This weekend, thousands of moviegoers who watched Captain America: Civil War got their first look at one of Marvel’s most historic characters, the Black Panther. A warrior-king from the fictional African nation of Wakanda, the Black Panther is surprisingly similar to Batman. Though he has strength, speed, and senses that are remarkably enhanced by a magical herb, the Panther relies on his intellect, and a slew of futuristic gadgets to overcome issues of super-villainy, as well as diplomacy. Created by the seminal creative duo of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, and The Black Panther is the first Black super hero with meaningful characterization.
Though he will be introduced in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as part of the “Civil War,” the Black Panther is a significant figure in the comics, having been introduced in 1966, just prior to the Black Panther political movement. Readers first met King T’Challa, the Black Panther, in issue #52 of The Fantastic Four, when the mysterious King T’Challa sends technologically advanced gadgets to lure Reed Richards and the Fantastic Four to Wakanda. Reed, never able to turn down looking at shiny, new technology, takes the gang to Africa, where the incredible mechanical jungle that protects Wakanda is revealed.
Though its exact geography has varied, some key facts about the nation of Wakanda have been established. First, and most importantly, Wakanda has never been conquered and has independently developed its own technology, as well as its own culture and social infrastructure. The key to Wakanda’s independence comes from The Mound, a large deposit of a rare meteoric metal called Vibranium. Vibranium has the ability to absorb sound and store energy, properties harnessed in order to help Wakanda flourish. Flying cars, invulnerable armor, and a clean energy source are just a few of the luxuries made possible by Vibranium. Because it is so precious, very little Vibranium is let out of Wakanda, and the small amount that has been sold has made the royal family of Wakanda extremely wealthy. The value of this metal makes Wakanda vulnerable to attacks by nefarious Colonialist villains looking to exploit Wakanda for some super metal. This is exactly what’s happening when T’Challa summons the Fantastic Four to his kingdom.
It’s a classic trope in the Silver Age comics to have heroes initially fight in some sort of misunderstanding before becoming allies, which is exactly what happens in the Panther’s first appearance in issues 52-53 of Fantastic Four. When the FF reach Wakanda, they are immediately ambushed and separated. The Black Panther takes out each member, one by one, before they are reunited and eventually able to overpower the Panther. Of course, the Panther’s surprise attack was actually just a test of his own abilities. T’Challa is preparing to fight the maniacal Belgian, Ulysses Klaw, “The master of sound,” who wants to use Vibranium to power his many evil sound devices, like his sonic hand-claw. His powers and initial character design aren’t very sexy, but his back story is an integral part of T’Challa’s origin.
When T’Challa was a boy, Klaw and some mercenaries tried to invade Wakanda in order to raid The Mound. T’Chaka, T’Challa’s father, was the preceding Black Panther, and with a group of Wakandan Warriors, attempted to repel Klaw’s attack. Unfortunately, Klaw had harnessed the murderous power of sound and used it to kill T’Chaka right in front of T’Challa. Enraged by his father’s murder, T’Challa quickly gains control of a nearby sound blaster, then using Klaw’s own invention, pushes back the invaders. He shoots Klaw’s hand, blowing it off, giving the aptly named Klaw an opportunity to play with a great villain-theme. With T’Chaka dead, the crown passed down to T’Challa, which then began his journey towards transforming himself into the next Black Panther.
T’Challa trained in martial warfare while also learning how to govern a nation. As a teenager, he traveled abroad to study engineering and physics at renowned universities. It’s a little strange, but T’Challa has a plot line loosely similar to “Coming to America” where he travels to study in the US with his best friend/royal attendant, B’Tumba. B’Tumba is the son of N’Gaza, who was the advisor to T’Chaka (everyone keeping up with this?). N’Gaza was wise in the ways of Wakandan politics, but he wasn’t such a great father. He basically raised B’Tumba to always play second fiddle to T’Challa, which, understandably, festered inside B’Tumba into a hateful jealousy. When the friends return to Wakanda, T’Challa becomes the Black Panther, but B’Tumba has got some usurper-y machinations. That story, however, comes in later.
