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Black’s in: When a ‘blackout’ is a good thing

For some of us, this rise of the black superhero – this ‘blackout’ – is personal, and will remain deeply so.

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Comic books, and related TV shows and movies featuring black superheroes and other characters, are currently enjoying a major boom. From being fringe offerings of years gone or even niche fare of days past, today there’s a veritable ‘blackout’ of sorts in geekdom. Here’s why that’s a good, good thing.

By Abdulkareem Baba Aminu

I’m one of those people who waited for a Black Panther movie, even when it seemed none was on the way. I’m not talking about post-Blade comic book movie days, when Wesley Snipes told me to my face in Abuja, Nigeria, that he was developing one. I’m referring to the early 80s, and the scattered few comics my friends and I would scramble to buy, featuring our favorite characters and their wondrous stories. T’Challa was one whose appearances we greedily devoured, and whose action scenes we would draw out on cheap paper. He also inspired a retinue of our own creations, complete with the tropes and all.

Some of my friends grew up and left comic books behind. I, and a handful of others, did not, and we continued to enjoy our four-color epics, even as they evolved into the cultural movement they are today. But I digress. My childhood friends and I embraced comic books, a great deal of which are American. Marvels, DCs, Archies, and the odd indie title that would find its way to our Kaduna Post Office haunt from where we bought a good chunk of our weekly diet.

Illustration: Abdulkareem Baba Aminu

We loved Batman, Spider-Man, Daredevil, Thor, Alpha Flight, Green Lantern, Fantastic Four, Teen Titans, The Outsiders, Power Pack, and many, many more. But what really got us going? Black Panther, John Stewart’s GL, Luke Cage/Power Man, Black Lightning of The Outsiders, and finally, Storm of the X-Men (who looked like my big sister Adama then, honest, but sans white hair and blue eyes, natch).

But somehow, back then, we didn’t really care much about how few black characters we had. Maybe it was because Ibrahim Yakubu, then-classmate and brother-from-another-mother and I, would create hundreds (yes, hundreds) of our own characters, detailed back-stories, costumes, and all. We drew, with ballpoint pens on drawing paper and colored in with coloring pencils, our own comic books, and sold them to friends who were starved of comic books.

With the proceeds, we’d run off – unaccompanied and unauthorized – to super-busy Central Market, in rickety and sometimes-dangerous mini-buses, to buy gems like the first issue of Secret Wars by Jim Shooter and Mike Zeck. And also, later on, discover the joys of Swamp Thing, Sandman, Kid Eternity, and other mature readers-themed titles.

“We’d run off – unaccompanied and unauthorized – to super-busy Central Market, in rickety and sometimes-dangerous mini-buses, to buy gems like the first issue of Secret Wars by Jim Shooter and Mike Zeck. And also, later on, discover the joys of Swamp Thing, Sandman, Kid Eternity, and other mature readers-themed titles.”

Many years after, Snipes wowed the world and box office with his awesome martial arts portrayal of Marvel’s half-vampire Blade, and a ho-hum Spawn flick was, well, spawned to yawns from fans. And that was it, really. Fast-forward to today, and of course, we have witnessed the cultural juggernaut which the Black Panther movie is. Boasting an A-list cast, almost all-black, and helmed by a young, black director, that movie is one of the few to ever gross a billion dollars in the domestic U.S market.

It sparked a merchandising wildfire for African clothing and hairstyles, and the soundtrack album, curated by rap superstar Kendrick Lamar, was a massive hit, too. If there ever was a moment that black’s really ‘in’, this was it. A friend described that period weirdly, but aptly, as a ‘blackout’. From having a limited number of black characters in comic books and related TV shows and movies in the past, I’m suddenly spoilt for choice. It is a good feeling – sometimes bittersweet, even – one shared by many creators I had conversations with about the ongoing ‘blackout’.

“From having a limited number of black characters in comic books and related TV shows and movies in the past, I’m suddenly spoilt for choice. It is a good feeling – sometimes bittersweet, even – one shared by many creators I had conversations with about the ongoing ‘blackout’.”

