Captain America and Iron Man may be the stars of Marvel’s latest comic-book blockbuster, but Black Panther—making his big-screen debut—is most definitely the superhero of the moment.
Black Panther, the warrior king of the futuristic fictional African country Wakanda, is starring in a new comic book series that is doing booming sales, and will be the first black hero to get a standalone film, in 2018. The new comic series, written by acclaimed author Ta-Nehisi Coates, a leading voice on race issues in America, deputed in April, and so far 330,000 copies of the first issue alone have been sold, according to Marvel.
The character, celebrating his 50th anniversary, is a long-time member of the Marvel universe, but one of the few black heroes, a fact that has new resonance in an entertainment world consumed by a debate about diversity. “The Black Panther has always been a well liked character among fans,” said Ben Saunders, the director of comics and cartoons studies at the University of Oregon. But he’s been given new life through the writing of Coates, who won a National Book Award for his Between The World and Me, a letter to his son on how blacks fit into American society.
“It was simply meant to be,” Marvel Comics editor-in-chief Axel Alonso told AFP of Coates’ participation, explaining that the author is a life-long comic book fan. “Ta-Nehisi is a wonderful storyteller with a masterful control of language and he has something to say about us—mankind, humanity—that transcends mere politics.”
Robert Battle, a store clerk at Midtown Comics in Manhattan, said Coates’ popularity was a major factor in the book’s popularity. “More people are excited about the writer than the character; it’s usually the other way around,” Battle said. Coates “has attracted the attention of many people who would not normally read a comic book,” Saunders noted.
The man behind Black Panther’s mask is T’Challa, who has a doctorate in physics and rules Wakanda, the imaginary land that is the most technologically advanced country in the world. Coates has been able to showcase Black Panther’s serious side in the new series, in which he is facing a popular uprising in his homeland. “This is not a problem a superhero can punch into submission,” Alonso said.
Josh Johnson, another employee at Midtown Comics, said he loved the new Black Panther. “I’m more interested in the political side of his story. I got into him when I was young because I didn’t know that there was any superheroes outside of New York,” he said.
Black Panther was the first black superhero, appearing in 1966, far ahead of other characters such as Falcon, the black Green Lantern (John Stewart), Black Lightning and Luke Cage. Jonathan Gayles, a professor of African-American studies at Georgia State University, says Black Panther is “an exception” even among these heroes.
“He stands out because as an African superhero, in many ways he’s exempt from the racial history of the United States,” Gayles explains. “The first African-American superheroes were dragged down by historical stereotypes about black men.”
Because he is a foreigner, Black Panther “doesn’t represent the same level of threat that African-American superheroes represent,” said Gayles, who made a documentary about black superheroes.
Alonso said while he hoped that the new comic series would attract black readers, he thought the story of T’Challa was a universal one. “Our fans don’t fall in love with our characters because of their powers; they root for the person inside the costume, the person they relate to,” Alonso said.
Before the new Coates comic made waves, Marvel green-lit a standalone film in 2018 for Black Panther, who will be played by Chadwick Boseman, best known for his portrayal of black baseball legend Jackie Robinson in 42.
Ryan Coogler, the young black director behind last year’s successful Rocky spinoff Creed, will be at the helm. Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o and Creed star Michael B. Jordan are already attached to the project.
Filmgoers get their first taste of Black Panther in this month’s Captain America: Civil War, but he has a secondary role to the franchise’s more established stars.
“There have been a lot of comic books titles that have featured people of color and they haven’t been comparatively as successful as others. I think there’s still a bit of hesitation to accept the idea that everyone has the right to be seen as powerful,” Gayles said. “But if the movie Black Panther is successful as other films have been, then I think that there will be a scramble to take advantage of that niche… It’s about making money.”