Marvel’s Black Panther continues to be a smash at the box office and has drummed up new interest in King T’Challa and the mythical African nation of Wakanda. The late Billy Graham, a Black comics artist, helped revolutionize the Marvel’s premier Black characters in Luke Cage and Black Panther in the early ’70’s.
William Henderson Graham was born July 1, 1935 and was a native of Harlem, New York. He got his first big break working for the now-defunct Warren Publishing comics company, working on campy horror titles before becoming the first Black art director in the business in 1969. He then moved to Marvel, working as an inker for the company’s first Black superhero with his own title, Luke Cage.
Graham was the first and at the time only Black artist on Marvel’s staff, working on over a dozen of the first issues of the title. Initially, he just inked drawings by a white artist but by the fall of 1973, Graham was inking and drawing Luke Cage. According to a brilliant New York Times profile on Graham, he even helped write some stories and many in the industry believe he helped get the slang write in the titles.
The work on Black Panther came later and the character was something of an afterthought after Marvel’s Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created him in 1966. However, Graham started work on the Jungle Action title with writer Don McGregor and they had a successful run as a duo. For some Marvel fans, the Jungle Action series provided many of the modern tropes connected with Black Panther today.
Graham left Marvel somewhat abruptly to work on another Black comic series, Sabre, in the ’80’s but walked away from the industry to pursue a career as an actor and stuntman in Hollywood. Graham passed in 1997 at the age of 61, but there is renewed interest in his contributions to Black Panther and Luke Cage, the latter of which is now a hit series on the Netflix streaming service.
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