Panel By Panel is a regular feature at TSB where we present a single comic book page (or sometimes a single panel) of historical and/or artistic importance accompanied by a brief explication of its significance.
February is Black History month. What better time to highlight the first black superhero, the Black Panther?
Long after Jackie Robinson integrated baseball, black characters in comics were still rare. When they did appear, they were almost universally depicted as undesirable racial stereotypes like head-hunting jungle tribesmen or comically imbecilic servants. In 1963, Marvel Comics introduced the first regular appearing black character, Gabriel Jones, in Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos. Soon after, Dell Comics published the comic Lobo. It’s eponymous cowboy was the first black character to headline their own book.
Finally, in 1965, the world’s first black superhero burst onto the scene. Written by Stan Lee and drawn by the peerless Jack Kirby, The Black Panther’s first appearance in the classic Fantastic Four #52 is a quintessential example of the kind of exciting and vibrant storytelling with which Marvel would change the industry forever.
By this point in time, Kirby had revolutionized sequential art. Where before, an often static sequence of panels drew out a flat story from a single, proscenium perspective, Kirby went further. He wasted no images, cramming as much story and action as he could into every single panel. Example: by placing Johnny Storm’s head in the foreground of the first panel, he uses depth of field to not only show us that the Thing is moving toward the escape hatch, but that he’s sprinting ahead faster than Johnny can keep up. Kirby provides us not only with “what is happening” but how it’s happening.
The second panel could really be a Pop Art painting all on its own. Kirby conveys the power of the explosion with line work that nearly obscures the central figure. This type of audacity in comic illustration is commonplace today, but it didn’t really exist before Kirby.
Near the end of the page, the Black Panther appears. The very first time we see him, he is literally leaping down upon us. Now, in the very first panel in which a new character appears, most artists would be concerned with showing the reader what he looks like. They’d likely present them in a straight-on pose and in the same plane as the reader’s POV so they can get a good look at him and be able to follow them through the story. They’d let the script do the work of telling us anything else we needed to know. But Kirby’s image tells us much more about the character than merely what he’s wearing. In this first panel we’re already getting a sense of who this person is. He’s not just a new character in a black costume and full mask. He’s an unrelenting man of action. A daring combatant. Kirby engages the reader by using the medium to its fullest extent. This isn’t a story with illustrations. It’s a comic book: a story told through sequential art. If a picture tells a thousand words, one of Kirby’s panels tells two thousand.
The final panel is a prime example of Kirby’s truly expressionist style of drawing action scenes. The Panther kicks both Johnny and the Thing at the same time, with enough force to knock them down. It’s an act that defies the laws of physics. But it expresses the Panther’s power in a way that no naturalistic illustration possibly could.
The Black Panther has endured for over forty years and blazed the trail for many great black comic characters to follow. Marvel would soon introduce the likes of Luke Cage (the first black superhero to have his own title), the Falcon, Storm (the first female, black hero), James Rhodes and many others. Readers of DC Comics would soon meet John Stewart and Black Lightning. But all these characters stand on the shoulders of T’Challa- The Black Panther!