16.4 / Lion Man / John Jennings

Black One Shot stages brevity and precision in response to the art of blackness, contemporary and/or prescient. At 1000 words a pop, these pieces divest from academic respectability to inhabit the speculative, ambivalent, irreconcilable ways of black forms, and move through the fires this time. Seditiously, we are object forward, conjuring up the necessary intimacy generated between a critic and their object and keyed to the channels and frequencies of blackness. We hold fast to the given/taken works, the cultural productions without reduction, the condition of knowing all-too-well, and the imagining of something otherwise. Object love in the time of pandemics and insurrections. 

b.O.s. will run the course of summer 2020, come what may. We invite you to follow and share hard. Thanks to all the contributors and special thanks to Abram Foley, Aurelie Matheron, and Irenae Aigbedion of ASAP/J.

– Lisa Uddin and Michael Boyce Gillespie (Editors)

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In a post-Black Panther (Ryan Coogler, 2018) mediascape, it’s extremely difficult to not stumble across the term Afrofuturism. Coined by Mark Dery, the term deals with Black speculative pasts, presents, and futures as a response to the deliberate and antiblack erasure of black creative expressions.1 The Black Panther comic books focuses on a young prince turned king of a hidden and technologically superior African country called Wakanda.2 The character was created in 1966 by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee for Marvel Comics and was the first Black superhero in mainstream American comic books. The king, T’Challa, is not only the monarch, but also its sworn spiritual protector. He dons the ceremonial garb of The Black Panther; an avatar of the Wakandan panther god. The film adaptation of the comic catapulted the character into the black radical imagination and solidified the place of black speculative culture in the mainstream.3 However, nineteen years before T’Challa roamed the jungles of Wakanda another Black feline-themed hero guarded the Gold Coast of Africa from colonizers and poachers.

All Negro Comics (1947)

In June of 1947, five African American men launched a very audacious publishing venture when they founded All Negro Comics, Inc in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This venture was the brainchild of Orrin C. Evans, his younger brother George J. Evans Jr., John H. Terrell, William H. Smith, and Leonard Cooper. All-Negro Comics was the very first comic book ever exclusively created and published by African Americans and for an African American audience.4 Publishers and newsmen, they banded together to curate and edit an anthology of various comic genres specifically aimed at highlighting and uplifting Black people. As editor and publisher of the collection, Evans stated in the opening welcome to the comic:

This is the first issue of All-Negro Comics, jam-packed with fast action, African adventure, good lean humor and fantasy.

 Every brush stroke and pen line in the drawings are by Negro artists. And each drawing is an original: that is, none has been published ANYWHERE before. This publication is another milestone in the splendid history of Negro journalism.

 All-Negro Comic will not only give Negro artists an opportunity gainfully to use their talents, but it will glorify Negro historical achievements.5

It’s obvious that Evans knew that they were making history with this purposefully Black collection. The verve and sprit behind this introductory statement was a testimony to the high hopes they had for this anthology. One of the most exciting things about the collection was Lion Man.

All Negro Comics (1947)

Written by Orrin C. Evans and drawn by his brother George (‘Geo’), we first see the superhero in silhouette with his back to the reader staring into the distance with his charge: the mysterious Magic Mountain. In ten pages, Lion Man and his impish sidekick, Bubba, stop two would-be white usurpers from taking the treasures of the mountain. The United Nations appoints Lion Man to guard a large repository of uranium located in the mountain. A fusion of the jungle adventure genre with the tropes of the superhero, Lion Man reflects the newly frozen Cold War politics of the era. The character also represents an African American longing to have a sense of connection to the continent of Africa. Lion Man presents himself as guardian of African treasures and knowledge, he is a Black Power fantasy reified through ink and pulp paper.

All Negro Comics (1947)

Sadly, that first issue of the anthology would be the first and only adventure of Lion Man.6 I often imagine what would have happened if there would have been a second issue, which was created and ready for print but the company could not find a supplier to sell them the paper to print on.7 A book that could have inspired an independent Black comics culture was cut short by what can only be assumed to be systemic racism. It’s a second issue that lives only in my imagination as a shadow book.

