As the end credits rolled at the world premiere of “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” Shawnna Graham was looking for just one name.
Billy Graham. Her late grandfather, the first Black artist at Marvel Comics.
Graham — self-dubbed “The Irreverent Billy Graham” to distinguish himself from the evangelist — drew early variants of the Black Panther in the 1970s. He helped develop the central character T’Challa and his nation of Wakanda.
Shawnna Graham and her boyfriend, Van Acree, want everyone to know his name. “He’s an important piece of history, and we’re trying to shine a light on him even though he’s not here anymore,” said Graham, a Williamsburg resident. “To me, it’s way overdue.”
Graham and Acree, an independent filmmaker, have created social media sites dedicated to the legacy and artwork of Billy Graham, who died of cancer in 1997. They also founded a production company, Inks of Color, to develop the films and plays that he wrote.
“Nobody knows about him, and I don’t understand why,” Acree said. “I didn’t know about him until I met Shawnna. In my opinion, nobody should be talking about Black Panther without talking about Billy Graham.”
Their efforts are beginning to pay off. Graham’s name, missing from the 2018 “Black Panther” film credits, appears in “Wakanda Forever,” which opens in theaters on Friday. Marvel also invited Shawnna Graham and Acree to attend the Oct. 26 premiere of the movie in Hollywood.
Born in 1935 in New York City, Billy Graham graduated from New York City’s Music & Art High School. He joined Warren Publishing, a magazine and comics company, in 1969 and quickly became its art director.
Recruited to Marvel in 1972, Graham was on the team that launched the series “Luke Cage, Hero for Hire” about a Black superhero in New York. From 1974 to 1976, he worked with writer Don McGregor on the Black Panther series “Jungle Action.” His detailed, action-oriented drawings for 24 issues helped flesh out story lines showcased in modern-day movies.
In California last month, Shawnna Graham and Acree got to have lunch with McGregor, a friend of her grandfather. At the “Wakanda Forever” premiere, they sat with artists and writers who had worked on Black Panther and met several of the film’s stars at a reception.
“It was so special and a little overwhelming,” Shawnna Graham recalled. “I was really proud to be there representing my grandfather.”
Shawnna’s father, Mardine Graham, was the youngest of Billy Graham’s two sons, who moved to Virginia with their mother after their parents split. Billy didn’t see his children often due to his focus on his career, and Shawnna never met her grandfather.
In 2016, Shawnna asked to look through a trunk, portfolio, briefcases and boxes that her dad had taken from Billy’s New York apartment after his death at age 61. She was stunned at how much she found — including a photo of herself in his wallet.
Billy Graham, also a standup comedian, actor, playwright and award-winning set designer, had kept drawings, old comics, playbills, pay stubs and work receipts. He had written at least 19 plays, as well as two films and a three-part miniseries for television that were never made.
Graham also had performed and emceed events at The Apollo Theater and scored small roles in films such as “Mo’ Better Blues” in 1990, “New Jack City” in 1991 and “The Preacher’s Wife” in 1996.
Some of Graham’s plays centered on historical Black Americans, including tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and billiards champion Paul “Detroit Slim” Graham. A collection of his plays is housed at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York.
“I believe his biggest passion was writing,” Acree said. “Many of his plays were done off-Broadway and were especially successful in Harlem, where he was very well-known. He had an incredible life.”
As for his comics career, Billy Graham worked for Marvel until 1985. He partnered with McGregor on “Sabre” for Eclipse Comics, a spin-off series from one of the first-ever graphic novels, and contributed to “Power Man and Iron Fist,” the retitled Luke Cage series.
Shawnna Graham, a Lafayette High School graduate who has a job in health insurance, and Acree, a retail manager who grew up in West Point, are posting Billy’s artwork and biography online to raise awareness. In partnership with Cerberus Filmworks, a Richmond-based independent company, they also are in pre-production on and fundraising for one of his films, “Ashanti Princess,” a supernatural horror thriller.
And at the moment, they’re excited for people to see “Wakanda Forever” — and a certain name under the special thanks credits.
“Luckily at Marvel movies, people stay to the very end,” Graham said. “That’s where they’ll find him.”
Alison Johnson, firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow “Artist Billy Graham” and “Ashanti Princess Movie” pages on Facebook and Instagram. For updates on the production of “Ashanti Princess” and other works by Billy Graham, visit ashantiprincessmovie.com or email email@example.com.
RankTribe™ Black Business Directory News – Arts & Entertainment