Make Mine Wakanda

Let the Dance of Friendship begin!
Fantastic Four 53, August 1966. In the previous issue, Black Panther had invited the FF to Wakanda to test his skills against them. Also, STFU Ben.

My senior year of college, I had a part-time job in the student union. It involved being something like a facilities manager, only I wasn’t an actual manager. I made rounds through the union to keep it clean and functional. If a bulb was out or something was broken, I filed a maintenance request; but if somebody had spilled coffee, I broke out the mop. I counted rolls of toilet paper in utility closets and removed outdated announcements from the bulletin boards. Sometimes I manned the information desk. Those kinds of things.

My shifts began at an awkward time in the evenings after I had eaten in the union dining hall. The difference in time, usually less than an hour, wasn’t long enough to be useful — not enough to study in earnest, although sometimes I would catch up on my assigned reading. Besides, who wants to prep for work by doing work?

Instead, I would watch TV. The union had two TV lounges. At that time of day, one was usually dark and silent. The other was packed so solid some people had to sit on the floor.

The first time I ducked into the popular lounge, I froze in my tracks. The entrance was to the right of the television, so I saw the entire audience illuminated by the glow of the screen in three-quarters profile. Every single face was black.

Now I have to confess what threw me off wasn’t just the black audience — it was also the show they were watching. It was Star Trek: The Next Generation. It had been Patrick Stewart’s baritone, overheard in the hallway, that lured me into the lounge in the first place. I thought to myself, Black people like Star Trek?

In hindsight, it’s not at all strange when you consider Trek history — even Martin Luther King, Jr. was a fan — but this was my first encounter with black fandom, or what’s sometimes called black nerd culture.

Watching TV with this group became a regular habit during my senior year. After dinner I would often stop by the TV lounge, wade deep into the room, and (usually) find a seat against the back wall to watch. Alas, since I arrived after the show began and departed before it finished, I never spoke to anybody. We were all too busy watching.

And this audience didn’t just watch Star Trek. Oh no. There was commentary.

What transpired in that lounge was essentially a live version of Mystery Science Theater 3000, only a thousand times funnier. Before me was the screen broken by the anonymous silhouettes of the people in front, all of them cracking wise at the perils faced by the crew of the Enterprise-D. Imagine watching TV with a room full of your favorite comedians — that’s what it was like. I learned to chew gum while watching so I could bite down sometimes to keep from screaming with laughter.

While they often made fun of the interior Star Trek, the crowd also criticized Star Trek the TV show. There’s one episode I remember in particular. Picard and the gang had beamed down to a planet inhabited by blonde, blue-eyed people. It might have been some kind of shore-leave episode. The natives wore flowey garments and were very friendly to the off-worlders — theirs was a perfect, utopian world, full of beautiful white people with blonde hair and blue eyes.

The room went off.

“Oh, they on the Planet of the Aryans.”

“It’s the Hitler World!”

And on and on. They shredded that episode. I think I might’ve been crying in the back.

But you know what? I had a little epiphany in that TV lounge. The Enterprise crew flew hither and yon across the galaxy encountering all sorts of extraterrestrials with sagittal crests and bumpy nose prosthetics, and yet usually those aliens only had one skin color. Black actors would turn up as Klingons like Worf but even that wasn’t consistent because some Klingons were just white actors wearing shoe polish. Just as every alien planet mysteriously looked like southern California, likewise the aliens themselves always coincidentally had pink skin.

So when I see stories about Black Panther breaking records for advance tickets or Presidents’ Day weekend openings, I get it.

Fantastic Four 52, July 1966, was the first appearance of both Black Panther and Wakanda. Stan Lee wrote the script with Jack Kirby’s artwork at full throttle.

