Black Panther (1998) – A Marvel Knight

The Black Panther has always been a difficult character for Marvel’s writers to properly portray. On one hand, he is T’Challa, the cunning, brilliant, and enigmatic king of Wakanda, a fictionalized West African nation; and on the other hand, he is the Black Panther – a fierce and almost primal blend of instinct and power. This dichotomy has given many creators trouble, with the great “King” Jack Kirby opting for more of a Burroughs’ Tarzan approach, placing T’Challa in a series of jungle adventures where he explored tombs, sought mystical treasure, and gallivanted across the globe like Indiana Jones. Others have erred on the side of the stoic statesman, a mistake that lends itself too easily to caricature.

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Black Panther’s debut in Fantastic Four #52 Source: Marvel.com

I also think that some of this difficulty in writing the Black Panther stems from the cultural and racial significance of the character. When he debuted in Fantastic Four #52 in 1966, the Black Panther became the first Black superhero in mainstream comics. For many years, he remained one of very few significant Black characters in the Marvel universe, as Storm, Falcon, and Luke Cage gradually also broke onto the scene. T’Challa became an important character in the universe, frequently guest-starring in issues of the Fantastic Four and becoming a key member of the Avengers shortly thereafter. His name was as important as his race, since the Black Panther party was growing in prominence during the late 1960s and early 1970s. The comic book industry was still almost entirely white men, making a genuine portrayal of Black or other minority heroes difficult and prone to stereotyping. T’Challa was shielded from some of the stereotyping since he was an African character rather than the African-American characters of Falcon and Luke Cage, whose origins, vocabulary, and costumes tended to involve crime and violence and swooping necklines, drawing more inspiration from Shaft than George Washington Carver.

The result was that it took many years for the Black Panther to get his own solo title. T’Challa was featured in some issues of Jungle Action, but it took another ten years for him to get an eponymous solo series. The first run was led by Jack Kirby himself, a legend in Marvel comics lore, who wrote 12 issues of a short 15 issue series in 1977. As I mentioned above, the 1977 series struggled to balance Kirby’s love for the bizarre with the established Avengers’ character of a serious and calculating king. The result is an odd Indiana Jones rip-off that seems like more of an acid trip than a coherent story. The bizarre adventure series exploring jungle ruins petered out quickly, and the idea of a solo title for T’Challa was shelved for another ten years. In 1988, a quick 4-issue miniseries by Peter B. Gillis, penciled by Denys Cowan. The series had very little impact and is not available in a reprinted trade, so it has been largely lost from the Black Panther lore. Another unsuccessful solo series led to ten more years on the shelf for T’Challa.

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Source: comicvine.com

Enter Marvel Knights. In 1998, a new solo title was launched for the Black Panther as part of the Marvel Knights initiative. This was during a dark time for Marvel – it had just filed for bankruptcy in 1998 and was struggling to maintain readership after the comic sales bubble of the early 1990s burst with the dotcom bubble. Marvel hired Joe Quesada and his independent comic company, Event Comics, to write, illustrate, and edit four series of B-list heroes featuring rising stars in the indie comics world. Quesada and co. were given extensive creative license to reinvigorate the genre and their four series, Daredevil, Punisher, the Inhumans, and Black Panther, each were wildly successful and quickly became classic parts of each characters’ canon.

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Black Panther (1998) #1 Source: Marvel.com

Quesada chose Christopher Priest to launch the new Black Panther series, making him the first African-American writer for this quintessential Black superhero. Under the Marvel Knights banner, Priest had much more freedom to interpret the character of T’Challa. From the first page, it was clear that the tone of his run would be much different from Kirby’s jungle explorer. T’Challa’s first appearance is not in his Black Panther uniform, but in a sharp suit and sunglasses, flanked by his tall female bodyguards, the Dora Milaje. Priest also spends a significant amount of time on the supporting cast, building up King T’Challa’s entourage of assistants, guards, and advisers into a full and believable royal court. Starting with the Dora Milaje, T’Challa’s step-mother Ramonda, and down through the regent W’Kabi and the adviser Zuri, the royal court is full of believable and important characters that balance out many of T’Challa’s internal conflicts and give him people to fight for and protect. These characters helped Priest to demonstrate and explain the African cultural influences that drove T’Challa’s actions, and provided him with a solid support network that every hero needs. The run also featured some cool cameos from other comics, such as the Falcon, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, Captain America, and Storm who each brought their own unique relationships with T’Challa and helped to show the many facets of his character.

