The Imagery of Marvel’s Man-Ape
For decades one of Black Panther’s greatest foes has been M’Baku of the White Gorilla Cult better known by his alias Man-Ape. Man-Ape made his comic book debut in March of 1969 in the pages of Avengers #62 in a story titled “The Monarch and the Ape“. M’Baku is a great Wakandan warrior, second only to T’Challa, who wanted to overthrow T’Challa, remove technology from Wakanda returning it to a primitive state, and have Wakanda worship the White Gorilla god instead of the Panther god. He would go about achieving his goals through disobeying his king and reviving the White Gorilla Cult which T’Challa had outlawed while the Panther Cult was prominent. M’Baku would go on to kill a rare white gorilla near the jungles of Wakanda, bathe in its blood, and then feast upon its flesh becoming magically imbued with its strength. M’Baku dons a costume of a White Gorilla and begins to call himself the Man-Ape putting himself in direct opposition with T’Challa. M’Baku and T’Challa would go on to face each other with The Man-Ape besting Black Panther in combat. M’Baku’s victory would be short-lived when the statue that he attempts to topple onto T’Challa instead crumbles and buries M’Baku.
For years I havent been a fan of the Man-Ape character if for no other reason than the racist optics that are so heavily ingrained in the character. The idea of comparing black people to monkey’s has a long and extremely racist history within global culture and history. The imagery of placing a large hulking black man in a gorilla suit has always been off-putting to me due to the imagery and the history that it immediately calls up. For centuries Black people have been referred to as monkeys, apes, gorillas, chimps, “Porch Monkeys” and other degrading and racist simian terms and slurs due to the color of our skin and facial features. Monkey’s have always been deemed as devious tricksters and sexual deviants, attributes that years of racism and white supremacy also began to ascribe to black men and women. These images are nothing new and have persisted since the days of slavery with prominent black celebrities and politicians often times being depicted as or referred to as apes as a means to degrade them. For the better part of 8 years President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, and their daughters Sasha and Malia were subjected to all sorts of degrading, disrespectful, and downright racist comparisons to apes.
Man-Ape came into being in 1969 just a few years after Black Panther who was created in July of 1966. Both characters were created by white men near the end of the American Civil Rights Movement or at the end of the movement where there was still a level of racial tension and inequality. The fact that the characters origin, design, and goals are the product of two white men adds an extra level of sting to the Man-Ape character. They may not have had disrespectful or harmful intentions when creating the character, but the fact remains they created a character whose racist imagery for 48 years has stuck out like a sore thumb on the Black Panther mythos.It was Roy Thomas and John Buscema’s duties as white artists working on black characters to be aware of potentially offensive and racist imagery and to avoid it at all costs. I’ve often said that creators who work in visual mediums are responsible for the images that they create and conjure as well as the messages that those images convey whether they are intentional or unintentional. The Man-Ape character highlights exactly why it is so important to have black creators working on projects that center around black characters and culture. In order to create and work within the culture of someone or something it requires a certain level of knowledge, understanding, and cultural awareness that far too often we have seen white writers and artists lack. The character shows the importance of continuing to seek out and hire talent like Ta’Nehisi Coates and Roxane Gay who have the nuance and cultural understanding to write for these characters while avoiding stereotypical pitfalls and masterfully conveying their cultural experiences.
In the near 48 years since the creation of M’Baku in the comics his costume and appearance has yet to evolve away from the racist imagery of a black man in an ape suit. It has been 48 years and whenever the Man-Ape character appears, with the exception of Ryan Coogler’s upcoming Black Panther, we still served images of a black man dressed as a gorilla taking on brutish strength and attributes. M’Baku has made appearances outside of comics in cartoons like Avengers Earth’s Mightiest Heroes and video games like Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 and Marvel Heroes. When the character was announced to appear in Black Panther the white gorilla suit was one of my main concerns and fears. I was concerned that in what could be an extremely empowering and beautifully black superhero film that we would be served, in live action, the image of a black man parading around as an ape. However when the trailer dropped and we got out first glimpse of M’Baku I was delighted and surprised to see that while the character maintained some white fur nothing about his costume screamed ape. In that moment I was proud of Ryan Coogler and happy that he easily navigated and avoided portraying what could have been a very not so subtle racist depiction of a black man as a gorilla. I still have certain fears that the character will be referred to as Man-Ape especially be one of the white characters in the film, but I completely believe that Coogler has the cultural understanding to avoid it.