The Jewish Roots Of ‘Black Panther’
Marvel Comics

How the creation of Lee and Kirby [aka Lieber and Kurtzberg] changed the comic book game and become a box office sensation.

While it may seem like just another superhero movie, “Black Panther” is a culturally important reflection on race, culture and Afrofuturism. There have certainly been black heroes before (e.g. “Spawn,” “Blade”), but Ryan Coogler’s third feature film feels so fresh and relevant and with the backing of Marvel Studios, this cinematic phenomenon will reach the maximum amount of people. In fact, it’s already shattered a number of box office records, making over $240 million in just four days.

But that’s the here and now, let’s turn the clock back a bit. Last week, we engaged in the “What If?” exercise of Wakandan Jews without going into much depth of the Jewish men who created the original character. You’d be hard-pressed to find more iconic names in the comics industry than Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. You’ll know Lee from all his cameos in every Marvel movie made so far, but Kirby, his original creative partner in crime, is just as important, perhaps even more so in some instances.

The two created the character of Black Panther in 1966, a year after America’s escalation in Vietnam and several months before the radical political group of the same name. He was the first black superhero in mainstream comics. Other heroes of color had existed, but none of them had super powers like Black Panther did.

In a 1990 interview with The Comics Journal, Kirby revealed that he wanted to create an African character after he discovered that he had a lot of black readers. “And here I was ignoring them because I was associating with everybody else,” he said. “It suddenly dawned on me — believe me, it was for human reasons — I suddenly discovered nobody was doing [African characters].”

First appearing in the pages of Fantastic Four #52 in July of 1966, T’Challa ascended to the throne of Wakanda, a fictional technologically-advanced African nation,  after his father T’Chaka was murdered by Ulysses Klaw, the son of a Nazi war criminal. By defeating the other leaders of the country’s tribes in combat, T’Challa became king and, more importantly, protector of Wakanda as the Black Panther.




Marvel Comics

The groundbreaking nature of the character is amplified when you take into account the fact that he arrived at the height of the Civil Rights movement. There were two years to go until MLK. Jr. would be killed by James Earl Ray in Memphis. Lee and Kirby had already touched on the racial movement in the pages of their successful "X-Men" comics, making mutants the stand-ins for the disenfranchised class of Americans and having Professor X and Magneto serve as thinly-veiled allegories for Dr. King and Malcolm X.

The creation of a black character by two white guys might seem a tad out of place, but the history of American Jewry is closely connected with the plight of African Americans crusading for equality in the 1950s and ‘60s. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching by the side of MLK Jr. and the murders of Jewish Freedom Riders Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner (along with James Chaney) by the KKK are powerful examples of American Jews joining the fight (and even giving their lives) for racial equality in the United States.

 




Marvel Comics

And yes, writing/drawing a comic book from the comfort of a New York City office can’t be compared to marching on the frontlines, but Lee and Kirby aimed to tap into new territory. Not all heroes had to be white, and if they weren’t white, they didn’t have to meet the expectations of the time either.

“I wanted to avoid stereotyping,” Lee once said of the character’s creation in a 2011 issue of Alter Ego. “To avoid stereotyping, he doesn’t live in a regular tribe and so forth; he is the prince of a nation, and the nation is hidden under the ground. It’s a country called Wakanda, and he is one of the greatest scientists in the world and his area; his country is more scientifically advanced than any. When you get to the hidden entrance and go down to Wakanda, it looks like you’re in a scene from a science-fiction movie of the thirtieth century! But, in order not to be discovered by the rest of the world, ’cause he doesn’t want his nation contaminated by today’s civilization, it’s hidden underground, and up above it looks like just thatched villages where nobody would ever suspect what’s really below."




Marvel Comics

Lee also stated that the character was partially inspired by the American comic strip “The Phantom,” which followed a costumed hero working in the fictional African country of Bangalla. While he was a white dude, “The Phantom” did have a black panther as a companion, which captivated a young Stanley Lieber and became the early idea for his and Kirby’s new hero.

Whether the two creators, knowing what it was like to be abused by society as Jews, felt a compulsion to do their part in that turbulent climate is unclear. There is an idea that many of the classic comic book characters were protectors that the Jews never had or beloved assimilated citizens that American Jews wished to be seen as. Could the birth of Black Panther be an extension of that catharsis, a hero stemming from two Jews feeling an empathic connection not to their own people, but to their fellow downtrodden Americans who were rightly pushing for acceptance? Had the focus of comics changed from the battlefield of religious intolerance to racial intolerance?

There’s no definite answer and there doesn’t need to be one. This is not an article about how Jews single-handedly brought about racial equality in America with a comic book character. They’re just a very small part of a story championed by brave African American men and women who did not give up (sometimes dying) until they could ensure a better future for their children and grandchildren.

 

No, this is simply the tale of how two Jewish kids from Manhattan set out to make a new superhero who was not confined to the terms and definitions of the era. In doing so, they paved the way for Luke Cage, Black Lightning, Storm, Static, Bishop, Blade, Sam Wilson, Misty Knight, Cyborg, John Stewart, and every other diverse characters who would grace the paces of comics and media adaptations of those comics in the decades to come.

 

"Fifty years ago, he could have never envisioned the statement that this movie is making and the way it is being embraced by everybody," Kirby's son, Neal recently told The Hollywood Reporter. "In terms of a message, that was always his intention, but he could have never envisioned reaching this size of an audience."

Black Panther

Marvel

Jack Kirby

Stan Lee

Join The Discussion