Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and the Progressivism of the Black Panther

A few weeks ago I watched The Black Panther and loved the movie. I watched the movie with a few friends in Oakland and it was fun to hear applause from the crowd when the first scene in the movie took place in Oakland. It is also gratifying to see how this movie has affected the African American community, as many have been inspired by the vision of a Black superhero and an African kingdom that has never been colonized and has both advanced technology and advanced views on social equality. This is in keeping with the original vision of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the co-creators of the Black Panther.

The Black Panther was created in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Many people assume that Lee and Kirby were inspired by Huey Newton’s Black Panther Party in the creation of the Black Panther character. In reality, the comic book Black Panther was created several months before the Oakland based Black Panther Party was formed. This is only a guess on my part, but I think Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were actually inspired by a different Black Panther Party that was founded by Stokely Carmichael. In 1965, as a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Stokeley Carmichael went to Lowndes County in Alabama to lead a drive to register African Americans to vote. Skeptical of the Democratic Party (which in Alabama was dominated by segregationists) and the Republican Party to fairly represent African American voters, Carmichael founded the Lowndes County Freedom Organization or as it become known, the Black Panther Party.

Thomas Bacon wrote an article for Screen Rant about the revolutionary nature of Lee and Kirby’s creation of Black Panther:

Marvel Studios head honcho Kevin Feige praises Stan Lee and Jack Kirby for having the courage to create Black Panther in the 1960s for Marvel Comics, and now, he plans to honor their creation (and their vision) as much as he possibly can.

Black Panther was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby way back in 1966. Not only did the character outshine many of the traditional comic book superheroes of the era, but the character came at a time in which the civil rights movement in the U.S. was still raging on…

…Screen Rant attended a recent press conferences for Black Panther, in which Marvel’s Kevin Feige stressed how important the character’s legacy is.

“…There are other things in the film that have been relevant for centuries, but the truth of the matter is Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and the whole Marvel bullpen created Wakanda and created T’Challa and created Black Panther and made him a smarter, more accomplished character than any of the other white characters in the mid-1960s. So they had the guts to do that in the mid-1960s. The least we can do is live up to that and allow this story to be told the way it needed to be told and not shy away from things that the Marvel founders didn’t shy away from in the height of the civil rights era.”

Ryan Parker wrote an article for the Hollywood Reporter about how thrilled the Kirby family was about the reception of the Black Panther movie. Parker wrote:

Created in 1966 by Lee and Kirby, Black Panther was revolutionary as the first African superhero in mainstream comics. Considered by Kirby as one of his most important creations for its message, T’Challa (Black Panther) was a black man with brawn, brains, wealth and advanced technology introduced in the middle of the civil rights movement.

Neal Kirby, a high school senior when Black Panther first appeared in Fantastic Four No. 52 in summer 1966, remembers his father talking to him about introducing the character.

“I recall during the winter or early spring he asked me what I would think of a black superhero in the comics. Of course he was very much for it, as we all were at the time,” Kirby says. “My father was a very social liberal person. He would have been the Bernie Sanders of his day. He very much believed in social justice and equality, so he honestly thought it was time. Why shouldn’t African-Americans have their own superhero?”

Joshua Ostroff wrote for The Huffington Post about the strain of social commentary in Stan Lee comic books like the Black Panther:

The 1960s was an era of social and political upheaval, and that bled into Lee’s work, though he demurs somewhat.

“You were always aware of all those social issues, but I wasn’t writing political stories or social stories. I was just trying to write stories that people of all ages and sexes would enjoy reading. If we touched on any issue, I did it very lightly,” he says. But when he was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2008, the dedication cited that “these new stories provided a medium for social commentary. In 1972, when he became the publisher, he used his editorial page, ‘Stan’s Soapbox,’ to speak to the comic book reader about social justice issues such as discrimination, intolerance, and prejudice.”

And it wasn’t just on the back pages.

The X-Men — a team made up of mutants who endured terrible racism (speciesism?) — were inspired by the civil rights movement, including the philosophical dichotomy of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X influencing pacifist Professor X and militant Holocaust survivor Magneto…

…”A lot of people are just too narrow-minded and a little bit bigoted. And there are a lot of people who feel that if somebody is not just like me, he’s a bad guy. I could see the day come when all of the people with black hair hate the blonds or tall people hate the short ones. I mean, it’s ridiculous. It’s as though some people feel you just have to hate anyone who is different than you.

“And if my books and my stories can change that, can make people realize that everybody should be equal, and treated that way, then I think it would be a better world.”

Jeet Heer wrote an article for The New Republic about Jack Kirby that describes the importance of the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby collaboration in the history of comic books. Heer wrote:

The great Kirby and Lee comics of the 1960s were pivotal in remaking superhero comics into something more than children’s fables, and one fundamental addition was the concept of a super-hero team. Earlier superhero comics brought together characters in an ad hoc way. There’s really no reason Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman should have formed the Justice League other than the fact that they were all popular. But Kirby’s teams, as scholar Charles Hatfield notes, were different. They were united by a common experience, whether the trauma of radiation (the Fantastic Four) or of all being mutants (the X-Men) or outsiders (the Inhumans).

