Comics

Long Before He Reached the Big Screen, the Black Panther Ruled

Comics Features Black Panther
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Long Before He Reached the Big Screen, the Black Panther Ruled

When I started collecting comics in the 1970s, there weren’t many black superheroes running, flying or otherwise getting about in the Marvel Universe. What examples there were fell mainly into two buckets: the ex-con/criminal/thief made good like Falcon, Luke Cage and Storm, and the “noble savage,” like the Black Panther and, also, Storm. (There was also Brother Voodoo, but save for an appearance in an Avengers comic, he was a nonentity—he’s fared better in the last decade or so.) But really, there were all the others, and there was T’Challa/Black Panther. Created during a time of immense upheaval, during the same year as Bobby Seale and Huey Newton’s political party (no relation, despite that), Marvel’s Black Panther stood out in terms of representation even to a very young white kid living on a farm in a town you’ve never heard of. T’Challa hung with the Fantastic Four (and not uncommonly saved their bacon). He excelled as an Avenger. He looked cool as hell. But most of all, he just rocked. With the MCU’s Black Panther just a few weeks away, and with the anticipation building to a frenzy at the prospect of Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o and company killing it on the big screen, here are a few reasons why the Black Panther reigns supreme for this comic book fan.


1. The Black Panther Is One of the Smartest People in the Marvel Universe.

Black-Panther-science.jpg
Art by Jim Cheung

T’Challa is as smart as Tony Stark/Iron Man (and probably richer). And sure, writers often toss “really smart” onto the pile of traits for their heroes—it gives them more tools to get the protagonist out of jams—but T’Challa is routinely called upon to solve problems with his mind. He’s invented his own branch of science, combining alchemy and physics to create shadow physics. How does it work? SCIENCE! When Reed Richards needs help, he calls T’Challa. In addition to being science smart, T’Challa’s is also detective smart—he guessed Daredevil’s secret identity just because he notices things like that. (And before you dismiss that, it’s traditionally a lot more difficult to guess secret IDs in comics than in film and TV, where the writers are just lazy.)


2. The Black Panther Possesses a Finely Tuned Moral Compass.

Black-panther-compass.jpg
Art by Jorge Lucas

Muscles. In comics, everyone has muscles. But it’s the rare specimen that’s also a pillar of righteousness/ethical clarity. Choose any of the flagship heroes in the Marvel Universe, and you usually won’t have to look far to find multiple story arcs where our intrepid hero made some extremely questionable decisions. Iron Man hit the bottle and decided to lock up heroes. Mr. Fantastic has gone crazy a few times. Thor is deemed unworthy by Mjolnir every second Thursday. Even Captain America, the long-time bearer of that most powerful of unofficial superpowers—always in the right—experienced that unfortunate (in so many ways) “Steve Rogers is a secret nazi” storyline. Still, after Captain America, what hero is most often in the right? T’Challa. That doesn’t mean he hasn’t done some questionable things or wrestled with tough issues—and one of the joys of the last few years has been watching Ta-Nehisi Coates add layers of complexity to the character—but if you need to look to a costumed hero to make a complex call and Steve Rogers is feeling a little Hydra-ish at the moment? T’Challa. This leads to a related point…


3. The Black Panther Is Marvel’s Only Great Ruler.

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Art by Mike Choi

Let’s check out the other Marvel monarchs, shall we? Your best bet, non-feline-theme category is probably Black Bolt, but it seems like the city of Attilan and its populace is being relocated and attacked, or attacked and relocated, every other day. Doctor Doom is an arch villain and tyrannical despot. Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner, is an arrogant dick who occasionally attacks land dwellers and otherwise expresses romantic preferences poorly, and this still makes him better than most of the other royalty. All the pantheon types (Odin, Hela, etc.) have pantheon-related issues. Most of the other thrones you’ll find in the Marvel Universe are occupied by insane space tyrants, actual demons and devils or hostile insectoids from the Negative Zone looking to annihilate stuff. (Don’t get me started on Thanos.) But if you had to choose a ruler? A place to live where the rule is just and the fights chosen by your leader, honorable? The rulers of Latveria, Atlantis, Attilan and, frankly, the United States, leave much to be desired. Meanwhile, T’Challa is looking to expand his people’s reach into space. No, when it comes to non-democracies, Wakanda for life. (And sure, occasionally he’ll be dethroned, but there’s a good chance you’ll get his sister, Shuri, in his place, so win-win.)


Obviously, there are plenty of other, more profound reasons to love the Black Panther. (And as for less profound reasons, after February 16, I’m pretty sure Disney will have a billion or so of those.) But nonetheless, in an industry whose early history was littered with too many Hypno Hustlers and Rocket Racers, let’s just take a moment to appreciate T’Challa: All Hail the King.


Michael Burgin is Paste Movies Editor. His science smarts and detective smarts leave much to be desired.

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