Learning with a Panther: Using Comic Books to Inspire Minority Students

I oversee education majors looking to teach social studies at middle and high school levels. Recently, one of my black male students asked for tips to make his class more interesting. Most of his seventh grade kids were from low income families and were behind on their reading level. My suggestion was to try comic books. “Comic books?” He asked with a look of bewilderment on his face. Three weeks later he was raving about how well that suggestion worked. This article focuses on how comics (Marvel’s Black Panther in particular), inspire minority students when incorporated into educational curriculums. This is dedicated to young teachers and education majors at the secondary level.

Comics in the Classroom
In 2010 Katherine Aiken, a history professor at the University of Idaho, published an article using comics as a teaching tool for the Organization of American Historians’ Magazine of History. Aiken argued that comic books work, in terms of inspiring minority students, because they have a long history of addressing social and cultural issues. During the 1960s comics dealt with the Cold War and the Civil Rights Movement. Marvel’s X-Men used genetic discrimination against the mutants to make a statement on the oppression of minority groups such as blacks and Jews. The Pulitzer Prize winning comic Maus, about a Holocaust survivor, is used in classrooms across the country. Maus is a graphic novel which is a much longer version of a traditional comic. (Graphic history is the interpretation of the past in comic book form.) In recent years Marvel Comics introduced the character Kamala Khan, its first Muslim superhero. U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy tried to censor the comic book industry in the 1950s because he believed they were a danger to children. Fortunately, McCarthyism died out and the comic industry continues to thrive.

Tim Smyth, a white social studies teacher in Pennsylvania, discussed his use of comics with PBS NewsHour. He introduced Miles Morales to a young black boy in his class that he was struggling to connect with. Miles Morales is a bi-racial version of Spider-Man inspired by President Barack Obama and Atlanta’s Donald Glover (a.k.a Childish Gambino). Smyth believes that the comic book connected with his student because Morales favored him in appearance. He shared other thoughts with PBS.

“My students might see themselves in a female Thor (who is also fighting breast cancer), a black Captain America, a gay Iceman, a strong (and now fully dressed) Wonder Woman and Batgirl, a Korean-American Hulk or in the more traditional Caucasian characters as well. One of my students is currently researching a thesis paper based on how society’s changing views of the LGBTQ community has been mirrored in current comics…… There is also a new comic addressing the issue of positive body image titled, “Faith,” which follows the adventures of a strong female superhero who is overweight.”

Comics have created spaces for people of all ethnicities, genders, ages, and classes. The X-Men’s Professor X, The Defenders’ Daredevil, and the super heroine silhouette connect with readers who have physical disabilities and handicaps. As educators it is far easier to get our students to listen and learn once they feel like their stories matter too.

In addition to the inspiring superhero narratives, comic books and graphic novels also serve as historical primary sources in a number of classrooms. I was privileged to hear Andrew Aydin speak to a small group at the 132nd annual meeting for the American Historical Association in Washington, DC, in early January. Aydin is the 34-year-old digital director and policy advisor for civil rights icon and Georgia congressman John Lewis. Aydin and Lewis co-authored March, an autobiographical graphic novel trilogy on the southern Civil Rights from the perspective of Lewis. The comic illustrates notable events like the Freedom Rides, March on Washington, the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the Selma campaign. Ironically, it was a ten cent 1950s comic book titled, Martin Luther King and The Montgomery Story, which planted the seeds of activism in the mind of a young John Lewis. March is a great classroom supplement to the Eyes on the Prize documentary series.

