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Black Panther's 50th anniversary panel: 5 things we learned at New York Comic Con

Black Panther creatives — old and new — took the stage at New York Comic Con to dish on the iconic superhero

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Paul Marotta/Getty Images; Marvel

Black Panther has enjoyed a resurgence of popularity over the past year, thanks to a scene-stealing role in Captain America: Civil War (played by Chadwick Boseman), a solo movie planned for 2018, and a critically-acclaimed new comic series from award-winning author Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Black Panther’s buoyed popularity also has coincided with the character’s 50th anniversary; he first appeared in Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four #52 in 1966). So this year at New York Comic Con, Marvel assembled Black Panther writers past and present to discuss the character’s legacy. Panelists included Coates, current Black Panther artist Brian Stelfreeze, ’90s Black Panther writer Christopher Priest, Marvel editor-in-chief Axel Alonso, artist Alitha Martinez of the upcoming series Black Panther: World of Wakanda, rapper Darryl “D.M.C.’ McDaniels of Run-D.M.C., and James Monroe Inglehart of Broadway’s Aladdin. Here are the five best takeaways.

1. McGregor was pressured to include white characters in his stories, so he used the KKK

McGregor was writing Black Panther stories (in a series called Jungle Action, which had previously been used for reprints of racist old “jungle” comics) long before the character enjoyed his modern recognition and success. Nevertheless, he did his best to build up King T’Challa’s world. Since the character’s home of Wakanda had been established as a closed-off, secret civilization, McGregor populated his stories with mostly black characters. In doing so, he created a vision of Wakanda that Coates said was a jumping-off point for his modern stories with Stelfreeze. But McGregor faced some pushback from Marvel editors, who he said pressured him to include more white characters. He responded with a storyline in which Black Panther faced off against the Ku Klux Klan.

2. Coates made sure not to limit his queer characters to the male gaze

Two of the breakout characters from Coates’ and Stelfreeze’s Black Panther run are Aneka and Ayo, T’Challa’s former bodyguards (or Dora Milaje) who fall in love and determine (quoting Kanye West) that “no one man should have all that power.” Harmed with high-tech suits of armor, these Midnight Angels have tried to fight for a more equitable Wakanda, and are set to star in the upcoming spinoff title Black Panther: World of Wakanda. At the panel, Coates talked a bit about the thinking that went into creating those two memorable characters.

“The thing I was most afraid of was this kind of male gaze on the two lesbian characters,” Coates said. “I didn’t want them to be two sexy lesbians. I mean, they are sexy, but not for me, you know? For each other. That was really important, and Brian did masterful job making them come to life.”  

3. Stelfreeze purposely made the Wakandan royal family dark-skinned

When it came to designing his version of the Wakandan royal family, Stelfreeze made a conscious color choice. In doing so, he created his own contribution to the Black Panther canon. 

“I decided that in Wakanda, the royal family would have extremely dark complexions, like so black they’re blue,” Stelfreeze said. “My attitude was, because the royal family is dark, the darker you are, the more you’re considered royal. I thought of this and thought it would be cool, but then I thought Marvel would never let me do this. And what’s really cool is Axel was like ‘yeah go for it!’ It was neat to make the decision, and have Marvel back me up on it. Now that’s part of the character.”

4. What makes a good Black Panther villain

According to Priest, Black Panther is a lot like Marvel’s Batman. After all, they’re both genius superheroes who, lacking actual superpowers, use their advanced technology, and fighting skills to combat evil. Priest said he used this parallel as a jumping-off point for some of the villains in his Black Panther run, like the maniacal Reverend Achebe, who tries to take over Wakanda while T’Challa’s off with the Avengers.

“When I was writing Black Panther, on one level I was angry because DC would never let me write Batman, so I was doing Marvel’s Batman, and Reverend Achebe became sort of the Joker to Panther’s Batman,” Priest said. “But what makes a good villain is someone who doesn’t just challenge the hero, but comes organically out of that character’s history and circumstances.” 

5. What Wakanda means

One of the things that differentiates Black Panther from other superheroes is that he’s not just a costumed crimefighter, he’s a king. His country of Wakanda has been just as important to stories like Coates’ and McGregor’s as T’Challa himself. During the panel, Priest and Martinez elaborated on the specific resonances of Wakanda itself.

“It represents hope, because the whole continent’s really screwed up these days,” Priest said. “So if we can provide even a fictional roadmap to what a successful, prosperous African nation might look like, then let’s do that.” 

“It’s interesting because I’m a woman,” Martinez added, about her experience drawing Black Panther: World of Wakanda so far. “So we’re trying to make this something where we have a voice and it’s inclusive to everyone, not just people of color, not just people who are male or people who are gay or straight. Now I’m finally drawing book where ladies are the lead and they are about being in the lead. I still haven’t drawn Black Panther yet, in all these pages. Can’t wait to get to him, though.”