To Be Young, Superpowered & Black

At Lorestone Comics in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, an African American boy all of eight is shuffling through a stack of plastic-­wrapped comics, his expression drained to rapt blankness. The money in his pocket needs to be spent like, fast, and whole worlds are appearing and disappearing un­der his gaze in quick succession, dollar­-twenty-five universes glanced at and then banished on the merits of glossy foil covers.

Once upon a time, little man’s options ran a narrow gamut of types: Superman, Batman, Captain America, Thor — white-­bread superheroes for white-bread children. The X-Men were as funky as his purchases got, those freaky mutants being the closest mainstream comics come to reflecting the lives of potentially marginal kids. Lately, though, his range of purchases and images has gotten considerably wider and darker. Away from this black-owned storefront, in the corporate offices where decisions about comic books are made, the heroic black figure in tights is the latest rage: DC Comics starts its own black-run imprint, Milestone; Marvel Comics brings back ’70s icon Luke Cage, Hero for Hire; independents publish four-color Afrocentric books (including a caped Spike Lee joint, written by Spike’s brother, Cinque), while small presses like Posro Komics do their own quirky thing in black and white. Even Hollywood has got­ten in the act: Robert Townsend was The Meteor Man, Wesley Snipes wants to be the Black Panther, Carl Lumbly’s TV movie Mantis will return to Fox as a series next fall, and Damon Wayans is set to star as Blankman.

But back to little man at Lorestone. He tells me that he’s not supposed to give his name out to strangers. OK, but what do you read?

X-Men and Spiderman,” he says, shrug­ging. His older brother, 13 and no longer a comic-book fan (“That’s kid stuff”), nudges him and tells him that he reads X-Force too.

“Yeah. X-Force.” How come? He shrugs again. “I like the covers.” Do you watch the X-Men cartoon show? He visibly brightens, no doubt thinking of sugared cereals. “Yeah, every week.” Do you read any black comic books? He looks at me for a second. “Storm’s black,” he suggests finally, a cau­tious reference to the X-Men’s token negress.

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The two of them have been browsing with a girl of about 13, who pipes up that she reads Milestone’s Icon. “It’s got good art, and it’s about this girl who’s a team­mate with a black alien and she has this special belt that gives her powers.”

Storm’s a girl,” the eight-year-old whis­pers. After that, the two teenagers are too busy laughing at him to answer any more questions.

Across town at Manhattan’s Forbidden Planet, there are more black kids stocking up on books: They move around the store just like everyone else, the visual tag of race their only distinguishing characteristic. A mother comes in, holding the purse strings to a nine-year-old who wants to buy her out of house and home. He wants everything, none of it black-themed. “He likes the ones with superheroes,” she explains while he builds a stack as thick as her forearm.

I spy a boy, 14, come in and buy whole rows of Marvels including Cage, and Mile­stone’s Blood Syndicate. “I like the Mile­stone one,” he tells me, “ ’cause they’ve got good art and it’s all about this gang that gets contaminated… Cage has a lot of fights with other superheroes like the Hulk. He’s a good guy, but he still gets into fights.” Do you like the comics with the black characters better? “Yeah, I guess so.”

How come? He looks at me for about a minute, suddenly afraid of saying something wrong. “ ’Cause they’re black?”

Sitting out in Milestone Media’s reception area, I decide that I can tell immediately who does what here from their clothes — ­that the guy in the suit must work in fi­nance, that the long loping figure in the jeans has to be a pencil jock. It turns out I’m only half right.

Launched last year, Milestone is top dog in the black comic biz, with six titles and more than 5 million books sold. Founded by a core group composed of Derek Dingle, Michael Davis, Denys Cowan, and Dwayne McDuffie — Dingle and Davis the money end, Cowan and McDuffie pictures and words — Milestone sits comfortably under the shade of a DC Comics distribution deal. They make the comics and DC distributes them, while DC’s parent conglomerate, Time Warner, watches from the penthouse. Everybody’s making money so far.

Cowan and McDuffie met at Marvel Com­ics while working on Deathlok, Cowan drawing, McDuffie writing. McDuffie, the suit I misidentified earlier, would cut a tall, solidly upwardly mobile figure behind his PowerBook if it weren’t for the trace of nerdy teenage energy that still hovers around his eyes. He’s outlining to me how he pretty much fell into comics by accident, but it’s the kid he used to be who’s really speaking, explaining how relieved he is to have lucked into such a cool job.

“I was at NYU for film school and ran out of money, so I took a job copy-editing tables: tables of numbers, many many tables of numbers. I was bitching about my job a whole bunch to a guy who was working at Marvel, and he said there’s an editing job opening here, you should apply for it. I got it and took a major pay cut, but it was definite­ly a lot better than the tables of numbers. I started writing comics to supplement my in­come and found I liked writing much better than editing. I was writing lots of kid stuff like Power Pack and Spiderman education­al books. I always wanted to do Spiderman, but the closest I got was Spiderman “You Can Be an Engineer” books, or “Spiderman Teaches Bicycle Safety,” things like that. Then I ended up doing Deathlok.”

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For 25 issues that ran between 1991 and 1993, McDuffie spun the tale of a brother named Michael Collins, an idealistic com­puter expert who stumbles across the secret Deathlok cyber-warrior project and has his personality downloaded and imprinted on the killing machine cyborg. Deathlok had a short run in the late ’70s as a white guy, but McDuffie brought him back black, rewriting the character as one long castration-anxiety mindfuck.

McDuffie capped off his time at Marvel with a special series in which Deathlok teamed up with Marvel’s old-school super­hero, the Black Panther, to save the African nation of Wakanda from an African Ameri­can supervillain who wanted to move black people back to the Motherland. “I don’t think most of the editorial staff at Marvel really understood what I was doing with the character, but it gets back to your question of how I got into comics. When I was a kid I only had a mild interest in comics. I liked the goofy Supermans where people would turn into giant turtles and stuff. I saw Spi­derman and I liked that because he was this nerdy science student who was secretly cool and that sure sounded like me to me. I really identified. But it was still a sort of casual interest.

“Then I saw ‘Panther’s Rage’ [Don McGregor’s well-regarded mid-’70s Black Panther storyline] when I was 11 or 12, and it absolutely riveted me. I really didn’t know why at the time. Looking back on it, it’s easy to see that there was something really spe­cial, really validating, about seeing yourself reflected in the media with dignity, with intelligence. Black Panther was all the things that black characters in comics never were. I never went to the store specifically for books until ‘Panther’s Rage,’ but once I saw it, I was in, I couldn’t get away from it.”

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The Panther transmuted into four initial titles at Milestone: Icon, Hardware, Blood Syndicate, and Static. Until things settled down at the new company, McDuffie held sole writing credit on Icon and Hardware, plus assists on the rest, as well as the over-­arching title of editor in chief. It’s virtually unprecedented for any comic-book writer, black or white, to oversee the production of an entire world — something akin to the role the legendary Stan Lee had in shaping Marvel.

“What we tried to take from Marvel — ­from the early Marvel, that is — what we just ripped was the sense that, OK, we’re doing superheroes, but they’re going to live in a world that looks more like our world,” McDuffie says. The key to making Mile­stone’s world look more like McDuffie’s is the city of Dakota, where most of the Mile­stone books are set. The “realness” of this urban setting (a midsize, down-on-its-luck, multiracial community) is what guarantees the realness of the characters. As proof of the work they’ve put into their universe, McDuffie shows me the Milestone Bible, a phone-book-sized compilation of people, places, and things that are found in Dakota. McDuffie and Cowan figure that if they get their nabes right, making their characters residents instead of visitors, then their sto­ries won’t go stale or silly. That was the early Marvel philosophy, which in the ’60s meant having Peter Parker go to Empire State University, while Doctor Strange hung out in the Village.

Nineteen nineties black people, needless to say, occupy very different urban spaces. Blood Syndicate, which tells the adventures of a posse who develop superpowers thanks to a government antigang program gone awry, is set in Paris Island, Dakota’s seamy underbelly. Taking out crack houses and rival crews, the Syndicate struggles to sur­vive and uncover the conspiracy that creat­ed them. Static, the story of Virgil Hawkins, superpowered high schooler with an over­active wit and a prickly crush on a white girl, is set in Sadler, a brownstone-lined community distinctly reminiscent of Fort Greene. So far, Virgil has tangled with drug dealers and the mob, defeated superpow­ered schoolyard bullies, and headed off a Crown Heights–like race riot — this between working in a fast-food joint and keeping his grades up.

Icon is Milestone’s flagship title. Dako­ta’s Superman, Icon is an alien who crash­landed as a baby in the Deep South of 1839. Taking the Milestone ethos about site specificity to an extreme, Icon experiences blackness as just an arbitrary state of mind, his African Americanness locked in by the accident of his initial discovery by a slave. Had he been found by Ma and Pa Kent, he’d look and think like them. For now, his distinguishing characteristic is a tendency toward moral and ethical pronouncements that would be unremarkable coming from Supes’s mouth, but uttered by a brother take on a decidedly neocon slant.

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The other McDuffie book is Hardware, the Deathlok-like story of an engineering wiz named Curtis Metcalf and his amazing suit of armor. Sticking close to Dakota’s upscale and predominantly white high-tech enclaves, Hardware wreaks murder and mayhem on the forces of corporate evil in what can only be a riff on McDuffie and Co.’s own experiences in the comics biz. Curtis’s big problem so far has been that he enjoys the vengeful superhero trip a bit too much — and can’t decide if his battles have any relevance to black people who don’t work in office penthouses.

