The world over knows the name of the Black Panther now, and that’s T’Challa: The King of Wakanda. While his adventures tend to veer more towards the consequences of statecraft, and being a genius, there was a time when to shore up sales that changed. In an attempt to make the character of the Black Panther more relevant, T’Challa was replaced with NYPD cop Kevin “Kasper” Cole. As Priest himself described the character: Kasper was a sort of bizarro take on Spider-Man. Having stolen a discarded uniform belonging to T’Challa, Kasper in an effort to support his pregnant girlfriend and mother would take down criminals disguised as T’Challa and collar them as a police officer.
While Black Panther would on its face be a strange place for a gritty vigilante book to take place, Priest has never been one for telling a straightforward story with what you expect to happen. Kasper has what’s while a fairly benign origin in 2016 being the bi-racial son of a black ex-cop and Jewish mother, it’s still one of the few forms of media to confront just how that impacts a person’s life. In the first place: there is no normal for Kasper. He’s a man who adopted a cruel nickname as a badge for himself, his father is in jail for police corruption, he lives in a tense family situation with his cast-out Korean-American girlfriend along with his overbearing mother, and the threat of being unable to move up to detective rank and get his family out of their bad neighborhood. All of that makes it a perfect exploration of someone without a cultural identity, someone without a set of morals defining him beyond survival, and someone who’s got a long way to go.
What makes the two major arcs of the Kasper Cole era so striking are how it approaches that void of cultural identity: both as a biracial man, and as someone who is cut off from his father’s stated heritage. In effect, his disguise as the Black Panther becomes akin to a form of cultural appropriation: while he initially uses the costume as a way of getting what he wants, he becomes compelled by both necessity and desire to understand just what it is he’s wearing and what it represents to the culture he ultimately stole it from. Kasper makes his entrance as a pretender, but by the time he ascended he became worthy of wearing the Black Panther habit. However, Kasper’s transgressions still had consequences. While he ultimately proved himself a good man, a religious garment is still a religious garment, Kasper was no more the Black Panther than I am the Pope. Kasper did save the day, but unlike other legacy stories where the hero is proven worthy to continue on (i.e Miles Morales or Bucky Barnes), Kasper can never be the Black Panther again, which instead leads to his taking on the mantle of the White Tiger.
While that change is in effect a demotion, it’s also meant to be a representation of how far Kasper has come as a person. Going from a fraud threatening crooks with a practiced accent and damaged cultural artifact to becoming the chosen confidant of one of the most dangerous men in the world. In effect, Kasper himself went from being yet another person who takes another person’s culture for his own amusement, to someone who was changed and became a better person: a change of faith so to speak. A character like that is more important than ever in a world where the lines of connection between ethnicity and culture continually become blurred thanks to cultural drift, a character like that who’s in some ways a connection to everyone has a lot to offer to the world.