In June of 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson and a panel of community leaders, activists, and politicians gathered at the White House Conference on Civil Rights, shortly after the promise of equality was supposedly ensured by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In the wake of these legislative motions, it quickly became evident that it was no less dangerous to be an individual of color in the United States as the racial tensions that were supposedly ameliorated by these measures were more evident than ever. Four days after the conference, Civil Rights activist James Meredith began a protest walk that would take him and a group of his peers from Memphis, Tennessee to Jackson, Mississippi, a tour of black men defiantly walking across the landscape that represented a historical hotbed of violence, discrimination, and prejudice. On the second day of this march, Meredith was shot by a white supremacist and it became clear that while white politicians proclaimed the dawn of a new era, burning crosses scorched picket fences and sodden earth while racial epithets hung in the stale southern air.
That same summer, the first black superhero in mainstream canon was introduced as the Black Panther hit the pages of Fantastic Four #52. And this past Friday, in an era no less rocked by institutionalized discrimination, ingrained prejudices, and longstanding bias, the hero hit the big screen for the first time as the stand-out star of Marvel’s latest blockbuster Captain America: Civil War.
For a medium that is stereotyped as the entertainment-of-choice for those who don’t quite fit in, for those seeking refuge and understanding in panels documenting caped crusaders, historically, comics have often sunk back into the tried-and-true method of selling acceptance in the form of white males. Though flashes of diversity in television, film, literature, and comics have attempted to deconstruct the view that mass media, as a whole, is far more than one-sided representations, these moments too often slide into sloppy stereotyping and weak characterization. Sure, there’s abundant “diversity” in media, but it’s more often than not reliant on half-hearted caricatures, side-kick roles, and flimsy development. The epidemic of underrepresentation is not solved by tossing in a few people of color, women, or queer folk into the mix; the insinuation that presence is synonymous with representation is merely an extension of the subconscious bigotry that trickles through the veins of Hollywood.
This is why Black Panther’s introduction into the Marvel Cinematic Universe is as timely as it is incredibly important. Black Panther, the alter ego of T’Challa, King of the African nation Wakanda, has always been a character of tremendous note in the great canon of graphic literature. This is not merely because he is the first black superhero, which in itself makes him iconic. In the realm of superheroes of color, there is something particularly beautiful about the culmination of power and culture that makes the Black Panther such a stunning addition to the Marvel lineup. While others, like Luke Cage, are still slightly tainted by the stereotyping of “street culture” engendered by Blaxploitation films (which, in themselves, merit an entirely separate conversation on the relationship between self-actualization and white distortion), Black Panther is free from this variety of tokenization and pigeonholing. T’Challa is a king, a PhD-holding physicist, a diplomat and a man of a science; his command is only heightened by superhuman abilities invested in him by the Panther god(dess) Bast, expanding his mortal capacities to include superhuman strength, sense, stamina, and speed. Underneath, still, he is a man, a man of responsibility, duty, and devotion, linked intrinsically to both the land he hailed from and the world he is determined to protect.
Last fall, Ta-Nehisi Coates was named as the new writer for a Black Panther series arc. Despite being a fan of comics himself, Coates, a MacArthur Genius Grant recipient, may seem an odd choice for penning a comic book series. Yet his background in sociopolitical studies, journalism, and education seem only fitting for bringing T’Challa’s story to life in an era where discussions of race and representation are prominent; the first issue tackles issues of government, gender, culture, and, most importantly, revolution. Like the era he was introduced in, Black Panther represents something so much more than himself, something revolutionary, changeable. As for the film’s brilliant representation of the character, T’Challa is introduced in a way that sets him up for his standalone film while balancing his role amongst the Avengers. He is flawed, yes, but it is in these flaws that he is made fundamentally human, multi-dimensional, free from empty tokenship. Beyond that, it is made quite clear where Black Panther stands in this crowd of sparring heroes. While James Rhodes (Don Cheadle’s “War Machine”) and Sam Wilson (“Falcon,” played by Anthony Mackie) are used primarily as sidekicks in the film (to Iron Man and Captain America, respectively), Black Panther stands alone, seeking his own revenge and redemption, refusing to be saddled with someone else’s storyline.
In general, Marvel Comics has been a diversifying, saving grace for the comics industry, disrupting the expected line-up with well-rounded representations of people of color, women, and non-heteronormative individuals. Last year, in the announcement of their Fall 2015 releases, Marvel revealed that fifteen out of forty-five covers would feature a woman or a person of color. Yes, one-third sounds devastatingly low, and these statistics still represent a dearth in representation for minority demographics. Yet when it is considered that only twenty-five years earlier, a mere two covers (one of which belonged to the Black Panther himself, the other to She-Hulk) were dedicated to these groups, it’s evident there is some progress. Beyond the simple fact that these characters exist is that they are being granted strong story arcs; the torch has even been passed from historically white characters, such as Captain America, Spiderman, Ms. Marvel, and the Hulk to people of color, shifting identities and crafting individualities without losing that which made the characters household names. These are characters of substance, characters with well-rounded story-arcs that neither deny individual identity nor undermine heroism.
The fact of the matter is, in an era shaped largely by what’s on television or directly accessible via a search engine, diversity and representation in media are critical to how we relate to one another. When mass media is considered a representation of our communities, it cannot be whitewashed or marked by tokenization and gross misrepresentation of culture. Beyond that, it is a question of value; if all of our superheroes are white, able-bodied, cisgender, heteronormative, hyper-masculine men, is everyone else incapable of being super? Or even heroic for that matter?
Diversity in media is, at its core, about representation and authenticity. When a child cracks open a comic book for the first time, searching for something to relate to within the pages, to have someone to identify with, someone who looks like them, someone who comes from a similar background with similar parents, a similar culture, they shouldn’t have to come up empty handed. When a family shares a bucket of suspiciously-yellow popcorn at the cinema on a rainy Saturday afternoon, there should be something, someone there to connect to, something more than a purloined sidekick or comic relief, to be validated by mass media in a way that says, “You are so much more than caricature.” It’s about time the world of masks and capes have caught up. Because comics haven’t been monochrome since 1901 and yet there still seems to be an awful lot of white spaces.
They could use a little color.