Set in the fictitious African nation of Wakanda, the six volumes of the Black Panther comic book weave plots that are faithful to superhero tropes and aware of Black nationalist discourses. The storylines focus on deterring white dominance, tribal warfare, and mineral exploitation. Creating characters conscious of the threats to their autonomy is an opportunity to reframe the “Black power” trope. This photo essay explores how iterations of raced and gendered figures in mainstream and independent comics are used to mediate and meditate on certain social anxieties. The images and their associated captions explore how Afrofuturism in “Black” comics not only provides illustrative cases of actual Black social life and political crossings engaged with cultural Black archives, but stimulates complex engagements with Black feminist thought in order to advance the liberation struggles of mutant, racialized, and gendered bodies seeking empowerment and social justice.
The year 2016 marked the fiftieth anniversary of both Marvel's Black Panther comic book superhero and the Black Panther Party. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's “socialist with a crown” appeared in July 1966, while later, in October 1966, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton formalized their political organization (fig. 1).1 Although the comic book publication predated the party and was independent of it, social revolution emerging from the “Black is beautiful,” “I'm black and I'm proud,” “Black power” ethos of the 1960s unites Wakanda, the fictitious African nation where the Black Panther rules as King T'Challa, and the Black Panther Party. This photo essay has three goals. First, it draws attention to the use of iconic imagery as visual cues in Black Panther's aesthetics, and even its narrative. Second, it continues to build upon the central idea that the inclusion, representation, and even stereotyping of Black people or “blackness” in sequential art reflect real and imagined Black life. Thus, the images selected survey how comic books transmit visual and textual genealogies of Black consciousness in America and of America being conscious of Black life. Many images in this photo essay were showcased in the 2016 exhibition Pictures and Progress: The Black Panther, 1966–2016 at the University of California, Santa Cruz.2 While the Black Panther comic book was a focus of the presentation, here it operates as a jumping-off point to advance the trope of Black power as it commonly shows up on the page, giving Black characters enhanced speed, strength, bulletproof bodies, scientific intelligence, royal ties, street “credz,” or supernatural elemental manipulation (figs. 2, 3). Third, the photo essay then moves beyond this trope to finally consider how Black power manifests as Black female presence and as Afrofuturism, a blending of pan-African culture with technoculture or non-Western cosmologies (fig. 4).
PANTHER AESTHETICS AND THE AMERICAN MOOD
When asked in a 2011 interview with Gary Groth why he created Black Panther, Jack Kirby answered, “It suddenly dawned on me—believe me, it was for human reasons—I suddenly discovered nobody was doing blacks.” Kirby “discovered that [he] had a lot of black readers” but no Black character.3 Yet Black Panther did not premiere as a stand-alone comic book. Instead, T'Challa's first appearance was in 1966 in the popular Fantastic Four series (fig. 5). The Fantastic Four—Mister Fantastic, Thing, Invisible Woman, and Human Torch—were mutated by cosmic rays, becoming overnight American celebrities, spectacles, and superhumans. Ramzi Fawaz writes that the Fantastic Four can be seen “as a creative space where ethnoracial minorities subject to bigotry and violence in the real world could be represented as courageous allies or even heroes in their own right.”4 It is fitting, then, that they accepted an invitation from the very private Wakandan king.
In the 1960s, Fantastic Four would have shared magazine rack space with headlines announcing colony after former colony in Africa, the Caribbean, and Asia reclaiming its sovereignty. Headlines in 1966 would have addressed Martin Luther King Jr. speaking to the ironic atrocity of sending poor Black men to fight in Vietnam to guarantee the liberties of people thousands of miles away when they could not enjoy justice in their own country.5 It is no wonder that the main crises of the Black Panther storylines are rooted in protecting Wakandans and keeping the aggressive forces of Westernized globalization—metaphoric or actual—at bay (fig. 6). In fact, in every Black Panther volume T'Challa recalls his father's, King T'Chaka's, struggles and assassination.6 Each version of T'Chaka's death differs slightly, but it is always at the hands of Ulysses Klaw, a European scientist-explorer determined to gain belligerent access to Wakanda's precious vibranium ore, with its mutagenic properties (figs. 7, 8, 9). Lee and Kirby's 1966 imagining of Klaw confronting young T'Challa bears an uncanny resemblance to images of the twentieth-century explorer Henry Morton Stanley and his servant Kalulu (fig. 10). This visual cue provides a framework to interpret the roles of colonial histories, economic insecurity, and racism in shaping not only Black Panther villains but running commentary throughout other Black comics (figs. 11, 12, 13).
