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NYCC2009: Marvel and BET's "Black Panther" Panel Report

(l to r) Reggie Hudlin and Denys Cowan, with Jim McCann hiding behind the monitorThere was no Black Panel at this year’s New York Comic Con, but there was an entire “Marvel and BET: Black Panther” panel, dedicated to “all things Black Panther,” according to Reginald Hudlin, the longtime writer of Marvel’s Black Panther comic book, former head of BET, and writer and executive producer of the upcoming Black Panther animated series. Also in attendance were Denys Cowan, Sr. VP of Animation at BET; John Romita, Jr., the artist who drew the first Black Panther story arc, “Who Is the Black Panther?”; Axel Alonso, Executive Editor at Marvel Comics; Eric Rollman, Head of Marvel Animation; and Cort Lane, identified as the “right-hand of Rollman, who makes it happen for Black Panther on a daily basis on behalf of Marvel.” Marvel’s Jim McCann assisted with audio-visual (at least when the equipment was cooperating and not giving horrible feedback near the end of the panel).

Hudlin began by saying that the Black Panther comic relaunched last Wednesday with a new #1 issue, which is now sold out and going to a second printing. Marvel has been teasing comic book fans with images of a new, female Black Panther replacing King T’Challa, the Black Panther created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in the 1960’s. Hudlin ran through a brief list of candidates for the new Black Panther that have been teased over the past few weeks, including the Dora Miladje, Echo, Monica Rambeau, Sue Storm, Wolverine/Logan (“He’s in every other book, why shouldn’t he be in Black Panther?”), and Storm. However, Hudlin finally revealed the identity of the new Black Panther for the panel attendees: Michelle Obama (click to listen):


(click to enlarge)

(Michelle Obama images taken from Wikipedia, and no, not really. This is not a Marvel image. It’s all a joke, son.)

The new Black Panther story arc will be springing off the events occurring in the other “Dark Reign” books, similar to how Civil War triggered other events where T’Challa had to act as a head of state. The first story arc will also involve Prince Namor and Doctor Doom. Alonso added that the first arc will set a trajectory for a few years, that they haven’t been afraid to kill people in the past, and that these changes are not just a gimmick. If anything, turning the Black Panther into a woman was not the most radical thing that’s going to happen in the comic. Alonso and Hudlin both said that they loved new artist Ken Lashey, saying that he’s re-energized the title. Hudlin added that in his 40-issue run on the book, he was able to do all kinds of things that he dreamed about as a kid, like getting Black Panther and Storm married and getting the Panther and Luke Cage to hang out, but now that that’s out of his system, it’s really time to wreck the place (click to listen).

Marvel head of animation Eric RollmanThe panel shifted gears to talk about BET’s new Black Panther animated series. As was announced last week, several new actors have joined Djimon Hounsou, who voices the Black Panther. Hudlin and Cowan said of Hounsou that “he is the Black Panther,” and that he very enthusiastic about the project and had a great time in the first recording sessions. Cowan said he had a powerful presence in the recording booth, and Hudlin added that his performance really sets the tone for the show. The newly announced voice talent is Kerry Washington as Shuri, the Black Panther’s younger sister, Alfre Woodard as both Dondi Reese (head of the NSA) and the Queen Mother; neither one does TV series normally, but both were willing to make an exception for Reggie Hudlin to do Black Panther. The last casting announcement was that the one and only Stan Lee would play General Wallace. This last voice was announced in a behind-the-scenes video screened for the audience, where Stan said he never thought the Black Panther would mean so much to people when he created him in the 1960’s. Hudlin said that it was a pleasure working with Stan Lee, and described him as like George Clinton in that there’s no distinction between the person you see in public and the person you see as an individual. (Click to hear Cowan and Hudlin describe working with Stan Lee.)

A video clip was screened for the panel attendees, which was described as “really rough” and not finished. What was screened looked very much like John Romita Jr.’s artwork come to life, moving a little less than regular animation, but more than the motion comics that are beginning to appear on the Internet. If it was “rough” animation, the final product should look really good and incredibly distinctive. If new shows like The Secret Saturdays or Batman: The Brave and the Bold are what you would have gotten if Hanna-Barbera had animation that they spent real money on, then Black Panther looks like what you would have gotten if those early 60’s Marvel cartoons that moved around cut-outs of Jack Kirby artwork had animation that they spent real money on. It is a perfect translation of Romita’s artwork, and is easily comparable to the somewhat limited movement in a lot of mid-range anime. After the clip was finished, Hudlin said that bringing the artwork of John Romita, Jr. to life was a goal of the show from the start, since he was always complaining that cartoons based on comic books never looked like the comic books, and he had much high praise for the teams at Titmouse Animation and Marvel Animation for doing something different and distinctive.

