Comic books can be a lifelong obsession. Or a career. Arvell Jones made them both.
The Detroit native – a Cass Tech and Wayne State graduate – has played in the arena of the imagination and bright colorful panels, walking the corridors of Marvel Comics in the '70s and DC Comics in the '80s. All the while, Jones has represented a group of Detroit-based artists who brought their considerable talents to the comic book industry, from the late Rich Buckler to Keith Pollard.
It's an industry that has seen ebbs and flows in readership and problems with representation and diversification – though transformed, arguably, by the technological advances of special effects and the recent reality of America's first black president.
In other words, the moment for a black superhero has arrived.
Specifically, that moment falls on Feb. 16, when Black Panther – the story of brilliant warrior-king T'Challa, and the latest Marvel Cinematic Universe offering – opens in theaters nationwide. It notably also features a black director, nearly all-black cast and what might be considered a few token white actors. Since the Black Panther's screen debut in 2016's Captain America: Civil War, and maybe as far back as when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby first created him in the mid '60s, fans have wanted to see this character on the big screen.
In fact, Jones' major comic book break was as an assistant to Buckler on Black Panther. He was also involved with Milestone Media, a comic book company co-created by Detroiter Dwayne McDuffie, who died in 2011 at the age of 49.
Jones co-created the character Misty Knight, who is featured in the Marvel Netflix series Luke Cage – which features a "bulletproof" black superhero. He's also developed TV projects, and his original concept art was used in the teaser posters for the Black Panther movie.
We sat down with Jones to get his take on the cultural importance of the Black Panther, the forthcoming flick, black superheroes in general – and how Detroiters had an influence on the African king of Wakanda.
ON THE FIRST BLACK COMIC BOOK 'STAR' – A GUNSLINGER
"There was a character called Lobo – it was a Western comic. It featured an African-American as a gunslinger. I never saw the book. Most people didn't. The publisher was Dell Comics. Besides Lobo, there hadn't really been black characters as far as a major comic company."
ON THE STEREOTYPE OF BLACK CHARACTERS IN COMICS IN THE '60S BEFORE BLACK PANTHER'S APPEARANCE IN MARVEL
"Before that all, there's no good way to put this: Comic book characters, besides him, were all played as buffoons and coons for the most part. It was one of the reasons I wanted to get into comics. We as a people were always portrayed as being incompetent or something not be to taken seriously. For some reason, an African king was less threatening, culturally speaking, outside of Sidney Poitier – he was the good brother. Here (in Black Panther's first appearance in Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's Fantastic Four #52 in July 1966), you had a guy that could stand against the very best – the undefeated Fantastic Four. It made him significant."
ON THE COINCIDENCE OF BOTH THE BLACK PANTHER CHARACTER AND BLACK PANTHER PARTY ERUPTING IN THE '60S
"What I didn't know was, throughout the country, black people were picking (the comic book) up as well as white people. I think it started a ripple culturally. The Black Panther movement started around the same time. They were happening, (but) were not really influencing one another."
HOW THE 'BLACKNESS' OF THE BLACK PANTHER MADE EVEN NERDS LIKE JONES SUDDENLY FEEL COOL
"For a long time, reading a comic was just kid stuff. In fact, something to be ridiculed about – at least in my particular case. It was almost universal. What became a phenomena these days was (then) reviled. You weren't being real (in the black community). Even now, the whole Black Panther movies and ideas … it's an idea, a fantasy, that an African king can rule a nation that can never be defeated. That was allowed to prosper on its own without colonialism."
HIS FIRST JOB EVENTUALLY LANDED HIM HIS FIRST COMICS GIG BY WAY OF FELLOW DETROITER, RICH BUCKLER.
"My first job was to go into Ableman's Bookstore (in Hamtramck) and help … and draw signs. Mostly I was paid in comic books. Rich came in sorting through a stack of comics. He became the first artist outside of Jack Kirby to focus on (Black Panther's) adventures. He worked with Don McGregor, the writer on the book (Jungle Action, which Marvel released in the early '70s). Richard Buckler, me as assistant and later Keith Pollard as inker … all three of those people all come from the Detroit area. Keith had moved to New York from Ecorse, so we tried to bring our sensibilities."
YOU COULD PROBABLY CALL HIM EITHER THE 'IRON' ARTIST – OR ONE OF THE FIRST BLACK ARTISTS TO WORK ON THE MARVEL STAFF.
"Where you can say I was maybe the first? I was working on one of Marvel's core comics (around 1975) – it was an Iron Man. Billy Graham was the first black artist at Marvel (to do Luke Cage, Hero for Hire), who was good friends with Don McGregor. Billy was the first black artist to work on a mainstream black title for Marvel. It was the first fully dedicated black comic to come out for Marvel. And then Black Panther was the first character, Luke Cage was the first to get his own book. Billy was hired to legitimize the title.
