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Blank Panther?: Jack Kirby, Blackness and the American Dream

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Thursday, Feb 17, 2011
Focusing a Black History Month spotlight on the nature of the American Dream, do illustrator and comics legend Jack Kirby's wrestlings black identity in his Black Panther character prove groundbreaking? Or simply the reenactment of his own identity politics?

Black superhero characters in comics are intended to be inspirational. Yet arguably, these characters have tended in practice to represent white aspirations for an assimilative black perspective that affirms the quixotic nature of the “American” dream.  Perhaps no creator highlights this fact more than Jack Kirby.  In November 1978 Kirby gave an interview where he explained Marvel’s heroes reflected the traits admired by creators and central to the American experience. “Comics have to reflect the society in general and society in general on the level that we admired was Angelo-Saxon. Everybody was an immigrant.”[1]  Kirby’s assertion of a White Anglo-Saxon identity orienting the United States and that everyone was an immigrant suggests a post-racial ideology based on his own Jewish identity shaped his depiction of comic heroes.
  


Comics, like other art forms, offered Jews steady opportunities to celebrate American culture.  Apart from and a part of society, Jewish cartoonists such as Milt Gross and Harry Hershfield, defined the newspaper comic strip. As the publishing industry matured however, those working on major newspaper strips gained social capital, while aspiring creators, desperate for work and suffering in the midst of the Great Depression were seen as talentless hacks. Countless Jewish artisan toiled on disrespected in the comics industry trenches.  Jack Kirby, born and raised in New York’s Bowery district, was journeyman who produced political, humor, and action strips for years by time he began his famous partnership with Joe Simon and created Captain America in 1941. 


The fantastic nature of superhero comics allowed Jewish creators to incorporate social commentary into their work.  Captain America’s first appearance punching Adolf Hitler predates U.S. involvement, but expressed Jewish sentiments toward Nazi Germany. In the aftermath of the war, Jewish creators, many like Kirby veterans of the armed forces, continued to celebrate the freedom, opportunity, and agency represented by United States.  For Kirby and his contemporaries the United States was a haven that welcomed minorities with opportunity and defended the oppressed everywhere. 


By the time Kirby teamed with Stan Lee to produce Marvel’s Silver Age superheroes, the Cold War heighten this ideological pose.  Reflecting anti-communism, the Fantastic Four’s origin hinged on winning the space race and while Spider-Man reflected a consumer oriented youth culture.  Recognizing that 1960s’ social aspirations questioned establish norms, Marvel thus incorporated this shifting landscape into their stories.  This philosophy was not revolutionary.  Lee wrote and Kirby drew heroes that demonstrated through action the values the United States strived to achieve.  Thus, the Black Panther, the first black superhero offered a model of heroic action identical in substance, yet diverse in appearance.


The Black Panther provides the visual cue of difference that broke the barrier of white heroic privilege, but not the cultural perspective that created it. Removed from the U.S. experience by national identity, personal history, and individual motivation the Panther’s appearance did not directly address the stifling effect of racial prejudice. The Panther looked different, but like Kirby, his actions affirm his right to inclusion.  Like current debates about post-racial thinking, Kirby was not beyond racial identification, he merely attempted to devalue it.


[1] Anne Baron-Carvais, “In His Own Words: The Lost Kirby Interview,” The Jack Kirby Collector No. 32 (July 2001), 20. M. Thomas Inge Collection of Comic Art Reference at the Virginia Commonwealth University Library

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