Hollywood reaped the rewards of finally giving the spotlight to a character who is commonly known as the first black superhero, making room for Marvel to launch solo films with women and Asian characters, “Captain Marvel,” and the upcoming “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.”
But Stan Lee, who co-created Black Panther with artist Jack Kirby, did not invent the black superhero, and the amnesia surrounding who really did, decades earlier, is part of a larger pattern of black inventors going unappreciated. Black Panther — as vital as he has been to comics, the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the legions of fans who had waited so long to see a black superhero top the box office — was predated by nearly two decades by the now-forgotten Lion Man. Had this cat-crusader been allowed to thrive, the role of black heroes in media might have evolved very differently — and we might have a far richer and more inclusive array of identities reflected in popular culture today.
Lee created countless beloved heroes for Marvel Comics, but the legacy surrounding how he handled black characters is more complex than most realize. In his early work, he created an offensive black character named Whitewash Jones in 1941 as part of the series the Young Allies. Whitewash spoke in a stereotypical drawl and is introduced as a skilled harmonica player before adding: “Yeah man! I is also good on de watermelon!”
Lee was still a teenager and new to writing comics in 1941, and the Young Allies was one of his earliest efforts. Whitewash Jones faced no backlash at the time because he was part of a larger trend in which black characters were portrayed almost exclusively as buffoons, including Buckwheat in the Our Gang short films, Amos ‘n’ Andy on the radio, and black film stars such as Stepin Fetchit and Mantan Moreland. Comics readers were assumed to be white readers, with little thought given to authentic representations of people of color (or the market share they made up). Black readers were accustomed to seeing stereotypical depictions of black characters in comics.
But in July 1947, journalist Orrin C. Evans published the first — and only — issue of a comic book aimed exclusively at black readers, made solely by black creators and featuring only black main characters — All-Negro Comics No. 1. Evans, who as a journalist regularly covered NAACP and National Urban League conventions, sought to actively counter the racial distortions seen in other comics. He wanted to offer stories born out of experience and civic engagement rather than thoughtless stereotypes, and to give black readers heroic characters that other media industries were unwilling to provide.
Evans hoped that All-Negro Comics might allow marginalized voices and experiences to be heard. He wanted the series to elevate black creators, too, such as E.C. Stoner, who drew a story in 1937 for the first issue of Detective Comics, the now-famous series that soon introduced Batman in its pages.
Lion Man, a cat-themed superhero, debuted as protector of the world’s largest uranium deposit in Africa’s Gold Coast (now Ghana). Channeling the rising Pan-Africanism movement, Evans hoped that Lion Man might give African American readers what he called “a finer appreciation of their African heritage” in the opening editorial of All-Negro Comics No. 1.
But Lion Man was forgotten soon after his 1947 debut because the entrenched racism in the comic book business denied Evans a chance to continue the series. Evans was planning a second installment, which he advertised in the first issue’s final pages. But many distributors and newsstands refused to sell All-Negro Comics once they saw it, making it hard to find outside Evans’s hometown of Philadelphia. He couldn’t secure a printer willing to do a second issue or even anyone willing to sell him the paper to print it on. The systemic racism of the comics industry and its printing and distribution channels killed the chance for another issue, so Evans returned to his newspaper career. Readers had to wait until the mid-1960s for the further adventures of a black superhero.
That’s when Lee co-created Black Panther with Kirby, to widespread success. When Lee launched his new line of Marvel superheroes in 1961 with “The Fantastic Four,” he sought to make his stories reflect the world around him more directly than other comics publishers were doing, and that included inserting a modicum of racial diversity into his books. A first step came in adding a black soldier named Gabriel Jones to the pages of Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos in 1963. An early issue of that series even tackled racial bigotry, demonstrating that Lee was becoming more attuned to the need to reflect societal change in the wake of the civil rights movement. Since Lee had more clout with his distributors than Evans ever did, a character like Black Panther was finally a possibility for mass audiences by the time of his 1966 debut.
By building a legacy around how a white creator like Lee made great advances in portraying black culture in popular media, we disguise the racism that permeated the comics industry for so many decades and that prevented creators such as Evans from finding success in the same markets as Lee and other white publishers. Superman has often been read as a parable about the experiences of Jewish immigrants, but black creators were denied the chance to tell similar stories. As Coogler’s film proved, heroes whom marginalized audiences can look up to with pride — and whom white audiences can also embrace — are a vital starting point for dialogues about racial and cultural identity.
More than 70 years before films such as “Black Panther” and “Captain Marvel” inspired debates among fans, journalists and Internet trolls alike about what it means for nonwhite and non-male bodies to don superhero costumes, Lion Man stood as a powerful example of how superheroes can be embodied by a wider range of cultural identities.
This story matters because it reveals not only the importance of a black creator whose work blazed a path, but also asks us to consider the paths not taken and what might have been when it comes to how popular culture has constructed black identity over the past few decades. If Lion Man and All-Negro Comics had enjoyed even a fraction of the success of Superman and Action Comics, imagine how different comics and cinema might be for modern audiences.
If black superheroes had gotten a two-decade head start and didn’t have to wait for white creators like Lee to embrace the changes made by civil rights activists in the 1960s, maybe we wouldn’t have had to wait until now for a character like Black Panther to become one of Hollywood’s most successful heroes.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said that Stan Lee was the creator of Black Panther, without mentioning that the character was co-created with Jack Kirby.