Wednesday, February 28, 2018

"I believe hate is wasted potential." Black Panther Annual #1 (2018) review

As a fan of Christopher Priest's writing, these last few years have been kind of funny - like, the comic book industry not only remembered he was in their rolodex but, oh yeah, also one of the best plotters & scripters in the medium! It all began with Q2: The Return of Quantum & Woody; then DC Comics brought him in on Deathstroke, to which he brought the same dizzying complex plots his Black Panther consisted of; Marvel Comics then put him on Inhumans: Once and Future Kings and DC even handed him the Justice League, the sort of prestige assignment he had always been denied in the past.

Last week Marvel Comics published Black Panther Annual #1 to profit from the release of Ryan Coogler's Black Panther movie. While Ta-Nehisi Coates continues to write the ongoing Black Panther series, this annual features three short tales by three previous series scribes.

First up is Christopher Priest himself with "Back in Black." Unfortunately, Priest was not reunited with his old art team (despite Sal Velluto & Bob Almond's continued love for the series), but was instead partnered with the exceptional Mike Perkins. Perkins' heavy lines and photorealism bring to mind the art by Mark Texeira which began Priest's Black Panther, rendering Perkins an excellent choice. The story is narrated by Everett K. Ross, Priest's narrator from his stories. It concerns a Wakandan courier being killed in New York and Ross being pursued by Malice & White Wolf (two classic Priest baddies) who each assume Ross must be guarding the courier's delivery. Little do they know, Ross is no longer as close to T'Challa as he once was.

I feel there were many missed opportunities when Marvel went ahead with Black Panther comics without Priest, but at the top of my list was how Everett K. Ross was slighted, mostly ignored and mischaracterized by subsequent authors. Ross was such an integral part of Priest's Panther, not only in the humour he offered but in his gradual character development. Priest makes Ross' absence a virtue here, as his disconnect from T'Challa's world in recent years renders him vulnerable. The story even opens with a non-linear narration in the spirit of Priest & Texeira's first issue!

Dang it, Taku, now I'm weepy

The second star writer is Don McGregor, here paired with Daniel Acuña for "Panther's Heart." McGregor was the Black Panther's first solo feature author back in the 1970s and he dedicated this story to his "Panther's Rage" collaborators Rich Buckler & Billy Graham (but overlooked the also-deceased Gil Kane, plus Gene Colan of "Panther's Quest," which is also referenced in his story). The tale seems to be set in the present-day continuity of the series as T'Challa's girlfriend Monica Lynne dies of cancer while T'Challa grieves for her. For some reason, the credits page claims this story takes place in "an alternate past." Perhaps Marvel didn't want Monica killed off? Or someone noticed W'Kabi was in this story, despite dying in Hudlin's run? Anyway, it's a heartfelt story and it's particularly touching to see McGregor write Taku again; I really felt for Taku's gentle spirit back in "Panther's Rage."

Finally, Reginald Hudlin & Ken Lashley of the post-Priest Black Panther tell the shortest story (half the length of the other two) "Back to the Future Part II" as Hudlin basically tells a coda to his own Panther stories. Set in the future, it see T'Challa still married to Storm (an event from Hudlin's stories) and creating a brotherhood with mutants and Atlanteans while having killed major villains such as Dr. Doom & Magneto. I never responded to Hudlin's earlier stories and this tale likewise does nothing for me; I felt Hudlin made T'Challa too arrogant and this new tale follows that trend.

Anyway, this was a fine celebration of Black Panther's publishing history, particularly for Priest & McGregor fans. Check it out!

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

"But the power inside of me wouldn't let me stand still!" Startup #1.1-1.3 review

It seems like you can't swing a spinner rack without hitting some new comic book publisher who materialized from nowhere (and usually soon to return there). One of the newest is Sitcomics, who have an unusal distribution plan where they don't supply their comics through Diamond (the industry's monopoly) and release several issues at once so that readers can "binge" on them.

Of course, "binging" on comics doesn't quite work because readers have to pay as they go - unlike the binge model of Netflix where a one-time subscription gets you all the entertainment you desire (the binge equivalent in comics is Comixology Unlimited). But this doesn't really matter to me so long as the comics are good.

So far the only series I've tried out is Startup (issues #1.1-1.3). It's a super hero comic and exists in a shared universe with another of their books, The Blue Baron. The series is written by Darin Henry (previously unknown to me) and drawn by Craig Rousseau. Rousseau is a somewhat familiar name who has previously drawn books such as Ronin Hood of the 47 Samurai and Perhapanauts. Indeed, generally speaking Sitcomics draws from established artists but with writers who are new to the comics book industry - apparently all having come from the film/television industry.

Time and time again I have railed to my friends about how ruining it has been to the comics industry to be overrun with screenwriters who know nothing about comic book scripting. But I'm not going to repeat that rant for you - I am instead going to offer some kudos for Startup. It reads like the kind of super hero comic Tom DeFalco would have published in 1991, and I mean that as a honour.

