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How the Black Panther’ Took Over Hollywood

If you’ve been to a movie theater at any point in the past 20 years, there is a steep statistical probability that you have been exposed in some way to one of the 10 films in Marvel Comics’ X-Men franchise (and if you haven’t, don’t worry—another three are on the way by the end of next year). The series’ mythos is well-established in the public imagination, its group of titular misfits shunned by society in an easy-to-digest, civil rights-era parable of tolerance.

Three years after their first appearance in 1963, however, Marvel moved beyond the allegorical and introduced its first black superhero in the Black Panther. And if you’ve been on the internet at any point over the past 12 months, you’ve likely noticed the intensifying hype around that hero’s upcoming film, the 18th in Marvel Studios’ endless procession of world-beating blockbusters. With a nostalgist in the White House who seems to relish sticking his finger in the country’s open wound of racial grievance, it’s easy to understand why a big-budget, black-directed superhero film featuring an almost entirely black cast would be cause for celebration. But its appeal doesn’t lie solely in backlash. Black Panther may have never sold as many copies as Spider-Man or The Incredible Hulk, but the series’ history and politics are as rich and unique as either, if not more so—and they explain how this moment helped poise a formerly second-string hero to shatter box-office records.

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The Panther first appeared in July 1966, in the pages of Marvel’s tent-pole Fantastic Four series. The Fantastic Four, like the Panther, were the creation of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the Romulus and Remus of Marvel’s creation myth, who with their Cleaver-esque squareness embodied the gee-whiz, jet-age ethos of the comic book world at the time. Lee and Kirby—both of them white men—played off that sharply occidental viewpoint in their introduction of the Black Panther, in which the Four travel to his African kingdom, in a regrettable yet revealing turn of phrase, “a Tarzan movie,” and instead find a futuristic enclave hidden deep in the jungle.

That enclave was Wakanda, a fictional nation in East Africa that had eluded the colonization that ravaged its neighbors. In Lee and Kirby’s telling, Wakanda developed into a hidden techno-utopia by jealously hoarding its supply of vibranium, a fictional mineral that among other things serves as the prime component of Captain America’s unbreakable shield. Wakanda is portrayed in those first issues as a mixture of exoticist tropes and high futurism, an African nation that, free from the depredations of colonial rule, was able to develop into the rival, and likely superior, of any Western power while retaining its African culture and traditions.

Lee has claimed that he created the character because during the civil rights era he saw a need for black superheroes; previously, black people in mainstream comics had been consigned to supporting roles. Although, as with many of their famous co-creations, his exact authorship of the character is disputed in proportion to that of the more politically outspoken Kirby, the impact it had was undeniable, as journalist, historian and current Black Panther writer Ta-Nehisi Coates described in an interview with NPR:

“I don’t think people should lose sight of what it meant to create an African, a black superhero in the 1960s,” Coates said. “It happens within the midst of the civil rights movement, but I think if you search pop culture at that particular time for somebody like the Black Panther, you would come up really short. If you compare it to other areas of other pop culture, Marvel was probably pretty much ahead.”

In the character’s early years, his political significance was mostly symbolic, rarely touching directly on real-world issues (an exception being a 1971 one-off in which the Panther and the Fantastic Four fight a thinly veiled stand-in for the South African apartheid regime—the former under the name Black Leopard so as to avoid confusion, in the character’s own words, with the Black Panther Party). He made guest appearances in popular series, joining the Avengers for a time, but didn’t truly come into his own until writer and editor Don McGregor expanded on the mythology of Wakanda in the epic “Panther’s Rage” arc that began in a 1973 edition of the unfortunately named Jungle Action anthology. What had previously been an indelible but thinly sketched vision of an African sci-fi fantasia became under McGregor’s pen—and the pencils of those including pioneering black artist Billy Graham—a fully fleshed-out world unlike anything else in comics, replete with its own political, cultural and spiritual lore and populated by complex characters.

The world of “Panther’s Rage” was intellectually robust by the standards of any contemporaneous superhero comic, but for black characters to be portrayed with such depth and diversity of experience was groundbreaking, as the late writer-producer Dwayne McDuffie wrote of his experience reading it:

“The Black Panther was nobody’s sidekick and if there was any rescuing to do, he’d take care of it himself, thank you,” McDuffie wrote in 2010 on his now-defunct website. “Moreover, the Black Panther was king of a mythical African country where black people were visible in every position in society, soldier, doctor, philosopher, street sweeper, ambassador—suddenly everything was possible. In the space of 15 pages, black people moved from invisible to inevitable.”

McDuffie compared the Black Panther favorably to characters like Luke Cage, a blaxploitation-inspired hero of the early ’70s who occupied a stereotypically scummy New York City. Although the character has deepened in the intervening decades, recently starring in a Netflix series of his own, McDuffie wrote that he couldn’t relate to aspects of the book like the “bizarre version of ‘street slang’” that was penned for Cage’s dialogue by (white) writer Archie Goodwin.

The Black Panther of the era was singular for its time, an Afrocentric mythology created from whole cloth that equaled that of long-standing white characters like Thor. But unlike Thor, the Black Panther was often explicitly political. Under McGregor’s authorship, the character tackled issues from American white supremacy to crack cocaine while maintaining the integrity of the fictional world he had created. An entire arc traced the Panther’s crusade against the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia, the home state of his African-American girlfriend Monica Lynne. The Panther, investigating the murder of Lynne’s sister, discovers a nefarious Klan-led plot, and stark illustrations of the Panther freeing himself from burning crosses and thumping white-hooded thugs gave the book a jarringly topical edge while it remained grounded in a story of family and loss.

