In the Marvel Universe, there exists a nation in Africa called Wakanda. Long ago, a meteor fell to Earth and landed there, creating “the Mound.” From this strange star-born ore, the Wakandans mined a metal that could absorb kinetic energy and sound waves. Called “vibranium,” this metal became a precious thing that would help Wakanda become one of the richest countries in the world, not to mention the most technologically advanced.
Outsiders and foreign nations would hear of Wakanda’s riches and its strange metal and wanted to take it by force. As a culture that embraced both technology and ancient mysticism, the royal family of Wakanda is led by one who assumes the mantle of the panther god they worship, becoming its agent on Earth known as the Black Panther. Years after his father T’Chaka was killed by the villain Ulysses Klaw, it was time for young T’Challa to become the new Black Panther. After a long period of training and enduring several trials, he was given the heart shaped herb that grows in Wakanda, a plant whose evolution was mutated by the presence of vibranium. By ingesting it, his senses were taken to superhuman levels and his physical prowess was taken to the peak level of human ability, putting him on par with champions such as Captain America.
For a few years now, the world had been host to an ever growing number of superhumans. To prove he would be able to protect his people from super-villains and the like, T’Challa broke the isolationist practice of his people by inviting the Fantastic Four to Wakanda and then faced them individually in combat, proving that he could defeat or fight any one of them to a standstill. After fighting alongside the same team of heroes on different occasions and then teaming-up with Captain America, T’Challa was considered a superhero by the world at large and was invited to join the Avengers (which he initially did so in order to learn if they could be a threat to his people). For years, T’Challa has acted as both a protector of the world and as warrior-king of Wakanda.
Recently, events led to T’Challa giving up his reign and the mantle of Black Panther to his sister Shuri. Then, after a vicious battle with the villain Dr. Doom, all refined vibranium on Earth was rendered inert, leaving T’Challa without many of his resources and weapons. Now forced to rely mostly on his own enhanced abilities and training, T’Challa the former king has come to New York, taking on the mantle of the Black Panther once again in order to protect the people of Hell’s Kitchen and prove that he too is a “man without fear.”
Got it? Good. Now let’s take a look at not only T’Challa’s wardrobe but at the others who have worn some version of the tribal uniform of the Black Panther.
THE CLASSIC LOOK
Originally, when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby decided to create a superhero who was also king of an African nation, they toyed with the idea of naming him the “Coal Tiger.” This was later abandoned and the name “Black Panther” was chosen instead. Pictured above is Kirby’s original, unused cover for the Panther’s first appearance. Point of trivia, in the 1990s Marvel had a story where the Avengers encountered a version of T’Challa from a parallel universe who did indeed call himself “Coal Tiger” and wore a yellow-themed version of the Panther outfit.
But back to our hero. Kirby decided to alter the Panther’s mask and thus we got the classic costume which debuted in Fantastic Four #52 in 1966. Some folks have occasionally referred to this suit as “Batman Lite.” Sure, there are similarities: a cowl with ears, dark bodysuit, a cape. But it’s a mistake to not recognize what this costume says about this individual and how he’s definitely not Bruce Wayne.
Batman’s cape is meant to emulate wings and later on it was said to be an extra layer of armor that allowed for gliding and could be used as a weapon itself. It has a specific purpose. T’Challa’s cape is just that. It’s decoration. Batman would have no use for it, so why does T’Challa? Because he’s a king. This isn’t just a superhero costume, it’s official garb and thus the decoration makes sense. The cape isn’t large enough for the Black Panther to do any Phantom of the Opera style poses, which is good since he’s a very acrobatic hero and would want as little risk as possible for his movements to be hindered by extra cloth. So, decorative but with a degree of practicality.
The lines on the gloves and boots could purely be there as a design element, but they also indicate an enhanced grip and that would definitely benefit someone who needs to climb and leap from tree to tree (or from rooftop to rooftop as the case became later on). The belt is simple and only meant to carry the smallest of tools T’Challa may need. For stealth and agility, this is an excellent choice. If T’Challa needs to call in some extra fire power, he can sling it over his shoulder or attach it to the strap across his body or simply ask one of his many soldiers and subjects to carry it for him. The man has options.
