(This is essentially a copy of a final paper I wrote for my History 295 class. It’s written hella formal and is also around 3600 words. If you are one of those TL;DR people there will be a link added to this disclaimer at a later time that will more or less be an excerpt to this paper.)
Superhero comics have an interesting history of being intimately intertwined with pop culture while also being infamous as entertainment strictly for socially awkward boys to escape reality. Over time the genre has been critiqued and analyzed by several authors, scholars, and activists that reiterate the significance of comics and its relation to pop culture, as well as whether or not comics have any influence on society outside of their fictional universe.[i] Among that conversation is the issue of diversity since characters depicted in these stories were almost exclusively white male superheroes. This does not suggest that there was never an audience for more diverse characters but, instead, that those stories were never told until characters were created that broke down those barriers and invited a more diverse audience into the world of comics. One of the biggest pioneers within mainstream superhero comics for racial diversity is the character T’challa, otherwise known as the hero Black Panther. He was the first mainstream black superhero: overcoming the more common role of the sidekick, comic relief, or other supporting roles. To understand the significance of this character’s role in diversifying comics it is important to understand how racial and socioeconomic issues were portrayed in the era of Black Panther, what that character represents, and how comics have progressed since his first appearance in July of 1966.[ii]
As comics entered the mainstream audience during the 1940s and 1950s, criticisms of the genre quickly followed. One of the most popular criticisms of the genre is Frantz Fanon’s Black Faces, White Masks where he addressed social and psychological effects of oppression on black people. For comics, he argued that the overall lack of representation combined with society’s cultural representation of black characters as villains caused psychological trauma in the minds of black children who absorbed that information. Martin Barker and other authors have counteracted these arguments by suggesting that comics exist exclusively within the fictional universe that they’re created in. In ‘Black Skins’ and White Masks: Comic Books and the Secret of Race, Marc Singer addresses both of these criticisms and concludes that comics exist between the two extremes citing Chameleon Boy from DC’s series Legion of Superheroes. In this series there are characters that were created to represent black people but were replaced by either alien creatures or shapeshifters. An example was also used from the series Kid Quantum. Chameleon Boy and Kid Quantum were shape-shifters whose races were discriminated against on their home planets. Singer argues that writing black characters as shape-shifters removes the significance of their race because they can shapeshift into any race. He continues by pointing out that these characters were advanced with the backstory of that hatred and discrimination even when that discrimination had no significance to the planet they currently lived. [iii]
It is explicit from these examples that comics have interacted in worlds outside of their own, even if authors tried to hide the conversation in alien superhero characters instead of including black characters. Recently, in 2012, Communication Research published a study done by two Indiana University professors called Racial and Gender Differences in the Relationship Between Children’s Television Use and Self-Esteem: A Longitudinal Panel Study. In this study they examined 396 black and white children over a yearlong period. The research gathered showed that watching television increased the self-esteem among white boys while decreasing the self-esteem for white and black girls, as well as black boys. Though a separate genre from comics, the issues of representation are just as prevalent within other mediums of storytelling. As one of the professors who participated in the study, Nicole Martins states:
“Regardless of what show you’re watching, if you’re a white male, things in life are pretty good for you. You tend to be in positions of power, you have prestigious occupations, high education, glamorous houses, a beautiful wife, with very little portrayals of how hard you worked to get there…If you are a girl or a woman, what you see is that women on television are not given a variety of roles. The roles that they see are pretty simplistic; they’re almost always one-dimensional and focused on the success they have because of how they look, not what they do or what they think or how they got there…Young black boys are getting the opposite message: that there is not lots of good things that you can aspire to. If we think about those kinds of messages, that’s what’s responsible for the impact.”[iv]
This study supports Singer’s arguments as the effects of representation were not as severe as psychological trauma but still had effects on children and their self-esteem. Obviously the conversation for representation and diversity within entertainment has been an ongoing discussion that still continues today. One of the major steps forward in this conversation came with the introduction of the first black superhero during the 1960s.
