Last post, I wrote about how Stan Lee and Jack Kirby position the audience in Fantastic Four #52-#53. Today, I want to expand upon that discussion some and examine the ways that readers responded to T’Challa’s debut in the letters section a few issues later. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Henry B. Clay III’s praise of Black Panther’s debut; however, not everyone expressed the same amount of excitement as Clay did. Before looking at the fan feedback, I want to touch on the end of Fantastic Four #53 after the FF and T’Challa defeat Klaw.
After defeating Klaw, T’Challa muses that he “will stalk no more” as the Black Panther since he has enacted his revenge upon his enemy. Ben Grimm quips, “Mebbe the Yancy Street Gang can use ya!” Grimm’s comment here is an insult, plays on stereotypes, and places T’Challa in opposition to Grimm and the FF. Reed Richards immediately chastises Grimm. The next panel shows T’Challa with his mask removed and the FF’s hands pushing him in the back, as if nudging him on to action against evil. Richards tells him, “There’s no reason for the Black Panther’s career to come to an end! The world will always have need of a dedicated, powerful fighter against injustice.” The other members of the FF agree, and T’Challa responds, “I shall do it! I pledge my fortune, my powers–my very life–to the service of all mankind!”
Martin Lund views this panel, and the overall narrative, as a commentary on the Cold War and which side (American or Russian) post-colonial African nations would choose to side with. I do think this is an important discussion to have, and if you would like to learn more about it, check out his article “‘Introducing the Sensational Black Panther!’ Fantastic Four #52–53, the Cold War, and Marvel’s Imagined Africa.” Ultimately, T’Challa’s decision has him side with America, thus reinforcing nationalism and patriotism.
The panel where he pledges himself to fight injustice appears oddly drawn. It is unclear whether or not the FF are laying hands on T’Challa or if they are pushing him. Read within the context of Lund’s argument, it would appear as if the team of superheroes, who of course would represent American exceptionalism, physically push T’Challa to pledge his allegiance to their cause, and T’Challa’s face lends credence to this interpretation with the expression he exhibits as he makes the pledge.
The end of #53 is important because it has T’Challa side with the FF, thus making him a hero within the Marvel universe. However, not everyone perceived him in this manner. Letters about T’Challa’s debut started to appear on the “Fantastic Four Fan Page” at the end of issue #55. There, Alan Finn writes to the editors, “In your flood of letters praising F.F. #52, I thought some had better speak up for the minority of your readers. The Black Panther stinks!” Important to note is that Finn, along with other readers, places T’Challa not as a hero but as a villain. (Seeing as this is two issues after #53, I am not sure if some of these readers had read the end of the arc yet.) To support his assertion, Finn argues that “the Black Panther bats the F.F. around like dolls,” which he does, and that this makes him somehow unbelievable. In this manner, Finn echoes the same sentiments that Grimm espouses in the opening panel of #52: “There is no way an African king could make this machine and beat the FF.”
As Finn disputes T’Challa’s believability as a “villain” to the FF, he praises the Native American character Wyatt Wingfoot. He says, “Wingfoot was beautiful, as was the entire mag’s attitude and art.” Wingfoot is Johnny Storm’s college roommate and he tags along to Wakanda with the FF. In this manner, he is part of the team; however, he is also Native American. While labeled as Native American, he appears white throughout the issue. With this in mind, Finn inks his positive feedback to a white character while disparaging an intellectually superior Black character who ultimately teams up with the FF.
At the end of issue #56, Russell Bullock, Jr. writes into the editors and comments, “F.F. #53 was as bad as issues #48 through #50. ‘The Sensational Black Panther’ was utterly depressing, with the exception of Wyatt Wingfoot. The same holds true for #53.” Unlike Finn, Bullock does not address T’Challa’s debut with anything more than pointing out that the debut continues a line of “bad” issues for the series; however, the comment about Wyatt Wingfoot stands out because, like Finn, Bullock view Wingfoot in a positive manner.
Why focus on Wingfoot? At the end of issue #52, Wingfoot frees the FF from the traps that T’Challa sets. He defeats some of T’Challa’s men, and on the last page, he tells T’Challa, “You took every precaution against the greatest super-powered team in the world . . . but, you overlooked one factor! Sometimes a man with no superpowers can tip the scales against you!” Read on the surface, Wingfoot’s actions relate that everyone has power and strength. Read in the context of what I have been writing about, Wingfoot becomes a white man saving the FF from an African “villain.”
Along with Clay’s letter, others praised T’Challa’s first appearance. In issue #55, Ken Greene reinforces Lee and Kirby’s desire to have comics speak on social issues. After praising the art, he writes, “But the main thing that made my heart sing is the latest in your concerted effort to bring comic literature to a more adult level by portraying members of races other than white” through the depictions of T’Challa and Wingfoot. He continues, “I have a feeling that the Black Panther will turn out to be the first great Negro hero-villain in comic book history!” Again, at this early stage, Greene and others do not necessarily know if TChalla will become a hero or a villain, but his framing of that issue in terms of “hero-villain” instead of just villain is noteworthy because he does not automatically assume, as some of the other readers do, that T’Challa will become a villain.
Even readers that praised T’Challa’s initial appearance classified him as a villain. Heaping praise on T’Challa, Darryl Miller writes, “The Black Panther is one of your better characters, much superior to run-of-the-mill super-space-villains like Galactus.” Even though he does not link “villain” directly to T’Challa, Miller’s insinuation is that T’Challa is a villain in the vein of other Marvel villains, such as Galactus. In this formulation, T’Challa always opposes the FF and does not work with them to counter injustices. By placing T’Challa as “villain,” Miller and others, even if inadvertently, play into ideas of Black criminality. At the end of his letter, Miller praises Wingfoot for singlehandedly saving the FF from T’Challa. (As stated earlier, this letter, along with others, could have been written after issue #52 and not #53; however, that does not totally change the way we need to examine the responses.”
Following Clay’s praise of T’Challa’s debut, Linda Lee Johnson’s letter in Fantastic Four #57 repositions T’Challa not as a villain but as a super-hero. She writes, “Another thing that made this story so unique was that you are the first, the very first to create and introduce a Negro super-hero who is as brilliant as he is handsome to team up with your already fantastic heroes.” Here, Johnson echoes Clay’s sentiments and adds “brilliant” and “handsome” to the equation. In this way, T’Challa becomes a hero on par with the FF, not a villain seeking to conquer them at every turn.
All of these responses speak to the readership that Lee and Kirby addressed in issues #52 and #53 when they introduced T’Challa to the world. Some viewed T’Challa through the same lens that Grimm did throughout the arc. Others saw T’Challa as an inspiration within the pages of a comic book and as a sign of progress because his depiction as a handsome, brilliant, African king defied stereotypes and challenged some readers to question their preconceived notions about others.