Black Panther: More Than Just The First Black Superhero | Gradient
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Black Panther: More Than Just the First Black Superhero

Marvel

(This is an excerpt from our superhero comics podcast, It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s a Podcast. You can listen to the whole thing below, and subscribe on iTunes and Stitcher.)

In 1965, a young Trinidadian immigrant named Stokely Carmichael was a rising star of the Civil Rights Movement in the south, known particularly for his involvement with a group called the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee – SNCC for short.

Carmichael was a born leader – handsome, articulate, charismatic, Howard-educated and ambitious. Congress had just passed the Voting Rights Act, but black Americans in the South were still facing resistance from white Democrats. As a member of the SNCC in Alabama’s Lowndes County, Carmichael helped raise the number of black voters from 70 to 2600. These black voters organized to form the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, and set up their own candidates in direct opposition to the white Democratic Party, who were accused of voter fraud to maintain their local influence. As a mascot, they chose the image of white rooster. Carmichael and the Lowndes County Freedom Organization decided to meet this with a mascot of their own: a black panther.

The New York Times got wind of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization and ran an article on their growing political influence. They weren’t yet called “The Black Panther” party, and nobody could have dreamed of the ways in which the organization would evolve in the coming years. Sitting in his New York City office in 1965, Marvel publisher Stan Lee just liked the image of the black panther. A few months before, he and Marvel’s legendary star artist Jack Kirby had created a handsome black superhero they had wanted to call the Coal Tiger, but budget limitations had put the kibosh on launching any new superheroes at the time. Not to be deterred, Lee and Kirby decided to debut their superhero in an issue of The Fantastic Four, who, at the time, rivaled Spider-Man’s popularity.

For further inspiration, Jack Kirby turned to his latest inspiration: the writings of Jacques Bergier. Bergier had written a book of pseudoscientific mumbo jumbo called The Morning of the Magicians, which theorized that the key to understanding the present was to project your intelligence simultaneously into the distant past and distant future. This is probably not great advice for understanding the present, but it made for some pretty amazing artwork. In Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s story, the Fantastic Four visit the fictional African nation of Wakanda, where the blend of ancient African civilizations and futuristic technology dazzles even Reed Richard’s inventive mind. The ruler of this nation was T’Challa, whom Lee and Kirby dubbed The Black Panther. He was the first black superhero in mainstream comic books.

It’s hard to know whether or not Marvel was nervous about any of this. Both they and DC had created non-superhero black characters in the past. In Marvel’s case, the first Nick Fury comic series had featured an African-American soldier named Gabe Jones, so there was some precedent. However, an early preview of the Black Panther had him in a costume that showed more of his black skin. But by the time the comic actually hit the stands, the costume covered his body entirely, like Spider-Man’s. Rumors have swirled ever since the decision was made because higher-ups at Marvel wanted to disguise the racial identity of their new character, but those rumors have never been confirmed. In any case, Lee and Kirby went to great lengths to make sure Black Panther was more than just a token character. T’Challa was as multi-dimensional and imaginative as Peter Parker and Bruce Banner had been. He was a regal, proud genius, and he was a huge hit.

Around the same time as all this was happening, Stokely Carmichael traveled to Berkeley where he delivered a speech on a new phrase he had started to popularize: “Black Power.” Two men who attended that speech were named Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, and they had started their own group in Oakland that promoted the armed self defense of black people against police brutality. Newton and Seale liked what Carmichael had to say, and they liked his group’s mascot so much they decided to adopt it. The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was born.

In 1968, Marvel had T’Challa relocate from Wakanda to New York City, where he joined Marvel’s all-star superhero team, The Avengers. In the meantime, the Black Panther Party’s popularity was nearing its peak. Its membership was nearing 10,000 nationwide, and protests were surging to fight for the release of Hewey Newton, who was on trial for an altercation that left a police officer dead. Hollywood celebrities like Jane Fonda publicly supported the Black Panther Party. At that year’s summer Olympics, American medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in the Black Power salute while the National Anthem played. They were banned from the Olympics for life.

At the time, a lot of the white counter culture movement sympathized with the Black Panther Party, and since the counter culture movement made up most of Marvel’s fan base, Marvel didn’t seem to mind having a character named after the party. But once the ‘70s hit, things started to change. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover had launched a massive counter-program called COINTELPRO to discredit The Black Panthers and undermine their leadership. It was pretty successful, and some of the Black Panther Party split into various factions who spent more time fighting amongst themselves than fighting for black liberation.

By 1972, Black Panther Party membership had plummeted, and Marvel started to get nervous about T’Challa’s connotations. In an issue of Fantastic Four, Black Panther announces that he’s changing his name to The Black Leopard. But even in this, Marvel was careful to avoid looking like they were choosing sides. As T’Challa explains: “I neither condemn nor condone those who have taken up the name, but T’Challa is a law unto himself. Hence the new name. A minor point at best, since a panther is a leopard.”

Minor point or not, the name change lasted less than a year. And although Black Panther did finally get his own solo comic book series in 1973, Marvel decided to call it Jungle Action instead of The Black Panther. Written by Don McGregor with a series of artists like Gil Kane and Rich Buckler, the series was a critical smash that is remembered to this day as a deftly written, beautifully drawn and creatively innovative series. Comic book critic and Marvel historian Jason Sacks has even called the series “Marvel’s first graphic novel.” And comic book writer and TV producer Dwayne McDuffie said: “This overlooked and underrated classic is arguably the most tightly written multi-part superhero epic ever.”

Good luck getting your hands on it though. Although it was popular with the college kid set, sales were generally low and it’s still hard to find copies today. The series was eventually canceled and The Black Panther spent the next few years in limbo. He’d pop up in the Avengers, and there were a few miniseries in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but the next real Black Panther comic series didn’t debut until 1998, written by famed comic book writer Christopher Priest. This series was a very different take on Black Panther, featuring a tough-as-nails, no-nonsense monarch who didn’t have much use for “no-kill rules” and spent a lot of time cleaning up the mean streets of New York. After Priest’s run, a new Black Panther series was written by Reginald Hudlin – a filmmaker who would go on to win an Oscar for producing Django Unchained. Hudlin said his Black Panther was a mix between Batman and Puff Daddy, and he returned Black Panther to his roots in Africa, where he defended Wakanda from greedy Western forces. For the first time in years, the Black Panther wasn’t a second-string Avenger or a displaced king, but a powerful monarch who prioritized running his country far above adventuring with Iron Man and the Fantastic Four. The Black Panther had become more than a hero. He was a king.

It took a while for Marvel to get around to getting one of its oldest and most influential characters into its cinematic universe, but once it was announced that Chadwick Boseman had been cast in the role, things started happening quickly. He’ll be appearing in the upcoming Captain America: Civil War movie, and then getting his own film next year, directed by Creed’s Ryan Coogler. Just as notable, a new Black Panther comic series has launched, and it’s being written by Ta-Nehisi Coates – perhaps contemporary America’s foremost writer on race. Coates first gained fame for his award-winning Atlantic article The Case for Reparations, before winning the National Book Award for Between the World and Me, a forceful meditation on the ongoing realities of racial inequality in America. Once again, America’s deeply troubled relationship with racism is being brought to the forefront of cultural engagement and, once again, more than fifty years after his creation, the Black Panther finds himself near the frontlines. And if history is any indication, T’Challa’s next fifty years largely depend on our nation’s ongoing inability to atone for our past racially-fueled sins.

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