Marvel’s Black Panther: A Comic Book Biography author Todd Steven Burroughs talks about the comic book writers that propelled T’Challa into Black History.
In perhaps the blackest Black History Month in decades, where celebrities went full Coming to America sartorial splendor for the Black Panther premiere, and black artists Amy Sherald and Kehinde Wiley painted the most colorful portraits ever for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery for the first-ever black leader of the free world, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, a new book about Marvel’s Black Panther explains how black writers brought the character out of obscurity.
Author Todd Steven Burroughs, a self-described comic book geek and historian, talks to @Okayplayer about the comic book writers who created and propelled Black Panther from his creation in 1966 to 2015. The book is called Marvel’s Black Panther: A Comic Book Biography, From Stan Lee to Ta-Nehisi Coates (Diasporic Africa Press). In it, he tells how T’Challa’s white history became Black History.
Okayplayer: Why is this book important now?
Todd Steven Burroughs: My idea was that, with the Black Panther movie coming, I wanted to argue what I felt was the truth: that it was the black comic book writers that made this 50-year-old character cool and powerful enough to dominate Captain America: Civil War and star in his own solo Marvel film. The book was a vehicle to talk about the limitations of 20th century white liberalism in American popular culture—one that, as we all saw, was getting blacker all the time—and how that liberalism had to be more inclusive to some degrees of black nationalism and Afrocentrism in this century.
OKP: So there were white writers of this character?
TSB: The Black Panther was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the main and best entertainers of my childhood. He was written by whites—Stan, then Roy Thomas (in The Avengers comic book), and then Don McGregor, who basically was put in charge of the character from 1973 to the early 1990s. Kirby briefly took over the character as writer and artist in the late 1970s, but his Black Panther was too stylistically out-of-date—but paradoxically, very Afro-futurist in his concepts—and was soon cancelled. McGregor said his original 1970s Panther series in Jungle Action—yep, that was title!—was cancelled because Marvel thought he was, in McGregor’s words, “too close to the black experience.”
TSB: Only in America. So black writers took over the character, and have held him up to now: Christopher Priest from 1998 to about 2003, Reginald Hudlin roughly from 2003 to 2007, and Ta-Nehisi Coates from about 2016 to the present. My book compares and contrasts all of the Black Panther writers who had the character in an ongoing series.
Under his black writers, T’Challa became the African Batman—the real Dark Knight. Marvel, happy to have that type of upgraded hero, paid attention, and put that character in the Civil War film.
OKP: The Black Panther was created in 1966. So was the Black Panther Party. Any connection?
TSB: Not a direct one at first. But the white liberals who wrote the character were very concerned that T’Challa would be identified with the Black Panthers. So they tried hard to stop that association—even going as far as to briefly calling the character the Black Leopard! Thankfully, that didn’t take [laughs]!
OKP: What is the major difference between the character’s black writers and his white writers?
TSB: In his first Fantastic Four story in 1966, the Black Panther was a super-powered Patrice Lumumba—a Machiavellian warrior-scientist who trapped The Fantastic Four in as many minutes. As the Black Panther Party became prominent in the real world, Marvel turned him into a Sidney Poitier-type—a Harlem schoolteacher. Then, in the mid-seventies, McGregor places him in Wakanda, and he becomes a great hero fighting Erik Killmonger—a character McGregor created, by the way—but without the tech. He is constantly getting beaten up; in one story, it takes him four pages to get out of a bear trap [laughs]!
The black writers—taking over the character after 32 years of being ran by whites—gave him a consistent Afrocentric worldview. Priest and Hudlin powered him up considerably, and culturally. When Coates got the title a couple of years ago, Wakanda and the Black Panther were at a very low point—the nation had finally been invaded and T’Challa had lost his connection to Bast, a.k.a. The Panther God. So Coates had the opportunity to re-build Wakanda literally from the ground-up and re-create its relationships to history and to its king. Most whites de-powered the character after Lee/Kirby, but Coates intellectually deconstructed him. Coates now has given readers a 21st century Africa of the mind.
My book is about how T’Challa’s black writers were finally given the freedom to do with the character what they wanted, and they took it to ever-higher levels. And now, we all get to benefit.
