When Comics Get Political
In this column I will dive into times, throughout superhero history, that comics got political. There seems to be a constant debate if political discussion has a place in the medium. I hope to show that politics and superhero comics go together. This time we look at the origins of Black Panther and Wakanda
The Black Panther
The issue being discussed here is issue #53. While the Black Panther first appeared in issue #52, it was more of a superhero meet up, and fight, than a clear story on the themes of Black Panther. It is in this second part (of a two-part story) that the reader gets to meet and learn about Black Panther and his native fictional country, Wakanda. We only get a vague sense of his origins here, that he is avenging his father’s death and became the Black Panther through a spiritual ritual. The main antagonist here, Klaw, is trying to take advantage of the rich vibranium resource in Wakanda. He is this same man that killed Black Panther’s father. Black Panther assumes he gets his revenge and but decides to continue in his mission to fight for peace.
There is a genre of film, comics, and pulp material called “Jungle Adventure.” The most popular example would have to be Tarzan, for a quick short-hand to understand the general setting and tone. Jungle adventures typically occur in the heart of Africa or the Indian subcontinent. The main reasoning for their decline, in recent years, is the deeply problematic aspects that have been embedded in the genre. Savage natives, romanticizing colonialism, and a general tone of elevating the typically white protagonists over their surroundings. The jungle is shown as something to be feared and the natives are often “othered” and promotes the ideas of xenophobia. Looking back at some of these old stories would make most modern-day readers uncomfortable as they encounter celebrated racism. Thankfully Jack Kirby and Stan Lee took the jungle adventure genre in Fantastic Four and flipped it on its head.
New Jungle Adventure
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created a new take on the Jungle adventure genre. The Black Panther and the nation of Wakanda are never seen as inferior to the “white world.” In fact, they are promoted as an advanced and capable nation. A far cry from the way African tribes were represented in comics at the time. More importantly, they are not white-washed. They simply don’t take an African nation and make them behave, or look, “western.” The traditions, culture, dress, and overall feel is still very African. This is showing that the creative team did not feel there was anything inferior to other cultures, in comparison to their own. In this version of the story, the white man is the antagonist unjustly taking the resources that belong to the people. While this trope was just starting to gain traction in the jungle adventure scene, for the most part the white man was written as someone who was allowed to loot and take what he pleased from the places he visited. Often the white characters are seen as saviors, which is not the case here. While the Fantastic Four help the people of Wakanda, it is Black Panther who does the heavy lifting in saving his country. The people of Wakanda and the Black Panther are on completely equal footing (if not elevated) with the Fantastic Four. Clearly, this is not your typical jungle adventure comic.
Ben Grimm (The Thing) is the voice of the audience in this comic calling out the genre as he sees the story playing out. His inherent racism and prejudices are laid bare for the audience to identify with and realize their mistakes.
By bucking the trends in jungle adventure tropes, and creating the first black superhero, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby put diversity into comics. This was not an act of tokenism or done without care. They purposely created a strong African hero that elevated the representation of diverse characters.