“What if everything you believed about the world turned out to be wrong? If we truly opened our eyes, what would we see?”
These are the questions you hear in the opening scene of the new superhero drama “Naomi,” premiering Tuesday on the CW. The voice belongs to the titular character, a bespectacled Black teenage girl who gradually comes into focus as she gazes into a mirror.
It’s your first glimpse of the latest in a line of derring-doers who are challenging notions about what a superpowered champion can look like. If you still believe that only chisel-chinned men can save the day, she’s about to open your eyes to other possibilities.
Based on the DC comic books written by Brian Michael Bendis and David F. Walker, the series follows the adventures of Naomi McDuffie, a 17-year-old girl whose life takes an extraordinary turn after an otherworldly event lights up the sky in her small town. With a Black teen lead, played by the actress Kaci Walfall, and two female creators — Ava DuVernay directed the series and co-wrote its 13 episodes with the writer and producer Jill Blankenship — the show stands out as a departure from the comic book world’s predominately white and male-centered standard.
DuVernay said she sees “Naomi” as “a gateway to a new generation and a new cadre of comic book fans,” and it is not alone. The teen hero is one of several young female comic characters who are taking center stage in their own adventures in 2022, and the arrival of each fresh face is primed to open that gateway a little wider.
This summer, Disney Channel will present the animated antics of a Black teen mega-genius named Lunella Lafayette (voiced by the singer and actress Diamond White), in the new series “Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur.” Also slated for this summer is “Ms. Marvel” on Disney+, which follows Kamala Khan, a 16-year-old Pakistani American Muslim girl with shape-shifting powers (played by the actress Iman Vellani).
“Naomi” isn’t the CW’s first effort to diversify the superhero genre. The network’s DC-based series “Black Lightning,” which wrapped up in May, portrayed a Black crime fighter (played by Cress Williams) who teamed up with his superhuman daughters to battle evil. The second season of “Batwoman,” which premiered last year, featured a Black character named Ryan Wilder (played by Javicia Leslie) in the title role.
But it might be the most relatable one to date. In a phone interview, Blankenship noted that “Naomi” is as much a coming-of-age story as an action adventure. “When we meet her, she is basically just a regular human girl,” she said.
At first glance, Naomi is an everyday teen who hangs at skate parks and obsesses over comic books. Viewers soon learn that she is a military brat whose adoptive parents have moved her from place to place, resulting often in her being the only Black girl in school (or in town, in some cases).
“My whole life has been about being different,” she confides to a friend in the second episode.
Now settled in the fictitious Port Oswego, Ore., the congenial brainiac has become popular among students and teachers alike. (DuVernay describes her as “a Black girl Ferris Bueller.”) She juggles extracurricular clubs and weekend house parties with her duties as the host of a high-traffic Superman fan site.
As one would-be suitor says, Naomi is “fly but into nerdy stuff.” But after she learns about a surprising connection to her superhero idol that exceeds mere fandom, she starts to question everything she thought she knew about herself and about the world around her.
“She doesn’t put on a super suit by the end of the first episode — it’s about a journey,” Blankenship said. She added that the character’s familiar aspects will let “young women and kids of all ages and walks of life see themselves in her, and feel like they are included on this journey.”
“Naomi” is Blankenship’s third page-to-screen adaptation for DC. She wrote and produced the final two seasons of “Arrow,” the original anchor of the CW’s superhero lineup, as well as the 2021 Netflix series “Sweet Tooth,” based on a comic published by DC’s now-defunct Vertigo imprint.
It is the first of several comics adaptations for DuVernay, who signed an overall deal in 2018 with Warner Bros. Television, the parent company of DC Entertainment. She first caught an early glimpse of the comic book artist Jamal Campbell’s drawings of Naomi shortly before the first issue was published in 2019. Without knowing a thing about her back story, DuVernay felt “an instant connection,” she said. She saw a hairstyle that mirrored her own natural locks adorned with gold bands and a character with a down-to-earth name that also happens to be the middle name of her younger sister Jina.
For Walfall, 17, landing the role has been a daydream come true. “Supergirl” was her favorite TV show in middle school and she remembers being in awe of Gal Gadot when “Wonder Woman” hit theaters in 2017.
“I loved seeing a woman in power,” said Walfall, a Brooklyn native, adding that back then, she didn’t think it was even possible for people like her to audition for such roles.
“To be a teenager and a girl, people are going to underestimate you,” she said. “But what I love about Naomi is she doesn’t let that hold her back, and I think that is reflective of me. She’s just determined. She’s still going to push because she knows that’s what she needs to do.”
DuVernay has also had to stay determined since first attempting to break into the comics world. In 2018, she was hired to direct “New Gods,” a feature film about the extraterrestrial DC characters of the same name, but Warner Bros. pulled the plug in early 2021. “Naomi” has provided a different way in, as will “DMZ,” a limited series based on the dystopian comic, scheduled to air on HBO Max later this year; DuVernay directed the pilot and executive produced.
With every new comics-focused announcement, she has noticed a significant social media backlash — a persistent phenomenon that seems to rear its head any time women claim prime space in the male-dominated superhero and sci-fi realms. “All I have to do is open my Twitter and get hit with the vitriol, the hate, the horrible comments, the profanity, the real abusive stuff,” DuVernay said.
“Those voices are really loud,” she added. But “I’ve never let that meanspirited part dampen my love of comics.”
DuVernay didn’t grow up reading comic books. Her first exposure came in college. “I didn’t know how to start reading them, which one to start with,” she said. “None of those folks looked like me. I didn’t feel a part of that world — the stores, the fandom and the conventions.”
That kind of accessibility is built into the “Naomi” experience. Naomi is a new character who is not tied to the story lines of the decades’ worth of DC heroes who came before her, so fledgling comic fans can get in on the ground floor.
“She is the center of the Naomi-verse,” DuVernay said.
And for those Black girls searching for a character who looks like them — someone to excite their young imaginations, to give them cosplay inspiration or to jump-start a newfound appreciation for comic books — Naomi could be the one.
“We’re very special, and we have power within us,” Walfall said. “I hope that Black girls will see that in themselves and know that we are so much bigger than we sometimes think we are.”