In the past few months, Milestone has started branching out, adding some more shades to the company’s already multicol­ored palette. First, there was the Shadow War, a crossover saga that involved almost all the Milestone heroes and introduced two new titles: Xombi, an Asian American su­perhero (“No, he’s not a martial artist,” says a Milestone staffer) and The Shadow Cabinet, a racially mixed superteam. This month the company is taking up the separatist versus integrationist dilemma that un­derlies its own corporate existence in another crossover miniseries, Worlds Collide. When an interdimensional rift threatens Dakota and Metropolis, Icon and the rest of Milestone’s heroes come face-to-face with Superman and some other (white) folks from DC’s regular stable.

As if juggling all of those stories and spaces wasn’t enough, Milestone’s also set itself the task of doing so without creating any new positive role models. Which is to say, Dwayne McDuffie, the kid who was first turned on to comics by the greatest black comic-book role model of all time, Black Panther, would rather not write any of his own, thank you. “Role models are a trap,” he says, suddenly gone deadly seri­ous. “Role models are another stereotype, Sidney Poitier in early-’60s movies. We are a people, not an image, and it doesn’t really solve anything to replace a negative stereo­type with a positive stereotype. No human being is going to live up to that. I just want books that break the monolithic idea of what black people are. Being a positive role model is too much weight for anybody.”

Blacker-than-thou arguments give my light-skinned self the hives, but you just can’t avoid them whenever you venture onto the subject of black comic books.

When corporate-minded Milestone broke out as the instant black comic heavyweight, the only other group publishing more than one black-oriented title was ANIA, a small consortium of independents based in Oak­land. Neither party wants to say exactly who started the feud (although the word in the black comic scene points toward ANIA) but it wasn’t long before the companies’ respective PR people were faxing broad­sides to the press about whose books were the more culturally aware. Trying to posi­tion itself to capture the newly discovered black market, each company boasted that it knew the best way to render black people heroically in the comics.

ANIA president Eric Griffin said in the press that Milestone wasn’t “black enough,” that its deal with DC Comics con­stituted a sellout. Milestone’s McDuffie countered with “We didn’t want to sell our books out of the back of a truck: It takes away time from the creative work.” It seems like Milestone won the corporate battle of wills: Without a heavyweight distributor and backer like DC Comics, ANIA recently suspended publication.

Nonetheless, Griffin’s dig seemed to sting the fellas at Milestone in a way that re­hearsed references to growing market share couldn’t soothe; they recognized the irony of doing black superheroes in a medium that has traditionally cast black images as less than heroic. The funny thing is that there have always been heroic black bodies in comic-book formats, from a gun-toting yet petite Harriet Tubman to the original X-Man Malcolm to that early hypothetical superteam, The Talented Tenth. At Fulton Mall just a few blocks up from the Lorestone comics shop, one can spy all of these people rendered in and re­duced to four-color comic tones, sold by street vendors along with illustrated Great Black Kings of Africa calendars sponsored by beer companies and black-owned funeral homes.

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Things get a little hairy, though, when you get to ink-and-paper super-Negroes like Black Panther or Luke Cage or the X-Men’s perennial team player, Storm (see sidebars below). These were black superheroes created by mainstream companies for black and white consumption, and in hindsight they seem the very definition of problematic. The Panther’s nobility (African prince named T’Challa turned crime fighter), Cage’s rap sheet (ex-con-cum-professional super­hero), and Storm’s exotica (jungle rain god­dess) are in many ways racist stereotypes, but that hasn’t stopped black comic writers and fans from invoking them over and over. After all, there’s been room for little else in the market, and then there’s always the off chance that in this month’s issue the char­acter might just up and transcend it all, redeeming the tainted history of black representation in the comics.

The new school of black comic makers wants that redemption now. Taking advan­tage of their own years as fans and assis­tants, as well as of a cultural moment when “black-controlled” is a sure sales pitch, the creative types at these companies want to rewrite all those early characters. To do that, though, they’ll have to come up with a new language, create a new set of origins. This could be a problem, considering that everyone involved has spent the last 20 years dreaming that he was either Luke Cage setting things straight Uptown or Prince T’Challa of Wakanda waiting for the right moment to spring from the humid shadows of giant African palms.

Roger Barnes, writer and penciller for Heru: Son of Ausar, is sounding a bit confessional over the phone. “What did I read?” he asks, echoing my question, trying to decide whether to answer it. “Well, I read PowerMan — Luke Cage: Hero for Hire.”

That Dwayne McDuffie cites the regal Panther while Roger Barnes claims free­-wheeling funketeer Cage says something about the difference between Milestone and its independent challengers. Even though McDuffie wants to move away from creat­ing Panther-esque good guys, his Milestone is definitely the “official” black comic com­pany of the moment, he and Denys Cowan as close as black people get to being comic­-book royalty. In comparison, stillborn ANIA (a Swahili word for “protect” or “de­fend”) wasn’t even a single company when it went under. The idea was to strike at the DC Comics juggernaut through a small, agile distribution combine composed of mem­bers with diverse styles and interests. Ini­tially four signed up: Africa Rising (home of Ebony Warrior), Afrocentric Comic Books (Heru), U.P. Comics (Purge) and Dark Zulu Lies, (Zwanna, Son of Zulu.) Cage seems the appropriate patron saint for this would-be outsider crew.

When we spoke, ANIA was still in busi­ness and Barnes full of infectious enthusi­asm. He and Afrocentric Comic Books got their start in 1991 with a comic book called Horus: Son of Osiris. “Prior to 1990, no one was doing black comics,” he explains. “Now everybody and their mother is doing it. At the time the only thing out there was a book called Brotherman, then all of a sudden we had a flood of black comics, pretty much all black-and-white. The novel­ty ran out though, and soon things weren’t selling as well.

“I had known Eric and Nabile [Eric Grif­fin of Ebony Warrior and Nabile Hage of Zwanna] and ANIA pretty much started off with me and Eric talking on the phone. We wanted to come out with full-color black books, and Ebony Warrior and Heru were the first we did.” As the anti-Milestone, ANIA planned to focus on an Afrocentric perspective, “something along the lines of what Professor Jeffries teaches, the stuff you learn when you a get a degree in Afri­can Studies. Whether you agree or disagree with Afrocentrism, it is an alternate per­spective, something people need to be ex­posed to.” Then comes the only Milestone jab of the conversation, directed at Blood Syndicate: “We think doing those kinds of things is more worthwhile then having characters take out crack houses.”

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If that’s the case, then what about Luke Cage? Busting crack houses is precisely the kind of thing you might find a Hero for Hire doing. “Well, he got a lot of criticism, but I still liked him. Spidey was more popular, but Cage was a black character. There weren’t very many, so I only read Luke Cage. Since he appeared in a lot of other comics, that meant collecting everything. If he was in The Fantastic Four, I bought that issue of The Fantastic Four; if he appeared somewhere else, I bought that. I still have every issue from the original series as well as all the other stuff. I even wrote them a letter, which was printed, about keeping him when Marvel was planning to get rid of the book. It was kind of a pep talk: Let’s get serious here, we can do this or that to keep the book going.” Since Marvel didn’t listen to him, Barnes doesn’t follow the new Cage series. “They should have kept him un­-brought back.”

Luke Cage lives though, and not just in his new book at Marvel. In Heru, Barnes applies the habit of meticulousness he learned as a Cage researcher to a new ob­ject: Egyptian mythology. Backed up by Barnes’s advanced degree in African history (the comic even received a favorable notice in Smithsonian magazine), Heru tells of the miraculous appearance of Heru in Kemet (that’s ancient Egypt to you and me, the black upper kingdom from which all Egyptian power and philosophy flowed down the Nile) during the reign of Pharaoh Akhenaton. The story finds a kindly Akhenaton sitting on his great throne as light-skinned Arab and Mediterranean barbarians from the north move into the lower kingdom in droves, warping and misunderstanding the values of his people. Heru arrives with amazing-magical powers just in the nick of time, at once affirming and confounding the beliefs of the Egyptians.

It’s hard not to take it as a comment on comic books in general when the royal advi­sor Hosef tells Akhenaton: “Our metaphor­ic mysteries are taken literally by these ig­norant outsiders. The uncivilized have not the brains to grasp our symbolism.” After all, comic fandom is a pretty arcane commu­nity — one whose obsessive attention to de­tail and continuity often makes it unintelli­gible to those who aren’t heavily into the books. Barnes’s pursuit of Cage across titles and years is the deep science of the comic-­book universe, a tendency toward alchemi­cal recombinations of story lines that links comic fans to JFK assassination buffs and UFO enthusiasts. This is why Barnes’s book can be so Afrocentric and deliriously pulp at the same time, its saturated browns, rusts, and golds borrowing from the funk of black-velvet painting as surely as its story relies on the voluminous research of Molefi Asante’s Kemet, Afrocentricity & Knowledge.

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Lacking a unifying theme, except for a marketing strategy and their appeal to a certain demographic, ANIA’s other books take place in Southern-seeming milieus, communities divided only by crime and racism into heroes, self-hating thugs, and plain folks. Eric Griffin’s Ebony Warrior tells the story of Komal Jackson, a black tech-wiz who, unlike Hardware, turns down the For­tune 500 companies to move back to his Southern hometown. By day Jackson teach­es, but by night he dons a high-tech suit of armor and takes out Yorktown’s pushers. Purge, written by Roosevelt Pitt and featur­ing art by Bill Hobbs that easily ranks with any of the majors’ books, reads like an Ebony Warrior that’s been boiled down to its purest essence. To date, its hero has no life or identity outside of beating dealers down. A black ronin, he just keeps doing his violent thing, zeroing in on his elusive quarry: the big-time (i.e., white) importers of drugs.