In practical terms, Black Panther's greatest superpower is his economic security and ability to cross real and intergalactic borders as a world leader and respected member of ensembles like the Avengers and the Ultimates. America witnessed his great sophistication the first time he unmasked to speak face to face with Mr. Fantastic and Sue Storm while lighting up a cigarette. His aesthetic is reminiscent of a debonair model in a 1960s Duke hair pomade ad (figs. 14, 15). This is significant because unveiling the Black African body as a representation of sophisticated Black life, as opposed to the shopworn primitive-in-the-jungle trope, animates a spirit of protest and a reassertion of cultural Black beauty. In figure 16, we see this cultural trend captured two months earlier in the June 1966 Ebony magazine profile titled “The Natural Look.” Afrocentric aesthetics became a growing expression of solidarity among Black people. Lee and Kirby's reconfiguration of narrative and visual representation of their Black characters—spatially, historically, temporally, and imaginatively—was not achieved in a vacuum. Black Panther's look is attributed to a larger cultural consciousness emerging from antiracist, anticolonial, and feminist discourses that began to openly reject white liberal opinion and traditional Eurocentric values. The politics, ideology, and culture of the Black power movement are still relevant and are still articulated in comic books. We can see, for example, the way writers and illustrators trade on the iconic images of Huey Newton's peacock chair in figures 17 and 18, and Kathleen Cleaver's and/or Angela Davis's Afro in figure 19, to reinscribe ongoing social concerns about the precarity of Black life in America (figs. 20, 21).
VISUAL AND TEXTUAL GENEALOGIES OF BLACK CONSCIOUSNESS
As early as George Herriman's 1902 “Musical Mose” in the New York World's Sunday funnies, comic strips commented on race and social issues in America. Herriman, a man of Afro-Creole heritage, passed as white throughout his career. The gag in his strip pictured in figure 22 unfolds when the Black musician Mose fails to see his color as an obstacle when setting out to play for two Scottish women; they proceed to beat him after discovering he is a “nagur!” There is irony and innocence in panel 4 when it is his bagpipe, not Mose, who says, “I wish mah color would fade.” Art's imitation of life is brought to life through this visual pun. In this era, cartoons running in the progressive press and in Black newspapers rendered complex ideas into visually intelligent critiques of America. Ollie Harrington's (fig. 23) and Jackie Ormes's (fig. 24) comic strips in the Pittsburgh Courier between 1947 and 1955 covered class conflicts between Black migrants and Black residents, voters’ rights struggles in the South, housing discrimination in the North, and the politics of respectability that do nothing to deter lynching. Ormes's Patty Jo 'n’ Ginger comic strip was groundbreaking, as it made her the first woman African American cartoonist. Her young protagonist, Patty Jo, used humor, style, and intellectual prowess to comment on social issues of her day. In figure 24, Patty Jo's October 8, 1955 joke about a whistling white tea kettle appeared on the same page as outraged letters responding to the acquittal of Emmett Till's murderers (the fifteen-year-old Till was lynched for allegedly whistling at a White woman). We see similar intellectual activism in Jeremy Love's Bayou. In figure 25, ten-year old Lee Wagstaff is paid a few bucks by a White sheriff to dive to the bottom of a swamp to help retrieve the body of young Billy Glass, lynched on suspicion of disrespecting a White woman. Lee's comment that “nothing good ever came out the bayou” alludes to a history of Jim Crow atrocities, with Billy Glass functioning as a stand-in for Emmett Till. Here, we see how writers and editors used historic imagery as an organized, discursive tool to represent and validate cultural consciousness.
Chris Ware subtly captures the interlaced histories of Chicago immigrants, Blacks, and Whites in his graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (2000). Jimmy's stepsister Amy Corrigan is doubly alienated from her African American origins when her White adoptive parents die. Throughout the graphic novel, she loses her sense of self in terms of race, gender, even time. In figure 26, Amy daydreams on a bus sitting across from a Black man her age, but the pictographic theater offers no imagined connection between them. In contrast, Amy imagines what her future husband might look like—all variations of White men—in a long thought balloon on an earlier page. Her racial dislocation dovetails with that of her stepbrother, Jimmy, who is doubly estranged from his Irish roots by American modernity and the imposition of whiteness.
