Black Panther is a fictional character in the Marvel Comics universe. Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, he first appeared in Fantastic Four #52(July 1966). He is the first black superhero in mainstream American comics, and his debut was soon followed by other Black mainstream superheroes including Marvel’sFalcon (1969) and Luke Cage (1972) and DC Comics‘ Tyroc (1976), Black Lightning (1977) and John Stewart (1971). First appearing in July 1966, the character just barely predates The Black Panther party, which was founded in October 1996. Original designs, however, had the character named “Coal Tiger” and donning a very different costume.
Beyond the mask, the current Black Panther is known as T’Challa is a super genius warrior king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, the most technologically advanced nation on Earth. He is one of the smartest men in the Marvel Universe, a former Avenger, and has been romantically involved with X-man Storm. T’chall’s father T’chaka preceded him as King of Wakanda and as the previous Black Panther before he was killed protecting his family.
In 2011, BET partnered with Marvel to create an animated Black Panther series, that is so incredibly dope. With characters voiced by talent like Jill Scott, Kerry Washington, and Djimon Hounsou as Black Panther, you definitely want to check this out. And just to make it that much easier for you… peep the first episode below:
Black leadership in the U.S. has sometimes seemed to be a notion stranger than fiction. That Black leaders like Frederick Douglass and W.E.B DuBois could arise in the midst of intense subjugation is truly incredible. And the legacy has continued on through the civil rights movement and today. In fact, today is the birthday of MalcolmX, one of the most influential Black leaders in history. Yet though there are many real-world examples of Black leaders to choose from, science fiction, one of the most imaginative and visionary genres of art continues to struggle to imagine Black characters into lead roles. On Malcolm X’s birthday and in this golden moment of immense geekery with a huge line-up of sci-fi and superhero movies and tv shows, what better time to take a look at the state of Black leadership in science fiction?
Of the more than 25 major superhero and sci-fi movies coming out this year, only one, After Earth, starring Will and JadenSmith, features a Black character in a leading role. A handful of others, including Star Trek:Into Darkness, Iron Man 3, and the forthcoming Ender’s Game,feature major Black characters in their casts.
Black characters in science fiction and comics tend to be relegated to side-kicks or token roles (that is, if they’re not immediately killed off first… (*spoilers ahead) RIP random Black guy in last week’s episode of Defiance, Black guy in the first 10 minutes of Star Trek: Into Darkness,Luke Cage and Black Panther in Age of Ultron).It remains a rarity to see a Black character in a leading role in science fiction or superhero stories.
There are, of course, exceptions spread out over the decades: Abar, The First Black Superman(1977), Steel(1997), Spawn(1997), Blade (1998-2004), and Hancock(2008) are all examples of films with a leading Black hero. Granted, several of them were pretty bad…
In comics Batwing and MilesMorales in Ultimate Comics Spider-manare pretty lonely as two of very few Black characters leading their own major comics. Black Panther and Nick Fury however are at least in leadership roles in the Avengersstory lines.
The small screen today, however, has a lot more to offer. In sci-fi television right now Revolution’sCaptain Tom Nevilleis one of the only Black sci-fi characters in a leadership role. The show also features the mysterious Grace Beaumontin a recurring role. And Merlinwas so bold as to cast Black actress Angel Coulby as leading lady Gwynevere(to much of the usual internet rage and backlash).
Defiance’sTommy Lasalle, Falling Skies’sAnthony,Teen Wolf’sBoyd, and The Walking Dead’sMichonneare regularly recurring Black characters in science fiction tv; however, each of them plays a sort of “hired hand” or “body gaurd” role. Game of Thronesrecently introduced Grey Worm, the elected commander of the emancipated Unsullied army, who has had few lines and little screen time thus far, and he is quite literally a hired hand. Missandei, a translator for Danaerys, was also recently introduced. Though far from being a leader, she does get a bit of screen time. The now deceased Xaro Xhoan Daxos, a leader of Qarth was the only other Black character to be given substantial screen time in the show.
