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Although it was intended as a celebration of 50 years of Marvel Entertainment’s Black Panther, a Friday morning New York Comic Con panel featuring creators across the hero’s history spoke to issues of racism inside and outside the comic book industry.
“The world of comic books isn’t cut off from the wider universe of art. America has deep problems with racism, so it’s no surprise you see that in comic books and entertainment,” said contemporary Black Panther writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. “I started reading comic books when the first Secret Wars was happening, and Iron Man was black. I didn’t start with Tony Stark, I started with James Rhodes. The leader of the X-Men was black. You can argue with the depiction of Luke Cage as being racist, but there was no Luke Cage on television. In America, there was nowhere else to find that. Part of my attraction to Marvel Comics was that there was some representation.”
Coates paid tribute to previous Black Panther writer Don McGregor, whose 1970s and ‘80s runs on the character was an inspiration for Coates. But McGregor told the audience that working on the character during that era was very difficult, due to a lack of editorial support.
“Marvel wasn’t behind this, we weren’t getting any promotion,” he said. “They kept asking me, ‘Where’s the white people, Don, where’s the white people?’ They wanted the Avengers in the book, and I kept disagreeing. They came at me every issue, and as we went along with the series, I thought, ‘It’s time for the Ku Klux Klan material.’ They said, ‘This is too much, this is too political’ and I said, ‘For two years, you kept telling me you wanted more white people! There’s nothing I can do to please you people!'”
Christopher Priest, whose late 1990s/early 2000s Black Panther series remains a fan-favorite run, said that the lack of editorial support for McGregor’s run reflected a general attitude in the comics industry that led to a lack of leads of color for some time. “When people come to work in the [publishing] office[s], they’re re-creating their own relationships, and there was a dearth of people of color in the offices. As we sit, there has never been a black man regularly assigned to write Superman. I was the first black man to write Wonder Woman.”
Picking up from that commentary, current Black Panther artist Brian Stelfreeze suggested that the situation is, thankfully, finally changing, “I started doing comics in 1988, but I’ve only been a ‘black artist’ for the last eight years,” he said. “When I started doing comics, I’d see editors at conventions and they’d say, ‘Holy crap, you’re black!’ I was hired based on the work, not on me. What’s interesting is, now with the internet, people are seeing us. They’re associating us with the talent, and there are people that, now that they have these role models, they feel like they can do it.”
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