The African-American Presence in the Marvel and DC Universe
Loyola Marymount University professor Adilifu Nama traces the history of the African-American presence in comics in her 2011 book Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes. Marvel introduced the Black Panther, the first black superhero to appear in a mainstream comic, in July 1966. It should be noted that as far back as 1947 black writers published All-Negro Comics. However, this comic only ran once and did not feature superheroes. Initially, the Black Panther made a guest appearance in Fantastic Four #52. Panther appeared again in Fantastic Four Annual #5 (1967), Captain America – Tales of Suspense #97-99 (January-March 1968), and The Avengers #52 (May 1968). He made cameos in other comics until receiving his own solo project Jungle Action #5 (July 1973). At the time of Panther’s debut African-Americans were in the midst of the Black Power Movement. Men and women like Stokely Carmichael and Angela Davis were calling for black cultural pride as well as political and economic empowerment. Blacks, fed up with Dr. King’s tactics of civil disobedience, took to the streets of Baltimore, Detroit, Watts, and Washington, DC, in social uprisings. The media and FBI labeled black power groups such as the Black Panther Party “domestic terrorists”. Many people believe that Marvel’s Panther was inspired by the Black Panthers. But his character appeared two months before the party’s founding in Oakland. Marvel’s Stan Lee has also publicly stated that his comic had no political ties to the Black Power Movement. Lee said he took the character’s name from the pet of another Marvel character. In an attempt to disassociate his character with the polarizing Black Power Movement, Lee renamed him Black Leopard for a brief period. The name Black Panther was used prior to the comic book. The World War II era 761st Tank Battalion that fought Hitler’s Nazis, mainly consisting of black soldiers, was nicknamed the Black Panthers. The 1965 Lowndes County Freedom Organization, in Alabama, adopted a Black Panther as their official logo. (Hasan Kwame Jeffries, Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt, 2009).

Marvel’s Black Panther is the story of T’Challa, an African super scientist who becomes the Black Panther to defend his homeland Wakanda, an independent African nation. This storyline is significant because in the 1960s multiple African nations were gaining independence after decades of European colonization. “Wakanda compels geopolitical respect and reverence from the rest of the world, a symbolic realization of the type of autonomy that a good number of real-world African countries have yet to attain,” says Nama. Black Panther became one of Marvel’s most beloved and progressive series in history. In 2016 Ta-Nehisi Coates began writing and publishing a new Panther series. Copies can be purchased on Amazon. However, in June 2017 it was announced that Marvel was cancelling its Black Panther: World of Wakanda series by Coates, Roxane Gay, and Yona Harvey. The cancellation came as a surprise given the newfound interest in the character. The Black Panther made his big screen debut in the 2016 blockbuster film Captain America: Civil War. On February 16, 2018, Black Panther will be released in theaters worldwide. The film comes just in time for Black History Month. This is the first Marvel film with a black hero and majority black cast. Howard University alumni Chadwick Boseman (42 and Marshall) plays Panther. His fellow cast members include Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Angela Bassett, and Forest Whitaker. Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station and Creed) directs the film.

Kendrick Lamar and Anthony “Tog Dawg” Tiffith are curating, performing, and producing the entire soundtrack. Critics are predicting this be a revolutionary moment in Hollywood history which could not only break box office records, but lead to a paradigm shift in black cinema. Although we have had other black superhero films in the past like Blade and Hancock, there is something different about the Afrofuturist Black Panther. According to Tre Johnson of Rolling Stone:

“You’ll see someone with the arrogance of Shaft, the coolness of Obama and the hot-headed impulsiveness of Kanye West… Coogler has set out to do something with the modern black superhero that all previous iterations have fallen short of doing: making it respectable, imaginative and powerful. The Afro-punk aesthetic, the unapologetic black swagger, the miniscule appearances from non-black characters – it’s an important resetting of a standard of what’s possible around creating a mythology for a black superhero. Black Panther will be politicized for being black, which is to say for “being” and for announcing itself as a having a right to be here and to be heard.”

The original Black Panther in the sixties created a space for other black comic book superheroes. Anthony Mackie’s character Falcon from the Captain America and Avengers films first appeared in print in 1969. Two years later DC Comics introduced their first black superhero, John Stewart/Green Lantern. Green Lantern became a member of DC’s famous Justice League. Hip-Hop icon Common was scheduled to play the Green Lantern in a 2007 film that was never completed. Green Lantern was replaced with Cyborg, a disabled black character with metal prosthetic limbs in 2016’s Justice League film. Cyborg, who did not appear in the comics until 1980, is scheduled to have his own film in 2020.