The ears are a tricky thing. I prefer when artists give them a bit of a curve. Inward or outward doesn’t really matter to me, so long as that curve is there to imply a cat’s ears. If the ears are drawn straight up with a triangle-like shape to them, then you fall into the danger zone of confusing T’Challa with Batman. Especially if you check out the silhouette he gives when he has pointed, triangle ears. That shadow can easily be mistaken for the one cast by Gotham City’s dark knight detective.
For a long time, the Black Panther ditched the cape entirely. I can get behind that. If it’s just for decoration, after all, then it makes sense to wear it during a ceremony or some official function, but to then toss it off when true battle is called for. When facing an enemy, T’Challa isn’t as interested in impressing them as he is in kicking their butt as quickly and as efficiently as possible.
But now we’ve gone too simple. There’s nothing regal or heroic about this look. It’s a jumpsuit with a customized mask and that’s it. A dance student in black leotards and an eared cowl could be the Black Panther now. This could be a cat burglar (pun intended? maybe?) or a cast member from a new, grittier re-imagining of the musical Cats.
You want to ditch the cape? Fine. But some design element other than just “look, I have ears” would be nice. A decorative belt buckle. Slash marks across the chest. Some Wakandan tribal designs on the arms or face. Whatever could make this stand out as “warrior from another country” instead of “guy in a mask.”
One thing that’s cool about this look though is that some artists, such as Jack Kirby, gave this look the added touch of tiny claws on the fingers (and in Kirby’s case, on the boots as well). This is nice and helps give the characters some identity but still isn’t quite enough for me.
PARDON, I SEEM TO HAVE LOST HALF OF MY MASK
The Black Panther was someone who went through a lot of surface changes. While the character remained pretty constant and true to his roots, something as simple as his name was altered repeatedly. The Black Panther had been created a couple of months before the political group of the same name, so originally it was no biggie. But as that group rose in notoriety, Marvel decided to distance the character, first by renaming him the “Black Leopard” in Fantastic Four #119. T’Challa himself said that he didn’t want to be connected to a group he wasn’t involved with, explaining “I neither condemn nor condone those that have taken up the name – but T’Challa is a law unto himself.”
He added that “Black Leopard” made sense as an alternate English translation of his Wakandan name since an African panther actually is a melanistic leopard (whereas in North America, a panther is a dark colored cougar and in Central and South America it’s a black variant of the jaguar). Later on, when he teamed up with Captain America in the pages of Tales of Suspense, he called himself simply “Panther.”
Soon afterward, T’Challa changed his name to simply “Panther” and then went on to join the Avengers. According to Roy Thomas, who was writing Avengers at the time, Stan Lee (then editor) requested that T’Challa’s mask be changed to show the bottom half of his face so that readers could see his expressions. I find this request hilarious coming from one of the creators of Spider-Man and Iron Man, but so it goes. Now, does this still work? For me, not so much. I agree that for many heroes and villains, being able to see their facial expressions is not just good but also important. But with this new variation of T’Challa’s costume that debuted in Avengers #52 (1968), I have two problems.
The first thing is that T’Challa is not just a costumed adventurer. In his country, taking on the mantle of the Black Panther (or the Black Leopard or whatever you want to call it) means acting as an avatar of the spirit of the panther god. It means walking in the footsteps of your ancestors who held the mantle before you. Like certain tribes and cultures who wear masks at ceremonies, you are not just a man playing a role, you are a vessel for something greater. The full face mask helps convey that, making him appear somewhat inhuman. Whereas this open mask immediately hits me with “No, this is just a man, nothing more.”
The second reason why this mask doesn’t work for me is that T’Challa is a man known for having a poker face. You’re not really supposed to know what he’s thinking or feeling all the time. He’s a manipulative strategist who plays his cards very close to the vest. So there’s no real point in showing his expression if it’s not going to change that often.
After just a few issues, the T’Challa went back to his full face mask and original title of “Black Panther” in the pages of Avengers #56. When Hawkeye asked him in Avengers #105 if he wasn’t still afraid of being politically stereotyped because of the name, T’Challa answered “I am not a stereotype. I am myself. And I am the Black Panther.”
A TOUCH OF GOLD
When he finally got his own series again in the late 1990s, T’Challa got some added decoration. With a few bands of gold, we got a much stronger indication that this was indeed a king and not just a superhero. Not only does this make the costume more unique than simply a jumpsuit with a cape, but it breaks up the color from becoming monotonous.
