Did I go and see the Black Panther movie this weekend? Of course I went to go see the Black Panther movie this weekend!
It’s a great movie, if you haven’t seen it yet than you need to stop what you’re doing and go watch this movie right now, you can read this article while you’re watching the dozens of previews attached to the movie.
But I’m not here to talk about how this movie is important, other people are doing a better job of that than I can. While he was the first black character in mainstream comics, he wasn’t the first black character to star in his own series.
That was Waku, Prince of the Bantu.
Origin and Career
Waku made his first appearance in Atlas Comics’ Jungle Tales #1 in September of 1954.
Yes, the title says “Jungle Action” we’ll get to that.
The character was created by artist Ogden Whitney,
who worked as a fairly successful artist for several comic book companies and is most famous for co creating a hero named Herbie Popnecker.
It’s pretty clear that the comic is following in the footsteps of the old Tarzan stories, which makes sense because this book came out during a time when comics were moving away from super heroes and into alternate genres such as romance and westerns.
It was also released at a time when race relations in America weren’t at their best.
What’s interesting about comics is that black people have actually been part of the comic book landscape since the beginning. It’s just that the way they’ve been portrayed hasn’t always been…
well let’s be polite and say “sensitive”.
Waku was the first black character to star in a series of stories as the main lead. Not only that, but the stories featured a predominately black cast.
Certainly sounds familiar.
The character was the head of a tribe living in the depths of South Africa, and it is worth mentioning that there is some respect paid to actual history here. The Bantu Migration was an actual historical event and is widely considered to have played an important role in developing African politics and identity.
You can read more about it here.
The character’s first adventure has him inheriting the leadership of the tribe from his dying father, who tells him to forswear violence and govern with kindness and wisdom. This proves problematic when he refuses to participate in ritual combat in order to take his place as king and loses his throne to a greedy and ambitious rival, who tries to sell his people’s services to “white hunters” at great personal profit. Waku winds up killing this usurper and is about to kill himself in penance for what he’s done when his father appears as an apparition and frees him from his vow.
The character would go on to appear in seven more issues and in each issue he would fight off some challenger to his throne or threat to his people. This ranged from wrestling lions,
to evil shamans capable of raising armies of the dead.
In all of his appearanc
So what happened?
Jungle Tales lasted seven issues and was later changed to Jan of the Jungle.
I guess it’s true what they say, sex sells.
Normally changing a title like that hints at some serious problems for the publisher but this time it wasn’t the case. Atlas Comics re branded in the 60’s as the more familiar Marvel Comics.
I’m sure they need no introduction.
Marvel rode the coattails of a little known writer who had been working for them since the 30’s and an artist with an incredible work ethic and a penchant for smoking cigars: Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.
For the handful of people that don’t know their names, these two men basically invented the entire Marvel Universe that we know and love today.
And in 1966 they introduced the Black Panther in Fantastic Four #52.
After a couple of guest spots with the Fantastic Four and Captain America, Black Panther was given his own solo series. The title of the book? Jungle Action.
Now, I’m not saying that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby used Waku as a direct inspiration for Black Panther, there isn’t any evidence of that and any allegations made would be unfounded and unprofessional. But it’s worth considering that both characters were kings of African nations and tribes, both of them were capable warriors, and both Lee and Kirby were working for Atlas at the time Waku was being published.
I’d say that is one hell of a coincidence.
Is Waku a better character than Black Panther? Not really. Should Waku have been the face of black characters in comics? No. But Waku was the first black character who was the star of his own stories and he was treated with respect and dignity.
He was a good man, a capable ruler, and a good starting point for Marvel’s long and storied collection of black comic book characters.
Last week we talked about a superhero known as “The Hand”.
Everyone seemed to like it so here’s a write up about another body part that decided to become a superhero.
Yes, there was more than one of these, and this one was actually a bit more successful.
Say hello to The Eye.
