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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: ‘Magic Pen’ is an example of the difference a film school can make

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When a pen can make you get high grades at school, why study?

By Nathaniel Bivan

In March 2022, Uzoma Ihejirika, a writer, concluded a three-month training at EbonyLife Creative Academy (ELCA), where he studied screenwriting. Then he wrote on Facebook: “the decision to take the course came at a perfect time: I’d just quit an underwhelming job and needed the thrill of learning a new skill; it was also a welcome distraction from confronting the uncertainties that stared me in the face.”

One of the results of Ihejirika’s latest adventure was being a part of the team that brought ‘Magic Pen’ to life – one of their four student films at EbonyLife Creative Academy available on YouTube. And so, I decided to take a peek and realized this is absolutely stuff to talk about, for if students can accomplish this in only three months (note, it’s one out of four such projects), then Nollywood has no reason not to be making fantastic stuff. Anyway, here goes.

When the first scene opens in a classroom where the major character, Charles, thoroughly anxious in an exam hall, vomits on his coursemate, I knew I wanted to continue watching. Then, as expected, going by the title and synopsis, another coursemate offers him the key to scoring high grades – a magic pen.

Now, the Nigerian film industry is still warming up as it tries to dive into the sci-fi world with movies like ‘Kajola,’ ‘Ratnik,’ and several more. Then came the Critics Company, a group of teens at the time, who made news for shooting sci-fi shorts with a smashed phone. So, yes, I was expecting magic, lights, and thunder, and… magic on Charles’ exam answer sheet. An addition to the growing effort. But I was disappointed, and I mean this in a really good way. The twist concerning the pen and everything it stands for totally ruined my expectations and yet earned the team responsible for this short film a standing ovation.

The actors didn’t annoy me, interestingly. Who are they? Are they new? Is this their first outing or what? These are all questions I need answers to because sometimes it’s frustrating to watch a Nigerian movie and wonder what the criteria were for selecting some actors. But then, I’ve heard that sometimes producers or anyone in charge tends to impose and even get a son, relative or friend on board no matter the consequences. This is sad. To the detriment of excellent work?

Bottom line: The acting is really good. If it isn’t, I’m sure I’d have gotten irritated and simply stopped watching and wouldn’t have wasted my precious time doing this review. I’m like that most of the time.

One take-away from this film is that not everything is the way it seems, and sometimes success is more than just what we do – it’s a mindset.

So, thumbs up to EbonyLife Creative Academy, to Ihejirika, and the entire squad, particularly the actors. And lest I forget, the videography is really good too. I particularly enjoyed the images in Charles’ mind that, for me, made watching ‘Magic Pen’ electrifying and, yes, sci-fi!

Watch the entire film below:

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#BookChaser: EB makes poetry ‘medicine’ that heals

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In a collection that transcends poetry, our writer discovers it is music, interrupted by rhymes and rhythm.

By Nathaniel Bivan

I met EB through his words on a blog – laden with stories and poetry – that made me reach out long before Covid-19 became infamous. I realized EB was famous before the pandemic and then, writing for and editing the arts section of a major national newspaper then, I reached out to him.

When I dug deeper, I found that EB also did Spoken Word. In fact, it probably is his core art. This was when his words stood out on a song, a cover if my memory serves me correctly. Then in 2022, his album ‘Incarnation’ drops.

‘Guns don’t kill, bullets do. My poems are guns and bullets. People should read me and let me be their bulletin,’ he says in ‘What Will Humans Do.’”

Then, “Today I am not the poet. Today I am the poem. Recite me when you are down, recite me when you are bound.”

So I chose to read EB, and this is what I found. When everything fails, what will humans do? Will we make more sophisticated aircraft? Try to make the sun shine after sunset? Maybe through a lamp against the sky when the moon refuses to brighten the night?

So I chose to read EB, and this is what I found. When everything fails, what will humans do? Will we make more sophisticated aircraft? Try to make the sun shine after sunset? Maybe through a lamp against the sky when the moon refuses to brighten the night?

These are the questions I find in EB’s work, just as I also find Nigeria’s dilemma, embedded in his poems. For instance, so-called banditry and terrorism in the north, where people are unable to go to their farms for fear of being killed, or worse.  

I’m writing this review a few hours after an acquaintance tells me about how his father evaded death in Southern Kaduna, a part of the north whose inhabitants prefer to call the middle belt. So, when I listen to EB again, his story of a mother and son’s encounter with terror is heart-wrenching. I picture Kagoro, the place where terrorists visited not too long ago, killing many. But it’s not only Kaduna, there’s Zamfara, Katsina, and most recently Plateau State where terrorists, commonly called ‘bandits’ have plied their deadly trade.

These are the images EB’s poetry paints in my mind, and without even trying.

