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'Black Panther' Superhero Mirrors America's Struggle on Race


(Photo: Marvel)

(Photo: Marvel)

By Patrick Hamilton, Ph.D., and Allan Austin, Ph.D. C Misericordia University

Comics\’ first black superhero C Marvel\’s Black Panther C is undergoing a bit of a renaissance this spring. The character, played by Chadwick Boseman, will soon join the Marvel Cinematic Universe, debuting in May\’s \”Captain America: Civil War\’\’ before headlining his own film scheduled for release in 2018.

National Book Award-winner and MacArthur \”Genius Grant\” recipient Ta-Nehisi Coates will write a brand new Black Panther series with artist Brian Stelfreeze. The Atlantic, currently on the internet and in its April 2016 issue, features a unique preview and interview with Coates regarding the series.

This sudden ascendancy aside, Black Panther\’s history in comics has more often been an indication of the limits impinging black identity in the U.S. He and Wakanda, the fictional African nation he rules, first appeared in \”Fantastic Four\” #52 (July, 1966), but evoked the stereotype of the \”noble savage,\” juxtaposing wondrous technology and primitive stereotypes. In \”Avengers\” #52 (May, 1968), Black Panther joined Marvel\’s Avengers, but kept his identity as a black man hidden in the general public from the Marvel Universe until issue #73.

But perhaps most evocative of those limits was a guest appearance in \”Fantastic Four\” #119 (February, 1972), where he leaps into battle suddenly calling himself \”The Black Leopard!\” As he explains, he\’s eschewed his former title due to the \”political connotations\” that the name Black Panther now carries within the U.S. Though he claims to \”neither condemn nor condone\” the actions from the Black Panther organization, his writers felt behooved to tread carefully and draw a clear line between their hero and the nationalist group, along with the black identity they asserted.

The Black Panther\’s and the creators\’ decisions to play it safe politically resulted quite naturally from the corporate good reputation for Marvel. The organization had struggled to locate its footing in an industry long covered with DC Comics, which, after The second world war, insulated its heroes from Red Scare crusaders by concentrating on fantastical stories that avoided controversial topics like race.

Marvel challenged DC\’s conservative approach in early 1960s, grounding its revived superhero tales more concretely in pressing social issues like the continuing power American racism. While Marvel\’s efforts were far from perfect C it looked at race intermittently and relied on stereotypes too often C writers like Stan Lee and artists including Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko presented stories that at least occasionally promoted a liberal, multicultural agenda.

But Marvel\’s engagement with social justice had limits. Lee addressed contentious subjects in non-controversial ways, always ensuring his fare did not offend with too radical a note and thus could sell without controversy. His strategy mirrored broader social trends that encouraged \”safe\” conversations about race that will not offend mainstream Americans.

Flash forward almost half a century, and that we see that these same issues still inhibit black expression. The Black Lives Matters movement, for instance, began on the straight-forward enough note: American society must acknowledge and address continuing violence against African Americans. A backlash was immediate, with the competing All Lives Matter movement arising to limit the conversation; its suggestion that all lives are the same in 21st century America ignores disparate lived experiences created by race.

Similarly, it\’s interesting to notice the hub-bub brought on by Beyonce\’s recent nod to the Black Panthers during her Super Bowl half-time show. One imagines that the tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr. C an appropriate subject for that mainstream C would not have generated the same kind of backlash. Again, we seem willing to address race, but only on terms which are \”safe\” and thus don\’t challenge those who are in capacity to really listen to the grievances of those who are not.

These examples suggest the continued need for a genuine and open national conversation about race. In the late 1990s, writer Christopher Priest and artist Mark Texeira presented a more political Black Panther series that grounded the hero inside a racialized society, and also the inclusion of Everett K. Ross, the series\’ point-of-view character, in \”Civil War\” suggests the film character\’s potential basis within this version. And something supposes that Coates\’ Panther will hew more closely for this approach than to the Marvel type of \”safe\” liberalism in the 1960s.

In any case, the Black Panther\’s vexed history mirrors all too well the American struggle with race because the advent of the Civil Rights Movement, and suggests very clearly our requirement for more honest and searching conversations about precisely what has changed because the movement C and just what hasn\’t.


Patrick Hamilton, Ph.D., associate professor of English, and Allan Austin, Ph.D., professor of history and government, at Misericordia University are currently finishing a magazine on race and superheroes since The second world war. Misericordia University may be the oldest four-year institution better education in Luzerne County, and ranks within the top tier of the Best Regional Universities C North category of U.S. News and World Report\’s 2016 edition of Best Colleges and was designated a 2016 Best Northeastern College through the Princeton Review.

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