February 14th: Comic Books As Social Change

In the 1930s, it was nearly impossible for Jews to get jobs in the entertainment industry (or any industry, for that matter). Nobody wanted to hire someone who was such a cultural “other”. As a result, talented and passionate Jews had to go out and figure out how to break into the industry on their own, inventing their own modes to carry their creativity.

In 1938, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster introduced the world to their comic book hero, Superman. For the next 80 years, Superman has been a mainstay not only in the world of comic books, but popular cultures across the board. Superheroes turned into a safe haven for Jewish empowerment in a world that was growing ever-more threatening and hostile. Even if the world around the Jew was growing dark, superheroes provided a light of excitement and strength. And, as much as Superman was a hero for the Jews, he was also a liaison to the rest of the world, an example of the excellence that happens when Jews get the chance to participate in American culture.

It was almost 30 years later that another Jew, Stan Lee, invented a character to attempt to bring in a new crop of readers: Black Panther. In his attempt to bring in a new demographic to comic books, Lee created a strong black character in a world that had, to this point, been almost entirely dominated by white characters. Tropes of light vs. dark, good vs. bad, white vs. black had been prevalent within the industry, and Black Panther sought to turn this on its head, offering black Americans the same chance to relate to a superhero that Jews had so desperately needed in the 1930s and 1940s.

Now, Black Panther has been adapted for the silver screen, and will premiere on February 16th. The movie was one of the most frequently mentioned films on Twitter in 2017, a year in which the movie wasn’t even coming out. A soundtrack by Kendrick Lamar adds another layer of culture to a film that attempts to bring a strong, authentically black movie to an industry that has been under fire for not nearly enough racial diversity in recent years.

Black Panther comes at a perfect time for a country in desperate need of healing along racial divides. With frequent racial baiting and an unleashing of white nationalism, America is coming to terms with an uncomfortable reality: racism is still very much alive in this country. Rather than running to a overly simplistic hope of color-blindness, Black Panther is an attempt to bring forward a sense of ethnic identity and pride. It isn’t just ok to be who you are, it’s fantastic and worthy of celebration.

This isn’t just an opportunity for black Americans to get the chance to see characters that look like them. In many ways, Black Panther is just as much about the character as a voice to the entirety of American society. Black Panther can be a way for white Americans to learn about the strength and vibrance of African American culture, and build a more impactful, meaningful relationship, in much the same way that Superman helped to create a space for Jews in America.

Superhero movies are a fantastic way to immerse in a fantasy land with adventure, excitement, and joy. But, as we are about to learn from Black Panther, it can also be about what it means to take ownership of one’s identity, and to see a representation of self in our culture. Black Panther is cause for huge celebration and excitement, as well as a chance to have even greater impact on the way we engage with race in this country.

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