OKP: By every indication and pre-release review, the movie is filled with a lot of strong black women as main characters. Is that the same in the comic?
TSB: No. There were always great black female characters in the Black Panther title, but I argue it was Hudlin who really put the sisters-warriors out in front. He created Shuri, T’Challa’s sister. Coates has done a good job in this regard, too. And Coates has led the way in introducing open LGBTQIA characters in Wakanda.
OKP: What do you think about the hoopla surrounding this movie?
TSB: It’s crazy! It’s like the superhero equivalent of Roots! And the Black Panther is featured prominently in Avengers: Infinity War, that drops three months later! Poor DC; at least they have Black Lightning on the CW [laughs], which is a really good show produced and written by black people, by the way.
OKP: Do you see any conflict with Disney putting out the film? What do you think about the calls for donations of some of the profits to the black community?
TSB: Disney now owns all of the most popular toys of the post-modern child imagination: Pixar, Star Wars and now Marvel. And it will maintain that control by any means necessary, Dr. Greg Carr, the chair of Africana Studies at Howard University, has written my book’s afterword. He saw the film Monday night, and he emailed me that it is designed to pull black audiences into the Marvel Cinematic Universe “like a black hole (pun intended).” Black Panther will give Disney more access than ever to the African Diaspora. Disney is smart and will make some charitable contributions here and there, I’m sure. But if Disney thought it owed black people something, the way they have allowed this film to be marketed and embraced–again, I feel like it’s 1977 and I’m waiting for Kunta Kinte to show up! I’m sure it feels its paid black America in full. Talk about doing good and doing well [laughs]!
OKP: What did you like about Hudlin’s interpretations of the characters? Coates? Priest?
TSB: Here’s what I liked and disliked about all the main interpretations, post-Lee-Kirby: McGregor: made him psychologically deep, but took away the science and the bad-ass. He got beat up all the time. Kirby solo: He meant well. God bless him. But he couldn’t win a competition with his younger self, the one occasionally reigned in by Stan Lee. Priest: Powerful and lyrical, but the white narrator, as great as he was, could get to be too much at times. Sometimes the style was too cute by half. Hudlin: Afrocentric, but very heavy-handed. Coates: intellectual, but not fun. At the end of his first run, I felt like I was watching an African C-SPAN, which is cool, but not the outsized adventure comic readers regularly want.
OKP:What did you like about the original Black Panther character? Why do you think the original was obscure?
TSB: As a comic-obsessed teen, I was deeply indifferent to the Panther character. All he did was jump around a lot, and I thought that was corny. In fact, the main reason I read Panther when it came out written by Christopher Priest in 1998 was because Priest was the writer of Xero, this fascinating-but-by-then defunct DC comic about a black assassin who, on the job, disguised himself as a white man. So I picked up Panther because I wanted to read anything by the guy who wrote Xero.
The original character was obscure before the black writers because Marvel, again, scared about the Black Panther Party and the rise of Black Power, back-tracked on the kick-ass quality of that original Lee-Kirby Fantastic Four appearance. Once it made T’Challa into some soft, non-threatening Avengers member in the late 1960s-early 1970s, he was done. McGregor tried to raise his profile in Jungle Action, but that 1970s comic was really deep and (happily) stuck in Wakanda, which meant it was an acquired taste.
OKP: What’s your opinion on Disney buying Fox? Marvel now owns the majority of its characters, right?
TSB: As a superhero comic book geek that wants to see a Silver Surfer / Galactus movie during my lifetime, I’m happy. As a media scholar, I’m slightly disturbed. That’s a lot of concentration over the world popular-culture imagination.
But, thankfully, there are other superheroes waiting to be discovered. I hope Black Panther’s blockbuster film success opens the resource door for independent creators—particularly black and African ones—to get their characters out into the world popular-culture arena.
Ericka Blount is a journalist, professor and author from Baltimore, Maryland. Her book ‘Love, Peace and Soul: Behind the Scenes of Soul Train’ is available on Amazon. Please follow her (and us!) on Twitter @ErickaBlount.