B. Allen Bradford-Marvel’s Black Panther movie, anticipated with perhaps higher socio-cultural expectations than any superhero movie ever, is here. Time Magazine’s Jamil Smith has written a great article linking Marvel Comics’ original 1966 introduction of the Black Panther, the first mainstream black superhero, with the civil rights tumult of that era. But the Black Panther was not Marvel’s first black hero. In fact, he was one of a number of intriguing, groundbreaking black characters the comic book publisher introduced in the 1960’s.
The Black Panther first appeared in Fantastic Four #52, courtesy of FF co-creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, rapidly becoming comic book icons as they revitalized the superhero genre. Within the short span of 5 years, they had rolled out the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Mighty Thor, X-men, the Avengers, and resurrected popular 1940’s superhero Captain America. With other artists, Mr. Lee had also launched the Amazing Spider-Man, Daredevil, Iron Man and Doctor Strange. Thrusting identifiable feet-of-clay protagonists, bedeviled at every turn by personal problems, into operatic, over the top adventures, Marvel hit on a formula that would propel them past archrival DC Comics. And DC, home of superhero stalwarts Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and the Flash, was tailor-made to serve as “The Establishment” to Marvel’s mind-blowing 60’s upstarts.
Part of Mr. Lee’s insight was to tie Marvel’s characters to the real world. The Fantastic Four and Spider-man lived in New York City, not Metropolis or Gotham City. Their presidents were our presidents, their wars our wars, their cultural tropes (the Beatles, Johnny Carson, air pollution) our cultural tropes. During the 60’s, Marvel’s characters even more or less aged as normal people do. Peter Parker (Spider-man) and Johnny Storm (the Human Torch) graduated high school and entered college. Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic) and Sue Storm (Invisible Girl) married and had a child. Sometimes, characters were even killed.
In this Marvel world, so like our own, there could be no escaping the real world tumult of the 1960’s. And that included the civil rights movement.
The Power of the Panther
The Black Panther’s 1966 debut occurred less than a year after President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law, and two years after the Civil Rights Act became law. In my home state of Georgia, the state legislature would soon name segregationist Lester Maddox our new governor, although he’d lost the state’s popular vote. This same body was refusing to allow newly elected representative and civil rights activist Julian Bond to take his seat until ordered to do so by the U.S. Supreme Court. And Madison County, Georgia had finally integrated its schools, including my third grade class at Colbert Elementary—12 years after Brown vs. Board of Education!
I did not encounter the Black Panther until 1969, in the first Marvel comic I ever bought myself--Avengers #66, which began a trilogy featuring those superheroes’ desperate battle against the evil robot Ultron (also the featured villain of the last Avengers movie). The Panther played a small part in this story—he was back in Wakanda, putting down an insurrection—but it was vital. He sent his colleagues a chunk of vibranium, which Mighty Thor ultimately used to destroy the villain. I was intrigued. I knew most of the Avengers from my big brother’s comics buying days from years before. But the Panther was new to me. Who was this mysterious African king with the resources to take out a major villain without even being on the scene?
As a newly devoted Avengers reader, I soon found out. In Avengers #73 and #74, T’Challa led the fight against the “Sons of the Serpent,” a group of high-powered quasi-Klanners who were targeting prominent black citizens. My interest grew. There was no one else quite like this guy—a king, scientist, and superhero who still found time to teach at a school in Harlem. He was one of the reasons I kept coming back to the Avengers, but he was often lost among the superhero crowd. I also collected two series he starred in during the 70’s, in one of which he took on the “real” Klan.
Somewhere in there, I lucked into the original Panther stories in Fantastic Four, which are rightly credited with breaching a major color wall in mainstream superhero comics. But, over time, I realized that Marvel Comics had already been subtly chipping away at the racial color wall for a few years, and would continue to do so.
Gabe Jones, Marvel’s First Black Hero
In 1963, amongst all their new superheroes, Marvel rolled out Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos. Years before “The Dirty Dozen” and other Hollywood movies presented us with the ethnic rainbow that has become a war movie standard, Lee and Kirby’s World War II heroes included an Irishman, an Italian, a Jew, a Southerner, a Brit—and an African American. They snuck Gabriel “Gabe” Jones in as a bugler (and he was even mis-colored as white in the first issue)—but he quickly became a full-fledged, combat ready member of the team. In one memorable issue (#24), his comrades accompanied him to his uncle’s New York City jazz club, where readers learned Gabe was actually a professional musician. He later joined Nick Fury as a key agent of SHIELD. Although Gabe had no more powers (or personality) than the other “Howlers,” he was, so far as I can tell, the first mainstream black comic book hero.
The Robertsons, the Prowler, the Falcon and Luke Cage!
