“With your permission, I’ve suggested he join the Avengers… as my replacement! He calls himself… the Panther!”
— Steve Rogers (as Captain America), Avengers (Vol. 1) Issue #51 (April, 1968)
Whether it was 1968’s or 2018’s appointment of Black Panther to the forefront of the Avengers, Steve Rogers endorsed it. For over 50 years Captain America and the Black Panther have represented anti-fascism and anti-colonialism respectively, they’re the comic book poster boys for these movements, and this is perhaps why their characters work so well together: it’s awfully hard to punch a nazi in the teeth without that same hit landing on a colonialist (or a racist for that matter) as well.
In response to Captain America Comics #1 (cover-dated March 1941) depicting Captain America punching Adolf Hitler on its cover, the publishers (who were yet to adopt the name ‘Marvel’) were bombarded with hate mail and calls from America Firsters that did not hesitate to call for “death to the Jews!”. Today it can be hard to believe that a fictional punching of such a well-known nazi leader could have been so controversial in America. The hate was not unanticipated however, Captain America was published with a purpose in mind: to oppose those who themselves were in opposition to the United States involvement in World War II, but that’s not where Captain America and his fight against violence-loving bigots would see their publication conclude.
Nearly 30 years later, in Captain America (Vol. 1) #117 (September 1969) Marvel would introduce the first African-American superhero, Sam Wilson, to mainstream comics with an issue in which Wilson inspires Captain America with his desire to revolt against a fascist group. Though Wilson is best known for his role as the Falcon, he would go on to take up the mantle of Captain America in Captain America (Vol. 7) #25. In Captain America: Sam Wilson (Vol. 1) #12 a flashback shows us that not even as a superhero was Wilson exempt from the impact of the racial profiling.
“But I already know this plays out one of two ways. Neither of them pretty. Either I look like I attacked these cops, or I ignite a riot when they beat me — best option is still de-escalate — but neither side seems very interested in that.”
— Sam Wilson, Captain America: Sam Wilson (Vol. 1) Issue #12 (August 2016)
Wilson with his profound and long-running role in the Captain America comics may have been the first African-American superhero, and certainly the first black Captain America, but the title of first black superhero does go to T’Challa as the Black Panther, who first made an appearance in Fantastic Four (Vol. 1) #52 (July 1966), predating Wilson’s first appearance by three years.
The Black Panther proved a perfect fit for Marvel at the time. Kirby, his primary creator, liked the character very much, and confessed that he saw a role for this character in the social justice movement against racism. “If we can wander about in his bigger-than-life experiences enough to gain the satisfaction of triumph,” Kirby wrote, “who knows, we might even find ourselves winning in the real world!”
— ‘Imagining a Strange New World: Racial Integration and Social Justice Advocacy in Marvel Comics, 1966–1980’ by David Taft Terry (2014)
Putting aside who came first, who punched which nazi, and who saved the world more times, I want to illustrate as clearly as possible that it was in fact in the late 60’s (over 50 years ago) that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby looked at the world around them and said it was “time to end that lunacy” when they began their effort to introduce black characters to Marvel’s superhero comic-book universe with clear anti-racist sentiment.
When it comes to Marvel comics, there is no-one among the star-spangled American war-heroes, the African-American vigilantes, the kings of African nations, nor the creators behind the scenes of these stories that made room for the disgusting acts of bigotry we see in the real world today. It’s far beyond saddening and disappointing to think that with 50+ years of mainstream media attention directed towards these issues that we are still driven to the point where protests are required to denounce the mass, systemic acts of prejudiced violence that have gone essentially unimpeded throughout the world, that even now we still have to demand that we see the change that we should have seen long before now, and yet that there are still those who would spew further vitriol to argue against even the most basic human rights of others.