What happens now determines what happens to the rest of the world – T’Challa (Black Panther)
While it’s difficult to imagine a world without Black Panther, Luke Cage, John Stewart, Cyborg, Mr. Terrific, and Blade, for the first quarter of a century of their existence superheroes were all white.
For twenty-five years, the chosen literary medium of American and global youth refused to acknowledge the importance of black role models and how much it meant to people to see themselves reflected in the fantastical idea that the individual could make a difference and save the world.
The first black characters to appear in comics were always cast in the role of sidekicks, most notably Lothar, who debuted as Mandrake The Magician’s sidekick in Lee Faulks strip in nineteen thirty-four, and Ebony White who became The Spirit’s “partner” in nineteen forty.
Both were at best stereotypical of the way that black characters were widely portrayed in society during the thirties and forties and were, at worst, racist and incredibly offensive.
Even in the progressive offices of Marvel, hampered by the Comics Code and the distributors that called the shots, it took Stan Lee and Jack Kirby until nineteen sixty-three to feature a black character in the pages of a Marvel book, when Gabe Jones appeared as one of Nick Fury’s trusted inner circle in the first issue of Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos.
But the times, as Bob Dylan sang, were most assuredly “ a-changing” and three years later, the forest mainstream, a black superhero made his debut in a Marvel comic.
T’Challa, the king of Wakanda and leader of the most forward-thinking and technologically advanced country on Earth, entered the Marvel universe in nineteen sixty-six, not as a hero, but as a “champion” who was determined to test and beat the world’s most famous costumed family.
It was a less than sensational start, but as the character soon made a dramatic about-face following his defeat by Reed Richards, it was a landmark moment in comics history.
The first black superhero had arrived, and it finally seemed like comics had taken the lead and were doing the thing that they would later become infamous for.
Challenging the status quo of tired, outdated, and antediluvian ideas and ideology.
Since his debut in the pages of Fantastic Four #52, T’Challa has been an Avenger, been part of the Illuminati, the secretive Marvel cabal that determined the future of mankind and has gone to become the hero in one of the most successful films of all time, Black Panther.
Played by the tragic Chadwick Bosman whose bright star burned all too briefly, T’Challa has become a symbol of hope for generations of fans everywhere, who have followed and seen their hero leap the pages of a monthly comic to assume his rightful place at the top of the powered, costumed mountain.
Oh Captain, My Captain
Despite the success of Black Panther, it took Marvel another three years to introduce their next back superhero, and while Sam Wilson was originally introduced as Steve Roger’s new partner in nineteen sixty-nine, he would soon become an engaging, and fully rounded character in his own right, and would go on to serve as Roger’s right-hand man throughout the nineteen seventies.
It wasn’t until the events of The Iron Nail in two thousand and fourteen that Sam Wilson, also known as the Falcon, would finally come into his own.
Having been drained of the super-soldier serum that made him who he was, Steve Rogers appointed Sam as his successor, and in Nick Spencer’s landmark run on the title, in Captain America (Vol. 7) #25, Sam Wilson became the first black Captain America.
It was a storyline that Marvel chose to mirror in the two thousand and twenty-one mini-series, Falcon and The Winter Soldier when Sam assumed the mantle that was always supposed to be his and became Captain America.
In Brightest Day, In Blackest Night
After seeing Marvel pick up the baton and lead the charge, DC followed their lead in nineteen seventy-one when John Stewart stepped into the breach and replaced an injured Hal Jordan as Green Lantern, debuting in issue eighty-seven of the book, which was cover-dated December of that year.
It was Neal Adams idea to introduce their “fill-in” Lantern, and the artist made the decision to make him black, in his own words “not out of some liberal sensibility, but because it makes sense”, and it was this decision that arguably breathed new life into the book, and helped to ensure the character’s popularity, and maintain Green Lantern’s position as one of DC’s best-selling books, for the next half-century.
The Next Five Years
It would take DC another six years to introduce their next black superhero Jefferson Pierce, the indomitable Black Lightning who later go on to become the central character of a CW show that bore his name in two thousand and seventeen.
Marvel, however, continued what they started and by nineteen seventy-five, Luke Cage, Blade, and Storm had all become major players in the comic book world and had joined the ranks of the X-Men, become a Hero For Hire and the scourge of vampires everywhere less than a decade after the first black superhero made his mainstream debut.
If It Wasn’t For Blade
The success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is largely dependent on one of the first back superheroes.
Seen as a niche genre, the idea of a superhero film becoming a big-screen blockbuster that could kickstart the franchise after the franchise was viewed with mild enthusiasm by fans and a less than lukewarm fervor by the studio system.
Then the Wesley Snipes superhero epic Blade smashed box office records and spawned two successful sequels during the first five years of the millennium.
It was the film that ultimately opened the door for Iron Man and Thor to follow in the vampire hunters’ footsteps and introduce a whole new audience to the dazzling world of costumes, capes, and superheroes.
If it hadn’t been for the King of Wakanda kidnapping the Fantastic Four, the world of superheroes would be a far duller place, less colorful, unimaginative, and uninspiring. The comic book world owes T’Challa a debt that it can never repay.