In 1972 Marvel brought us a new character named Carl Lucas (a.k.a. Luke Cage). The comic book was published at the height of the Blaxploitation Cinema era and the Iceberg Slim/Donald Goines’ street literature craze. The Blaxploitation era, 1971 and 1976, was period in which Hollywood flooded the market with films produced and written by white men for the purpose of making a profit from black moviegoers. The writers and directors of these films were accused of misappropriating blackness and glorifying historic stereotypes. Nevertheless, these films provided work for black actors and musicians, challenged respectability politics, and offered new representations of black heroism. Marvel’s Luke Cage was a perfect bookend to John Shaft, Kenyatta, Slaughter, Black Belt Jones, Super Fly, Dolemite, and the other Blaxploitation characters. Luke is a police officer who is wrongfully incarcerated for months at Seagate, a private prison in Georgia. Seagate is controlled by racist guards who force the inmates to engage in arena style fighting. After Luke is nearly beaten to death by two fellow inmates the prison doctor conducts an illegal scientific experiment to save his life. The experiment not only prevents his death, but it gives him supernatural strength and bulletproof skin. According to Professor Nama Luke Cage was influenced by the black prison reform movement, highlighted by the Free Angela Davis Movement and the writings of Eldridge Cleaver (Soul on Ice) and George L. Jackson (Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson).

A live action series based on the comic debuted on Netflix in September 2016. The Netflix series was created by Cheo Hodari Coker, a black music journalist and screenwriter best known for creating Notorious, the 2009 biopic of The Notorious B.I.G. Coker infuses a heavy dosage of 1990s hip-hop into the soundtrack. Coker uses the series to tackle important issues from rape, colorism, and the N-word, to private prisons and the Black Lives Matter Movement. The character Luke Cage also appears in Netflix’s Jessica Jones and The Defenders. Michael Colter plays Cage. Mahershala Ali plays his nemesis Cornel “Cottonmouth” Stokes in season one. Alfre Woodard plays Cottonmouth’s older cousin Mariah Dillard, a local councilwoman who preaches urban renewal, black power, and halting gentrification. Mariah raised Cottonmouth and has been a surrogate big sister to him from the time he was a very young kid. Mariah replaces Cottonmouth as one of Harlem’s top gangsters after he is murdered.

Luke Cage introduced one of the earliest black superheroines, Detective Misty Knight. Misty has superpowers that allow her to look back into the past and see what happened at crime scenes. The introduction of black superheroines in comics came just as Blaxploitation queen Pam Grier was creating a new lane for black action heroines in Hollywood. With the exception of films like Taraji P. Henson’s Proud Mary (2018) comics have been one of the few platforms for black action heroines. Misty Knight is one several black women to grace the pages of Marvel and DC comics over the last 40 years. Claire Temple is black doctor and love interest of Luke Cage. Her superpowers are helping wounded heroes. Latina actress Rosario Dawson plays Claire in the Netflix series. Storm from The X-Men is the most popular black superheroine. She has appeared in print, Saturday morning cartoons, and in live action films with Halle Berry cast in the role. Viola Davis played DC comics’ Amanda Waller in the Suicide Squad film adaptation. In the comics Waller is grieving mother and wife from Chicago’s projects who earns a Ph.D. in political science and receives a job working for the U.S. Congress. She is named the director of the Advanced Research Group for Uniting Superhumans (A.R.G.U.S). Other prominent women include the Justice League’s Nubia, the Avengers’ Monica Rambeau, the Suicide Squad’s Vixen, and Bumblebee, DC’s first black heroine. Michelle Obama was featured in a 2009 comic book series titled Female Force.