The 1960s is often romanticized by the old and young alike. Many fantasize about reversing time to live during the time when they are convinced that life was simpler and music was better. This antiquarian view of the 60s often ignores the horrible injustices that faced minorities and women across the nation at the time. Those very injustices created an environment that birthed the civil rights era. African Americans took to the streets to protest and fight for equality, demanding an end to segregation and Jim Crow laws that specifically targeted African Americans. This spirit of self-pride and unity against racism created a cultural shock across America. In this culture of revolutionaries and freedom fighters came a new identity among African Americans. Instead of considering themselves ‘negroes’ or ‘colored’, they had begun to identify with the term ‘black’. The adjective became a symbol for both political consciousness and self-love. As Adilifu Nama states in his book, ‘Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes’, “In 1966 Stokely Carmichael’s call for ‘Black Power’ set in motion a sociocultural shockwave. Negroes were now identified as blacks. Black Radicals advocated the need for ‘black’ institutions. Black was beautiful.” This sociocultural shockwave heavily influenced the creation of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense as well as Black Panther the comic superhero. Nama argues that it was merely a coincidence that the two were formed within three months of each other, citing Black Panther comics during the 1970s that attempted to switch the name of ‘Black Panther’ to ‘Black Tiger’. Instead, he argues that they were both the embodiment of the mindset and ideals of black people and their new sense of identity. Specifically, Black Panther embodied the ideals of anti-colonialization and black independence. [v]
T’challa is both the Black Panther and the ruler of the highly sophisticated nation of Wakanda, a fictional African country that has never been the victim of European colonialization because of their extremely advanced weapons. The Black Panther is a ceremonial title that is given to the chief of the Panther tribe that grants him authority over the other tribes within Wakanda. Though this title is hereditary, it still must be earned and requires future chiefs to be trained from a very young age. Along with that title, the chief is granted a suit of armor made from Vibranium and a plant that must be consumed to enhance the body to its peak potential. Vibranium is a rare, fictional metal buried underneath the land in Wakanda. It is more commonly identified as the nearly indestructible alien metal used to make Captain America’s shield. The existence of this metal is essential to Wakanda and the Black Panther. For centuries Wakandans have mined Vibranium and sold small amounts to countries across the globe for extremely high prices. On those small exports alone, Vibranium makes Wakanda the richest nation in the world. In addition to this, the people of Wakanda are extremely intelligent and have created a society that fuses African tradition with advanced scientific technology. T’challa’s first appearance in Fantastic Four shows the African prince using this technology to test the skills of the Fantastic Four.
This depiction of Wakanda flipped the stereotypical narrative that African countries were primitive rural areas that constantly engaged in tribal warfare. T’challa’s character also contradicts the idea that Africans are primitive and dependent upon others. As a hero, he has the ability of enhanced strength, speed, and senses almost to the point of having superpowers. He has also mastered almost every martial art known to man, is extremely talented in stealth, and possesses the ability to memorize the scent of approximately one thousand people. But T’challa is not merely a powerful warrior, he is also a genius engineer and innovator who is ranked among the top ten most intelligent people within the Marvel Universe. These abilities and strengths mold the Black Panther into the symbolic representation of an ideal black revolutionary. [vi]
T’challa got his first starring role within the ironically titled, Jungle Action, started in 1972. Instead of taking place in the jungles of Africa, the series takes place in the Deep South of the United States and features Black Panther fighting off the Ku Klux Klan. Though the comic awkwardly handles the issue of American racism and hatred, it is an obvious attempt at addressing the racial and socioeconomic struggles of the black community during the Jim Crow era.
The 1970s featured several other attempts at addressing racism and classism, including DC’s Green Lantern co-starring Green Arrow where Green Lantern personified the ideals of older conservative ideals and Green Arrow personified the ideals of liberals and people of a lower socioeconomic class. In this comic, issues of racism are brought up when an older man stops Green Lantern and asked him why he does so much for races that exist on different planets and universes but does nothing for the black man. In Heroes for Hire, the black superhero Luke Cage is wrongly convicted for a crime and is tortured by one of the white guards within his prison cell. He is offered the chance to participate in a regeneration experiment and takes the offer in the hopes that it will increase his chance at receiving parole bond. During this experiment, Cage has a physical mutation that gives him super strength, steel-like skin, and an accelerated rate of regeneration. He used this newfound power to escape from prison instead of suffering further experiments and torture that would come to test the limits of his power. The origin of his character speaks to the issues of racial discrimination, mass incarceration, and scientific experimentation on black bodies. Unfortunately, the Luke Cage comics during the 1970s took heavy influence from Blaxploitation films and created an unrealistic character who embodies harmful tropes and stereotypes of black men. There is, however, an obvious connection between the comic universe and the real universe where we exist. Though often poorly executed, these early comics starring black superheroes are an obvious step forward towards inclusion and accurate representation for the genre of black superhero comics. [vii]
