The Real Power Behind Marvel’s “Black Panther”

Marvel Studio’s latest superhero film, “Black Panther,” is a colossal hit, with the fifth biggest-grossing debut weekend in movie history. It’s also a cultural phenomenon. With a largely black cast, a black director, and a story line rooted in Africa, the film has galvanized a global, multiracial audience with its messages of cultural empowerment, gender equality, and individual black nobility. Little kids in Compton and grownups in Nairobi come out of the theater beside themselves with joy and pride. All this, while disproving the Hollywood myth that a film centered on Afro-American characters couldn’t survive in overseas markets.

The resulting financial rewards and industry accolades are much deserved by the Marvel executives who pushed this project through to completion and invested upwards of $300 million on something truly different at a time when diversity and identity politics are under fire. But in our celebration of this rare confluence of commercial success with cultural uplift, let’s not forget the two white, middle-aged, Jewish men who brought “The Black Panther” into existence over 50 years ago.

Stan Lee (pseudonym of Stanley Lieber, still with us at age 95 and making goofy cameos in Marvel movies) and Jack Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg, who died in 1994 at age 76) are rightly known by comics fans everywhere as the co-creators of what became the Marvel Universe. In the span of a handful of years in the early Sixties, this deeply fractious, wildly creative duo gave us astonished kids the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Iron Man, The Avengers, the Incredible Hulk, Thor, The X-Men, Agents of Shield, Doctor Strange, and other characters and concepts too numerous and persistently profitable to mention. All this in the pre-digital form of 22-page comic books pumped out month after month, distributed across the country in trucks, and deposited in racks in drugstores and five-and-dimes for some wayward teenager like me to pick up and buy for 12 cents a copy. What a strange, dicey business, and what great fun for all of us.

I got on the Marvel bandwagon when I stumbled upon Spider-Man #3, featuring the debut of the evil Dr. Octopus, in a drugstore in Bridgeville, Pennsylvania when I was 14. That I remember the event so clearly over 50 years later is a testament to the impact that that comic, and the entire Marvel line, had on me. I’d grown up as a loyal DC Comics fan, charmed by the hygienic, cerebral style and exploits of the likes of Green Lantern, Adam Strange, and the Flash. Yet here, in the Marvel Universe, was a character who lived at home with his aunt in a row house in Queens, and a team called the Fantastic Four who fought among themselves, had no secret identities, and were as likely to resolve a conflict by knocking down a large building as by their cleverness with gadgets. Marvel comics were a lot darker (they even seemed to be printed on cheaper paper), a lot more visceral, and a lot more fun than what Stan called the Distinguished Competition.

Then, in the spring of 1966, in the midst of a run of routinely inspired issues of the Fantastic Four, Stan and Jack introduced a new character named the Black Panther. New characters introduced in an established Marvel comic were nothing particularly surprising, though some lasted no more than an episode or two; Sub-Mariner, the Inhumans, Galactus, the Silver Surfer, and a one-shot called the Invincible Man had already been introduced in the pages of the Fantastic Four by the time issue #52 hit the stands (as we liked to say when there were stands).

But the Black Panther was different, primarily because, beneath his all-black costume (with a stylish, soon-discarded cape), he was, well, black. The genius and, for the time, the courage of Lee and Kirby was that nothing whatsoever is made of his race in that first appearance; it just is. Yes, he’s exotic, a monarch of the technologically-advanced kingdom of Wakanda, somewhere in Africa, but exoticism was by this point a staple of the Lee-Kirby oeuvre. (The Inhumans lived, after all, on the far side of the moon.) In his introductory episode, T’Challa, the Black Panther, has a prolonged but conventional skirmish with the Fantastic Four before his nobility is revealed (he’s only practicing on them in preparation for a true bad guy) and he becomes their ally. Standard stuff for Lee and Kirby; new characters always had to clash with established ones in their comics, like a rite of passage.

Yet it’s all there, in that first appearance in 1966, every stereotype of male blackness in America stood gracefully on its head: rather than underprivileged, T’Challa and his people are immensely wealthy as a result of their ownership of a vast mound of the precious metal “vibranium,” from which the Black Panther’s costume is fashioned. Rather than primitive, their society enjoys technology far in advance of the West’s, including flying cars and, in a typical stroke of Kirbyesque prescience, a device very much like a smartphone. Rather than downtrodden and inarticulate, the people of Wakanda, and T’Challa in particular, are proud and brave, dress beautifully, and speak in Shakespearean cadences. They’ve never been enslaved, and aren’t about to be.

One can only guess at what motivated Lee and Kirby to create the first black comic book superhero. Certainly it wasn’t a commercially obvious thing to do, but the civil rights movement and race relations were on the front pages of newspapers on a daily basis at the time. The Black Panther Party would be formed later in the same year that “the Black Panther” appeared on that comic book rack in my neighborhood drugstore. Marvel was always reaching for a certain hipness, and at least in New York circles, an enlightened acceptance of blacks would have been considered hip. (Kirby, a graphic genius but hardly a wordsmith, reportedly wanted to call the character “Coal Tiger.”)

At the very least, two Jews who had felt obliged to camouflage their own heritage with Irish surnames would have had an intuitive understanding of what losing and reclaiming your racial identity might be all about. The true power of “the Black Panther” lies in that notion, and in the instinctive ability of Lee and Kirby to make white teenaged boys believe that a superhero could be black. And, more importantly, that it was no big deal.

But neither of them –Stan, still with us, and Jack, gone but not forgotten — much less the hordes of young fans who loved them, could have imagined a day when so many of the characters that rampaged through the four-color newsprint of our childhood comics would become the subjects of high-tech, live-action theatrical films and, in the case of the Black Panther, a cultural phenomenon to boot. What plain good fun, yet again, to see it come to pass.


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