You've probably heard of the Black Panthers, but have you heard of the comic book character Black Panther?
Also known as T'Challa, Black Panther was first introduced to Marvel Comics readers in an issue of "Fantastic Four," way back in 1966. (Fun fact: Technically, he predated the founding of the Black Panthers political party by a few months, buuut predecessor groups had already been using the panther symbol.)
T'Challa is the leader of the fictional kingdom of Wakanda, an advanced African nation. In addition to his own intelligence and scientific prowess, T'Challa also possesses superhuman strength, speed, and senses gifted to him by the Wakandan Panther God ... because comics. He's been a member of the Avengers and the Fantastic Four and even has his own movie coming out in 2017.
So, yeah, he's kind of a big deal.
As if that weren't awesome enough, Marvel Comics recently announced that acclaimed author Ta-Nehisi Coates will be the new writer for Black Panther's adventures.
Coates is best known for his writing at The Atlantic. That's where you probably came across his must-read story "The Case for Reparations." He's also published two nonfiction books and was recently nominated for a National Book Award.
So he's kind of a big deal, too. And a comics super-fan.
Coates recently talked to The New York Times about his childhood affection for black superheroes like Black Panther, War Machine, and Monica Rambeau: "I'm sure it meant something to see people who looked like me in comic books," he said. "It was this beautiful place that I felt pop culture should look like."
He's also having some fun with bringing his reputation as a serious political writer to the land of superhero comics:
Get excited, folks: Coates will be joined by artist Brian Stelfreeze, who is also black, for a storyline titled "A Nation Under Our Feet," after the well-known Steven Hahn book about black political struggles.
And it's about time, too — Coates is only the third black writer to ever script a Black Panther comic book.
Like most of the early Marvel superheroes, T'Challa was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, two Jewish-American men. Sure, they may have had good intentions, and they made him a brilliant scientist. But they also made him an African character with "Black" in his name and gave him a spiritual connection to mystical animal gods. Sigh.
It wasn't until 1998 — more than 30 years after the character's creation — that black comic book writer Christopher Priest took over "Black Panther." His run lasted until 2003 when the series was cancelled. Two years later, Reginald Hudlin, who was then President of Entertainment at BET, was brought in to script a new "Black Panther" series, which ran from 2005 to 2008.
Yep. For all the strides that have been made in diversity and representation, the comics industry still has a ways to go.
It's so encouraging to see a writer with the pedigree of Ta-Nehisi Coates get handed the reigns to an iconic black superhero like Black Panther.
Still: Coates is only the third black writer in 50 years? Seriously? You don't necessarily have to be black to write a black character. But diverse perspectives matter just as much as diverse representation does. I mean, c'mon — it's 2015! We can do better than that!
As always, superheroes can inspire hope for the future.
Marvel Comics in particular has made headlines recently with the introduction of characters like Miles Morales, an Afro-Hispanic teenager who is now also Spider-Man, and the Muslim-American superteen Ms. Marvel. Both Captain America and Thor have recently handed their respective mantles over to longtime supporting characters as well, giving the comics world a black Captain America (Sam Wilson, aka Falcon) and a female Thor (Jane Foster). There's even a new Korean-American Hulk, written and drawn by two Korean-American creators.
But across the three largest comic book publishers, the vast majority of creators are still white men.
You can look at the comics industry as a microcosm for the rest of the country: Even with the best intentions, change and progress still take time (for better or for worse).
Thankfully, there are people who are genuinely working hard to improve representation, in comics and beyond.
But as always, we still need to strive for better. It takes more than just opening doors to make art and reality reflect the world we share. That's why superhero comics like Black Panther are always "to be continued" — because even when our heroes do prevail, there's always one more battle to be won.