If you’ve read my previous thoughts on Black Panther, it may not surprise you that I was very excited to see Wakanda’s realization on the big screen. I didn’t have to wait long. Early in the film we experience a flyover of the countryside before piercing the shield dome to encounter Wakanda’s main city. The skyscrapers have none of the gloomy spires of Gotham or even the blocky pyramids and temples of Egypt (which might be expected since BP’s tribe worships Bast, the Egyptian cat goddess); instead the rounded organic forms of the skyline strongly reminded me of the beehive structures and asymmetrical curving walls of Great Zimbabwe. There are too many details I could geek about — the dragonfly VTOL ships, the throne rooms, the five tribes’ distinguishing customs and clothing and palettes — but suffice to say, Wakanda makes every Star Wars planet look gray and ho-hum by comparison.

Black Panther is unique in comics in that the character is inexorably entwined with his setting. Even Batman can’t share that claim: the Gotham of the Bob Kane era is indistinguishable from any generic cityscape, featuring none of the Gothic art deco we now associate with the Dark Knight. Meanwhile, the very first appearance of BP in the July 1966 issue of Fantastic Four takes place in his home country. Wakanda and its mashup of African culture and super science was baked into the mythology of Black Panther from the very beginning.

Often the settings in fiction are interchangeable; the action can be switched from city to suburbs to rural country without much trouble. In others, the setting is intrinsic. In much the same way as cutting a major character changes a story, moving a Western to New York City radically transforms the original intent into a very different work. Setting, in other words, itself becomes a main character, a silent player on the stage — excise the character, and the original concept is wounded or at least altered so drastically it becomes something else.

Black Panther would not be as successful a character (or now, a franchise) without Wakanda, and the tightly written script by director Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole understands that. A major theme of the film asks what responsibility does Wakanda have to the rest of the world, and more specifically, to the black world. When you are rich and powerful, is hermitism and quietude a valid strategy of self-preservation or is it complicity with evil? If engagement is preferred, what shape should it take? The film’s plot is an internal monologue of Wakanda the character, expressed through T’Challa and Killmonger. More than just visually depicting the country, Coogler and Cole perfectly communicate the tension inherent in the whole concept of Wakanda.

Jungle Action Featuring the Black Panther 8, January 1974. What’s funny is that this map differs from the map printed just two issues prior in which the Atlantic Ocean is shown in the lower left-hand corner. Now it points to the Indian Ocean, which means north is south and vice versa. This whole geographical slipperiness just adds to Wakanda’s mystique — it’s like the place is so damn secret, even Marvel doesn’t know where it is.

Black Panther is a solid film with strongly defined characters and great acting (I couldn’t decide which antagonist I loved watching steal scenes the most: Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger, Andy Serkis’s Klaue, or Winston Duke’s M’Baku). Is it the best MCU film yet? I’m still partial to Winter Soldier, but Panther is definitely at the top of my list. I suspect that with its box-office success and the difficult job of introducing a whole slew of new characters behind it — and assuming Marvel keeps Coogler and Cole onboard — the next Black Panther may be the next Winter Soldier. In the meantime, I’ll just have to be patient and go see this one again.

All images taken from Black Panther Epic Collection: Panther’s Rage. Copyright © 2016 Marvel. Fair use! Discussion purposes!

Update: The capital city of Wakanda, so I’ve learned, is Birnin Zana, and Chadwick Boseman has said the cinematic version of Wakanda is based upon the real-life kingdom of Mutapa, the 15th-century successor state to the kingdom of Zimbabwe. Great Zimbabwe, which was built beginning in the 11th century, was the capital of the Zimbabwe kingdom.

Take the Next Chance, and the Next

For Christmas I received the memoir This Is the Noise That Keeps Me Awake, a big coffee-table book about Garbage, probably my all-time favorite band. Incredibly Mrs. Kuhl and I saw them live for the first time this past summer when they toured with Blondie, and it’s strange to think I’d never seen them in the twenty-plus years of my fandom; but then I remember that in the 90s I was ramen-noodles poor and by the time we had money and were doing well enough to afford concert tickets and big nights on the town, we had babies and toddlers.

