Wakanda Wednesday: How Black Panther has been changing Marvel from day one

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Jan 24, 2018, 2:45 PM EST

From its first rendering in 1966's Fantastic Four #52, the fictional African nation of Wakanda — the home of the hero Black Panther — was a Black rhythmic bed jostling both its creators and the titular supergroup out of a white-centric Silver Age. It not only imagined a wholly Black society built on its much sought-after resource, the sound-metal Vibranium, it contained its own monarchical system of governing a hidden wealth and technological know-how easily lapping every other nation in the world.

But Wakanda's secrets were not secrets simply because its thick jungle canopy provided necessary cover (although it surely helped). The country was invisible to the Western world because white interests — both in and outside of comics — never stretched so far to attempt an understanding of what it meant to be Black. Wakanda was not only the birthplace of mainstream comics' first Black superhero, it was comic writers, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's, first imagining of an all-Black world in the wake of Black women and men forcefully opening the eyes of the greater national conscious. And much like that particular historical moment, the results were a little meh but they set the groundwork for what would evolve into more fleshed out discussions of intersectional representation, racialized imperialism, and the prevailing notions of western colonialism in Black art.

A Black world fashioned by white creators presents its own sets of questions: how can a white outsider imagine a Black otherworld that is free of western-influenced bias; what gets lost in translation as white writers and editors attempt to make Blackness legible to a culture built upon Black folks' criminalization, imprisonment and premature death; and how does one fend off reinscribing harmful stereotypical images of Black, Black patriarchy, and Black queerness? If Lee and Kirby considered these when creating Black Panther, we'll probably never receive a genuine answer, but we can harken back to those original appearances and tease out how those inquiries played out in the early days.

When asked about the number of changes in the ways comic creators handled continuity over the years, Marvel historian and writer Tom Brevoort (known for his work on the Marvel Encyclopedia) suggests that time and topicality were of the utmost importance to Lee in the '60s. "The approach to continuity always suited the moment," he writes in 2010, "In the earliest days, Stan didn't have any use for anything beyond the broadest version of continuity." This meant not only do the characters age in real time but the topics Marvel comics broached were more than likely a closer reflection of what was happening throughout the country in a given month.

Fantastic Four Wakanda

Credit: Marvel Comics

The discovery of, and response to Wakanda by the Fantastic Four, then, was meant to microcosmically speak back to the ways that whites invisibilized Black people at the time. In FF #52, it is abundantly clear that Dr. Reed Richards (aka Mr. Fantastic) did not expect an African nation to have any semblance of technology, much less the capability to engineer a self-flying aircraft. Whereas Richards was markedly impressed by the craft's build, Ben Grimm (The Thing) couldn't shake that an African chieftain — or "a refugee from a Tarzan movie" — was leading them deeper into the unknown.

Richards, excited yet suspicious, and Grimm, tactless and ignorant, both represent points upon an emotional spectrum of white colonial imperialism. While Richards wants to find the source of the Wakandans ingenuity — there is no way a "primitive" or "undeveloped" nation could create a ship as fly as this — Grimm, in racist disbelief, writes them off almost entirely; you can't really expect much from a blockhead. In this way, Wakanda, itself, is a gag on the narrowed understandings white people have for the African continent. It is the plantation song doubling as resistance organizing method; it is the Black linguistic tradition that confuses and enamors white listeners; the geographic manifestation of Black ingenuity and double consciousness. At the very least in its conception, Wakanda was meant to be a kind of play on white ignorance that grows even as it white people conquer.

Fantastic Four Wakanda Black Panther

Credit: Marvel Comics

If the creation of Wakanda and its imbuing of a kind of Black genius earned Lee and Kirby their cool points, the patriarchal order instilled in Wakandan society is one that begs to be interrogated. The ruling Black Panther, T'Challa, invites the FF to Wakanda in order to challenge them to a hunt and prove superiority. As he lays waste to their whole crew, T'Challa talks his s*** as superheroes are wont to do. Grimm calls BP a cornball like Richards (which, okay, it's 1966 but he's still not allowed to do that!) before Grimm is decisively outsmarted.

