The Real History Behind the Black Panther

“Black Panther,” one of the most highly anticipated movies of 2018, has already broken pre-sale ticket records for its parent company Marvel Cinematic Universe. But the journey from comic book to screen has taken more than 50 years: Black Panther, Marvel Comic’s first black superhero, debuted in Marvel’s “Fantastic 4” comic in 1966, and became a member of the Avengers two years later, but didn’t get his own comic until 1977.

The series centers on T’Challa, king of Wakanda, and the wealthiest fictional character in the Marvel universe. Unlike many other heroes, T’Challa inherits his mantle from his father T’Chaka (the previous king), and gains his powers—including superacute senses and enhanced strength and speed—from a combination of skill, divine favor and a special herb. In a 1990 interview with The Comics Journal, co-creator Jack Kirby described why he created the character: “I came up with the Black Panther because I realized I had no blacks in my strip…I had a lot of black readers. My first friend was…black! And here I was ignoring them because I was associating with everybody else.”

Fantastic Four #52, where Black Panther was first featured. (Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers.com and Heritage Auctions)

Black Panther’s story originates in the fictional nation of Wakanda, touted in the comic as the only African country that was never colonized—though many tried. Over the years, observers have drawn real-world parallels between Wakanda and Ethiopia, which was never officially colonized, but was occupied by Italy in the 1930s. Without outside powers extracting its resources, or imposing exploitative policies, Wakanda flourishes and becomes the most technologically advanced country on earth, rich in natural resources such as the fictional element Vibranium. (Sound familiar? It’s what Captain America’s shield is made of.)

To understand more about “Black Panther” and the history it reflects, we got some help from author Adilifu Nama, author of Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes.

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