Joe Illidge has a career spanning decades, and has worked on some of the most iconic books in the industry. He told me that growing up, the fact that there were too few black superheroes is something he was always aware of on a basic level, from reading comic books for years and barely seeing any characters that looked like him. “When I started working at Milestone Media, Inc., that’s when the reality of it crashed in on me, because their universe was, in terms of cultural diversity, the antithesis of the superhero universes that served as part of my fiction diet for most of my life,” he said.

Joe Illidge

On the movies, Illidge told me that while Marvel’s Black Panther movie success will be attributed to too many variables to easily list, a confluence of events led to it. He mentioned the rise of the MCU, the growing buying power of black people in America, the accelerating popularity of Afrofuturism, the resurgence of black film auteurs, as well as the increased dehumanization of black people in America, and the result of them needing to see themselves in a brilliant light which goes against the jackhammer false media narrative of black people as less than. “These factors alone make for a fluid bomb,” he said.

I spoke to Roye Okupe, a creator whose comic books are all based on strong black characters. His biggest hit, Malika: Warrior Queen, is a smash that is getting made into a TV series via a Kickstarter campaign. Originally from Nigeria, he ditched a career in engineering to pursue his dream full-time. He grew up thinking the concept of a ‘superhero’ was something that was meant for only a particular group of people, people unlike himself.

Roye Okupe

Okupe agrees that there are more black superheroes in comics today, compared to in the past. “Even just looking back at the past 5 years, it’s a huge difference. But I think it has more to do with the indie creators and companies, than any of the major publishers. A lot of people, including me, simply got fed up for waiting for the big guys to do it, so we rolled up our sleeves and went to work,” he said.

“Okupe agrees that there are more black superheroes in comics today, compared to in the past. “Even just looking back at the past 5 years, it’s a huge difference. But I think it has more to do with the indie creators and companies, than any of the major publishers.”

Born and raised in Lagos, Nigeria, he says his goal, for now, is to create characters and stories inspired by things he saw, felt, experienced, and was taught growing up. “I feel a responsibility to provide not only people of African descent, but all races, great stories that also inform about Africa, past, present, and future,” he said.

For writer David Walker, whose fan-favorite work on Marvel’s Luke Cage has attracted awards buzz, said the vast majority of the work he has done in comics has been work-for-hire, starring characters that already existed. “In those cases, such as Luke Cage, Cyborg, or Shaft, those characters were already black. I didn’t create them, so that’s that. But in my own personal work, I frequently have black protagonists, a decision informed by the fact that as a black kid growing up, I rarely saw heroes that reflected my background and experience,” he said.

David F. Walker

But, Walker said, while there are more black superheroes in comics today, only a small number get coverage in the press, or enjoy significant sales. “To be clear, even though we’re talking about black superheroes, we aren’t really talking about comic books. We are talking about film and TV. When I wrote Power Man and Iron Fist for Marvel, most people that watched Luke Cage on Netflix didn’t know that Luke Cage was also Power Man. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met that didn’t know Luke Cage existed before Netflix. Likewise, people seem to think the Black Panther is new, because he’s in a movie, and they think he was created by black creators,” he said.

Walker also said if market realities were truly reflected, then at least 30 to 40 of all comic books would star black characters because blacks make more than a quarter of the market.

“Walker also said if market realities were truly reflected, then at least 30 to 40 of all comic books would star black characters because blacks make more than a quarter of the market.”

John Jennings has the enviable job of being an artist, and an Associate Professor of Art and Visual Studies at Buffalo-State University. He’s also co-editor of Eisner-nominated collection The Blacker the Ink: Constructions of Black Identity in Comics and Sequential Art. Growing up, he tells me, his home state of Mississippi had such naturalized aspects of racism in the very atmosphere, that he didn’t politicize around race until much later.

Jennings says once he realized just how underrepresented black characters and black stories were, he went out of his way to make more. “Creation is a political act, whether you think so or not, and what you choose not to show is just as important as what you do show. Even my organizing of black-themed cons is way to instil the reflections of a spectrum of black images in the psyches of black children and teens. Understanding your own humanity and your own subjectivity is extremely empowering, and something that is inherent in our society for white youth,” he says.

