On the freeze frame cover of 1976’s Jungle Action #19, Black Panther employs every limb to vanquish evil. On a trip to Georgia, the hero has encountered robed members of an organization known as the Clan [sic]. All at once he’s uppercutting one, putting another in a headlock, and kicking a third square on the jaw.
At first glance, it’s hard to draw parallels between this moment and the first cover to feature Captain America, in 1941; that one finds the first Avenger punching one Adolf Hitler right in the mustache nearly a full year before the US entered the second World War.
Inside Jungle Action #19, the Black Panther’s words are as measured as his fighting style is lethal. “You should not hit a man in the side of the head with your fist,” he explains thoughtfully. “The man’s head is harder.” The issue arrived roughly a decade after the character’s first appearance in Fantastic Four #52.
A skilled fighter, a brilliant scientist and inventor and an African king, Black Panther (real name: T’Challa) is commonly regarded as the first mainstream black superhero—and thanks to a series of forthcoming films, beginning with May’s Captain America: Civil War, he’s about to enjoy a higher profile than ever.
On April 6th, T’Challa is also set to star in a brand new comics mini-series penned by Atlantic contributor, National Book Award winner and MacArthur fellow Ta-Nehisi Coates. The writer describes the experience as the fulfillment of a lifelong wish. “I was less concerned with character conflict than with the realization of my dreams as a 9-year-old,” the author explains in the new issue of The Atlantic.
Coates waxes nostalgic about the character, and comics in general: that form of escapism for the proverbial 98-pound weakling in those days before the Internet and X-boxes. “Some of the best days of my life were spent poring over the back issues of The Uncanny X-Men and The Amazing Spider-Man,” he writes. “As a child of the crack-riddled West Baltimore of the 1980s, I found the tales of comic books to be an escape, another reality where, very often, the weak and mocked could transform their fallibility into fantastic power.”
But like the best Marvel characters, the Black Panther was always about more than fantasy. The characters were products of their time, rather than escapes from it—demonstrated most spectacularly with the Uncanny X-Men, a minority group persecuted by their society, introduced to the public at the height of the Civil Rights era. The plight of homo superior—blessed with extraordinary power but shunned by society—is every bit as relevant today as it was half a century ago.
Coates is keenly aware of this, and he has promised his Black Panther will both acknowledge and embrace the era that created it even as he works to transcend it. In this collaboration with veteran artist Brian Stelfreeze, King T-Challa grapples with an uprising of his own people, spurred on by a terrorist organization.
“Can a good man be a king, and would an advanced society tolerate a monarch?” Coates writes. “Research is crucial in both cases. The Black Panther I offer pulls from the archives of Marvel and the character’s own long history. But it also pulls from the very real history of society—from the pre-colonial era of Africa, the peasant rebellions that wracked Europe toward the end of the Middle Ages, the American Civil War, the Arab Spring and the rise of ISIS.”
Coates’s foray into the world of superheroes is informed by the likes Chris Claremont, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Walt Simonson: artists and writers who know that the best examples of the genre are those that use reality to inform the fantastic. The truth-telling transcends the images of grown men and women battling evil in contoured costumes.
“I must now reckon with what is loose in my country,” an embattled Black Panther confesses over a backdrop of bloody conflict and supernatural powers. “The hate fades, and we must reckon with what we have done to our own blood.” It’s more subtle, perhaps, than hand-to-hand combat with Hitler or the Klan (sorry, that’s “Clan”). But it still packs a punch.