9 key moments in the Black Panther's 50-year evolution
How the first Black superhero helped break down race and gender barriers in comics
Starring Chadwick Boseman as the Black Panther and directed by Ryan Coogler (Creed), it's the first film in the Marvel Universe to feature majority Black actors, be helmed by a Black director and be set in a (fictional) African country. Not since Wesley Snipes' Blade has a Black superhero been given such a red-carpet treatment.
In fact, Snipes recently revealed that he tried, unsuccessfully, to get a Black Panther picture off the ground in the '90s.
"I think Black Panther spoke to me because he was noble, and he was the antithesis of the stereotypes presented and portrayed about Africans, African history and the great kingdoms of Africa," he told the Hollywood Reporter. "It had cultural significance, social significance. It was something that the Black community and the white community hadn't seen before."
While Blade, released in 1998, ended up being the first hit film based on a Marvel character. Black Panther is on track to be another runaway success, both financially and in its cultural significance. Just take a look at the hashtag #whatdoesblackpanthermeantome, which shows zealous fans remarking on the significance of seeing positive Black representation on the big screen (everybody owes it to themselves to watch this particularly joyous reaction).
But it was a long road to get here. Below, we trace the key moments in the history of the Black Panther.
The Coal Tiger
Marvel founder Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby are credited with first coming up with the idea for Black Panther in the mid-'60s, although Kirby's original design and what we see today are drastically different. In fact, even the name was different during the conceptual stage, with Kirby originally calling the hero Coal Tiger.
The Coal Tiger was a regal, albeit old fashioned-looking hero with no mask, complete with a bright yellow jumper and matching boots overtop black tights. Thankfully, this version never made it to print and only exists as a conceptual sketch, seen here.
"I came up with the Black Panther because I realized I had no Blacks in my strip," Kirby said in an interview, highlighting the fact that even during the civil rights era — a time when Black musicians saw unprecedented crossover success — Black representation was still a huge blind spot in comics. "It suddenly dawned on me — believe me, it was for human reasons — I suddenly discovered nobody was doing Blacks. And here I am a leading cartoonist and I wasn't doing a Black."
The Black Panther vs. the Black Panther party
The Black Panther made his official comic book debut in the Fantastic Four, Vol. 1 No. 52 in July 1966, which is the same year the Black Panther party was founded (though some months later). While the comic book and party were not affiliated, they both tapped into the social consciousness of the day, especially in light of recent events such as Malcolm X's assassination and the Watts riots in California. Despite being across the country from each other — Marvel in New York's garment district, the Black Panther founding members in Oakland, Calif. — the comic and the party became intertwined. They both served the need to represent Black Americans, with Marvel choosing to do so by introducing the character of T'Challa, the leader of a fictional country called Wakanda.
"At that point I felt we really needed a Black superhero," Lee told the Huffington Post in 2016. "And I wanted to get away from a common perception. So what I did, I made him almost like [Fantastic Four's] Reed Richards. He's a brilliant scientist and he lives in an area that, under the ground, is very modern and scientific and nobody suspects it because on the surface it's just thatched huts with ordinary 'natives.' And he's not letting the world know what's really going on or how brilliant they really are."
An African utopia
To Lee's point, Wakanda is an African country that was never colonized, due in part to its advanced technology that allowed Wakandans to hide their country from the rest of the world. This idea of an African utopia remained throughout the comic book's history, echoed in the rallying cry "Wakanda forever" from the 2018 film, one that has since been embraced by the film's stars.
From his first appearance, readers were introduced to the Black Panther as both a superhero and the leader of a nation that was technologically superior to the U.S. due to its wealth of vibranium, the fictional metal that is used to construct both Black Panther's suit and Captain America's shield. These are all important factors to the Black Panther's backstory that have remained consistent to this day, even as the Black Panther storylines, over the decades, became more American-focused.
"T'Challa — the Black Panther and mythical ruler of Wakanda — has always struck as the product of the Black nationalist dream, a walking revocation of white supremacist myth," Ta-Nehisi Coates, the Atlantic journalist and author who helmed the 2015 Black Panther comic, wrote at the time.
The first Black superhero
The Black Panther was originally drawn with a cape and open cowl, similar to Batman, which also showed his skin colour. However, Kirby ultimately redesigned his costume, darkening his suit and introducing a full face mask, a look that has remained more or less consistent throughout the character's history. You can see both versions of the cover below.
Even though it was apparent to readers that the character was Black — the Black Panther removes his mask within the pages of his first appearance in Fantastic Four — it wasn't until 1968 that you would see the colour of T'Challa's skin on the cover of a comic book: when the Black Panther appeared in issue No. 52 of The Avengers in a cowl (a partial mask that showed his jaw). This was important because the Black Panther was, in fact, the first Black superhero to appear in a mainstream comic book, predating other mainstream Black heroes, such as the Falcon (1969), Luke Cage (1972) and John Stewart as the Green Lantern (1971). The cowl was short lived, however, and the Black Panther soon returned to his more traditional full-coverage costume.
The Black Leopard
Over time, Marvel got weary about being so closely associated by name with the Black Panther Party, so they changed their superhero's name. It didn't go over well.
Beginning in Fantastic Four No. 119 (February 1972), the Black Panther briefly tried using the name Black Leopard, explaining it with an awkward bit of dialogue within that same issue. While commenting on the name's "political connotations" in the U.S., T'Challa is careful to say, "I neither condemn nor condone those who have taken up the name — but T'Challa is a law unto himself." It's a speech that sounds like it was taken straight from a Marvel press release, written with such hair-splitting caution as to not offend either side while still distancing the character from the political group.
Readers were not fans of the change, and the renaming didn't last long. Neither "the readers nor the creators cared for the new name," Lee told Alter Ego magazine in 2011.
And while Marvel shied away from the politicization of the Black Panther name, many of the superhero's more popular storylines were in fact very political. In the same issue where the Black Leopard name is introduced, T'Challa travels to the fictional country of Rudyarda, a thinly veiled stand in for apartheid-era South Africa. Even the country's name is based on famous British colonial writer Rudyard Kipling, author of, among other things, "the White Man's Burden." In one of the final scenes from this issue, the Thing even smashes through segregated doors before leaving the country in a heavy-handed metaphor for the politics of the day. The Black Panther name may have been too political for Marvel, but the issues of the day certainly weren't.
'Wakandans stop being refugees from a Tarzan movie'
Fast forward one year to 1973, and the Black Panther officially stars in his own run of solo books as part of the uncomfortably named Jungle Action series.
The Black Panther's run in Jungle Action ran from September 1973 to November 1976 and was critically acclaimed, even pioneering a format that's the norm today: a self-contained, multi-issue story, a.k.a. the graphic novel. Called Panther's Rage and penned by Don McGregor, it was conceived as a complete novel told over 13 issues and introduced the antagonist Killmonger, a key character played by Michael B. Jordan in the film.
McGregor was encouraged by Marvel to include more white characters, so in January 1976, he did just that — though perhaps not in the way his editors had in mind — by facing the Black Panther off against the Ku Klux Klan. Captain America may have famously punched Adolph Hitler, but he never drop kicked a member of the Klan in the face quite like the Black Panther.
Over 20-odd years, McGregor would introduce other extended Panther storylines (Panther's Prey; Panther's Quest) that helped develop the backstory of Wakanda and T'Challa's character in much more depth. Readers learned more about T'Challa's strength as a leader of an advanced nation, and how he deals with the constant threat from both imperialist and interior forces.
"These stories are where Wakandans stop being refugees from a Tarzan movie," writer Evan Narcisse so aptly points out.
The Black Panther becomes cool, with some help from Chandler Bing
Following an unsuccessful solo run penned by Kirby, sales and interest in the Black Panther character waned during the '80s. Storylines became more cliché, adding very little to make the character stand out from other Marvel superheroes. Then, in the '90s, Christopher Priest took up the mantle and reinvigorated the character completely.
"[Priest] had the classic run on Black Panther, period, and that's gonna be true for a long time," Coates told New York magazine for a profile on Priest titled, "The Man who Made Black Panther Cool."
As such, Priest's run also introduced some fairly major changes to T'Challa's costume, with gold accents around his neck, wrists and waist, plus the return of his cape, giving the character his most regal look yet. Priest, more than anyone before him, focused on T'Challa as a king, so the superhero was going to look the part.
It's important to note that Priest was the first Black editor/writer to be hired by either of the big two comic brands, Marvel and DC. After some ups and downs, including leaving Marvel for DC, Priest was offered Black Panther in 1998. This was the beginning of a trend that saw many prominent Black artists take the lead on the Black Panther.
"I was a little horrified when the words 'Black' and 'Panther' came out of Joe's mouth," Priest later wrote. "I mean, Black Panther? Who reads Black Panther?"
