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Friday, February 16, 2018

Racial Politics and "Black Panther"

Stan Lee should've done the "white" thing and skipped the obligatory cameo in Black Panther. Whites not intruding into black spaces, such as remaining silent until all people-of-color have had their say in a race-related discussion, is a theme that is reinforced several times in the movie. Whites are referred to as “colonizers,” and the only main white actor other than the (first) villain is played by beta male hobbit Bilbo Baggins: Martin Freeman. And it's probably no coincidence that Lee's cameo has him appropriating casino winnings that weren't his. A sly jab at his penchant for appropriating credit for creating the Marvel Universe from Jack Kirby perhaps—or just a play on the movie's underlying subtext of white colonization?
As a white man, of course I’m supposed to ignore slights like this and just take it like a (privileged) man, despite the fact that as a boy I was a Marvel comics fanatic and was there at the time with my 12 cents when Fantastic Four #52 came out in 1966.
But the truth of it is, unless I want to live as a hermit and forego the opportunity to see the comics that I loved as a kid brought to life on the silver screen, I have no choice but to take it. Sad.

Despite my objections to the identity politics rampant in Black Panther, Marvel Studios have made a terrific movie.
In my opinion the best of the Marvel movies have been the “origin” movies. And that’s not a coincidence. For those that may not know, most of the major players in the “Marvel Universe” were created largely from the fertile imagination of Jack Kirby when he collaborated with Stan Lee in the early-and-mid sixties. To get a handle on the scope of Kirby’s contribution, it’s easier to name the few superheroes who weren’t a product of his imagination. It’s a short list: Spider-Man, Daredevil, and Doctor Strange. (And there’s actually a connection to Kirby for those characters, too—but to fully explain that would take a digression that would only be appreciated by true comic nerds...).  It’s no coincidence that the first Thor, Captain America and Iron Man movies are three of the best in the portfolio. Add Black Panther to that list.
Specifically, the Black Panther was introduced in the pages of Fantastic Four in the year-plus span of issues that ran as a continuing arc of stories from 1965 to 1966. This celebrated run, which many comic book aficionados (me included) claim to be the pinnacle of the medium over its entire history, culminated with the introduction of the Black Panther and began with the introduction of a nemesis team, the Frightful Four. A two-issue battle with their enduring arch-enemy Doctor Doom followed, after the heroes had lost their powers and were aided by Daredevil. 

Next the Frightful Four returned for another round, which took three issues to complete (41-43)—but this time with the Thing converted to their side by way of a machine that exposed and magnified the dark part of his nature.  
Medusa, the Frightful Four’s female counterpart to Sue Storm, evolved into a member of the Inhumans, a brilliant collection of characters. The ending of the colorful Inhumans saga culminated in Fantastic Four #48, which is spoken of in reverential terms by comic fans because it was in this same issue that the Silver Surfer and Galactus made their first appearances. "King" Kirby now in full sci-fi mode, the so-called Galactus trilogy ended in issue 50, after which Kirby took a breather and put out a relatively down-to-earth story, “This Man... This Monster,” that is celebrated for its human dimension—specifically, the redemption of the story’s one-fer villain.

It was following this issue that Black Panther made his debut. If you’re counting, that’s #52. It was concluded in the next issue, 53.

The whole run started in #38.  That’s sixteen  consecutive issues of continuing story arcs, with one break between 43 and 44 for the publication in the summer of 1965 of the Annual that featured the wedding of Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic) to Sue Storm (the Invisible Girl).

* * *
There’s been a fair amount of discussion regarding the claim that Black Panther is ground-breaking because it features the first black superhero in film.
That’s not true, as many have pointed out. There’s Wesley Snipes’ Blade series as well as a bunch of movies starring Will Smith.  However, the accolade is not misplaced. Black Panther was the first black superhero to appear in comics—and even more importantly, he was created by Jack Kirby during his creative peak.
But Black Panther is a groundbreaking movie. It’s not just a movie with a black star and cast; this is a movie set in a wholly black environment—Africa. It celebrates a fictional African nation and its people and culture. The credit doesn’t go to an inclusive, politically correct contemporary comic book company, willingly pandering to the identity politics grievance community. It goes to Jack Kirby, who created this world from whole cloth in a 1966 comic book. It was 52 years ago that (coincidentally) Fantastic Four 52 hit the newsstands. It pre-dated (by just a few months) the creation of the militant “black power” Black Panthers organization in Oakland, California.

In 1966, a black superhero bursting into the lily-white world of comic books—from Africa no less!—that was truly revolutionary.

