The online premiere last month of a Black Panther animated series was an exciting event for diehard comic geeks. The Panther, the first black superhero from Marvel, inspired me as a young comic fan. Now, all grown up with academic credentials to justify my comic habit, I can see the good and the bad in the new "motion comic" (a 21st century way to say cartoon). Moving it off the printed page and into animation is an important benchmark, but I'm concerned about its solely digital presentation.
In the 1960s, the Panther's debut — in Fantastic Four comics — marked a historic push for diversity. Marvel always courted diverse readers with its hip, inclusive style, but African Americans were largely absent from its pages until 1966, when the Black Panther changed everything. T'Challa (the Panther's real name), king of Wakanda and defender of its people, was for many African Americans the first positive depiction of a black person they remember in comics (not the first African American but the first black person).
Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, T'Challa was educated in the West and more concerned with protecting his homeland from outside threats than battling crime. Indeed, his costume isn't a costume; instead, his kingly robes serve to mark him as a hero. Moreover, he leads a technologically advanced African nation never conquered by whites. The Panther's origins, wealth and motivation represent a subtle acknowledgement of the destructive nature of white interaction with Africa.
The Panther's creation reflects the 1960s zeitgeist, but it has nothing to do with another icon of the era, the Black Panther Party. In fact, the editors once tried to change the character's name to Black Leopard after the party gained prominence.
Over the years, Marvel's artists and writers used the Panther to address racism, colonialism and segregation in memorable story lines, first as one of the Avengers and then as a solo comic hero. In "Panther's Rage," T'Challa struggles to protect his country from a devastating coup, and in "Panther's Quest," he clashes with South African authorities during apartheid.
Initially Marvel promised the Black Panther animation to BET, the Black Entertainment Network. BET has been criticized for not providing positive images, but it remains a media outlet closely linked to the African American audience. That partnership would have allowed the Panther to inspire a new generation of black youngsters and raised the comic's profile, perhaps opening the door to the big screen. Switching the series to online-only instead, via iTunes, Xbox LIVE, Microsoft Zune and PlayStation Network, undercuts its social impact.
I realize many people dismiss concerns about the digital divide; recent research shows online growth regardless of income, ethnicity or race. Though that may be true, the nature of that access is not equal. Upper- and middle-income people have greater higher-quality access than their low-income counterparts. Thus, though low-income users (many of whom are minorities) might be online in greater numbers, what they can do and see with their access is not equal to their better-off counterparts.
In the end, I think the full benefit of the positive portrayal of a black superhero is limited by a digital distribution strategy. It might seem passe to think we need easy access to an imaginary black hero in the era of a real-life African American president, yet I don't think that is the case. The Black Panther has a long history of inspiring comic readers, black and white, to change the way they think about blackness, and there are plenty of signs that more change is needed.
I know that a digital release maximizes potential benefits for Marvel. No DVDs to manufacture, ship or store, and minimal profit-sharing with a distributor. Yet, given the symbolism a black hero can have, let's hope Marvel pushes for wider release so that everyone gets the chance to be inspired by his deeds.
Julian Chambliss is an associate professor of history at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla.