Monday, February 16, 2015

Angola in the Comics, Part 1 of 5: Biff Powers

Comics and Angola. What do they have in common? Me, I suppose - I'm a lifelong comics fan (occasional dabbler in comics themselves) who has also been to Angola on a couple of occasions. Depictions of Africa can be found throughout comics, but I wondered - what is there of Angola, specifically? Thanks to the Grand Comics Database (to which I am an indexer) I found five early examples of Angola appearing in the comics. Thanks to the Digital Comic Museum, I found scans of all five stories. Why not offer my perspective on these comics and whether I think they do Angola justice?
Caveat: I have only been to southern Angola and only in the 2010s. The comics I'm about to review date from the 1940s and could conceivably be depicting central or northern Angola. I am not an authority on the country, simply an interested party.
We'll begin with publisher Standard and the title Startling Comics Vol.5 #2 (April, 1942). Like many comics of the time, Startling Comics was an anthology of various adventure features such as super heroes, detectives, cowboys and a few comedy features. We're concerned with one "Biff Powers, Big Game Hunter," a jungle trapper hero in the model of Alex Raymond's comic strip feature Jungle Jim. At the time, most comic book creators looked to the strips for inspiration and dreamed of leaving their dead-end comic book careers for the sweet financial security of a syndicated strip - thus, Jungle Jim had a host of imitators. The story is untitled and uncredited, but the Grand Comics Database titled it "The Wolf-Man of Angola" and credited it to August Froehlich.
We open with our hero in the "main office" of Carson Circus, the outfit for whom Biff performed his globetrotting deeds of daring animal captures. Biff's employer Tom shows him an article about a "Wolf-Man" which Biff reads out as "Weird creature terrorizes Angola natives as several vanish!" We the audience are not given any further details but this is enough to convince Biff to go hunting this "weird creature." "What a side-show star he'd make!" This seems like a lot of expense just to to obtain a sideshow attraction, but then Biff lived in the time of Big Circus Money. Biff's lover Marcia isn't thrilled by the idea ("Africa again?") but Biff soothes her by joking "Think of all the Pickaninnies poor Weki's got to feed!" Ouch. Setting aside whomever "Weki" might be, "Pickaninnies" are an old racist term for black children (it comes from the Portuguese, if Wikipedia can be believed, so at least that much is appropriate to Angola).
We move now to the ocean port of Luanda, Angola's capital as Biff and Marcia arrive. So, the creators know the capital of Angola, which is very good! ...And they evidently had no photo references because it looks like a dock on the Mississippi. Weki is there to meet them, he evidently being a familiar native guide. Weki's dressed in western fashions which is a nice change of pace from the usual loincloths one finds in such materials. Although, a day later Weki brings them to his village (he's of the Lunda tribe - and Lunda is an authentic tribal type) and by then he's dressed in the usual loincloth outfit. The Lunda village already has a white man, a somewhat husky fellow named Ormand who is obviously this story's villain (he's unattractive, which is a big tip-off). Ormand claims he came to study the Lundas' customs and confirms the "Wolf-Man" attacks, revealing the being to be called "Boma."
While pitching his tent, Biff sees some baboons and decides to capture "one of the small fry." What, he's going to leave the tent incomplete? Have your ADD diagnosed, Biff. Left alone, Marcia is threatened by a leopard, but Biff returns in time to shoot the leopard dead, saving her. At dawn of the following day Biff and Weki prepare to send out a hunting party, only to hear a commotion and find themselves face-to-face with Boma, a giant white man who is fighting baboons bare-handed. What exactly is Boma? As a "Wolf-Man," is he a Mowgli-type feral human? Or is he a Tarzan-type jungle lord? As a white man among beasts he seems very Tarzanny, but otherwise he's Mowglishy - in particular, he doesn't know English. Biff tries to convince Boma he's a friend, but Boma runs away into the bush. At this point, Ormand turns up, claiming the Lunda have turned against him. Sure enough, the Lunda soon attack Biff and Marcia, taking them both prisoner; Ormand uses his gun to force the Lunda to help him, but does nothing to help Biff and Marcia.
Fortunately, Boma returns and sets Biff and Marcia free, summoning up a wolf pack to assist him in escaping the village. When the trio catch up with Ormand they discover he'd actually been harvesting diamonds and forcing the Lunda to dig for him; Boma's supposed "victims" were actually other people Ormand had enslaved and murdered. Biff takes Ormand prisoner and lets Boma go back to the jungle. "Guess he'll be happier leading a dog's life, Marcia!" Marcia intends to keep the diamonds, apparently believing that finders are keepers. Ha-ha-ha, ain't that just like a woman? And so, the story ends.
While a typical white hunter/jungle man story, this was actually a fairly well-done production by the standards of 1942. To this day, comic book creators tend to think of Africa as an amorphous, hazily defined nation of either deserts or jungles. A little bit of effort went into using Angola here and I think it's worth totaling up my own arbitrarily-defined score to see how well it performed:
  • -1 estrela for the pickaninny remark
  • +2 estrelas for using Luanda
  • +1 estrela for Weki wearing a shirt and pants for one scene
  • +2 estrelas for using a real African tribe (Lunda)
  • +3 estrelas for using three animals which are actually found in Angola
  • -1 estrela for Marcia's blood diamonds
TOTAL SCORE: Seis estrelas!
Come back tomorrow for the next feature!

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