So, to make a long story short, what we have is a superhero with a great origin story who happens to be black. Everything Kirby touched at that time turned to gold, and the Black Panther was no exception. But it was novel, because it was not euro-centric. Kirby created an ideal world in Africa where the people of Wakanda, ruled by their hereditary Black Panther kings, created a technologically advanced civilization while still maintaining their African cultural identity. African-American comic book fans have testified how significant the appearance of Black Panther in Marvel comics was for them. And I don’t think it takes someone to be black to appreciate the honesty and integrity of that sentiment.

But this idealization of a highly advanced African nation is a double-edged sword. On the one hand it instills racial pride in the descendants of the African diaspora—but on the other hand it is an absurdity, and the pride it instills has no basis in reality. Africa is the poorest and most backward of the great continents. It is the only place where slavery still exists! Under the growing influence of Islam, female genital mutilation, flogging of women for Sharia Law infractions and other barbaric practices are rampant. Forgotten is what Mohammed Ali said upon returning from a trip to the “homeland”: “Thank God my granddaddy got on that boat!”

Besides Black Lives Matter ideologues, the people most likely to embrace the Wakanda fantasy are liberal whites. I can envision scores of lesbian New England college professors with heretofore zero interest in comic book superheroes going to see Black Panther to commune in this historic cultural phenomenon. Again, the anti-white subtext figures into the political fallout. The movie reinforces the notion of black victimization—specifically, that the dire conditions in which so many urban blacks live is not their fault, but due to institutional racism and the legacies of colonialism and slavery. Liberal whites can wallow in their self-loathing; blacks can reassure themselves of the futility of working hard to claw oneself up the ladder of middle class success.
* * *
There’s an ongoing controversy in the comic book community over so-called “white-washing” of characters. This refers to changing the race of established characters. The most notorious example is Nick Fury, whose character is now owned by Samuel L.Jackson after appearances in multiple Marvel films. Nick Fury was first incarnated as a grizzled WW2 army sergeant in Marvel’s entry into the “war comic” category. His character was very well-defined, and many fans resented the change of race in the movies. It’s one thing to change the race of a minor character, such as the Thing’s girlfriend Alicia Masters, but a whole different kettle of fish to change the race, and thus the fundamental identity, of a major character such as Nick Fury.
Black Panther was, obviously, black from the start. He was embraced by all Marvel’s readers, because he was yet another great product of the “House of Ideas;” and because of his race and African origin: exotic to boot.
Marvel has been roundly criticized for promulgating an orgy of political correctness and identity politics in their comics, typified by the white-washing of their established heroes, and even “man-washing” many of them—including the God of Thunder himself, Thor, who is now female!
It’s believed that the social justice warriors who now run Marvel realize that the future of the company is in the movie franchises and the merchandise that spins off of it, and that the printed comics business is not long for this world anyway. And so they don’t care if their radical re-imagining of their heroes in the comics is bad for business. The movie revenues bail them out.

Unfortunately the political correctness in Black Panther isn’t confined to fantasies of African technological superiority: Wakanda’s premier soldiers are all women. By now this sort of thing is to be expected. Nonetheless, I raise my objections, no matter how futile. And there is a saving grace to it in Black Panther’s manifestation: the bald, Grace Jones-like praetorian guard women do look really cool.

Marvel Studios have done a terrific job of translating those rather simple yet groundbreaking notions that Kirby and Lee put down in 1966.  I’m sure Kirby, if he were alive today, would be immeasurably proud of how his creation has been brought to mass audiences worldwide.
The movie incorporates the main story line of the Black Panther’s first comic book appearance, excluding, naturally, the Fantastic Four themselves. The villain in the first storyline of the movie (there are really two) is faithful to the comic book. Ulysses Claue (in the comic, he is named “Klaw”), wants to steal Wakanda’s prized natural resource, the mineral “vibranium.”
Once that conflict is resolved, a deeper storyline, and a more dangerous villain, emerges.  The plot lines are seamlessly weaved, and there is a clever recurrence of plot points, which altogether produces a well-constructed story.
The movie is visually stunning, with African vistas counterpoised with elaborate hi-tech motifs. It is sure to garner critical acclaim if for no other reason than it is Afro-centric and reinforces white self-othering. The movie’s main conflict emerges as whether or not Wakanda should drop its pretense as an African “nation of farmers” and share its advanced technology with the rest of the (inferior, white) world for the betterment of all mankind. Such a story line is irresistible... catnip for Hollywood liberals. But regardless, it is a very well made movie, a real escapist blockbuster. Another winner from Marvel Studios.

- Marcus Clintonius

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