John Jennings

If one looks at the independent black comics creators that aren’t sold in mainstream shops, Jennings says, there are literally thousands of black characters. I ask, are comic books, TV and movies featuring black superheroes ‘cooler’ than before? He replies: “I think that because a few more black creators are working them, they are at least closer to what we may think of as ‘cool’. Cool in the connotation that they are individuals who are free-thinking and are shown as complete beings and not stereotypes. So yeah, they are ‘cooler’.”

However, Jennings says, for this ‘blackout’ to continue, there needs to be support for black creations that aren’t owned by Disney, or Warner Brothers, or whoever. He says: “It’s great to see these huge spectacles on the screen, but there’s a veritable ton of great stories out there created by black independent artists and writers. At the end of the day, a robust independent comics scene will generate even more work that will end up in the mainstream. There has to be a time when a black superhero is the norm, and not a novelty.”

“A proper comic book store anywhere in Nigeria remains an elusive thing. Which I strongly believe is one of the biggest reasons why there’s an explosion of indie publishers putting out stuff varying from political thrillers, and fantasy epics, to superhero soap operas and Hausa legend-based adventures.”

Back at my own reality, though, a proper comic book store anywhere in Nigeria remains an elusive thing. Which I strongly believe is one of the biggest reasons why there’s an explosion of indie publishers putting out stuff varying from political thrillers, and fantasy epics, to superhero soap operas and Hausa legend-based adventures. This is true, also, in Ghana, South Africa, Kenya and more, in essence creating another kind of ‘blackout’ on the continent.

In September of 2006, a friend of mine and I opened the first comic book store in Nigeria.  Ah, Planet Comics, we called it. But other careers beckoned and we had to close it down, even though the market was quite encouraging. Today, all grown up, I’m a writer, illustrator, cartoonist, and editor (and I finally understand why J. Jonah Jameson is always so stressed out!). Also, my love for the medium of comics only continues to grow. But now I get my fix from Amazon, sometimes Forbidden Planet UK, Gosh! London, and Kinokuniya outlets in Bangkok, Tokyo, and Dubai whenever I travel. But after all is said and done, for some of us, this rise of the black superhero – this ‘blackout’ – is personal, and will remain deeply so.

A version of this article was published in Full Bleed Vol. 3 (IDW Publishing, 2018)

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Review: How ‘The Milkmaid’ film went even further than intended

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Dangerous love, Stockholm Syndrome, and Boko Haram are but a few ingredients of the sometimes-dark sometimes-happy film that dared to do what many could not.

By Abdulkareem Baba Aminu

Prior to watching ‘The Milkmaid’, I’d only casually read about the film on the internet and the controversy it was stoking, not with the viewing public, but with the Nigerian Film and Video Censors Board (NFVCB). But when an opportunity came to preview it, I pressed ‘play’ relatively unbiased, my mind a tabula rasa of sorts. Let’s begin with the plot: In an unnamed part of rural sub-Saharan Africa, a Fulani milkmaid called Aisha risks her own freedom in search of her younger sister Zainab, who was taken by insurgents in a raid on their village. Worlds collide, and relationships are forged between unusual parties, and cataclysmic events follow, as they tend to in these things.

At this point, I have to warn the reader that spoilers will follow: It’s hard to discuss this film, though, without mentioning the relationship that develops between the eponymous milkmaid Aisha and Dangana the mid-level commander at an insurgents’ camp. It begins when she’s forced to marry him, only to realize that his other wife is in fact the sister she’s been frantically searching for. Only that she’s no longer the sweet sibling she knew, now all grown up into a sometimes-conflicted trainer of female suicide bombers. The last thing I expected this film to feature was a Stockholm Syndrome-drenched love triangle. But it’s there, in its deliciously flawed glory. Innocent and wide-eyed Aisha, a slowly-changing Dangana, and the dark-hearted Zainab, all form the best parts of the tale.

Innocent and wide-eyed Aisha, a slowly-changing Dangana, and the dark-hearted Zainab, all form the best parts of the tale.

