[In March 1941, DC Comics published Captain America Comics #1. So for Cap’s 80th birthday, this week I’ll AmericanStudy him and a handful of other comic superheroes, leading up to a post full of student responses to one of our most complex comics.]
On Black Powers, super- and political.
In the July 1966 issue of Fantastic Four, legendary comics duo Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created their newest character, the Black Panther. Other black characters had appeared in various supporting roles in American comics, but the Panther—really a super-powered African prince named T’challa from the fictional nation of Wakanda—is generally considered the first mainstream black superhero. If so, Lee and Kirby, and their successors in writing and illustrating the character (and recently in bringing him to the big screen), have done that pioneering idea full credit, creating a character with as rich a backstory and mythos, home “world,” familial and romantic life, and powers and personality as any of his peers in the Fantastic Four, the Avengers, and the Marvel Universe overall.
From what I can tell it was coincidental that the Panther’s debut was followed three months later by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale’s October 1966 creation of the Black Panther Party (or at least there seem to be no explicit references to any connection between the two Panthers); both might have been responding to the well-known African American World War II tank battalion, among other potential origins for the name. But in any case the timing reflects the complexity of the American racial, social, cultural, and political world into which Lee and Kirby’s character arrived, both within the comic (as an African immigrant to the United States; or perhaps simply a visitor, as he often returns to his home country in the comics) and as a cultural presence. This was a character who was literally the most powerful individual within his African homeland, coming to a world in which the very concept of Black Power (also newly coined in 1966) was a revolutionary one.
So when Stokely Carmichael led those SNCC marchers in the cry of “We want Black Power!,” would the release (just a month later) of the debut Black Panther story have satisfied them? Obviously a comic book superhero is not the equivalent of meaningful political or social change—but the Panther did represent a significant cultural shift, or at least an addition to the mainstream cultural landscape, and such cultural developments have their own value to be sure. Moreover, it’s possible to argue that such cultural shifts can produce social or political ones—as, for example, a generation of comic fans grows up rooting for a super-powered, socially responsible, Ku Klux Klan-fighting African prince, the concept of Black Power moves from an abstraction or a potential division to, ideally, a shared and obvious part of our world. Sounds pretty super-heroic to me.
Last SuperheroStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other superhero contexts or analyses you’d share?