Conveniently, right after T’Challa proves himself against the Fantastic Four, Klaw returns to claim the Vibranium that T’Chaka had denied him. This time, Klaw has this machine that creates living sound animals! As it turns out, once animated, sound becomes red and it can take the form of animals, like an ape or an elephant, but it can’t form anything that resembles hair, which I suppose makes sense; regardless, the sound animals provide for some great Kirby artwork. While Human Torch and The Thing clobber it out with the sonic zoo, Black Panther is able to confront Klaw and thwart him a second time. For helping save Wakanda, the Fantastic Four become special citizens of Wakanda, the only time the honor is ever bestowed to outsiders, beginning a long lasting affiliation between the characters. Having a Black character that could match the Fantastic Four is significant both in and outside of the comic, and Black Panther continued to be involved in Marvel’s most popular titles.
Black Panther appeared quite a few times alongside the Fantastic Four, encountering villains like Psycho Man and Dr. Doom, before becoming a part of The Avengers in issue #52. Prior to joining the team, T’Challa had encountered Captain America in an issue of Tales of Suspense. Captain America is air-dropped into Wakanda, much to the Panther’s surprise, so they fight at first, and then decide to team up against the terrorists trying to smuggle Vibranium. When Captain America and some of the other founding Avengers decide to take a break, Captain America invites The Black Panther to join the team as his proxy. Any superhero fan will tell you that, in Marvel, getting the nod from Cap is like being anointed, and the Black Panther again proves to be the equal of any Avenger when he saves the team from the Grim Reaper during that initial story arc in Avengers #52-53. The Grim Reaper had some plan to make it look as though he had killed Hawkeye, Goliath, and the Wasp in order to lure out the other Avengers, so he could for-real kill them as an act of revenge for killing his brother, Wonder Man. (You have got to love the soap-opera level of convolution in comic books)
The Black Panther had a ninety issue run with The Avengers, some of which fleshed outmore of the back story and the power of the Black Panther. None was more important than Avengers #87, wherein storytellers Roy Thomas and Steve Buscema explain the narrative between T’Challa and B’Tumba that I mentioned earlier. Upon returning from his studies abroad, T’Challa must undergo a trial-ceremony in order to inherit the mantle of the spiritual leader of Wakanda, The Black Panther. Getting a good education was the first trial, which supposedly prepared him for the second trial, which is fighting twelve of Wakanda’s strongest warriors at the same time. After successfully beating up a dozen people, T’Challa is cleansed before an altar to the Panther God, where T’Challa finds the sacred garb that would become the costume of The Black Panther. So being super smart and in peak human condition is great, but the Black Panther serves as a bridge between the Panther God and Wakanda, so he has to get some special powers. As it happens, the final trial to becoming the Panther involves using the Panther costume to help climb to a remote part of the jungle where a rare heart-shaped herb grows that must be consumed by all Wakandan chiefs. This herb grants members of the royal bloodline super strength, agility, and the senses of a panther. While consuming said herb, perhaps using his panther-like hearing, T’Challa overhears some trespassers in Wakanda. While T’Challa was completing his rites of passage, ol’ B’Tumba was making a deal with the terrorist group A.I.M to sell some Vibranium and basically get all the things that T’Challa had, and he didn’t. Not at full panther-strength, T’Challa is subdued, but B’Tumba just can’t bring himself to kill his best friend. He ends up sacrificing himself while helping the Black Panther force A.I.M. out of their home. T’Challa never told anyone about B-Tumba’s betrayal until now, because we’re witnessing this story from the Avengers’ sewing circle. N’Baza has been ruling Wakanda while T’Challa has worked with the Avengers, but now he is dead, and the Panther must choose between being King of Wakanda or an Avenger.
