The news that Ta-Nehisi Coates will be writing Marvel Entertainment’s new Black Panther comic book series, launching in 2016, had many wondering what (if any) political commentary he will bring to the African superhero that debuted almost half a century ago as a antagonist for the Fantastic Four. It’s an interesting question, because the Black Panther has been a character who’s had political meaning almost since his inception — sometimes despite the intentions of those writing or drawing him.
To start with, the obvious should be pointed out: although both debuted in 1966, the Black Panther was not named for the Black Panther Party. In fact, not only did T’Challa, ruler of the fictional African kingdom of Wakanda appear months before the founding of the Black Panther Party (which happened in October 1966; Fantastic Four No. 52 was cover-dated July of that year), but he almost had an entirely different superhero identity; Jack Kirby, who co-created the character with Stan Lee, had originally called the character “The Coal Tiger” — a name that most fans agree was better left on the cutting room floor.
(A Coal Tiger eventually did appear in Marvel’s comic books; 1999’s A-Next No. 4 introduced T’Chaka, the alternate-universe son of T’Challa, who adopted the name.)
Nonetheless, the name proved to be problematic for Marvel for a number of years, with the company attempting two short-lived alternates to try and distance the character from the real-world political party. When T’Challa went from Fantastic Four supporting character to fully fledged member of the Avengers in 1968 — in the process, abandoning his kingdom to become a substitute teacher in the New York public school system, for reasons that made as little sense as you might expect — he was unofficially known as “the Panther,” and when he returned to the Fantastic Four series in 1972, he was officially renamed the Black Leopard, explaining to other characters that his earlier name “has — political connotations. I neither condemn nor condone those who have taken up the name, but T’Challa is a law unto himself.”
Neither condemning nor condoning appeared to be the primary operating theory for many years when it came to the character, who was already a lightning rod for some fans purely by being the first black superhero in mainstream American comics. (Others, including Marvel’s own Falcon and Luke Cage, followed suit relatively soon after the Panther’s first appearance). However, after a series of appearances in other series that offered a confused blend of Afro-futurism and patronizing western triumphalism — Wakanda as it first appeared was scientifically advanced far beyond the western world, but a point was made to emphasize that T’Challa left his kingdom to study at schools in the U.S., for example — the character graduated to his own series for the first time, beginning a period where he started to become more openly political.
When writer Don McGregor wrote the Panther’s first solo run, in the pages of the unfortunately titled Jungle Action series from 1973 through 1976, it was in a time when superhero comics were discovering politics; DC Comics had received both critical acclaim and welcome publicity for a run of Green Lantern stories that saw the character join up with Green Arrow to travel America and uncover a nation’s social woes, while Marvel’s own Amazing Spider-Man followed suit with a trilogy of issues about drug abuse. Under McGregor’s guidance, T’Challa returned to Wakanda to face threats to his reign from within and without, with the storytelling emboldened by the genre’s growth. A storyline that brought the hero up against the Ku Klux Klan was as formally ambitious as anything Marvel had published to that point, but nonetheless met with such resistance from certain parties (and disinterest from many others) that it was abandoned midway through with no resolution. Instead, the character was handed over to co-creator Kirby for a new series, titled simply Black Panther, that was undeniably fun but lacked the nuance or political intent of what had come before.
In many ways, that history set the tone for everything that was to follow for the Panther’s comic book career. The character’s solo adventures would go between pure romps only intended to entertain and stories loaded with political subtext. Most notably Christopher Priest‘s 1998 series saw a revision of the Panther that returned him to his original characterization as a ruler and master manipulator. In this incarnation, the Panther was concerned with the safety of his kingdom and willing to use whatever means necessary to get what he wanted — including manipulating the Avengers, U.S. state department and anyone else in his way.
Along the way, the status of the Black Panther has changed repeatedly. T’Challa has even been replaced twice — once by a white New York cop, oddly enough, and later by his own sister — while Wakanda has undergone a number of calamities, each one with the unfortunate side effect of bringing the kingdom into further disarray. Since its inception as a scientifically advanced and independent nation (indeed, purposefully hidden) from the rest of the world, the country has now been invaded multiple times almost exclusively by white men, lost its primary source of financial and scientific independence (Vibranium, the fictional ore mentioned in this year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron movie) and, in 2012’s Avengers vs. X-Men comic book series, mostly destroyed by characters with omnipotent power.
That final plot element set in motion the most recent portrayal of the Panther in Marvel’s comic book history. The third series of New Avengers, written by Jonathan Hickman, delivered a T’Challa driven by both logic and grief, trying to wrestle with an almost unthinkable threat — the looming end of of everything, characterized by a cosmic event that requires the destruction of alternate Earths — while contemplating revenge on those responsible for the destruction of his people. It’s a characterization that Coates has repeatedly described as one that he enjoys, perhaps pointing towards the direction he intends to take the Black Panther.
All of this history, and the various conceptions of the Black Panther’s identity, create a strong dramatic basis for whatever story Coates wants to tell with his new series next year. (He has tweeted an interesting tease on that subject). Whether Marvel will allow him to focus on the character’s (presumably accidental) history of devaluation by the very creators of the world in which the character lives is another question altogether, of course. But even within the confines of what’s been presented on the page, there’s the story of a country shattered by oppression and invasion, of a king who’s repeatedly abandoned his people to pay the price for his lack of focus, and the distrust he must face from those who were once his loyal subjects. Heady stuff — unless the editorial decision is made that readers are due for another fun romp instead.
Black Panther launches in 2016.