Menu Close

Review of Marvel’s Black Panther: A Comic Book Biography from Stan Lee to Ta-Nehisi Coates

By Ayanni C.H. Cooper

Burroughs, Todd Steven. Marvel’s Black Panther: A Comic Book Biography from Stan Lee to Ta-Nehisi Coates. Diasporic Africa Press, 2018.

2018 saw the release, and subsequent celebration, of Marvel’s Black Panther (Ryan Coogler, 2018), currently the second highest grossing film adapted from comics (“Black Panther”). While it may be difficult to remember a time when T’Challa, the Dora Milaje, or Killmonger weren’t household names—what with handsome photos of the cast plastered across the internet, toy aisles filled with merchandise, and a ubiquitous catchphrase permeating the lexicon, i.e. “Wakanda Forever”—Black Panther’s rise to cultural touchstone was not without complications, missteps, and nosedives into obscurity. Todd Steven Burroughs aims to cover the historical ups and downs of the character in Marvel’s Black Panther: A Comic Book Biography from Stan Lee to Ta-Nehisi Coates, though he establishes one caveat early in the text: his focus is almost exclusively on writers. Ultimately, Burroughs is concerned with the effect each of the seminal writers had on the molding of King T’Challa.

Initially, the decision he makes to forgo addressing the artists and design that has shaped Black Panther may appear a gross oversight in a critical text concerning a visual medium. How can a discussion of the character be complete while disregarding these elements? Yet, Burroughs is clear on the aims of the text from the introduction, stating that “limitations are key to enjoying this chronicle,” that the “book is not the definitive meditation on the Black Panther, or on Black superheroes, or on Black comic book characters,” and instead situates the volume as a “textual analysis, chronicling the comic book writing concerning one Black character, not a book about comic art” (Burroughs 2018a, ix). This approach may stem from Burroughs’ training and praxis as a Journalism and Communications scholar. While considering himself a “comic book geek,” he does not situate himself as a comic studies or image/text specialist, with two of his other recent publications being Warrior Princess: A People’s Biography of Ida B. Wells (2017) and “Kerner’s Other Black Explosion: The Chapter 15 Mandate and the Birth of New York’s Black Public-Affairs Television Programming, 1967-1968 (Burrougha 2018b). By leaning into his expertise, setting up these “limitations” early on, and by maintaining a limited focus, Burroughs provides significant analytical depth in his examination of each seminal Black Panther run. The text largely examines the work of Stan Lee & Jake Kirby, Don McGregor, Christopher Priest, Reginald Hudlin, and current Black Panther writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. Burroughs also notes that, while a few one-shots and short runs will be mentioned, “ongoing” runs will be the primary concern (Burroughs 2018a, ix).

Before launching into how the volume unfolds, it is important to emphasize that Burroughs embraces conversations about race and race relations throughout the text. He notes early on that one of his major concerns is whether there are “significant differences between the first 31 years of the character [Black Panther] when he was in white hands (1966-1997) compared to the 19 years he has been guided by Black writers (1998-2017)” (x). While some may deride his focus on race as heavy-handed or unnecessary, his use of critical theory to focus on the racial dynamics that have impacted the development of Black Panther are pivotal to the overall conversation. Shying away from these concerns would have been a gross oversight and an oversimplification of the character’s multifaceted history. Burroughs does occasionally interject his own beliefs—for example, his visceral, negative reactions to Kirby’s Panther—but these opinions and asides enhance, rather than obscure, biographical information and are likewise easy to identify. The key is that his prose does not run amok with conjecture and ultimately remains focused on fact.

The book presents a largely chronological history of Black Panther, using time as a through-line to string chapters together. Burroughs starts with the creation of the character in chapter one “From Patrice Lumumba to Sidney Poitier: Early Fantastic Four and Avengers Appearances.” The sub-title gestures to the larger moments of the chapter. The first labeled section references the Black Panther’s “first appearance and story arc,” and the year span of 1966 – 1968 (3). Burroughs praises the initial incarnation of the Panther, noting his strength compared to the Fantastic Four, the social climate he was born into, and his overall importance: “not only was he Black, but he was an African. Not only was he an African, but a scientist/warrior/king of an African nation that had never been colonized and had its own mineral that the West craved” (5). The following section covers the years from 1968 – 1970, when Stan Lee hired Roy Thomas to write Black Panther as a member of the Avengers. Disparaging this moment in Black Panther history, Burroughs highlights T’Challa’s adoption of a secret identity which, in the author’s words, “essentially take[s] away all the power, prestige and mystery—all of the Non-Western African royalness, the anticolonial symbolism, from the almost amoral character introduced in Fantastic Four no. 52” (11).