The aforementioned triangle is helped in no small way by stellar turns by newcomer Anthonieta Kalunta who delivers a blisteringly raw and brilliant performance as Aisha, as well as megastar Maryam Booth who is absolutely terrifying as little-girl-lost Zainab. That’s not forgetting Gambo Usman Kona’s powerful, layered portrayal of Dangana, the insurgent who begins to question his leaders. This is all from a well-paced script by Desmond Ovbiagele (yes, the son of Helen Obviagele of ‘Evbu My Love’ fame), who also directed it. But while ‘The Milkmaid’ is a great story, and told respectfully, with sometimes dazzling craftsmanship and art, its subject matter is bound to ruffle feathers in Nigeria. Quite pointlessly, I might add. But I digress.

A few things that got my goat include the narration, voiced by the character Aisha, which seemed wooden in some places. Also, the subtitles seemed a little too large on the screen instead of just below on the mattes, the black bars atop and below the videographic image itself. Then there’s how the insurgents and their lifestyle are romanticized, made to sometimes look like cool anti-heroes, as opposed to the bloodthirsty, maniacal murderers they are. One would expect their appearances, and the look of their environment, to be sufficiently realistic owing to the jaw-droopingly beautiful costume design work of Obijie Oru, and the solid production design by Pat Nebo. But that’s it: Everything else is gold. Even the supporting cast is as thoughtfully picked as the main one, all helping to tell the gripping story which the film tries to tell.

A few things that got my goat include the narration, voiced by the character Aisha, which seemed wooden in some places.

However, the secret weapon wielded by director Ovbiagele remains Yinka Edward, the brilliant BAFTA-winning cinematographer who treats every shot as a masterpiece of art, helped in no small measure by the beautiful landscapes of Taraba State, where ‘The Milkmaid’ was filmed. Scenes where someone is reflected in water become sheer visual poetry, while a main character being tossed into a dry well is suitably, terrifyingly claustrophobic. Edwards takes his brilliance further here by applying his reverence for beautiful, sweeping landscapes to smaller scenes, elevating the whole thing to high art.

The story, the performances, and the rest of the visuals are at their best when paired with the music of Micahel Ogunlade, which is atmospheric, and almost a character of its own. It guides the viewer through the story and the various emotions it stokes, and does just as well with the quieter moments, as when everything hits a dramatic crescendo. To be fair, the technical aspects of this film are quite high in quality, while being a great work of art. I would rather dwell on that, than the nitpicking that dogged the final version of Ovbiagele’s vision. And this is because ‘The Milkmaid’ asks difficult-but-necessary questions, well-placed within a well-told tale that might as well be drawn from reality.

‘The Milkmaid’ asks difficult-but-necessary questions, well-placed within a well-told tale that might as well be drawn from reality.

Granted, the film tackles potentially problematic themes. But it does so in a sensitive way which does nothing to take away authenticity or grit. The story, also, is loaded with shocks that aren’t gratuitous in any way. In the end, ‘The Milkmaid’ succeeds in telling the story it attempts to tell. If your feathers are too ruffled to let you watch it, then that’s too bad. Because it’s the nearest to a perfectly-told story I’ve come across this side of Nollywood. When it was released, I actually felt Nigeria’s chances at the Oscars that year suddenly became brighter. And that’s fine, because it succeeded in doing what it set out to do: Tell a striking story, and strikingly, too.

‘The Milkmaid’ is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video

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Is ‘House of the Dragon’ worth the hype, or just another spinoff?

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After a long wait, the debut of the brand-new TV series ‘House of The Dragon’, set hundreds of years before the Westeros we all loved to hate, has come to pass. Was it worth the wait, or is it just another spinoff?

Warning: There may be mild spoilers. Please avoid if you haven’t watched the series premiere of ‘House of the Dragon’.

By Abdulkareem Baba Aminu

I’m a massive Game of Thrones fan, so much so that I only showed mild irritation at the sudden turn in story quality of the final season. Even then, I accepted some points and moved on. We can’t have it all, after all. When the initial announcements of the spinoff series were made, I was of course glad. Then, after some drama, ‘House of The Dragon’ materialized as the first to be actively developed and produced. Today, nearly three years since we last stepped foot in GRR Martin’s fantasy world, we’re going back roughly 200 years for a story focusing on an older generation of ‘Game of Thrones’ characters.

