Last week, history was made with the release of Marvel Comics’ “Black Panther” #1. The significance of this book’s introduction into comic book stores and other outlets, in physical copies and digital form, is multilayered. Inclusive within those layers is the exceptionally-talented writer/artist duo of MacArthur Genius Award-winner Ta-Nehisi Coates and critically-acclaimed industry veteran Brian Stelfreeze.
At a time when the top publishers of the mainstream American comic book industry have been criticized for a lack of Black writers, Black characters, and Black creators working on Black characters, Marvel Comics pulled off a master stroke by getting two Black creators at the top of their game to tackle one of the most popular Black superheroes.
Also noteworthy is the advance order sales figures for “Black Panther” #1, which hit 300,000 copies, an impressive number in the present market.
Finally, the amount of mainstream media coverage and interviews preceding the book’s release speaks to a level of interest unearned by most comic books. The media has focused on Coates and The Black Panther, primarily, because Coates is well-known through his work as a National Correspondent for The Atlantic and his New York Times-bestselling book “Between The World and Me.” This, in addition to The Black Panther’s upcoming appearance in Marvel Studios’ “Captain America: Civil War” film.
Illustrator Brian Stelfreeze has received attention, as well, since the first six pages of “Black Panther” #1 and various character designs were made available to numerous outlets, and spread virally throughout various social media platforms. Fans are praising Coates and Stelfreeze for their stellar reintroduction of T’Challa, the superhero King of the technologically-advanced fictional African nation of Wakanda.
However, the media coverage and praise seems to mostly leave out a significant player in the creation of this impactful comic book: The Color Artist.
Her name is Laura Martin, and without her talents, “Black Panther” #1 would be a significantly different book.
For most of the history of American superhero comic books, Black people were colored in unflattering shades, and usually all of them the same shade in any given comic book. The coloring of Black characters was the subject of a candid and informative blog by writer/illustrator Ron Wimberly last year, showing the issue is not only one of the relatively distant past.
Martin’s palette for the Wakandan people reveals at least three complexions. The introduction of T’Challa’s stepmother Ramonda, as she decides the fate of a Wakandan guardian warrior-turned killer, shows her dark complexion in sharp contrast to that of the woman making an appeal for her ally. Ramonda’s complexion is the same as T’Challa’s, even though the two are not blood-related. Could it be a visual code, so that any reader, comic book aficionado or not, perceives a relationship between the two immediately, before engaging Coates’ narrative?
The first issue of “Black Panther” has at least seven scenes, and a different palette for each one. No palette is used twice. When we first see T’Challa, the Black Panther, he is bleeding from his head. The bright, warm blood, a tribal mark against his cool, dark African flesh. Cool, light purple highlights on one side of his face, accentuating a schism within his soul, the same schism rampant throughout the nation of Wakanda during a time of upheaval.
During a touching and revealing scene between the two women of the Dora Milaje, warrior protectors of the King, the cool nighttime background and the warmth of the fire is more than an environment. It speaks to the intimate feelings burning within their hearts, while they hide in the shadows of Wakanda. The tribal markings on the silhouettes of their bodies is the same red as the blood which flowed down the face of their king, the one to whom they had a bond. Wakanda flows through them, even in the face of impending civil war.
These are just a few examples of what Laura Martin has brought to the critically-acclaimed “Black Panther” series.
Over the span of her career, Martin has been a winner of the Eisner Award, the comic book industry’s equivalent of the Oscar, as well as the Eagle Award and the Harvey Award. She has been a Color Artist for the top American comic book publishers. Her tenure and abilities have brought her to one of the most-talked about comic books in this year and the last.
The mainstream media may exclude Martin because of a lack of easy marketability, or because of a lack of understanding (or caring about) how comic books are made. Fans may exclude Martin because, in part, the decades-long subject of Black creators on Black characters from Marvel or DC Comics has conditioned some people to focus exclusively on Coates and Stelfreeze. But the failure to include mention of various artistic participants in the process of creating comic books, should no longer be a trend, a habit, a mode of thought.
Go look at “Black Panther” #1 again, and appreciate Martin’s work. While you’re at it, look at the lettering by Joe Sabino, and the design by Manny Mederos; the logo on the cover, designed by Rian Hughes.
Think about what your comic books would look like, without color and other elements. While it’s true that the team of Coates and Stelfreeze are helping to propel The Black Panther to a new, long-deserved position of global visibility, let’s remember that Wakanda is a nation of colors, and consider the irony that Laura Martin’s full credit was seen on a black-and-white splash page in Issue #1.
The best news is that Martin will be back for issue #2, so if you didn’t appreciate her work before, you’ll get another chance soon.
Joseph Phillip Illidge is a public speaker on the subjects of race, comics and the corporate politics of diversity. In addition to his coverage by The New York Times, CNN Money, the BBC and Publishers Weekly, Joseph has been a speaker at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Digital Book World’s forum, Digitize Your Career: Marketing and Editing 2.0, Skidmore College, The School of Visual Arts, Purdue University, on the panel “Diversity in Comics: Race, Ethnicity, Gender and Sexual Orientation in American Comic Books” and at the Soho Gallery for Digital Art in New York City.
Joseph is the Head Writer for Verge Entertainment. Verge has developed an extensive library of intellectual properties for live-action and animated television and film, video games, graphic novels and web-based entertainment.
His graphic novel project, “The Ren,” about the romance between a young musician from the South and a Harlem-born dancer in 1925, set against the backdrop of a crime war, will be published by First Second Books, a division of Macmillan.
Joseph’s newest comic book project is the upcoming Scout Comics miniseries “Solarman,” a revamp of a teenage superhero originally written by Stan Lee.
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