Flipping through the book at random I was immediately struck by a quote from Shirley Manson. In 2005 the band took a seven-year hiatus, and during that time Manson acted as a killer robot on the show Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. It’s not as weird a transition as you might think; Manson had been a print model in her teenage years and intended to segue into acting before, as she said, she “stumbled into music.” She took acting lessons with instructor Sharon Chatten, and although she hasn’t acted much since the show was cancelled, Manson considers it a positive experience:

“She completely changed my attitude to being an artist and my approach to making music,” says Manson. “She taught me how not to focus on results but instead to focus on ideas and taking creative detours and risks; how to cut the strings of who I thought I was and instead be in the moment, completely free of external appraisal.”

No musician, I suppose, begins her career with anything more than a vague idea about playing music. Then one day she may say, I want to record an album, but she has little idea of how the final product will sound, perhaps only a blurred notion at best. There can be no real understanding of the result; she can only understand what she is doing in that day, only in that moment.

She can only record one song, one idea, then another, and another, until she has enough to fill an album. Then later she does the whole process again, then maybe again. Eventually she has albums and albums of music and can look back and see a career and a trajectory which was completely opaque at the beginning.

Having two sons, our family is not immune to periodic Star Wars excitement whenever a new installment appears, and Manson’s sentiment dovetails with a line that hooked me while recently rewatching Rogue One. Toward the story’s climax the heroine Jyn Erso explains her strategy for infiltrating the Empire’s top-secret base. “They’ve no idea we’re coming,” she tells her misfit team. “No reason to expect us. If we can make it to the ground, we’ll take the next chance, and the next, on and on, until we win or the chances are spent.”

Take creative detours, take risks. Take chances. That, I think, is the best new year’s advice I can provide, to myself and to everybody.

What Matters Is What You Believe

As an epilogue to my last post about Twin Peaks (among other things), director and cowriter David Lynch recently made some comments about the series and the nature of ambiguity itself, both in art and real life:

When it comes to the final moments of this season, he said, “What matters is what you believe happened. Many things in life just happen and we have to come to our own conclusions. You can, for example, read a book that raises a series of questions, and you want to talk to the author, but he died a hundred years ago. That’s why everything is up to you.”

If Robert Aickman was to be resurrected as a filmmaker, he would be Lynch.

Short News, Post-Election Post Edition

In a nation run by swine, all pigs are upward-mobile and the rest of us are fucked until we can put our acts together: not necessarily to win, but mainly to keep from losing completely.

— Hunter S. Thompson, The Great Shark Hunt

We can’t stop here, this is bat country. Are you experiencing anxiety, depression, and terror after last week’s election? Congratulations! Now you know how it feels to be a libertarian after every election! As a veteran of such emotional swings, might I suggest a period of self-reflection? During this time you could consider the libertarian idea of opposing government’s — and specifically, the executive’s — possession of far-reaching powers; as well as the possibility that blaming white people for all the world’s ills is unproductive, and that better ends might result from outreach toward America’s rural working classes. Following that, I propose sampling my daily medicine. Work out. Run. Read. Write. Help settlements. Don’t assume someone else will fix a problem. Keep a sense of humor. You’re not alone.

Let us not have such a machine any longer. Earlier this week LitHub published a list of 25 books for resisting the coming Trump junta. Notably absent was Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience. Thoreau’s full-throated cry has been out of favor with some on the left ever since Ronald Reagan (who was raised a Democrat) co-opted the radicalist idea that government is the problem and not the solution, but maybe it’s due for a comeback. Open Culture has a nice backgrounder on Civil Disobedience, an essay I find supremely inspirational and evergreen.

Truth is weirder than any fiction. If instead of nonfiction you’re in need of a politically relevant novel, I really enjoyed Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country.

