The Black Panther, 1966-2016

The Black Panther Comic

Visual storytelling is part of our human experience. Comics and graphic novels combine text and image in a synthesis where we can observe the hybridization of social, ethnic, gender, and racial ideas, even ideals. The beauty of comics is how they complicate the supposed divide between high and low art. They hail us with their ambivalent images that are at once and altogether confrontational, dark, humorous, and wishful. Black Panther is the wish fulfillment of an Afro-futuristic vision that answers the questions: what if there was an African nation whose kings and queens were blessed with a prescient understanding of political independence and local economic development so that, for centuries, they were able to protect their people from conflicts with neighboring nations, enslavement, European colonization, global exploitation and white supremacy. What if this nation was called Wakanda and what if, because Wakandans were able to innovate and thrive uninterrupted as a people, they were the most technologically advanced nation on Earth having created the cure for cancer, among many achievements?  What if the world—even comic book world— still wasn’t ready for this? Enter the Black Panther, also known as King T’Challa.
In 1966, Marvel Comics’ Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created Black Panther. He is christened on the pages of the popular Fantastic Four #52 comic book into the decade of the Black Power movement. In the 60s, these 22 pages share magazine rack space with headlines announcing colony after former colony in Africa, Caribbean, and Asia reclaiming their own sovereignty. Guyana, Botswana, Lesotho, Barbados. In 1966, Washington, D.C. convenes a meeting on civil rights. The National Organization for Women is founded. Bobbi Gibb is the first woman to run Boston Marathon and #261 learns how to dodge elbows of men who don’t like “gals” in their race. World Trade Center breaks ground. Cleveland’s race riots break out. Martin Luther King, Jr. speaks on the Vietnam War because “Beyond Vietnam” he said “the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home…We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.” Walt Disney dies in the middle of making the Jungle Book and Kirby and Lee make a new kind of jungle: a Techno-Organic Jungle.
The special exhibit comes at the 50th Anniversary of both Marvel’s Black Panther comic book and the Black Panther Party. This digital exhibition will unfold over the course of five months. Women and technology will be a particular preoccupation in the exhibition portion dedicated to Marvel’s Black Panther comic. Ta’Nahesi Coates’ version of Black Panther picks up on the cybernetic fantasy of Stan Lee/Jack Kirby’s Techno-Organic Jungle. Ta’Nahesi Coates begins his re-envisioning of Black Panther with failure: Wakanda is falling apart. There is the revolutionary mantra from the all-female bodyguard Dora Milaje that “no one man” should have so much power. It is as much a commentary of patriarchy as it is sexual violence occurring in and around their nation. There is a synergy to be found between the comic and the Black Panther Party with their emphasis on technology. The gun did for the Party what vibranium does for Wakanda. In Black Panther cosmology, vibranium, Wakanda’s important mineral ore is the center of its cultural and economic development. It is an important mineral in most of the Marvel universe, for that matter. Wakanda is not unlike the Congo in its mineral-rich space, yet, the Congo took a vastly different turn. It is especially poignant to consider how vibranium creates a bulletproof sheath around the Black Panther’s body. We also find this bulletproof Black hero trope in Luke Cage/Power Man. Essays will also look to Black Panther’s relationship with allies Storm (Black female ecological superhero) and Photon/Spectrum (Black female with electromagnetic superpowers) as a further way to consider the comic book’s relation to women and technology.  Attention will be given to Shuri, Black Panther’s sister who takes up the Panther mantle in his absence, and the Dora Milaje, his all-female body guard.
While we can only read what is on the page, there is much to be inferred from 1966 and how two Panthers emerge almost simultaneously. Most of the comic books on display are donations by James Gunderson and Peter Coha. Jim Gunderson is a private donor who has given assets to this exhibit as well as previous special collection celebrating the art of comic creator Marie Severin. James Gunderson, Ivan Brandon and Eric Battle re-imagine the origins of the Black Panther in their amazing short comic Seeking the Black Panther. Their process of researching and putting together a fan comic considers how Kirby, Lee and Carmichael may have connected over the black panther icon of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization. Besides being beautifully rendered, I think their comic book idea is fascinating and is interesting on several other levels. First, it addresses what might have been happening that summer of 1966 that spawned the idea for Kirby/Lee. Second, it takes fandom and research as twin operators in comic book scholarship and geekdom by allowing us to think about the role of the fictive.  Or, simply, who’s producing whom? These questions will allow us to think through the origins of the Black Panther in 1966 where ever they appear, in ink or in the streets.

In the coming months, crystal, Kiran and I hope you will pass through our digital exhibition to see new pictures, read more essays on the Black Panther, and get updates on speakers. Material relating to comics will include close readings, fan response, and resources on the praxis and pedagogy of comic books in the classroom.


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