Call Him B’Wana

The Silver Age super-hero B’Wana Beast (Beast Master more or less) is, as they say these days, “problematic.” In 1967, when much of Africa had declared independence from the West, it turns out the continent’s mightiest hero is still a white dude, protecting helpless Africans like the guy on the cover.

Yet at the same time, when I reread the two-part story of the “Jungle Master” recently there’s a lot that I like. Writer Bob Haney did his best to portray an Africa of tribal, low-tech cultures struggling to adapt to a modern, technological world. To me as a kid, that was a revelation: Africans had cars and cities and didn’t just run around talking pidgin and cooking white people in stewpots (that this blew my mind reflects both the fact I was nine and the kind of portrayals I usually saw in fiction).

In the flashback part of the first issue, millionaire’s son Mike Maxwell graduates college (variously referred to as “State University,” Harvard and a Great American University) with a degree in biology and a best friend, Ken. Rupert “Ken” Kenboya is African, son of the Zambesi tribe’s chieftain; his post-college plans involve becoming his country’s top cop and helping steer the tribe into the 20th century. Mike agrees to travel to Africa with his buddy and get a job in wildlife research.

Mike flies them to Africa in his personal plane but they hit stormy weather and crash on Kilimanjiro (the stories don’t specify Ken’s home country, but the mountain’s in Tanzania). When they hole up in a cave, a gorilla attacks, but Mike finds a potion that makes him strong enough to beat the ape. The gorilla then presents Mike with a magic helmet that gives him telepathic power to talk with and control the local wildlife. Mike, of course, becomes a superhero with Ken as his Commissioner Gordon and Djuba, the gorilla, as his faithful sidekick. In the time between these events and the present-day A-plot, the authorities have come to see B’Wana Beast as a dangerous outlaw, complicating Ken’s efforts to help him.

The A-plot involves the Zambesi shipping copper from their mines as a first step in building up some economic security. Hamid Ali, an immortal criminal, plans to block or delay the shipment enough to terminate the contract; it’s nothing personal, poor people are just easier to exploit. Over the two issues, Ken and Mike take Hamid Ali on and deliver enough of the ore to save the day. B’Wana Beast demonstrates his best-known ability, to fuse two animals into one—

—and ends the issue smooching the snooping reporter who’s uncovered his identity. Fortunately the monkey destroyed the evidence.

My primary reason for reading the issues originally, and for loving it, was that as a kid I was fascinated by animals. Loved Dr. Dolittle. Thrilled to Animal Man. Having the power to talk to animals the way B’Wana Beast did made him incredibly cool. Plus the whole idea of a modern Africa. And I love Hamid Ali’s mobile base, a gigantic crocodile mecha.

Reading as an adult, the problematic aspects hit me like a slap in the face. The white jungle gods of the 20th century (or as my friend Ross Bagby says, “non-native rain forest authority figures”) have not aged well; a continent with millions of native, black inhabitants and the greatest hero still turns out to be a white American guy? And apparently it took a white dude to earn the right to wear the helmet, a variation on another trope that’s grown to annoy me (third-world culture embraces white dude as their Chosen One). Ken’s constant grumbling about how his tribe are all superstitious “children” is too close to racist stereotypes to read comfortably now.

But I do give Haney credit for giving the white hero a black best friend, and one who’s literally his equal: when they graduate college, someone mentions that they’ve both tied for highest honors academically, as well as being the school’s top athletes. That was pretty novel for a 1967 comic book, though obviously Mike’s super-powers elevate him to a higher tier.

Still, I can’t say the tryout issues were so awesome B’Wana Beast was robbed when he didn’t get his own book. With the exception of Tarzan, who’s a household name, white jungle gods weren’t the sales winners they’d been in previous decades. The later Shanna the She-Devil only lasted five issues despite offering better eye candy (or am I underestimating the sex appeal of Mike Maxwell’s shirtless chest?).

It’s more surprising that B’Wana Beast didn’t simply enter limbo alongside the Maniaks. After a brief appearance in Crisis on Infinite Earth, he showed up in the second issue of DC Challenge, then in Swamp Thing and Animal Man. In the latter story, Grant Morrison tried transferring the mantle to a black South African, Freedom Beast, but it didn’t take. B’Wana Beast has even made it to TV in Justice League Unlimited and Brave and the Bold, where he dies saving the world from Starro.

If that’s the last we see of him, I won’t shed a tear. But I wouldn’t be surprised if someone, someday, thinks of something new to do with the Jungle Master.

#SFWApro. Art by Mike Sekowsky, Shanna cover by Jim Steranko.

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