“The most important thing for us is that the company be black-controlled,” said Barnes before the day to day of running a business did ANIA in. “That’s what we are most concerned about.” Besides the nuts and bolts of putting out books, though, ANIA also had an image problem of its own to contend with. Zwanna, one of the origi­nal titles in the group, came under fire for racist depictions of whites. Barnes didn’t write or edit Zwanna, and the book was the first to drop out of ANIA’s fold, but he makes an able defense against the racism charge: “Zwanna: Son of Zulu was drawn by a white artist. A lot of people looking at that book might not think it. But if Zwanna has a white artist, how could we discrimi­nate against that segment of the population?”

Barnes is too nice a guy to undercut a friend, but the truth is that racism against whites is the least of Zwanna’s problems. Zwanna is a descendant of the great Chaka Zulu, living in the U.S. and enrolled at Black American State University. Whenever racism threatens, he “Zhaabs Out,” becom­ing a loin-clothed super-African. Lost on his way to an In Living Color sketch, Zwanna skewers racist skinheads on his spear be­tween one-liners. A mocking riff on the Panther, Zwanna regales his girlfriend with sweet nothings like “I got that jungle love for you, baby!”

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Then there’s the scene in which the lead­ers of the worldwide racist conspiracy have Zwanna chained spread-eagled while they croon, “Give us some bootie, cutie.” Por­trayed in the book as a lisping quartet of white male transvestites, they plan to break Africa’s will by raping Zwanna. Zwanna breaks free and dispatches them in turn, impaling them on his spear “missionary style.”

The book is rife with such patently offen­sive moments, moments a mainstream pub­lisher couldn’t get away with but that the book’s writer, Nabile Hage, boasts is proof of his independent comix credentials. Zwanna doesn’t reserve its hostility for skinheads and drag queens, though — it spits venom at black people too: foolish sellout Toms or the dippy African American women who want to bed Zwanna down in paroxysms of Mandingo stud fever. For a long stretch last summer and fall, Zwanna was the face of ANIA (in the press at least), and the ugliness of that image might have had something to do with the title’s mutually agreed upon departure from ANIA. Take it as an object lesson in marketing, then, that “black owned” and “black controlled” was enough of a pitch to give a loincloth-­wearing, spear-carrying Zulu named Zwanna his 15 minutes of authentic-black-superhero fame.

I ask Posro Komics’s head writer and artist (Roland Laird and Elihu Bey II) what their book would be if it were a record. It’s the only thing you can ask, really. Posro’s book, MC2, isn’t a superhero comic, it’s a hip-hop comic, the story of Earl Terrel, a regular-joe Harlem barber with a phat jeep and dreams of programming black-themed computer games. It doesn’t come with a soundtrack, but the suggestion of beats is everywhere in MC2, from the clubs that Earl frequents to the tapes he plays in his car.

“I used to think that if MC2 was a record it’d be Tribe Called Quest’s People’s In­stinctive Travels,” Laird says after a mo­ment’s thought as Bey nods. “That and the first De La Soul.”

“Yeah, definitely,” says Bey.

“There could be a little bit of PE in there too, but I keep coming back to Tribe and De La Soul ’cause they were just so differ­ent when they came out. Musically anyway.”

This makes a certain amount of sense. To ask the question, I’ve had to take a Tren­ton-bound train past Joi-zee highways, tree­-covered hills, burned-out factories, smoking refineries, and the back porches of rundown houses to Edison, the clean and suburban town where Laird lives and works. It’s the kind of ride you can make on the LIRR to De La Soul’s Long Island.

Laird used to live in Brooklyn, but he had to go to New Jersey to write his comic, had to “step outside to the quiet to get the work done,” as he tells me. After the heat and noise of the Milestone/ANIA wars, quiet seems like a fine place to be, and Laird and his comic have the turf well staked out. Milestone is part of the comics mainstream and ANIA, in its own Afrocentric way, wants to be, but Posro is a different kind of outsider company, doing comics in black and white, dreaming and working toward the big time but still finding satisfaction in the pleasures of smallness.

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Laird, of course, prefers the term specific to small. “It was important to do something that was relevant to hip-hop,” he says, “and portrayed hip-hop’s versatility as a medium, so MC2 isn’t a superhero comic. Comics fall under stereotypes just like black people do. You tell somebody you’re doing a comic book, and they’re expecting capes, cos­tumes, the whole nine. We wanted to do something that was totally different, in that MC2’s Earl is regular, it’s about a regular person.

“I’m down for positive images, but I like. showing a balanced view. MC2 isn’t a char­acter for people to hero worship, he’s more a character that you can kind of get behind. That’s his thing, his day in the sun, so to speak.”

And Earl’s day it is, all of it. In the first few issues, he cuts hair, kids around with his little sister, does some programming, goes to a club, hangs with his homeboy, and so on, the only “excitement” coming when somebody tries to steal his ride. The slow unfolding of time and scenes in the comic is unlike anything in “mainstream” black books, except perhaps Milestone’s Static, and even that book succumbs to the big company’s sharklike need to keep swim­ming in action-packed waters. Bey and Laird say they could do “mad action” if they wanted, but for now have other, more subtle fish to fry.

“When I was working on MC2 I was try­ing to show the beauty in things that are not that beautiful.” This is Bey speaking up, answering a question about what he wanted out of the comic. “I used to look at certain videos, like Pete Rock and CL Smooth videos, and it’d be set in an urban environment where in reality it was gray stone and cold, but in the video there would be all these earth tones in the surroundings, even in the buildings and everybody would be moving in slow motion. You actually saw the hidden beauty there, and I wanted to capture that in the book. I said to myself: I’m gonna make sure that I capture that.

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“Because when you live in the ghetto, when you live in a poor environment, every day is not bad. Every day is not bad. Some­times you wake up and it’s just like…” Bey searches for the words and then settles on a shrug.

The next few issues are going to touch on misogyny in hip-hop, Negro League base­ball, and a death in Earl’s family. The mix’ll be the thing in those books, as Earl drives his 4×4 down different streets and into new situations, which brings up the question of how Bey and Laird got to this point on their particular ride.

“I can’t remember when I wasn’t draw­ing,” says Bey, hands in his hair, shoulders shrugging. “Basically, I was caught up in Marvel like everybody else. Subconsciously, I wanted to see black images, so I would color Thor and different characters brown, draw them over, maybe give them a different costume, even though they’d still have long blond hair.”

Laird gives me the half shrug, too. “I’ve always been running around doing different things. I read comics but I’m not an artist. I’m really more of a cartoon person. I can probably name every cartoon, every episode. My favorite cartoon is the Flintstones. Believe it or not. I like Mighty Mouse too… and Heckle and Jeckle. I like their… vibrancy.”

All three of us laugh when he mentions Heckle and Jeckle. We all remember watch­ing those jet-black crows with a minor, un­explainable measure of guilt, laughing at them while unsure of just who the joke was on. Usually I’d think twice before admitting I had liked something like Heckle and Jeckle, but not today. Laird and Bey seem just too mellow to judge me for the detours I’ve taken on my way to hanging with them, here in the “quiet-outside” of Edison.

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Lorestone Comics’s Liz Black and David Santana are holding court in their Fort Greene shop, talking the history of black comics. Liz and David are business people but they’re also devoted fans. You have to listen very carefully to keep up with them. They speak in arrhythmic cadences, have little interest in backtracking, and they nev­er, ever, apologize for knowing more about comics than just about anyone they will ever meet in life. It’s not their fault you’re stupid.

Liz: “In the mid ’60s there was Black Panther appearing in The Avengers. Later in the ’60s you started getting a lot of other black characters like—”

“Luke Cage.” David calls out.

“Right.” says Liz. David’s off by a couple of years, but she lets it slide. “That was Marvel. And in DC you had—”

“Black Lightning.”

“Black Lightning. They were heavy into the word black.”

“Black Goliath?” David offers.

“Yeah. Black Goliath, Black Lightning, black this, black that…” From there, the two can and will go on for hours, assem­bling whole genealogies of the marginal one-issue guest stars and also-rans that comprise the bulk of the black superhero world — the Falcon, Moses Magnum, Broth­er Voodoo, the Teen Titans’ Cyborg — on and on through the still counting books and years.

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Lorestone is Liz and David’s home in many ways, a physical space whose door­ways open up onto thousands of fantasy rooms an issue at a time. And Liz and David are the surrogate parents of this home, leading their charges through the racks of books like they were some kind of wilderness. The kids know this, so as they grab at books, tossing them to and fro across the storefront, there inevitably comes a moment when the title gets held up to Liz and David for inspection and advice. “How’s this?” someone usually young and male will ask, and then David will smile or frown before ticking off the names of books he’s liked better. The attention makes the store a magnet for neighborhood kids who’ll roll through after school to browse and buy.

Liz and David like most of the new black comic books fine. A sure way for a comic to get on their bad side, though, is to duplicate or rip off characters and types they’ve seen before. That’s David’s problem with Mile­stone’s Blood Syndicate. “New Jack City with powers,” he calls it.