In fact, BP outsmarts all of them pretty handedly, however, his handling of Sue Richards (Invisible Woman) is rather revealing. After incapacitating Sue using sleep gas, T'Challa remarks that, during a hunt such as this, he "does not consider females fair game." It's easy to argue that 1), Lee and Kirby wanted to maintain Black Panther's more noble nature even as he wiped the floor with the FF and/or 2) that the sensibilities of the time precluded them to be extra careful when it came to how they handled their female superheroes. But, the odd line not only does a disservice to Invisible Woman as a powerful character in the series up to that point, it paints Wakanda as a country that reinscribes patriarchal ideas of differing strengths based simply on gender. That inequality would come to bare out in Black Panther comics down the line as the Dora Milaje (sworn protectors of Wakanda's King and the pool of women warriors he must pull from to wed) begin to play a much larger role in the comic.

The monarchy in Wakanda is as male-centric as any in the Western world. And while some Black folk can get their rocks off by claiming themselves a part of an unknown royal lineage, it's more likely that being Black in America meant our ancestors were most likely neither kings nor queens. While the image itself of a Black nation led by a Black king can be one of empowerment, its proliferation in sexist, classist conversations muddle meaningful shared community between Black people. It's a kind of patriarchal entry point that more often divides than conjoins.

Black Panther invites the FF to Wakanda not only because he wants to challenge them but because he will soon face his most formative enemy the Klaw and will need their help. The Klaw is the first white man to step foot in Wakanda and once he got a glimpse of their vibranium, he naturally decided to try to overthrow the entire civilization in order to take it for himself. Klaw kills T'Challa's father, T'Chaka, during the attempted coup — the main inspiration for the story of Black Panther from the beginning. But long story very short, he fails. But the manner and emotional tenor of his failure is what is most important here. When Black Panther and Klaw's epic battle reaches its climax, T'Challa fully intends to kill the Klaw by pretty much imploding an entire cave on top of him.

Black Panther comics Wakanda Wednesdays

Credit: Marvel Comics

While this level of retribution was pretty par for the course in those days, it's still a rather stark picture of what BP's desires are. It would be irresponsible to say that Lee and Kirby were using Black Panther as a stand-in for the murderous rage against white colonizers by Black subjects, but the very image of vengeance against the Klaw is rather powerful. Klaw is definitely not dead (because comics!) but that doesn't change the fact that Black Panther fully intended on killing him for murdering his father and changing the course of his life forever.

It is here that Black Panther's original fashioning produces its most resistant work. The idea in 1966 that Black people could experience a measure of retribution against those that commit perpetual and systemic violence against them feels almost completely foreign to us now. Consider Black Panther's first onscreen moment in Captain America: Civil War where the choice of retribution or some arbitrary notion of "justice" are both presented when he can kill Baron Zemo or spare him. T'Challa, without hesitation, shows mercy.

There are many other fantasies being played out in the early-goings of Black Panther's appearances. He is utterly gracious to the FF, giving them gifts when they leave Wakanda, putting on great feasts for his guests, and even helping Johnny Storm with his lady troubles. It all reeks of "the first American Thanksgiving" falsehoods about grateful colonists and undiseased Natives. As they begin to part ways, the FF place hands on Black Panther, encouraging him to be a hero that looks after the entire world instead of solely focusing on the Wakandan people. He acquiesced and ends up joining the Avengers later down the line, much to the chagrin of the leaders back home.

If the origins of Black Panther are to tell us anything, it's that white constructions of a Black nation will undoubtedly have racialized limitations that go much deeper than skin tone. The ideas, plot developments, and character motivations are shaped by the experiences of those with the power to create. Wakanda is a space ripe for revolution but it could only truly take its next step when the page matched up with the experience of its storytellers.