One of the most interesting things about Priest’s run on the Black Panther was his use and development of the villains’ storylines. That was one of the more enlightening things for me as a Marvel fan who was relatively new to the Black Panther. I had read plenty of Avengers comics that featured T’Challa and had seen him guest-star in broader Marvel events, Fantastic Four, and even recent X-Men comics, but his solo series gave me a chance to get to know his rogue gallery. As is true of most Marvel characters, there is a theme to most of T’Challa’s enemies; in Black Panther’s case, they all tend to be political rivals. This allows for each villain’s arc to build up a lot of political intrigue, playing various tribal factions against one another, assassination attempts, or even trying to usurp T’Challa’s throne through economic or political manipulations. Most of these adversaries also seem to have a tie to T’Challa’s past, whether a former friend (M’Baku, the Man-Ape), or the result of a misplaced grudge (Erik Killmonger), or even a spurned lover (Malice). The villains helped highlight T’Challa’s strengths as a statesman and his true genius. Killmonger’s arc in particular showed the importance of honor and tradition in Wakandan society, and its emphasis by T’Challa and his enemies alike. The tribal challenges and political/cultural maneuvering of the heroes and villains created a lot of believable intrigue and gave this Black Panther run a different feel than most other comics. The conclusions of each villain’s arc also showcased the Black Panther’s skills, as so many of these arcs conclude with a series of twists and machinations that only T’Challa could have foreseen, planned for, and executed to perfection. Each seemingly unwinnable situation is different and planned out by a different baddie, but when the going gets tough, T’Challa goes full panther and just kicks butt. It’s impossible to read these comics and not be super impressed by the Black Panther character. He’s pretty awesome and Priest sure knows it.

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Source: Marvel Comics; Issue #1

The single most surprising element of Priest’s run was the character of Everett K. Ross, State Department liaison. A comically incompetent American bureaucrat assigned to shadow and guide T’Challa during his stay in the US, Ross became a sort of de facto narrator. Priest used Ross’ perspective (written in the style of reports back to his government leadership) to frame a significant number of the issues in the series, keeping a light and humorous tone around some otherwise dour themes of tribal violence and espionage. Ross is a very likable character and an amusing foil to T’Challa’s confident and stoic man of mystery vibe. He is a great character who adds a lot of personality and even some good semi-heroic moments throughout the run, but his most important function is to give some first-person perspective.

The amazing thing about Priest’s run on Black Panther is that none of it is from T’Challa’s perspective. His voice is never in the narration boxes, it’s Ross or it’s Queen Divine Justice (one of the Dora Milaje) or eventually Kasper Cole, but it’s never T’Challa. I think this tonal choice works well in the opening couple of arcs, where Ross is still trying to figure out what is happening and still getting a sense of the impressive figure that is the King of the Wakandas. However, as the arcs progressed and T’Challa was seen to have some self-doubt, inner tumult, and some attempts at emotional character development, the void of personal perspective became a bit of a weakness. I think the decision was made in order to keep T’Challa aloof, but this aloofness occasionally makes the character less dynamic. This lack of T’Challa’s perspective is perhaps the only true weakness in the first 49 issues of Priest’s run, which is otherwise very strong.

Thematically, Priest’s emphasis is less on the superhero and much more on the statesman T’Challa and the political ramifications of balancing super-heroism with kingship. Throughout the long run, Priest focuses on the burden of power and the kind of lonely responsibility that being a good and honorable leader requires. There is only one point in the whole run that T’Challa really opens up about that weakness, with Storm in a Wakandan garden, and even that momentary self-doubt is short-lived. The rest of the time, T’Challa is a strong-willed, force of nature who is truly fearless in the political arena. Priest emphasizes the political savvy of his title character over and over, as T’Challa thwarts Killmonger’s economic attacks by purposefully tanking the Wakandan economy or standing toe to toe with Marvel’s infamous political players: Doctor Doom, Namor, and Magneto. Seeing all of Marvel’s heads of state negotiating in one room was pretty cool. The command that T’Challa had, even over the strong, egomaniacal personalities of Doctor Doom, Namor, and Magneto, proved just how powerful and cunning the Black Panther could be. It also provided a different lens to view T’Challa through, as he is somewhere between Captain America and Namor — undoubtedly a superhero, but also a king and directly beholden to his kingdom and its subjects. Priest emphasized these two pieces quite well, and let the sometimes complementary, oft conflicting roles lead many of the run’s plot-lines.