The Black Panther also had other things added to his arsenal, such as regenerating energy daggers that could be fired like darts (causing pain but no physical harm) and anti-metal claws. “Anti-metal” is another word for “Antarctic vibranium”, a corrupted form of vibranium that breaks apart metal substances. Even adamantium (the unbreakable stuff that coats Wolverine’s bones) isn’t all that safe from it.
And sometimes, the smallest of tweaks can really add to a look. Glowing eye lenses in the mask and vibranium-soled boots (to absorb the sound of his approach) that can give off a low-level glow are things that make the Black Panther stand out from just anyone who wears a bodysuit and a mask. And it was said that the Black Panther’s suit was made of vibranium mesh to protect him from various forms of attack, which is why the people of Wakanda didn’t seem to worry about the fact that their king would go into battle with super-villains without wearing heavy duty armor.
And this look works just as well without the cape. The bands, belt, claws and eyes still bring enough design to this look so that it’s still simple but not boring.
Now, the shoulder band didn’t seem to be working for some people, so it became standard for artists to add a more regal necklace (or sash, if you will) with a decorative clasp. I do think this works better, I just wish artists could agree on the design of the panther head clasp so T’Challa could have a unique emblem for himself.
Sometimes the clasp wasn’t a panther head at all. Some artists have done it as a claw (which just looks creepy to me, frankly). And some have done it as a simple golden amulet.
Some artists have kept the golden amulet and belt but dropped the arm bands. I think this design still works, honestly. A change like this really is up to a matter of personal preference.
CALL ME “KASPER”
Kevin “Kasper” Cole tried his best to be a good cop but circumstances and corruption around him made his job very difficult. When he found the uniform of the Black Panther (temporarily abandoned by T’Challa who was suffering from illness at the time), he saw a way to mete out justice outside of the law. Debuting in Black Panther vol. 3 #50 (2002), Cole threw together this off-the-rack look and passed himself off as the Black Panther.
The vibranium mesh suit protects him from several attacks. The gloves and boots allow for climbing abilities. But other than that, Cole is a cop. He can handle himself in a fight, but he’s not a warrior king with years of training and enhanced abilities. So it makes sense he would bring extra protection, such as a gun loaded with non-lethal gel rounds. And the jacket is a nice touch. It tells us this is a more urban take on the Panther. He’s not facing super-villains, he’s facing street gangs and thugs. The jacket gives him the appearance of some strange masked gang member. It also gives him a noir quality similar to pulp heroes and urban vigilantes such as the Shadow, the Green Hornet and the Spider.
This look wouldn’t work for T’Challa, but it suits Cole just fine. Oh, and for those interested, he later did get some enhanced abilities of his own before turning the mantle back over to the previous Black Panther.
Sometimes, vibranium mesh isn’t enough. Sometimes, you need extra protection and a big damn sword. In a couple of different adventures, T’Challa has donned this ceremonial armor to take on a few serious foes, one being Iron Man when the armored hero attempted to arrest the Black Panther’s wife Storm.
This armor is pretty cool and in keeping with the character’s sensibilities of stealth and agility over raw strength. Everything here is utilitarian. The shoulder pads prevent a swinging sword from decapitating him. The pads are laid out to protect ares of the body without hindering movements. It’s constructed of many pieces, so if T’Challa has to he can remove or abandon part of the armor without having to unstrap the entire thing. And it’s still recognizable as our hero.
A great design. Of course, you wouldn’t want T’Challa wearing this every day. One, it puts a little too much emphasis on him looking like a knight rather than a superhero and let’s face it, T’Challa is royalty but he is also a superhero living in a superhero’s world. And looking like a knight implies that you serve another. Our hero serves no master!
Gotta love that ebony sword, though.
SHURI AND FRIENDS
When T’Challa couldn’t carry out his duties to Wakanda, the responsibility fell to his sister. Shuri proved herself more than worthy and took on the mantle of the Black Panther and Princess Regent. On the surface, it’s the same outfit though fitted to her body (and fitted impossibly well, I might add, depending on the artist).
But there are some touches that make this her own. The necklace she wears and the fur at her shoulder give this a feminine flavor. Likewise, Shuri sometimes wears decorative bands around her thighs and her boots have more design elements than T’Challa’s. Nice, simple touches that remind us this is not simply a “female Black Panther,” this is a woman who is her own person and brings her own sensibilities to the table.
