Political reality finally inserted itself into the blissfully insulated world of San Diego Comic-Con. The Trump baby balloon bounced across the street from the convention center in San Diego’s Gaslamp district. The Magicians actor Jade Tailor wore a “Close the Camps” shirt during her season 5 panel. Sen. Cory Booker cruised through and AOC comics were for sale.
Yet, searching the sprawling convention floor, you’d be hard-pressed to find imagery more politically relevant—or subversive—than the nine-foot-high poster for LaGuardia, a new graphic novel from African futurism writer Nnedi Okorafor. A pregnant Nigerian-American woman in a bright blue dress, fist raised and locks flowing like a banner, leads a bridge-closing protest shoulder-to-tentacle with extraterrestrial beings. Their picket signs demand rights for aliens, both human and of off-world origin.
After a single-issue run, Dark Horse Comics released the final, collected volume during last week’s San Diego Comic-Con. LaGuardia depicts an alternative present, where first contact with aliens is made in Lagos in 2010. The protagonist Future Nwafor Chukwuebuka is modeled both in appearance and biography after the author herself. After living for several years in Nigeria, Future returns to the United States to illegally transport a plant-based alien escaping civil war through New York’s LaGuardia airport. Once in the city, she reconnects with her grandmother, an immigration attorney for people of all planetary origins. Before too long, the government announces a travel ban.
“You have a world where aliens have come, and they’re not trying to kill us and eat us and take our resources. They’ve become Earthlings,” Okarofor says. “Some human beings react wonderfully to it, or some human beings just are cool with it, and then others can’t deal with it. And then we have the United States becoming more conservative because of it.”
It’s not unusual for science fiction to anticipate reality, but it’s remarkable how every page of LaGuardia seems only 30 seconds ahead of the horrors playing out in the headlines, from DNA testing and social media vetting at the nation’s entry points to the chant of “send her back” at the president’s recent North Carolina rally. LaGuardia explores the concept of human-only discrimination at hospitals; meanwhile, Democratic presidential candidates discussed healthcare for undocumented immigrants in their first televised debate.
“It’s disturbing, but at the same time, it feels great, because I feel like I’ve tapped into the pulse of something,” Okorafor says.
Yet this is a story that she has been working on for years.
“Issues of immigration, issues of identity, all these things, they’re not new, and they’ve been there for a long time,” she says.
Okorafor talks and writes from experience. The graphic novel introduces Future through an extended scene at LaGuardia, where she queues up for screening along with aliens of all shapes and sizes, as well as a little white girl who yanks on her locks. At the checkpoint, she is pulled aside for a second screening by a security guard who asks invasive questions about whether the baby in her belly is human. The confrontation is ripped straight from an incident in 2009, when a TSA officer at LaGuardia took Okorafor to a private room to squeeze each of her four-and-a-half-foot locks for hidden contraband. Preoccupied with her hair, the officer missed the bottle of pepper spray that Okorafor had forgotten to remove from her bag. In LaGuardia, that misdirection allows the character to carry the alien through, undetected.
As an author, Okorafor travels a lot, and it’s become clear to her that airport and border crossings are more about control than safety.
“It’s the space between, a place of contention, a place of displacement, a place of fear, a place of identity,” she says. “It’s where you become very aware of all the things that you are and what they mean, in the context of where you are. And depending on who you are, that place can feel very hot or it can feel very chill.”
San Diego Comic-Con can also be such a space, where creators contemplate who they are and where they are in their careers. In earlier chapters of her life, Okorafor was a semi-pro tennis player and later earned a PhD from the University of Illinois, Chicago, before becoming an award-collecting novelist. Okorafor has been attending Comic-Con on-and-off since 2010, wheb she was a speaker on “The Black Panel,” a forum for raising the profile of Black entertainment. This year was her first returning as a comic-book author.
In addition to writing LaGuardia for Dark Horse’s imprint Berger Books, Okorafor was tapped by Marvel to write Black Panther: Long Live the King and a spin-off about the Wakandan princess Shuri. In coming Comic-Cons, she may be back with even more prominent projects: she’s adapting Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed for Amazon and HBO is developing her novel Who Fears Death, with Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin as a producer.
“I am in chaos, organized chaos, wonderful, glorious, organized chaos,” Okorafor says.
One could draw a straight line from Okorafor and LaGuardia to comics pioneer Will Eisner (after whom Comic-Con’s awards are named) and his 1978 medium-defining graphic novel, A Contract with God. Okorafor pulled the book off a university library shelf at random, without knowing it was a graphic novel, and was immediately transfixed by the blending of prose and images.
“But also it was telling this immigrant story, especially about Jews,” Okorafor says of A Contract with God, “and coming from a family of immigrants, my parents being immigrants, I could relate so well to that. And so this was a book that I read over and over and over again for years.”
That’s how Karen Berger, the editor who oversees Dark Horse’s Berger Book imprint, remembers Okorafor pitching the project: “A Contract with God, but with aliens in an African American community.” In Berger’s mind, Eisner raised the bar by writing stories for adults based on his own experiences as the child of immigrants.
“The best works are when people have a personal connection, and there’s something about a writer’s past, or the writer’s personality, the writer’s passions in the character they write about,” Berger says. “As a piece of immigrant fiction, LaGuardia really fills that space.”
LaGuardia is also about resistance, in all its forms, whether it be protesting, legal work, or holding the line within the system.
“There are many ways of fighting the battle and battles happen on multiple fronts, all at the same time,” Okorafor says. This year, San Diego Comic-Con became one of them.