"I was the first to work on a full comic book for Marvel that was in color and that featured one of the newer characters, Iron Fist. And then I was given the assignment to work on Iron Man – that was a core character. They were published bimonthly at the time. I was the 'Iron' artist at Marvel."
THOSE BLACK PANTHER MOVIE TEASER POSTERS YOU SAW LAST YEAR HAVE DIRECT LOCAL ROOTS – THEY CAME FROM NATIVE DETROITER ART SIMS (NOW IN CALIFORNIA), AN OLD FRIEND OF JONES' WHO MADE HIS LIVING DOING ALBUM COVERS AND ICONIC SPIKE LEE POSTERS LIKE DO THE RIGHT THING AND RED TAILS.
"I was involved in the process along with Art, in putting together 'key art,' (which is) art to be used as a basis (for the movie posters). … I did sketches of him (the Black Panther) looking down at Wakonda. The one with the throne – I drew that. That's pretty much my concept. They shot it from different angles. The idea of putting the Panther on the throne … they almost shot it verbatim."
ON THE RISE OF THE BLACK SUPERHERO
"This seems to be their day in the Trump era. A lot of this was probably decided on in the Obama era. I think the fact that we had a black president had a lot to do with the decision making, because, all of sudden, it's possible."
OBAMA'S A SUPERHERO? MAYBE …
"The leader of the free freaking world for the most part – he was the Black Panther. The most technologically advanced civilization in the world, the one that hadn't been defeated – if you didn't count Vietnam. You have a guy of African descent, certainly African-American, with an African name. He could rip the mask off, and you'd go, 'Oh, of course he's the Black Panther.' Everyone thought Wakanda was in Africa, but it was in the United States."
Who is the Black Panther
POWERS: Agility, combat, tracking
ORIGINS: Kingdom of Wakanda
WHAT IS WAKANDA? It's a small nation in Africa surrounded by Narobia, Uganda, Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia, according to Marvel.com, and named after its native Wakandan inhabitants. "Wakanda is a nation of vast contrasts," Marvel.com notes. "While tribal in government and relatively primitive in certain aspects of its culture, it possesses technology often more sophisticated than anywhere else on Earth."
THE MAN: "T'Challa is a brilliant tactician, strategist, scientist, tracker and a master of all forms of unarmed combat," Marvel.com says. As a "royal descendent of a warrior race," he's also an armed combat expert – but favors fighting tactics like acrobatics and animal mimicry.
Black Panther Timeline
1966 – First appearance in Fantastic Four Vol. 1 #52 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.
1973 – The character gets a starring turn in the comic book Jungle Action featuring the Black Panther #5 written by Don McGregor. Issues 6-13, Panther's Rage, are considered by many to be Marvel's first multi-issue story arc. Detroiter Rich Buckler is the artist for the first three issues (assisted by Arvell Jones).
1998 – African-American writer Christopher Priest, Marvel's first black editor, takes over Black Panther for a critically acclaimed run.
2005 – Filmmaker Reginald Hudlin – director of Marshall (a Thurgood Marshall biopic starring Black Panther leading man Chadwick Boseman), Boomerang and House Party – writes a Black Panther comic book series for Marvel.
2006 – T'Challa – the Black Panther – marries Storm (from the
2010 – Black Panther animated series premieres on BET.
2016 – In April, Atlantic writer and author of Between the World and Me Ta-Nehisi Coates' first issue of Black Panther is published. In May, the Black Panther makes his first appearance in the Marvel Cinematic movie, Captain America: Civil War.
2018 – Release of the first Black Panther movie by Marvel Studios.
ON WHY BLACK PANTHER MATTERS:
"It's very important that (kids) begin to see themselves in that kind of light – as heroes. We have always been known to be there in terms of architecture, behind the lines in war, behind the factory lines. We have always had heroes. There are so many other heroes. It's very important now. We have an administration that's trying to go back to the dark ages, more or less. That's why seeing this movie and seeing us in a positive note is always important."
– Larry Green, martial arts teacher and co-founder of Alkebu-lan Village, celebrating 40 years of youth services in Detroit
"In a way, it's the right movie for the right time. It's not a renaissance, but a lot of the current black superheroes resonate very deeply. It's a time for heroes and heroes are needed. If it's not real, at least we can have fictional inspirational. That's what I feel is going on now."
– Denys Cowan, co-creator of Milestone Media
and former apprentice of comic book creator Arvell Jones
"Wakanda (Black Panther's home nation) is a big deal … it was never conquered. It's a powerful black nation. It was created that way by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby."
– Tony Isabella, creator of Black Lightning, DC Comics' first black mainstream character, now a TV series on The CW
Meet Arvell Jones and fellow Marvel comic book artist Keith Pollard during the Black Panther movie premiere presented by Alkebu-lan Village, an Afrikan-centered community-based youth organization in Detroit.
Feb. 16 | Doors open at 6:30 p.m.
Bel Air Luxury Cinema, 10100 E. Eight Mile Road, Detroit