Liz has a more sociological gripe, saying she worries about the values that the books might be teaching to impressionable kids. “It’s not enough to just say you’re posi­tive,” she figures, noting that many “posi­tive” comics are often more hype than sub­stance. She also has mixed emotions about the kind of black pride that some of the by­-for-and-about companies like ANIA are selling. “Being black, understanding black, being proud of black, doesn’t mean ‘I’m black and I’m proud and everybody else is lower,’ ” she says. “It means I understand who I am, what I am, and I am happy about it. Some people at ANIA don’t seem to understand that, they think black pride means hating white. So David and I decid­ed we wouldn’t sell that book, that Zwanna: Son of Zulu. Especially not to kids. We preferred to eat the price on it than sell it to kids.”

But its not the “kids” who buy the black books in the first place. As an afternoon spent at Lorestone will reveal, the store does most of its business in black books with young men in their twenties, each one of them with very articulate and political reasons for why they buy what they buy. The audience still young enough to be af­fected by black comics, as opposed to mere­ly gratified by them, buys endless streams of X-Men and Batman comics, with bang­zoom Milestone entries like Blood Syndi­cate thrown in here and there.

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It takes a while for Liz to admit how she and David get around the notoriously poor taste of their younger customers. When she does tell me, it’s in tones shaded conspira­torial: “You know,” she says, her voice gone a little low, “sometimes we just give the books away, just give ’em away. Really.”

Even though Liz is talking about a few samples here and there, David, who’s spent his whole adult life working around comics, wants to make sure I understand what she means. At various times he’s made quick, vague remarks about Lorestone “restructuring,” about how hard this business is, about the possibility that he might have to go back to just doing tabletop sales at trade shows, or find a location with lower rent. And in fact, a few weeks later, the shop will close down, the crates of heroes black and white disappearing into David’s apartment until they can find a permanent place to live. Whether or not David knows all this is in store for Lorestone now, he isn’t saying. What he does want to say, in slow, measured words, is why he and Liz might choose to give some of the stock away for free.

“We give them away,” he says, “just to put the book in someone’s hand. If we read a book and we like it and think it has something to offer, we say: here, take a look at this. Not because we couldn’t sell them or because we wanted to get rid of them, but because we want people to read them.”

“Reading is what they’re there for,” adds Liz.

David then tells me that at first they gave a lot of their black comic books away: Then they started selling just about all of them, to customers like the 15-year-old who’s just walked in to buy a Hardware comic. Neither very young nor very old as far as comic fans go, he doesn’t look around, chat, or browse. He just gets his book and his mon­ey together, and heads to the register. When I ask him why he bought that particular title, he seems annoyed by the question.

“Because he’s black,” he says, looking at me like I’m stupid. ■

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Roots, Part 1: The Black Panther

Initially introduced in the ’60s-era Fantastic Four as a hip reference to African liberation movements, Black Panther (ne T’Challa) was the noble prince of the fictional postcolonial nation Wakanda. After a few guest spots, the Panther found steady work with another superteam, the Avengers, where he fought smugglers, poachers, exploitative multinationals and the like — in between lending a brotherly hand to Afro-Americans. By the early ’70s, he had relocated to America, and gotten his own book. Helmed by a white writer, Don McGregor, Black Panther set the standard for a much emulated black comic type: the role-model superhero. A dream date for the big nation-building prom, T’Challa was noble, tortured by injustice, good-looking, selfless to a fault, in good health, community-minded, rich, unquestion­ably het, and not just African but royal. He was what you’d call a real positive brother — no wonder Wesley Snipes wants to play him.

Since fighting the minions of con­glomerates is what noble princes of Wakanda were thought to do as naturally as breathing, Black Panther’s cre­ators felt no need to gift him with any special powers. An expert in African fighting and mystical arts, he was who he was, a black panther — stealthy, fast, powerful and, uh, black. As far as spe­cial powers were concerned, why would the Panther need them? It wasn’t like he was fighting the planet-eating Galac­tus on a regular basis.

Roots, Part 2: Storm (Ororo)

Ororo lives in the shadow of both her Africanness and her status as a mem­ber of the X-Men. A shorthand psycho­logical type who rounds out the affir­mative-action figures at the world’s bestselling comic, Ororo puts in triple duty as the team’s plain talker, nurtur­er, and exotic. Drawn with t&a fore­most in mind, she’s forever flying off into the rain to clear her head or dress­ing one of the male X-Men down for not paying enough attention to someone’s — sniff — feelings.

Ororo’s own feelings are opaque by design, making her downright moody, liable to shift in the blink of an eye from wind-riding nature girl to diffi­cult-to-approach-ice-queen-with-a­-mysterious-past. A tragic mulatto from the heart of Africa, Ororo was the team’s nominal leader for a spell, but even in a leadership capacity she was melancholy and withdrawn as if by def­inition, immensely popular but never quite center stage. Until she gets her own book, her real glory seems des­tined to be the outside context of fandom, where among other things she lives on the Internet as a staple of X-Men/lesbian-themed porn.

Roots, Part 3: Luke Cage

A creature of the ’70s, Marvel’s Luke Cage isn’t the oldest of the major black heroes, but he had the longest run in his own title (though, in an effort to boost sagging sales, the title kept changing — from Luke Cage, Hero for Hire to PowerMan to PowerMan and Iron Fist). Given superhuman strength and steel-like skin by a jail­-house experiment, Cage was a walking cliché of black macho. When Marvel teamed him with mystic martial artist Iron Fist, a blaxploitation dream team was born. Heroes for hire, the pair mostly faced colorful hustler types, supergangsters, and drug dealers, as well as the occasional Roxxon or A.I.M. scientist seeking to reproduce the PowerMan Process.

Low on subtlety and heavy on ac­tion, the book’s mean-streets setting and mack-daddy bad guys hit high notes of unmitigated ’70s funk before getting canceled in 1986. Two years ago Marvel decided to revive the char­acter — in a book called, simply, Cage. So far, the new series is an ongoing oedipal drama, bringing Cage back to the site of his super origin. Writer Mar­cus McLaurin wants to dialogue with ’70s black macho — the historical space of Cage’s origin — hoping to critique the type while still relying on it to make the comic fun. It’s a neat enough trick when it works, but when it doesn’t, today’s Cage is a skipping record, hitting the same blustery note over and over.

Roots, Part 4: Brotherman

Produced by people who obviously grew up on Mad magazine, Brotherman, Dictator of Discipline was one of the first comics by, for, and about black folks. Done by three brothers (literally: Guy Sims writes, David Sims ­draws, and Jason Sims handles the business end) from Irving, Texas, Brotherman’s eponymous hero is hardly new take on the genre. Antonio Valor is just your average black district attorney who can’ts takes it no mo’ and turns crime fighter — blah, blah, blah. The real action in the book happens off to the side, where David Sims mixes looks borrowed from graffiti art and the smoothed-gray surfaces of Mort Drucker’s Mad movie parodies.

Similarly, writer Guy Sims’s fondness for crowd scenes in which each meticulously drawn bit player has a perfectly timed one-liner to offer sug­gests an infatuation with the work of early Mad creator Harvey Kurtzman. His auteur turn, though, has to be Brotherman’s elaboration of the love interest as comic book device. Not only does Antonio have a coworker and se­cret admirer named Melody, but entire issues are devoted to her pining for him — a narrative that’s all the more poignant for the fake Whitney-esque songs floating dirgelike through the di­alogue boxes above.


Road to Endgame: The Marvel Cinematic Universe Reviewed

On Friday, April 26, 2019 — 11 years after Robert Downey Jr., launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe with the help of Iron Man’s rocket boosters — the Avengers’ saga reaches its climax with Endgame. So how did Tony, Cap, Natasha, T’Challa, and the rest get to this point? It was a long road, one that would take fans almost two days of continuous watching to travel, complete with low points (Thor: The Dark World) and high ones (Thor: Ragnarok), laughs (“I am Groot”), and tears (the end of Infinity Wars). Overall, in slightly more than a decade, the MCU has minted new stars, redefined the Hollywood blockbuster, and sparked countless arguments among the online commentariat. If you haven’t been paying attention so far, it may be too late to catch up, but here’s what the Voice‘s film critics thought about everything you missed along the way.

Iron Man
Released May 2, 2008
“Even when the plot of Iron Man kowtows to convention, the movie’s personality — hip to the times without ever resorting to self-congratulatory snark — keeps it zipping along. Rarer than a grown man in a rocket suit, it’s a summer blockbuster that comes to entertain first and shill second.”

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The Incredible Hulk 
Released June 13, 2008
“Banner’s a weakling in the comic books — to the point where writers have begun depicting him as suicidal, or almost eradicated him entirely. Which would have been just a wee bit problematic for Universal, who clearly wants another franchise to hawk.”

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Iron Man 2
Released May 7, 2010
“Downey Jr. gives his glibness a vulnerable twitch; his out-of-control drunk bust-up at his birthday party, while wearing his heavy-ordnance suit, suggests a more dangerous, more interesting sequel.”

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Released May 6, 2011
“Unlike the muscled-out, metalhead, beach-blond (from head to candy-corn eyebrows) hero, Loki’s like a walking Spandau Ballet music video, with a trim, bottle-black New Wave shimmer, pale, angular features, mirror-trained smoldering affect, and custom-tailored, dance-ready formalwear.”

