Black Panther – The Jack Kirby Years
With The Black Panther rising to prominence in the last few months and due to the hype regarding the excellent film adaptation. I decided to write a series of articles attempting to chart an in-depth look at some of the important periods of the characters life. Starting with the Jack Kirby period. Jack Kirby was, along with Stan Lee, the co-creator of The Black Panther. Together they became the architects of one of the most interesting and unique characters ever created in comic book history. It’s almost impossible to write a concise biography of Jack Kirby, he was involved in the comic book industry for over 50 years and helped define many genres of comic book literature which contained the most popular themes of the day – Romance, Crime, Horror and of course the enduring genre the Superhero narratives.
In Fantastic Four #52 published in 1966, he conceived of the outfit for the Black Panther and along with it, the essence of the character – his personality and even his origin story. This had been a labour of love for Kirby. He had long attempted to bring a sense of diversity to comics. The lack of credible representation for peoples of colour in the medium intensely frustrated both himself and Stan Lee. If anyone of colour was represented it was usually as a form of comic relief or as menial workers.
There were a few black heroic characters which came from publishing firms such as All-Negro Comics – Ace Harlem a street talking homage to Dick Tracy – right down to his yellow overcoat was very popular. Lothar was a 1930’s African heroic character but in his early stories, he was a manservant to Mandrake the Magician. Observing all of this, Kirby and Lee decided to shake things up a little.
Black Panther exploded onto the comic scene and revealed himself as not a sidekick, not a menial labourer or a figure of fun. He was the ruler of a technologically advanced African nation called Wakanda. His name was T’Challa. This was a dynamic reveal and a bold move by the two creators. The character was fresh and spoke to a marginalized audience directly. Comic book historian Peter Sanderson lauds the character as :
“He (The Black Panther) truly began the rise of racial and ethnic diversity that exists in the Marvel Universe today, the debut of the character in 1966 was a landmark in the history of both comics and American popular culture as he was the first Black superhero in mainstream comics.”
One of the most important aspects of the characters origin story is that Africa is not portrayed as a downtrodden nation. Wakanda needs no aid from the major superpowers and almost follows an isolationist political stance. Not only is Wakanda technologically advanced, it is also socially advanced. The unfortunate depiction of members of an African nation being portrayed as having bones through their noses and carrying spears was thankfully coming to an end.
Peter Sanderson also praised the character’s depiction in that respect.
“Moreover, the first Black Panther story arc proudly asserted the character’s background in African culture, or Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s version of it. Once again, Kirby was combining the mythic with the modern: The Black Panther’s Wakanda seemed to be a mixture of traditional African culture with futuristic technology. Like most of American popular culture up to that time, comics had mainly depicted only white people of unspecified ethnicity. In the 1960s Marvel began to change this status quo by introducing characters like Gabe Jones, an African-American, in SGT. FURY, but T’Challa, the Black Panther, was the truly groundbreaking character”
His two-part adventure in the Avengers universe was a success. The Black Panther became a solid ally of The Fantastic Four. He even provided them with advanced gadgetry to help them on their missions. This wasn’t just a Black Superhero with powers and abilities, this was a Black superhero with demonstrable intelligence – an incredible affirmation for the oppressed people of colour throughout America.
Further Adventures in the Marvel Universe
As the Marvel Universe was beginning to expand, The Black Panther found himself in other characters comics, popping up to help save the day and interacting with legends like Captain America. In Tales of Suspense #97 (later renamed to Captain America) Captain America was asked to aid The Black Panther in foiling a plot to overthrow the monarchy of Wakanda. It was during this adventure that T’Challa was offered a place in the Avengers and where Jack Kirby rested his pen and allowed Roy Thomas and John Buscema to take the mighty monarch on more adventures.
When Jack Kirby came back to Marvel, he pursued the possibility of creating a comic title revolving around The Black Panther. It was time for his creation to go solo. In 1977, readers were astounded by the first issue of the Black Panther. Greater backstories were crafted for the hero, more villains are thrown at him, exotic locales and wild technology all combined for a breathtaking 12 issue run. Few ideas from this series have survived. One notable exception is the twin golden frog of Solomon which enabled Time Travel.
Undoubtedly, the influence of Jack Kirby still exists within the character today. Brian Stelfreeze – one of the artists who work on the contemporary adventure of The Black Panther stated that :
“I believe Jack Kirby’s work is the greatest triumph of form and function in synchronicity. He designed his workflow for brevity but in doing so created a fantastic style. He blurred the line between illustration and graphic design to create iconographic and magisterial characters. Jack Kirby taught me how to draw power, and I always review his work when I need to recharge my batteries”