All-Negro Comics #2 is a shadow book, “a book that we don’t have, but know of, a book that may haunt the very book we have in our hands.”8 In The Grey Album: On The Blackness of Blackness, Kevin Young describes three types of shadow books from Black creators: the books that are unwritten, the books that are lost, and the books that are removed or redacted on purpose. If All-Negro Comics #2 is a shadow book, imagine what kind of stories could have been created over the years if the All-Negro Comics series and Lion Man survived and thrived over the last seventy-three years.

Below are covers to newly discovered further issues of various incarnations of the character since 1947. The legend of Lion Man comes to us fully formed from the shadows and now, can still inspire a new generation of Black creators and fans.

Synopsis: The creators of Lion Man moved from the loin-cloth clad version of the character to an updated adventurer with an aesthetic that was inspired by Lee Falk’s The Phantom.

 

Synopsis: Lion Man’s 1968 style and ethos were fueled by the Civil Rights struggle and fought against anti-Black oppression.

 

Synopsis: Lion Man’s late 1970s revival featured a more sleek science fiction-oriented design that again updated the character and his villains. His adventures move from continental Africa to the cosmos.

 

Synopsis: This incarnation of Lion Man from the 1990s was influenced by DC Vertigo and focused on a hero that defended children from nightmare demons.

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This is one of four essays from the sixteenth transmission of b.O.s. (Black One Shot). Read the other essays here:

b.O.s 16.1/Atlantiques/Cynthia A. Young
b.O.s 16.2/Fractured Crescendo, Rest/Nijah Cunningham
b.O.s 16.3/All Day Long/Hayley O’Malley

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Lisa Uddin is author of Zoo Renewal: White Flight and the Animal Ghetto (University of Minnesota Press, 2015), and has recent writing in the volume Race and Modern Architecture: A Critical History from the Enlightenment to the Present (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020), ASAP/J, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Postmodern Culture. She’s here for the freedom.

Michael Boyce Gillespie is the author of Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film (Duke University Press, 2016). His recent work has appeared in Black Light: A Retrospective of International Black Cinema, Flash Art, Unwatchable, and Film Quarterly. He hopes that people are still outraged in November.

Endnotes

  1. Dery, Mark, “Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose,” in Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture, ed. Mark Dery (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994), 179-222.
  2. Jack Kirby and Lee, Stan, The Fantastic Four #52 (New York, NY: Marvel Comics, July 1966).
  3. The film was a powerful Black cultural phenomenon. Despite being created by two Jewish men, the Black Panther is the king and human avatar of a god who rules an African country that has never been colonized and is the most technologically advanced society on the planet. I write these words while now mourning the passing of Chadwick Boseman who portrayed the Black Panther. He is forever the reluctant King of Wakanda. The outpouring of mourning for Boseman is a testimony to how much his portrayal affected the world.
  4. All Negro Comics, ed. Orrin C. Evans (Pittsburgh, PA:All Negro Comics, Inc., 1947).
  5. Ibid.
  6. Blair Davis, “Why the first black superhero was not one you think,” The Washington Post (January 27, 2020.): https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/01/27/why-first-black-superhero-was-not-one-you-think/
  7. See Drew Friedman, More Heroes of the Comics: Portraits of the Legends of Comic Books (Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, 2016).
  8. Kevin Young, The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Greywolf Press, 2012), 11-13.
John Jennings
John Jennings is a Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at the University of California at Riverside. He is co-editor of the Eisner Award-winning The Blacker the Ink: Constructions of the Black Identity in Comics and Sequential Art. His current projects include Box of Bones (Rosarium Publishing), Black Comix Returns (with Damian Duffy), and the award winning and best-selling graphic novel adaptation of Octavia Butler's Kindred. His graphic novel adaptation Octavia Butler’s The Parable of The Sower (also with Duffy) was just released in January 2020. Jennings is also founder and curator of the ABRAMS Megascope line of graphic novels. His adaptation (with David Brame) of Nnedi Okorafor’s “On The Road” will be the first Megascope title (January 2021).