With Black Panther’s historic Oscar nomination last week, Wakanda’s protector T’Challa has solidified himself atop the Marvel mantel of super hero firsts. In my opinion, the reason the MCU has become so polarizing and successful is because of its dedication to originality. Writers, producers, executives, and directors have millions of pages of stories to browse through when constructing the scripts that bring our favorite superheroes and villains to life, yet the finished product seems to bring a new feel to those ever-so-familiar stories. Marvel sets the bar with each cinematic release of a super hero flick, and Black Panther was no exception last year.
Before T’Challa made his explosive entrance—pun intended—into the MCU in Civil War, the Black Panther moniker was not overly familiar to casual fans. But soon after Chadwick Boseman’s first smile onscreen made theatres collectively gasp, the world seemed to fall in love with the king. This public perception has not always been the case, and the character’s initial 1966 debut in Fantastic Four #52 was controversial to say the least. In this feature, Reed Richards receives a state-of-the-art aircraft from an African chief, and the team is baffled by the idea that something so advanced can come from Africa. The fact that a country in Africa, which was often perceived as primitive jungle after the 1930s due to Tarzan’s success, could have such technology was unheard of at the time; therefore, co-creators Jack Kirby and Stan Lee wanted to defy such stereotypes with T’Challa and Wakanda. Kirby, the legendary Marvel artist and co-creator of many of our favorite characters, went on record and acknowledged the lack of diversity within Marvel during its Silver Age, and Lee publicly addressed our country’s issues with equality and acceptance through most of his career.
When my grandfather first put pencil to paper on @theblackpanther he had no idea a simple sketch would change so many lives. He wanted to make a small contribution to equality and give readers a hero who looked like them. Congratulations team for an amazing movie! First BP sketch pic.twitter.com/GJZeK1pfVr
— Jeremy Kirby (@jackkirbycomics) January 22, 2019
Who is T’Challa? Sure, many who have seen the Oscar-nominated film know the basics of the backstory, so I am not going to dive in to a lengthy prologue. I do, however, want to give a brief reference to what made the character so controversial based on his initial comic run for this article’s sake. Many know T’Challa inherited the royal rank from his father T’Chaka. Yes, T’Challa is one of the few super heroes in the verse to be of royal decent. In terms of where he lives, Wakanda is a fictional third world country with a massive amount of vibranium. (Fun fact, many have drawn Wakanda on the world map as being next to or inside present day Ethiopia.) To the outside world, Wakanda and its people are poor and surviving; however, the country and its inhabitants are rich in knowledge and resources. The technological advancements operating the country are astonishing, and the rest of the world is so far behind. Lee and Kirby’s decision to make an African nation the prized jewel of the world was a bold one at the time as our nation was at the tail-end of a long battle to end racial divide lasting through the mid-’50s and into the late ’60s. Not only was the Black Panther a king, but he was arguably one of the toughest warriors to be introduced into the Marvelverse at the time. To name a few traits, the Black Panther’s connection with the panther god Bast allows the protector to have superhuman senses, speed, strength, healing, and durability. In some story arcs, immortality is addressed, and crazy awesome vibranium weapons are also possessed by the Black Panther.
As previously stated, the Black Panther entered the Marvelverse as a secondary character making brief appearances in more established titles like the “Fantastic Four” and “Captain America” early on. He even joined up with the Avengers a few years after his first appearance in the verse. In the 1970s, T’Challa did get two significant standalone story lines, but the most impactful was his second when he took on the Ku Klux Klan. Such arc was met with criticism, but the story brought light to a very dark, troubling time in our history. Both runs under the title “Jungle Action” weren’t super successful at the time, so Marvel brought back co-creator Jack Kirby to rebrand the character. It is well known that Kirby did not want to revisit the story line in favor of creating new content, so the Black Panther franchise was temporarily cancelled until it made a rebound in the late ‘80s. There have been significant story lines since then, and with the success of the character today, one can bet the Black Panther franchise will not be stalled any time soon.
Controversy still surrounds the character in regard to a political party with the same name. With Marvel’s—or the previously called Timely Comics’s—blemished track record of copyright suits, many debate which entity had the Black Panther name first (well, there is more debate over the logo). In fact, Marvel attempted to rebrand the character in the 1970s to change the character’s public perception. Could you imagine referring to the iconic character as the Black Leopard? Yes, that was one of the proposed names brought forward over time, but once the character received his standalone title, the Black Panther namesake cemented itself in the Marvelverse. Lee and Kirby even had plans for a hero called Coal Tiger before being restricted to expanding on already proven characters; thus, Black Panther was created for an appearance in Fantastic Four. The character also sported a cape, which wasn’t a very flattering look in my opinion.
For those who view the 2018 film adaptation as revolutionary for the story line’s political approach, the comics addressed key political issues depending on its time of publication, as well. T’Challa and his nation symbolize advancement while staying true to humanitarian efforts that will ideally trailblaze a path to success for our world. The character has not lost its sense of purpose in transforming our country’s views on racism and socialism since 1966, and many have viewed the new movie as another chapter in this franchise’s just cause to end bigotry and disallow prejudice. Stan Lee revolutionized the industry with his ability to make super heroes relatable, and the Black Panther is no exception.
Jon Maus is a high school English Language Arts teacher and an all-around pop culture enthusiast. He has a B.S. and a M.E. in English. Some of his favorite fandoms include The Walking Dead, Marvel, Disney, Back to the Future, and the Karate Kid.