By Franchie Viaud, Staff Writer
Recently, Marvel announced that it would be releasing “The Black Panther” film on Nov. 3, 2017, spurring both elation and furor among comic book fans.
Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, T’Challa (Black Panther) broke the glass ceiling on African American commencement as seasoned superheroes. It’s not like there was a particular shortage of people of color in comic books, but they took on as filler heroes — nothing really of substance, just there to take up space and perhaps add a little flavor or support to the main character.
It’s kind of like how you eat a Three Musketeers bar when Kit-Kats or Snickers aren’t available — not because you particularly like Three Musketeers, but because there is no other option, and honestly, chocolate is better than no chocolate at all (you know it’s true). If that analogy doesn’t do it for you, here’s another one: African American characters were to comic books as back up dancers are to Beyonce. Sure, they make the show a little more entertaining, but no one came to see them, we’re all here for the star. Everyone else is frankly, irrelevant, and sort of just fades into the background, outshined by the brilliant illuminance that is the paramount star.
However, Marvel introduced the Black Panther into the arena in 1998, initiating a long line of African American superheroes (“superhero” being the operative word here), rather than the maybe Black/Hispanic mulatto mash-up of its predecessors whose name (if given one) you can’t quite recall.
Not only did the Black Panther have powers, but he also had plot lines and an origin story and a whole world dedicated just to him, adding concreteness to an idea of something, a rough sketch of a man in a uniform, and creating an honest-to-God, full-fledged character. He was neither static nor superficial in foundation. Not a mere tulpa, envisioned in some dark crevice of a corporate cubicle (where ideas go to die) and made tangible by thoughts alone, held together by spit and sheer will, but a character with a countenance and personality all his own.
But, not only would it be insulting to suggest that Black Panther’s only allure is that, as his name suggests, he is black, it would also be false. After all, he’s no longer the only one, not since Wesleys Snipes’s portrayal as Blade (one of my favorites) in 1998 and in his subsequent films, Halle Berry as Storm in every X-Men film since 2000 and Terrence Howard as War Machine (although whether that is an actual superhero is dubious. Hero, maybe. Super? That’s a tad bit capricious). So the thing that makes him noteworthy is not really his race, although that does play a small part. While I do think it would be ignorant to make his skin color the most compelling component about him, it would be imprudent to discount that aspect of his being altogether. It’s where he’s from—Wakanda.
The wonderful figmented nation of Wakanda is the epitome of futuristic utopias. Thankfully, Marvel undermined and avoided the stereotypical approach, which would have been have been to depict Wakanda (name aside), as a “savage” or “exotic” nation, although distinctly African in pretense.
Depictions of Wakanda have varied over the years, like any story, but some things have remained persistent: a technologically savvy mecca, devoid of white influence, assembled and concocted on a bed of magic and innovation, Wakanda is what some like to call Afrofuturistic science fiction — a genre rarely awarded any notoriety. It is after all difficult to initiate black faces in sci-fi films would be to equate black individuals with the future, something not of the present, a popularized misconception. Also, conceptualizing Africans in fantasy makes race and ethnicity the focal point, along with the dystopian threats introduced because of it, rather than the backdrop, as it should be.
And as comic book historian Adilifu Nama suggests, “Blackness in sci-fi is political.” A tragic thing to conceive, which makes the Black Panther that more thrilling. With all these facets working against him, it will be exciting indeed to see Black Panther succeed, where others have failed, and be the cause of making Afrofuturism mainstream.
In the words of the big cat himself, “I am who you are looking for. I am the Black Panther. King of the dead… and soon to be your new lord.”