Characters like True Blood’sTara Thornton, Vampire Diaries‘s Bonnie Bennett, and Grimm’sHank Griffin are all cast in the role of best friend to the main protagonists. Hank Griffin more specifically is the protagonist Nick Burkhardt’s partner in the Portland police force
And there are some exciting new shows with Black leads to look forward to…
Sleepy Hollow, premiering this fall on Fox, is truly unique among sci-fi shows, casting Black actress Nicole Beharie in the leading role of Abbie Archer, a police officer and lead investigator on the supernatural case rocking her town. The show also features Black actor Orlando Jones as Lieutenant Frank Williams. The trailer seems to indicate that Jones and Beharie’s characters are the main characters along with Ichabod Crane himself.
While the idea of a modernized time-travelling headless horseman is a tad ridiculous, it’s such a rare sight to see a Black woman leading a sci-fi series that we’re crossing our fingers pretty hard that it will be good. . J.J. Abrams’ AlmostHuman, however, looks pretty dope. And the leading character’s robot partner, Dorian is played by Black actor Michael Ealy.
Science fiction is often a genre that looks ahead, that beats society to the punch, projecting fantastical futures, predicting technologies that will define our future, or showing us the possible outcomes of our current destructive behaviors. While there have been small victories in the inclusion of recurring characters of color in many tv shows, comics, and novels, it is hardly beyond the imagination of such a visionary genre as science fiction to create worlds where characters of color (because this conversation obviously extends beyond Black and white) are the main protagonists of a story, or perhaps *gasp* multiple characters of color are the leads! Of course, we have sci-fi writers who are placing characters of color at the center of their stories, like Samuel Delany,Nnedi Okorafor and Nalo Hopkinson and more. But unfortunately such stories are often considered “for Black people” rather than for general enjoyment, and so they remain outside the mainstream, never making it to movie adaptations or major network TV series… or even simply into the hands of a wide and diverse readership.
But how do we go about fixing that? Is this gradual route – slowly introducing more and more characters of color in increasingly leading roles – the right way to go? Is it working? What else might work?
*This is hardly an exhaustive account of all of the Black characters in comics and sci-fi, though we did attempt to capture the major players. Please feel free to add more in the comments! We look at a few current comics with major characters of color here.
So this happened last week – some super awesome kids donned superhero costumes to rally for student/youth rates for MBTA (Boston’s public transportation system) passes, so that they can afford to get to and from school/work/extracurriculars. The injustice here is that most of the students who are taking the public trains or busses are from lower income neighborhoods, and they are literally paying to go to school.
These kids’ costumes were pretty darn creative, with names like Affordabili-T (the MBTA is affectionately called “the T” here in Boston). Seeing these kids don capes to protest injustice got me thinking…
As much as superheroes must enjoy punching things in the name of Justice, I bet they have no small amount of envy and awe for the activists who punch the clock, fighting against injustices that have a more ethereal power. So, here are a few superheroes and the real life activists they so wish they were.
Reed Richards & Neil Degrasse Tyson
Reed Richards looking ridiculous while fighting again
Neil Degrasse Tyson looking awesome while being ridiculous
They may call him Mr. Fantastic (actually, hardly anyone calls him that anymore), but he’s no match forthe fanaticism that Neil Degrasse Tyson wins from his nerdy nerdy fanbase. They are both super-super-super geniuses, but Degrasse Tyson’s got that cool factor that nobody can best, and he pulls it off while wearing this. Meanwhile, no matter what badassery Reed Richards pulls off when he goes all stretchy, he always looks pretty ridiculous. What they both share is a love for space and scientific curiosity, but while Richards is engrossed in his work and exploration, Degrasse Tyson takes his knowledge to the people as a public educator. True true Richards did start a school for alien/mutant/powered youngsters, but he kinda left that in the hands of a reluctant friend to take off on a (fine fine emergency) space trip. Fine, so they’re both awesome, but seriously, who wouldn’t want to be Neil Degrasse Tyson? Just look at how coolthis man is!
