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Black Panther and Black Superheroes in Animation

As Marvel's Black Panther arrives on the big screen, guest contributor Jeremy Harrison looks back at the history of black superheroes in animation.

For most people the word Super Hero conveys a notion of white-skinned men in tights: Superman, Batman, Spider-Man probably comes to mind first, then probably people like Aquaman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern. But what about Heroes like; Spawn, Blade, Storm, Black Lightning, and Meteor Man!?

Meteor Man was probably the first black Super Hero on the big screen that I watched as a kid. The main character was played by Robert Townsend and he got his powers from … a meteor rock that fell to Earth and got the classic Super Hero power set aka Powers of Superman. Meteor Man (which is a live-action superhero film) flopped at the box office.

4 years later, Steel and Spawn came out but it wasn’t until Wesley Snipes played Blade in the movie of the same name that Black Superheroes got some kind of recognition- at least at the box office. And this month, Black Panther will come out in theaters.

Black Panther is the first black superhero to make his way to comics (at least in the Americas). He first appeared in the pages of the Fantastic Four back in 1966. But the honor of the first animated Black superhero on TV -at least to my knowledge- is Black Vulcan for DC’s Super Friends cartoon show. Black Vulcan was created specifically for the show to add some much-needed diversity and because the creator refused to let the animation department use Black Lightning. One loophole later and it’s not Black Lightning, it’s Black Vulcan! Moreover, additional minority characters were added to show such as Apache Chief, El Dorado, and Samurai. In their final season, Cyborg was added to the Super Friends show in 1985 which was now called, “The Super Powers Team: Galactic Guardians”.

All of this happened in the 70s and 80s by DC. Again to my knowledge, Marvel wouldn’t have animated black hero characters till the 90s with X-Men and their first animated incarnation of the Avengers which was Avengers: United They Stand.

The X-Men had, of course, fan-favorites like Storm, Forge and Bishop and the Avengers: United They Stand had their first black member, The Falcon. Side-note: Avengers: United They Stand was not a great show. However, an under-rated Fantastic Four show ( from 1994) did give the world our first look at an animated Black Panther. While the animation quality isn’t as good as the Fantastic Four cartoon from 2005,. I would still highly recommend the '94 over the '05 version because it’s truer to the original comics -which are worth a read. Remember, just because the Fantastic Four hasn’t worked on film doesn’t mean you won’t like them in the comics … and speaking of 'Fantastic' Films … The Incredibles! The Incredibles are basically Pixar's version of the Fantastic Four.

In The Incredibles movie, the first animated black superhero would finally make his way to the big screen in the U.S, with Frozone played by Samuel L. Jackson- who would of course later play, Nick Fury in the Marvel movies.

After 10 years of Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, and nearly 20 movies, it's finally Black Panther's turn. All the early screenings suggest that it’s a great Marvel movie which is a far cry from many of the duds of early 90s like the ones mentioned earlier in this article- well, with the exception of Blade, of course.

If you need to get your Black Panther fix before and/or after the movie you can try the animated motion comic created by Reggie Huddlin in 2010 or my favorite incarnation of the Avengers on the small screen; Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.

In the later cartoon Avengers Assemble, Black Panther is introduced in season 3 and forms a secondary team of Avengers in season 4 called the New Avengers to help out the classic team.

You see, Black Panther does have a history when it comes to the small screen in the form of animation. Animation is often used like the testing grounds. Green Lantern, John Stewart won fans over in the cartoon the Justice League. Cyborg was on Teen Titans: The animated series and because of his popularity with that, he landed himself in the Justice League movie last year. Plus, you have to take into account fans were upset that Ryan Reynolds was going to be the Green Lantern in the movie. Fans of the cartoon wanted John Stewart because that’s who they knew and who they came to love.

Ending this year we will get Miles Morales, the Ultimate Spider-man who is an Afro-Latino kid who gets bitten by a genetically-engineered, (NOT radioactive) Spider and decides to don the spidey-suit.  Marvel's first popular black superhero will lead things off for the year and in December we will close out with the most recent popular black superhero from Marvel. It’s actually really quite beautiful, I hope these movies open up a whole doorway/potential for the big two or indies to do more original black characters.  I mean, people love Batman what about a Batwing movie?

Black Comic book fans have been waiting for a Black Panther movie since Spawn and Blade came out. 21 years later after cartoons and animations of the character, we finally get that move to live-action. We get Miles Morales too who will appear in an animated movie, not direct to DVD, but on the big screen- which hasn’t happened to an animated DC/Marvel superhero since Batman: Mask of the Phantasm back in 1993. Yep, 2018 will be a big year for the black superhero. So here’s hoping it’s a great one.