Black Panther’s record-breaking opening weekend [$202 million in its first three days domestically, $240 million over the four-day Presidents’ Day weekend, $426 million globally] has sent a seismic jolt through the film industry. Clearly, this is a film that many anticipated and longed to see. The movie’s success challenges the widely held belief that a fantasy film with a primarily black cast would fail.Black Panther’s journey to the screen was a difficult one, and the filmmakers and cast deserve all the accolades the film earns.
Beyond asking why it has taken so long to get this movie, there’s the underlying matter of how we got here at all. Casual comic book readers aren’t the only ones unaware of the facts—most aficionados don’t know much about the early history of African-Americans in comics either.
Comics have always reflected trends in other media; Luke Cage mirrored 70s Blaxploitation films, Deadly Hands of Kung Fu capitalized on the initial success of Hong Kong martial arts films in the states, etc. Most early comic creators were Jewish. They were often the victims of virulent anti-Semitism, and their work was an escapist response to the abuse they faced in their daily lives. However, the heroes they created were generally Anglo-American to appeal to the largest audience available at the time.
Comic book heroes were predominantly white for decades. While most fans recognize Black Panther (1966) as the first black hero in mainstream comics (predating Marvel’s Falcon and Luke Cage, 1969 and 1972 respectively, and DC’s John Stewart 1971 and Black Lightning 1977), there’s a forgotten past, which though sparse, merits discussion.
A Trailblazer tries to cross over
Orrin C Evans was a pioneer in the world of journalism who began his career writing for the African-American newspaper, The Philadelphia Tribune. He made history when he became the first African-American on staff at The Philadelphia Record, a mainstream white newspaper. When The Record closed in 1947, Evans formed a publishing company, All-Negro Comics, Inc. with two former colleagues from the paper, editors Harry T. Saylor and Bill Driscoll. Later that year, they published the first issue of All-Negro Comics, exclusively featuring the work of African-American creators, but failed to publish a second issue when they were unable to purchase the necessary newsprint. Historians have speculated that prejudiced distributors blocked the sale of the vital materials.
In 1954, Atlas Comics (a forerunner of Marvel) began publishing Jungle Tales, which featured the first mainstream black character, Waku, Prince of the Bantu. The story was unique. It featured an all black cast—an amazing novelty not only for its time, but in any era of American comics. Unlike All-Negro Comics, Waku was the work of white creators, primarily the prolific writer/artist Don Rico and artist Ogden Whitney, who was succeeded by John Romita Sr. who’d go on to make his name as (for many) the definitive Silver Age Spider-Man artist when he took over for Steve Ditko. The Jungle Tales run lasted only seven issues, and nearly a decade passed before mainstream comics featured another African-American hero.
Dell Comics published two issues of Lobo between December of 1965 and September of ’66, before abruptly cancelling the title. Inspired by true accounts of the history of black cowboys in the settling of the west, writer Don Arneson came up with the concept. Arneson collaborated with artist Tony Tallarico to bring the character to life; a wealthy, unnamed gunslinger, equal parts Robin Hood and Lone Ranger (who was actually black in real life…check out his amazing story).
Arneson claimed that the book’s unexpected cancellation was solely due to poor sales. However, Tallarico painted a very different picture; the artist reported that even as the initial bundles of the first issue shipped, sellers returned them unopened because of their hostility towards the character. The story may likely be apocryphal, but one detail stands out. In that era, sales figures took months to process; unless something outside “business as usual” occurred, it’s unlikely that Dell would have known the book was selling badly after only one issue.
Marvel and DC persistence pays off
Marvel would go on to stamp their mark on the Silver Age, and Black Panther was a part of that creatively fertile time. Those were tumultuous years for the country as well, yet in the fictional world of Marvel Comics, occasional tone-deaf writing aside, characters often crossed the many divides the nation’s citizens couldn’t seem to.
In 1963, before the Black Panther first appeared, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee had already included Gabriel “Gabe” Jones as a member of the Howling Commandos in the pages of Sgt.Fury and his Howling Commandos, a World War II book—despite the fact that the U.S Armed Forces weren’t integrated during that conflict. Kirby, a decorated soldier whose combat experiences inspired the stories presented in the book, was well aware of that fact.
Jack and Stan were making a statement. We could be better.
Decades later, when a coalition of African-American writers and artists founded Milestone Media in 1993, it was in response to the issue of minority under-representation in American comics. The creators set their stories in the fictional Midwestern city of Dakota, and essentially populated them solely with minority characters. The group struck a publishing deal with DC that allowed them to keep editorial and copyright control.
Unfortunately, the comics market was about to enter a protracted sales slump and near crash. Many retailers, already under pressure due to losses, assumed the line wouldn’t interest non-black readers, and gave it little exposure. Milestone shut down its comics division in 1997, focusing on licensing its characters for use in other media, primarily Static Shock, who featured in an award-winning animated series, as well as appearing in the Justice League, Batman Beyond and Young Justice Cartoons.
Since then, the big two publishers have included an increasing number of black characters in their books. Some have crossed over into their respective filmed universes as well. Representation has increased, but that isn’t why Black Panther is a phenomenon. The cast and filmmakers, the story’s themes and handling of its characters (particularly the women), as well as the settings, are unique. Yes, we know Wakanda doesn’t exist, as some trolls feel compelled to point out—but the salient question is why a place like it doesn’t exist, and I’m not talking about mystical cults or fantastical metals with impossible properties.
People have mentioned that they feel something difficult to define, a particular connection to this film. They feel empowered and uplifted. It’s easy to be dismissive—it’s just a comic book movie, after all.
But it isn’t just that, is it?
For many, it’s the feeling that this one is by and for them in a way none of these films had been.
It’s what Orrin C. Evans was striving for way back in ’47. It’s what the Milestone founders, and Christopher Priest, Reginald Hudlin and Ta-Nehisi Coates and the artists who re-imagined Black Panther in the comics were determined to create.
Something people would know was theirs. Wakanda forever.