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Art Imitates Life: The Black Panther Party and the Birth of a Comic Book Series

By Peggy Townsend

 

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.

 

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