At the request of a bunch of people, here are the handouts for my talk on race and authorship across five decades of Black Panther comics, which I gave last night before a screening.…
I'll try to tweet these in a thread tomorrow with more commentary!
All right, an expanded discussion of each slide in this talk starts now! Many people assume Black Panther has something to do with the Black Panther party. Not surprising: both hit the big time in 1966! The official history is that the character came first... or did he?
The year before, Stokely Carmichael of the SNCC was the first to use a black panther logo in political organizing; it's where the later Black Panthers got the idea. As Carmichael fought voter suppression in Alabama, the NY Times reported on the logo in December 1965.
Interestingly enough, late '65 / early '66 would have the time that Jack Kirby & Stan Lee were working on a new character for Fantastic Four #52: the Coal Tiger! Hmm, except Lee didn't like the name, and suggested Black Panther. Coincidence? Or did he read it in the paper?
Looking at the original cover of this issue, Lee's idea is clear: he wanted to rattle the more staid DC Comics with the very first black superhero! By the time it went to press, though, they'd toned down the controversy by covering the Panther's skin and rewriting the challenge.
The Fantastic Four's adventure has echoes of Richard Connell's 1924 short story "The Most Dangerous Game." They think they're going on a safari, but it's they who will be hunted! Kirby's Panther is all shadow and mystery, with fewer points of definition than usual for his style.
Wakanda is equally mysterious: Reed Richards, already being portrayed as one of the world's great scientific geniuses, is baffled as to how Wakandan science can be real. The Fantastic Four has "Africa? Technology?!" cognitive dissonance all issue.
Kirby and Lee are playing with their [white] readers' expectations, deliberately flipping the previous decade's glut of hokey "jungle adventure" books featuring Tarzan rehashes and fur-clad white girls. In place of a jungle, the Kirby replacement: a techno-jungle!
The Black Panther manages to defeat the entire Fantastic Four through planning and prowess. Only T'Challa's underestimation of another man of color, the FF's friend Wyatt Wingfoot, topples his plan for testing his strength against America's top super-team.
Their differences resolved, the next two issues explore the Wakandan court, presented as a classic "tourist industry paradox" of modern luxury and technology existing alongside African tradition! Who'd a thunk? The African costume design is light-years behind 2018, of course.
Ben Grimm, the Thing, is put in the Archie Bunker role here, with racist reactions (at least by today's sensibilities) that are uncharacteristic for how he's usually portrayed in the mid-60s. His role is partly to represent old, backwards expectations of Africa.
For instance, when T'Challa relates his origin story, the Thing assumes it'll be a 40s/50s pulp tale about ivory poachers disrupting peaceful tribal life. But this is the 60s: it's not ivory, but vibranium, Marvel's first miracle metal. Reed sees it as useful for MISSILES.
To understand the significance of Vibranium, know that the biggest political flashpoint between the US & African nations had happened just five years earlier: the CIA+MI5+Belgium assassination of Patrice Lumumba, seven months after Congolese independence.…
Lumumba was killed in part because he resisted colonizers' attempts to control natural resources, particularly uranium--also wanted for powering up missiles. Wakanda's often portrayed as not far from the Congo, and the Black Panther's father T'Chaka is killed for similar reasons!
The connection to history at the time of authorship is part of what we lose when these characters are updated; instead of being killed by the colonialist mineral-hunter Klaw, T'Chaka in the movies is killed as part of an anti-Avengers plot by Zemo.
So that takes us up through the first issues where we learn about T'Challa, T'Chaka, and Wakanda. But the Black Panther won't get his own comic book for many years still. Up next: the first "backup player" period.
At this point, the Black Panther is a secondary character, one who's "graduated" in the eyes of Western heroes by pledging his powers to the world, not just his nation. The world isn't ready for an African nationalist hero, but he's able to continue existing in comics this way.
First, he acts as backup and an offshore tech-supplier for various heroes. Then, Captain America sponsors him to join the Avengers, but he's promptly framed for murdering them, and arrested by SHIELD. (They're not really dead, of course, and it's cleared up.)
But there are other problems too; Stan Lee is nervous about the unwated association with the ~much more political~ Black Panthers, so tells protege editor Roy Thomas to change it. "Black Leopard" lasts less than a year, and Roy Thomas mostly calls him "T'Challa in the interrim.
As Editor-in-Chief from '72-'74, Roy Thomas pushed diversity (Luke Cage, a lineup of comics by and for women, etc) but as an author he didn't quite know what to do with Wakanda. It's in this period that he comes up with M'Baku as a homegrown foe for the Black Panther.
M'Baku is initially depicted as a religious heretic (white gorilla vs black panther, get it?), not as a tribal leader. He's also the first burst of a recurring theme: trouble brews in the home of an absentee monarch who's also required (by comics) to play the global hero.