Rare among American artists, Kirby was not an individualist. That position was taken to an extreme by his Marvel colleague Steve Ditko, a follower of Ayn Rand. But Kirby himself was formed by groups: the kids’ gangs he grew up with, the Boys Brotherhood Republic (a youth group that steered him away from gangs), the army, and even the Simon and Kirby studio. He had a profound belief that human destiny lies in groups, even if those groups are made up of misfits and freaks. If there is one overriding message in Kirby’s work, it’s a communitarian one: to triumph over evil, we have to come together. Forming such a collectivity is never easy (Kirby’s groups were full of internal strife) but always necessary.

Movies like The Black Panther and last year’s Wonder Woman are important for how they represent groups of people that are not usually shown in Hollywood movies. For little children growing up, these super hero movies will be an early model for how women, African Americans and people of all races can be treated as equals with equal opportunities to accomplish great things. Kirby’s philosophy that we need to come together to fight prejudice and evil is more relevant than ever in the era of the Alt Right. Jamil Smith wrote an insightful article for Time Magazine describing the importance of the Black Panther comic book. Smith wrote:

Those of us who are not white have considerably more trouble not only finding representation of ourselves in mass media and other arenas of public life, but also finding representation that indicates that our humanity is multi­faceted. Relating to characters onscreen is necessary not merely for us to feel seen and understood, but also for others who need to see and understand us. When it doesn’t happen, we are all the poorer for it.

This is one of the many reasons Black Panther is significant. What seems like just another entry in an endless parade of super­hero movies is actually something much bigger. It hasn’t even hit theaters yet and its cultural footprint is already enormous. It’s a movie about what it means to be black in both America and Africa—and, more broadly, in the world. Rather than dodge complicated themes about race and identity, the film grapples head-on with the issues affecting modern-day black life. It is also incredibly entertaining, filled with timely comedy, sharply choreographed action and gorgeously lit people of all colors. “You have superhero films that are gritty dramas or action comedies,” director Ryan Coogler tells TIME. But this movie, he says, tackles another important genre: “Superhero films that deal with issues of being of African descent”…

…In the midst of a regressive cultural and political moment fueled in part by the white-nativist movement, the very existence of Black Panther feels like resistance. Its themes challenge institutional bias, its characters take unsubtle digs at oppressors, and its narrative includes prismatic perspectives on black life and tradition. The fact that Black Panther is excellent only helps.

Tayo Rockson does a video essay on why Wonder Woman and Black Panther are important movies

The buzz around the Black Panther movie release should come as no surprise to anyone keeping tabs on representation in media these days. People want movies that feature people of color and their stories. But there is a dearth in the supply of films produced that do that. Vox spoke with the UCLA sociology professor Darnell Hunt about how Hollywood has progressed to diversify its characters and stories to reflect the demographics of the US. Watch this video to understand how America’s changing makeup is key to Black Panther’s early dominance at the box office.

Black Panther fans filmed a video message sharing what the movie means to them – what they didn’t know was that Chadwick Boseman was right behind the curtain, waiting to surprise them.

A BBC video of the reaction of the Black Panther movie across Africa

Rushing to the theater to see Marvel’s “Black Panther” is more than just a weekend activity. Many fans are using the movie to celebrate a shift toward a more positive, empowering portrayal of people from the continent of Africa.

Marvel’s Black Panther has arrived to critical acclaim, but artistic merit aside, for lots of black youth it’s much more than a superhero movie. CBC News followed a group of teenagers who won a screening to Black Panther to find out what the movie means to them and the lessons they learned from seeing the groundbreaking film.

Global Opinions Editor Karen Attiah says, sure, Wakanda doesn’t exist, but neither does the myth of black inferiority. Attiah believes Black Panther is just as important for white people as it is important for Black Panther. “Black Panther” fights fantasy with fantasy.

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About angelolopez

I’ve wanted to be an artist all my life. Since I was a child I’ve drawn on any scrap of paper I could get a hold of. When I went to San Jose State University, I became more exposed to the works of the great fine artists and illustrators. My college paintings were heavily influenced by the humorous illustrations of Peter De Seve, an illustrator for the New Yorker magazine. I also fell under the spell of the great muralists of the 1930s, especially Thomas Hart Benton and Diego Rivera. I graduated with a degree in Illustration. Angelo Lopez has had illustrations published in Tikkun Magazine, the Palo Alto Daily News and Z Magazine. From April 2008 to May 2011, Angelo's cartoons were regularly published in the Tri-City Voice, a weekly newspaper that covers the Fremont, Hayward, Milpitas, Neward, Sunol and Union City areas in California. He does a political webcomic starring his cartoon character Jasper for the progressive blogsite Everyday Citizen. Since December 2011, Angelo does a regular weekly political cartoon for the Philippines Today, a Filipino American newspaper based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Since March 2013, he has also contributed cartoons to the Manila Mail, a Filipino American newspaper based in Washington D.C. Angelo is a member of the Sunnyvale Art Club, and the Northern California chapter of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. During the 1990s, he was a member of the part-timer workers SEIU unit in the city of Sunnyvale. Angelo won the 2013, 2015 and 2016 Sigma Delta Chi award for editorial cartooning for newspapers with a circulation under 100,000. He has also won the 2016 RFK Book and Journalism Award for Editorial Cartoons. Angelo won first prize for the Best of the West contest in 2016 and third prize in 2017. Angelo is married to Lisa Reeber. They enjoy taking walks, watching movies and hanging out with their nieces.
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