Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s iconic Black Panther may have taken some major inspiration from an earlier Marvel character, the Panther.
Still a hugely influential superhero today, the creation of the Black Panther is a constant subject of speculation for comic fans, with many fascinated by the process that went into creating such an iconic character. The concept of an African royal moonlighting as a big cat-themed Avenger is certainly a unique one, but nothing is created in a vacuum. In fact, Black Panther, like many of his fellow Marvel heroes, likely owes a part of his legacy to a little-known hero from a bygone era of comic books.
In an interview from 2005 for Alter Ego #104 which touched on Black Panther’s origin, co-creator Stan Lee (who invented T’Challa along with Jack Kirby) recalled: “I think The Phantom… no, The Phantom had a dog… some character had a black panther, and I thought it was so dramatic when I read those stories.” The character he’s possibly referring to here is an obscure Australian knock-off of the Phantom called the Panther from 1957, at the tail end of the pulp hero era. This is bolstered by the fact that a villain with the Panther’s name and appearance was used for one of Marvel’s Western-themed comics, one year before T’Challa’s debut.
Marvel’s Two Gun Kid #77 from 1965 by Al Hartley and Dick Ayers, edited by Stan Lee, was appropriately titled “The Panther Will Get You if You Don’t Watch Out,” and has a very interesting cover image. Despite having completely different backstories, the Panther’s costume in the issue itself is largely the same as that of his Australian counterpart: a panther jumpsuit and mask with the bottom half of the face exposed. However, the Panther’s costume on the cover is unmistakably similar to the one worn by Marvel’s Black Panther; jet black with a panther mask covering the entire face. It is highly unlikely that Black Panther’s debut a year later in 1966 is a mere coincidence.
Adding to the intrigue is what is revealed in Jack Kirby’s original pencil art for Black Panther from his debut in Fantastic Four #52. Unlike the iconic Black Panther suit fans know today, T’Challa’s look was initially much more similar to that of the Panther, with the bottom half of the face still exposed. This design was changed for Black Panther’s actual comic debut.
To complicate matters further is the existence of another golden age hero called the Black Panther from 1941. This Black Panther made exactly one appearance and is so obscure it’s unlikely he has any connection to the hero that shares his name. A more likely influence for T’Challa’s backstory is “Waku, Prince of the Bantu” by Don Rico and Ogden Whitney from Atlas’ Jungle Tales #1. This story of an African prince who avenges his father and battles poachers and pretenders to the throne was, once again, edited by Stan Lee.
Unfortunately the comic books themselves and what little was said in interviews from the past are all anyone has to go on today to understand the creative process that led to Black Panther. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby have sadly passed, and any picture of how their greatest creations came to be will forever contain gaps only they could have filled in. The Panther may not have been a household name, but he and Waku, Prince of the Bantu likely helped inspire one in Marvel’s Black Panther.
Source: Alter Ego #104
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