Costume Drama: The Enduring Simplicity Of The Black Panther Suit
Welcome to Costume Drama, a new feature where we turn a critical eye toward superhero outfits and evaluate both the aesthetics and the social issues that often underlie them. For this first installment we’re looking at a costume created by Jack Kirby, and still in use with only minor tweaks today: T’Challa’s Black Panther suit.
Kirby is usually associated with complex, even busy, character designs: Thor, Galactus, Mr. Miracle and so forth. But whenever he went for simplicity, he hit it out of the park. Silver Surfer is one great example of that, but for me Black Panther is the standout. In a world of colorful superheroes on teams with guys like Captain America, Thor, and Iron Man, T’Challa is a striking, dramatic figure: monochromatic and sheathed in darkness.
On his debut appearance in Fantastic Four #52, the Black Panther looks a little different. His cat ears point inward instead of out, and his costume highlights are gray instead of dark blue. But the simplicity of the design, the idea of Black Panther as a walking shadow, is very much there. The grooved texture on his gloves and boots is also there from the beginning. I’ve always liked this as a way of showing that his outfit is made out of more than one material, without having more than one color.
He’s also wearing a mini-cape on one shoulder, which is something he’ll return to from time to time. T’Challa has a different relationship with his cape than other superheroes. He wears one in moments when it seems appropriate, without feeling obligated to keep it on all the time.
Panther’s look evolved a bit under other artists like John Buscema and Rich Buckler, and by the time Kirby returned to the character for the first Black Panther solo title in 1977, he’d stabilized into his classic look. Panther ears, face totally covered, ribbed gloves and boots, all in dark blue-black. It’s a striking look precisely because it doesn’t look like he’s trying to be striking. T’Challa is too confident to need a red cape or a big gold panther head on his chest. He’s a black panther, and he looks like one.
Even now, in his current title by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Brian Stelfreeze, and Chris Sprouse, the costume is pretty close to its classic form. He has a necklace that gives him an appropriately regal look for a king, and there’s a little more panther-like detailing on the mask, but otherwise it’s the same suit. Blue-black, monochromatic, full-face mask, texture lines on his gloves and boots. Even the movie version of the costume stuck closer than most, only adding some chrome detailing to emphasize the plot-relevant use of the fictional metal vibranium.
So many Jack Kirby designs have been completely abandoned in recent years, but the Black Panther has remained much the same. He’s a figure of strength, and his deceptively simple design portrays that strength better than anything more complicated possibly could.
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