Prepping for the ‘Black Panther’ party

L.A. WILLIAMS | 2/16/2018, 9:58 a.m.
“Got my Black Panther tickets! Can’t wait! Loved the trailer. So, you know comics. What’s it actually about?”
Chadwick Boseman as The Black Panter

“Got my Black Panther tickets! Can’t wait! Loved the trailer. So, you know comics. What’s it actually about?”

I’ve been asked that question few times over the past few months. And it’s not terribly surprising. After all, Marvel Comics has been on an absolute juggernaut roll with the quality and successes of their movies and TV shows over the past 10 years. Now, their newest flick has some of today’s most recognizable and acclaimed Black actors, including Forest Whitaker, Lupita Nyong’o, Sterling K. Brown and Angela Bassett. Combine Marvel’s track record with these stars and the marketing and it’s totally understandable that people would buy tickets without knowing much about the mythos. Plus, if a movie’s handled right, audiences shouldn’t need to know much before walking into the theater.

But for those who like a little background…

In “42,” Chadwick Boseman starred as Jackie Robinson, the first Black Major League Baseball player. In “Marshall,” he played Thurgood Marshall, the first Black U.S. Supreme Court justice. And in “Black Panther,” he reprises his role from “Captain America: Civil War,” as comics’ first Black superhero. (If you’ve not seen “Captain America: Civil War” yet, it’s thoroughly enjoyable.)

Introduced in 1966, the “Black Panther” was created by the legendary comic team of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in “Fantastic Four” #52. The character debuted the same year that the Black Panther Party in Oakland, Calif., but the timing is simply cosmically coincidental. (It’s a long time between when a comic idea comes to mind and when it’s published.)

The Black Panther is T’Challa, king of the fictional African country, Wakanda, and thereby spiritually connected to Bast, goddess of protection and cats. This connection, plus training and some rituals, gives T’Challa extraordinary agility and tracking abilities. These abilities are amplified or downplayed, depending on who’s writing him, but he generally isn’t super-strong in comics, yet is consistently portrayed as one of the smartest, wisest, richest and most honorable beings in the Marvel Universe. He’s similar to DC Comics’ Batman and Marvel’s Captain America in that when he fights a super-powered foe, logic says the more powerful being should have the edge, yet you know, somehow, T’Challa will win.

To understand the significance of the Black Panther, if a “very stable genius” who went “the best colleges” thinks African countries are “shitholes” in 2018, then imagine what most Americans thought of them 52 years ago. The best known African-based character was Tarzan, a white who regularly defeated Black “savages.” Images of Africans were usually of poor, ignorant, inferior people. Lee and Kirby flipped those stereotypes. Wakanda was so wealthy and advanced, it had to hide itself from the rest of an unready world. Their king was formidable on every conceivable level: a brilliant inventor, hunter, fighter and tactician who lacked conventional super powers yet could backslap most powered characters with ease. T’Challa symbolizes sophistication and coolness and his country represents Africa’s potential had it never been conquered or unduly influenced by outside forces.

For centuries, the world only heard rumors of Wakanda’s existence. That changed under T’Challa’s rule. He studied abroad and even became a member of Earth’s mightiest superhero team, the Avengers. And he brought some Western phrases, women and foods (pizza!) back to Wakanda. But under ’70s writer Don McGregor, those actions had consequences as some felt T’Challa was too enamored with the West and wasn’t paying enough attention to Wakanda. This discontent caused unrest and presented an opening for his greatest enemies, including Erik Killmonger, played by Michael B. Jordan in the film.

The ’90s writer Christopher Priest—ironically one of the character’s first sustained Black writers—significantly played up the Panther’s use of Wakandan technology as part of his arsenal. Priest also introduced the Dora Milaje, T’Challa’s female warrior bodyguards, and agent Everett K. Ross, to the series.

Ta-nehisi Coates is currently writing the “Black Panther” monthly comic as a new notable connected to the character. Respected director and producer Reginald Hudlin didn’t work on the new film, but his long run of writing the comic means his imprint is on it. Hudlin played up Wakanda as a major world power and cemented the Panther’s prominence in Marvel’s mythology from a bit character to one of its greatest. He also produced BET’s “Black Panther” cartoon, in which T’Challa was voiced by Djimon Hounsou, with other characters voiced by Jill Scott and Kerry Washington. In other cartoons, T’Challa’s been voiced by Keith David and Taye Diggs.

“Black Panther” opens in theaters this week, and his comic books are available in bookstores worldwide. “Black Panther” comics are usually sophisticatedly written and suitable for all ages, with the exception of those written by McGregor, which skew a bit more adult-oriented.