Needless to say, Black Panther's history did not inspire Priest — "His supporting cast was a bunch of soul brothers in diapers with bones through their noses," Priest wrote — but he was eventually convinced to take the job, provided one detail: he wanted to create a white protagonist. In Priest's own words: "go to the wells of snarkdom, for the snarkiest snark I was capable of. Social politics as interpreted by Richard Belzer, Dennis Leary or Dennis Miller."
Inspired by an episode of Friends (yes, that Friends), Priest created a character based on Chandler Bing. Everett K. Ross was a paranoid, incompetent government employee tasked as a diplomatic escort for T'Challa, who was portrayed as a superlative statesman by day and merciless vigilante by night. The Black Panther series morphed into a mix of political thriller, satire and traditional superhero story, told through the sarcastic point of view of Ross, with an emphasis on T'Challa's cunning wit, strength and sense of justice.
"This was how the book achieved its small cult following," Priest writes.
To Priest, T'Challa wasn't simply a superhero, and the Black Panther was more than just a superhero title.
"People had not put as much thought into who and what Black Panther was before Christopher started writing the book," Coates says in that same New York magazine interview. "He thought that Black Panther was a king."
The formula worked, and Priest's run lasted for 62 issues, becoming the defining interpretation of the character.
Introducing women warriors
In line with his expansion of the Wakandan universe, Priest also introduced another major cast of characters to the Black Panther universe — the Dora Milaje, T'Challa's fierce and all-female personal bodyguards. They are some of the deadliest women in the Marvel universe, but in Priest's initial run, they were also depicted as ceremonial "wives in training," an idea that has not aged well.
Based on Tyra Banks and Naomi Campbell, the Dora Milaje were, at least in the early days, often depicted as femme fatales in short skirts and high heels. Thankfully the movie jettisons that aspect of the Dora Milaje background, focusing instead on the women's efficiency as warriors and, even more so, as key characters to the development of the story.
"I think the presentation of women is both fierce and very much feminine," Danai Gurira, who plays the head of the Dora Milaje, Okoye, in the film, tells q. "I loved the way the women were shown being people that reach their fullest potential and live in it with a fearlessness and don't lose any part of being women. The myth is that's what happens, or women have to disguise their strength and I love that this is a world where that is just not the case."
In the 2000s, Reginald Hudlin, a writer, director and producer (his breakout film was 1990's House Party with rappers Kid 'n Play), focused on Black Panther's "street cred," drawing inspiration from Batman, Spike Lee and P Diddy. One key development from Hudlin was the creation of Shuri, T'Challa's younger sister and a tech genius who is played by Letitia Wright in the film. In the comics, she even replaces T'Challa for a time as the Black Panther and ruler of Wakanda.
This era emphasized, above all, the power and agency of the women in the Panther universe, a theme expanded on even more in the books to follow and film. Hudlin's run was also used as the basis for an excellent animated series, which ran on BET.
The extended Black Panther universe
When Coates picked up the mantle in 2016, he expanded on what Priest and Hudlin had built, but also subverted readers' expectations of the character to that point. In an interview, Coates describes fans needing T'Challa to be like Denzel Washington— "He's supposed to be smooth and effortlessly do x, y, and z." — but for Coates, it was also important to show T'Challa as flawed. "You got Denzel ... [but in] that movie where he's a drunken pilot."
Coates also focused the action back on Wakanda, questioning the very systems that held the otherwise utopian country together. Under Coates, women were made more and more crucial to the overall story, focusing more on their actual lives rather than how their characters relate to T'Challa.
Coates even ventured to develop the Panther universe in more depth with a spin-off, World of Wakanda, written with Roxane Gay (author of Bad Feminist, Hunger) and Yona Harvey, the first two Black women to write a series for Marvel. One storyline focused on the romance between Ayo and Anneka, two women who are also the driving forces to a Dora Milaje-led resistance that results in a civil war.
World of Wakanda, however, was cancelled after six issues. Even with a best-selling author and National Book Award winner, perhaps even that was too much for the traditional comic book-buying public. The series was cancelled due to poor sales, with Marvel Studios' vice president even commenting at one point that "people didn't want any more diversity."
Although with 2018's Black Panther already breaking box-office records, this theory has been proven wrong. For a character that was, at its core, created in order to the reflect the times and to combat discrimination, it's a fitting next chapter for the Black Panther.