Chapters Two and Three focus on the two runs of Don McGregor, which are separated by 13 years. This is one of the moments where the text eschews chronology in the favor of creating a cohesive narrative, opting to discuss McGregor’s stories together. Burroughs chronicles McGregor’s journey with the Black Panther through the titles Jungle Action, Marvel Comics Presents, and Black Panther: Panther’s Prey as he cultivated and created T’Challa’s supporting cast—including Erik Killmonger—and the writer’s ultimate desire to create so-called Black Panther “novels” (38). Though the text technically starts with Lee and Thomas’ work, these two chapters acclimate readers to Burroughs’ patterns and tendencies in discussing the Panther writers. On one hand, Burroughs presents both the perceived positives and negatives of each run, according to critics, audiences, and his own personal opinions. (These are his most transparent moments of ‘comic book geekery.’) For example, in concluding McGregor’s chapters, Burroughs comments that “the balance, maturity, and stability that McGregor made the Panther earn through blood and tearing flesh and ripped-to-shreds costumes…did not make a comic book superhero…T’Challa may have been a novel character, but he wasn’t a character in a novel” (38). Even though he notes that Black Panther was relegated to B-List status after McGregor’s run, not headlining a title for another seven years, Burroughs does point to the intriguing, high-quality aspects of the stories.

Conversely, it is incredibly clear which versions of Black Panther Burroughs loathes, as seen in Chapter Four: “The Return of the Kings: The Amazing and Wacky Adventures of Jack Kirby’s Panther.” This chapter jumps back in time, covering the period when Kirby helmed Black Panther between McGregor’s two runsBurroughs is transparent in his dislike of the stories, saying “the series was bad, but it was even worse for Kirby fans because it was so anti-Kirby, in that it was parochial and sub-standard” (48). He even goes as far to say that Kirby’s “[return] to T’Challa was a bad choice that de-evolved the superhero…terribly” (50). To Burroughs’ credit, he does offer a counterargument by comics scholar Adilifu Nama celebrating the 12 Kirby-led issues, who calls the run “surreal and wonderfully weird” (Nama qtd in Burroughs 51). Additionally, he manages to balance his disdain for the run with a definitive level of respect for Kirby as a person and writer. Indeed, the most interesting aspect of this chapter is Burroughs’ nuanced conversation of Kirby’s life at the time. He provides selections from Kirby, King of Comics by Mark Evanier (“a friend and biographer of Kirby” (49)), as well as an extensive footnote about “Jack Kirby’s mistreatment by the American comic book industry” that was equal parts enlightening and heartbreaking (189).

Unlike Kirby’s work, Burroughs reads Christopher Priest’s Panther in a considerably more favorable light, focusing on the writer for the next two chapters. I would argue that Chapter Five is one of the book’s strongest, setting Priest’s Panther as a “post-modern satire of superhero comics, Black-white race relations, pre-9/11 geopolitics, and 1990s popular culture, using Eddie Murphy’s … Coming to America as an inspiration” (58). Burroughs gestures to many of the writer’s long-standing contributions to the Panther mythos, including the introduction of characters like the Dora Milaje (who began as T’Challa’s “wives-in-training” (64)) and Everett K. Ross, who all appeared in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).  Additionally, Burroughs begins to rely heavily on Priest’s interviews with a variety of press-junkets as part of his analysis, a tactic he continues to employ in subsequent chapters. Though an author doesn’t have final say on what their text means (thanks Barthes), using Priest’s own words allows readers insight to his mindset prior to, during, and after his Panther’s creation and publication.

Chapter Six continues the discussion of Priest, but the analysis is bogged down by a heavy reliance on single-issue descriptions. Summary of specific moments and dialogue are, without a doubt, important to the textual analysis that Burroughs performs. However, the abundance of story-synopsis in Chapter Six disrupts discourse. The largest section of the chapter—nine out of thirteen pages—is dedicated to showing how “the changes Priest made [to T’Challa’s character] became irreversible” through interactions with the Avengers (95). Yet, the pages are dominated by plot summary (ex. “While T’challa is talking and freeing a kidnapped Monica Lynne…the Avengers start rescuing the crowd” (96)), and direct quotes from five comic issues, which are largely isolated from Burroughs’ more engaging, grounding analysis.

Maintaining the chronology, Chapter Seven looks towards the stylings of Reginald Hudlin’s Panther for the new millennium. Hudlin and Priest’s work are played against each other, with the chapter liberally using quotes from the previous creator to round out the conversation. Burroughs’ discussion focuses on Hudlin’s “racially and culturally de-colonized Panther that appealed to the African-American imagination” (110). Though a relatively short chapter, Burroughs is clear about the effect an “Afrocentric” and “culturally authentic” (115, 108) Black Panther had on the overall Panther mythos, noting that Hudlin “singlehandedly made [T’Challa] Black America’s best-known Black superhero not named Static or Blade” (120). What’s more, the book highlights Hudlin’s creation of fan-favorite Princess Shuri and his transition of the Dora Milaje to “soldiers, not runway models” (112).

