Detroit is often boiled down in popular culture to one of three things: Motown,
the Motor City, or the Murder Capital. But in Saladin Ahmed’s Abbott series of comic books for BOOM! Studios, Detroit is portrayed as a regular, complex place where actual people live and work — albeit a place besieged by a mystical demon called the Umbra.
Set in the early 1970s, the comic focuses on Elena Abbott, a chain-smoking Black reporter who has visions of a dark force that only she can see. It’s killing people in the city, then turning their torsos into murderous centaurs.
The first five-issue miniseries, which was collected into a single edition, came out in 2018. But Elena is back this month with the first issue of Abbott: 1973, which picks up a year after the last series ended, with a plot that feels analogous to modern-day America. Detroit is about to elect a Black mayor, but lie-filled, racist propaganda flyers — the Facebook of 1973 — start appearing around the city to disparage the candidate and his supporters. Abbott suspects these mysterious messages have some connection to the Umbra, but she’s not sure how.
At the end of the first series, Abbott slowly realizes she’s the Lightbringer, the only one capable of defeating the Umbra, and in 1973 she seems to have gained actual powers, which means she no longer has to rely on her camera flash or a cigarette lighter as she did in the first series to temporarily vanquish the Umbra (light kills dark). So that makes her an actual superhero now.
In Abbott, Ahmed writes about Detroit with an insider’s knowledge, which is not surprising considering he grew up in Dearborn and still lives in the area. In the second issue of Abbott, in order to get to Hamtramck faster, Elena takes a shortcut through the “Eastern Industrial Zone,” which is a stand-in for the Packard Plant and its bridge spanning East Grand Boulevard. Series editor Eric Harburn is also from southeast Michigan, so he and Ahmed are able to feed Finnish artist Sami Kivelä all sorts of Detroit details to include in his art, which results in nods such as the signage for the long-gone Woolworth store on Woodward Avenue, or having Elena pass the old Detroit News and Free Press buildings on West Lafayette Boulevard on her way to work.
While Abbott and Abbott: 1973 are mysteries of a sort, these are not Loren D. Estleman- or Elmore Leonard-style Detroit crime tales. They are fantastical fiction stories, first and foremost, which is Ahmed’s strength as a wordsmith. He’s also the writer of two other ongoing comics series, Miles Morales: Spider-Man and The Magnificent Ms. Marvel, but Ahmed first made his name as a science-fiction author: His debut novel,
Throne of the Crescent Moon, was a finalist for the 2012 Nebula Award and
the 2013 Hugo Award.
Layered amid the mysteries and the supernatural horror, Ahmed uses the Abbott books to explore politics and society, with flawed characters who aren’t cartoonish stereotypes. Elena has a supportive but unwittingly sexist white editor at the fictional Detroit Daily newspaper, and later, an outright sexist Black boss at the Detroit Chronicle (also fictional, but the name is a nod to the weekly African American journal Michigan Chronicle). She has a pining ex-husband cop whom she calls on for help with her investigations, but Elena’s still in love with a disappeared man named Samir, who only appears to her as a ghost. Then there’s her current love interest, Amelia, who used to work for a crime family called the Randazzo Brothers.
It’s a nuanced cast of characters, which gives the supernatural Abbott books a real-world feel, even if it’s one beset by devils.
A Super Glass Ceiling
Elena Abbott isn’t the first superhero with Detroit origins: Eric Draven (The Crow), Eric Brooks (Blade), John Stewart (Green Lantern), Jason Rusch (Firestorm), Victor Stone (Cyborg), and John Henry Irons (Steel) also hail from the city. And Abbott isn’t the first comic to be set in Detroit, either: The Crow and Blade are the two biggest examples, and the Justice League Detroit team, while it never had a stand-alone comic, was featured in a number of stories that are now collected in Justice League: The Detroit Era Omnibus. But Elena is the first female superhero with Detroit origins. That she’s Black and bisexual just adds to her unique status in the superhero comic world’s mostly straight, white