As Chadwick Boseman begins his run as Black Panther in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, let’s look at the history and cultural importance of the role he’s inheriting.
Black Panther was the first super-powered African main character in American comics.
While there had been caricatured portrayals in Western books with African American leads, there were no black superheroes. The name “Black Panter,” actually predates the founding of the activist Black Panther Party, the name was chosen for its potency.
For the World War II-era creators, the name evoked the famous segregated Black Panther Btank battalion. And it sounded far better than the character’s original name, Coal Tiger. Oy.
As the first new character of the middle era of the Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four, the Black Panther was meant to be a brave new face for the Marvel Universe.
In the ’60s, Black Panther moved to New York.
While he was still the exotic Wakandan superhero, the Black Panther was written into the Avengers and moved to New York City. He adopted the secret identity of Luke Charles and start a second life as an inner city school teacher.
This was an effort to present the unique character as a Sidney Poitier type and make him relatable to readers. What it did for a few years was allow new stories to open on the street level that played as a mix of “Coming to America” and “To Sir with Love.”
Black Panther was once known as Black Leopard.
In the early 1970s, Marvel pushed to change the name of the character. It happened during the brief period after Panther left the Avengers and began appearing in Fantastic Four. Dubbing himself the Black Leopard, the audience saw a new Panther who was disconnected from the racial politics of the day. In
In Fantastic Four #119, the story took on apartheid, but Black Panther was written in a way that made him appear apologetic for being political. As if that weren’t egregious enough, he even appeared to sympathize with neighboring countries racist policies. It was not okay.
Black Panther appeared in what was, basically, Marvel’s first graphic novel.
Prolific Black Panther writer Don McGregor made his debut on the book with the multi-issue serial Jungle Action. Don McGregor created what amounted to Marvel’s first graphic novel with “The Black Panther vs. The Klan.” The series told a contained story across six issues — commonplace today, but a truly revolutionary thing in American comics of the era.
McGregor empowered Marvel’s premiere black superhero to fight white supremacists and rage against social injustice. Ultimately, however, McGregor was pressured out of the book and the title was retooled into a vehicle for Panther co-creator Jack Kirby during his return to Marvel.
Black Panther is one of the most intelligent and richest superheroes.
A more recent revamp of the character, masterminded by writer Jonathan Hickman, positioned Black Panther in the highest level of Marvel heroes, and that’s where he stands today.
King T’Challa of Wakanda is one of the brightest minds on Earth and a party to world-changing decisions with his involvement in the Illuminati.
He’s also the richest Marvel superhero, worth an estimated $90.7 trillion. How? Vibranium. In the Marvel universe, Vibranium is the most precious and strongest metal. It’s stronger than the indestructible metal Adamantium — that’s the stuff that’s bonded to Wolverine’s skeleton. Vibranium is the metal used to make Captain America’s shield. Obviously, it doesn’t come cheap.