The panel then opened up to a Q&A session:

  • The first season of the series will be exactly the comic book arc, “Who Is the Black Panther?” Hudlin was especially excited at the idea of expanding the Black Panther/Captain America double-page spread fight as a big elaborate action set piece.
  • The first season will have 8 episodes, which gives them plenty of room to expand on the six-issues of the comic book. Hudlin said that people never seem to believe him when he says this, but assured the audience that it was true, and even managed to work in another Barack Obama joke in the process (click to listen).
  • When questioned why they were making such a big change now, Hudlin said that great stories come out of putting your hero in impossible situations. He did say that the upcoming story arc is going to lead to very dark, horrible places, and that all the characters’ roles in the Black Panther world will be changing.
    Comic book artist John Romita, Jr.
  • One audience member suggested that he appreciated the Black Panther because he “wasn’t just the Black Guy,” and said in the end that he was a hero “just like everybody else.” Romita gently corrected that assertion, saying that “the character was elegant becasue of where he was from and what he was” and Cowan added that while he understood and appreciated the sentiment, “to a whole generation of African-American kids, he wasn’t like everybody else…he was never like anybody else,” and the way he could hold his own with the Fantastic Four and the Avengers meant a lot to a lot of people. Hudlin added that his goal was to carry on what Stan Lee and Jack Kirby did when they created the character, who didn’t turn on his ethnicity, but where it was also important that he was an African king.
  • All the panelists would love to see a live-action movie, and Hudlin said that he was surprised that he got past a 6-issue comic book mini-series, and again when they broke into a prime-time animated series. Alonso also added that a lot of people’s awareness of the characters came from the corny cartoons that they grew up with, and that those were contributors to things like the X-Men and Incredible Hulk movies now.
  • Rollman said that he hoped that Black Panther would show that Marvel Animation was open to doing projects that were a little bit offbeat, and that it was challenging to get support for the show internally for their entry into prime-time, adult-oriented animation. He noted that in the 1990’s, it was a very hard sell to get the first X-Men cartoon on the air, but that the success of the series did ultimately lead to other X-Men projects moving forward. So, he’s hoping that the buzz behind the series and the attention that it can draw might lead to a live-action series.
  • Cowan said that the series went to BET because “the head of the company at the time was the writer of the Black Panther comic book,” and that it started humbly and grew further than Hudlin ever thought it would. Hudlin added that a random conversation led to a 2 minute animation test that Cowan did on his own, and that it played well and has been snowballing ever since.
  • The series is scheduled to premiere in the summer of 2009. In regards to a Black Panther direct-to-video movie, Cowan and Hudlin would only respond that, “All things are being considered” (with Rollman reminding the audience, “But you guys have to go out and buy our direct-to-videos”).
  • There will be plenty of Marvel Comics guest stars in the first story arc, including Captain America and the Juggernaut. Hudlin also revealed some of the other voice acting cast, including Carl Lumbly, Phil LaMarr, and the actress who voices Mary Jane Watson in The Spectacular Spider-Man (Vanessa Marshall — ed).
  • Cowan said that a success of the Black Panther could definitely lead to other chances to develop other TV series.
  • A question was raised about the double-bind that non-white superheroes can find themselves in, where audiences will assume they’re “the ethnic heroes” if race or ethnicity is addressed openly, but trying to treat them identically to white superheroes means something important is lost. Hudlin stated he was aiming to expand audiences, and that even though many comic book fans liked the Black Panther, he’s never been able to sustain a title for a very long time. So, rather than try to appeal to the existing fanbase, he wrote the book the way he wanted to and it appealed to an audience that felt alienated from comics. Retailers tell him that a different audience comes into comic book shops when his books come out, and he wants that because “if things get too inbred, you get really funny looking.” John Romita, Jr. added that the book was written the way it was supposed to be written, with class and elegance and intelligence, and that’s what Stan Lee did back in the day and Hudlin did now. Hudlin closed by noting that he gets fan mail from all over the world, and signings are populated by varying ages and ethnic groups, and his goal is to welcome everybody.
  • When asked about “Black Avengers,” Axel Alonso said, “You had me at ‘Black.'”
  • Rollman said that there was going to be ancillary merchandise out there to tie in with the show (vs. Static Shock, which was the #1 show on the network but got no merchandising support), and that they are working on the merchandising programs now.
  • Hudlin said that he didn’t want to get “too X-Men-y” to cross timelines to introduce Azari, the son of T’Challa and Storm from the Next Avengers DTV movie, but he did show that Storm and Black Panther would eventually have 5 kids in last year’s annual, so he’s open to the idea.
  • Hudlin has never faced a moment when an editor told him to pull something back because, “That would be too sensitive,” and said that it was actually the opposite. He would say something that he thought would be outrageous, and his editors would say, “That’s cool, but you know, you could also go here” and present something even bolder. He added that Marvel has been incredibly supportive of his efforts, starting with the decision to marry Storm and T’Challa permanently in the book.
  • When asked why Marvel and DC import black creators from outside the industry (such as Eric Jerome Dickey) rather than nurturing creators within the comics community, Hudlin responded by asking, “isn’t that nurturing?” He noted that up until very recently, comics was an extremely closed shop which didn’t let people in at all no matter who they were. Hudlin said, “I had to make a couple hundred million dollars making movies before I could get a shot at making a fraction of my daily rate to make Black Panther.” Hudlin closed by saying that Axel Alonso has always been extremely supportive of new voices that aren’t business-as-usual.

The panel concluded with all attendees getting a special variant edition of Black Panther #1.

Return to Toon Zone News’ New York Comic Con 2009 Coverage Round-up

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