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I’m old enough to remember when the Black Panther was young. I first encountered the character in the late 1960s, and by the early 1970s, when he began appearing in the unfortunately named “Jungle Action” comics and learned scholars were arguing stridently over whether Marvel’s black superhero represented racial progress, the young radical I fancied myself was enthralled.
The name itself was revolutionary, but not by association with the Black Panther Party, whose prominence the character largely antedated. No, the revolutionary act was the use of “black” at a moment when the polite word was still “Negro.” The character was introduced in 1966, the year before Stokely Carmichael and Charles V Hamilton would publish “Black Power”. By choosing to call him what they did, the character’s creators, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, were casting their lot with the younger generation of activists in the struggle for racial justice. I mention all of this as background to the film that is smashing box office records. The movie is marvelous and deserves all of its accolades. But as to the public conversation about the transformative power of the black superhero from a hidden, hyper-advanced African country—we have been down this road before. In fact, we had the very same conversation when T’Challa, the titular Black Panther, was still just a comic character.
“There has been a noticeable trend in the last few years,” wrote Broadcasting magazine in 1973, “toward relevancy and social comment in a medium previously considered just ‘kid’s stuff.’” A featured example was the Black Panther. In high school and again in college I wrote papers about the changes, and each time T’Challa stood at the centre. James Turner, director of Afro-American studies at Cornell University, wrote a critical letter to the comic’s editors, which they gave a full page.
From the start, the Black Panther worked as a comic book hero in a way that, say, Luke Cage (created by Marvel in 1972) didn’t. One critic complained at the time that Cage’s dialogue told the reader “there was some white guy writing this book who had no idea what the character should sound like”. A part of the Black Panther’s appeal was the smooth fit into the dialogue of the moment. From the beginning, wrote Adilifu Nama in “Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes,” the character was compelling because he stood “in stark contrast to the historical and symbolic constructions of Africans as simple tribal people and Africa as primitive”. Of course everybody sees that now; Nama’s point is to remind us of how remarkable an idea this was in 1966.
In the original comic, the racial trope was powerfully put. T’Challa came of age by driving from Wakanda white smugglers intent on exploiting the country’s resources. He lured world-famous white superheroes to his country to test his mettle against theirs. He beat them. Behind the comic lay the subversive idea that the black community concealed mighty forces that on some unexpected occasion could rise up from nowhere and smite the oppressor. (Early on, the Black Panther fought the Ku Klux Klan; in a later flashback version, his father slaughtered Nazi invaders.)
This motif of secret rather than public black power was the subject of a small but significant literary genre in the late 1960s and early 1970s—a genre I devoured. The best-remembered example is “The Spook Who Sat by the Door” (1969) by the former US Army officer Sam Greenlee, a tale to which “The Black Panther” at several points pays a distant homage. Another fine specimen of the genre was “Operation Burning Candle” (1973) by the literary scholar Blyden Jackson. What these and many more works of the period have in common is the suggestion of a sort of Fifth Column existing secretly within the black community, capable of wielding far greater power than the white world imagines.
“The Black Panther” is a great movie, the best work Marvel has done. T’Challa is a fantastic hero. Despite an intriguing ending that I won’t spoil, however, it’s clear that he’s no revolutionary. He might try to inspire the rest of the world, but he’ll never force it to change.
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