In the Doomwar mini-series, Shuri rocked out this suit of Black Panther armor that was later enhanced with some of Iron Man’s tech. This armor is pretty cool and the gold is a nice touch as it was on T’Challa, but having the mask made of gold bothers me. I don’t like the Panther without a black mask, I guess. And connecting the ear shapes into the helmet’s brow diminishes them to me. They no longer look like ears, they’re just part of the helmet. Heck, they might even be giving her an avian look.
Shuri was not the first woman to rock the Black Panther garb. For instance, during the Secret Invasion crossover, Storm and other women of Wakanda wore black jumpsuits and panther masks as they fought off alien Skrull invaders. This was cool to see in the story, but it wouldn’t work for me as a serious Black Panther uniform. The outfit is too simple and the mask is too Mardi Gras.
And while we’re talking about alternate Panthers, here’s a quick look at the first Black Panther, the man called Bashenga. As you can see, he has no costume really, just a headdress made from the skin of a panther to indicate his place in the tribe.
Likewise, here is one of T’Challa’s ancestors from the time when North America was being colonized by Europeans. Again, this is not a costume and so it cannot be judged as such. It’s just a fun, tribal take on the Black Panther design. He looks cool though, doesn’t he? The claws bandaged to his hands are a nice design, indicating he’s always got a weapon at hand. And notice how his hood indicates the shape of the panther’s ears. Clever.
In the recent mini-series Black Panther & Captain America: Flags of our Fathers, the World War II era Panther is seen wearing T’Challa’s basic look with a larger cape and more tribal looking belt. But when we first learned of how these two heroes met, the uniform was quite different.
Back in Black Panther vol. 3 #30 (2001), artist Norm Breyfogle gave us his design for the World War II Black Panther. This is a very interesting blend of the tribal aspect of the Panther with the superhero sensibility. Like T’Challa’s cape, this sash has no real purpose other than to mark that this is a tribal leader. The claws are bound to him rather than attached to the fingers, emphasizing that while Wakanda (even at this time) is highly advanced in technology, the Panther is a callback to its primal beginnings. Unlike T’Challa, he carries tools, but they are also simple, primitive tools. Knives and a rope. Primitive but useful for many different tasks and attacks.
The band around the neck is interesting. It gives this Black Panther an almost Egyptian quality. And like T’Challa’s golden bands, it indicates royalty. A very cool design all around, I wonder why it wasn’t used again in the recent mini-series.
PANTHER WITHOUT FEAR
So T’Challa lost his powers (NOO!). But then he got them through mystical forces (YAY!) and seemed to be stronger and have more protection from magic. But then all vibranium went inert. And he still technically wasn’t king, with Shuri still in charge of Wakanda. So now he’s in New York, taking on the role of Hell’s Kitchen’s protector while Daredevil is still missing.
With no vibranium mesh to protect him or energy daggers, T’Challa’s gotta get back to basics. This suit definitely says that. The body armor, belt and pouches all make him look like a soldier or a SWAT team member rather than as a hero whose skin-tight leotards alone can protect him from bullets. For years, T’Challa relied on the advanced tech of his country, but without it he knows that he shouldn’t take any chances.
This look also makes sense for the place he’s in. The Black Panther’s not hanging out at Avengers mansion these days nor can he call for a hover craft from the Wakandan embassy to pick him up. Like Kevin Cole, he’s forced to operate on a street level now and this outfit is well suited to that story. It doesn’t say “superhero” it says “vigilante.” Very interesting.
And that brings us to a close this week. Before anyone starts asking “Where’s Black Panther of 2099?” – well, silly, he’s going to be featured in the 2099 piece I keep talking about, so be patient. I hope you enjoyed this week’s column. Any questions or requests, feel free to E-mail or contact me on twitter. Until next time, this is Alan Kistler, Agent of S.T.Y.L.E., signing off.
Alan Kistler writes the comic book history/fashion column Agent of S.T.Y.L.E. He is an actor and freelance writer living in New York who has been recognized by Warner Bros. Films and major media/news outlets as a comic book historian. He is also the creator/host of the web-show “Crazy Sexy Geeks: The Series.” He knows entirely too much about the history of comics, Star Trek, Doctor Who, time travel, and vampires that don’t sparkle.