Despite the melodrama of the story, this issue introduces a theme that is repeatedly used in every major Black Panther arc that follows. T’Challa struggles with being a part of two worlds. As King of Wakanda, his first responsibility is to his people, and sustaining peace and prosperity in the nation. As an Avenger, he is dedicated to keeping the entire world safe, and has obligations to his teammates. The Black Panther’s very nature is at odds with itself, which creates an inherent drama. Having to choose between saving the world and leading the nation often puts the Panther in precarious situations. Wakanda is fiercely independent; it prides itself on never begin conquered. By using their Panther god to fight the world, T’Challa is seen as betraying their culture, and many of the Panther’s stories deal with villains trying to overthrow T’Challa from the throne.
The next time Panther faces the threat of being deposed comes in his first solo series in Marvel’s Jungle Action series. A leftover from the early days when Marvel was “Atlas Comics,” Jungle Action was originally filled with stories about white adventurers dealing with the wilds of Africa. This wasn’t by any means politically correct, nor did it turn out to be interesting, so in 1973, beginning with issue #6, writer Don McGregor and artist Rich Buckley produced what would become a two-year long saga called Panther’s Rage. In it, McGregor and Buckley introduce the character Erik Killmonger, a native of Wakanda who was exiled after his father helped Klaw in the initial invasion which left the Black Panther’s father dead. Banished in America, Killmonger studied at M.I.T. and used his intellect to plot against T’Challa and the Wakandan nation that he felt turned on him. Killmonger is one of the defining Panther villains, his ego and will to dominate the antithesis of the humility and responsibility exhibited by the Black Panther. The series would also further the mythos of Wakanda, and introduce cool villains like the snake-man Venomm, and the zombie master, Baron Macabre. Panther’s Rage is not only the first solo Black Panther title, but it’s also seen as the first self-contained story arc in comic books, a narrative style that would later be popularized by Alan Moore and Frank Miller as a “graphic novel.” McGregor often crowds Buckley’s panels with caption bubbles that give in-depth detail about the thoughts and emotions of characters. It was a risky style for a graphic medium, and though Black Panther was never the most popular book, it did connect with the coveted college-male demographic, selling a fair amount of copies, and furthering the iconography of the Black Panther.
Panther’s Rage ran until issue twenty-four before being cancelled. In its last arc, the Panther confronted a plot in the American South hatched by the KKK. The blatant social commentary may have been one of the things that led Marvel to cancel the book, but the high-concept storytelling achieved by McGregor and Buckley paved the way for future Black Panther storylines. The following years are somewhat lackluster for the Panther, in the sense that the stories just perpetuate the usual costumed shenanigans, although, directly after Panther’s Rage, Jack Kirby returned to helm the series for a few books before moving on (Kirby, returning to Marvel from DC, had a desire to work with original ideas versus characters he had already established).
In 1998, Christopher Priest and Mark Texeira were the next creative team to highlight the Black Panther. Priest’s five year run with the Panther began with a six-issue story arc, “The Client,” wherein D.C. special officer Everett Ross is assigned by the federal government to act as the bodyguard and liaison to a special diplomat, The King of Wakanda. The U.S.’s interest in strengthening relations with Wakanda is just a cover for the Black Panther’s visit to Wakanda. Accompanied by Zuri, his father’s greatest warrior, and the Dora Milaje, teenage, ninja warriors who act as the bodyguards and personal assistants to the Black Panther, T’Challa once again vacates the throne in order to solve problems abroad.
The murder of an orphan Wakandan refugee in New York City has brought the Panther across the ocean, which he believes has something to do with a conspiracy against the throne. He’s right of course, and this time the culprit is General Achebe, a crazy spiritual and political leader who literally made a deal with the Devil (Mephisto) in order to overthrow T’Challa. This concept is awesome, because it allows Priest to explore the mythology of the Panther god, which adds some mystic intrigue to the already compelling scientific and political facets of Black Panther comics, and it also creates a sweet opportunity for the Black Panther to punch the devil in the face. The arc is told on a non-linear timeline, which is great for Chris Nolan fans, but awful for people just wanting a straightforward read. “The Client” arc dives further into the mystic power of the Black Panther, introduces more of the Batman-like gadgetry at the Panther’s disposal, and is overall critically acclaimed as one of the defining Panther stories.