Origin and Career
The Eye made its first appearance in Keen Detective Funnies #12 in December of 1939.
The book was published by a company called Centaur Publications, one of the earliest comic book publishers in American history and the company that helped Bill Everett get his start in comics.
Bill Everett is the man who helped create Namor the Submariner and Daredevil.
The character itself was created by a man named Frank Thomas.
You may not know the man’s face, but I’m willing to bet that if you’re an animator or a Disney fan you know his his name and his work.
The man was one of the original animators on Walt Disney’s creative team when the company was just starting out and helped produce some of the most recognizable classics in modern animation history. One example? He animated this scene from Snow White.
He also helped write a book with a colleague of his named Ollie Johnston called The Illusion of Life,
a book that remains one of the most important milestones in 2D hand drawn animation to this day. In fact, the two men were so influential that they were given a cameo appearance in The Incredibles, one of my favorite movies of all time.
Basically Frank Thomas was a big deal, and The Eye was his contribution to the comic book world.
As for The Eye itself, his first adventure starts with the whitest Afghani family on the face of the planet.
The old man laments that he was once a prosperous businessman but had his livelihood stolen from him. Suddenly, a disembodied eye appears in the room.
Meanwhile, in Kabul we’re introduced to the vain and pompous villain of the story, a man named Herat, who wants the old man dead.
You know, I can’t help but wonder how differently this story would play out if it was published today.
Anyway, the villain tries to hire two hitmen to take out his rival. Fortunately The Eye stops them with his ability to travel anywhere and shoot heat blasts out of his…well eye.
Boy, I know red eye flights are a pain…but this is ridiculous. (wait don’t go…come back!)
The story resolves itself quickly and just in the way you would expect. The villain is defeated, and justice is served. The Eye has saved the day and the old man and his daughter are free to return to their business.
The Eye would go on to become something of a regular back up feature in the comic. The stories weren’t connected, it was more of an anthology tale where The Eye would drop in on a group of criminals committing a crime and use one of his many ill defined powers to save the day.
He was also given a sidekick, a young attorney named Jack Barrister who would assist The Eye whenever it needed a hand.
The Eye ran for eight issues in Keen Detective and must have been popular because he was given his own series in November of 1940.
So what happened?
The Eye may have been popular enough to get his own series, but his publisher wasn’t so lucky. While Centaur may have been one of the first comic book publishers ever, poor distribution and business sense saw the company go under in 1940.
While the company folded, it did retain something of a legacy. In 1987 one of his stories was reprinted in a book called Mr. Monster’s Hi Shock Schlock by Michael T. Gilbert.
And in 1992 a company called Malibu Comics revived a bunch of Malibu characters into a team known as The Protectors,
and the Eye was cast as a supporting character.
The Eye was a genuinely interesting idea and character for a superhero. He had an interesting gimmick and he had a legendary creator behind him. If it wasn’t for his publisher going out of business I’m willing to bet it would have gone on to become a staple of modern comic book superheroes as well.
It’s a real shame to see an idea like that go to waste.
This one is going to be a short one, but boy is it a weird one.
We’re all familiar with the idea of a giant hand that is used as a metaphor for controlling things. The hit video game Super Smash Bros. has the “Master Hand” as a final boss,
Marvel Comics has the super secret group of ninja demons known as “The Hand”,
and many real life people love to claim that our lives and fortunes are at the whim of the “invisible hand of the market”.
Yes, the hand is always there. It’s big, it’s powerful, and it’s completely unknown to we small pathetic creatures.
But did you know that someone tried to take this idea of “The Hand” and turn it into a superhero in the 1940’s?
Told you this was going to be weird.
Origin and Career
The Hand made his first appearance in Speed Comics #12 in 1941.
The comic series was the first comic book title published by Harvey Comics, a relative newcomer to the comic book scene and a company that would become famous for licensed titles such as Caspar the Friendly Ghost and Richie Rich.
