The Panther

Here’s another short segment from the Jack Kirby biography Stan Taylor is working on. Stan sent in several of the photographs and I added a few also. Thanks for sending this in Stan! I really enjoy reading your work.

Kirby Biography Excerpt

by: Stan Taylor

America was on fire!  Los Angeles was ablaze, In perhaps the worse rioting in American history the black residents of the Watts section of L.A. said enough was enough.  For 6 days in August 1965 they burned and rioted in defiance of a police force they felt had a long history of brutality and prejudice against the black populace.  Seen as part of the civil rights movement that had been active and growing for decades, these riots were the resultant explosions of a long simmering animosity. After the Watts riot, inner cities boiling over became commonplace with it being a rarity for a major city to be spared.

Positive black characters had been a rarity in mainstream comics. Stan and Jack figured it was time to end that lunacy.  Their first attempt was in making one of Sgt. Fury’s Howling Commandos an African American.  Gabe Jones was a bugle playing GI in the multicultural commando unit.  His race had been a focal point of several plotlines in the early stories and his bravery and dignity –like Jackie Robinson–never faltered.  

Art from Sgt. Fury # 3 (Sept. 1963)

But Gabe was still a minor character in a book full of unique characters.  It was time to create a major character strong enough to stand on its own and where else would Lee and Kirby introduce him other than the Fantastic Four – the comic where most of the important new characters were introduced.  

In issue #52 July 1966, the Fantastic Four meet up with the Black Panther and his home country of Wakanda in darkest Africa.  The Black Panther is the chief of the Wakandans –a small independent country made rich by a natural mineral called Vibranium.  T’challa, the Panther’s given name, had used this wealth to promote education and modernity on his small nation and has created a miraculous scientifically advanced country, deeply hidden in the African jungle.  But Wakanda had an enemy, and the Panther had to test himself to see if he was ready to take on this enemy.

The final test was to see if he could defeat the greatest team of superheroes imaginable.  Though he did not defeat the FF, he certainly held them to a stalemate.  The idea of heroes testing themselves against each other was a common plot line for Marvel.  The heroes fought each other as often as villains.  The fight against the villainous Klaw–Master of Sound -would showcase the Panther’s bravery, physical prowess and human decency. He was a perfect fit for admittance to Marvel’s pantheon of heroes.

Later we would learn the unique process used at Marvel when we see the actual steps used to create this character.  He started out being known as Coal Black, a very unwieldy name.

Some have complained that the concept was weakened by making the Panther a super-rich, European educated, African monarch, instead of an American from the inner city.  Others disagree saying that making T’challa an African was even braver by introducing a new hero from the emerging continent of Africa, rather than making him an American. Africa had never had a particularly positive image in American culture. More of an after thought used mostly for Tarzan movie backgrounds where the black populace was useful for carrying bags and feeding the lions. Lee and Kirby transformed Tarzan into a black native – the equal to any white hero.

A couple months later in Oakland California a group of black nationalists would form a new group espousing Black Power in all things, chief among them the end of police brutality, full and equal black employment, and self-realization of all black people.  This group would transform into perhaps the most radical black organization of all.  The name of the group was the Black Panther Party.  The Black Panther symbol predated Kirby’s use of the title. It was used in 1965 by the Lowndes County Freedom Organization to help signup black voters in Lowndes County Alabama.  Formed by oft-arrested radical Stokely Carmichael and his Students For a Non-violent Coordinating Committee, the LCFO was on the cusp of the rising black power movement.  Two black Californians, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, asked for permission to use the black panther emblem that the Lowndes County Freedom Organization had adopted, for their newly formed Black Panther Party. It’s initial use was as the sporting logo for historically black Clark College in Atlanta Ga. There had been press on this civil rights group from sources such as Time, and Life Magazine, so possibly these were the inspiration for the name of the new Marvel hero.  

As a World War 2 veteran, Jack was certainly familiar with the proud Fighting 761, The Black Panther all-black tank battalion.  Stan Lee worried about the name being appropriated by a radical group. Ideas were passed. But luckily none were accepted. The Black Panther stayed the Black Panther and he became a part of the Marvel Universe.

 

Amazing where ideas come from:

We sing our praise to thee.
You are our heroes
And will forever be.
RAH, RAH, RAH.
Honor and glory
You bring to old CC.
All hail to thee, O Mighty Panthers
On to victory!

                    Clark College fight song