There is a kind of inverse of this in “I Am Curious (Black!)” (1970), issue 106 of Superman's Girlfriend, Lois Lane, in which Lois attempts to explore race relations in Metropolis. She is given the opportunity to write a story on Little Africa—a predominantly African American neighborhood—but the community views her with suspicion (fig. 27). Superman, with his access to Kryptonian technology called the “Plastimold” machine, helps her transform into a gorgeous Black woman. Whereas she was disappointed in Little Africa's initial rejection of her as a gorgeous white woman, her worry as a twenty-four-hour Black woman—complete with Afro, dashiki, and head wrap—comes about when she tries and fails to catch a cab and later when Superman prevaricates after being asked if he would marry her as “an outsider in a white man's world.” To the comic's credit, the issue flirts with double consciousness when Lois rides a bus and two White men glare her down, calling to mind Frantz Fanon's own experience on a crowded train when a child exclaims, “Look! A Negro!”7 Yet the story fails to examine the source of her power as a White person, ending simply with her giving a lifesaving blood transfusion to a Black nationalist who had ironically denounced her earlier as “young and sweet and pretty but never forget[ting] she's whitey!”
Other problematic depictions of Blackness or “otherness” in comic books include early issues of Will Eisner's The Spirit (1940) in which the Black sidekick, Ebony White, is drawn with exaggerated racial stereotypes and written with minstrel-show speech patterns. The scale of Ebony's anatomy starkly contrasts with the White male lead character, Denny Colt. Even when depictions of blackness are an editorial failure or a staged failure that is part of the character's flaw, comics as an archive and the comic book as an American medium still operate as a view to our cultural landscape (fig. 28).
It is important to note that most mainstream comics were (and are still) written by men in a predominantly white comics industry. Misreading the 1960s Black power movement inadvertently restored a measure of caricature and exposed the power of White liberal thought in DC Comics’ 1976 introduction of a character named Tyroc, whose name means “scream of the devil” in his native language. He is a resident of an African Neverland called Marzal that materializes on Earth every two hundred years. Its inhabitants are descended from escaped eighteenth-century slaves; it is a highly advanced maroon community. Not unlike Black Panther, Tyroc values his autonomy and Marzal's secrecy. And so, in his first three appearances in Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes, no. 222 (1976), he rejects, then saves the Legion of Super-Heroes, spending the other half of his time proving he is worthy of them. In an unfortunate plot twist, he is hunted down and placed in slave-like bonds after being falsely accused of using his superpower screams to wreak havoc on Metropolis (fig. 29). Tyroc and Marzal come across as specters of racial separatism, not Black empowerment. Thus, Black power is scripted as a narrative obstacle and, in this way, neither Tyroc nor Marzal can live up to their Afrofuturistic potential.
OF WOMEN AND AFROFUTURES
Ta-Nehisi Coates, the son of former Black Panther Paul Coates, is the current writer of volume 6 of the Black Panther comic book. His contribution to the mythos picks up on Lee and Kirby's 1966 cybernetic fantasy of the techno-organic jungle.8 Wakanda, in figures 30 and 31, is a synthesis of technology, nature, and spirituality—an idealized African modernity unfettered by belligerent Anglo-American intervention. Black Panther here builds on the Afrofuturity in Orrin C. Evans's Lion Man (1947), a comic about a superhero-prince who uses science and technology in his small jungle laboratory to deter the evil Dr. Blut Sangro (figs. 31, 32). Coates's emphasis on technology in the Black Panther comic influenced the 2018 movie version in which Wakanda's important ore, vibranium, takes center stage. Shuri, T'Challa's younger sister, invents almost everything in the Black Panther cinematic universe, down to his “sneakers.” When Shuri, dressed in a sleek minimalist white dress, jokes about T'Challa's old-fashioned sandals, we understand her role as linked to Africa's modernity. If the Black Panther is the steward of the people, she is the steward of their future. Vibranium sutures technology to spirituality. It is responsible for making the Black Panther's suit bulletproof and for making the shield of his ally, Captain America, stronger because of its ability to absorb and reflect kinetic energy. Its unique radiation gives Wakandan flora and fauna beneficial properties. All Black Panthers get their abilities by ingesting a sacred mutagenic plant, the Heart-Shaped Herb, imbued with vibranium.
Wakanda is not unlike many mineral-rich African countries, for example the Congo. Yet Afrofuturism rescues Wakanda from exploitation. Wakanda's techno-organic jungle disrupts past depictions of African primitivism and Black natives who, for instance, supported Tarzan. The jungle is reclaimed as a site of Black self-reliance, self-sufficiency, and self-determination. Wakanda's valuable isolation provides an intellectual space for its Black characters to thrive and actively critique global domination elsewhere. A close look at figure 33 reveals that Changamire, T'Challa's boyhood tutor, has on his bookshelf Wretched of the Earth (1961) by Frantz Fanon; A Nation under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration (2003) by Steven Hahn; Americanah (2013) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; Capitalism and Slavery (1944) by Eric Williams; A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954–1962 (1977) by Alistair Horne; and A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (1978) by Barbra W. Tuchman. Ironically, Wakandans’ knowledge of Black struggles and Coates's use of intertextuality to reinscribe ongoing social concerns about the precarity of Black life is what drives the Black Panther out of isolation.
Though T'Challa is driven by vengeance against the supervillain Klaw and his spirit is imbued with a hypermasculine panther god, the presence and importance of women in the development of the Black Panther mythos cannot be understated. T'Challa has a complex tie to his mother, Ramonda, and sister, Shuri, through an African cosmology that privileges foremothers (figs. 34, 35). We come to see the vital emotional, spiritual, and intellectual support given to him by the women in his life (figs. 36, 37). At times and eventually, these women must and do take control. Consider for example Nakia, the Black Panther's love interest in the movie. She is a War Dog and a spy dedicated to liberation struggles. We first meet her when she is undercover in Nigeria trying to put an end to a human trafficking ring (fig. 38). Black feminist traditions are not only a bridge between empowering and sympathizing with subordinated peoples, they are a trebuchet responding to an onslaught of nonsense in Black Panther's world. In addition, we have a preponderance of strong, beautiful Black actresses playing Black Panther's disciplined bodyguards, the Dora Milaje. In the comic books, we can trace the Dora Milaje's evolution from nondescript ceremonial wives-in-training to their vital role as an armed response unit. From their beginning as bodyguards in Black Panther 3, no. 1 (1998), we can also trace a change in their aesthetics from bodies naturalized under the male gaze to gender-indifferent, albeit sensual, figures (figs. 39, 40). In the current volume, Ayo of the Dora Milaje is in a relationship with Aneka, a combat instructor.
The film woefully omits this lesbian relationship, which is a testament to the radicalizing power of comic books as a medium, genre, and mode. Consider that Black women exist in an intersection that overlaps gender, race, and economic discrimination.9 In the comic book Bitch Planet (Image Comics, 2014), we see Black women, other women of color characters, and queer women intervening in liberation struggles as visual and diegetic aids calling attention to injustice because they are, in many ways, embodiments of it. The metaphor of the margin is satirized in this comic where women who do not physically or socially comply to White male heteronormative beauty standards are sent to an outpost called “bitch planet” (fig. 41). New representations of race and gender play out on the pages of comic books such as Paper Girls (Image Comics, 2015), Saga (Image Comics, 2012), Y: The Last Man (Vertigo, 2002), Monstress (Image Comics, 2015), and Smut Peddler (Iron Circus Comics, 2014). In ODY-C (Image Comics, 2014) a pantheon of heroes and villains rooted in a multiethnic and pansexual cosmology rewrite Homer. In figure 42, the ODY-C's rescripted goddesses restage Norman Rockwell's famed painting Freedom from Want (1943), demonstrating how Blackness and queerness can decenter traditional narratives and deconstruct cultural hegemony.
Although speculative narratives push back against assimilating traditions, there is a persistent impulse in comic books to pay homage to the past and make certain histories visible (figs. 43, 44). Further, we see new inclusive efforts from writers such Roxane Gay, Yona Harvey, and Nnedi Okorafor writing for Black Panther spin-offs. Efforts to increase diversity among comic book creators parallels the emergence of culturally inclusive comic book conventions.10 New spaces created for readers and by readers committed to the circulation of their own images and stories in the world of sequential art expand comic book readership. The market can bear this change in representation when we consider that the Black Panther movie opened in February 2018 and by April had become the tenth-highest-grossing film in the world, with a sequel already being planned.11 It is currently the top comic book adaptation for the screen and has broken many other theater-going records. Black Panther will soon be the first publicly screened movie in Saudi Arabia in thirty-five years, breaking a long-standing ban on cinema there.
The cultural work of Afrofuturism, Black feminist thought, intellectual activism, and intentional diversity has been a necessary part of the Black comic book tradition in the United States, and now its record of resistance is global. Let us hope that many future comic books continue to reflect Black life, Brown life, diverse life, and badass females of all shades and species who keep alive imaginative counter-narratives connecting past, present, and future readers (fig. 45).