Ekow Eshun

The superhero who got under my skin

Growing up, Ekow Eshun saw himself in Marvel’s first black superhero. As Black Panther arrives in cinemas, he celebrates a cultural turning point

King T’Challa of the African nation of Wakanda stands in the loading bay of a plane as it hurtles through the sky. Beside him a member of his retinue offers some advice: “Don’t freeze.” T’Challa raises an eyebrow, all regal self-possession: “I never freeze.” He pulls on the full-face mask of the superhero known as the Black Panther. A hatch opens beneath him and he drops out of the aircraft, feet first with no parachute, plunging through the clouds and into combat below.

A minute into a trailer for Black Panther, the new Marvel Studios movie based on the first black comic-book superhero, and we already know this about the character: he is proud; he is fearless; and he is effortlessly cool. The Black Panther film opens later this month and so far audiences can’t get enough of it. When the first trailer launched last year it racked up 89m views in 24 hours. Marvel, the comics company turned Disney-backed entertainment powerhouse, has made more than $13bn in the past decade with movies starring superheroes such as Captain America, The Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy.

But with Black Panther, the studio seems to be taking the lead from its rival, Warner Bros. Warner scored one of its biggest superhero hits last year with Wonder Woman. At its centre was a powerful female lead, shattering the notion that comic-book films should only be made in the image of a young male audience. Black Panther is following a similar track — only it’s out to challenge assumptions of race, not gender. Director Ryan Coogler, star Chadwick Boseman and most of the supporting cast, including Lupita Nyong’o, Angela Bassett and Forest Whitaker, are black. Much of the film is set in Africa. And King T’Challa’s elite unit of female bodyguards sport shaven heads and heavy jewellery that wouldn’t look out of place at Afropunk, the New York-based alternative black music festival, whose slogan could easily also apply to the movie: “Unapologetically Black”. Only when it opens will it be clear if Black Panther is the kind of epochal event some fans anticipate: as one blogger has put it, “The Most Important Movie Black People will See . . . EVER”.

Screen fortunes aside, the Panther has been a compelling if sometimes problematic character for more than 50 years. His evolution through the decades has reflected shifting attitudes to race and also highlighted how comic books can both critique society and be a source of resonant myths for a modern age. With America’s racial politics more fraught than in a long time, the appearance of an African superhero in a Hollywood blockbuster feels like a cultural turning point — and not just for a son of Ghanaian parents who grew up devoted to Marvel comics in a 1970s Britain rife with racism.

The Black Panther first appeared in July 1966’s issue 52 of Fantastic Four, Marvel Comics’ flagship title of the period. He was, from the beginning, an enigmatic figure. The comic book’s titular heroes are invited by T’Challa to Wakanda, a mysterious, isolated kingdom. The country proves to be an African Shangri-La, where science and spirituality comfortably coexist. T’Challa gains his powers of superhuman strength, agility and enhanced senses through his connection with the country’s powerful panther god. And Wakanda is revealed as the most technologically sophisticated nation on earth, with know-how and weaponry that far outstrips western capability. The apparent paradox of an ultra-advanced country in what the Fantastic Four call “the heart of the jungle” baffles the group. When T’Challa arranges a ride for them in a noiseless Wakandan aircraft powered by magnetic waves, their confusion is all too clear: “How does some refugee from a Tarzan movie lay his hands on this kinda gizmo?”

It’s quickly clear T’Challa is far from the kind of spear-throwing savage imagined by Edgar Rice Burroughs. The first black superhero in comic books has the looks of Sidney Poitier, the erudition of a man schooled at “the best universities of both hemispheres”, and a sensualist’s eye for interior decor. Invited into his groovy Wakandan bachelor apartment, the Fantastic Four can only gape: “Wow! Wotta pad! I’ll bet even Hugh Hefner couldn’t improve on this layout!”

Marvel superheroes of the 1960s tended to have a signal vulnerability. Iron Man’s impenetrable armour shielded a guy with a weak heart. The Hulk was a rational scientist liable to transform into a raging id monster. The Fantastic Four were an extended family whose bonds were weakened by constant bickering. The Black Panther was different. What should have been his biggest weakness — his origin in a supposedly backward continent — was in fact his greatest strength.

I first discovered the Panther in the 1970s. It was a hard time to be young and African. I was born in London but for a few years as an infant my parents took me to Ghana, their home. We returned to London in 1974, where I discovered that my memories of Africa — heat, verdure, giant snails the size of an adult fist, the abrupt vanishing of the equatorial sun every night at 6pm — bore little relation to how the continent was seen in Britain. From Tintin in the Congo to Michael Caine in Zulu, Africa was a place of mud-hut-dwelling natives, primitive and savage and ignorant of the outside world. At primary school my friends mimed the throwing of spears in my company. They plucked at my supposedly woolly hair. After Roots ran on TV I was met in the playground with calls of “Kunta Kinte”.