Fun fact: Speed Comics had been bought from a struggling publisher called Brookwood Publications and was Harvey’s entry point into comic book publishing. Without this title, Harvey wouldn’t go on to become a major comic book publisher.
The character of The Hand was created by Ben Flinton and Bill O’Connor, two men who would go on to create the Golden Age version of the superhero known as The Atom.
Unfortunately, both men would wind up joining the armed services in 1942, and while both men survived they did not return to comics after that.
In his first and longest adventure, the Hand doesn’t fight Nazis or stop saboteurs. Instead, he stops a couple of card sharks from ripping off a casino.
He is introduced with no fanfare, no explanation, and no backstory. He just appears and warns two men that they better watch themselves.
The two men ignore the warning and begin to clean out the house. The Hand warns management, who takes it all in remarkable stride and agrees to let the disembodied hand help him.
I like to imagine that the hand belongs to some sort of cosmic being that is actually a child and is trying to act all grown up by helping people.
Why not? It’s more explanation than the comic gives.
The Hand is also a capable fighter…and capable of phasing through walls.
However, when the criminals attempt to stop The Hand by confessing, The Hand realizes that they will not be arrested or charged for their crimes. So he brands them on the forehead so the world will know what they’ve done.
Apparently, The Hand has never heard of hats. Which kind of makes sense.
On a side note: this comic issue deserves special mention for the story that came directly after this one. Since most comics at the time were anthologies publishing short stories of only a couple of pages, we got treated to this one.
A kid taking out a head of state with a rifle and people being okay with it? Boy the times really were different back then.
Anyway, The Hand would have one more story in the following issue of Speed Comics where he played the patriotic game and helped the F.B.I defeat some foreign spies.
It was shorter, but had more action.
So The Hand was an established hero with a gimmick and a creative team behind him…
So what happened?
…and that was it, those were the only two issues that featured The Hand as a superhero.
It’s really not that surprising really. The character was a small backup feature in a series that didn’t last very long and was published by a company that shifted focus away from original characters and into licensed stories.
Plus, let’s be honest, the two stories that The Hand appeared in weren’t that exciting or good.
The Hand may have been a small time character with boring stories, but that doesn’t mean the concept wasn’t interesting or that he didn’t have any value. Sure, the creature was a hero and had a sense of agency and purpose, but it always had room for normal people to step in and take over when the time was right.
It appeared that The Hand was some sort of benevolent spirit who helped where he could and allowed normal people to do the right thing, and if that isn’t heroic I don’t know what is.
The Hand had potential, it would be a shame to forget that.
So I just watched the season premiere of CW’s Black Lightning yesterday.
It’s pretty good. The effects were great, the character dynamics were well thought out and have a lot of potential, and it pulls absolutely no punches when it comes to dealing with the…well let’s be polite and say “strained” relationship between black Americans and the police.
By all accounts the CW has another hit on their hands and it looks like Black Lightning is here to stay, so let’s look at his origins and see what’s changed and if the show can learn anything from the comics.
Origin and Career
Black Lightning was created in 1977, a few decades after the Golden Age of Comics and the favorite time period of this blog. This is going to require a little explanation.
It’s widely believed that the Golden Age of Comics ended in 1956 with the publication of Showcase #4 and the introduction of Barry Allen as the Flash.
This brought along the Silver Age of Comics, a time period that was known for comics that focused on a more sci fi and technological oriented appeal.
Magic had been replaced by space science and monsters had been replaced by aliens.
This was also the time when Marvel Comics came into the world as the comic book company we all know and love today. A little known creator named Stan Lee decided to create a super hero family that traveled across time and space to defeat strange and fantastic threats.
It did pretty well and helped kick off the Marvel Universe that we all know and love today.
However, by the 1970’s things were changing again, and comics were moving out of the high concept science fantasy of the Silver Age. Times were changing. There were protests,
and there was a general sense of doom and gloom.