There has been a fair amount of progress made in the fifty years since the creation of Black Panther. Marvel’s The All-New, All-Different Avengers is a testament to that. This new Avengers team features the black superhero Falcon taking the place of Captain America, a female Thor, Miles Morales: a Spider-man of Latino and African American descent, and the Pakistanian heroine Ms. Marvel.[viii] In contrast to the white-dominated industry in the early 60s, Ms. Marvel’s solo series, Ms Marvel, is currently Marvel’s top selling digital comic.[ix] The success of this series is a result of the authentic and interesting story-telling of a woman who shares cultural similarities to the fictional protagonist. It is also further proof that there is a market for non-white characters within the comic world. As more diverse characters are written, criticisms have become less about including non-white protagonists but representing them correctly. Comic author Jeremy Whitley comments on this in an interview with the blog site: Black Girl Nerds. “It’s been my experience that the majority of people in comics know very little about black hair and that often Misty ends up with some pretty strange hairdos (there’s a whole run of Heroes For Hire where she has a large afro and straight bangs and I know people who stopped buying the book just for that,” Whitley states when mentioning the importance of writing realistic characters true to their cultural backgrounds.[x] Fans have obviously shown their disapproval for poor representation and have done the same against the racial disparity within the industry. Though there has been a more racially diverse cast of heroes, there is also a lack of diversity among the writers of these stories. Recently, Marvel attempted to fuse the hip hop universe with the superhero universe by doing alternate covers for several of their series that take from the imagery of iconic hip hop albums and change them by replacing the artist with their comic character.[xi] This crossover of Hip-Hop and superheroes was perceived as patronizing and a form of cultural appropriation by some fans. When asked by an anonymous fan why Marvel finds it appropriate to use imagery from black culture while there wasn’t a single back writer or artist announced for new Marvel titles, Marvel editor Tom Brevoort responded by saying: “What does one have to do with the other, really?” [xii] Brevoort later apologized for making hasty comments, but the interaction shows an obvious disconnect between the publishers and employees within the industry and the criticisms of those concerned about racial discrimination.[xiii] Later that year, Marvel announced that Ta-Nehisi Coates would be the author for the 2016 series of Black Panther. [xiv]
The announcement of Ta-Nehisi Coates as the author of the current run of the Black Panther comics was a felicitous and timely decision by Marvel. Coates is the well-known and admired writer for the Atlantic who has invested many years in writing about racism, anti-blackness, socioeconomic issues, and political issues.[xv] It is difficult to imagine a more appropriate choice for a character who was created to embody the characteristics as black revolutionaries and anti-colonialism. Within the first issue of Black Panther, there is a lesbian relationship formed between two major characters within the story.[xvi] Coates emphasizes the importance of conscious-thinking in regards to the portrayal of queer female characters in an interview with Vice:
“There’s an angle dealing with, for lack of better words, feminist issues in the book. I wanted to take great, great care with the depiction of the bodies of women because of where the storyline is going. I didn’t want to have women at the center of the story, to have them partially leading it, and then have the depiction be, how shall we say, problematic…I just wanted to make sure we were depicting folks the way they should be. Not just in images but even in my own writing. We have this kiss between two women in the first issue, and I wrote to Brian: “It shouldn’t be like softcore porn. It should be tender. It should be beautiful. It should be human.” There’ll be a bunch of dudes reading the book from the dude gaze, like, “Oh, it’s two women kissing!” and that was really the thing we had to talk about: how it would look to the women as opposed to how it would look to us.”[xvii]
While Marvel may have an issue with diversity in terms of who they employ, it is obvious that the issues of representation and diversity are now conscious thoughts of writers and publishers within the industry. Just as the industry had positives and negatives in their writing of early comics starring superheroes of color, there are positives and negatives in their representation of them today. Marvel has attempted to address the issue of inaccurately written characters by giving characters to writers that share cultural backgrounds to their characters. Some examples of these include: hiring Muslim author G. Willow Wilson to write Ms Marvel, hiring feminist comic author Kelly Sue to write Captain Marvel, and hiring Ta-Nehisi Coates to write Black Panther. These efforts, though not secluded to racial diversity, show that those issues are connected and reinforce the significance of accurately representing minority groups within their stories. As stated by Coates himself, the issue of representation is also an issue of writing better stories.[xviii] The introduction of heroes of color to the mainstream superhero comic industry combined with the constant criticisms of the genre have propelled the genre forward and has created an environment for better stories to be told.
Today the comic industry continues to thrive, but have taken a backseat to the portrayal of superheroes in the movie industry. In Hollywood, superheroes are given a new breath and are allowed to reach a much wider audience than their comic counterparts. In 2008, Marvel began to create the Marvel Cinematic Universe that connects several different superhero series and joint films of Marvel characters.[xix] DC followed this plan by creating the DC Extended Universe in 2013. [xx] Within the entirety of both of these universes, there has not been a single black superhero with their own solo film. The few black superheroes that are part of the cast played the role of sidekick. With the announcement of another Spider-man reboot, fans went to the social media website Twitter and got ‘Miles Morales’ trending worldwide.[xxi] Neither Marvel nor Fox responded to the outcry for a black and latino character to replace one of their most iconic characters. Instead, Marvel has picked a different black superhero to introduce to the movie industry. In 2018, T’challa will again become a pioneer for that racial diversity as he will be the first black superhero to star in his own solo film.[xxii] The Black Panther is currently set to make his debut later this year in the movie Captain America: Civil War, marking another celebration for the 50th anniversary of the character.[xxiii] For the solo film Marvel has reached out to black directors. Initially, they presented the script to the highly praised Selma director, Ava DuVernay. She respectfully turned down the opportunity and the role was instead given to Ryan Coogler. He has directed Fruitville Station and Creed, both of which, portray the struggles and culture of black people and has received praise from critics and fans alike. Marvel has taken note of former criticisms and seems to be handling their first black superhero in the MCU seriously. The transition from comic panels to the big screen is another example of how far the stories of superheroes have come, and how far they still have to go. Regardless, the conversation of welcoming a leading black superhero to the MCU exists because of the success of black superheroes in comics. As the first leading mainstream black superhero, Black Panther solidifies himself as the iconic character that revolutionized comics. It only makes sense that he is set to revolutionize superhero movies fifty years after his creation.