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Captain America: The First Avenger
Released July 22, 2011
“There’s not so much as a single mention of the ideological divides that plagued the times — and, subsequently, spawned the original anti-Fascist Captain America comics. So what is Captain America fighting for? Apparently nothing more or less than screen time in The Avengers.”

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The Avengers
Released May 4, 2012
Every time the movie hints at something rich and evocative, Whedon undercuts it with a punchline — his instincts as a big-picture storyteller crippled by his short-term need to please the crowd.”

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Iron Man 3
Released May 3, 2013
“Downey’s firecracker dialogue sometimes feels improvised — maybe it is — and it’s often bitterly funny. To respond to his vulnerability is to thrill to his sharpness as well; keeping up with him is much of the pleasure of watching him.”

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Thor: The Dark World
Released November 8, 2013
“As Thor matures, his ego shrinks, along with his identity. Lacking Iron Man’s wit, the Hulk’s brains, and the Captain’s ideals, he’s in peril of going poof himself if the franchise doesn’t figure out how to capitalize on its most glorious hero.”

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Released April 4, 2014
The Winter Soldier has the taut nervousness of a story anxious to get in, get the job done, and get out. It’s more grounded than other flicks in the Avengers franchise: There’s no road trip to space, no cackling galactic goon or cheap-looking space trinket with the power to destroy all life.”

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Guardians of the Galaxy
Released August 1, 2014
y the end, you’ll have been winked at so much you may think you’ve been staring at a strobe light for nearly two hours. Guardians of the Galaxy is proof that a picture can have a sense of humor yet have no real wit. It hits every beat, but it hasn’t got the beat.”

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Avengers: Age of Ultron
Released May 1, 2015  
“Of all the fated moments in the most foretold hit of the summer, the most honest comes when two robots stand on a hill admitting that mankind is doomed. Perhaps in 2035, an android can direct the twentieth Avengers sequel.”

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Avengers: Age of Ultron
Released May 1, 2015
“In Age of Ultron, a character has a premonition showing all the Avengers lying lifeless in a ravaged landscape — this is a future the team must act to stop. But we know this imagined tragedy will never come to pass.”

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Released July 17, 2015
“If not quite the loose surprise of last summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy, it’s blessedly free of gods-weep ponderousness. But it’s also uncentered in a way that Marvel’s origin films have never been.”

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Captain America: Civil War
Released May 6, 2016
“It’s odd to think that a generation of viewers may not remember a time when interlocking superhero epics didn’t command such swaths of the mainstream moviegoing firmament. These films no longer have to delight and surprise us; no, their job now is to manage the brand, not screw anything up too royally, and keep us hooked for the next installment.”

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Doctor Strange
Released November 4, 2016
“As in Ant-Man or the original Iron Man, the Marvel Studios releases it most resembles, Doctor Strange sells its wearily old-hat dude-becomes-hero tale through strong casting, an emphasis on emotion and humor, and the good sense never to let action overwhelm character.”

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Guardians of of the Galaxy Vol. 2 
Released May 5, 2017
“Why in these blockbuster adventures does the woman character always have to be the mother hen: the most talented, the smartest on the team, the one who sacrifices intimacy for her career; the killjoy sold as ‘strong’ but curiously lacking in dimensionality and humor, even as she runs in heels and is treated as ‘the girl.’ ”

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Spider-Man: Homecoming
Released July 7, 2017
“You know how some comics fans insist that they actually read sequential art or graphic novels? Spider-Man: Homecoming is comics, unapologetically, as close as blockbuster filmmaking gets to cartooning.”

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Thor: Ragnarok
Released November 3, 2017
“In its own weird little way, Thor: Ragnarok manages to poke fun at the constant churn of myth and entertainment of which the movie itself is a part. It’s a candy-colored cage of delights, but it is a cage nevertheless — and it doesn’t hide that fact.”

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Black Panther
Released February 16, 2018  
“Wakanda may be a realm of Afrofuturism, boasting culture, technology, and Black excellence untouched by colonial influence, but the world it inhabits is the real world — our world. One of military-industrial complexes, of refugee crises, of African-American struggle, and of questions of cultural belonging.”

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Black Panther
Released February 16, 2018
“Coogler and his team have conjured a universe and fleshed out its players, one existing (honestly, thriving) in the even bigger cinematic universe that is Marvel. It’s a case of the right story landing in the right hands.”

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Avenger: Infinity War
Released April 27, 2018
“The cliffhanger climax of Infinity War left the audience at my screening in a state that I can only describe with the most tired of critical clichés: They were stunned. No matter the film’s flaws, that decade of character work — of character love, even — powers an all-too-rare pop-culture wallop. For once, the superhero movie punches us.”

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Ant-Man and the Wasp
Released July 6, 2018
“Ant-Man and the Wasp
tries to have it both ways. It keeps the conflicts relatively inconsequential, but piles them indifferently atop one another as if to reach a prescribed level of momentousness.”

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Black History Month: Surveying the Superhero Landscape

Back in the day it was all “white-bread superheroes for white-bread children”: Superman, Batman, Captain America, Thor, etc. But by the mid-Nineties things were changing, and when Voice contributor Gary Dauphin made the rounds of New York City comic book stores he found youngsters gravitating to a new “top dog” in the biz, Milestone Media. Dauphin explained to readers that the young company had “six titles and more than 5 million books sold. Founded by a core group composed of Derek Dingle, Michael Davis, Denys Cowan, and Dwayne McDuffie — Dingle and Davis the money end, Cowan and McDuffie pictures and words — Milestone sits comfortably under the shade of a DC Comics distribution deal. They make the comics and DC distributes them, while DC’s parent conglomerate, Time Warner, watches from the penthouse. Everybody’s making money so far.”

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McDuffie passed away in 2011 from a heart ailment, but back then he gave Voice readers his own origin story:

I was at NYU for film school and ran out of money, so I took a job copyediting tables: tables of numbers, many many tables of numbers. I was bitching about my job a whole bunch to a guy who was working at Marvel, and he said there’s an editing job opening here, you should apply for it. I got it and took a major pay cut, but it was definitely a lot better than the tables of numbers. I started writing comics to supplement my income and found I liked writing much better than editing. I was writing lots of kid stuff like Power Pack and Spiderman educational books. I always wanted to do Spiderman, but the closest I got was Spiderman ‘You Can be an Engineer’ books, or ‘Spiderman Teaches Bicycle Safety,’ things like that. Then I ended up doing Deathlok.

In sidebars Dauphin covers the “roots” of black superheroes, as in this précis on Luke Cage:

A creature of the ’70s, Marvel’s Luke Cage isn’t the oldest of the major black heroes, but he had the longest run in his own title (though, in an effort to boost sagging sales, the title kept changing — from Luke Cage, Hero for Hire to PowerMan to PowerMan and Iron Fist). Given superhuman strength and steel-like skin by a jail-house experiment, Cage was a walking cliché of black macho. When Marvel teamed him with mystic martial artist Iron Fist, a blaxploitation dream team was born. Heroes for hire, the pair mostly faced colorful hustler types, supergangsters, and drug dealers, as well as the occasional Roxxon or A.I.M. scientist seeking to reproduce the PowerMan Process.

Low on subtlety and heavy on action, the book’s mean-streets setting and mack-daddy bad guys hit high notes of unmitigated ’70s funk before getting canceled in 1986. [In 1992], Marvel decided to revive the character — in a book called, simply, Cage. So far, the new series is an ongoing oedipal drama, bringing Cage back to the site of his super origin. Writer Marcus McLaurin wants to dialogue with the ’70s black macho — the historical space of Cage’s origin — hoping to critique the type while still relying on it to make the comic fun.

Even a quarter-century ago, the comic books were getting seriously meta.

—The Voice Archives

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In “Black Panther,” American Dreams and American Nightmares Clash

Marvel’s lavish, Africa-set superhero adventure opens on the streets of Oakland, California, in 1992. Black Bay Area youth shoot basketballs into makeshift scrap-hoops. Above them, N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown) code-switches between American and African inflection as Wakandan royalty comes knocking to investigate potential crimes against the crown. The interaction finds the Black Panther, T’Chaka, an African superhero and king, face-to-face with his brother, N’Jobu, an armed revolutionary speaking of Black liberation — on the precipice, no less, of L.A.’s Rodney King Riots, in the nearby city where the Black Panther Party was born.

In Black Panther, directed and co-written by Oakland native Ryan Coogler, history and metaphor are intrinsically linked. The character and the party were named independently of each other, but they both sprung from the same volatile social climate of 1966. The Jack Kirby and Stan Lee superhero creation first appeared in the pages of Fantastic Four, fully formed along with the character’s advanced African “Techno Organic Jungle.” Wakanda may be a realm of Afrofuturism, boasting culture, technology, and Black excellence untouched by colonial influence, but the world it inhabits is the real world — our world. One of military-industrial complexes, of refugee crises, of African-American struggle, and of questions of cultural belonging. Black Panther is a fantasy in concept, but it exists to highlight and hold accountable a harsh reality, to ask a simple yet fundamental question: How do “the wise build bridges when the foolish seek to build barriers?”