The concept behind Startup is such a pure, Silver Age-flavoured idea. Renee Garcia-Gibson is a 300 pound single mother who works as a court stenographer. After consuming a diet drink which grants her superhuman speed, Renee discovers she can render herself slim and athletic through sheer willpower. Renee adopts the guise of 'Startup' and becomes a super hero, soon finding herself battling super villains and being invited to join the local super hero team. At first she tries to slim down at work so that she can be admired for her figure, but when Startup's enemies threaten her son, she realizes her 300-pound body will have to remain her secret identity.

Part of what makes this such a delightful Silver Age-type comic book are the familiar tropes of super hero fiction being revisited with humour and fun twists. Renee's love interest is handsome lawyer Dawson Miller, but she's blind to the obvious fact that he's shallow. Scenes of Renee crushing on Dawson are gently funny. But one way in which the series offers a fresh take on old tropes are the henchmen who pop up in isuse #1.1: 'The Cloud.' Introduced as 'the Uber for super villains,' the Cloud are normal civilians who put on costumes to help fight super heroes when convenient. It's a sharp, funny idea.

Startup is a fun book in the style of Silver Age comics such as Lee/Ditko's Amazing Spider-Man or Haney/Fradon's Metamorpho. Now that Marvel & DC are primarily interested in deconstructing their tropes, it's fun to discover a good ol' fashioned super hero comic told with wit and heart.

Monday, February 26, 2018

How to feel about emotions

Recently a friend saw something I had posted on Facebook and remarked, "You are the rare man who is in touch with his feelings." My kneejerk response was to gasp: "'Rare'?"

It's not that we men are unemotional - more that we tend to refrain from expressing emotions such as compassion or affection when dealing with other men. Those softer emotions will supposedly weaken us in the eyes of our peers, render us less-than-manly.

I am not always up front with my emotions; after all, I've been hurt in the past. I wear sardonicism like a suit of armor to defend myself. And yet, I'm considered sensitive; heck, here I am, writing a public blog post about emotions.

Part of what makes me quote unquote sensitive is my naiveté; I tend to default to my gut reactions in the spur of the moment and when I react that way, it tends to be very emotional. Given time to reflect on a statement I will begin to question its meaning, but in the moment I receive words at face value. It's only when I've prepared myself for a particular situation that I'm able to steel myself with a defensive quip or a sarcastic put-down (usually I put myself down; again, it's for defense).

Still, my default setting is to be genuine. I was raised by parents who each had public personas which I witnessed in church and private personas which I saw at home - and there wasn't much difference between the two. Part of my naiveté stems from that upbringing - that I was raised by emotionally honest people - maybe especially my emotionally honest father - and I often forget other people have had quite different upbringings than mine and will not necessarily respond to a kind word in the manner I would myself.

To this day I occasionally sit down with my relatives to talk about our feelings; I'd like to think we're pretty self-aware of how we respond to people and that we try to be sensitive.

As I say, when I among people I don't have a meaningful relationship with I will project a different attitude to defend myself from them. Sometimes I'm insensitive, even perceived as malicious because my humour alienates others. Regardless, there are certain situations where I do wear my heart on my sleeve. For a long time I was a withdrawn person who couldn't engage with people at all because I feared them. Now that I'm better-adjusted, what I respond to most strongly in others are the withdrawn people - the ones who I sense are distant, but yearn to be accepted. It's when I'm dealing with people such as they that I become genuine. I see in them the same hurts I struggled with and I want to help them. I have been dealt with generously, and now I want to be generous with others.

To sum up: yes, I have emotions. Try it out some time, being emotional beats the alternative.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Black Panther (2018) creator credits

As per usual, I have composed an (imperfect) list of creators who were responsible for elements seen in a new Marvel Cinematic Universe picture - this time, the newly-released Black Panther. My master list is kept here and your gentle corrections/additions are always welcome (and credited, natch!).

Thanks to Patrick D. Ryall for his addition!

Christopher Priest: co-creator of Black Panther wearing a costume with golden necklace and lined with Vibranium to serve as body armor with Vibranium soles which allow him to walk along walls and anti-metal claws in his fingertips; T'Challa wearing a beard; Everett K. Ross, a clever U.S. government agent who finds himself aiding the Black Panther; The Dora Milaje, warrior women who serve as bodyguards for T'Challa and speak the language Hausa; Okoye, a stoic member of the Dora Milaje, ally of Nakia, faithful to T'Challa; Nakia, an expressive member of the Dora Milaje, ally of Okoye; Zuri, a wise old Wakandan warrior, friend of T'Chaka, guardian of T'Challa; Kimoyo, Wakandan technology used in Black Panther's costume (Black Panther #1, 1998); Nakia's romantic feelings for T'Challa (Black Panther #3, 1999); A white man in Wakanda being dubbed 'White Wolf' (Black Panther #4, 1999); Everett K. Ross being drawn into turmoil within Wakanda to help defend T'Challa's reign (Black Panther #11, 1999); Erik Killmonger battling T'Challa for the Black Panther identity and succeeding (Black Panther #20, 2000); Wakanda's Panther God identified as the Egyptian goddess Bast; Erik Killmonger dressing in the Black Panther costume (Black Panther #21, 2000); Wakanda fearing how the outside world would react to them if their true level of technology were known (Black Panther #27, 2001); Black Panther almost killing Klaw before a crowd of startled onlookers (Black Panther #29, 2001); T'Chaka serving as Black Panther during his rule of Wakanda; T'Chaka draping a tunic over his Black Panther costume (Black Panther #30, 2001); The Jabari dwelling in the snowy mountains of Wakanda (Black Panther #32, 2001); The Jabari, a Wakandan tribe to which M'Baku belongs (Black Panther #34, 2001)

