriarchy, and walks away from the superhero life: “my feet may never leave the ground,” she resolves, “but someday I will fly again.” If Storm does conform to a consistent stereotype about Black women, all the way through Claremont’s seventeen-year run, it’s the one where non-black fans expect Black omnicompetence: compare the real-life reverence, among non-black listeners, for another queen, Beyoncé.
Is it OK for a queen to be wrong? That’s the question writer Greg Pak and penciller Victor Ibañez ask in Storm (2014) no. 1, which Burke does discuss: here a mutant teen named Marisol wants to quit the X-Men’s school and go home to her family in Mexico. Storm tries to argue her out of it, fails, and creates an indoor rainstorm out of frustration. Burke finds that in encouraging loyalty to a science fictional group (mutants) over a real one, Ororo is “conforming to whiteness and invoking white supremacist ideas.”  But Ororo draws the same conclusion: Storm brings the girl back to Mexico and to her mother, and leaves without trying to get her to return. Storm was wrong to recruit other people, especially people of color, into a project they may not share: that’s Pak’s point, and Ororo’s realization that she blew it drives the story.
Burke asks not only for figures of survival, for story arcs involving pathos and pain, but for figures of Black women’s power as such. Dickey’s Astonishing X-Men: Storm fails because “many images of Black women other than Storm in this series are negative.”  Pak and Ibañez’s Storm (2014) reveals “several positive aspects of the character”; she displays sexual agency and cares for children without becoming either a jezebel or a mammy.  Still, she chooses to care for mutants, and for the Earth, rather than attending to “her people.”  “Because Storm is Black, working with the X-Men is repressive because she is supporting the very status quo that is oppressing her as a Black woman.”  She should, she must, overthrow that status quo instead: anything less is containment, or complicity.
Here Burke makes not so much an argument against particular portrayals of Storm but an argument that Black characters, perhaps any nonwhite characters, or disabled characters, or even trans characters, should not be superheroes at all: protection against external, criminal, and science fictional threats (what superheroes normally provide) is at worst betrayal, at best inadequate. Storm “is not a threat to white America,” and she should be.  Fictional heroes with exceptional powers who belong to subaltern groups should either overthrow that status quo themselves, or work directly for its overthrow, or else work primarily within their group. X-comics have heroes, and anti-heroes, and villains, who try to do so: Sunfire quits the X-Men (more than once) to protect Japan; Magneto wants to protect all, and only, mutants. But Storm wants to protect, where she can, her friends, her students, and then the whole world, including mutants and humans, Kenya and Mexico and Quebec and Detroit. On the one hand, Burke writes, “Storm is not ‘free’ and she likely never will be until she is re-envisioned by Black female creators,” as she should be.  On the other hand, “in the comics, Storm is given the space to find love, fight for her Black community, and make decisions… in a way that is almost unimaginable for the film version.”  That’s Burke’s verdict, too: maybe that has to be enough.
Stephanie Burt is a Professor of English at Harvard University