Wakanda isn't truly developed until the Black Panther gets his own solo series, with incredible artwork by the first black artist to work with this character and a torrent of words by a former proofreader who's sick of 50s racism being rehashed
In 1973, Don McGregor is assigned to proof Jungle Action, which mostly just reprints the same kinds of 50s stories that Ben Grimm made fun of in the Black Panther's first appearance: white Tarzan-like saviors fighting "primitives" and wrestling lions. McGregor is sick of it.
He complains and is told "think you can do better? You write it, as long as it stays in Africa!" He pitches a solo Black Panther series, all set in Wakanda with an almost entirely black cast, and a new villain taking advantage of the absent-monarch tensions: Erik Killmonger!
From the start of this drama of royal courts and duels, Killmonger is a character who lost his whole culture & country when T'Challa lost his father (in classic superhero origin style)--abandoned, trafficked displaced, returned home, and angry about the systems the let it happen.
He also has a thing for throwing the Black Panther off of waterfalls (thus a dramatic mid-point scene in this month's blockbuster). The imagery becomes more spectacular as Marvel puts their first major black artist on the job: Billy Graham, fresh off of drawing the hit Luke Cage.
Graham's layouts are spectacular, and almost as experimental in the mid-70s as McGregor's long, languid, lyrical lengths of prose and dialogue. It's quite unprecedented, and earns a loyal following... but editorial keeps demanding more white characters to draw readers in!
There is one major white character: Venomm, a scarred villain who's imprisoned & reforms with the help of Taku, Wakanda's communications minister. McGregor intends this as a gay romance story, but has to keep it all in subtext due to the restrictions of the Comics Code Authority.
Eventually McGregor relents and says "all right, we'll add more white people." Except he does so by having T'Challa and his controversial American fiancee visit the American South, and fight the Ku Klux Klan! By using a flaming cross as a battering ram, among other things.
Along the way, T'Challa and Monica go grocery shopping, where the Black Panther confronts (incognito) KKK members but is then brutalized by the local police and white community. It's all too intense for some of the Marvel editorial staff.
The series was canceled a few issues later, without the KKK story fully resolved. According to McGregor, he was told by an editor that his writing was "too close to the black experience." The letters pages in these issues agreed, but saw it as a positive.
The other reason the series was canceled had to do with the return of Jack Kirby to Marvel (after defecting for several years to DC). Kirby had to agree to work on a couple of his classic characters alongside his new original creations, and chose Black Panther & Captain America.
Kirby's art on the new Black Panther series was amazing in the unique Kirby way, but he also only wanted to tell Kirby-style stories: strange beings from the far future, secret samurai cults, time-traveling golden frog statuettes, and more. Fans of McGregor & Graham HATED IT.
They complained in letters that Kirby ignored existing stories and continuity, and abandoned socially relevant themes. Kirby responded with a bizarre open letter about how he didn't want to duplicate Roots-style stereotypes. But the damage was done; the series only lasted a year.
The 1978 shutdown of Kirby's series (and 2nd exit from Marvel) began a 20-year period where the Black Panther began to appear less and less often in ANY comics. Don McGregor kept the flame alive with a couple miniseries, including the introduction of T'Challa's mother, Ramonda.
Ramonda's story is an intense depiction of trauma and torture through sexual abuse and slavery, and a crystal-clear metaphor for South Africa, where she's imprisoned. In a slightly later apartheid-critiquing miniseries, Peter Gillis also introduces the idea of the Panther god.
But it's not until 1998, when the Black Panther is finally written by a black author -- the inimitable Christopher Priest -- that the odyssey of the Black Panther really starts to shake up and hit the mainstream.
Like Kirby, Priest is ex-Marvel at this point, having left (after enduring years of racism) due to a complicated editorial dispute over Spider-Man. Priest was initially non-plussed at being asked to write Black Panther, in a "what, because I'm black?!" kind of way!
Priest may now feel differently about minorities & women heroes selling? But also: the badass selling points of the Panther are largely his work. He aimed to have Panther one-up Batman: amazing gadgets, master-planning, and ruthlessness. And he had T'Challa punch out the devil!
Part two of Priest's hit-making master plan involved a new sidekick, a viewpoint character for the prototypical white-boy comic fans to identify with: the hapless Everett K. Ross, who he based on Chandler Bing from Friends!
Ross is a ridiculous but interesting character; he narrates most of Priest's run, often in a Pulp-Fiction-esque non-linear sequence, and he gradually becomes incredibly loyal to the Panther and Wakanda, even losing his citizenship in the process.
Priest's other lasting contribution was the Dora Milaje, but in a very different form than this year's film; he conceived them as warrior nuns but ALSO "wives in training," a kind of platonic harem of six-foot tall badass women in evening dresses.
Not hard to see why the editorial "add some super-hot Grace Jones chicks!" suggestion has slowly reduced the sexist tinge over 20 years. Also noteworthy: the film's romantic lead (Nakia) was originally written to become a romantic-obsessive "Fatal Attraction" style villain.
Priest also brought Killmonger back, updated for the Panther's engagement with global geopolitics & colonialism, the same themes that lay buried in Kirby & Lee's issues. This time, Killmonger aimed to topple the Panther with a brand-heavy Economic Development Zone in Wakanda!