Then there’s the soulful music, the play with tongues that’s in reality the Hausa language. Is this a musical album or poetry? I don’t care. I’m enjoying it, I tell myself. Stories drenched in music and rhymes.

No wonder he started streaming ‘Incarnation’ early. In just a few weeks it had almost sold out.

I have listened to and read a lot of poetry in my lifetime, but nothing like what Elisha Bala brings to the fore in ‘Incarnation’. But I am tempted to ask: are the songs original? Because if they are – and I suspect this is the case – then this is not just poetry, but art that deserves to travel around the world.

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And so the cancellation of Will Smith begins

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Shocking no one really, a string of Will Smith films are ‘to be axed’ after the Chris Rock slapping incident at the Oscars divided global opinion on what to do – or not do – to the Hollywood icon. Whatever the case may be, it appears a cancellation is underway. Here’s why that may be a bad thing.

By Justina Terhember

Will Smith shocked not only Hollywood last weekend, but the whole world, when he slapped Chris Rock live on stage following a joke at the Oscars. It was such a seismic event that it pushed Ukraine to second position on the list of online trending issues. Of course, those who do not support him have been calling for his head on a spike, and even his supporters (nay, sympathizers) have made peace with the possibility of harsh repercussions, it appears the cancellation of Will Smith has officially begun.

Specifically, because Netflix and Sony have reportedly shelved plans to make films with the actor, with a string of projects facing cancellation, and some upcoming films quietly shelved. Smith, 53, dazed the world last weekend when he stormed the stage of the Academy Awards and slapped Chris Rock after he made an ill-judged joke about the actor’s wife, Jada Pinkett-Smith. Will returned to his seat and repeatedly screamed: “Keep my wife’s name out your f***ing mouth!” while the astonished A-List audience watched on in shock, and the internet broke in two.

Will later apologised to Chris via social media and on Saturday announced that he had resigned from his position as a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but as expected from the pulse of reactions on popular media, the worst is yet to come.

Will later apologised to Chris via social media and on Saturday announced that he had resigned from his position as a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but as expected from the pulse of reactions on popular media, the worst is yet to come. The Hollywood Reporter claims that a Netflix film titled ‘Fast and Loose’ meant to star Smith has been shelved in light of the scandal. The film had originally been set to be directed by David Leitch, but he pulled out of the project a week before the Oscars sending Netflix into a frenzied search for a replacement.

It appears that Netflix was understandably wary of moving forward. It is unclear whether it will try to make the project with another star and director. TMZ also suggested that Smith’s other Netflix projects, namely ‘The Council’ and ‘Bright 2’ could also be tossed into the trash as a consequence of #SlapGate. To make matters worse, even frequent collaborator Sony is said to have canceled plans to make ‘Bad Boys 4’, all for the same reason.

The Smith family

Also being reported, is that the slapping incident has affected a project he has been working on at Apple+, one deep in post-production, a drama titled ‘Emancipation’ which tells the story of a runaway slave from a Louisiana plantation. The film had already been tipped to secure Will a second Best Actor Oscar nomination but the Hollywood Reporter now claims: “The streamer had planned a 2022 debut but has not dated its release.”

There are more, and there will be more, obviously. TMZ adds: “There are other Sony-tied films of his (either as a producer or actor) that might see the same fate including a Hancock sequel and a Karate Kid sequel.” I won’t be surprised if they revoke his Oscar award. All for what? Because he lost his temper? It was a slap, not a punch for God’s sake. To be honest, when I saw the video, I even thought “He hits like a girl”. But jokes aside, where and when will this lynching stop? It’s not just about Smith, you know. He represents a lot, culturally and racially.

There are cultural ramifications that might be felt for years, maybe decades. Progress for Blacks in Hollywood was slow and hard-fought, so a thing like #SlapGate shouldn’t roll it all back. It’s almost like someone, or a group of people, are eager to tear the actor down.

What these heavy-handed (forgive the pun) cancellation measures will certainly prove is that there is nothing like forgiveness in the public court of justice, or in the sanctimonious halls of Hollywood. Like I wrote earlier, it’s not just about Smith anymore. There are cultural ramifications that might be felt for years, maybe decades. Progress for Blacks in Hollywood was slow and hard-fought, so a thing like #SlapGate shouldn’t roll it all back. It’s almost like someone, or a group of people, are eager to tear the actor down.

Smith has got a production company now, so beyond just starring in films, he’s heavily involved in making them lately. Is an active cancellation the best way to go? What happened to suspensions, fines, public apologies, and community service? No doubt, Smith was clearly in the wrong for resorting to violence, but let’s not forget the joke was a triggering one. There should be a middle-ground, less-messy way to handle this situation, and cancellation is not the way. Like the end part of one of his apologies, “I am heartbroken.”

  • The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of GeekAfrique.com

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