Ta-Nehisi Coates takes center-stage in Burroughs’ penultimate chapter, “Between the World and Him—Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Black Panther.” Though this chapter is even shorter than the one on Kirby, the analysis within is engaging, another of the book’s best. Burroughs connects Coates’ story arc “A Nation Under Our Feet” to his best-selling novel Between the World and Me (2015), arguing that the writer presents a Wakanda that “must deal with itself” and ultimately realize that “the collective, historical Wakandan identity outweighs and overrules all parties and previously divisive intra-racial politics—the African equivalent, perhaps, of…the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” (156). Even though this chapter also uses a significant amount of summary, the analysis seems better integrated than that of Chapter Six. Burroughs is more successful in illuminating why these particular passages and synopses are chosen, as well as how they speak to Coates’ aims as a writer.

Interspersed in his discussions of the main stories, Burroughs also looks to specific shorter-narratives or limited runs. Chapter Eight, “Side-Swipes—The New York Ghost Cop and the Wakandan Princess as ‘Replacement’ Panthers,” looks at two pivotal moments in which T’Challa was not the Black Panther. Burroughs breaks the chapter effectively in half, covering Kelvin “Kasper” Cole after a short preamble, then turning to Shuri’s time in the costume. Chapter Nine, “The (Black) Man Without Fear—When T’Challa Replaced Daredevil” spends eight pages covering the “full year of comic book reading” that T’Challa spent in Hell’s Kitchen (138). Although there is interesting historical information in Chapter 8, Burroughs  displays the least amount of interest in this chapter, devoting minimal page space, and perhaps the most blatant dislike for the books, even when taking Kirby into account. After a brief gloss of Daredevil’s history and the status of Black Panther after Hudlin’s departure, Burroughs bemoans the run’s creation:

“Although this was an interesting…way to reinterpret the character for many new readers, it was in many ways a reverse gear for the character overall. Why does T’Challa—a character who defeated Mephisto in his own book and took on Mephisto’s arch-foe, the Silver Surfer…—need to prove himself? Why does he need to leave Wakanda for Hell’s Kitchen? Why does he need to disempower and strip him of his technology?…Sadly, as well done as this ‘new’ title was, the needs of Marvel Editorial, of superhero comic conventions, outweighed the development of the character…Marvel could argue that the move kept up Panther’s high profile…but at what cost…?” (139, emphasis added).

Burroughs makes it abundantly clear that writing on “the Panther-as-Daredevil” is an obligation, rather than a pleasure (141).

Finally, the book’s conclusion looks at Black Panther’s debut in Capitan America: Civil War. For audiences who have already seen the film, the amount of summary can be off-putting. However, Burroughs uses the last page of this chapter to point toward the ‘possibility’ of Black Panther, specifically in the Black/African imagination, to spur on creators of the diaspora. Though this is an important point, the conclusion overlooks—or perhaps is unconcerned—with the worldwide, cross-cultural reach of Black Panther as part of the MCU. As the book was written and published before the release of Black Panther (2018), I would be curious to hear Burroughs’ reaction to the film spreading Pan-African images of Wakanda across the globe. An addendum speaking to this would be an excellent addition to the text upon subsequent print runs.

Speaking critically, the text is not without shortcomings. Based on its organization, it seems that the book was not intended to be read from cover to cover. This leads to some frustrating repetition of key-concepts and explanations: for example, a definition is given for “retcon” on pages 64, 93, and 136. What’s more, it could be argued that this sort of repetition, the abundance of narrative summary, and often the tone, suggest that the volume’s primary audience is non-comic readers, perhaps attempting to reach a wider group that’s become curious about the king of Wakanda after seeing him the on the big screen. Though the barrier for entry is relatively low, readers well-versed in Panther lore may find this tedious. Marvel’s Black Panther: A Comic Book Biography from Stan Lee to Ta-Nehisi Coates is an overall engaging read, providing an enlightening dive into the non-linear rise of the character. Personally speaking, I learned a great deal about the various writers featured and greatly enjoyed the peaks into their own points of view. Newcomers will find it accessible, and while long-time fans may already know large swaths of the information provided, the historical stationing and timeline can prove useful to Black Panther admirers and scholars alike.

Works Cited

“Black Panther.” Box Office Mojo. https://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=marvel2017b.htm. Accessed 23 May 2019.

Burroughs, Todd Steven. “‘Black Panther’ Author Todd Steven Burroughs Says Movie Hoopla Is The ‘Superhero Equivalent Of “Roots”’.” Interview by Ericka Blount Danois. OkayPlayer, 14 Feb 2018. https://www.okayplayer.com/originals/black-panther-todd-steven-burroughs-interview.html . Accessed 09 March 2019. (2018a)

—. “Kerner’s Other Black Explosion: The Chapter 15 Mandate and the Birth of New York’s Black Public-Affairs Television Programming, 1967-1968.” The Howard Journal of Communications, 29:1, May 2018. (2018b)

—. Warrior Princess: A People’s Biography of Ida B. Wells. New York, Diasporic Africa Press, 2017.

Related Articles