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X-Men creator Jack Kirby was the original comic book social justice warrior

Fantastic Four No. 52, the first appearance of Jack Kirby's Black Panther.
Fantastic Four No. 52, the first appearance of Jack Kirby's Black Panther.
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Over the past week, comic book enthusiasts have been celebrating the late artist Jack Kirby's birthday by remembering the impact he had on the industry. From his iconic stories and characters to his contentious relationship with Marvel, Kirby's legacy is a rich and memorable one. A massive part of this legacy was that Kirby was always telling stories — through his heroes like the X-Menthe Thing, the Hulk — of being an outsider and becoming a hero despite living in a world that's seemingly out to get you. And there are still people fighting battles today in the spirit of Kirby's legacy.

The past few years in the comic book industry have been underscored by a struggle for more diversity. And while it can get ugly, sexist, and racist, there's plenty of good to come out of this battle. Case in point: the hugely successful Ms. Marvel series featuring Kamala Khan, a Pakistani-American Muslim teenager. More characters like Kamala is what Kirby would have wanted.

In the spirit of remembering Kirby, writer Saladin Ahmed tweeted and pointed to a 1990 interview with the Comics Journal, where Kirby explained that he was compelled to create the superhero Black Panther because the default had always been white characters. And one day, he realized he was ignoring how important it was for him, and for the comic book industry, to reflect humanity (emphasis Vox's):

GROTH: How did you come up with the Black Panther?

KIRBY: I came up with the Black Panther because I realized I had no blacks in my strip. I’d never drawn a black. I needed a black. I suddenly discovered that I had a lot of black readers. My first friend was a black! And here I was ignoring them because I was associating with everybody else. It suddenly dawned on me — believe me, it was for human reasons — I suddenly discovered nobody was doing blacks. And here I am a leading cartoonist and I wasn’t doing a black. I was the first one to do an Asian. Then I began to realize that there was a whole range of human differences. Remember, in my day, drawing an Asian was drawing Fu Manchu — that’s the only Asian they knew. The Asians were wily…

Kirby also managed to voice his displeasure with stereotypical Asian characters. Granted, the language Kirby uses wasn't elegant. Remember: Kirby was born in 1917.

Separate Kirby's intent from its structure, and you have a very progressive (even for today) view of what the comic book industry, and more specifically the superhero industry, should be.

(h/t Saladin Ahmed)

Update: Ahmed, a novelist and comic book writer, tweeted this article out, and should be credited for the find. We've updated the article to make that clear.

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