(All images belong to their cited publishers)
[i] Marc Singer, “‘Black Skins’ and White Masks: Comic Books and the Secret of Race”. African American Review 36 (1). [Indiana State University, Saint Louis University, African American Review, African American Review (St. Louis University) 2002]: 107-19.
[ii] Adilifu Nama, Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011).
[iii] Singer, Black Skins and White Masks.
[iv] N. Martins and K. Harrison. “Racial and Gender Differences in the Relationship Between Children’s Television Use and Self-Esteem: A Longitudinal Panel Study.” Communication Research 39, no. 3 (March 16, 2011): 338-57. Accessed April 8, 2016. doi:10.1177/0093650211401376.
[v] Nama, Super Black.
[viii] Mark Waid, Adam Kubert, and Mahmud A. Asrar. All New, All Different Avengers. New York: Marvel Comics, 2015.
[ix] G. Willow Wilson, Jacob Wyatt, Adrian Alphona, Ian Herring, Joe Caramagna, Jamie Mckelvie, Matthew Wilson, and Kris Anka. Ms. Marvel. New York: Marvel Comics, 2014.
[x] Jamie Broadnax. “Jeremy Whitley Discusses Why You Should Care About Marvel’s Secret Love.” Black Girl Nerds. August 27, 2015. Accessed April 18, 2016. http://blackgirlnerds.com/misty-knight-and-danny-rands-secret-love/.
[xi] CBR News Team. “Witness the Strength of Every Marvel Hip Hop Cover To Date.” Comic Book Resources. January 21, 2016. Accessed April 19, 2016. http://www.comicbookresources.com/article/look-every-marvel-hip-hop-cover-to-date.
[xii] Tom Brevoort. “Can You Explain Why Marvel Thinks That Doing Hip Hop Variants Is a Good Idea, When Absolutely No Announced Writers or Artists on the New Marvel Titles, as of Now, Are Black? Wouldn’t Correcting the Latter Be a Much Better Idea than the Former?” New Brevoort Formspring. July 15, 2015. Accessed April 18, 2016. http://brevoortformspring.tumblr.com/post/124153395043/can-you-explain-why-marvel-thinks-that-doing-hip.
[xiii] Tom Brevoort. “How Do You Not See the Connection between Appropriating Iconic Black American Imagery the Lack of Black American Representation on Marvel’s Creative Teams?” New Brevoort Formspring. July 15, 2015. Accessed April 18, 2016. http://brevoortformspring.tumblr.com/post/124165794638/how-do-you-not-see-the-connection-between.
[xiv] J.A. Micheline. “Ta-Nehisi Coates on ‘Black Panther’ and Creating a Comic That Reflects the Black Experience | VICE | United States.” VICE. April 5, 2016. Accessed April 18, 2016.
[xvi] Ta-Nehisi Coates. Black Panther. Vol. 1. Marvel Comics, 2016.
[xvii] Micheline, “Ta-Nehisi Coates on ‘Black Panther’”.
[xix] “Iron Man (2008) – Box Office Mojo.” Iron Man (2008) – Box Office Mojo. Accessed April 19, 2016. http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=ironman.htm.
[xx] Adam Rogers. “How Marvel Unified Its Movie Universe (and Why That Won’t Be Easy for DC).” Wired.com. August 7, 2013. Accessed April 19, 2016. http://www.wired.com/2013/08/kevin-feige-marvel-dc-movies/.
[xxi] Kelly Lawler. “Twitter Wants a Black Spider-Man ASAP.” USA Today. February 10, 2015. Accessed April 19, 2016. http://www.usatoday.com/story/life/entertainthis/2015/02/10/twitter-wants-a-black-spider-man-asap/77599070/.
[xxii] Marc Storm. “Ryan Coogler to Direct Marvel’s ‘Black Panther'” Iron Man, Spider-Man, Hulk, X-Men, Wolverine and the Heroes of the Marvel Universe.Comics, News, Movies and Video Games. January 11, 2016. Accessed April 19, 2016. http://marvel.com/news/movies/25616/ryan_coogler_to_direct_marvels_black_panther.