‘Black Panther,’ ‘Luke Cage’ artistic hero emerges from the shadows

March 10, 2018 GMT

Last summer, Shawnna Graham fired up Netflix in her Williamsburg, Va., home and looked for her grandfather’s name in the closing credits of “Marvel’s Luke Cage.” It was nowhere to be found.

It was a surprise. After all, Harlem-based comic book artist Billy Graham had worked on the first 17 issues of “Luke Cage, Hero for Hire,” and even had a hand in writing a few of them. He had been the only African American working on what was the first African-American superhero comic book series.

In fact, he was the only African American working for Marvel, period.

“I thought, maybe this was missed only because he had passed, and no one was thinking of his contribution,” Graham said. When she began seeing ads for the film adaptation of “Black Panther,” the character her grandfather drew after finishing work on “Luke Cage,” she prevailed upon her father, Mardine, to pull out what they called “the Treasure Chest.” It consisted of a steamer trunk, a portfolio, a briefcase and boxes of artwork that they had retrieved from her grandfather’s 143rd Street apartment after he died in 1997. She started taking pictures, and opening social media accounts “to bring Billy’s name and legacy from the shadows.”

Billy Graham (his handle in the Marvel letter columns was “the Irreverent One,” in acknowledgment of the more famous Billy Graham) was by all accounts a Renaissance man and a bon vivant with an infectious smile and a hearty laugh. There was a cost: a marriage that dissolved in the late 1960s, and limited time with the two sons who moved with their mother to Virginia. Shawnna never met her grandfather.

In 1969, Graham took a staff job with Warren Publishing, instantly becoming the first Black art director in the comics industry. In 1972, he jumped ship to Marvel, where he immediately began working on its new Blaxploitation-influenced hero, Luke Cage, whose headquarters were above a Times Square movie theater. “Billy was quite at home working on that material,” said his friend Alex Simmons, creator of the “Blackjack” comic. “His art references were on point because Harlem and the 42nd Street theater district were territories he knew very well. I roamed around with him in some of those places. To him, Luke Cage was a brother he could hang with.”

As Graham continued working on the title, the artwork got better and better. He drew from such disparate influences as Jack Cole, creator of Plastic Man, and “Sugar Shack” painter Ernie Barnes, rendering with a level of detail that was rare in the days of low fees. Limbs and sinews stretched, eyes bugged.

After Marvel decided to go in another direction, with more superpowered villains and more white people, it assigned Graham to collaborate with his friend Don McGregor on the adventures of the Black Panther.

The character hadn’t really been developed since Stan Lee and Jack Kirby introduced him in 1966. In issues of “Jungle Action,” though, McGregor and artist Rich Buckler began to expand the mythos of the Black Panther’s homeland, Wakanda, and created the character of Erik Killmonger. After a handful of issues, Graham became the artist.

“Billy was the main artist on that first major Black Panther series,” said Simmons, who helped out when McGregor was designing maps of Wakanda. “And it ruffled a few feathers and there was a point where some of the editors said, ‘Where are the white people?’ And Don, this little short Scottish white dude from Rhode Island said, ‘We’re in Africa, we’re in his kingdom!’”

Their run on “Jungle Action” lasted until 1976, at which point Graham left Marvel, and the radar of comic book readers.

“It wasn’t like Marvel was his whole life,” Simmons said. “He didn’t let go of who he was and where he was from in order to be accepted in another world. He was already on to something else.”

In a sense, Graham’s “Black Panther” contributions were just one chapter in his larger body of work exploring his heritage. He wrote heavily researched historical plays about tap dance master Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Graham’s uncle Paul, a one-pocket billiards champion better known as Detroit Slim. Other subjects included street magicians, griots and the radical group Move’s standoff with authorities in Philadelphia.

Graham won awards for his set designs; his plays were produced around the country. And so in the theater world, it was comic books that were the footnote. Billy Mitchell, who acted in some of Graham’s plays, remembers seeing the “Black Panther” and “Luke Cage” illustrations hanging on the walls of his apartment.

When Graham would tell him he worked at Marvel Comics, Mitchell found it strange: “How many cats you know from Harlem were working for comic books?” asked Mitchell, the official historian of the Apollo Theater, where Graham also performed stand-up and emcee’d performances by the Spinners and the O’Jays.

Graham also managed to fit in small film roles: You can see him onscreen in the ‘90s next to Woody Allen, as a security guard in “Scenes From a Mall,” or as a convivial nightclub patron in “Mo’ Better Blues.” Many of his appearances — in “New Jack City,” for example, or “The Preacher’s Wife” — are uncredited.

“This was a Renaissance man who very much lived his life to the fullest,” Simmons said. “I just wish he had received more acknowledgment.”

When Graham became ill in 1997, his older son, Larry, flew up from Atlanta and was surprised to find himself face to face with stars of the television shows “Good Times” and “Roc,” close friends of his father. “I got to the hospital late at night and I walked in the room and there was John Amos and Ella Joyce, and all these actors that I didn’t even know he knew.”

Theater director Jerry Maple Jr., Graham’s caretaker, had been instructed to make sure the family left with his life’s work in tow.

“My father said he wanted us to hold on to them for as long as we possibly could,” Larry Graham recalled. “He said, ‘At least for another 10 to 15 years’ — and that we’d be surprised what would happen if we did that.”

On a Saturday in February, the Grahams took in a “Black Panther” matinee at their local theater. They each wore a custom-made shirt: On the back was a picture of Billy Graham; on the front, one of his illustrations of T’Challa, aka Black Panther, leaping through the air, flanked by the words “Black History.” They liked the movie and stayed through the credits, but again the name they wanted to see was missing.

That week, though, Shawnna Graham found another treasure among Billy Graham’s possessions: his wallet. Tucked inside was a picture of the granddaughter he’d never met.

“It almost made me feel as if this is what I am supposed to be doing for him,” she said, “and that he knew I’d be the one to unveil his life story.”

— (The New York Times)