The development of the Panther god, the Wakandan Royal court, including the Dora Milaje, Shuri (The Panther’s sister), and his step-mother become key features of the following Black Panther stories. In 2005, Reginald Hudlin and John Romita, Jr. rebooted the Panther series, incorporating recent developments in the Black Panther mythos while revising the history. In Hudlin’s telling, Ulysees Klaw is a Belgian assassin hired to take out T’Chaka of Wakanda. He succeeds, but T’Challa is still able to use Klaw’s own weapons to maim him. The story starts in the same situation the Black Panther was in the first time he appeared in The Fantastic Four: Klaw is coming to Wakanda to claim Vibranium, and this time he has a team of colonial representatives including the Rhino (USA), Batroc the Leaper (FRA), The Black Knight (UK), and Radioactive Man (RUS), bent on taking over Wakanda.
While the villainous threat provides a lot of visual action, the book also plays up the political drama inherent to the Black Panther. Being the ruler of a wealthy, independent nation with isolationist policies doesn’t make you very popular, and while the Panther fights threats from international super villains and native mutineers, he also has to do with the U.S. and the rest of the world trying to integrate him into global politics. The Panther is able to stop Klaw, this time without the help of the Fantastic Four, and he also avoids a diplomatic incident concerning undead soldiers commissioned by the US. This balance between political drama and classic comic tropes has defined the Black Panther comics of the last decade.
Hudlin’s run on the book is also noteworthy because of a storyline which had T’Challa marry Ororo Munro (The X-Man, Storm), and later pass the mantle of the Black Panther down to Storm. The celebrity wedding was a huge deal in the comics, generating storylines that succeeded well past Hudlin, which saw the Black Panther and Storm team-up with the X-men on several occasions, as well as temporarily replacing Sue Storm and Reed Richards on the Fantastic Four. The couple lasted throughout some of Marvel’s most significant events of the last ten years including House of M, Civil War, and Secret Invasion. Panther’s Civil War arc is neat because it features a playboy T’Challa in mortal combat with Sabretooth. Decapitation ensues. In his Secret Invasion story, an army of Skrulls attempts to invade Wakanda, but due to a Wakandan weapon, all machines in the nation are rendered useless. The Skrulls and Wakandans are forced to fight each other using only primitive weapons, shields and spears, and the result is like a Marvel-superhero version of 300. T’Challa dispenses with the Skrulls in bad-ass fashion, and Wakanda’s legacy of never being invaded is preserved. None of the arcs that tie-in to the events have serious consequences on the Black Panther comic’s main storyline, but they are extremely entertaining reads that make the Black Panther character more compelling.
Though he hasn’t always been a marquee character, the Black Panther is becoming much more prominent in the Marvel Universe. He played a huge role in Marvel’s Secret Wars, wherein he becomes a panther god that communes with the dead and defeats Thanos, and he stars as part of a super-powered brain trust of heroes dedicated to solving cosmic level threats, the Ultimates. In their first arc, Black Panther leads the Ultimates against Galactus, but instead of fighting him, they attempt to cure him of his world hunger, demonstrating how the spirituality and diplomatic mindedness of the character allows him to resolve conflicts more thoughtfully than more action-based, famous heroes. The current arc of The Black Panther is being produced by artist Brian Stelfreeze, and writer Tah Nehesi Coates, a MaCarthur Genius Grant winner, and frequent contributor to The Atlantic, whose personal experience reading comics as a kid, as well as his role as a Black social commentator is already adding a new texture to the rich canon of The Black Panther.
But more importantly, Black Panther made his big screen debut this weekend in Captain America: Civil War. Played by Chadwick Boseman, the Black Panther in this film won’t probably get into the mythos of the Panther god, or the history and culture of Wakanda, but no doubt audiences will get to experience these topics cinematically when the Black Panther’s own feature film is released in 2018. Until then, you can see Black Panther in Civil War, and if you want to get more acquainted with T’Challa, Wakanda, and the Black Panther, check out the Marvel Unlimited app for digital copies of the aforementioned issues, or visit your local comic shops.