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“African Mutant Refugee #3.”
That’s all the script called for. But X-Men: The Animated Series’ Larry Houston had grander plans in mind.
Houston, an animation trailblazer as the first black storyboard artist on a Saturday-morning cartoon, was known for inserting cameos from other Marvel characters into the popular Fox Kids show. A shot of Spider-Man’s arm thwipping a web; Hulk appearing in the Danger Room; Thor looking concerned while Phoenix causes a storm.
So when X-Men went to Africa for the 1995 episode “Sanctuary Part One,” Houston decided to transform that anonymous mutant refugee into the king of Wakanda, with Black Panther looking on at action happening in the distance.
“We had two X-Men episodes in Africa, one with Storm’s mutant godchild and the other with Magneto gathering up mutants to take them to his mutant sanctuary Asteroid M. I was able to include the Black Panther into the show whenever they were in Africa, which some sharp-eyed fans were able to spot,” Houston tells Heat Vision.
It was the first time the character had appeared in animation, with artist Mark Lewis drawing on Jack Kirby’s work in 1968’s Fantastic Four No. 52, the first appearance of the character.
“Of course, I didn’t do a dead-on Kirby impression, because that wouldn’t have fit stylistically into the look of the X-Men cartoon. But I did at least try to get some of that Kirby feel in his hands and some of the masses of his body,” says Lewis.
Houston was proud of bringing T’Challa to life, even for a brief cameo, but he wanted more.
“I couldn’t give him a speaking part, but it was a great opportunity,” Houston says.
(See the brief cameo at the start of the video below.)
A year later, T’Challa got his time in the spotlight. By that point, Houston had left his job on the popular X-Men show, which was earning big ratings and is considered one of the best comic book animated series of all time. He moved over to Fox Kids’ Fantastic Four, the very property that Stan Lee and Kirby had used to introduce Black Panther in the comics.
“The promise of doing the first animated Black Panther was one of the reasons I left directing the last year of the X-Men series,” says Houston, who pushed to adapt Fantastic Four issues 52 and 53 and eventually directed an episode based on them, personally drawing iconic Kirby panels into the storyboard.
Houston enlisted veteran actor Keith David to voice the hero for the 1996 episode “Prey of the Black Panther.”
“I just wanted to bring the most authenticity to it as I possibly could and the most excitement about it, because I wanted it to flourish and continue,” says David, who had been aware of the character since the late ‘60s, thanks to a comic book-collecting best friend.
The episode saw Black Panther instigate a fight with the Fantastic Four to prove to himself that he’d be able to take down the villainous Ulysses Klaue, the man responsible for his father’s death.
“I had great hopes at that time that maybe they’ll make this a series and I’ll get to be in it,” recalls David, but it was not to be. “One of the things that manifested was that the proverbial ‘they’ weren’t ready for it to be any more than it was. Because the more inquiries I made about it becoming a regular series, it’d just keep getting put off and put off. ‘Oh, it’s being thought about. It’s being thought about.'”
David wasn’t the only Hollywood player lobbying for a Black Panther adaptation around that time. A few years earlier, Wesley Snipes had tried to bring the character to the big screen. Eventually, T’Challa got his own animated series with BET’s Black Panther, which ran for six episodes in 2011 and starred Djimon Hounsou.
Of his Black Panther work, David says he is “as proud of that as anything” he’s ever done, and he doesn’t harbor ill feelings about the fact that it was never more than the episode he got. He has already seen Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther film twice, and plans on seeing it again.
“There’s a lot of economics involved. There’s a lot of socio-ethnic politics involved,” says David of how things like Black Panther get greenlit (or passed over). “And now with the opening that we’ve had — it was taken full advantage of, which is a great thing. You can’t cry about the past and what didn’t happen. I’m more interested in celebrating what is happening.”
For Houston, whose passion for comics stood out even among the staff of X-Men, the film is a dream come true.
“I am … so glad to have lived long enough to see the comic book I bought off a spinner rack in 1966, as a child, to now see the Black Panther, and all of my other childhood heroes, on the big movie screen. And done right,” he says.
See highlights from the Fox Kids Fantastic Four episode below, and read more about Houston’s work on X-Men: The Animated Series here.
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