Marvel’s most important black superhero has evolved a lot over 50 years. The Black Panther has gone from being an under-utilized figure in the background of Avengers group shots to arguably being the most fearsome strategist in the Marvel Universe. His elevation to Marvel’s top tier is a fascinating meta-story.
To me, the core dynamic that makes the Black Panther work comes from a set of paradoxes churned up by the collision of real world and fictional tropes and stereotypes. That tension shows up in the first panel of the first page of Fantastic Four #52, the 1966 issue where Stan Lee and Jack Kirby introduced the character.
As three members of Marvel’s First Family fly in an advanced aircraft provided by the Panther, Ben Grimm wonders aloud, “But how does a refugee from a Tarzan movie lay his hands on this kinda gizmo?” Let’s count the assumptions in that sentence:
• that the Africans in a Tarzan movie are a reference point or even representative of anything
• “lay hands on” strongly implies that the Thing thinks that there’s no way an aircraft this advanced could come from Africa. He had to have come across it from some other, more sophisticated individual or culture.
A later panel hits the same note of incredulity, this time voiced by the Human Torch.
Now, it should be noted Lee and KIrby were doing their job as storytellers here, crafting a set of expectations for the reader that they’d upend for a surprise later in the issue. It would turn out that T’Challa is in fact a genius on par with Reed Richards and cunning enough to trap and nearly defeat the Fantastic Four in battle.
But the raw material for those expectations was drawn from the real world. The Tarzan movies Lee references were only the most recent version of the idea that Africa was a wild Dark Continent populated by uncivilized “savages”. That belief was taken as a given for centuries by that point and still persists today. So it’s laudable that two middle-aged Jewish men working in 1966 New York City dreamed up an African superhero king who rules over an technologically advanced nation. But the way they did that simultaneously reinforces the very same stereotypes and value judgements the Black Panther was supposed to dispel.
From the first time the reader sees and hears Wakanda, the fictional country is a mix of paradoxes. It’s super-advanced, has never been colonized and hides from the rest of the world. It’s almost as if Lee and Kirby knew they had to temper the idea of a black super-society with the element of making it hidden and doubling down on nativism. While Wakanda is shown as being ahead of much of the world with regard to technology, the rest of its culture gets portrayed with outdated stereotypes.
The debut storyline for the Black Panther created a template for many subsequent turns in the spotlight. Many of his most significant spotlights were pegged to social justice issues. He was central to these plots insofar as he was one of very few black characters through which racial tensions could be channeled. Ultimately, however, it was mostly the white personas in these adventures who experienced character growth. The Panther remained safe, stoic and a little hollow.
Fantastic Four #119 is an example of this paradigm. Written by Roy Thomas with art by John Buscema, Joe Sinnott and Artie Simek, the one-off story used the Panther was used to address the racial politics of the day. T’Challa is trapped in the fictional country of Rudyarda, which is a clearly a stand-in for South Africa. (The country’s name is a reference to Rudyard Kipling, author of The Jungle Book and, relatedly, the poem “The White Man’s Burden.”)
On their way to help T’Challa, Johnny Storm and Ben Grimm stop a skyjacking. A frequent occurrence in the 70s, these airborne crimes were often politically motivated. The sequence serves a thematic underpinning to the Fantastic Four members’ rescue mission, showing them opposing people who’d commit violence in the name of politics.
Roy Thomas uses T’Challa to comment on the racist evils of real-world apartheid, but it comes during a time when Marvel changed the character’s superhero name to the Black Leopard to avoid any associations with the Black Panther Party. Once again, seemingly noble intent collides with business calculus.