The Black Path to the Black Panther
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because sometimes you should believe the hype.
By Eugene S. Robinson
A parking sign atop a pole rattled and shook angrily against a Brooklyn sky as a gaggle of 12-year-old Black kids, including yours truly, took turns using it as a prop for mock martial arts moves. Sprinting toward the pole at top speed, we’d grab it with one hand and spin around a few times while striking superhero poses. The favorite? A move called the Black Panther. Depending on whether or not parents were watching, it either involved the middle finger or it didn’t. The year was 1974, and inspired by one of our favorite comic books, we thought we were the baddest-assed pole dancers in Brooklyn right around then.
There’s always been something sort of outlaw about what people now call graphic novels and what are still sometimes called comic books. Scorned and disreputable, comics battered back against claims that they were, along with dime-store novels, corrupting the youth of America. Like the early film industry that had to flee westward to escape increased official scrutiny, comics pimped an underdog sensibility that came out of Jewish New York immigrant urges — Lithuanian urges in the case of Marvel Comics founder Moe Goodman.
We didn’t have any Black Panthers in Brooklyn. But we had the Black Panther.
Gary Baldwin, comic book fanboy
At no time was this sensibility felt more keenly than during the civil-rights era, when Marvel got on the zeitgeist like white on rice. That is, after a bad start in the 1940s and ’50s, when racial stereotypes abounded in comic books. But by the time the revolution was televised in the ’60s, Marvel had not the slightest compunction about letting their left-leaning bona fides be known. “They blew past decades of ingrained newsstand racism,” says Bob Calhoun, comic fanatic and author of Shattering Conventions: Commerce, Cosplay, and Conflict on the Expo Floor. “Look, before Black Panther, anytime you found an advanced civilization in Africa in comics or pulp fiction, stuff by [Tarzan creator Edgar Rice] Burroughs or [Conan the Barbarian creator Robert E.] Howard, it was evidence of ancient white people.”
And Goodman and his comics editor and later head of Marvel Stan Lee and Marvel artist extraordinaire Jack Kirby didn’t wait for marketing studies or focus groups to see how comic book integration played down South — they just did it. Specifically, they advanced narratives that Africans, and by extension Black Americans, ”should be empowered, were empowered,” according to Calhoun.
“Yeah, they taught this pasty Irish kid at a very early age that the Ku Klux Klan were the bad guys,” Calhoun adds. “My people could definitely use more of that last message.”
For Black readers, it was almost a Golden Age of comics. Luke Cage, aka Power Man, now a hit Netflix TV series, and then Black Panther, who was originally called the Coal Tiger, the Falcon and scientist Bill Fister, who later became Giant-Man, came on the tail end of notable Black characters appearing in hit runs of The Amazing Spider-Man. Not always as lead characters, but as something nice and normalizing — people who were just part of the fabric of the city, like cops, journalists and working folks. Then, in the midst of civil-rights struggles in 1966, Marvel dropped a group inspired by the Klan, Sons of the Serpent, into an Avengers comic book as bad guys. And as a Black kid, I found it absolutely invigorating.
“I actually still have most of his appearances in Jungle Action,” says comic collector, fan and former Brooklyn resident and also a former Black pre-teen Abram Hall about Black Panther. “His origin in the Fantastic Four series? It was electrifyingly significant.” And this is without any fanfare accompanying it.
“Marvel was the first major company to introduce a Black character,” says George Seminara, former editor at Def Jam, who still reads about 50 titles a week. “Stan Lee, a liberal Jewish guy, decides it’s time. But what does a thirtysomething know about Black America?” Even though Lee is leading a staff packed with nerdy white comic dudes, he keeps pushing. “Stan loves T’Challa, the Black Panther, and wants him to be treated right, so he brought in Black and brown creators.”
From the absolutely epic comics artist Denys Cowan to Christopher Priest, the first Black mainstream comics editor/writer, the change was immediately felt — even if inside Marvel it wasn’t all peace, love and racial harmony, at least according to Priest’s website.
“When we watched the movie Shaft back in the ’70s,” says longtime fan boy Gary Baldwin about the Black bad-ass detective whom Lee had used to justify his grittier creations like Luke Cage, “the whole theater would be in their seats screaming their heads off. Black Panther was this writ small. ‘Empowering’ doesn’t even come close to describing what was happening. It was the most amount of fun we were going to have at 12.”
And now? Te-Nehisi Coates, fer chrissakes, is filling comic tales with all kinds of quasi-African lore when he’s not writing books or articles for The Atlantic. “But from Chris Priest to now,” Seminara says, “it’s been amazing. The movie obviously owes them a debt.”
So all hail Wakanda and its preeminent prince, scientist and all-around deadly Black Panther. “We didn’t have any Black Panthers in Brooklyn,” laughs Baldwin about the ’60s Black nationalist urban guerrillas. “But we had the Black Panther.”