For all my problems with Genius #1, written by Marc Bernardin and Adam Freeman and drawn Afua Richardson, I can’t fault it for its ambition.
There’s been a lot of conversation recently about diversity in comics, or more specifically the lack thereof. Whatever your stance on the issue, you can’t deny that the numbers don’t lie: most comics are created by white dudes, about white dudes, and bought by white dudes. If you look back at sales figures for single issues in July of this year, you’ll find that the top ten best-selling comics for the month consisted of four books with white dude leads, three ensemble books consisting mostly of white dudes, one featuring a Latino man (Miguel O’Hara in Spider-man 2099), one starring woman (Harley Quinn), and one with a raccoon. And this is actually a pretty diverse month compared to the average. If you look as far back as, I dunno, forever, you’ll see this ratio swings even more toward white dude-centric titles (trade paperbacks seem to fare a little better).
One of the summer’s biggest news stories was Marvel’s announcement of its new Avengers Now line of books, which will give us a black Captain America and a female Thor, so this diversity thing does seem to be gaining a little mainstream traction at least (though I’ve barely heard a peep about Greg Pak’s Storm solo-series, which is awesome; they didn’t mention that shit on The View).
But as excited as I am for all this diversity, these comics are still written and drawn by white dudes. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially since they’re all creative teams I happen to like, but they’re still not as diverse as Marvel would have you believe. But Genius is the real deal. Created by a predominantly-black team, Genius stars a black girl named Destiny and is surrounded by a mostly black cast. And not only that, but Destiny, a teenager with the mind of a brilliant tactician, has united all the gangs of Los Angeles to wage war against the notoriously racist LAPD. A comic about a black teen who uses her incredible intellect to kill cops? Now that’s bold.
You may notice that I’m spending a lot of time talking about things relating to Genius without actually telling you what I think of the book itself. That’s because I’m much more interested in the stuff surrounding the comic than the comic itself. Sadly, Genius just isn’t very good.
First, let’s look at the cover. While the actual line work and coloring are great, the content is…problematic, to say the least. It depicts Destiny lying naked on the floor, posed seductively with police tape covering her legs, stomach, and breasts and pointing a gun at the reader. Now I can appreciate good cheesecake in my comics, but do you really think it’s appropriate to pose a 17 year-old girl like this? Why does she have to be naked? Why can’t we have a cover depicting her intelligence or her charisma or her strength? Why does it have to be her body?
The interior art is much better and doesn’t feature quite as much sexualization of underage girls. Richardson makes every character look unique and stylish, her angles and perspectives spice up otherwise mundane situations, and she has a great grasp of layouts. She could really use some work on backgrounds, however, which are messy and vague.
All the characters aside from our lead are pretty bland and unmemorable. Luckily, Destiny herself is pretty compelling. Her parents were killed in a police raid when she was very young, so she had to learn to live on the streets alone in order to survive. We then see a montage of her life up until the present, where she intentionally gets bad grades on tests in order to stay unnoticed, makes two close friends who would become her lieutenants, and finds interest in the game of chess where she sees that the most powerful is the queen. And all that stuff is totally fine, but it’s when you add the fact that Destiny is supposed to be the titular “genius” that things fall apart.
When a writer says “this character is a genius at *blank*”, there’s an expectation that this character be shown to be incredibly knowledgeable and competent in that particular area of expertise, whatever it may be. This can be tricky because very few people of any professions are actually geniuses, and that includes comic book writers. So when writing a character created to be many time smarter than yourself, of course you have to take a few liberties and there will most certainly be high levels of suspension of disbelief. We as the audience, just assume a certain amount of intelligence that we can’t comprehend. Unfortunately, for all song and dance Bernardin and Freeman act out trying to make the reader believe that Destiny is a prodigy, there’s one scene where the entire enterprise falls apart.
In a flashback, we’re shown how Destiny became the leader of the Los Angeles gangs. She gets her boyfriend, the leader of gang himself to call together all the others into a warehouse for a meeting about a possible alliance. After Destiny calls the heads of all the gangs forward, she proceeds to shoot each of them in the face (including her boyfriend) and declares herself the new woman in charge. And I guess everyone just goes along with it? None of the friends or family members of the deceased gang members try to retaliate against Destiny for killing them in cold-blood? Nobody hesitates to join a person who just killed her significant other in exchange for power? Nope, nothing. I mean, maybe all of that did happen, but if it did we don’t see it because we immediately cut back to the present. The flashback should have shown us how a brilliant mind can come from nothing and fly through the ranks of an organization to take control. Instead the scene only showed me that Destiny was smart enough to sleep with the right guy and fire a pistol.
If you really, and I mean really, care about diversity in comics, then I would give this series a shot. If you want diversity but would rather not buy this comic, please check out the Storm series I mentioned. I’ve also heard good things about that new Watson and Holmes from New Paradigm Studios which reimagines the duo as a pair of black private detectives in Harlem. But if you’re looking for a solid story in its own right, I’d say you can do a lot better than Genius.