Jack Kirby: creator of Wakanda's Vibranium mound falling into their land ages ago as a massive asteroid (Black Panther #7, 1978); T'Challa winning the title of Black Panther by defeating all challengers in one-on-one combat (Black Panther #8, 1978); co-creator of Bucky Barnes, a World War 2 veteran (Captain America Comics #1, 1941); Prince T'Challa, the Black Panther, ruler of Wakanda, son of T'Chaka, a skilled fighter and bearer of the ceremonial Black Panther costume and identity; Wakanda, a secretive African nation surrounded by mountains who conceal the true state of their technological development; The Wakandans' superior technology including communication devices and anti-gravity ships; The Techno-Jungle in Wakanda, trees which have been infused with technology; the massive panther statue which lies above Wakanda's labs (Fantastic Four #52, 1966); T'Chaka, king of Wakanda, father of T'Challa, killed, succeeded by his son; Vibranium, an extraterrestrial metal found only in Wakanda where it forms an entire mountain; Vibranium's ability to absorb kinetic energy; the Wakandans harvesting Vibranium for their technology; Ulysses Klaw, a white man who invaded Wakanda in the time of T'Chaka in order to steal its Vibranium; Klaw having lost his left hand; Klaw's sonic gun, built into his left arm, based on his study of Vibranium, releases sonic energy waves; The Heart-Shaped Herb which grows only in Wakanda and provides each Black Panther superior strength, agility and tracking senses (Fantastic Four #53, 1966)

Stan Lee: co-creator of Prince T'Challa, the Black Panther, ruler of Wakanda, son of T'Chaka, a skilled fighter and bearer of the ceremonial Black Panther costume and identity; Wakanda, a secretive African nation surrounded by mountains who conceal the true state of their technological development; The Wakandans' superior technology including communication devices and anti-gravity ships; The Techno-Jungle in Wakanda, trees which have been infused with technology; the massive panther statue which lies above Wakanda's labs (Fantastic Four #52, 1966); T'Chaka, king of Wakanda, father of T'Challa, killed, succeeded by his son; Vibranium, an extraterrestrial metal found only in Wakanda where it forms an entire mountain; Vibranium's ability to absorb kinetic energy; the Wakandans harvesting Vibranium for their technology; Ulysses Klaw, a white man who invaded Wakanda in the time of T'Chaka in order to steal its Vibranium; Klaw having lost his left hand; Klaw's sonic gun, built into his left arm, based on his study of Vibranium, releases sonic energy waves; The Heart-Shaped Herb which grows only in Wakanda and provides each Black Panther superior strength, agility and tracking senses (Fantastic Four #53, 1966)

Don McGregor: co-creator of Warrior Falls, a waterfall in Wakanda; Erik Killmonger, a Wakandan with dreadlocks who returned to his homeland in order to depose T'Challa and rule the country himself; Erik Killmonger defeating T'Challa in one-on-one combat and throwing him off Warrior Falls; Killmonger arming people with Wakandan weapons; W'Kabi's fiery temper (Jungle Action #6, 1973); T'Challa surviving the drop from Warrior Falls; Erik Killmonger's true Wakandan name, N'Jadaka, but chose Killmonger as his new name; Killmonger growing up in the United States; Erik Killmonger hating Klaw (Jungle Action #7, 1973); W'Kabi's xenophobic tendencies about outsiders; Wakandans behaving in a xenophobic manner about other nations, wishing to remain isolationist; T'Challa undergoing a special ceremony to receive the Heart-Shaped Herb (Jungle Action #9, 1974); The Black Panther wrestling a rhino to the ground by grabbing its horn (Jungle Action #9, 1974); Wakanda possessing snow-tipped mountains around its border (Jungle Action #12, 1974); Erik Killmonger dying after battle with T'Challa (Jungle Action #17, 1975); Ramonda, T'Challa's mother, queen of Wakanda (Marvel Comics Presents #37, 1989)

Mark Texeira: co-creator of Black Panther wearing a costume with golden necklace and lined with Vibranium to serve as body armor with Vibranium soles which allow him to walk along walls and anti-metal claws in his fingertips; T'Challa wearing a beard; Everett K. Ross, a clever U.S. government agent who finds himself aiding the Black Panther; The Dora Milaje, warrior women who serve as bodyguards for T'Challa and speak the language Hausa; Okoye, a stoic member of the Dora Milaje, ally of Nakia, faithful to T'Challa; Nakia, an expressive member of the Dora Milaje, ally of Okoye; Zuri, a wise old Wakandan warrior, friend of T'Chaka, guardian of T'Challa; Kimoyo, Wakandan technology used in Black Panther's costume (Black Panther #1, 1998); Nakia's romantic feelings for T'Challa (Black Panther #3, 1999); A white man in Wakanda being dubbed 'White Wolf' (Black Panther #4, 1999)

