I’ve always resisted the popular comparison of single mothers to superheroes. It’s well-intentioned, meant to affirm the rigorous multitasking required to raise a child well without much help from others. But “single moms are superheroes” comes with the unintended implication that we’re impervious to the constant tolls that parenting takes, as though we’re able to leap loneliness in a single bound or effortlessly afford emergency expenses on one salary or suppress the need to cry so that no one will suspect we find single parenting difficult, least of all our children. Despite what our carefully cultivated grinning-mom-and-kid Instagram feeds suggest to our families and friends, none of this is true. If I claim to be a superhero, then my true identity — the one defined by my candor and vulnerability — would be something I’ve agreed to hide. When asked how I manage unmarried motherhood, I have a few responses: by the skin of my teeth, a wing and a prayer, the favor of God, dumb luck. “Superpowers” never occur to me.
When Dennis Liu’s new comic book series, “Raising Dion,” made waves last week with the debut of an incredible trailer featuring a black single mother, Nicole, and her superpowered 7-year-old, Dion, I was thrilled. In the trailer, Nicole is harried, overwhelmed, adoring, protective, fatigued and still clever enough to outwit her exceptional child. But the lines aren’t blurred: He’s the only one with superpowers here. She’s just a woman trying to be his protector, educator and moral compass. It’s a huge feat and, mostly, she’s managing it. But she isn’t stoic about it. Her exasperation is palpable.
The first issue of “Raising Dion,” available for free download at Liu’s Web site, delivers on the trailer’s promise to render Nicole a three-dimensional character by introducing her backstory. First, the comic opens with a few panes of her present-day narration: “Being a single parent is already one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. But when your son has superpowers that’s a whole new set of problems.” From the beginning, Liu is embracing accurate language to describe many single parents’ experiences: hardest, problems.
But if Nicole were just a beleaguered parent without a partner, she’d fall into the other trap of black single-mom media representations: sexless, overworked and silently long-suffering. Think Loretta Devine’s Gloria in the beginning scenes of 1995’s “Waiting to Exhale,” Diahann Carroll’s eponymous character in the 1974 film “Claudine,” and Angela Bassett’s Brenda in 2008’s “Meet the Browns,” all willing to swallow their lots in life with as much grace as they can muster.
Instead, the first issue of “Raising Dion” flashes back to 2009, when Nicole first meets Mark, Dion’s dad. She’s hung-over, having gone clubbing before heading into work as a receptionist at Biona, where Mark is a researcher. Nicole is witty, sarcastic and sexy. The story tracks the first year of her relationship with Mark, and it’s fun, carefree and physically expressive. Her pregnancy is unplanned and, in an interesting twist, it appears to predate the marriage that the “Raising Dion” trailer tells us is coming.
At Fusion, writer Charles Pulliam-Moore explains that Liu’s decision to make Nicole and Dion black was intentional: “In addition to directing music videos, Liu serves as union director for the Eastern Diversity Steering Committee’s diversity council. He said that the editorial choice to make Nicole and Dion black was in direct response to the growing need (and demand) for superhero stories told from different perspectives.”
The interview goes on to suggest that race will be explicitly discussed as it relates to Nicole’s parenting decisions. In the first issue, we learn she’s raising Dion in the woods of Hamilton County, N.Y., where he presumably runs less risk of being profiled or targeted than he would as a special-needs child in the city.
While this all promises to be thematically riveting, I’m most grateful for Liu’s decision to center Nicole as the story’s narrator and to flesh out her pre-mothering life. By the end of the comic’s first issue, we know Nicole, not just as a parent but as a person. It’s a consideration too few single mothers are afforded.