While GoT had an intricately-woven tale across different families and cities, the royal Targaryen family in King’s Landing appears to be what ‘House of The Dragon’ mostly centers on, at least for now. The story here is that King Viserys Targaryen (played by Paddy Considine) came to power when a council decided on him – over cousin Rhaenys (played by Eve Best) – since a woman had never ruled.

Costumes, sets, props and even makeup is all top-notch. And why wouldn’t they all be? This is a prequel to one of the biggest and most beloved TV series ever created.

Years after, King Viserys is worried about not having any male heirs, but a precocious daughter, Rhaenyra (played as a teen by Milly Alcock). Now, Queen Aemma Arryn (played by Sian Brooke) is pregnant with what he is sure will be a boy. This is particularly precarious, because if it’s not a boy, Daemon (a phenomenally charismatic Matt Smith) is next in line to the Iron Throne, and many characters – including this viewer – don’t want that to happen.

The premiere episode drew in 9.99 million viewers across HBO and HBO Max, the largest audience in the pay TV channel’s history.

If you have watched the premiere episode by now, you know the rest of the drama: As a jousting tournament with the best knights in Westeros goes on, Queen Aemma goes into labor, facing complications that lead to a brutal C-section that sees her die in a pool of her own blood. One of the most powerful parts of the story – visually or narratively – happened as the king made a decision to choose between his beloved wife and his unborn son. Viserys would go on to lose both, and settle for his daughter as an heir, in an unprecedented move that shocks and angers many, even if they held their peace. The episode ends with me asking myself ‘Is Westeros ready for a queen?’ We will have answers as the episodes go by, I am sure of that.

The unfolding visual spectacle of the world the series is set in is a big draw, as the showrunners have a considerably larger budget to play with than that of the first series. Even the dragons have a touch of superior CGI, and are plentiful in this setting. Costumes, sets, props and even makeup is all top-notch. And why wouldn’t they all be? This is a prequel to one of the biggest and most beloved TV series ever created.

So big, in fact, that the premiere episode drew in 9.99 million viewers across HBO and HBO Max, the largest audience in the pay TV channel’s history, including content that debuted before the streaming era, as well as HBO shows that have since premiered on defunct digital platforms HBO Now and HBO Go, as well as their successor HBO Max.

In the final analysis, my observation is that the story of ‘House of The Dragon’ is indeed a crucial part of GoT lore.

In the final analysis, my observation is that the story of ‘House of The Dragon’ is indeed a crucial part of GoT lore, and is already penned down in all the intricateness that Martin’s books are known for. The direction it is taking, from the first episode, is a compelling one, which can only heighten in stakes and drama for the brilliantly-realized cast of characters.

Even if it’s too early to call, I am declaring this series worth the wait and the hype, and one of the rare occasions when spinoffs prove themselves worthy. But will it become the kind of global sensation must-see-TV its predecessor was? While it appears to be matching the original ‘Game of Thrones’ in terms of shock, sex, and gore, that remains to be seen.  

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When women speak of different behinds: A review of Joy Nwiyi’s ‘Burning Bottom’

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By Bizuum Yadok

The ability of a woman to weaponize her sexual organs or to use it strategically to squeeze out hard-to-get favours from men was often referred to in Nigerian parlance,  as “bottom power”. I wouldn’t know what they call it now even though I strongly believe that that practice has been used by women since the creation of Eve and I doubt if it will ever stop. So when my eyes fell on Dr. Joy Nwiyi’s ‘Burning Bottom’, I instantly thought that the woman’s “botTOM” was involved. A quick dive into the text would prove me wrong.