McGregor relinquished the pen in the early ’90s, and the character floated in stasis for several years until taken up in a critically acclaimed 1998 series by Christopher Priest. Priest, a polymathic writer, musician and minister whose history with Marvel stretched back to the ’70s and included a stint as mainstream comics’ first black editor, built on the scaffolding put in place by McGregor over the preceding decades, and Coates has repeatedly cited his run as an inspiration for his current work with the character. He established the Panther as a major power player in the Marvel universe, a Batman-esque mastermind always several chess moves ahead of even his allies. His Panther was a statesman both at home and abroad; Priest’s genius was in expanding the character’s footprint while deepening the Wakandan mythology and spinning a uniquely Afrocentric political thriller.

The cultural critic Mark Dery coined the term “Afrofuturism” in a 1993 essay, referring to the loosely defined common characteristics of black science fiction in art spanning from Sun Ra’s experimental jazz to the novels of Octavia Butler. Author and UCLA professor Tananarive Due recently described its unique function in the African diaspora as a “reimagining of race, racial constructs, history … and liberation themes, through what we call a speculative lens.” Black Panther, both the comic series and the film, falls squarely on this continuum, as has been noted in several features leading up to the movie’s release. Due, on a recent podcast appearance, discussed Afro-futurism’s galvanizing effect in providing representations of black “power, technological prowess, courage, family [and] community.”

The upcoming film is the most prominent example of the phenomenon thus far, directed and co-written by Fruitvale Station and Creed auteur Ryan Coogler with the full production and marketing strength of the Disney-industrial complex behind him. It pits the Panther, portrayed by Chadwick Boseman, against Erik Killmonger (portrayed by frequent Coogler collaborator Michael B. Jordan), an American rival and mercenary who aims to usurp his throne and foment a global revolution. Killmonger, a creation of McGregor’s from the “Panther’s Rage” arc, was a Wakandan in his telling, but Coogler described in a recent Washington Post interview how he along with co-writer Joe Robert Cole and Jordan crafted the character to reflect a uniquely African-American perspective.

The film, then, doesn’t shy away from the comic’s political undertones, as Vann Newkirk in The Atlantic deftly draws out in an essay that connects the anti-colonial spirit of Wakanda to pan-African icons like Haile Selassie and Marcus Garvey. Lee and Kirby’s germ of an idea—a highly advanced African world power, so counterintuitive to their Eurocentric, Cold War-era point of view—developed in the hands of artists like McGregor, Priest and Coates into a robust and sui generis Afrocentric mythology. World-building contributions from writers like Roxane Gay and Evan Narcisse are currently fleshing out that mythology in companion series, in ways by which Dwayne McDuffie, who found the isolated stereotype of Luke Cage so demoralizing, likely would have been thrilled.

To understand the resonance of Black Panther in this moment it’s perhaps effective to compare it to another politically charged “event” film, Paul Feig’s 2016 Ghostbusters reboot. The Ghostbusters franchise, while massively popular, bore no sociopolitical significance, unless you count William Atherton’s unflattering portrayal of an EPA busybody who forces the crew to release its ghosts back into the air. Feig’s seemingly innocuous decision to reinvent the four male leads as women opened a nasty rift in internet nerd culture, for lack of a better term, with a largely male fan base complaining of the intrusion of “identity politics” into what they had presumed their exclusive domain. Much of the media picked up that ball and ran with it, positioning the film as a timely girl-power extravaganza during the first female-led presidential campaign, but much like that campaign it failed to galvanize the public, ending up a relative box office dud.

But where the Ghostbusters reboot failed to develop an organic groundswell, Black Panther already carries decades of political and social significance as a franchise. The character is relatively new to those who aren’t comic-book junkies, but from his first appearance in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War it became clear that the release of this year’s film would be, as Carvell Wallace described in a beautiful New York Times Magazine essay, “a defining moment for black America.” Superhero films starring black actors like Wesley Snipes’ Blade and Will Smith’s Hancock, along with several others, have been lauded in their own right, but Wallace describes their heroes’ race as “incidental” in contrast to Black Panther’s being “steeped very specifically and purposefully in its blackness.”

And in a rebuttal of stodgy industry heads and skeptics who might have doubted the salability of an unapologetically Afrocentric blockbuster, Black Panther seems poised to follow in those films’ footsteps and then some. Relentless social media buzz and an inescapable marketing campaign that even saw Kendrick Lamar revive the once-thought-dead soundtrack tie-in has put the film on track for a $165 million opening weekend, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

The better part of the past decade has been dominated by a debate over the worthiness of black lives, and the extent to which the sitting president is a racist is debated almost daily by news outlets that previously would have considered using the label unthinkable. It doesn’t take a genius like the Panther himself to see why black audiences have tipped this film from a run-of-the-mill superhero blockbuster to a bona-fide social event. Where some see the hope, optimism and wonder that UCLA professor Due described in Afrofuturist art in short supply, Black Panther’s story was almost ready-made to provide it to the massive audience it’s set to enjoy this weekend.

 

Source: Derek Robertson || Politico

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