Black Panther Matters. This shouldn’t really be a surprise to anyone who has been paying any attention to mass media as of late, with the Black Panther getting a ton of love from Marvel Comics, the Lego Avengers video game & the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With the impending release of Captain America: Civil War, the hype for the King of Wakanda is at an all time high. Early reports from screenings of Civil War say that the hype is deserved, and the reviews for the first issue of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new Black Panther series were exceptional, especially given that it was written by a first time comics author. Overall Black Panther aka T’Challa is experiencing a resurgence & cultural prominence that hasn’t been seen since the revolutionary group which bears his name was serving up free lunch to children nationwide.
So why exactly does the Black Panther matter? Why are fans, who have been following his adventures for years, more excited to see T’Challa on the big screen than they are to see Peter Parker play alongside the Avengers? Why do people act like Blade wasn’t the first superhero film to feature an African-American actor in a lead role? What makes this one character so important to fans, and especially fans of color?
First off, T’Challa was the first African superhero in mainstream American comics, beating out Luke Cage, Jon Stewart, Tyroc, and even The Falcon. Falcon did manage to get into the films first, but he is being portrayed by Anthony Mackie, while Black Panther is being played by Chadwick Boseman, a Howard University Alum so it all works out. Second, Black Panther is also one of the earliest and to this day greatest representations of Afro-Futurism in media. Long story short, Afro-Futurism is basically the idea of what would happen if the brown people didn’t die in every science fiction story. Black Panther hails from the fictional African country of Wakanda, a country that has never been colonized and one that is the most technologically advanced country on the planet, due to its use of the mineral Vibranium. Third, Black Panther comes from a long line of kings who have all held the mantle of the Black Panther, all of whom had to prove themselves in gauntlet of challenges before taking on the crown. T’Challa can draw knowledge and information, as well as mystical and spiritual abilities from his ancestors, and he often consults with them on matters beyond the realms of the living. After taking on the identity of the Black Panther, T’Challa was exposed to the Heart of Wakanda. The Heart is a herb that grants the user enhanced physical abilities and senses far greater than that of a normal man.
In comics, Black Panther has always been treated with a level of respect by his creators that was unheard of for a Black character. He was created by the legends Stan Lee & Jack Kirby, first appearing in Fantastic Four #52, and he quickly established himself as a fan favorite. He would go on to have several classic comic series bearing his name, with the Christopher Priest collection being considered the gold standard of them all. Recently, T’Challa was also featured in the Avengers mega-series that was written by Jonathan Hickman. In this series, Black Panther took on a lead role fighting alongside the Avengers as they attempted to stop the destruction of the universe itself. In the end it was T’Challa who helped to recreate the Marvel Universe, setting the stage for the Ta-Nehisi Coates series, which picks up immediately after the end of Hickman’s run. One panel in particular has given me a lot of hope for the new series, as the artist Brian Stelfreeze depicts a normal day in a city in Wakanda. While it’s not filled with action or drama, this page shows Africans living a normal life in a technologically and culturally advanced society. Given the ways in which Africa is normally depicted in media this image is a beautiful tribute to the true diversity of the Golden Continent, which is fitting since in the comics Wakanda is also known as the Golden Country.
So let’s take a look back at those stats real quick. T’Challa is physically gifted on the same level as Captain America, he is more intelligent and more rich than Tony Stark, he uses technology which would confound Mr. Fantastic, and he has mystical powers which allowed him to punch the devil in the face in one of his more classic comic runs. And, to top it off, he is king of a country that has never suffered the effects of slavery with a level of civilization unheard of anywhere else in the world. So, if a Black man can beat up Bucky, outwit Iron Man, and make Dr. Strange wish he had gotten an actual Asian to teach him magic, do we really have to ask why he is so important?