By the all-seeing Eye of Agamotto. Doctor Strange was a fun but fairly mediocre experience with its main strength being the excellent interpretation of Steve Ditko’s vertiginous artwork from the character’s early days. While not a 1:1 translation, the visuals conveyed that same MC Escher sense of distortion and confusion that disconcerted this young reader. Over at Vulture, Abraham Riesman has a great piece about stalking Ditko (still alive — who knew?), and along the way details Ditko’s feud with Stan Lee and his gradual withdrawal from the world in anger and bitterness. It’s a fascinating and yet scary CT scan of an incredible talent consumed by mental illness.

Just say nyet. Probably because the Russians and Chinese are inside all of our servers these days, I’ve been flooded with spam through the phonetically rendered e-mail address that used to be on this site’s About page. I’ve removed the address until I can determine a better way to present it. In the meantime, if you want to contact me the best way is either @ing or DMing me through Twitter.

Antisocial Media

Diogenes by Jean-Leon Gerome, 1860
Diogenes by Jean-Leon Gerome, 1860

It’s not unusual to hate LinkedIn.

The biggest complaint, of course, is the endless tidal surge of e-mails and notices it vomits into your in-box, a result of LinkedIn’s strange blacksmithery wherein a CV-posting site has been hammered into a shape wanted by nobody except management consultants and listicle-writing malarkey gurus. What started as a competitor to Monster.com and HotJobs has mutated into a kind of business-centric Facebook, a misshapen chimera of a job site too incompetent to help users actually find a job but well placed to poke you into sending pre-scripted junk mail about work anniversaries. In that sense I hate LinkedIn as much as the next person.

But what really frustrates me is its structural prejudice against freelance and gig-oriented careers.

LinkedIn is made for nine-to-fivers, for people who have regular jobs with HR departments and second interviews and responsibilities that can be reduced to bullet points and executive summaries. It’s complete shit for writers and artists and other project-based doers and makers (we’re called “creatives,” apparently). Sure, you can list articles you’ve written, only to learn LinkedIn automatically orders them by date of publication. This means that book you wrote a few years ago will be buried by all the little stuff you’ve written since, whereas you might actually want to showcase the book at the top of the column.

Worse, you cannot add an image to accompany that publication, so you can’t even post, you know, the fucking cover of the fucking book you wrote. Contrast that with the Work Experience areas where clock-punchers can input all sorts of pictures and videos and presentations to describe their duties at Acme Widget.

I know freelancers who have completely deleted their LinkedIn accounts in frustration. I haven’t gone that far yet; instead, exasperated and angry, I have stripped my profile to the basics and walked away.

As an alternative, last week I established a profile on Contently, which is a marketing company that advertises access to 55,000 creatives to generate content for said marketing. I suspect the 55,000 freelancers are actually mannequins in the shop window and any real work is performed by in-house staffers, but regardless Contently does have a nice GUI for displaying freelance work. You can add URLs, edit the headlines and story descriptions, add images, and rank stories however you please. You can even upload PDF scans of print clips, which is good for me since many of my favorite clips are no longer online (and the PDFs download and display quickly too). The easiness and attractiveness of the site is definitely a rabbit-hole: I wrote more than a hundred articles for Dig and Calliope alone, all of which I could scan and upload. For now I’ve added 14 greatest hits, with more to come as I jump-start my writing career once again. Forward always.

Recently my buddy Eric and I were discussing why the culture of Instagram tends to be generally nicer and more kid-friendly than, say, Twitter. He pointed out that Twitter weighs all input, whether it’s a piece of original news or an insulting response, as equal whereas IG demands that users contribute unique content, with commentary on that content being secondary. This means it’s easy to fire off an insult on IG but it’s also easy to control and destroy it, while the process of posting an image is itself a barrier (albeit not insurmountable) to trolls and haters, who add nothing. And yet that same hierarchy of content means you would never use IG as a go-to source in a breaking-news situation as you would with Twitter.

I have no idea what good will come of making my Contently profile; there’s no networking element like most social media so it sits there, cold and isolated.