Priest's issues are the most undeniably political, especially when Queen Divine Justice shows up; she's a new, rebellious Dora Milaje of the Jabari tribe, who was raised in Chicago and ends up debating policy with Bill Clinton. No, really. It's Bill Clinton.
As the Panther becomes more of an international mover and shaker, no longer playing tour guide in his isolated realm, he also butts heads with the Avengers, especially Iron Man. Priest revises the "global hero" call to duty: it turns out he was spying on them all along!
Last but not least, Priest introduces an adopted brother: Hunter, the White Wolf, who is referenced in the Bucky scenes in the final credits scene of the film. Hunter is the head of the secret police. He really wants T'Challa to COMMAND him. Yeah, it's something all right!
All I'm saying is, there's no need for parents to agonize over whether white kids can wear Black Panther outfits.… They can wear White Wolf outfits and scream "WHY WON'T YOU COMMAND ME, MY KING?!" at their black friends, right?
Or since Sebastian Stan's Bucky has a lot of problems with post-hypotic commands, maybe they'll just have him become obsessed with receiving orders from T'Challa and Shuri. It could work, that's all I'm saying. Have them make Bucky fetch things like a dog, why not?
Coming up after I take a break: Reginald Hudlin, rom-coms, Hurricane Katrina and the Even More Blackness era of Black Panther!
Near the end of Priest's run on Black Panther, editors were concerned that his "West Wing" style geopolitical conflicts were complex & inaccessible. They suggested a mini-reboot: Kasper Cole, a biracial NYPD officer, finds a Panther suit & uses it to deal with police corruption.
Despite also appearing in the black & brown team-up series The Crew (alongside War Machine, Junta and Josiah X) Kasper's brand of "urban-crime-drama Panther" never really caught on and he hasn't really been seen since. So the Priest era of Black Panther ended, in 2003.
In 2005, Marvel looked outside comics for the next author: Reginald Hudlin (@reghud), at that time the president of BET! You may recognize some of his other work: House Party? The Bernie Mac show? The Boondocks TV series? Perhaps most importantly for the Black Panther: Boomerang.
Hudlin clearly knows how to make some black entertainment. Unlike Priest he wanted a comic that spoke to the African-American experience, that felt black. Many black Marvel heroes show up, Luke Cage and T'Challa dap, there's a black guys' road trip, etc.
Real black figures make appearances too. Hudlin has "Dondi Reese" shut down racism at the White House, and a Sean Combs parody ("Pookie") tries to shoot T'Challa, but Luke Cage's fist gets in the way. Also... some shape-shifting aliens decide to look like Malcolm X and MLK Jr?
In a cover from that last story, T'Challa appears with the lower half of his mask ripped off, reprising what Lee & Kirby side-stepped in 1966: blackness on full display. Hudlin eschewed McGregor's florid prose and Priest's comic-history deep cuts to aim for mass entertainment.
The politics haven't enitrely been reduced to cameos;; in one notable story of spring 2006, the Panther, Cage and a group of black heroes lend their powers to aid New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, while the story critiques the ineffectual feds.
Center stage for the first half of Hudlin's run, however, is on a romcom-style plot about who the King will date and marry, and whether he can give up that swingin' single superhero life. Definitely the closest thing to Boomerang or similar rom-coms, in comic book form.
The "true love he's been searching for" turns out to be Storm, who for this story is shifted from Priest's cool-headed characterization to a jilted, jealous ex. Some sweet moments, but also a bit like a "political arranged marriage" in the grand sweep of comics history.
Hudlin's other major contribution to the ongoing saga is giving T'Challa a fourth and younger sibling: Shuri, who's shown trying to become the Black Panther. Eventually, in the latter half of Hudlin's run, she does, more headstrong and fierce than her strategist brother.
Although he spent time trying to tell the Black Panther story afresh for new audiences, Hudlin's series did end up tangled in the wave of 2000s crossovers with their alternate universes, Skrull invasions and more. Just as much continuity, but linked to current sales, not history.
Ten years ago this month, Hudlin made one more controversial addition to Wakanda's history that hasn't been remarked on much, but definitely relates to the themes of 2018's film. An 18th-c. Black Panther made a mutual-noninterference deal... with the entire Atlantic slave trade!
That brings me to the current era, with @TaNehisiCoats helming a crew of writers representing many kinds of authorship: @rgay @yonaharvey @EvNarc & more. Check out their work: it asks long-needed questions about the "whys and hows" of Wakandan monarchy, women's rights, and more.
I won't spoil or analyze this current work like I did the past eras, but if you're looking for a jumping on point to read about Wakanda and T'Challa, Rise of the Black Panther is great place to begin, exploring many of the themes in this thread!
Long-time fans of these authors may want to check out the new Black Panther annual, with one story each by McGregor, Priest, and Hudlin. It's coming out tomorrow!…
And that's it for my long recap of Black Panther history. Amandla!
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