Rich Buckler: co-creator of Warrior Falls, a waterfall in Wakanda; Erik Killmonger, a Wakandan with dreadlocks who returned to his homeland in order to depose T'Challa and rule the country himself; Erik Killmonger defeating T'Challa in one-on-one combat and throwing him off Warrior Falls; Killmonger arming people with Wakandan weapons; W'Kabi's fiery temper (Jungle Action #6, 1973); T'Challa surviving the drop from Warrior Falls; Erik Killmonger's true Wakandan name, N'Jadaka, N'Jadaka, but chose Killmonger as his new name; Killmonger growing up in the United States; Erik Killmonger hating Klaw (Jungle Action #7, 1973); W'Kabi's xenophobic tendencies about outsiders; Wakandans behaving in a xenophobic manner about other nations, wishing to remain isolationist; T'Challa undergoing a special ceremony to receive the Heart-Shaped Herb (Jungle Action #9, 1974)

Sal Velluto: co-creator of Erik Killmonger battling T'Challa for the Black Panther identity and succeeding (Black Panther #20, 2000); Wakanda's Panther God identified as the Egyptian goddess Bast; Erik Killmonger dressing in the Black Panther costume (Black Panther #21, 2000); Wakanda fearing how the outside world would react to them if their true level of technology were known (Black Panther #27, 2001); Black Panther almost killing Klaw before a crowd of startled onlookers (Black Panther #29, 2001); The Jabari dwelling in the snowy mountains of Wakanda (Black Panther #32, 2001); Panthers lying within the branches of an acacia tree (Black Panther #43, 2002)

Bob Almond: co-creator of Erik Killmonger battling T'Challa for the Black Panther identity and succeeding (Black Panther #20, 2000); Wakanda's Panther God identified as the Egyptian goddess Bast; Erik Killmonger dressing in the Black Panther costume (Black Panther #21, 2000); Wakanda fearing how the outside world would react to them if their true level of technology were known (Black Panther #27, 2001); Black Panther almost killing Klaw before a crowd of startled onlookers (Black Panther #29, 2001); The Jabari dwelling in the snowy mountains of Wakanda (Black Panther #32, 2001); Panthers lying within the branches of an acacia tree (Black Panther #43, 2002)

Reginald Hudlin: co-creator of Shuri, T'Challa's younger sister; T'Challa having to face challengers for his title as Black Panther every year; Shuri seeking the Black Panther mantle (Black Panther #2); The Dora Milaje wearing red & gold battlesuits and shaving their heads; The Dora Milaje wielding Vibranium spears as weapons (Black Panther #3, 2005); Erik Killmonger wearing a wooden African mask (Black Panther #37, 2008); Zuri dying while trying to defend T'Challa (Black Panther #5, 2009)

Roy Thomas: co-creator of M'Baku, a Wakandan sometimes-ally sometimes-foe of T'Challa who worships a Gorilla God represented by a giant statue and wears gorilla skins; W'Kabi, a Wakandan security officer, ally of T'Challa (Avengers #62, 1969); Ulysses Klaw spelling his name 'Klaue' (Fantastic Four Unlimited #1, 1993); of the name Colonel Klaue (Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos #39, 1967)

Ta-Nehisi Coates: co-creator of Black Panther wearing a costume with silver necklace which enfolds his body using nanites (Black Panther #1, 2016); Djalia, a spiritual plane where Wakandan spirits reside; Black Panther's costumes absorbing energy into its Vibranium circuitry with a purplish glow, releasing that energy in destructive blasts (Black Panther #2, 2016)

Brian Stelfreeze: co-creator of Black Panther wearing a costume with silver necklace which enfolds his body using nanites (Black Panther #1, 2016); Djalia, a spiritual plane where Wakandan spirits reside; Black Panther's costumes absorbing energy into its Vibranium circuitry with a purplish glow, releasing that energy in destructive blasts (Black Panther #2, 2016)

John Romita Jr.: co-creator of Shuri, T'Challa's younger sister; T'Challa having to face challengers for his title as Black Panther every year; Shuri seeking the Black Panther mantle (Black Panther #2); The Dora Milaje wearing red & gold battlesuits and shaving their heads; The Dora Milaje wielding Vibranium spears as weapons (Black Panther #3, 2005)

Peter B. Gillis: co-creator of T'Challa undergoing mystical rites to commune with the Panther God (Black Panther #1, 1988); of Wakanda keeping agents in other countries; T'Challa involved with one of his foreign operatives prior to becoming king (Black Panther #2, 1988)

Denys Cowan: co-creator of T'Challa undergoing mystical rites to commune with the Panther God (Black Panther #1, 1988); of Wakanda keeping agents in other countries; T'Challa involved with one of his foreign operatives prior to becoming king (Black Panther #2, 1988)

John Buscema: co-creator of M'Baku, a Wakandan sometimes-ally sometimes-foe of T'Challa who worships a Gorilla God represented by a giant statue and wears gorilla skins; W'Kabi, a Wakandan security officer, ally of T'Challa (Avengers #62, 1969)

Billy Graham: co-creator of Wakanda possessing snow-tipped mountains around its border (Jungle Action #12, 1974); Erik Killmonger dying after battle with T'Challa (Jungle Action #17, 1975)

Norm Breyfogle: co-creator of T'Chaka serving as Black Panther during his rule of Wakanda; T'Chaka draping a tunic over his Black Panther costume (Black Panther #30, 2001)

Mark Bright: co-creator of Everett K. Ross being drawn into turmoil within Wakanda to help defend T'Challa's reign (Black Panther #11, 1999)

Robert E. Brown: co-creator of Erik Killmonger working side-by-side with Klaw to depose T'Challa (Over the Edge #6, 1996)

Ralph Macchio: co-creator of Erik Killmonger working side-by-side with Klaw to depose T'Challa (Over the Edge #6, 1996)

Gil Kane: co-creator of the Black Panther wrestling a rhino to the ground by grabbing its horn (Jungle Action #9, 1974)

Gene Colan: co-creator of Ramonda, T'Challa's mother, queen of Wakanda (Marvel Comics Presents #37, 1989)

Anthony Flamini: co-creator of M'Baku depicted as a diplomatic statesman (Civil War Battle Damage Report, 2007)

Jonathan Hickman: co-creator of T'Challa seeing the ghosts of previous Black Panthers (New Avengers #29, 2015)

Scott Kolins: co-creator of M'Baku depicted as a diplomatic statesman (Civil War Battle Damage Report, 2007)

Jim Calafiore: co-creator of the Jabari, a Wakandan tribe to which M'Baku belongs (Black Panther #34, 2001)

Steve Epting: co-creator of Bucky losing his arm from an injury in World War 2 (Captain America #11, 2005)

Ed Brubaker: co-creator of Bucky losing his arm from an injury in World War 2 (Captain America #11, 2005)

Kev Walker: co-creator of T'Challa seeing the ghosts of previous Black Panthers (New Avengers #29, 2015)

Francis Portela: co-creator of Erik Killmonger wearing a wooden African mask (Black Panther #37, 2008)

Joe Simon: co-creator of Bucky Barnes, a World War 2 veteran (Captain America Comics #1, 1941)

Tony Isabella: co-creator of Helmut Zemo, a criminal mastermind (Captain America #168, 1973)

Sal Buscema: co-creator of Helmut Zemo, a criminal mastermind (Captain America #168, 1973)

Dick Ayers: co-creator of the name Colonel Klaue (Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos #39, 1967)

Ken Lashley: co-creator of Zuri dying while trying to defend T'Challa (Black Panther #5, 2009)

Kenneth Rocafort: co-creator of Ayo, one of the shaven Dora Milaje (Ultimates #2, 2016)

Dave Hoover: Ulysses Klaw spelling his name 'Klaue' (Fantastic Four Unlimited #1, 1993)

Al Ewing: co-creator of Ayo, one of the shaven Dora Milaje (Ultimates #2, 2016)

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Hail to the King: Black Panther review

All my friends who like M’Baku are so excited about this movie they’re going ape.

I love comic books; I love movies; I love Africa; I love the Black Panther. All of this being true, I went to see the newly-released Black Panther in the theater. Directed by Ryan Coogler, it’s the latest Marvel Cinematic Universe super hero film, this time out featuring Chadwick Boseman as comicdom’s first black super hero. Even though Boseman’s debut as Black Panther in Captain America: Civil War was well-received, who at the time would have predicted the movie would smash box office records and win over critics to an extent super hero films seldom do? How did I feel about the movie? Permit me to create some SPOILER SPACE.

Now then, I came to love the Black Panther because of the efforts of Christopher Priest, who wrote Black Panther from 1998-2003. Priest was (and is) an author who puts a lot of thought into his stories. Priest’s comics tend to be very complex and although he uses familiar super hero characters and familiar super hero plot beats, he enjoys subverting expectations and defying tropes.

On his blog, Priest cautioned fans such as myself:

“I am confident the film will be a huge hit with African American audiences and certainly with comic book (and comic book film) fans, leaving only Priest-specific Black Panther fans a bit disappointed…”

He’s not wrong.

The characters in the film are not Priest’s; his T’Challa is unflappable; his Everett K. Ross is bumbling, mildly racist and prone to histrionics; his Nakia could never truly love T’Challa because of the power imbalance between them and their relationship was something deeply wrong and problematic, not the stuff of cheap laughs; his Zuri was created as a parody of the wise old mentor; and while W’Kabi has always been pretty xenophobic, he’s also extremely loyal to T’Challa.

However, the needs of film versus serialized comic book are apt to be different. Fair enough.

