Before Chadwick Boseman begins his run as the Black Panther in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, let’s examine the role that Boseman is inheriting. The Black Panther was the first super-powered African lead character in American comic books. While there had been caricatured and Western books with African American leads, no one had been willing to cross the line to make a black man a superhero. While the name of the character predates the founding of the 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 tank battalion. That and it sounded far better than the character’s original name of Coal Tiger. Striking out 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.
Between 1966 and 1968, the Black Panther was plugged into a variety of books to find an angle that worked for him. While he was the exotic Wakandan superhero, later writers would find the need to ground him. So, the Black Panther joined the Avengers and started finding ways to adapt to New York City. Black Panther would adopt the secret identity of Luke Charles and start a second life as an inner city school teacher. It was an effort to present this rather innovative character as a potential Sidney Poitier stand-in for the late 1960s, as a way to win over 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.” Then, came the politics.
There was a point in the early 1970s where Marvel pushed to change the name of the character. It happened during the brief spurt after Panther left the Avengers and started appearing in Fantastic Four for a bit. Dubbing himself the Black Leopard, the audience saw a new Panther who actively went out of his way to disconnect from the African American politics of 1972. I recommend picking up Fantastic Four #119 to see just how crazy things with the character became at that political hotpoint. While the issue was a slam on Apartheid, the Black Panther was written in a way to appear apologetic for being political and agreed with neighboring countries’ demands of policing black people. Not to worry, as things got better.
One of the two great Black Panther writers made his debut on the book with the multi-issue Black Panther serial in Jungle Action. Don McGregor created what amounted to Marvel’s first graphic novel with “The Black Panther vs. The Klan”. Telling a contained story across six issues was revolutionary for American comics in 1976. The Black Panther had his name back and was willing to be political again. McGregor will probably go down as one of the great unknowns of Marvel Comics for daring to turn into the inherent political skid that was Black Panther. McGregor wanted Marvel’s premiere black superhero to fight white supremacists and stay vocal about the injustices that minorities face. Naturally, he got pressured off the book and the title was retooled into a vehicle for Panther co-creator Jack Kirby during his return to Marvel.
The next few decades saw nothing of note for the Panther until writer Christopher Priest created a fresh new take for the character under the Marvel Knights imprint. Playing off ideas established by Don McGregor, Priest introduced the second great era of Panther. The amazing audience identifying character of Everett Ross served as an entry point to the rather distant nature of Black Panther. Ross is a State Department attorney assigned to Panther’s case, as recent events have brought Panther and his full Wakandan entourage back to America. Jokes are had about cultural clash, the nature of the Panther and Ross’s general ignorance about a black man being a leader of such great power. Ross is never shown as ignorant, just completely out of his element when faced with such majesty. This too didn’t last.
Much like McGregor before him, Priest faced great adversity bringing his vision of the Panther to audiences. While Priest was given far more time than McGregor, his Panther work was never a major seller. After a few years, Panther was taken from him and put through the revamp mill until recently. Fantastic Four/Avengers/Secret Wars mastermind Jonathan Hickman saw a way to appease the traditional Panther fans with those that want an iconoclast. King T’Challa, a.k.a. The Black Panther, is presented as one of the smartest minds on Earth and an equal party to world decisions involving the Illuminati. While his masterplays evoke grave consequences, it’s Black Panther that leads the charge to push innovation and demand respect for African Americans everywhere. If that sounds fascinating, wait until the eventual follow-up where Panther’s villains are discussed.
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