Feb 11, 2016

The Greatest First Appearance of All Time: The Black Panther

With the Black Panther about to make his big-screen debut in a couple of months in Captain America: Civil War and Beyonce making a big splash at the Superbowl by wearing an outfit reminiscent of the black nationalist and very specifically not-hate group the Black Panthers, known to do things such as make sure black kids got free breakfasts in schools, I figured it'd be a good time to talk about T'Challa, Marvel's Black Panther, and capitalize on search engine queries. Because I have no shame.

Ben's already covered much of the Black Panther's landmark stories, but one thing he didn't cover was T'Challa's first appearance, which is the greatest first appearance ever by one hero in the confines of another series. There may be better first appearances out there, like Spider-Man's, where he's the main character, and there may be more impressive villain debuts, but there are no better first appearances by a hero in another superhero series. I don't think his first appearance is the stuff of legend, but hell, it should be, so let's take a look at it.

Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were always pretty racially progressive in their works, and in Fantastic Four #52, they introduced the Black Panther off-panel as an African chieftain who gifts the FF a flying car. Okay, keep that in mind, this comic published in 1966 features an African chief who has a flying car to spare.

Meeting with the Panther's emissary, the FF is invited to Wakanda to join T'Challa in a hunt. The emissary shows technology even Reed Richards is impressed by.

Of course, it's really just a cellphone.

Word gets back to T'Challa and he activates his giant computer and puts on his Black Panther suit.

The FF go to Wakanda, accompanied by Johnny Storm's friend Wyatt Wingfoot. (See what I mean about being racially progressive? We have a black guy and a Native American in the same book in 1966. If Kirby were alive today, he'd be doing things like giving Devil Dinosaur a black girl for a friend. Stan Lee's last high-profile project, in 2002, involved a black Batman and a Hispanic Wonder Woman.)

They land and oh just enjoy the Kirby.

It's at this point that the Panther's plot is revealed. He wanted to hunt the Fantastic Four!

And with each member of the four, he reveals an elaborate trap. For the Human Torch, he's set a fireproof device that he knew Johnny would just barge right into.

He then has his people fire repeller rays at the other three, splitting them up. He detects the Invisible Woman by her scent, and then gets to her before Sue Storm can set up her forcefield.

Then he tricks the Thing (whom he'd already weakened prior to the battle) into drinking some spiked water, just enough to put them at the same strength level. And "in any equal match, the Black Panther is certain to win!" (I do love how he rigged it so that the fight between him and Ben Grimm is fair, and not anything towards his favor.)

That leaves only Mr. Fantastic, who Panther traps pretty easily by turning the lights out and luring him into a holding device.

It's over then and there, for all intents and purposes, but by that time, Wyatt Wingfoot, who Panther hadn't accounted for, had freed the Human Torch, who went on to free the others. His point made and without any more traps, T'Challa accepts defeat.

But look at that. The Black Panther made his debut by beating up what was arguably, at the time, comics' most popular superteam. And he did it with intelligence, preparation, and more than a little bit of sneakiness, decades before "always being prepared" would become Batman's schtick. When the issue of DC/Marvel counterparts comes up, most fans say Batman's Marvel counterpart is Captain America, on account of them being the pre-eminent "no powers" guys in their universes. But really, for modern Batman, the Black Panther is a more accurate comparison. He's always prepared, he's a scientist, he's a great fighter, and he has a strong sense of responsibility towards his homeland. (And he's better, because he can actually rule his country, while that overrated long-eared self-centered jerk can't even fix his city. Wow, sorry about that. I really can't resist any opportunity to stick it to Batman.)

Maybe the sales don't show it, and hopefully that will change because we're now hopefully in an age where a salable black lead isn't the exception rather than the rule, but in-story, in the Marvel Universe, the Black Panther is nothing short of a first-stringer. Soon after his first appearance, he would become an Avenger. Recently he was a key figure in the Secret Wars. He's awesome. And starting April 27, 2016, the world will know.

For more awesome Black Panther stuff, go read Back Issue Ben's retrospective. Also, go watch Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes. Panther is awesome there.

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