Still, seeing Priest’s characters flattened into something safer, simpler and more formulaically Hollywood made all the other tropes too obvious for me. When Shuri mentioned Ross’ Air Force history in passing, it was a blatant set-up for some later scene where he would have to pilot a vehicle. It features another “villain seems to lose but it’s a set-up,” plot which was novel when Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight did it and getting banal 10 years on. Erik Killmonger was refashioned into T’Challa’s cousin to be yet another of those tiresome “like a brother” or “shadow self” villains you find in most super hero films. T’Challa’s father/mentor has a shadowy secret because of course he does, these are the 21st century super hero film tropes.

At this point you’re thinking I hate this movie; here comes my Priest-like subversion: no, I didn’t. I find it all very familiar and by-the-numbers, but I accept that super hero films work best when they adhere to formula – lack of pretense was one of the triumphs of last year’s Wonder Woman and I think it serves Black Panther as well; Black Panther wears its intentions on its sleeve.

A Black Panther film which drew a little deeper from Priest’s well would be something that would leave audiences speechless; all of those critics complaining that the film ends with yet another slugfest? Priest’s Black Panther villains are schemers who only resort to violence as a last-ditch effort after the complex scheme crumbles. Priest is unafraid to confront religion, politics, race and sex. Priest’s Killmonger once stopped to give a lengthy speech on how he would defeat Black Panther by using economics. The man’s audacious.

Coogler’s Black Panther is a simple film, not as interested in politics as Priest. Part of what pushes it higher than most movies of its ilk is Michael B. Jordan’s turn as Killmonger. The film’s interpretation of Killmonger certainly feels closer to the character’s original stories under Don McGregor than those of Priest. Further, Killmonger is permitted to have a sound, reasonable argument to make about Wakanda withholding its superior technologies from a world which could sorely use them; I mean, he can only envision using that technology to wage war, but that’s keeping with his tunnel vision. Killmonger’s also helped simply by being portrayed by Jordan, who is incredibly charismatic (I was actually disappointed when I heard he’d be Killmonger simply because I’d rather root for him as a hero).

But the issue Killmonger raises is an important one – when Reginald Hudlin revealed in the comics that Wakanda had cured cancer but wouldn’t share it with the world, it was an uncomfortable revelation. Sure, they’d always been isolationist and a little xenophobic, but withholding medical data seemed particularly crude. And this material plays particularly well today if Wakanda is used as a placeholder for the contemporaneous United States, which is itself currently going through a streak of isolationism and xenophobia. The USA has been viewed as THE world leader and establishing Wakanda as the true number one super power of the Marvel Universe places similar difficult questions for their society.

I suppose my biggest problem with the film is Nakia; after all, she's a villain in the comics and I don't think I can get behind her as a heroic figure. But even confined to the world of the film she doesn't click for me; throughout the picture she speaks about her conviction that the world needs Wakanda's help but everyone brushes her off; surely when Killmonger seizes power she should at least be momentarily in his thrall? After all, he's given voice to the single most important issue she holds dear. Instead, Nakia turns on Killmonger the moment T'Challa loses his fight. (Of course, Nakia working with Killmonger would also be great because they were allies in the comics)

There’s a lot of affection for the comics in this film - in fact, more than I’m used to seeing; it is not at all ashamed of its roots, unlike so many of Marvel’s film heroes. After an introductory narration the picture kept exposition down pretty well, simply placing the characters and environment on the screen and trusting the audience to keep up.

The picture is remarkably well-cast (I didn’t hear until a week before release that Daniel Kaluuya was in it). Winston Duke, who I hadn’t heard of before, appears to have had the time of his life as M’Baku, who is so much more fun in this picture than his comic book counterpart is normally permitted to be. I’m a little disappointed that the T’Challa in this picture isn’t the brilliant scientist he is in the comics, but giving the science material to his sister Shuri at least gives that character a function in the story (even though comics’ Shuri was more of a fighter than a thinker). Andy Serkis was admirably looney as Klaw.

Part of what I’ve enjoyed about this crazy shared universe film world Marvel’s been running for the last decade is that you don’t have to wait for the film’s protagonist to get their own sequel before seeing them again. So, we’ll be seeing Chadwick Boseman as the Black Panther again later this year via Avengers: Infinity War. And I’ll see you then.

Creator credits for this movie coming tomorrow

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Unearthed: All-Negro Comics #1

As I noted yesterday, it's Black History Month here in Canada and our neighbours to the south, the USA. Having previously looked in on a rather shameful episode of comics' past depictions of African-Americans, whatsay we turn our attention to a rather more laudable effort: 1947's All-Negro Comics #1.

Most of what I know about All-Negro Comics comes via the book's Wikipedia page. There was only one issue published and it was the only series published by the eponymous publisher. The entire creative team were African-American, each of those creators an unknown.

