What the Comics Tell Us About the Women Who've Donned the Black Panther Suit
Photo: Marvel Studios

What the Comics Tell Us About the Women Who've Donned the Black Panther Suit

As the sequel 'Black Panther: Wakanda Forever' prepares to release on the big screen, fans have been speculating as to who will take over the reigns. But the source material shows the possibility of a woman wearing the suit is by no means a substitution for the real deal.

Since the first teaser for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, the sequel to the 2018 blockbuster film Black Panther, dropped this summer, fans have been theorizing as to who might be wearing the new Black Panther suit. The slim build suggests a female physique, and fans immediately speculated that characters Nakia, Shuri, and even Micaela Cole’s new character Aneka might be taking over the mantle.

However, less than a month later, the release of a promotional Lego set and the official Black Panther: Wakanda Forever movie trailer appear to confirm Princess Shuri, played by actress Letitia Wright, might be taking on the mantle of Black Panther. The reveal was praised and ridiculed as many Marvel fans had hoped the character of T’Challa, played initially by the late Chadwick Boseman, would be recast with another male actor. A concept that many fans of the first movie have expressed through the viral #RecastTchalla campaign on Twitter. A decision that director Ryan Coogler and Marvel Studio head Kevin Feige have announced will not happen – yet.

Those familiar with only the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) version of Black Panther and not the history of Wakanda in the comics might think that if Shuri takes the throne, she is being offered up as a substitute for a male leader. However, based on comic book canon, this is not the first time Shuri has taken on the mantle of Black Panther, nor is it the first time a Black woman has worn the suit. In comics, there have been four women who took on the mantle of Black Panther.

Black Panther origins in the comics

Christopher Priest, Marvel’s first Black writer, created many of the characters seen onscreen in Black Panther today, including the all- female Wakandan warriors, the Dora Milaje.

Photo: Marvel Studios

King T’Challa is the oldest mainstream Black comic book character and was created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, and debuted in Fantastic Four #52 in 1966 to attract more African-American fanbase. The team created the fictional uncolonized African nation of Wakanda and introduced King T’Challa as its leader. Although the character made guest appearances in Fantastic Four and The Avengers comics after that, it was Don McGregor’s series Jungle Action featuring The Black Panther (1977) and Christopher Priest’s sixty-two issue run starting in 1998 that put the character on the map. Priest, Marvel’s first Black writer, created many of the characters seen onscreen in Black Panther today, including the all- female Wakandan warriors, the Dora Milaje, Okoye and Nakia, as well as Agent Everett K. Ross.

Shuri as Black Panther

There has been speculation that Shuri, played by Letitia Wright, will take up the reigns in 'Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.'

Photo: Marvel Studios

Priests' success inspired Marvel to bring on more Black writers, and in 2005 Reginald Hudlin introduced Shuri, T’Challa’s sister, in a different Black Panther series. In Black Panther #2, she attempted to challenge for the throne but lost her chance after T’Challa beat another challenger ahead of her. During this storyline, T’Challa is attacked by Victor Von Doom (aka Dr. Doom) and falls into a coma. Urged by the X-Men’s Storm to take on the mantle, Shuri trained, studied, and took the heart-shaped herb to come before Bast, the goddess who must approve all who attempt to become the Black Panther. Bast was not impressed, and warned Shuri of her arrogance, but the deity must have seen something in her because those that Bast deemed unworthy usually died after ingesting the vibranium-laced herb.

This is why, in 2008, during the “Dark Reign” storyline, Shuri became the new Black Panther. While X-Men’s Storm attempted to save her husband T’Challa’s life, Shuri faced the immortal enemy Morlun who attacked when Wakanda was weakest. Shuri emerged victorious, and although T’Challa regained consciousness and his status as King, he did not retake the Black Panther mantle for quite some time.

Shuri fought alongside her brother as both Princess Regent and Black Panther in one of the biggest battles they ever took on when Doom returned and stole all of the vibranium from Wakanda, almost destroying the country. After a lengthy recovery, T’Challa consulted with Bast to find out if he could regain his power without harming his sister. Bast saves him from an impossible choice, and in Fantastic Four #608 by Jonathan Hickman, the goddess crowns T’Challa,” King of the Dead.”

Queen Nehanda the Wise

The “King of the Dead” has the power to communicate with the ancestral line of the Black Panthers that came before him. Award-winning writer Ta-Nehisi Coates expanded on this concept in Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, starting in 2016 when he created “Nehanda The Wise,” the first woman Black Panther that reigned hundreds of years before T’Challa’s grandfather. She was featured multiple times in Coates’ run, and even fought alongside Thor and an early Avengers team at one point.

Like many Black American authors who contributed to Wakandan lore, Coates often used real-world African history in his work. It's safe to assume that Nehanda was inspired by the famous Nehanda Nyakasikana, the famous Shona spirit medium who bravely fought against the British. I also added to Nehanda’s legacy in my book Black Panther: Protectors of Wakanda, A History and Training Manual of the Dora Milaje, when I introduced Queen Nehanda as the founder of the Dora Milaje.

However, Nehanda is not the only Black Panther Queen to precede Shuri canonically. Queen Turkana, a character created by award-wining author Nnedi Okorafor, was also a Black Panther.

Queen Turkana

During Coates’ run, Shuri became trapped between the world of the living and the dead, and her spirit traveled to the Wakandan ancestral plane. When she returned, she had shape-shifting abilities, and could access Wakandan's conventional memory, including ancestors of the Panther Clan.

Okorofor, who wrote extensively about Wakanda in the graphic novels Black Panther: Long Live the King (2018) and Wakanda Forever (2018), used this ability to create the Black Panther, Queen Turkana, in Shuri’s first solo comic Shuri (2018). Although she only appears briefly, Queen Turkana gives Shuri the advice she needs to help her subdue an alien species attacking Wakanda.

Black Panther Ngozi

Okorafor also wrote another stand-alone story introducing the first Nigerian Black Panther, who merged with a Venom symbiote. In a separate timeline in Venomverse: War Stories, a young Nigerian girl named Ngozi, paralyzed from the waist down, witnesses a battle between the villain Rhino and King T’Challa. Rhino releases a canister containing the Venom symbiote, which bonds with her just as he kills the King. Ngozi transforms into a winged Venom symbiote form and defeats Rhino with her new abilities. Wakandans look at her victory as divine, and convince her to come to Wakanda, where, after being deemed worthy of leading, she is given the heart-shaped herb and becomes the next Black Panther –this time with a symbiote working for good.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is about to feature the most Black women in an MCU film in the franchise’s history. However, almost every character on screen has a comic book origin and a story that extends beyond the film. Although Black Panther was born from white western concepts of Africa, in recent years, Marvel has invited many Black writers from across the diaspora to plant seeds within its soil. Voices like Tochi Onyebuchi, Nikki Giovanni, Nic Stone, Roxane Gay and Evan Narcissehave all written comics or novels in the Wakanda extended universe off-screen, creating a rich array of possibilities for this incredible story to still grow.