Marvel’s Black Panther Approaches 50th Anniversary


In 2016, Marvel‘s acclaimed Black Panther character will be celebrating the the 50th anniversary of when he was first brought into the world. The year 2016 is a significant year, since it coincides with the production of his first major motion picture.  Although the anniversary and the film will inevitably be a reason to celebrate, the generation in which the Black Panther was created was not always as accepting.

The 1960s in America was one of the most monumental and influential decades across every area of society. Musically, there was Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones and The Beatles. Politically, the nation dealt with the Vietnam War, the Cuban missile crisis and J. F. Kennedy’s assassination. Culturally, the unique era gave birth to the hippie movement, the civil rights movement and the Black Panther party.

The latter, at the time led by a young Bobby Seale, was interviewed in 1968 about the origins of the party. When asked by the interviewer how they went about finding their name, Seale took a moment before responding, “You know, the nature of a panther. I looked it up. If you push it into a corner that panther is going to try to move left or right to get you to get out of the way. But if you keep pushing it back into that corner, sooner or later that panther is going to come out of that corner and try to wipe out who keeps oppressing it in that corner.”

Who knew that an exotic leopard, or black jaguar, which is typically found in Asia and Africa would become such a powerful image that helped pave the way for change?  Apparently, not only Bobby Seale saw this boldly inclusive creature as a sign of significance, but so did a couple of other mavericks of the time:  Jack Kirby and Stan Lee.

Introduced on July 1, 1966, several months before the Black Panther party officially went on record, Marvel Comic’s Stan Lee and Jack Kirby saw an opportunity to blaze the course for a black superhero using the same colorful art form that brought the universe Superman and Batman (who have both already commemorated their 50th anniversaries). The now-iconic character, who starred alongside famous faces like Captain America, Daredevil, Doctor Doom and even his own multiple-issue story arc, described as Marvel’s first graphic novel,” will be having a 50-year anniversary in 2016, when the filming of his first original movie could begin. There were no black heroes in mainstream comic books before The Black Panther.

The Black Panther first appeared with The Fantastic Four, labeled then as The Sensational Black Panther.”  In a much different time, not only of mounting civil unrest, but social separation and high tension, one of the last things that seemed to be going through anyone’s mind was a highly intellectual African hero with super powers and abilities, but that’s exactly what Lee and Kirby created.  In “With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story,” a documentary which delves into the beginnings of Lee’s vision of what would become a billion dollar global franchise, Lee talks about the lack of color in comic books at that time, and the importance of telling a story that had never really been told before. At least, not on the scale he had imagined.

“One thing, I felt there were not enough black superheroes… So I created the Black Panther,” says Lee. The man, who quite literally changed the face of comics, never shied away from controversy in his characters. Introducing the world to a different group of people than what was considered the norm of society, whether it be the X-Men, Spiderman, the Incredible Hulk or the Avengers, Lee had a special talent for taking something extraordinary and miraculous, and making it surprisingly simple. He made them human.

All of the above larger-than-life heroes of his vast universe were still susceptible to everyday issues, the same as non-heroes were. Issues like fear, doubt, love, faith, discrimination and even hatred were all things that made what should have been something as different as day and night, actually relatable. He prided himself in making the supernatural appear vulnerable, which is what has contributed to the success of thousands of comic books, television shows, and huge grossing movies that seem to have no end in sight.

Marvel Studio’s plans appear to be coming in phases. Phase one included Iron Man 1 and 2, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger and The Avengers. Phase two includes Iron man 3, Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and recent smash hit, Guardians Of The Galaxy, That phase will be completed with next year’s Avengers: Age Of Ultron. With phase three rumored to involve everything from an Ant-Man film to sequels of both Guardians Of The Galaxy films to Captain America within the next two years, it looks to be another busy, and very profitable time for the company.

The most recent announcement from Marvel,however, holds a special place in many fans’ hearts, considering that it has taken nearly half a century to start its course. When Kevin Feige, president of Marvel Studios, was asked in a recent interview with BlacktreeTV about the mysterious Wakanda native adventurer, his response was, “As far as Black Panther, it’s most definitely in development, and when you have something as rich as Wakanda and his back story – and clearly, Vibranium’s been introduced in the universe already – I don’t know when it will be exactly but certainly we have plans to bring him to life someday.”  Being that the Black Panther legend will be approaching its 50-year anniversary in just a couple of short years, Marvel must be gratified that its symbol of inspiration and hope for a nation birthed in a era when out of the box thinking was not always rewarded, endures to this day.

By Theodore Borders


Oakland Museum of California