The Silver Age super-hero B’Wana Beast (“Beast Master” more or less) is, as they say these days, “problematic.” Which is to be expected when you have an African adventure where the cover (by Mike Sekowsky, all rights with current holder) has the white guy saving the helpless African. Though there are things about the story I also think are still kind of neat.
First, the origin: 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, Rupert Kenboya, son of the chief of the Zambesi tribe. “Ken” suggests Mike work in his home country’s wildlife parks, while Ken takes a position as chief of police, which he hopes to use to lead his superstitious tribe into the 20th Century.
On the flight into Africa (Mike’s private plane), they crash on Kilimanjaro (they don’t specify Ken’s home country, but the mountain’s in Tanzania) and get attacked by a big gorilla. Mike drinks a potion and becomes strong enough to beat the ape, which in turn presents him with a magic helmet that allows him to command animals. Mike, of course decides to use those powers to fight evil and help his new home country. However by the time the story starts, circumstances have made him look like a criminal himself.
The present-day story involves the Zambesi shipping copper from their mines, the first step in building up some economic security. Hamid Ali, an immortal criminal, plans to stop them, because poor natives are easily exploited. Ken and B’Wana Beast take him on. The two-part story is fairly typical for a super-hero debut, with a few neat touches, such as Ali’s mobile base, a crocodile-shaped mecha.
But like I said, problematic. First off, Mike is that classic figure of third-world adventure, the “white jungle god” (or as my friend Ross calls ’em, “non-native rain forest authority figure”) who is superior to any of the actual natives, more at home in the jungle and generally more awesome. I was originally going to say he was the last gasp for this sort of thing in comics, but Marvel’s Shanna the She-Devil came out a few years later. He’s also a variant on another trope, the white guy who receives some special native status or power (the mystery potion) in preference to an actual native (e.g. the Western Ghost Rider was chosen by a Native American shaman as the great tribal champion).
And while the two issues try to capture an Africa where tribal traditions sit alongside modern ways (an idea that fascinated me when I first read the book, as I hadn’t encountered it before), it does an awkward job. Ken is constantly grumbling about his tribe’s superstitious ways and how they’re like “children”—that left me uncomfortable while I was reading it.
That said, the book did try to show an Africa that was more than just native tribesmen running around (which at nine was the primary impression I had). And back in 1967, it was definitely unusual for a comic to show a white guy and a black guy as best friends. Perfectly matched friends too—the flashbacks emphasize that Ken and Mike tied for absolutely everything in college, academics and sports.
After his two-parter in Showcase, B’Wana Beast vanished for 18 years, showing up briefly in the pages of DC Challenge, a 1985 miniseries. Since then he’s popped up every so often, even making it into Justice League Unlimited and Brave and the Bold on TV.
It’s possible that we’re not done with that non-native rain forest authority figure yet.