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Source: comicscube.com; Issue #26

Another interesting dynamic in Priest’s run on the Black Panther was in how he wrote about Wakanda. The inner conflicts of T’Challa were often mirrored in his homeland, as the tribal elements of violence, pride, and tradition warred against the progressive, capitalistic, and calculating features of a technologically advanced nation. The country is divided between the futuristic cities and their cosmopolitan residents and the rural farmers, Vibranium miners, and tribal chieftans. Neither side is portrayed as wrong, but as equally important features of the Wakandan cultural geography. Their mutual interests only truly overlap in their fealty to the king and the Panther cult. This makes managing these external forces as much of a challenge for T’Challa as managing his own internal struggles with these competing forces. Priest also touches on the inherent dichotomy of enlightenment and subservience. The Western perspective that Queen Divine Justice (the American-born member of the Dora Milaje) has on authoritarianism provides a natural way to discuss the nature of Wakanda’s government. How can the most technologically advanced country in the world be a kingdom? And why is their king, a brilliant, compassionate, and powerful man, willing to embrace the paternalistic aspects of this culture and continue enforcing an authoritarian power structure in his country? Priest’s attempts to answer these questions were laudable, though I am not completely sure they landed. The primary explanation for continuing a monarchy was that the country would fall into endless civil war, and that keeping a tight leash kept everyone safe. While well-intentioned, the answer is no less paternalistic than any other authoritarian might make. “It’s for their own good.” But Priest understands that the most important thing in relaying this discussion of values is not to agree with T’Challa, but to understand his motivations and to see why he makes these choices. In that, Priest certainly succeeds.

One really cool stylistic decision was the inclusion of the Kirby-era Black Panther (considered in the story to be a future self) whose rambunctious, Indiana Jones-esque routine offered a fun contrast to the grimly contemplative T’Challa of Priest’s run. I especially liked that the artist (Sal Velluto) drew the old-school Panther in Kirby’s style. It was a nice touch that paid homage to Kirby and created this sort of “something isn’t quite right here” feeling while reading the character interactions. Definitely a fun highlight of the run by Priest and Velluto.

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Kasper Cole as “White Tiger” after T’Challa makes him give up the Black Panther suit. Source: Wikipedia.com

Notes on the Crew with White Tiger #50-62; and Crew #1-7 — not a bad story, but not really about Black Panther, which makes it an abrupt transition. Definitely the weakest part of the whole run. It seemed like a lot to ask of the Black Panther readership that they would abandon their title character and become instantly sympathetic to the new protagonist, Kasper Cole out of nowhere. I think the transition may have worked a bit better if Priest had somehow worked Kasper in gradually prior to the switch. The story wasn’t bad, it just didn’t feel like a Black Panther comic anymore. The Wikipedia entry for this bit says that T’Challa “mentored” Kasper, but reading it, I really did not get that sense. It just seemed like an abrupt transition that didn’t fully wrap up because the series was canceled. An unfortunate end to what was a very strong series previously.

Overall, I definitely recommend issues #1-49 to any readers who want to learn more about the Black Panther, Wakanda, or T’Challa’s back story. It is especially timely considering the release of Captain America: Civil War early next month. But this Black Panther series is also a good fit for anyone who wants to read a politically-minded story with some espionage and/or political intrigue. Priest did a good job fleshing out his characters and keeping the action compelling. It is my first serious foray into the character of T’Challa, and I finished this series looking for more, which is always a good sign.

Rating: 7 out of 10 — for strong plot and supporting characters, would be an 8 if it weren’t for the abrupt transition in issue #50 and the weird flash-forward story in the middle that didn’t tie back to the present.

The Kasper portion of #50-62 and the Crew #1-7 gets a 5 out of 10 — it wasn’t bad, and had its moments for Kasper to develop his character, but I never fully connected with the character and found a lot of the supporting cast to be weak and it felt like being under the “Black Panther” moniker was a bit of a mislabel. The follow-on series, “The Crew” had one primary arc that was obscured by an oddly-written Rhodey character and the goal/resolution was pretty unclear. The one highly redeeming feature was the inclusion of Isaiah Bradley and tie-ins to the powerful “Truth: Red, White, and Black” story. If you have not read that 7-issue miniseries, I highly recommend it. “Truth” shows a darker twist on the Captain America legacy that is sadly believable in its horrible racial prejudice.

 


I supplemented this chronology of Black Panther with some information from Wikipedia. Read more about T’Challa, Wakanda, Christopher Priest, and Marvel Knights.

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