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Wakanda was the way Stan Lee spoke to me

What the creation of Black Panther meant to one young comics reader

black panther in wakanda 1960s Marvel Comics

In 1966, two middle-aged Jewish-American men named Stan Lee and Jack Kirby unleashed the Black Panther and his fictional hidden homeland of Wakanda on the world. Part of the reason the king of Wakanda became my favorite superhero was because, while in New York City with the Avengers, he was essentially an immigrant. T’Challa represented his country to the world in the best possible way, like my parents, who came to America from Haiti in the late 1960s. In the Marvel Universe’s comic-book version of New York, even a king could be an outsider.

Like millions of people all over the world, I’ve been mourning the loss of Stan Lee ever since the iconic creator passed away on Monday. The fictional landscape that Lee helped architect — with Kirby and other legendary artists like John Romita Sr. and Steve Ditko — changed the world of pop culture, resulting in superheroes that felt more grounded and psychologically complex than ever before.

Fantastic Four #52 cover - intro to Black Panther
Fantastic Four #52
Marvel Comics

The stories of the early Marvel era offered the idea that anyone could be a hero: Nerdy teenager Peter Parker, the misunderstood mutants of the X-Men and a monster named the Hulk all fought evil while rooted on the fringes of society. Despite being royalty, the Black Panther fell in line with that ethos when he chose to come to America.

The first comic featuring Black Panther that I read wasn’t by Stan Lee. Avengers #61, written by Roy Thomas, with art by John Buscema, George Klein and Sam Rosen, featured T’Challa early in his Avengers days. As a mystical threat to the world starts to emerge, Black Panther receives an emergency call from far-off Wakanda. My reaction to this scene was to think, “Wait, he’s from somewhere else?” That singular fact made T’Challa stand apart from other black superheroes I’d read about, like Luke Cage or Black Lightning. It also made me look forward to seeing T’Challa in other stories, and sent me hunting to learn more about him.

In Avengers #61, Roy Thomas built on the foundation that Lee and Kirby laid down in the Panther’s first appearances. Eventually, I tracked down Fantastic Four #52, and learned that Wakanda was a place that hid itself from the outside world. It wouldn’t be explicitly expounded upon until decades had passed, but the implicit meaning still was clear: Keeping the outside world away meant that Wakanda controlled its own destiny, avoiding the colonization that had ravaged the African continent. I understood this streak of anticolonialism.

Growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, I absorbed a lot of speeches about Haiti from my mother. Our homeland was the first free black republic in the world, repelling Napoleon’s French armies in a long, bloody war and declaring independence in 1804. Haiti stood as a defiant rejoinder to the idea that black people were inferior. So did Wakanda.

As I’ve thought about the stew of ideas that might have been in Lee’s and Kirby’s heads when they cooked up Wakanda, I’ve wondered how much their experiences as Jewish-American men in the early 20th century might have influenced them. On the African continent, former colonies were fighting to become their own sovereign countries. Here in America, the civil rights movement swirled all around Lee and Kirby, who themselves hailed from a persecuted group that had stereotypes flung it. All of these motifs seemed to be in play in the Panther’s early stories, and it felt like Lee’s stentorian scripting was specifically designed to pull me in.

I didn’t believe myself to be inherently noble or a scientific genius like T’Challa, but he was a stranger in a strange land, and I sometimes felt like that, too. I suffered through all kinds of stereotype-centric jokes as a kid because I was black, and they doubled in vigor when peers found out my mother was Haitian. When you’re the butt of a joke, your true self feels like a rumor no one wants to believe.

Black Panther and Klaw in Fantastic Four
Klaw comes face to face with the Black Panther.
Marvel Comics

T’Challa’s archenemy, Klaw, says as much in the climax of the first Black Panther storyline in Fantastic Four; he’s been operating under the assumption that the legendary warrior-king is a myth. In response, Black Panther boldly proclaims, “I exist!” He pretty much does the same thing in Roy Thomas’ story, when his android Avengers teammate Vision asks about Wakanda.

T’Challa is evidence that Stan Lee, his co-creators, and the writers and artists who followed in their footsteps knew that black people existed in a fuller way than was often shown in comics. Some of their well-meaning efforts were clunky and embarrassing, but they were gesturing in the right direction. That was enough for me.

In the Black Panther, I saw a glimmer of the pride that my mom and other Haitian relatives and friends had instilled in me. It was pride that made T’Challa become my favorite superhero. I’ve been lucky enough to write him in Rise of the Black Panther, paying back some of the inspiration that Stan and Jack gave me so long ago.

Evan Narcisse is a journalist and critic who writes about video games, comic books, movies and TV. He’s also the author of the Rise of the Black Panther graphic novel for Marvel Comics.


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