Golden Age Showcase: Waku Prince of the Bantu

Did I go and see the Black Panther movie this weekend?  Of course I went to go see the Black Panther movie this weekend!

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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.

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Origin and Career

Waku made his first appearance in Atlas Comics’ Jungle Tales #1 in September of 1954.

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Yes, the title says “Jungle Action” we’ll get to that.

The character was created by artist Ogden Whitney,

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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.

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It was also released at a time when race relations in America weren’t at their best.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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,

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to evil shamans capable of raising armies of the dead.

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In all of his appearanc

So what happened?

Jungle Tales lasted seven issues and was later changed to Jan of the Jungle.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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And in 1966 they  introduced the Black Panther in Fantastic Four #52.

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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.

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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.

Golden Age Showcase: Princess Pantha

Today I want to talk about Tarzan.

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We may think of Tarzan as quaint and pretty racist today (a white man who finds himself stranded in the jungle and not only survives but thrives and proves himself superior to people who have been living in the same location for centuries? Right.) but back in the 1930’s and 1940’s he was a pop culture juggernaut.

Tarzan got his start in 1912, years before the comic books became the medium they are today.  In their own special way, the Tarzan books were a big part of the main competition that comic books had to face as they came into their own.

I bring this up because like Superman in 1938, the popularity of Tarzan spawned a whole host of imitators.  One of the most important imitators was Sheena, Queen of the Jungle.

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The idea of taking the “noble savage” trope that Tarzan helped develop and flipping the gender of the protagonist proved popular (and probably quite kinky) and lucrative.

Sheena would go on to become a pop culture icon of her time and would would inspire a whole host of imitators herself, and today we’re going to talk about one of them.

Today I present: Princess Pantha

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Origin and Career:

Disclaimer: The following article shows and discusses imagery that displays some pretty strong racist overtones.  This is not done out of malice or anger, these images were products of their time and should be openly viewed and discussed so that we as a culture and a people can acknowledge them and learn from our past, for better or for worst.

Princess Pantha made her first appearance in Thrilling Comics #56 in October of 1946.

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While I was unable to find the name of her writer I did find out that she was drawn by comic book artist Art Saaf,

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who would go on to do a lot of work for DC Comics in the 1970’s, including a lot of romance comics,

and one of the most famous stints on Supergirl in the 1970’s.

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It’s pretty clear that Mr. Saaf was really good at drawing beautiful women, and it definitely shows in his early work with Princess Pantha.

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Anyway, back to her origin.  It turned out that “Princess Pantha” was originally a stage name for the world famous animal trainer of the National Circus.  Looking to improve their act the circus sent Pantha into the heart of Africa in an attempt to find a rare white gorilla the locals called “M’gana”.

While it is pretty cool to have a career woman on an expedition to further her own fortunes, any sort of progressive or forward thinking idealism is quickly squashed in the first couple of pages by the “famous explorer” Dane Hunter, who believes that an “inexperienced kid” shouldn’t be by herself in the wilds of Africa.

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The Princess isn’t exactly the most tolerant type either and her expedition goes south when her party is attacked by natives.

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She manages to fend off the locals by playing a recording of a gorilla, which scares the raiding party away.

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Unfortunately, she is now stranded in the jungle without much food and no way home.

Dane attempts a rescue but is captured himself.

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Thankfully, some time has passed between Patha escaping and Dane being captured, enough time for Pantha to become an expert in jungle survival (in one page no less) and craft a leopard skin bikini.

Pantha rescues Dane by stampeding a herd of wild elephants into the village of the tribe that tried to kill them both.

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She rescues him and the issue ends with both of them vowing to find a way back to civilization.

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Like I said, this particular story has some pretty racist overtones, but it was popular enough to warrant more adventures and even several cover appearances.

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Sadly, most of her stories didn’t deviate from the formula set by her first appearance, where Pantha and Dane would stumble into a mystery/adventure and have to fight off an army of poorly dressed and horribly stereotypical natives who were greedy, evil, and usually didn’t speak very good English.

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You’ll notice that the world “civilization” gets thrown around a lot and it usually winds up referring to western or “white” civilization.

So what happened?

Pantha went on like this for three years until it was dropped in favor of another icon of 1950’s pop culture, the cowboy.

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Her final appearance was in Thrilling Comics #72, where once again she confronted and defeated the savage men and beasts of the wild thanks to her “superior” intellect and the benefits of western civilization.

It was probably for the best.

Like many of Standard Comics’ properties she would experience a revival in the 1990’s and early 2000’s.  She first appeared in AC Comics Jungle Girls: Wild Side

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displaying all the fabulous 90’s comic tropes of an impossibly large bust on top of an impossibly slim waist with the butt jutting out in the most uncomfortable angle.

She would also have a supporting role in Alan Moore’s Terra Obscura series.

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She dated a character named Doc Strange for a bit, but was mostly relegated to the sidelines.

Princess Pantha is a tricky character to talk about.  On one hand she was strong, capable woman who could handle herself in a fight and was able to overcome a lot of presumptions that her male colleagues had about her.  On the other hand, there was some pretty blatant and uncomfortable racism and sexism going on in these comics, ensuring that they would be permanent fixtures of their times and would not be able to to transition into modern popular culture very well.

But hey, leopard skin bikini!