That’s all social media in a nutshell: imperfect. Facebook is 10 percent pictures of your nephews and nieces and 90 percent “I can’t believe so-and-so posted that;” Goodreads a madhouse where contact between authors and readers is resented; and Twitter a news service and public forum co-owned by a Saudi prince that likes to ban women’s rights groups. Each platform is capricious and opaque, useful in some senses and completely unreliable in others. A best-case scenario would be an assignment from Contently; but it’s probably better to expect nothing because all of the promises of social media are empty.

Beer and Loathing

Justin Fleming, co-owner of Kelly Green Brewing Co.
Justin Fleming, co-owner of Kelly Green Brewing Co.

I have a story at Atlas Obscura on how state licensing in New Jersey allows microbreweries to circumvent municipal liquor laws. The result: beer in my historically dry hometown of Pitman:

Drinking alcohol was never really illegal in Pitman–you just had to cross the town line to get it. While the state regulates alcohol in New Jersey, municipalities control the issuance of liquor licenses. Pitman has never issued licenses, resulting in an orbit of bars and package-good stores just outside the border. But in 2012, New Jersey amended its laws to allow microbreweries to sell their beer for consumption on the premises. Since these brewery licenses come from the state government, the microbreweries don’t require a local license to operate. In other words, they don’t actually need the town’s permission to make and serve beer.

Pitman is an odd place. Economically depressed, in my lifetime it’s never been able to capitalize on its main asset, which is its compact and navigable downtown. A big reason for this has been its pigheaded refusal to allow restaurants to serve alcohol. Pitman was commercially successful in the 1950s and 60s but when nearby malls began sucking shoppers away to Glassboro and Deptford, Pitman refused to adapt. It’s perfectly laid out to reinvent itself as a dining destination (something done by the Connecticut town I now live in) but it’s difficult, if not impossible, to entice quality restaurants when they can’t pair an IPA with a crab cake or a bottle of red with a steak, so instead Pitman’s downtown is a motley of pizza parlors and takeout joints which cater solely to locals, rounded out with thrift shops (I counted three) and other low-rent stores. If you’re from out of town, there’s no reason to visit Pitman — you’re better off going to Deptford mall-land and eating at a chain restaurant because at least you can have a drink on a Friday night. I mean, it’s not like a French restaurant is suddenly going to open in Pitman.

At least until Kelly Green arrived. The hesitancy that has hobbled Pitman for decades — one leg stuck in Glory Days, the other in economic reality — seems to be fading. One fourth-generation Pitmanite said to me, “I think Pitman owes its values to being dry.” Some values they are, too: few jobs (especially for teens), reduced assessments, diminishing property values. When Pitman began, temperance was rationalized for social reasons, as erroneous as those were; but now it has become a thing-in-itself, something justified because it’s always been. I’ve read enough newspapers and documents to recognize there was a problem with alcoholism and drunkenness in 19th-century America, although it was never the root of evil the Carrie Nation crowd believed it was — rather, it resulted from the grinding conditions of the time. Prohibition was a solution to an effect instead of a cause. Now we just keep it around for nostalgia’s sake.

Broadway Theatre, est. 1926, Pitman, NJ.
Broadway Theatre, est. 1926, Pitman, NJ.

Anyway, I love Atlas Obscura and I’m thrilled they pubbed this story. I had been a fan of AO’s encyclopedia for years before finally joining in 2013, pushed over the edge by inaccuracies and untruths in their entry for Pleasure Beach — somebody was wrong on the Internet and I had to fix it! Later I was surprised they had nothing on any of the ghost towns in the Pine Barrens (those could fill an encyclopedia all their own) so I added Batsto. Eventually I want to add a few more Nutmeg sites but in the meantime I check their encyclopedia before every trip. Since David Plotz came onboard, AO has been publishing news and features as well, and their wry editorial voice is an anodyne to most travel sites. You can find me over there as JDK.