The cover of Marvel’s January 2017 comic America about America Chavez, a queer Latina, was inspired by Beyonce’s “Formation” music video. The cover shows Chavez “in a hat, dress, accessories and a sneer that invoke Beyonce in all of her Lemonade glory,” says illustrator Joe Quinones. The CW debuted its new series Black Lightning, produced by Mara Brock Akil (Being Mary Jane, Girlfriends, and The Game), the night after the 2018 Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. This is an adaptation of a 1977 DC comic about a black principal and single father of two daughters who becomes a masked vigilante with superpowers. Black Lightning actually proceeded Green Lantern as DC Comics’ first black hero to have his own series. On the television adaptation his daughter Anissa Pierce/Thunder is the first black queer superheroine to appear in a mainstream comic book and television series about superheroes. Finally, moviegoers who see Black Panther will be introduced to the Dora Milaje, the all-female personal guards of the Black Panther, and Panther’s sister Shuri, a noted scientist in Wakanda. All of these superheroines not only provide inspiration to minority girls and women, but they offer amazing feminist and womanist narratives for students.

The Black Panther v. KKK
When my student asked me for advice I gave him a copy of “Panther vs. the Klan” from the 1976 Jungle Action series. This comic is great for U.S. History classes (grades 7-12) learning about the Civil War, the Reconstruction, lynchings, and the first Ku Klux Klan (KKK). The Reconstruction (1865-1877) was the period after the Civil War in which four million slaves were freed. Black abolitionists, federal organizations like the Freedmen’s Bureau and radicals in the Republican Party worked to ensure land, education, equal rights, and political power for the emancipated. The Klan was started by Confederate Army general in Pulaski, Tennessee, in 1865. The group, who viewed themselves as a chivalrous, Christian fraternity who honored the ghosts of the Confederate dead, terrorized the black freedmen (and their white allies) in an attempt to “redeem” the defeated South and defend white womanhood. (Elaine Frantz Parsons, Ku-Klux: The Birth of the Klan during Reconstruction; University of North Carolina Press, 2016).

In the comic book Panther joins his girlfriend Monica at her grandmother’s (Mrs. Lynn) home for strawberry pie. Mrs. Lynn takes a trip down memory lane as she begins to tell the young couple about her grandfather’s cousin, Caleb. Caleb was uneducated and a former slave in the South. President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the Union’s victory ensured his family their freedom. Caleb soon falls victim to the Klan’s wicked night riders. If you flip through the pages of the comic you will see images of an older black man in denim overalls and a torn shirt. His wife has a handkerchief on her head. You see their tiny rundown shack and a donkey. The Klan wear white costumes and the leader is dressed in red. “Lord, almighty, it’s ghosts! Them there is Satan’s stallions comin’ out the dark! Get the kids inside, Ellie!” said Caleb. The Klan described as demons approach Caleb and say, “Nigra, you have dared to offend the Confederate soldiers who died on the field of honor at Shiloh.” The Klansmen hang Caleb from tree.

As Mrs. Lynn tells her story Monica has visions of Panther transporting to the past to fight off the Klansmen. The Klan try to lynch Panther too. “You will hang from this tree limb as an example to others,” says a Klansman. Panther frees himself and removes the noose from around his neck. “You’re wrong, soul-strangler! You will lie in the dust, as an example to others of your own kind,” says Panther. This narrative could compliment textbook readings in more advanced classes. It could also substitute the textbook for students with low reading skills. The illustrations can be used to spark the curiosity of those students. They are great for the time period and do a good job depicting these historical events.

In closing, this is just one example of how educators can think outside of the box to develop innovative curriculums using comics to motivate diverse learners in their classrooms. While comics are great for social studies they can be used in multiple disciplines. Serious comic book lovers and those interested in this teaching methodology should visit the Ray and Pat Browne Library for Popular Culture Studies at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.

By Joshua K. Wright, Ph.D

Joshua K. Wright, Ph.D. is an associate professor of History and coordinator for the Social Studies Teacher Education Program at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.