Art imitates life: The Black Panther Party and the birth of a comic book series

A Special Collections exhibit organized by graduate students examines the famed Marvel Comics Black Panther series and its connections to black history, including the Black Panther Party

An exhibit organized by grad students crystal am nelson, Kiran Garcha, and Cathy Thomas

An exhibit organized by grad students crystal am nelson, Kiran Garcha, and Cathy Thomas (left to right) includes 45 Black Panther comics as well as cultural artifacts and a stunningly rendered fan comic commissioned by alumus Jim Gunderson. (Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta)

What happens when you mix geekery with scholarship?

The answer just might be a fascinating UC Santa Cruz Special Collections exhibit that takes a look at the famed Marvel Comics Black Panther series and its connections to black history, including the Black Panther Party.

 Organized and researched by three UC Santa Cruz Ph.D. students—crystal am nelson (who prefers her name written in all lowercase letters), Cathy Thomas, and Kiran Garcha—the exhibit includes 45 Black Panther comics that chronicle the mythical African kingdom of Wakanda and its brilliant, black superhero king, T’Challa, as well as cultural artifacts and a stunningly rendered fan comic commissioned by UC Santa Cruz alumus Jim Gunderson (Rachel Carson College ’77, philosophy) that imagines the circumstances that led to the creation of the series.

The offering is a way, the three grad students say, to mark the 2016 silver anniversary of the comic book series and also to show how the story of a black superhero was not just reflective of African-American lives at the time but, in some ways, was also corrective.

Turbulent times

Sitting in a room in UC Santa Cruz Special Collections and surrounded by photos of women in the Black Panther Party taken by famed California photographers Ruth-Marion Baruch and Pirkle Jones, nelson, Thomas, and Garcha detail the times that birthed the comic book series and also black efforts for self-determination and self-sufficiency in the turbulent '60s.

The three women say Marvel Comics artists Stan Lee and Jack Kirby could not have missed what was happening in the United States when they created the Black Panther character in 1966. Human-rights activist Malcolm X had been assassinated and the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts had erupted in rebellion in response to what was seen as unrestrained police brutality against African Americans.

“You have to imagine Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in their (Marvel Comics) office in the garment district” in New York, says Thomas, who is pursing a Ph.D. in literature and is an ardent comic book fan. “There is no way that Stan Lee, a Jewish man who had changed his name (from Stanley Martin Lieber) in order to be employable, is not thinking of these things,” she says.

About the same time all this was happening, civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael was in Lowndes County, Alabama, where efforts were afoot to create a third, African American political party in the majority-black county, with its symbol a black panther.

The Black Panther comic-book character debuted in the pages of a Fantastic Four comic in the summer of 1966. In the autumn of the same year, Carmichael gave a speech about black power at UC Berkeley and, a short time later, Oakland-based Huey Newton and Bobby Seale named their movement the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense.

Tapping into the need to represent African Americans

While some say comic-book artists Lee and Kirby were unaware of the Lowndes County icon, the fan comic created by Gunderson imagines a chance visit between Kirby and a rabbi on a New York train that led to Lee’s introduction to Carmichael and Lowndes County’s symbol.

Whatever the reality, Lee and Kirby were tapping into the need to represent African Americans in the pages of their comic books, say the exhibit’s curators.

“You had a rubber man, a wasp man,” says Thomas. “It was about time to create an intelligent black man who wasn’t a sidekick.”

In Lee and Kirby’s Black Panther imaginings, T’Challa ruled a mythical kingdom called Wakanda. Its rich veins of a powerful and coveted ore named Vibranium made it a target for those who would exploit the resource. But King T’Challa and his ancestors used their wealth to educate and enrich the country, with the result that the mythical nation was not only independent and wealthy but also technologically advanced.

“The Black Panther Party was trying to create something similar to Wakanda, if not create a real Wakanda,” says nelson, who is researching the visual culture of desire and pleasure within black communities. “They weren’t separatists, but they definitely recognized that if black communities were going to survive and thrive they had to create their own resources and be self-sufficient and self-reliant.”

“This theme of self-determination is very persistent in both comic books and the history of the Black Panther Party,” adds Garcha, whose dissertation is on the role of women and children in the Black Panther Party.

It was a time, say the women, when African Americans, especially in low-income, urban communities, needed a superhero.

“The Black Panther character in the comic book and the Black Panther Party both came out at the perfect moment,” nelson says, “so you’ve got this character within a comic-book universe and this live-action version within the Black Panther Party.”

Marvel’s newest Black Panther comic books, meanwhile, are being penned by the likes of MacArthur genius and National Book Award winner Ta-Nehisi Coates, bestselling author Roxanne Gay, and poet Yona Harvey.

For Elisabeth Remak-Honnef, who heads UC Santa Cruz’s Special Collections Department, the exhibit is also an example of the diversity and scholarship opportunities in the campus’s extensive collections, which not only includes about 1,700 vintage Marvel Comics comic books donated by Gunderson and his childhood friend, Peter Coha (Kresge ’78, mathematics) but also the Ruth-Marion Baruch and Pirkle Jones Photography Collection, valued at an estimated $32 million.

The exhibit at McHenry Library, including free copies of the fan comic titled Seeking the Black Panther, is open until May 1. There is also a digital version.