Nwiyi didn’t just use “bottom” in a different sense from the one I mentioned earlier, but she also brought to the fore almost everything else that is deserving of national discourse. The eponymous poem, ‘Burning Bottom’ appears second among the fifty-two poems contained in the text. Here, the poet refers to a burning bottom as a foundational history of a nation – I suppose in this case, Nigeria – which had been faulty from its very beginning and has thus been sustaining various internal conflicts since it was forcefully coupled up by the British colonialists as one people. The short poem reads:

Segmented in bits of history from

years of a burning bottom flamed by

unflinching heat and watching smoulders

of a past meeting with present

Synchronizing well like water on

bridge sides streaming unhindered

yesterdays flowing into today

firing cracks of an already parched bottom.

In its brevity, one has to admire the creativity involved in composing the poem. At face value, one could glaringly see how the first three lines are tailed by an isolated line and how the sequence is repeated in a way that enjambment is well pronounced. The metaphor of “water… flowing” and later “firing” existing “cracks of an already parched bottom” evokes an unfamiliar yet interesting imagery. This goes to say that if the base of bottom of a building is faulty then the entire building will be faulty and it corresponds with the parabolic “house on the sand” in the Bible. I suppose the poet is not advocating for split of the country but to quench the fire of the present, one would need to first dig down to the burning bottom and put out the fire or renegotiate the terms of the country’s purported unity.

The next few poems that follow bear witness to the poet’s disenchantment with the country’s socio-political situation. Some of them include: ‘Going Away Gently’, ‘Growing a Wilderness in the Place We Love’, ‘Harmattan Tells Our Story’s, ‘Solution Seeker’, ‘ ‘Tones of Derangement’, ‘Does God Forbid’, ‘With Pleasure’, and ‘Camping’. The poem ‘Camping’ particularly speaks of the absence of underlying ideologies in political parties in Nigeria which enables party stalwarts to freely migrate from one political party to another. This ugly trend of mass decamping or mass defection is being manifested again in the face of the coming general elections in 2023, which is bad for a country’s democracy. The poet captures this thought succinctly in the first two stanzas of ‘(De)camping’:

They are:

brothers in ambitious despair

here or there only

when a place of acceptance

and unflinching reception flowers

forget the symbol and the hues

deep the anthem says the same

na the same people

a mixture of shady things

The succeeding lines of the poem express the convenience of decamping since the motive is always greed and survival. The injection of Pidgin English on line 7 of the poem adds colour to the poem while also situating it properly in the Nigerian society.

Religious hypocrisy and extremism, ethnic bigotry, discrimination, gender-based violence, heartbreaks, mental trauma, promiscuity, transience of fame, and the nature of marital relationships, are but some of the myriad topical concerns expressed through some of the poems in the collection, ‘Burning Bottom’. Such poems include: ‘The Colour of Devotion, ‘On the Wings of Devotion’, ‘Kith or Kin?’ ‘Cash or Kind’, ‘Runs’, ‘Flawed’,  ‘Trauma’, ‘Somewhere in Memory’, ‘Inside Fame’, ‘Just Swagger’, ‘About us’, ‘Talking About Together’, among other poems.

Some of the poems appear private yet still manage to express intense sexual experience or perhaps it is just my perception. Those two poems stand side-by-side on pages 52 and 53 of the text under the titles, ‘For Waiting Long’ and ‘A Welcome for First Rain’.

Rarely do Nigerian writers focus on the environment although we must admit that writers like Niyi Osundare, Tanure Ojaide and Helon Habila portray levels of environmental degradation found in Nigerian societies. However, Nwiyi’s poem, ‘Nowadays’ brings out attention to the cause and effect of environmental destruction and the imperative of protecting it. Consider the first two and the last two lines of the poem:

Nowadays the wind is vexed

refusing to cool only, its wings run wild

. . .

flapped leftovers of shaved forests

all paled from overuse, wind’s portrait is left behind.

The poet’s choice of concise words is deliberate as she obviously wants her readers to interact with the poems without resorting to dictionaries or footnotes. Her de-emphasis of punctuation marks, especially the use of capital letters is also worthy of note and that does not impede the grasping of the poems. Somehow, the poet leaves her reader yearning for more. Dr. Nwiyi’s ‘Burning Bottom’ is Nigeria’s story, with all of its nuances, at a glance.

Yadok, a teacher, lives and writes in Pankshin, Plateau State.

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