The cover was priced at 15 cents, which was more than the 10 cent standard; this probably didn't help the book's sales at all. The Wikipedia article also speculates that other publishers tried to force All-Negro Comics off the stands in order to clear a path for their own publications (Fawcett published Jackie Robinson in 1949 and Negro Romance & Joe Louis in 1950, while, more significantly, Parents' Magazine Press printed two issues of Negro Heroes in 1947). The comic book business was waking up to the fact that there were a number of African-Americans reading comics but precious few comics marketed to them and fewer African-American talents producing comics (Phantom Lady's Matt Baker being a noteworthy exception).

Like most comics of the time, All-Negro Comics #1 is an anthology book with a number of different features varying in genre type. After an introduction on the inside front cover by journalist/publisher Orrin C. Evans, the first feature begins: Ace Harlem! Ace is a police detective who investigates a murder committed by two zoot-suited killers. The art by John Terrell is crude and in one panel the speech balloons are presented in the wrong order (above). Still, in comparing this to yesterday's Steamboat story, we see African-American depicted with speech patterns bereft of the slang & mispronunciations typical of the time and faces drawn to look natural; it's also interesting that the colourist chose skin tones which are very light brown instead of the dark brown tones found in most US comics of the time. Ace appears again at the end of the issue to promote the (non-existent) 2nd issue.

The Dew Dillies by Cooper seems to be in the vein of Rose O'Neill's Kewpie characters. Bubbles and Bibber are a pair of adorable children, Bubbles being a water-dweller and Bibber possessing wings. At one point Bibber fights off Goolygator, a little boy who seems half-alligator. It's about as saccharine as comics get, making it an odd choice to follow a story about murder.

"Friendly" is a relative term

Lion Man by George J. Evans Jr. is an interesting one. Visually, Lion Man appears like just another jungle hero strip, the sort of thing you'd find in Fiction House's Jungle Comics of the day. But Lion Man is introduced as an African-American scientist who's serving in the Gold Coast on behalf of the United Nations; his hut is full of mechanical equipment such as a massive radio set. In a way, he's like a forebear to the Black Panther. Of course, he also has a kid sidekick named Bubba, who's a Zulu. Zulus being on the southeast coast of Africa, you might wonder why he's in northwestern Africa; the answer is: African-American comics creators are about as lousy as Caucasians when it comes to African geography (speaking as a Caucasian who didn't get African geography at all until I actually went there). Anyway, Lion Man's job is to protect the uranium deposits in the area and in the course of this adventure has to deal with a pair of ne'er-do-wells.

Two humour pages follow. Hep Chicks on Parade by Len is a one-page collection of gag cartoons, typical of the era (notable only for being gags about African-American women). Li'l Eggie by John Terrell is a one-page comedy strip about a hen-pecked husband named Egbert who is, appropriately, drawn to be egg-shaped. It's a typical sparring couple strip.

Finally there's Sugarfoot by Cravat, which follows the kind of minstrel show tropes found in most representations of African-Americans in popular culture of the time. Sugarfoot and his pal Snakeoil are a pair of hobos who spend a night at a farmer's house wherein Sugarfoot romances the farmer's daughter, who is exactly what you'd expect from the trope (it does have a decent running gag in the daughter repeatedly announcing, "I'm Ample"). In his introduction, Orrin C. Evans claimed he hoped to "recapture the almost lost humor of the loveable wandering Negro minstrel of the past." I suppose as a white guy I'm not qualified to call this one unfortunate, given that the creators were black people who had some purpose in perpetuating these old tropes which were normally kicked around by white creators. Anyway, I do give this one credit for the lead characters being apparently aware that they're in a comic book (see above).

All-Negro Comics #1 is ultimately as much a product of its times as yesterday's "World's Mightiest Mistake." The difference is mainly who's responsible for producing the pages. There is definitely more dignity afforded to the cast of characters, even in the Sugarfoot feature.

As noted before, publishers like Fawcett & Parents' Magazine Press began producing comics aimed at an African-American audience in the late 40s, but it turned out to be short-lived experiment as they didn't last through the 50s. African-American characters would finally get their turn as protagonists again in the 1960s and this time weren't going anywhere.

All images via The Digital Comics Museum

Monday, February 12, 2018

Unearthed: The World's Mightiest Mistake

I first became aware of Fawcett's Captain Marvel through issues of All-Star Squadron which I read in the 1980s. Immediately, there was something about him which captivated me in a manner other DC super heroes didn't. I've retained a fascination with the character over the years and I'm certainly privileged to be living in a time where all of the hero's Fawcett adventures are available for free reading at sites such as The Digital Comic Museum.

Captain Marvel's 1940s adventures definitely stand apart from much of what was published in that supposed 'Golden Age' of comics. The truth is that once you get past Kirby, Eisner, Cole and Everett, you have a mighty big load of second-rate talent with awkward storytelling skills. Fawcett, however, tended to employ quality artists such as C. C. Beck and fine writers like Otto Binder. In its time, Captain Marvel's comics were more popular than Superman's, which is one reason why DC attempted to sue Fawcett out of business; when Fawcett finally did give up on Captain Marvel, the book's creators eventually found themselves developing Superman's Silver Age.