She Hulk & Justice Sonia Sotomayor
She Hulk marches up the steps of the capitol
Official Portrait of Justice Sonia Sotomayor
She-Hulk has always been an activist lawyer. As a criminal defense attorney, she’s taken on tough cases involving her superhero brethren as well as civil liberties cases and cases against corrupt corporations, she’s even argued before the Supreme Court. She’s a tough lawyer too, and rarely seems to lose anything other than her temper, which is something she’ll have to work on if she ever wants to be anything like her own heroine Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Sotomayor has been serving on the Supreme Court of the United States since 2009, and is the first Latina and third woman ever to serve. The two women began their careers around the same time with She Hulk (aka Jennifer Walters) first appearing on the scene in 1980, while Sotomayor first entered private practice in 1984.
Daredevil & Chen Guangchen
Daredevil (aka Matt Murdock)
A lot of people made the Daredevil joke when it first came out that Chen Guangcheng, who is blind, managed to scale a wall and escape from the house where he was imprisoned. But the truth is, these two have more in common than being blind acrobats. Both are lawyers, Guangcheng is self-taught, and both conduct their fights for justice both in the courtroom and on the streets. Chen Guancheng has long been an activist in China, fighting for civil rights for women and the poor and against unjust family-planning practices. Though he was persecuted by the government for his activism, jailed for years, and put under house arrest along with his family, he chose to stay in China rather than seek refuge abroad, until his life and his family was threatened. He now resides in Matt Murdock’s own New York, but his fight is still in China. Similarly Matt Murdock, rich as he is, chooses to keep his fight in Hell’s Kitchen where he lawyers (often pro-bono cases) by day, and not unlike Guancheng’s heroics, battles villains with his stunning acrobatics by night.
Black Panther & Wangari Maathai
Black Panther on his throne
Black Panther (T’Challa) may be king and sworn protector of Wakanda, and with his supergenius and his cat-like moves, he’s kept the already flourishing Wakanda safe and thriving by forging international friendships, employing his genius innovations, and safe-guarding the vibranium that nourishes Wakanda’s wealth and security. Nary an ounce of magical substance in sight, the late Wangari Maathai worked miracles for her native Kenya, using the resources at hand, and she did it against all odds. She became the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize for her environmental and political activism, founded The Green Belt Movement that created jobs for thousands of Kenyan women and enriched Kenya’s resources simultaneously, demanded democracy and investment from her government, and she was eventually elected to Parliament. Okay so this one is a little unfair. It’s sort of impossible to be more amazing than Wangari Maathai, which is probably why the chronic overachiever T’Challa clearly holds her as a model.
Aquaman & Ric O’Barry
Aquaman (New Earth)
Ric O’Barry, founder of The Dolphin Project
He might be an Atlantean king, but Aquaman probably owes a nod of respect to activist Ric O’Barry, who has made it his life’s work to save dolphins from captivity and from hunters. He founded The Dolphin Project* back in 1970 to educate the public about the plights dolphins face, and he was featured in the award-winning movie TheCove, where he exposed the hunting of dolphins off the coast of Japan. Aquaman is a bit busy ruling his underwater kingdom and fighting pirates and superbadguys, but he clearly took a tip from O’Barry when, back in the 80’s with the launch of the New Earth series, his origin story was rewritten to include his being raised by dolphins, rather than his original backstory of a love affair between an Atlantean woman and a lighthouse keeper.
Oracle & Anonymous
Barbara Gordon as Oracle
members of Anonymous in their iconic Guy Fawkes masks
Barbara Gordon started her superhero career as Batgirl back in the 60’s, but an on-the-job encounter in the 1989 with the Joker left her paralyzed from the waist down. Rather than turn in her cape, she put herself behind a computer and becomes Oracle, putting her considerable hacker skills to work in support of superheroes fighting injustice. She even leads of team of femme fighters who often act as her field agents. While she might have started her hacker activism before the hacktivist group Anonymous, which wasn’t founded until 2003, this ragtag group took it to a whole new level. They operate with total anonymity on a global scale, taking on corporations and social causes in innovative ways all over the world through the work of thousands of internet freedom fighters. Actually, ten bucks Barbara Gordon has donned a Guy Fawkes mask every so often…
*The link for The Dolphin Project has been updated to the correct website.