You know Black Panther. I know Black Panther. But at this point, the average person out there in the world doesn't know Black Panther, even following actor Chadwick Boseman's brief live-action debut in the role in the recently released "Captain America: Civil War" trailer, which as of publication of this article has been viewed more than 40 million times on YouTube alone.
So landing on the cover of "Entertainment Weekly" -- which even in the waning days of print media reported a 1.8 million circulation in 2013, along with a robust online presence -- is a big deal for the hero. This week's EW cover, released online today, features Boseman, in costume between Chris Evans as Captain America and Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man (they're both unmasked, Boseman is not) promoting a cover story on "Civil War," which will introduce Black Panther to the Marvel Cinematic Universe before he goes on to star in a solo film set for 2018; the first Marvel film of the post-"Iron Man" era to star a Black superhero.
It all sounds pretty good until you take a closer look at the cover -- Black Panther has a "Meow" dialogue prompt above his head (Cap and Iron Man remain diaogue-free). This is the copy EW went with when introducing the first Black superhero in mainstream American comics to the world at large: "The biggest Marvel movie yet introduces Black Panther. He's tall, powerful -- and has claws that a Real Housewife would envy."
Yes, one of the most historically significant characters in comic book history has been reduced to a joke -- twice! -- on the magazine cover where potentially millions of people (don't forget the multitudes who will see this cover in our nation's grocery stores and doctor's offices) will see said character for the first time. It's not fair to Boseman, an acclaimed actor set for the highest-profile role of a career that's already included some rather major roles (playing Jackie Robinson in "42," playing James Brown in "Get On Up"). It's not fair to the comics fans to whom Black Panther means a great deal in terms of progress and representation. It's not fair to comics in general, as it's yet another reminder that for a large part of the population, the medium is and will remain something to not take seriously at all costs. (And do panthers even meow?)
Sure, Marvel has a lot of characters that invite having fun. "Guardians of the Galaxy," "Ant-Man" and even "The Avengers" have some inherent absurdity in their concepts, and the films reflect that. But specifically, Black Panther is a serious character -- he doesn't really crack jokes, and he's the super-smart, super-capable king of an African nation. As CBR columnist Joseph Illidge put it just this week in THE MISSION, "Black Panther exists in a unique category of heroes. That of the intellectual, wealthy ruler. He is a symbol of the Black male heritage, accomplishments, and aspirations. The Black Panther is the antithesis of the demonization of the American Black man, perpetuated by various parties in media and government institutions." Both jokes in EW's cover copy emasculate a character that represents Black success; the end result is problematic and oddly tone-deaf.
Jokey cover copy is a trademark of "Entertainment Weekly" -- I'm a subscriber and have been a reader since I was in elementary school. I don't think there was any negative intent on the magazine's part, and I'm sure the actual article pays the character due respect. But there's also a responsibility, here. This is the first Black superhero in American comics, and the first Black superhero to headline a film in the massively popular Marvel Cinematic Universe and this is the way that likely millions of people will see the character for the first time. Maybe save the jokes for the sequel?