Book Review: Marvel’s Black Panther: A Comic Book Biography, From Stan Lee to Ta-Nehisi Coates
Publication Date: Feb 14, 2018
List Price: $19.99
Format: Paperback, 252 pages
Imprint: Diasporic Africa Press
Publisher: Diasporic Africa Press
Parent Company: Diasporic Africa Press
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Read a Description of Marvel’s Black Panther: A Comic Book Biography, From Stan Lee to Ta-Nehisi Coates
Book Reviewed by Brenda M. Greene
The 2016 San Diego Comic-Con was a memorable moment for independent researcher and writer Todd Steven Burroughs. Burroughs begins Marvel’s Black Panther: A Comic Book Biography, From Stan Lee to Ta-Nehisi Coates (Diasporic Africa Press, 2018) by informing the reader that Black Comic Power was on-stage at the 2016 San Diego Comic-Con, the international festival dedicated to creating awareness and appreciation for comics and related art forms. Marvel Comics, which was hosting a panel for its upcoming projects, introduced Ryan Coogler, the director of the film [Black Panther], actor Chadwick Boseman who played T’Challa and Academy Award-winner Lupita Nyongo’o who portrayed Nakia, a member of the Black Panther’s female army. Reminding us that this was the first time since the Blade movies starring Wesley Snipes that a Black Marvel superhero would have its own franchise, Burroughs provides the backdrop and an historical framework for understanding the political and social factors that gave rise to Marvel’s Black Panther character, the first Black superhero in mainstream comics.
Burroughs, who refers to himself as a comic book geek, begins by describing his introduction to the superhero Spider Man in 1967 and recounts how that evolved into a love of Marvel Comics, the publisher that produced his favorite superheroes. He continues by narrating how his passion for the characters in Marvel Comics deepened when he was introduced to the Black Panther character in the early 1980s. As he began to read various versions of the Black Panther character, he became impressed with its different incarnations and in particular with the dialogue and plot by writer Christopher Priest, the first Black creator to be named a Marvel editor.
This book, a story of the evolution of the Black Panther character, provides a niche in the comic book industry. There has not been much attention given to characters of color and particularly Black characters. The chapters in the book capture the defining moments in the evolution of the Black Panther character. In the first chapter for example, “From Patrice Lumumba to Sidney Poitier,” Burroughs describes how the concept of color in comics connotes a mood; for example, the color black promotes mystery. Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby, co-creators who launched the Black Panther character in 1966, decided that they would expand the concept of color to identify with a person, an African king. In discussing the politics surrounding this character, Burroughs analyzes the reasons that T’Challa, the Black Panther who begins as the equivalent of Patrice Lumumba, the first legally elected prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) who was assassinated after playing a significant role in transforming the former Belgium colony into an independent republic, is transformed into an inner-city teacher in New York City, thus losing his anticolonial symbolism by becoming the “African costumed version of Sydney Poitier’s character in Lilies of the Fields and To Sir with Love.” The Black Panther character, in short, becomes racially neutered in 1970, a year when Black Nationalism was dominant.
A more telling example of how the Black Panther character is affected by the socio-political climate is the fact that Marvel’s Black Panther character was founded in 1966, the same year of the founding of the Black Panther Party. Thus, the image of the Black Panther came to symbolize a Black political movement. Marvel creators, in an attempt to depoliticize the Black Panther character, decided to change the character’s name to the Black Leopard for a brief period. They soon realized that this was not working.
Burroughs’s descriptions of the various reiterations and development of the Black Panther character provide an excellent analysis of the impact of race in the comic book industry. He focuses on four writers who had the most impact on the sustained series: Don McGregor, Christopher J. Priest, Reginald Hudlin, and Ta-Nehisi Coates. He ends the book by describing how the recruiting of TaNehisi Coates as a writer for the revival of the Black Panther character reflected Marvel’s awareness of a very viable and strong audience for a Black superhero who is both African centered and conscious about issues in urban America.
The afterword by Dr. Gregory Carr, chair of the Africana Studies Department at Howard University, lays the groundwork for more scholarship on Marvel’s Black Panther character from the perspectives of speculative fiction and Pan Africanism.
Dr. Todd Steven Burroughs is an independent researcher and writer based in Newark, New Jersey. He is the author of Warrior Princess: A People’s Biography of Ida B. Wells, published by Diasporic Africa Press. His research and scholarship are in popular culture and history.
Dr. Brenda M. Greene is Professor and Chair of the English Department, Founder and Executive Director of the Center for Black Literature and Director of the National Black Writers Conference at Medgar Evers College, CUNY. Her research and scholarship are in African American literature and composition and rhetoric.