Black superhero romance
Before Barack and Michelle Obama entered the scene as America’s black power couple, there was Black Panther and Storm from Marvel. Also known as Ororo Monroe (from the X-Men series) and T’Challa (king of the technologically advanced African nation, Wakanda) Black Panther and Storm are two of the best known black superheroes in American comics. With much fanfare, which included a press conference and wide speculation about who would design Storm’s wedding gown, the comic book world celebrated the first black superhero marriage with their union in 2006.
Part of the popular comic world constructed by black film director, Reginald Hudlin, the Black Panther-Storm union is much more than the stuff of fantasy. Black superheroes have rarely been central in the comic book genre, and although we can point to several major white superhero couples (think Clark Kent / Superman and Lois Lane, Peter Parker / Spider-Man and Mary Jane Parker, Bruce Wayne / Batman and Selina Kyle / Catwoman), there were few black superhero couples until Black Panther and Storm.
In this sense, black representation in the world of superheroes follows patterns established in other areas of popular culture. Consuela Francis states, “We rarely see, in mainstream popular culture, a black love story”: an absence that makes black popular romance “rich with radical possibility.” Indeed, the black superhero story may actually provide one of the more radical representations of black romance. In a world where people can fly, metamorphose into other beings, and control the weather, just about anything is possible for two black people in love.
Black Panther and Storm’s relationship occurs in the royal African kingdom of Wakanda, which defies the stereotypes of corruption, poverty, and violence commonly used to portray Africa. The story re-envisions a world where Africans do not have to be rescued by white humanitarians; they have themselves, and they have Black Panther and Storm. And at the heart of Black Panther and Storm’s relationship is both the literal and figurative re-membering of the relationship between African Americans and continental Africans. After all, Storm was born out of the romantic relationship between an African American student studying in Kenya and a Kenyan princess. And in anticipation of the wedding ceremony, Black Panther helps Storm find her black American grandparents living in the United States.
In this sense, black romance transcends the intimate relationship and spills over into the lost love between global Africans. Indeed, the entire Black Panther series can be read as striving to encourage black Americans to fall in love with a mythologized Africa. Still, the romantic notion of the connection between African people in the Diaspora and their African counterparts is also called into question. As fellow superhero and black American, Luke Cage comments to Black Panther, “You know how Africans –except Yourself, of course, can be towards African Americans. Snooty. Arrogant.” The marriage of Black Panther and Storm thus reads simultaneously as the reunion of African people separated through the trans-Atlantic slave system and as highlighting the tense relationships wrought from their separation.
The potentially revolutionary world of black romance is also constrained by a thread of 1960s Black Nationalist ideology in which black women’s role would be to produce a race of male revolutionaries to fight the injustice faced by African Americans. Black Panther’s mother, Queen Mother, informs Storm, “Wakanda is a warrior culture. It takes a Strong Woman to lead and Breed These Strong Men.” Spoken in the context of the highly sexualized physical image of Storm, Queen Mother’s comments weaken a progressive understanding of black romance with a narrow depiction of black women.
These nascent tensions in the Black Panther / Storm relationship came back into view recently when Black Panther decided to annul his marriage to Storm, believing Storm had betrayed him and his people. What might it mean for black popular romance if the only black superhero couple to “jump the broom” are no longer married? Some readers argued that the stress of leading the only autonomous black nation, Wakanda, was just too much for Black Panther and Storm to bear. Others speculated that the annulment reflected Marvel’s attempt to marginalize black superheroes.
Both the black superhero marriage and its subsequent dissolution demonstrate that the meanings of popular black romance often transcend the personal bonds of fidelity and love between two people. In the case of Black Panther and Storm, romance becomes a way to forge and question connections throughout the African Diaspora, to disrupt (and sometimes reinforce) negative stereotypes, and to resist—perhaps unsuccessfully, in the end—a history of oppression embedded in narrow conceptions of racial politics, gender, and sexuality.
Kim Gallon is an assistant professor of history and the director of Africana studies at Muhlenberg College. Find out more about Kim Gallon.