But I'm here today to reflect upon the unfortunate side of Fawcett's Captain Marvel. I've previously noted the racism in one of their Captain Marvel Jr. tales and now I feel compelled to talk about Steamboat. It's hard to overlook Steamboat when discussing Captain Marvel's Golden Age - after all, he appears during the epic 'Monster Society of Evil' storyline which is considered to be the greatest Captain Marvel story of them all.

There is no getting around how embarrassing Steamboat is. At the same time, he was typical for his era. The massive lips which took up most of his face, the speech littered with 'jive talk' and mispronounced word with a vaguely southern accent - this is how so many African-Americans appeared in comic books of the 1940s. It may not have been malicious in origin, but it was incredibly ignorant. Further, there were creators in the 40s who were able to develop persons of colour with some dignity. There is no good excuse for Steamboat.

Let's look in particular at the story "The World's Mightiest Mistake" from Captain Marvel Adventures #16 (1942) by artist C. C. Beck (no writer credited). We open on Steamboat working as valet to Billy Batson, Captain Marvel's alter ego. Billy is a child with no apparent legal guardian in the Fawcett stories, but he's still an echelon above Steamboat. The opening narration refers to Steamboat as a "colored boy," the first of many repeats of that phrase. I suppose it is possible Steamboat was underage like Billy, in which case 'boy' would be valid... but that 'boy' never appears without 'colored' preceding it gives away the casual racism in that term.

Billy gives Steamboat a night off so Steamboat calls up his girlfriend Elocutia Jones for a date. This done, Billy secretly changes into Captain Marvel, then reappears to exit Billy's apartment via a window. Steamboat is unaware Billy is Captain Marvel which makes it bizarre for Billy to change identities just outside of Steamboat's field of vision. Shouldn't Steamboat be wondering where Billy has gone?

Anyway, Captain Marvel sets out to stop the Coloni mob from robbing a bank. Steamboat meets up with Elocutia who - in contrast to every African-American male in this story - has the kind of good features you'd expect on a Caucasian character. Hello, double standards! Steamboat and Elocutia journey to see a hypnotist's stage show. The hypnotist uses Steamboat as a subject and offers to hypnotize Steamboat so that he can become anybody he likes. Steamboat most desires to be like Captain Marvel, so the hypnotic spell is cast.

Attempting to speak Captain Marvel's magic word 'Shazam,' (but saying 'Shazowie' instead), Steamboat steps in one of the foootlights (or 'feet lights' as the hypnotist terms them) and causes a short circuit which plunges the theater into darkness (leaving the crowd's eyes, teeth and giant lips visible). When the lights come on, Steamboat has somehow torn apart his clothing into a weak facsimile of Captain Marvel's costume. Credit where it's due, Steamboat's mock costume fits the elements of Captain Marvel's clothes well - his red flannel underwear matching CM's red tights, yellow shoes in place of yellow boots, a torn white shirt hanging like CM's white cape and a yellow tie hanging in place of CM's lightning bolt.

Steamboat exits the theater to confront 'bank robbehs.' Speaking of which, Captain Marvel arrives at the bank but doesn't see the Coloni mob, so he departs. Two panels later the crooks turn up at the bank, taking advantage of our hero's short attention span. But then! Steamboat comes running up to the bank. The crooks don't even try to shoot him, assuming he's the bulletproof hero. Calling himself the Harlem Marvel - er, or "Hahlem Mahvel," Steamboat punches the robbers. They climb to the roof of the bank to escape; Steamboat, still thinking he's Captain Marvel, can't understand why he's unable to fly to the roof but pursues them via the ladder.

The crooks cross to another building using a conveniently-placed board, then kick the board away to stymie Steamboat. Steamboat tries to fly and nearly splatters himself on the ground, only for our impatient hero Captain Marvel to return and catch him. Captain Marvel catches the gang, then tells the police Steamboat deserves all the credit, earning his friend a cash reward.

Thoughts: What are the positives surrounding Steamboat? Well, (in this story at least) he isn't shown to love craps, watermelon, fried chicken and malt liquor, nor is he lazy or afraid of ghosts. What I mean to say is, if you tried to fill out your Racist Bingo Card to this story you wouldn't make bingo.

The bad? Pretty near everything else the paper and ink were made to do in this tale. Note that the story is titled "The World's Mightiest Mistake." To be sure, Steamboat is not Captain Marvel - that is a mistake. But the very idea of an African-American man aspiring to be a hero is played for lowbrow laughs. A Mistake. It's patronizing, in the worst way. At the time of this story's original publication the USA had entered World War II and African-American men were sacrificing their lives for their country; comic books were immensely popular with servicemen but while there were plenty of opportunities for white soldiers to envision themselves as the heroes, black GIs were not nearly as fortunate. How appropriate that this year's Black History Month will feature the debut of the Black Panther, comicdom's first true black super hero.

The Fawcett tales would eventually introduce the talking tiger Mr. Tawky Tawny as Captain Marvel's friend and he basically provided the sort of comic relief Steamboat had meant to supply, but without bringing in minstrel show visuals.

All images via The Digital Comic Museum