Black Panther and the myth of Kirby vs the KKK

OK, we need to talk about why this:

is nonsense, and why that matters — and it’s far more important than simply ‘nerds being wrong on the internet’.

That image is a tweet that went viral in February 2018, spurred by the success of the Black Panther movie. I first saw it posted on Twitter by use @ fatherdog but I’m not linking directly as I don’t know if that’s where it actually originated, and it’s since been deleted anyway. Where it first appeared isn’t the problem though. The real issue is that it racked up over 4000 retweets by the time that screencap was taken — even though it is completely false.

Here are the actual facts:

  • Yes, Jack Kirby — along with writer Stan Lee — created Black Panther, who first appeared in the pages of Fantastic Four #52–54, in 1966.
  • However, Black Panther’s first solo stories were published in Jungle Action, starting in #6 in 1973. (Technically #5, though that was a reprint of a Panther-focused issue of The Avengers.)
  • The series was written by Don McGregor, and pencilled by Rich Buckler and Billy Graham.
  • Jungle Action, incidentally, saw the first appearance of Erik Killmonger, the antagonist of the Black Panther movie.
  • The comic was, at different points, edited by Roy Thomas and Marv Wolfman.
  • ‘The Panther vs the Klan’ was a storyline, by McGregor and Graham, beginning in Jungle Action #19.
  • Jungle Action #21 featured this still-shocking cover:
Jungle Action #21 — cover art by Rich Buckler & John Romita (©Marvel Characters Inc)

More facts:

  • Kirby was NOT INVOLVED in this storyline whatsoever.
  • If anything, Kirby’s return to Marvel — after years at DC, crafting the Fourth World and introducing characters like Mister Miracle, Darkseid, and Kamandi — actually led to the early end of McGregor’s run.

Part of the reason McGregor’s run was cut short was Kirby’s impending run on the self-titled Black Panther. Although Jungle Action was a relatively low-selling book at the time, there were only three months between its 24th and final issue, cover dated November 1976, and Kirby’s Black Panther #1, cover dated January 1977.

In fact, Jungle Action ended on something of a cliffhanger, with a truncated story where T’Challa was still investigating a Klan conspiracy that had taken him across US and put him up against the new villain Wind Eagle. The arc wouldn’t be resolved until Marvel Premiere #51–53 in 1980, written by Ed Hannigan.

After Kirby had been working at arch-rival DC for the previous half-decade, Marvel wanted to make a big push for the return of ‘The King’, giving him more or less free rein on titles of his choice. Along with taking over Captain America, Kirby wrote, drew, and edited his Black Panther run, making it one of the purest examples of creator freedom in superhero comics. In its own right, it was a fantastic arc, packed with the big, weird ideas and trippy visuals Kirby was known for.

However, in the 12 issues of Black Panther he produced, Kirby didn’t address the Klan, or much of social politics in general, at all. Kirby certainly wasn’t told to add anything, let alone more white people “by his editors” — because he was his own editor on the series!

Now, why is this important? As I said, it’s more than ‘nerds being wrong on the internet’. There are a few reasons it matters, ranging from comics history to media literacy.

On a comics history level, that viral tweet screencapped above erases the incredibly progressive work McGregor & Graham were doing on Jungle Action, and instead credits it to a creator more people have heard of. This is especially pernicious when Billy Graham was one of the few African-American artists working on a mainstream superhero title at the time.

The phrasing of that viral tweet is also more to lionise Kirby too, rather than being anything particularly relevant to Black Panther. That in itself does a disservice to both — there’s more than enough to praise Kirby for, both on and off the page, without having to make up altercations with non-existent editors and credit him with work he had no hand in!

On a media literacy level, it should be self evident why it’s a problem — over 4000 retweets, plus countless reposts on Facebook, Tumblr, et al, with barely anyone checking if it’s true. Some versions of the offending tweet were even accompanied by the cover of Jungle Action #19, which is evidently not Kirby’s distinctive style! It was actually by Gil Kane and Dan Adkins.

Jungle Action #19 — Cover art by Gil Kane & Dan Adkins (©Marvel Characters Inc)

This frenzy to uncritically retweet (to seem super-woke? To get on the Panther hype train? To add a comment and hope to go viral themselves?) is a near-perfect example of the old saying “a lie can run around the world before the truth has got its boots on”.

Most importantly though, I think, is that it shows how increasingly important fact-checking is.

Much has been said and written in recent years about the scourge of ‘fake news’, and the impact it has had on elections around the world. While it may appear that the political right has been most-targeted and most-vulnerable to bogus stories, this shows that even well-meaning people — seeking to share something that, at a glance, seems positive and matches well enough with what they might have heard of Kirby — can be just as easily manipulated by lies, false statements, and tales of events that are easily proven false.

If people unthinkingly jump on the bandwagon for something as ultimately harmless as this, how much thought do you think is typically given when sharing content or news stories that are far more emotive or important? How badly do you think social media, and the public mood it carries, can be manipulated by those acting deliberately to misinform? Look at how widely a fake message spread here, with the myth of Kirby vs the Klan.

When I posted this in its original form as a Tweetstorm, I said “What’s worse is, unless lightning strikes with this thread, a tiny fraction will see the truth compared to the thousands who saw the original tweet”. It seems, miraculously, that lightning did strike, as that thread currently has 3400+ retweets itself (this essay form expands on the Twitter version and corrects a couple of typos and mis-credits of my own, based on the credits of the original issues which did not name the cover artists). I’m pleased more people are seeing the true version of comics history, and are perhaps a little more aware of how important it is to be critically aware of even seemingly benign information they see on the internet.

Propaganda — which is what we should really call “fake news” — can spread just as easily across the entire political spectrum. Think of that, next time you hover over the ‘retweet’ button.

Anyway, if you’ve read this far, have a couple of gorgeous pages from Jungle Action as a reward. The first, by Rich Buckler, was published in #8:

Art by Rich Buckler (pencils), Klaus Janson (inks), and Glynis Wein (colours). ©Marvel Characters Inc

the second, by Billy Graham, was in #20:

Art by Billy Graham (pencils), Bob McLeod (inks), and Janice (colours). ©Marvel Characters Inc

Both are collected in Black Panther Epic Collection: Panther’s Rage (ISBN: 978–1302901905), which collect’s T’Challa’s first appearances in Fantastic Four, and the entirety of the Jungle Action run.

Thanks to Kurt Busiek for clarifying cover credits on Jungle Action.

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