Anticipation grows daily for Marvel Studios’s next feature, Black Panther. Theaters are adding show times to meet demand as advanced ticket sales creep higher and reviewers enthusiastically praise the movie. Fans of the character have waited for the film for years—ever since Panther devotee Wesley Snipes tried to get the project off the ground with Columbia Pictures in the 90s. Everyone, from political and social commentators to internet trolls, is debating the cultural impact of the production. Regardless of where one stands in that debate, the film has undeniably arrived at a serendipitous moment for the discussion.
An underappreciated question is whether the majority of the film’s viewers have ever read an issue of the comic. If one of the effects of its projected success is that it turns new readers on to the books, it’ll have been worth a dozen blockbusters. Because for all the debate over cultural milestones and seminal moments the film heralds, Black Panther comics have been on the leading edge of sociopolitical commentary for years.
Black Panther first appeared in Fantastic Four #52, one of the myriad impressive creations to emerge from the hyper-prolific collaboration of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. He appeared in various titles, eventually joining the Avengers (coincidentally in issue #52), before finally receiving his first starring feature in Jungle Action.
After a reprint issue, writer Don McGregor started his critically acclaimed run, which lasted 19 issues, but only featured two story arcs. Most comics’ historians credit the first 13 issues as Marvel Comics’ first graphic novel: Panther’s Rage was a single, continuous story that stretched over 200 pages. McGregor’s second arc had the Panther take on the Klan, a move Marvel executives felt was too controversial at the time. The book was popular, but sales were low, and Marvel decided to relaunch the character in his first self-titled series, bringing the recently returned Jack Kirby in as writer and artist.
The King’s run is one of the most misunderstood. While McGregor had taken a serious, essentially joyless, approach to the character, Kirby played to the Panther’s sci-fi roots and advanced technological aspects. It was likely a generational thing. Though he was tackling weighty issues in his return to the Captain America title, Kirby shied away from burdening Black Panther with similar themes, opting for loopy fun that foreshadowed his later work on The Eternals. Fans were not pleased.
Though many writers like the late, great, Dwayne McDuffie cite the McGregor run as an influence, Reginald Hudlin (more on him later) has criticized it for being populated by “morose characters that endlessly droned on with overflowing captions.” After that eponymous series was cancelled, Black Panther basically fell off the radar until his next great run. And he hasn’t looked back since.
In 1998, Marvel launched Marvel Knights, an edgier line that included a Black Panther title written by Christopher Priest. Playing up the fact that T’Challa is the king of his native Wakanda. Priest concocted a rarity: A sharp political satire masquerading as a comic book. He created the lovably fallible bureaucrat, Everett K. Ross, assigned by a beleaguered state department to serve as the king’s liaison. Priest took aim at stereotypes, identity politics, the Clinton administration, inner-city culture, international coups… and whatever else he could point the righteously confident Black Panther towards. The run was fresh and critics and fans loved it.
It just left one detail untouched.
In ’05, Marvel launched the fourth iteration of Black Panther, with Hollywood heavyweight, the aforementioned Reginald Hudlin, serving as writer. Hudlin asked the question no one had bothered to explore, Who is the Black Panther? Early in the series, Black Panther had to stare down a Condoleeza Rice stand-in representing an US eager to get at Wakanda’s resources. Hudlin threw increasingly deeper challenges at Black Panther, even his search for the perfect bride—no small thing in a monarchy—in order to finally define him. His Black Panther wasn’t impossibly perfect, but he was ideally cool. Most significantly, as a righteous man unafraid to stand up for what he believed, he was the perfect lens through which to study everything from the effects of colonialism to how vengeance perverts the soul. Hudlin’s work paved the way for the most recent great run of Black Panther.
When Marvel announced renowned essayist, editor and best-selling author Ta-Nehisi Coates as the new writer of Black Panther in ’16, they made front page news in the mainstream media. Getting Coates to sign on was a coup. The author has won nearly every prestigious award for non-fiction writing, and even received a “Genius Grant” from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. No one ever imagined he’d write a comic book, and fans wondered what he’d bring to the table.
They needn’t have worried.
Coates pushed the setting of the book to the forefront. Wakanda, its history, inhabitants, textures, customs, politics and struggle to define itself in an uncertain future are the key details he added to the rich tapestry of the Black Panther’s tale.
Exploring the schism between the western approach to maintaining a written national history, versus preserving bygone oral traditions, and how each informs as well as confuses cultural identity in the 21st century, Coates riffs on multiple issues confronting modern-day Africa. Taken more broadly, he could be asking the very same questions of any established culture trying to maintain its unique roots and character while the modern world’s unstoppable wave of globalization washes over it. The book can go from exploring spiritual truths one moment, to debating the merits of various political theories in the next, all while spinning a well-paced yarn to keep readers turning pages.
Like the others listed above, it’s a must read.
Fans trust Ryan Coogler‘s film will be great. I believe it will spark conversation—but of greater value, curiosity and contemplation—about what is and what has been, as well as what isn’t, but could be.
I hope some of that deep thought and wonder leads people to these books.
This February, many will look up to the screen, maybe to the credits most of all, and say, “finally.”
…and those who’ve been reading the books all along will smile and add, “it’s about damned time.”