The answer lies, in part, in the idea of Wakanda, whose near-limitless supply of the fictional metal Vibranium has given rise to untold advancements in medical science and nanotechnology, but also to arms and ammunitions. The nation’s design, a veritable wellspring of ideas from an alternate reality, centers African aesthetics and artistic philosophies in lieu of their omnipresent Western counterparts. Wakanda is at once a sociopolitical respite and a classic Marvel reversal in the vein of their What If? comic line, only its central question is less about exchanging known characters’ power sets in inconsequential alternate realities than it is about the mechanics of colonial history. What if, the film posits, Africa were allowed to advance on its own terms, without being stripped of resources and people? What would that promise look like? The answer is breathtaking from the moment Okoye (Danai Gurira), leader of the all-female Royal Guard the Dora Milaje, flies T’Chaka’s son and newly appointed successor T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) back to his homeland through a mountainous hologram. “We are home,” she says, guiding both the king and the viewer into a secret world where African culture and advanced technology evolved not only side-by-side, but as one and the same.

Perhaps this is the answer the world has been waiting for, the centering of perspectives and ideas pushed to the margins for far too long. Perhaps this pan-African paradise will stand as a beacon, and as an example for all the world to follow. King T’Challa certainly thinks so, but like his idealistic Ragnarok counterpart Thor, the God of Thunder, he’s unaware of the full scope of his kingdom’s misdeeds. Like Asgard before it — whose whitewashing of violent conquest led to its destruction by the fire demon Surtur — Wakanda too must face reckoning at the hands of purifying flame, albeit on a more personal scale. Wakanda’s great lie is born in an apartment of that 1992 Oakland. To stop Wakanda from being discovered by the world, King T’Chaka murders his brother N’Jobu, a Wakandan spy seeking to arm oppressed African-Americans with Vibranium-powered weapons after witnessing their plight up-close. In the aftermath, the King hides this murder from his own people by leaving behind N’Jobu’s American-born son. Decades later, that son returns to his homeland and not only catalyzes a Wakandan mutiny but seeks to ensure the end of the Black Panther legacy by burning its ceremonial birthright: the mystical Heart-Shaped Herb, grown from soil fertilized by an alien meteor and the source of both the Panther’s strength and his ability to communicate with fallen ancestors.

That left-behind American-born son, Eric Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), stands as a living embodiment of the grim real-world circumstances that make Wakanda a necessary Afrofuturist fantasy in the first place. Eric — a/k/a N’Jadaka, or, as he was nicknamed in the military, “Killmonger” — is a counterfoil to T’Challa and an inevitable outcome of Wakanda’s gilded leadership leaving ordinary people behind when the nation could have done so much more. Where T’Challa inherits the Panther mantle from his father, an unbroken legacy passed down through generations, Killmonger received a much harsher inheritance: lifelong banishment thanks to the sins of his father, left to raise himself on the streets of Oakland and in the American military, cut off from his culture and identity.

In Wakanda, African culture and advanced technology evolved not only side-by-side, but as one and the same.

When T’Challa consumes the Heart-Shaped Herb — the ingestion of which transports one’s consciousness to the spirit world — he is met with a magnificent ancestral realm: wide-open plains, spanning infinitely in all directions like the promise of possibility. Eric’s spirit-walk under the substance’s influence, however, is confined to the tiny Oakland residence in which he discovered his father’s body. His cultural lineage is limited to a trinket and scribblings hidden behind a secret wall in the apartment. Even if he were to return “home” to Africa, his tribe would likely not accept him as one of their own. Killmonger may not have descended from slaves, but American Blackness is his refuge — the only culture he’s allowed to know, created over centuries as its possessors were stripped of African roots and molded in response contemporary oppression.

There is a devastating meta-text to Michael B. Jordan inhabiting an Oakland-native Killmonger. (In the comics, the character is from Harlem.) In Coogler’s debut, Fruitvale Station, Jordan plays Oscar Grant, a real-life Oakland victim of police violence within a white-supremacist system. In Coogler’s follow-up, Creed, a sequel to and cultural recontextualizing of the Rocky series, Jordan’s L.A.-based Adonis struggles between living up to the legacy of a father he was robbed of and creating a legacy of his own. Killmonger is part of this same continuum — the logical, big-picture extension of Jordan’s Oscar and Adonis, transposed to an action-fantasy setting that remains rooted in the concrete struggles of Fruitvale Station and Creed. Where those films exist within the parameters of real-life and the boxing ring, respectively, Black Panther affords Jordan the opportunity to re-embody similar thematic concepts (systemic brutality, the struggles of legacy) in a newly fantastically expressive way. It’s as if the character exists in direct response to Oscar and Adonis, externalizing angers that, in everyday America, are often forced into silence.

Killmonger is righteous Black rage incarnate. He has witnessed suffering, the kind Wakanda has not, the kind Wakandans cannot if their isolationist dream is to continue. The Kingdom is an African-American fantasy, but it teeters on the edge of becoming America’s worst self, depending on how it chooses to engage with the world. New king T’Challa is surrounded by conflicting perspectives that he must consider as he ascends. There’s the traditionalism of M’Baku (Winston Duke), leader of the Jabari tribe, who dwell in the mountains and worship the Hindu deity Hanuman; T’Challa’s sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), whom M’Baku despises, as she prefers technological innovation and global pop culture over the idea of tradition; and T’Challa’s beau, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), a spy who questions her loyalty to the isolationist state, choosing instead to infiltrate foreign militant camps and employ justified violence to liberate women behind enemy lines. There’s also T’Challa’s friend W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), who insists on turning away refugees to protect the borders; T’Challa’s bodyguard and confidant, Okoye; and, of course, Killmonger himself, the opposite extreme to Wakanda’s prevailing isolationism. Killmonger desires not only to turn the Kingdom into a metaphor for American military invasion through the export of war, but to do so via explicitly American-esque military and governmental methods: destabilizing a vulnerable state during a handover of power, employing foreign sleeper agents to enact political will.

It is amid all these conflicting perspectives, each valid in their own way, that T’Challa must rise to the occasion and decide what kind of king he wants to be. The film’s third act hinges not only on containing the outbreak of an all-out Wakandan civil war, but on stopping Vibranium weapons from leaving Wakanda’s borders, destined to be used on foreign soil. In effect, the Kingdom is caught between two bleak visions of America: walling itself off, or potentially imposing on other nations — the latter the very imperialism it managed to escape. However, there exists a nuanced middle-ground between these warring perspectives. Where Killmonger’s means may be armed bloodshed in the vein of colonial oppressors, his ends — global Black liberation from poverty and state violence — are essentially noble. What separates Black Panther from the rest of the superhero pack is the fact that the film truly agrees with its villain. The hero recognizes the bad guy’s pain, and learns from him.

Killmonger may storm the Wakandan throne room as an “outsider” and demand ritualistic battle, but hidden in his disrespect are nuggets of truth that unearth the dual sense of longing and abandonment many African Americans might feel toward their African ancestors. While Wakanda represents a fulfillment of that longing, Killmonger’s royal bloodline remains at odds with his American Blackness. This duality comes to the fore in Jordan’s balance of vulnerability and rage, his character caught between wanting to experience true freedom and wanting to punish the oppressors — the internal forces that govern the instincts of the oppressed. Killmonger wears his violence on his sleeve, scarring himself for every life stolen in pursuit of the Wakandan throne. It’s a mission he undertakes to erase the ills suffered by Blackness at the hands of white supremacy, a system Wakanda managed to escape.

And yet, while the problems he hopes to fix are distinctly American, his solutions are distinctly American, too. Born from violence and bred for war, Killmonger’s vision for a peaceful world doesn’t extend beyond imposing his will and using it to create a new colonial empire. Like his father, he wants Wakanda to rule the world “the right way.” He may be right about things our heroes have never considered — Wakanda has ignored global suffering too long — but it isn’t until T’Challa, a man with the political and financial power to enact change, sees the world through Killmonger’s eyes that progress can be made.

In some other story, people like T’Challa and Killmonger could’ve sat down and exchanged ideas and created a better world together. Black Panther, however, is the tragedy of Eric Stevens, and the tragedy of Wakanda, a nation hell-bent on the illusion of domestic peace to the point that it commits violence elsewhere — not unlike the United States. Where Black Panther highlights the problems of Black America, it also highlights the structural problems of America as a whole by injecting them into the fabric of Wakanda. The two nations may be worlds apart, but are they any more disparate in their worldviews than Black America and the American leaders who ignore it? T’Challa and Killmonger could likely never have had that peaceful debate in this reality, not when their very existences were defined by paying for the sins of their respective fathers. Taking Wakanda into a volatile world while having to reckon with its lies was T’Challa’s burden, passed down from his predecessor. Killmonger’s burden was to be the lie itself — a small part of the vast racial and socio-economic problem that’s been swept under the rug by Wakanda’s prior leaders.

Killmonger’s fatalistic, inevitably violent outlook — a byproduct of American militarism and white supremacy — is not presented as the end-all solution. But it’s in listening to Killmonger’s ideas that T’Challa starts to build bridges. He begins with the Oakland residence where Killmonger’s father was murdered, and where Killmonger became a victim of Wakanda’s own form of imperialism. He turns the condemned apartment complex into a Wakandan outreach center for at-risk African American youth, thus transforming a painful memory into an opportunity for healing. (This gesture evokes Coogler’s own desire to bring film business to Oakland as an alternative to crime.)

When the fatally injured Killmonger is offered the opportunity to heal, he responds: “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, ’cause they knew death was better than bondage.” His ultimate fate, despite his best efforts, is to remain adrift — pushed out to sea by the two Americas that could have cared for him but didn’t. T’Challa’s new mission is stop another Killmonger from ever being created — not through pre-emptive violence, but through kindness.

