By L.A. Williams
For over a decade, Marvel Comics has been on a juggernaut roll with the quality and successes of their movies and TV shows. Now, their newest flick has some of today’s most recognizable and acclaimed Black actors, including Chadwick Boseman, Forest Whitaker, Lupita Nyong’o, Sterling K. Brown, and Angela Bassett.
Combine Marvel’s track record with these stars and the marketing and it’s totally understandable that people would buy “Black Panther” tickets without knowing much about the mythos. Plus, if a movie’s handled right, audiences shouldn’t need to know much before walking into the theater.
But for those who like a little background… Introduced in 1966, the “Black Panther” was created by the legendary comic team of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in “Fantastic Four” #52. The character debuted the same year that the “Black Panther Party” did in Oakland, but the timing is simply cosmically coincidental.
“The Black Panther” is T’Challa, King of the fictional African country, Wakanda, and spiritually connected to Bast, Goddess of protection and cats. This connection, plus training and some rituals, gives T’Challa extraordinary agility and tracking abilities.
He is consistently portrayed as one of the smartest, wisest, richest, and most honorable beings in the Marvel Universe. To understand the significance of the Black Panther, one has to keep in mind what African images tended to be in Western fiction of 52 years ago and before.
The best known African-based character was Tarzan, who regularly battled Black “savages.” Images of Africans were usually of poor, ignorant, inferior people. Lee and Kirby flipped those stereotypes. Wakanda was so wealthy and advanced, it had to hide itself from the rest of an unready world.
Their King was formidable on every conceivable level: a brilliant inventor, hunter, fighter and tactician who lacked conventional super powers yet could backslap most powered characters with ease. T’Challa symbolizes sophistication and coolness while his country represents Africa’s potential had it never been conquered or unduly influenced by outside forces.
For centuries, the world only heard rumors of Wakanda’s existence. That changed under T’Challa’s rule. He studied abroad, and even became a member of Earth’s mightiest superhero team, The Avengers. But under ‘70s writer Don McGregor, those actions had consequences as some felt T’Challa was too enamored with the West and wasn’t paying enough attention to Wakanda. This caused unrest, and an opening for his greatest enemies, including Erik Killmonger, played by Michael B. Jordan in the film.
Ta-nehisi Coates is currently writing the “Black Panther” monthly comic as a new notable connected to the character. Respected Director and Producer Reginald Hudlin didn’t work on the new film, but his long run of writing the comic means his imprint is on it.
“Black Panther” opens in theaters this Friday, Februray 16 and his comic books are available in bookstores worldwide. “Black Panther” comics are usually sophisticatedly written and usually suitable for all ages. – L.A. Williams is a former comic editor.