In 1967, Stan Lee and John Romita introduced in the pages of Amazing Spiderman #51 the character of Joseph Robertson. “Robbie” was city editor of J. Jonah Jameson’s Daily Bugle newspaper, the mature, cooler head to his fanatical, anti-Spidey boss. He became a friend to Peter Parker and defended his alter ego. Lee also soon introduced Robbie’s son, Randy, a college classmate of Parker’s. Unlike his buttoned down dad, Randy was an activist, and this led to clashes between the two. In one memorable exchange (Amazing Spider-Man #69, 1969), Stan Lee had Randy rage at his father “I have to be tougher…I have to be more militant…because of YOU! You’ve become a part of the establishment…the White Man’s establishment! I’ve gotta live that down!” To which his father responded “But isn’t this what we all want…what we’re all fighting for, boy? To make it on our own? To prove we’re as good…or better…than anyone??” Said Randy “I dunno! I dunno what to think!” I can only imagine how this resonated with black Spider-Man readers, but it sounded revelatory to a white kid from the small town South.
A few issues later, Lee and artist John Buscema introduced the Prowler. Young, inventive, ambitious Hobie Brown quit his job as a window cleaner with a racist boss, designed a costume and clever gadgets, called himself the Prowler and began a life of minor crime. Spiderman easily defeated him, but when he unmasked his foe and saw a guy as young as he was—albeit black—the two had a heart to heart talk, and Spidey let him go. Later, Hobie Brown used his Prowler equipment to help Peter Parker out of a personal jam, but never quite became a full time superhero (at least until long after I stopped reading).
Then there was Eddie March, one of my all time favorite Marvel characters. Following an artificial heart transplant, Iron Man/Tony Stark’s physician warned him to avoid strenuous physical activity. So, in Iron Man #21 (produced in 1969 by Archie Goodwin and George Tuska), Iron Man’s alter ego decided someone else should wear the armor. That someone turned out to be boxer Eddie “Iron Man” March, who, suffering from a blood clot to the brain, had just been told by his own doctor that taking any more blows could be fatal to him. But March jumped at the chance to don the armor of his idol (who wouldn’t?). So long before James Rhodes (also black), this character was the first person to substitute for Tony Stark as Iron Man. Unfortunately, he nearly died doing so, and Stark, inspired by March’s near martyrdom, re-assumed his identity as Iron Man.
But the first true mainstream African American comic book superhero had just debuted in 1969 in Captain America #117, courtesy of Stan Lee and artist Gene Colan. Sam Wilson, the “Falcon,” was an athletic Harlem native and social worker who had trained a wild falcon (Redwing by name) and, via a series of outlandish comic book events, wound up leading an insurrection on a tropical island. There, he met and was trained in numerous combat skills by Steve Rogers/Captain America, and eventually became his partner. They wound up in quite a number of nitty-gritty adventures in the streets of Harlem. The Falcon was given a full personal life, with supporting characters that livened up the pages of what became Captain America and the Falcon. The problem was the Falcon just didn’t have much power, although the Black Panther eventually used Wakandan science to enable him to fly. (I understand that, in more recent times, Sam Wilson has assumed the Captain America role.)
It wasn’t until 1972 that Marvel finally awarded a black superhero his own comic book: Luke Cage, Hero for Hire, created by Archie Goodwin and John Romita (though drawn by George Tuska and Billy Graham). Wikipedia’s description gets it right: “Cage's adventures were set in a grungier, more crime-dominated New York City than that inhabited by other Marvel superheroes of the time.” This comic book rode and receded with the Blaxploitation film crest, but I hold its first dozen or so issues in high regard.
More black superheroes were to come, and not just at Marvel. But the Black Panther and the Falcon, and, in his own way, Gabe Jones, led the way. The Robertsons helped open the door to non-superhero black characters as well. Several artists contributed to the creation of these characters. But they all had one writer—Stan Lee.
Stan Lee, Social Activist?
Co-creators of both the Black Panther and Gabe Jones, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were both 40 something, white (and Jewish), New Yorkers who had spent their careers in comic books. It’s probably too much to call either a social activist. But one would look long and hard through competitor comics, especially DC’s pallid offerings, to find a person of color in the 1960’s. Marvel not only presented us with a variety of black characters, Stan Lee sent consistent signals of his and his company’s earnest commitment to equal rights. Each month for many years, Marvel comics carried “Stan’s Soapbox,” in which Lee held forth on everything from the latest comics, “Bullpen” comings and goings, philosophical musings and social commentary. The social commentary included this, from comics cover dated December, 1968 (and re-circulated by Mr. Lee after last year’s racist march in Charlottesville, Virginia): “…it’s totally irrational, patently insane to condemn an entire race…if man is ever to be worthy of his destiny, we must fill our hearts with tolerance.”
In The Very Best of Marvel Comics, a compendium issued in 1991, Marvel artists and writers selected their personal favorite comics from among the thousands issued over the preceding 30 odd years. Stan Lee made an interesting choice: Daredevil #47. Published in the fateful year 1968 (and including the “Soapbox” quoted above), it introduced the character Willie Lincoln, a blind African American Vietnam War vet and former cop, who both Daredevil and his blind alter ego, Matt Murdock, helped adjust to life stateside. Here’s how Lee explained his choice of this story: “My prime objective in writing a story is to be as entertaining to the reader as possible but on the rare occasion we can also get a moralistic message across, then it is twice as gratifying and I was very pleased with the anti-prejudice message I felt this story contained.”
Maybe, just maybe, the thousands, perhaps millions, of us who received those messages should be just as gratified as Mr. Lee was in sending them.