Eric Stevens was born in Oakland. Killmonger was born under a makeshift hoop, gazing up at a Wakandan airship that left him behind, slipping away in the dead of night as his father was killed. That same royal airship returns to this spot decades later, this time in full view of the Oakland youth, bringing with it the promise of a better future, the kind of promise young Eric Stevens was never afforded. The film’s final moments involve a similar young boy under that very same hoop, his future hanging in the balance. But rather than violence and abandonment, he’s offered the promise of Wakanda — what the fictional fantasy of Wakanda represents, and, by proxy, what America ought to represent at its best: hope, innovation, opportunity, aspiration for Black youth upon seeing Blackness excel. It’s as if Black Panther is speaking about Black Panther itself and all the avenues it has opened. “Who are you?” the boy asks as he approaches T’Challa, eyes wide with wonder. The king only smiles, for he knows the answer is possibility.


In Her New Show, Artist Sondra Perry Gets in the Game

About fifteen minutes into Black Panther, when audiences first meet Michael B. Jordan’s character—a denim-jacketed mercenary from Oakland, California, named Erik Killmonger—he is shown surveying, with magisterial calm, a vitrine full of African artifacts in the white-cubed confines of a British museum. Turning to a curator nearby, he asks, “How do you think your ancestors got these? Do you think they paid a fair price? Or did they take it, like they took everything else?”

There is a scene with intriguing parallels in artist Sondra Perry’s latest exhibition at Bridget Donahue Gallery on the Lower East Side. The show’s centerpiece—a video titled IT’S IN THE GAME ’17 or Mirror Gag for Vitrine and Projection—includes footage of Perry and her twin brother, Sandy, wandering through the Metropolitan and British Museums’ collections of African, Oceanic, and American art. With their grins, one can imagine that the Perry siblings (who, like Jordan’s character, are African American) are on a playful reconnaissance mission of sorts. And yet the footage, set to the Stylistics’ song “You Are Everything,” seems wistful as well—haunted by the fallout of colonialist plunder. At one point a robot-voiced narrator interjects, euphemistically recounting how various Aztec and Polynesian figurines in the collections were “taken” from their sites. To borrow nineteenth-century activist William Morris’s words, we see flashes of the “melancholy about a museum, such a tale of violence, destruction, and carelessness as its treasured scraps tell.”

A thirty-one-year-old artist from Perth Amboy, New Jersey, Sondra Perry emerged from Columbia’s MFA program to garner steady praise for artwork that often unites concerns about technology and identity, and mixes visual vocabularies from the past and future into a distinctive present tense. Family members make frequent cameos in her pieces. Her grandmother appeared in one older video to discuss the fate of the household’s American flags. Her mother figured in a 2015 performance, flipping pancakes with the help of a pulley-driven apparatus. Here, much of IT’S IN THE GAME confronts the strange circumstances her twin brother faced as a power forward for Georgia Southern’s basketball team from 2008 to 2010. Around that time, Electronic Arts released a video game—NCAA March Madness—that featured avatars of Sandy and other college athletes without obtaining their consent or offering licensing fees. This ignoble case of digital identity theft is a subject of Perry’s show, as is the surreal consequence that basketball fans worldwide can power up their PlayStations and control a computer-modeled puppet of her brother’s body, in service to their own fantasies of athletic prowess.

For some of us, it’s hard to fathom the degree to which sports so often becomes a crucible for the nation’s weightiest debates—that the people engaging in a controlled form of play end up serving as flashpoints for the most urgent discussions about real life. And yet, here we have it: a president who calls for the suspension of an NFL player for kneeling to protest police brutality, a commentator who tells LeBron James to “shut up and dribble.” Meanwhile, as NCAA players continue to play without compensation, the question remains murky: Who owns a sports star’s behavior and opinions? Who owns his likeness?

“IT’S IN THE GAME ‘17 or Mirror Gag for Vitrine and Projection (Installation),” 2017

While it’s surely discomfiting to see a corporation’s fingerprints all over the digital simulation of one’s twin, Sondra Perry somehow avoids delivering a ham-fisted response. A more simplistic take might have suggested that what’s corporate is vampiric and what’s personal is curative. Instead, when Perry deploys computer-modeling software to create her own avatar of her brother for portions of IT’S IN THE GAME, the results seem intentionally ghoulish. (Since art school, the artist has seemed fascinated by cyborgs, “as things that are an extension of biological matter,” as she explained in an interview; she has deployed CGI to generate deadpan self-portraits for earlier works.) Three smaller video screens, affixed to Spalding  universal shot trainers—metal frames designed to help basketball players refine their shooting form—show Perry’s digital replica of her twin from revoltingly intimate angles: the interior of his nasal cavity, or maybe his gullet. These pixelated, flexing caverns of flesh evoke an endoscope’s live feed. Meanwhile, Perry has applied Chroma Key blue paint to the gallery’s walls, transforming them into bluescreens, as if to confront all who visit with the prospect that their own visages will be forcibly manipulated by a post-production guru in a darkened room. One starts to wonder if digital representation might be an equalizing force. As data mining lets all our images be culled and swapped en masse, perhaps everyone will sooner or later encounter their own virtual profile served back to them. And then maybe we’ll all feel some flicker of the disorientation that goes hand in hand with being othered.

“Title TK 5,” 2018

As many argue, there’s a new wave of young artists armed with the tools of computer modeling who are being forced to rethink portraiture, much like a generation of nineteenth-century artists did during the rise of photography. Van Gogh famously wrote, “It’s a cause worth fighting for, to show people that there’s something else in human beings besides what the photographer is able to get out of them with his machine.” He spoke of wanting to paint “men and women with something of the eternal which the halo used to symbolize.” What happens now if you ignore people’s halos altogether, and focus instead on their abject, off-putting digital husks? This seems to be a question taken up by many digital artists working today, Ed Atkins, Kate Cooper, and Sondra Perry being three notable examples. Atkins tends toward a grungy, almost gory nihilism: his computer-generated talking heads often deliver monologues of doom and gloom. Cooper prefers making CGI glamazons whose artificial beauty nonetheless leaves viewers unsettled—and scratching their heads as to why. Perry, meanwhile, juxtaposes her digital portraits with visual and spoken reminders that all representation is political. But the unnerving avatars they all create have art-historical precedent. Funerary masks and Victorian hair mementos come to mind: the uncanny, morbid objects that result when people try to cling to the likenesses of loved ones. At one point in IT’S IN THE GAME, Sandy scrolls through the video-game’s avatars of old teammates, occasionally sharing college memories via a voice-over. Listening to him, you can’t help but feel the vastness of the gulf between lived experience and the visual artifacts that linger on.

If Perry’s show is a glitchy screenshare of a dream about humans and relics and their digitized fates, her insistence on tying futurism to present-day politics delivers a grounded reminder: Though we’d prefer to focus on technological advancements that lead to a radical new world, they just as often pave the way for a scalable status quo. (Think of automation aggravating the wealth gap, or artificial intelligence amplifying hidden racial biases.) As such, the transporters and galactic missions of sci-fi might be distractions—red herrings. Instead, our digitally augmented future fates will hinge most urgently on the conversations about race, gender, and class that are already happening now.


Sondra Perry 
Bridget Donahue Gallery
99 Bowery, 2nd Floor
Through February 25

“Title TK 4,” 2018

The Black Panthers: Pictures at a Revolution

Like many American icons — P.T. Barnum, Andy Warhol, Ronald Reagan — the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense got its start through a bit of flimflam. Huey Newton, an ex-con and self-taught radical intellectual, and Bobby Seale, foreman of an Oakland, California, anti-poverty youth program, founded the party in October 1966. The fledgling organization needed cash to build membership, and Newton hit upon the idea of selling copies of Mao Tse-tung’s Little Red Book at a San Francisco protest against the Vietnam War. By buying the books in wholesale lots from a Chinese bookstore, the budding revolutionaries realized a 400 percent profit. “That was our first fundraiser,” Seale said later. “We had not even read this book.”

College student Stephen Shames photographed Seale hawking the tiny volume — “Get your ‘Red Book’! One dollar! The thoughts of Chairman Mao Tse-tung!” — and the two have remained colleagues ever since, most recently collaborating on Power to the People: The World of the Black Panthers, a fiftieth-anniversary collection of photographs, graphics, and reminiscences.

Seale (born 1936) and Newton (1942–89) used their big markup on the Communist bestseller to rent office space, install telephones, and buy shotguns, which they used to “police the police.” The Panthers’ initial program consisted of following members of the overwhelmingly white Oakland police force around predominantly black neighborhoods to guard against police brutality. As Newton told an interviewer in 1968, “In America, black people are treated very much like the Vietnamese people or any other colonized people because we’re used, we’re brutalized by the police in our community.”

Kathleen Cleaver (in dark jacket) at a “Free Huey” rally in DeFremery Park, Oakland, 1968; as she told an interviewer at the time, “All of us were born with our hair like this and we just wear it like this because it’s natural, because the reason for it you might say is like a new awareness among black people that their own natural appearance, physical appearance, is beautiful.” (More recently she added, “That clip has taken on a life of its own on the internet. I keep getting messages from kids: ‘I saw that. That’s so cool.’ ”)
Kathleen Cleaver (in dark jacket) at a “Free Huey” rally in DeFremery Park, Oakland, 1968; as she told an interviewer at the time, “All of us were born with our hair like this and we just wear it like this because it’s natural, because the reason for it you might say is like a new awareness among black people that their own natural appearance, physical appearance, is beautiful.” (More recently she added, “That clip has taken on a life of its own on the internet. I keep getting messages from kids: ‘I saw that. That’s so cool.’ ”)

A number of Shames’s photos in Power to the People feature heavily armed, sharply dressed Panthers standing outside party offices or government buildings, where they had gone to demand equal rights. As Seale remembers in the book, “I saw Huey one day. He didn’t know what he had on. A sporty leather jacket, black slacks, nice blue shirt. He’s walking down the street. I say, ‘Hold it, Huey,’ just like a director.” That street encounter, plus a movie Seale saw featuring the black berets worn by French resistance fighters in World War II, resulted in a party uniform that added a stylish swagger to the Panthers’ revolutionary front.

