At first glance, Eric Dean Seaton’s Legend of the Mantamaji may look like a typical comic-book story, complete with pencil-thin-mustached villain, a seemingly formulaic world-ending plot, and a reluctant Black hero . . . and if you merely skim the book, that’s probably what you’d see. But you’d be wrong. Below the surface is a cornucopia of subtle messages and plot devices that reveal this series to be more—so much more.
For a little background, if you were reading comic books in the ’90s, especially if like many of us you were looking for more “brown” heroes, you’ll probably recall the introduction of Brotherman: Dictator of Discipline. What began as a superhero parody to sell T-shirts emerged as a groundbreaking example of innovation and original thinking, and of creating positive Black images for readers from all walks of life. Self published and from an all-Black creative team, it laid the foundation for a new way of looking at Black heroes. Three years later, Milestone Comics would launch, so one could say that Brotherman started the trend.
Similar to Brotherman, the main character in Mantamaji, Elijah Alexander, is an assistant district attorney by day, fighting the forces of evil at night . . . but he does not start out that way. Enter Hancock, the 2008 Will Smith movie about a reckless, drunk superhero with no regard for the collateral damage he causes mainly because he has no memory of who he is or why he chooses to save people. Spoiler warning for the rest of this paragraph—but really, if you haven’t seen the movie in the eight years it’s been out, it’s your own fault if some article ruins it for you. Get a Netflix account! In Hancock, Smith’s affect begins to change when a marketing exec takes an interest in him and he learns about his mysterious past: namely, that he is the last of a race of superbeings put on earth to protect humanity but long since thought to have died out. Seaton’s Mantamaji, similarly, were created to protect humanity and have all but died out. Enter our “hero.”
I put “hero” in quotes because, as I said, Elijah doesn’t start out as that. The story begins with him as a hotshot assistant DA, raised by a single mother from meager beginnings, who is on a quest to gain all the things he never had growing up: money, power, position, influence. That quest is cut short by the revelation that his mother had hidden his power and his destiny from him in order to “protect” him, opting instead to share the history of the Mantamaji as fairy tales. The story unfolds with the other surviving Mantamaji showing up to stop the one of their number who turned evil and is now bent on world domination. Elijah’s whole world comes crashing down, and he must embrace his destiny and learn to use his powers or the whole actual world may end.
Yes, we have seen this whole thing before, but what is very interesting are the things that you don’t see—unless you’re really looking.
It’s widely know that there are not nearly enough Black superheroes out there, and it is tough to introduce new ones. (There aren’t enough of those of other unrepresented groups, either, but today’s lesson is about Black superheroes.) Many times, creators, in their urge to balance the scale, overcorrect and place their characters in a monochromatic world often of either over-Afrocentricity or an urban dystopia that may connect with a segment of the readers but to which the broader community cannot relate, and thereby ultimately limit the success of the story line. People tend to want to peer into “the other side” only so long before they become disenchanted and find other things to relate to. (For a more thorough history of Black characters in comic books, you can check out my four-part series Rebooting the Black-and-White Past with KodaChrome Future.)
What Mantamaji does well is create a Black superhero with a cast of mostly, though not exclusively, Black main characters without focusing on the fact that they are Black. By having a Black character be the focus without it being “Black Blackman in Black City with Black people” exclusively, it allows the idea of a Black superhero to normalize. Diversity is not a special exception in this comic’s setting; it is the way things are. Race is not central to the character’s existence, but rather an integrated part of his world.
Legend of the Mantamaji also does a good job of taking the age-old “legendary race of heroes forgotten through time” story and adding some unique elements, from the way the Mantamaji’s abilities are passed on to the next generation to the reason for their mission and their powers. On that last point, an ankh that can form any weapon they can conceive of, plus psychic armor, all as a function of will and concentration—is this starting to ring a bell with any Oan fans out there? Green Lanterns’ power rings are similarly based on will and concentration and can create anything the wearer can conceive of. John Stewart, for example, was both an architect and in the military, so his constructs tended to have great detail. And like Elijah, John was a reluctant warrior, though for slightly different reasons (being overexperienced rather than underexperienced).
The one thing I would have liked to see in the first volume of this series was more time spent on the character development and back story so that we could understood a little bit more about what brought some of the characters to this point, or what kinds of things define them besides career. For example, Elijah’s mom’s decision seems a little contrived; there could be more exploration of what led her to hide away their history and destiny versus simply saying it was because she was scared. However, given Seaton’s Lost-esque style of presenting exposition through flashbacks and the fact that there are more volumes, I am betting that the motivation I crave will be in these other books.
All in all, The Legend of the Mantamaji is a good read with a special purpose that subtly invades your mind. Pick up your own copy, check it out, and tell me what you think.