Jersey Reflections: Black Panther, the Movie

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Its comic book antecedents weren’t always as fortunate as the current Hollywood blockbuster.

Last month’s record-breaking release of Black Panther, the latest Marvel Cinematic Universe offering, has garnered considerable media attention and praise. But its comic book antecedents weren’t always as fortunate as the current Hollywood blockbuster.

African-American mainstream comic book characters in the 1930s had been used largely in support roles until the formation of All-Negro Comics in 1947 created a platform for black writers and artists to create heroes like Lion Man, who linked readers to their African heritage. In 1956, the mainstream company EC Comics was challenged by the Comics Code for having an African-American character as the protagonist of “Judgment Day” in its Incredible Science Fiction series. The story was eventually published uncensored and its circumstances later mirrored in the Star Trek: Deep Space 9 episode “Far Beyond the Stars.”

In 1966, the Black Panther, whose alter ego T’Challa is the ruler of the African nation Wakanda, was created by writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby and first appeared in Fantastic Four #52 and #53 before becoming a member of the Avengers and, in the 1970s, earning his own comic book. Lee explained his intentions in co-creating the first black superhero in American mainstream comics in an interview contained in Tom DeFalco’s Comics Creators on Fantastic Four: “I wanted the Black Panther to be somebody that black people could read and take great pride in.”

But the character was not fully formed at the moment of inspiration. Kirby’s original depiction, what Kirby analyst Sean Kleefeld calls “a watercolor design he entitled Coal Tiger,” consisted of the character clad in a striped tunic with alternating lines of black and yellow, a black-and-red cape and no mask. Shortly thereafter, however, the character was given a new name, possibly influenced by the recently formed Lowndes County Freedom Organization, an Alabama political group using a black panther as its logo.  By July 1966, when Fantastic Four #52 appeared, the costume had become a striking black outfit more attuned to the character’s new namesake and agility.

Yet, the original cover art for the issue, which depicted the Black Panther wearing a cowl instead of a full mask, thereby revealing his ethnicity, was abandoned in what usually has been perceived as a concession to company heads who had cold feet about depicting an African-American on the front of one of its most popular comic books. But, as Sean Howe, author of Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, observes, reservations soon abated and “the cover of the following month’s romance comic Modelling with Millie proudly introduced a black British model named Jill Jerold to its cast.”

In his Jack Kirby Collector article “The Black Panther: An Archetype, Not a Stereotype,” David E. Jefferson argues that “T’Challa’s mask is not for concealment of his identity, but a sacred symbol of his power…he only donned his mask and costume when it was time to use that ‘power.’ ” Jefferson also views the character as “more so an integrationist than a separatist…In the interest of racial harmony and integration, the Black Panther, being the first Black Avenger was a triumph that should have made the covers of Jet and Ebony [magazines]…”

Yet the character, as both superhero and Wakandan ruler, failed to draw the attention of the mainstream media at the time. With the release of the Black Panther film last month, the New York Times, in an uncharacteristic and unprecedented display of coverage for a superhero movie, offered no less than a dozen articles about the film in the course of one week. Yet a perusal of its archives reveals that it offered no articles on the character at the time of his comic book debut or during the first decade-and-a-half of his existence.

In fact, it apparently wasn’t until 2000 that a New York Times article by Elvis Mitchell acknowledged the character, recognized the maturity of comic books in the 1960s and appraised the long-time perception of the medium. “This sophistication,” Mitchell writes, “has largely come from Marvel Comics and its creative powerhouses, Mr. Lee and the artist-writer Jack Kirby. In the 1960s, they came up with a black superhero—the Black Panther, who was an African prince and a totemic representation of his mythical country—years before Hollywood took its black audience seriously…they changed the parameters of what was often considered a throwaway medium.”

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