Peppered throughout the book are streetwise graphics by Emory Douglas, the Panthers’ Minister of Culture, who designed the party’s newspaper. The June 27, 1970, issue of The Black Panther features “Warning to America,” a drawing of an African-American woman hefting an automatic rifle under the headline, “We are armed, and we are conscious of our situation, and we are determined to change it, and we are unafraid.” (Shames’s photos, a selection of Douglas’s graphics, and copies of The Black Panther are on display at Steven Kasher Gallery in Chelsea through October 29.)

One of Emory Douglas’s variations on his visual epitaph for Fred Hampton (1970). Douglas would sometimes change the color schemes in different editions of Panther newspapers and posters.
One of Emory Douglas’s variations on his visual epitaph for Fred Hampton (1970). Douglas would sometimes change the color schemes in different editions of Panther newspapers and posters.

Shames includes an excerpt from Newton’s autobiography, Revolutionary Suicide: “I constantly felt uncomfortable and ashamed of being black,” he wrote. “During those long years in Oakland public schools, I did not have one teacher who taught me anything relevant to my own life or experience…. All they did was try to rob me of the sense of my own uniqueness and worth, and in the process nearly killed my urge to inquire.” Newton was functionally illiterate after graduating from school, and taught himself to read as an adult by working through Plato’s Republic; he went on to study law with Edwin Meese, who eventually became President Reagan’s retrograde attorney general.

Meese later observed, “I was teaching law, criminal law, for police officers and people who wanted to be police officers and one of the students in my class was Huey Newton. He later wrote in his book that he was taking these law enforcement courses because he wanted ‘to know as much as the pigs knew.’ ” Meese recalled, “In the middle of the course, one day he asked if he could ride to the courthouse with me…. Well, it turned out actually he was on trial. He had stabbed someone with a steak knife at a barbecue some months before.” After serving a year for assault with a deadly weapon, Newton returned to Meese’s class while on parole, and earned an A.

Newton schooled the party members in both constitutional and local California law, making sure they carried law books containing the relevant statutes whenever they went on armed patrols. Power to the People exposes the pretzel logic that still governs America’s racial divide, pointing out that in 1967, Reagan, at that time the governor of California, signed a very strict gun-control law after the Panthers began toting rifles and pistols in public. Seale notes in the book, “The NRA wanted us arrested for carrying guns back in those days. Yes, they did.” Shames adds, “The National Rifle Association did not utter a peep of Second Amendment protest. Can you imagine what they would say if President Obama proposed a [similar law] today?”

But while stories about armed black men marching through California’s state assembly building were making nationwide headlines, the Panthers were also creating programs based on Newton’s and Seale’s ten-point platform demanding job opportunities, better public education, increased access to healthcare, prison and judicial reform, and other improvements in the lives of black citizens. The Panthers struck a balance between Malcolm X’s black separatism and Martin Luther King’s pacifism (they admired both leaders greatly). As Seale puts it in the book, “I can understand the difference between a white left radical who stands up for my constitutional rights and some goddamn racist Ku Klux Klan who wants to murder me.”

Emory Douglas: “Warning to America.”
Emory Douglas: “Warning to America.”

Shames (who is white) documented numerous multiracial “Free Huey” rallies when the Panther co-founder was on trial in 1968 for the killing of a police officer. (After Newton was convicted, two drunken Oakland police officers fired shots through the plate glass window of the Panthers’ office; they were later dismissed from the force. One of Shames’s iconic photos captures the bullet holes rending a poster of Newton sitting in a wicker chair holding a spear and gun. One can only imagine the reaction of the two former cops when the conviction was reversed on appeal and, after two subsequent hung juries, Newton was released in 1970.) Shames also photographed a massive funeral for party member George Jackson, author of Soledad Brother, a collection of letters condemning brutality and racism in the prison system. Jackson was killed during a 1971 prison break.

The Panthers were perpetually in the crosshairs of local and federal authorities. A December 1970 copy of the party newspaper features a portrait of Chicago leader Fred Hampton surrounded by black chevrons, with party slogans in red — “You can jail a revolutionary but you can’t jail the revolution” — along with an epitaph of sorts: “Born August 30, 1948, Murdered by Fascist Pigs December 4, 1969.” None of the officers who raided Hampton’s apartment at 4:45 a.m. were charged with murder for shooting the unarmed Panther leader multiple times in the head, but his family and that of another victim won a massive $1.85 million settlement from the City of Chicago, Cook County, and the federal government in a wrongful-death suit, in part because it emerged that Hampton had been drugged by an agent provocateur directed by FBI COINTELPRO operatives.

Even non–party members were harassed. Power to the People recounts how the FBI tailed the man who’d volunteered to do the plumbing at the George Jackson People’s Free Medical Clinic. “God, they wasted millions of dollars following innocent people around,” Dr. Tolbert Small remembers. The Panthers’ medical facilities were some of the first in the nation to routinely screen patients for sickle cell anemia, and they provided free STD screening for local youths as well. Shames also photographed members distributing free food and clothing in poor neighborhoods. One shot captures party member Leonard Colar, big as a linebacker and natty in a double-breasted overcoat, escorting an elderly woman on a grocery shopping trip, as part of the Panthers’ SAFE Club that accompanied seniors to cash checks and buy food in high-crime areas.

The book’s oral histories (which elide time periods by mixing quotes from the deceased with current conversations) point out that the Panthers’ Free Breakfast for Children Program provided a template for school breakfast and lunch programs today, and that the Panthers’ police patrols eventually evolved into civilian-review boards and what we now consider community policing. And for all their machismo, the Panthers were open to women in their ranks. A former leader, Ericka Huggins, notes in the book, “Part of the legacy of the Black Panther Party is that we were not afraid to look at race, class, gender, and sexual orientation. All of it. Huey wrote in support of the woman’s movement and the gay liberation movement. Who the heck — what black man, what white man, what any man was talking like that in 1970?”

Eldridge Cleaver in the Panther office the day it was shot up by two Oakland police officers, September 29, 1968.
Eldridge Cleaver in the Panther office the day it was shot up by two Oakland police officers, September 29, 1968.

Shames often composed portraits to include telling background details. A photograph of Eldridge Cleaver, taken in 1968 when he was running for president representing the Peace and Freedom Party, is dominated by a huge banner behind the Panthers’ Minister of Information’s head, reading, “Don’t Vote for Shit.” (The electorate took him at his word: He received 0.05 percent of the vote.) And despite the perils of their endeavor, the party founders retained a sense of humor. Toward the end of the book, Shames includes a four-frame sequence in which Newton and Seale stare at the lens with steely gravitas, glare at each other, and then begin cracking up before the camera pulls back as they double over with laughter.

The book closes with a litany of current concerns that echo the Panthers’ original ten-point program: a justice system that remains stacked against the poor, galloping wealth inequality, shadowy oligarchs pouring money into the electoral process, a tax system that favors the wealthiest 1 percent of citizens, racial disparities in employment and education, banks that redline minorities out of homeownership. And of course, the continued killings of unarmed black men and youths by police, which has given rise to the Black Lives Matter movement. The Panthers were canny in their ability to turn protest into publicity, forcing issues that too many Americans wanted to ignore — police brutality, institutionalized racism — beyond the pages of the party’s own newspaper and into the mainstream media. It has fallen to BLM to update the imagery of outrage by using social media via instantaneous cellphone uploads — so different from the laborious process of shooting and developing film in Shames’s day.

Panthers line up at a “Free Huey” rally in DeFremery Park, Oakland, July 28, 1968.
Panthers line up at a “Free Huey” rally in DeFremery Park, Oakland, July 28, 1968.

One double-page photo (taken in Brooklyn circa 1970–71) captures a rubble-strewn lot hard against a crumbling brick wall spray-painted with the phrase “THE MOON BELONGS TO THE PEOPLE!!!” Is this a cry against the millions spent in 1969 to land a man on the moon even as some American children went to bed hungry, or a joyful outburst that finally there was something all Americans could share equally?

Outmanned and outgunned, the Panthers stood their ground, and paid a fearsome price, but they remained steadfast in the belief that Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness is the birthright of all Americans. That wasn’t true for slaves when those words were written in 1776, and they remain unattainable for many of their descendants — and for too many of the 99 percent of any color. Seale and Shames remind us that progress has been made but that true equality can still feel as distant as the lunar surface.

Power to the People: The World of the Black Panthers
By Stephen Shames and Bobby Seale
256 pp., Abrams, $40
‘Power to the People: The Black Panthers in Photographs by Stephen Shames and Graphics by Emory Douglas’
Steven Kasher Gallery
515 West 26th Street, 212-966-3978 Through October 29
Bobby Seale & Stephen Shames talk + book signing
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
515 Malcolm X Boulevard, Thursday, October 27, 6:30 p.m.