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Originally published Sunday, February 20, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Comics

Marvel's "Black Panther" may shake up "white-bread industry"

You want to bet that kids are vainly Googling the African nation of Wakanda now? "Yes! " says writer Reggie Hudlin. "When I talk about it...

Seattle Times staff reporter

You want to bet that kids are vainly Googling the African nation of Wakanda now?

"Yes!" says writer Reggie Hudlin. "When I talk about it with adults they're like, 'Really! And who else has vibranium?' "

Google no further: The fictional country and its native super-metal are found only in Marvel's new monthly "Black Panther" series. Its launch during Black History Month, along with Seattle publisher Fantagraphics' graphic novel biography, "King," prompts a thought balloon: Why haven't there been more comics by and about minorities?

Hudlin, a Hollywood writer and director whose work includes "House Party" and "The Bernie Mac Show," has breathed exciting new life into a second-tier character who never really caught fire after his 1966 debut in the pages of "The Fantastic Four."

The first issue, on sale this month, looks at the technologically super-advanced Wakandan's awe-inspiring decimation of would-be conquerors through the ages.

"Every 50 or 100 years, people say, 'Look they've got all these great resources. Let's try to take it from them.' Now there's an international coalition of the greedy out to invade Wakanda, and the latest Black Panther is barely in his throne."

Like Lee Falk's classic hero, the Phantom, the Black Panther isn't just one guy but a mantle passed down through generations. In the second issue, out March 9, the current Panther must pass a series of arduous tests to be found worthy of the throne, Hudlin says by phone from Los Angeles.

Hard to believe, but while the character was born at the height of the civil-rights movement and the real-life militant Black Panther Party, there may not be a direct connection. In a 2004 Seattle Times interview, Marvel Studios head Avi Arad said, "If you know Stan [Lee], he's just Mr. Good. And he was naive, he didn't connect this. It wasn't about the social statement."

Could be. In the back pages of a trade paperback collection of the late artist and Panther co-creator Jack Kirby's brief 1977 solo run of the comic ("Black Panther," Marvel, $19.95), there's an early drawing of the character with a different costume and his original name: "The Coal Tiger." Seriously.

"Well, it happened around the same time, so I don't know one way or another," says Hudlin, 43. "But I really do believe it was one of those zeitgeist moments where you had Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, two Jewish guys in New York, and Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, two black guys in Oakland, come up with the same great idea at the same time. Working in Hollywood, that does not seem far-fetched to me at all."

This isn't Hudlin's first foray into comics and race. He co-wrote last year's superb "Birth of a Nation" with Aaron McGruder, controversial cartoonist of "The Boondocks," about the secession of East St. Louis. It's renamed "The Republic of Blackland" and bases its national anthem on the theme from "Good Times."

Here's how he imagined Black Panther's homeland: "How would they have this great super-science? You do a little research and you find that some African tribes had these metal alloys while people in Britain were still living in caves. What if their libraries never got burned, they never got knocked off track in terms of their cultural advancement? They could only maintain that by being one of the most fierce warrior tribes on earth. Look at the Vietnamese. They beat the Chinese, the French, the Americans. You can't really explain why, other than that they're just a bunch of kick-ass people."

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To Hudlin, longtime Marvel writer and editor Lee and artist Kirby were like Lennon and McCartney. "All these things were there in the character as created by Stan and Jack, and what I'm doing is just taking some of the implied ideas and making them explicit. This is sort of a relaunch. And the thing about these characters is, you really have to write them for two audiences. There's people like myself with 30 years of continuity in their heads and all this minutiae."

Also, Hudlin says, "I really want this to be a lot of people's first comic book."

For some black readers, it may be.

"It's a real white-bread industry," says Gary Groth, editor of The Comics Journal and co-founder of alternative publisher Fantagraphics.

The publisher is home to perhaps the only long-running title by and about minorities, Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez's "Love & Rockets," which started in 1982. Marvel has begun a big push for its new Latina spider-heroine, Araña, but Seattle retailers report that those issues haven't been flying off their shelves.

One possible reason why there haven't been more minorities in comics is obvious. Groth figures: "The comic reading public is probably mostly white, middle class." As for mainstream comics and superheroes, Groth says, "The experience is so bland and generic and massified, most of the black people who work in comics, you couldn't tell the difference in their work if they're white or black."


"King," by Ho Che Anderson and published by Seattle's Fantagraphics, is a graphic novel about Martin Luther King Jr. It's "an attempt to demystify and humanize him to a certain extent," said Anderson.

Humanizing King

"King" writer and artist Ho Che Anderson's viewpoint shows the chicken-and-egg circularity to the minority question in comics: "I can only suggest maybe not having grown up seeing themselves in the art form, not too many black folks consider it as something they want to do."

His densely worded but engrossing biography of Martin Luther King Jr. reads like a modern-day Classics Illustrated for adults with harsh language and the civil-rights leader's personal foibles left unsanitized. Anderson says his approach got him a cease-and-desist letter from the King estate years ago (the story originally appeared in three installments beginning in 1993), "But I don't know what happened to it."

From his Toronto home, Anderson, 35, says, "The basic approach was an attempt to demystify and humanize him to a certain extent. My personal feeling is that it's hard to relate to icons, but it's easier to relate to people who possess flaws like the rest of us. It also leads you back to the inescapable conclusion that the man was truly a hero.

"I'm just trying to be frank in there about his faults and some of his escapades on the road," Anderson explains. "But they're given no greater weight or credence than anything else in the book."

He's just as frank about getting the "King" assignment from Fantagraphics: "It was kind of an effort to cover their own ass by getting a black cartoonist to tell the story."

The lack of color in mainstream comics hasn't been for lack of effort. Recalling DC Comics' now-defunct "Milestones" line of black-themed titles in the '90s, Anderson says, "I guess it always comes down to economics, what sells. I was involved in 'Milestones,' but it kind of died out because the quality wasn't always there."

Good stories count

"That was one of the ways we were trying to build a stronger and more ethnically diverse DC universe," says DC's editorial vice president Dan DiDio. But, he points out, "From that group came 'Static Shock,' and if I'm not mistaken, that's one of first African-American comic books spun off into cartoon — a very prestigious one." (It's part of the "Kids WB" lineup.)

DiDio doesn't dispute that it's a white-bread industry. "But a lot of people are working hard to change that as we speak," he says. "We're getting a lot more diverse characters, but also a lot more diversity of creators in the business. Each one of our super teams has an African-American character in it. Green Lantern in the 'Justice League' cartoon is John Stewart [not the white Hal Jordan of the comics]. Firestorm has been relaunched as new black character."

DC's first black character in a solo title fared similarly to Marvel's Black Panther. In 1977, "Black Lightning" lasted a scant 11 issues. One lesson learned since then: Adding color isn't enough if you're not also telling a good story.

"We reintroduced Black Lightning to The Outsiders," another super team, DiDio says. "It's not just about a character being black but about him being a father, being a hero, and having a daughter following in his footsteps, and her doing things he disagrees with."

Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or mrahner@seattletimes.com

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