Looking back, I’m not upset at my friends’ behaviour. They were only mimicking a disdain for Africa that runs deep through western thinking. Writing in the 19th century, the German philosopher FW Hegel dismissed the continent as “enveloped in the dark mantle of Night”, its people only representative of “natural man in his completely wild and untamed state”.
His views were echoed in the 1960s by the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, who could find no evidence of civilisation there. “Perhaps in the future there will be some African history to teach,” he argued. “But at the present there is none; there is only the history of Europeans in Africa. The rest is darkness”. In an influential essay from 1994, the American foreign-affairs writer Robert D Kaplan described a trip across a continent raddled with disease, corruption and violence. In Conakry, the capital of Guinea, he found a “nightmarish Dickensian spectacle” of poverty and degradation. The streets, Kaplan wrote, “were one long puddle of floating garbage. Mosquitoes and flies were everywhere. Children, many of whom had protruding bellies, seemed as numerous as ants. When the tide went out, dead rats and the skeletons of cars were exposed on the mucky beach.”

Contempt for Africa also sat within a climate of racial bigotry that permeated the 1970s. The hostility of the period felt very real and very personal. There were National Front logos carved into the desks at school and I went in fear of being accosted by the skinheads who used to hang around near the gates dressed in Fred Perry shirts and 16-hole Dr Martens boots. On TV I watched West Brom’s black footballers Laurie Cunningham, Cyrille Regis and Brendon Batson face jeers and monkey chants from away fans. And when Margaret Thatcher talked about Britons feeling “swamped by people with a different culture”, her words stung like a slap across the face.
It was superheroes that rescued me. My bedroom floor was piled deep with copies of the The Avengers, The Mighty Thor and The Uncanny X-Men, and in those stories I found a way to escape reality and also make better sense of it. The pleasure of comics was that you could read them as vivid adventure but also as allegory for the state of society. The members of the X-Men, for instance, were gifted with fantastic powers. They could fly or walk through walls or call lightning down from the skies. But as mutants, a genetic race apart from ordinary humans, they were feared and despised by the very people they sought to protect. The X-Men were born different. Prejudice made them outsiders. In their experience of the world I saw something of mine.

Comic books also emboldened me. Up against pervasive racism it could often feel that being black was a problem or a burden. But reading Spider-Man or Doctor Strange, I saw that the opposite was true. Being black meant encountering the world twice over, through my eyes and also those of the white mainstream. Painful as that sometimes was, it also taught me to challenge monocular beliefs like the one that said black people were all lazy or stupid or criminal. I learnt instead to embrace ordinary life as complex and contradictory. I realised I was free to define myself on my own terms with all the possibilities for self-expression and individual assertion that might follow from that. Comic books helped me find myself in the hostile environment of my childhood. I see now they also helped shape who I am today, as a writer, and as a person of colour. Through them, I came to understand that being black could be its own kind of superpower.

T’Challa, the Black Panther, seemed to carry this belief, too, in his bearing and his sense of confidence. Reading his stories felt all the more exciting as a black kid because his comics often dispensed with metaphor altogether. The Panther’s enemies were racist mercenaries or would-be colonialists out to strip Wakanda of its natural resources. He even travelled to the Deep South and fought the Ku Klux Klan in a memorable story arc that reached an alarming climax with T’Challa bound to a burning cross. That’s not to say the Panther stories are above criticism. In fact, the character’s relationship with race was sometimes strained and, on occasion, outright embarrassing.

The Panther was created by Marvel Comics linchpins Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the prolific writer-artist duo responsible for characters including Iron Man, the Hulk, The Avengers and the X-Men. It was Lee and Kirby who introduced the premise of the hero as flawed outsider to comics, an idea that may have been sparked by their own personal histories as the Depression-era children of European Jewish immigrants. With their eye on the swirling social currents of the 1960s, the duo also pioneered a character-driven, naturalistic style that revolutionised comics by addressing issues such as drugs and the Vietnam war. They were less sure-footed when it came to race.

For sure, the Panther was a timely creation. His first appearance in July 1966 came at the height of the civil rights struggle, with the Selma to Montgomery marches and the signing of the Voting Rights Act just a year old. Four months after the hero’s debut, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton formed the Black Panther party. The party’s name was not connected to the comic book but the image of the panther was clearly a powerful symbol for the era. Yet from the beginning, Marvel seemed uncertain about how to handle the character. To avoid any association with politics, T’Challa’s alter ego was briefly renamed the Black Leopard, with the Panther offering an awkward justification for the change: “I neither condemn nor condone those who have taken up the name — but T’Challa is a law unto himself.” There were other mis-steps. The Panther’s solo comic had the unfortunate title of Jungle Action. One of his arch enemies was a bestial black man in a gorilla suit called Man-Ape. And despite their technological sophistication, the people of Wakanda were still depicted in leopard skins and loincloths like, well, refugees from a Tarzan movie.

During the 1970s, the Panther languished at the hands of indifferent editors. Outside a bravura run by writer Don McGregor, he was largely indistinguishable from the slew of blaxploitation-inspired heroes created during the decade, most of whom were confined to either fighting crime in the ghetto (Luke Cage, the Falcon) or stuck with names that carried a laboured reference to race (Black Racer; Black Lightning; Black Goliath).

Yet the Panther has proved to be an enduring character. As an African rather than an American he was one of the few black heroes given licence to surmount the quotidian. And his origins in Wakanda continue to make him unique. The country is a jewel — a sovereign nation of wealth and learning that has never been invaded or colonised. Its roots spring from a period in the 1960s when black people in America were turning global in their outlook and seeking to make common cause with African nations struggling against imperialism. The kingdom’s gleaming towers and glass domes bring to mind the extraordinary Modernist structures that flourished in newly free nations in the exuberant aftermath of independence, such as Ghana’s flying saucer-like International Trade Fair Centre, or the gleaming white tower block of the Hotel Ivoire in Ivory Coast.

The nation of flying cars and ancient gods invented by Lee and Kirby is also an early example of the artistic genre now known as Afrofuturism. The term refers to work that reimagines black experience through the prism of science fiction: depicting the story of the transatlantic slave trade, for instance, as a tale of alien abduction. Adherents to the genre include an eclectic range of figures such as the science-fiction novelists Samuel R Delany and Octavia Butler, the graffiti artist Rammellzee, R&B singers Erykah Badu and Janelle Monáe, and the avant-garde jazz musician Sun Ra, who lived much of his life as an Afrofuturist artwork, after claiming aliens had abducted him from Earth as a child and raised him on Saturn. The most recent recruit is Booker-prize-winning novelist Marlon James, who is currently penning an epic fantasy trilogy he describes as an “African Game of Thrones”.

Afrofuturism’s characteristic blend of fact and fabulism — wild, lyrical tales drawn from the everyday drama of black life — certainly fuels the current comic-book iteration of the Black Panther. Marvel relaunched the Panther book in 2016 after a six-year hiatus with the bestselling author Ta-Nehisi Coates as its surprise new writer. Coates is one of America’s most astute commentators on race but he’s better known for wordy think pieces in The Atlantic magazine than superhero escapades. His version of the Panther is a burdened figure wrestling with the limitations of his power as a head of state while civil conflict threatens to tear Wakanda apart. For all its gravitas, the series was one of the top 10 selling comics titles of the year and it continues to do well.

It was also in 2016 that Marvel announced the Panther movie. The year was a singular one for black cultural achievement — Moonlight won the Best Picture Oscar, rap musical Hamilton swept the Tony Awards, Paul Beatty received the Man Booker Prize for his biting satire The Sellout — and it must have seemed like a propitious time to make the film. With hindsight, 2016 feels like a high-water mark of black visibility. The era of a black president, with all its symbolic potency, is over. Instead, the film arrives in a period of closing borders and growing nativist sentiment; of Brexit and Trump, and his dismissal of Africa’s nations as “shithole” countries. Yet having followed the character for much of my life, the Panther feels to me more heroic now than ever; an emblem of a continued belief in the power and potential of racial diversity against a rising tide of intolerance.

Maybe I’m guilty of putting too much faith in a comic book. If that’s the case, I make no apology. In the July 1976 issue of Jungle Action, at the end of his epic battle with the Ku Klux Klan, the Black Panther shares an exhausted clinch with his girlfriend, Monica. She puts her head on his shoulder and then, in an extraordinary moment of metafiction, Monica muses on the relationship between fact and fantasy and the role of superheroes as figures capable of crossing between both worlds. It’s a memorable scene and whenever I recall it, I think of her final words. Then and now, it feels like she’s speaking for me. “Guess I’m just one of those people, T’Challa, who can’t take that much reality but can’t close their eyes to it, either.”

The superhero who got under my skin