The tale begins, as so many in birding do, with a pair of binoculars. In DC Comics’ Represent! #1, Jules, a young Black man with an interest in birds receives the binoculars from his father, who claims they have special powers. And they do: In the drifting, impressionistic 10-page story that follows, the binoculars show Jules a parade of faces along with each bird he spots: Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and other Black men and women killed by police. At one point, while walking through the park, a white woman letting her dog run wild reacts violently to Jules’ request for her to leash it.
If that part sounds familiar, it should: The comic's writer is Christian Cooper, the birder whose filmed Memorial Day encounter with a white woman over an unleashed dog ended with her calling 911 and claiming that an “African-American man” was threatening her. Later that same day, George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on his neck. Both incidents have had far-reaching impacts. Cooper’s experience shone a bright light on the daily acts of racism Black people face while also inspiring Black Birders Week, a virtual event showcasing Black scientists, researchers, and nature enthusiasts. Floyd’s death sparked months of ongoing protests against systemic racism and police killings, and a flurry of symbolic changes in cultural spaces, including birding. Now Cooper’s story, It’s a Bird, ties the two events together explicitly—in a medium itself that has a very mixed record when it comes to Black representation.
Cooper has history with the comics industry: In the 1990s, he was a writer and editor at Marvel Comics, as well as the company’s first openly gay editorial employee. He handled scripting duties on various issues of Marvel Comics Presents and the X-Men spinoff Excalibur, and he was an editor for issues of the comic Alpha Flight that introduced Marvel’s first openly gay character, Northstar. Cooper left the business in 1996, quit reading comics, and is now a senior editorial director at Health Science Communications.
But comics, like birding, have a way of getting their hooks into you. According to an interview published on DCComics.com, DC executives Marie Javins and Bobbie Chase approached Cooper about writing a comics story that reflected his Central Park experience. Cooper, who is a New York City Audubon board member, was initially skeptical that DC—or superhero comics in general—was the place for such a story. But DC suggested the title It’s a Bird, a reference to the famous opening of the 1940s Superman radio show: “Up in the Sky! Look! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Superman!” Cooper’s script flowed from the title, and the story was brought to sketchy, emotive life by penciler Alitha E. Martinez, inker Mark Morales, and colorist Emilio Lopez.
Represent #1, which is free to read on digital platforms, is the first installment of a series that aims to present works by creators traditionally sidelined in mainstream comics, particularly those who are non-white, queer, or both. The magical realist story of It’s a Bird, Cooper told the New York Times, is woven together from his personal experiences and the deaths in the news reports. But aside from the headline-grabbing reference to Amy Cooper, the (unrelated) white dog owner from Cooper’s Central Park encounter, the comic emphasizes the magic binoculars themselves, passed down from generation to generation. “In real life, the binoculars that I use were a birthday gift from my dad, who was very active in the Civil Rights movement, and was a Korean War vet,” Cooper said. “All of these real elements combine with these fantastical elements to create something that is more than the sum of its parts, I hope. That’s something that comics do so magnificently well.”
Something the mainstream comics industry has not done magnificently well, however, is hiring Black talent, whether they be writers, artists, or editors. DC’s relaunch of the comics company Milestone, originally established by a coalition of Black writers and artists, languished for years after the initial 2008 announcement. And Marvel’s launch of a series of covers riffing on classic hip-hop album art raised eyebrows among Black critics, who pointed out how few Black creators worked at the company at the time. When companies do hire Black creators, they often don’t invest in them.
“Everybody who I do know in comics that is Black, and is trying to sustain or maintain or even break into a career, talks about how hard it is to feel like you actually can grow in the medium,” says journalist and comics writer Evan Narcisse (Rise of the Black Panther). "I’ve had long established black artists tell me that somewhere along the line they became a 'black artist' and only got calls about Black characters.”
Narcisse credits the new Represent! series and Cooper’s one-off story as a nice gesture. But he also hopes DC follows it up by creating solid, ongoing working relationships with a diverse array of Black talent on series that aren’t limited to only Black characters or themes like racial injustice. In his own experience, Narcisse says it’s been frustrating to watch Black creators not get the same support and career opportunities as white colleagues.
Cooper acknowledges the industry's representation issues, but he also thinks it's improved. "In terms of creators, there's been a slow but I think somewhat steady coloring up of the creators even in mainstream comics,” he told Audubon. “I think change in birding has been much slower. I think comics are actually ahead of birding in terms of recognizing demographic change, adapting to demographic change."
When it comes to the future, though, his optimism is much more measured. "I’ve lived through this before—so many of us have,” he says. “Some unarmed innocent Black person gets shot dead by the police for no good reason, we protest in droves, people pay lip service, things calm down, nothing changes. And then we're right back where we started again."
As a project, It’s a Bird ends on a similar note of bittersweet clarity: Jules walking away from the woman threatening him, her words dwindling into nothing before the shapes of people like Tamir Rice and Amadou Diallo. All of them flying upward on pale wings, and a final caption that resonates for fans of comics and birds alike: Look, up in the sky.