For the first quarter of a century of their existence, the most well-known comic characters all had one thing in common. Aside from captivating the imagination of children all across the world, they were white.
- Wonder Woman
- Captain America
- Mr. Fantastic
- Dr. Doom
- Iron Man
- The Flash
Comic book characters were often depicted as extraordinary individuals capable of things that normal people could only dream of. They could fly. They could commit feats of incredible strength. And they could control people and objects with their mind. But it wasn’t just that.
Comic books characters often came from or fell into unmatched wealth, lived lavish lifestyles, and could acquire anything they wanted to. Think Bruce Wayne, Tony Stark, Lex Luthor, and Charles Xavier. And it was a combination of these two things that made children want to be them.
Comic book characters of the era were easy to identify with. For most children, looking at a comic book character was just like looking in the mirror. But therein lies the problem of early comic books. As popular as they were, they only catered to one segment of the market.
Black Panther introduction
In July of 1966, 28 years after the introduction of Superman, Marvel Comics gave us the first story of Black Panther. Black Panther first appeared in Fantastic Four issue number 52 and set the groundwork for industry-wide change that comic book so desperately needed.
Hailing from the fictional African nation of Wakanda, Black Panther has become one of the premiere heroes in all of comics. What makes him so important isn’t necessarily that he was an original thought or that he has as any sort of special ability. Instead, what makes him so important is twofold. First, his backstory and abilities were unlike anything that comic books had ever seen. And second, he was the first mainstream black hero.
The story of Black Panther is fairly well-known.
Centuries ago, a meteor made of Vibranium crash-landed in the land of Wakanda. Using the material, Wakanda became a nation more advanced than any on Earth. Fearing what may happen if the rest of the world found out, Wakanda’s King, T’Chaka, hid his nation from the world.
As hidden as Wakanda was, it was eventually found by Ulysses Klaue. Once in the nation, he stole Vibranium, manufactured a weapon, and murdered its King. Enraged, T’Challa, T’Chaka’s son, managed to take the weapon from Klaue and use it against him destroying his right hand.
Now without a King, T’Challa began training so that he may take the throne. After many years of training and education, he returned to face the trials that anoint rule. Once passed he ate the Heart-Shaped Herb and was bestowed with the powers and memories of all the Black Panthers before him.
But as good as the story of Black Panther is, it’s only a small portion of what Black Panther did for comic books.
1960’s United States
The 1960’s were a tough time for the United States. On the home front, the Civil Rights Movement was rapidly approaching and abroad, the controversial decision to enter Vietnam was creating more friction than ever. On August 6, 1965 President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act making discriminating voting policies illegal. Just five days later, riots broke out in Los Angeles centered around a theme that still exists today…police brutality against African Americans. And it wasn’t just Los Angeles. In many American “mega-centres” the problems were the same. African Americans were living in poverty and substandard housing. Political fires were ablaze and the United States was burning.
With social themes at the forefront of the minds of millions, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the ruler of the fictional nation of Wakanda, Black Panther; an interesting choice of name. Around this time, the New York Times ran an article discussing the Lowndes Country Freedom Organization or LCFO. The LCFO was quickly dubbed the Black Panther Party and began following police officers around in an effort to prevent crimes against African Americans. Within a few years of inception, the Black Panther Party found strongholds in many large American cities.
- New York City
Black Panther Party belief system
The Black Panther party believed that the power of African Americans did not reside within those in power. Instead, the group believed that the power of the people fell upon the people. You must remember that at this time, although African Americans could vote, not a single one had achieved any semblance of success doing so. The Black Panthers aimed to change this.
The Black Panther symbol became just as important as the group. The symbol used by the group signified both strength and identity. It was symbolic for the way the people felt. African Americans were at a tipping point and felt exactly like a Black Panther backed into a corner. The symbol became as synonymous with the Black Rights Movement as those involved in it.
Where the world saw difficulties and uncertain times, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby saw opportunity. Lee and Kirby used the media attention to push their new character.
Black Panther character
The Black Panther character was a stroke of genius. By releasing him to the world, the comic company caught the eye of the entire nation. The Black Panthers fought for social justice and Marvel’s Black Panther mirrored them as he fought a similar fight on the pages of a comic book. Like so many other stories and characters, the story of Black Panther talked about real-world issues without trying to be anything other than a comic book.
But you can’t make Stan Lee admit that. “It wasn’t a huge deal to me,” he confessed, “A good many of our people here in America are not white. You’ve got to recognize that you’ve got to include them in whatever you do.” No matter what he said, it’s hard to see or argue that the two knew exactly what they were doing.
Since their creation, comic books have played integral parts of popular culture. They echo real-world tragedies, discuss things that matter, all-the-while giving their readers glimpses into the lives of that which we don’t understand. Comic books have the ability to teach popular culture in a way that history books simply cannot. The X-Men have talked about prejudice, phobias, and discrimination. Green Arrow has spent time discussing drug use and the way it impacts lives. And the story of Black Panther is no different.
King T’Challa has defended his country and taken care of his people for over 50 years. His popularity has never been questioned. He has stood for more in his lifetime than many could stand for in multiple lifetimes. There isn’t another character like him and probably will never be. The story of Black Panther is one of a kind.
And he grows more important as the years pass by.
New age exposure
Social Media has changed exactly how much information the average person consumes. Over the last few years, the world has watched the same problems that plagued it in the 1960s.
History is destined to repeat itself and Marvel will always be there. 2018’s Black Panther movie came at a time similar to his creation. His inclusion in the MCU set off a chain reaction that never could’ve been predicted. Not only did it crush box office records all over the world but the Black Panther movie was instantly hailed as the best Marvel had ever done.
The Black Panther movie came at the exact time it needed to come.
The Black Panther character is as relevant now as he was then. He’s a voice for the voiceless and gives hope to those who don’t have any. The story of Black Panther is the perfect example of the comic book medium using their platform to make the world a better place. And I’m certain that the second movie will continue to show exactly how important the character is and has been.