Yes, the 1970’s were a unique and special time that we will never have to live through again.
The great thing about these changing times was that in the comic book industry restrictions on what comic books could be talk about were becoming looser and looser, and in 1970 we entered a time that comic book historians called “The Bronze Age of Comics”.
This was a time where comic books got darker and edgier, talking about issues like drugs,
not shying away from violence,
and launching an explosion of black superheroes. Luke Cage is probably the most famous and successful of these heroes.
Anyway, DC had a problem in the 1970’s, Marvel was growing too fast and taking away a huge portion of their business. So DC decided to try and beat Marvel by flooding the market with a slew of new titles. One of these titles was going to be DC’s first black superhero and they eventually decided to publish….the Black Bomber.
The Black Bomber was supposed to be a white bigot who hated black people, but thanks to an accident he gained the ability to turn into a black superhero when under duress.
This is the only picture I could find of him. The only other reference he got in a comic book was a small reference in a Justice League of America comic written by Dwayne McDuffie.
Yeah, this was probably not a good idea.
So what convinced the editors at DC to change their mind? Why one of the writers of Luke Cage of course!
The guy on the right is Tony Isabella, one of the early writers of Luke Cage. DC had hired Tony to create their first black superhero and in 1977 he partnered with artist Trevor Von Eden,
to create Black Lightning.
Black Lightning’s real name is Jefferson Pierce. He actually grew up in the poorest part of Metropolis known as Suicide Slum. After becoming a highly successful athlete an scholar he returned home and he used a newly created power belt that helped him shoot bolts of electricity to clean up the streets of drug dealers and gang members.
Where was Superman in all of this? Probably saving Earth from aliens but whatever.
Black Lightning did initially play up a lot of stereotypes that were prevalent among the black community in the 1970’s. His costume and accent were over the top and almost comical but his intentions were good and he proved himself to be a respectable hero in his own right, gaining the trust of Superman and several other figures in the city in his battle against the gang that had made Suicide Slum their home, a group called The 100 and led by a large man known as Tobias Whale.
Aside from changing the location, the show appears to be pretty loyal to the comics. Granted, in his early appearances Black Lightning isn’t married and doesn’t have kids, but that would come later.
So what happened?
Unfortunately the individual series for the character only lasted 11 issues. While DC had high hopes in regaining its market share by flooding the market with new comics, it didn’t work out so well due to rising printing costs, the 1977 blizzard, and an awful economic recession. A year later the company cancelled 40% of its titles in an event known as the “DC Implosion”.
Black Lightning survived, although he would only show up in other books for the next couple of years. In 1983, he joined a group called the Outsiders, a group of superheroes led by Batman and featured mostly new characters like Katana and Geo-Force.
So yes, the idea that Batman is everything is nothing new.
In 1989 it was revealed that his powers weren’t the result of his power belt, but they were actually derived from a genetic abnormality known as the “Metagene”, a plot point that has been used throughout the DC universe as the source of power for a large number of their heroes.
DC’s first black superhero would get another crack at a solo series in 1995, and they even brought back Tony Isabella to do the writing.
Unfortunately, history has a nasty way of repeating itself and the series was cancelled after 13 issues.
Black Lightning has continued to exist in the DC universe as a hero making appearances in other books. At one point, Lex Luthor actually made him Secretary of Education when he was elected President of the United States.
But let’s not delve too much into the fact that a comic book company had a corrupt businessman elected to the Presidency, that’s just too unrealistic.
He would also get a family and two children to look after. Their names were Anissa and Jennifer Pierce and they have been a staple of Black Lightning’s identity ever since.
Even though he’s never had much of a solo career, Black Lightning is a capable and talented hero with a great backstory and plenty of potential.
He is a teacher, a mentor, and a very capable role model for everyone in the DC universe but most importantly of all…he has the respect and attention of Batman.
I think this CW show is going to be awesome.