By 2004, the Marvel Knights imprint had already been well-established. Initially a risk back in 1998, the semi-independent label was basically sub-contracted out from Marvel to Joe Quesada’s now defunct Event Comics company. A more complete history of the Marvel Knights imprint, as well as some of its early titles, can be found under reviews for the Black Panther and Daredevil series. This run is concurrent with the middle of John Michael Straczynski (JMS)’s run on Spider-Man in the primary Amazing Spider-Man title, which had embraced some of the more mystical elements of the Marvel Universe. Though JMS’s run has a lot of strengths, Millar (and subsequently Hudlin) provided a nice contrast to that high-minded mysticism with some more classic Spidey vs. villain stories in this Marvel Knights title. Though admittedly darker in tone and consequences than the original Lee/Ditko Spider-Man, this Marvel Knights run was a good reminder of the kind of adventures we were used to seeing Peter Parker have.
Mark Millar Run #1-12: Great story arc that is a kind of blend of Miller’s Daredevil: Born Again and Kevin Smith’s Daredevil: Guardian Devil, in that there is a mysterious character who is pulling strings behind the scenes to destroy Spidey’s life. Oh, and he knows his secret identity as Peter Parker. The mysterious villain has captured Aunt May and is holding her captive to get to Peter, making him increasingly desperate and strung out. The following 12-issue arc is a good blend of psychological thriller and good, old-fashioned superhero battles. Spidey has to fight off the Vulture, Electro, Doc Ock, a new Venom, and even more baddies all in his attempt to rescue May. The series has a very compelling plot progression and feels very much like classic Spider-Man. The inclusion of so many of his classic villains, as well as key supporting cast members like MJ and the Black Cat only make the characterization stronger. The majority of the art was penciled by Terry Dodson, with a couple of issues by Frank Cho, both of whom deliver some high-quality art. It’s not innovative or overly stylized, but it’s all clear, faces are expressive, colors are bright and details are precise. Dodson even did some costume upgrades for Electro and the Vulture to make them look a little more modern and a little more menacing. The plot is a very compelling read and, though it does take some logical shortcuts, especially in the last couple of issues, it is well worth the read. Rating: 8 of 10
Reginald Hudlin Run #13-18: An interesting arc with some strong positives and some mixed execution. Absorbing Man, Ethan as new Skrull hero/baddie/crazy. To me, the whole Ethan character is basically a riff on two other stories that had already been published by this time: first, Paul Jenkins’ The Sentry, which explores a forgotten, all-powerful, Superman-like hero who struggles to find his way in the modern world (not to mention some significant mental health problems); and second, the second arc from Allan Heinberg’s run on the Young Avengers, in which Hulkling discovers his Skrull heritage and struggles to find his identity. It seemed a little too much of a Superman parody to be considered a genuinely good Spider-Man arc. Though it was certainly amusing, SM’s character development was certainly secondary. I will say, though, that the further elaboration of the Absorbing Man’s powers was a good idea. It makes a lot of sense to have someone like him be pretty close to all-powerful, but his biggest weakness is that, as one of duller tools in the shed, he lacks the imagination to truly make the most of his awesome power. Putting someone like Spidey up against that is actually a pretty cool matchup, so props to Hudlin for going that direction. Overall, it’s certainly not a bad arc, but I wouldn’t call it necessary reading. Rating: 6 of 10
#19-22 — the last four issues of this Marvel Knights run was part of a crossover title called, “The Other: Evolve or Die” which will be reviewed soon!
One of the incredible things about Daredevil as a character is that he works so well in a solo title. With very limited interactions outside of his own series, Daredevil allows his writers to operate in a relatively insulated world, rarely even leaving Hell’s Kitchen. That may be why he has attracted such an impressive line of creators over the years. From his beginnings in 1964 as the first blind superhero, Daredevil and his alter ego, Matt Murdock, have been on a bit of a popularity roller-coaster. Though a very creative and unique character from the start, Daredevil never really amassed the same popular support of his contemporaries (Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, the Avengers).
The great Stan Lee wrote the first 50 issues, but despite introducing a slew of iconic villains and developing the character’s full cast of supporting characters, origins, and powers, he never became a top-selling hero. Throughout the 1970s, a carousel of artists and writers tried to shake up the character and dredge up some better numbers by making the run bi-monthly, teaming him up with Black Widow, moving him to San Francisco, and a bunch of other shake-ups. But nothing truly worked until Frank Miller came onto the scene in the early 1980s, transforming the swashbuckling wise-cracker into a dark and gritty antihero. It was under Miller’s helm that Daredevil really found a home. His world was dark and dangerous, the tone dour and harsh, and Miller’s artwork and innovative redefining of the character propelled Daredevil to popularity for the first time. With his iconic (and highly recommended) Man of Fear mini-series, and the Born Again arc representing the core of this new Daredevil.
Unfortunately, following Miller’s run in the early eighties, the character began to decline again. Despite some solid arcs from Ed O’Neil and Ann Nocenti, the series’ sales started to fall back to pre-Miller levels, and the 1990s brought much of the same flawed, over-indulgent arcs that plagued the innumerable X-titles and Spider-Man titles of the decade. By the late 1990s, Marvel had over-printed and Rob Liefeld-ed their way nearly to bankruptcy, forcing them to sell off their movie rights to the X-Men, Fantastic Four, and Spider-Man. It was at the company’s all-time low that they sought to innovate and bring in some new creative teams to breathe new life into the stagnant company. Enter: Marvel Knights, an experiment with Indie writers and artists with more creative autonomy than a regular Marvel comic. The Marvel Knights initiative gave four under-performing properties to Joe Quesada’s small comic company, “Event Comics,” for some fresh ideas and plot-lines (find a more complete history in my Black Panther (1998) review, here). Daredevil was the highest profile of the four MK titles, and its relaunch in 1998 sparked a new golden age for the character.
Daredevil’s rebirth as a gritty, but thoughtful hero began here in 1998, under the Marvel Knights label and would soon usher in multiple Eisner Awards, a 2003 movie starring Ben Affleck (that was horrible), and establishing a new level of popularity that surged to the present day, where Daredevil has seen two seasons of the amazing Netflix/Marvel collaboration. A review of the mammoth 120-issue 1998 run (which lasted until 2010) is below. The review is broken out by creators, as that tends to roughly define each chunk’s tone and significance. Some of these runs were pretty long, so they encompass many arcs, making their reviews more about the aggregate of those individual arcs.
Blorgons be advised: I am trying to avoid spoilers, but some of them are inevitable. The further you go in this review, the more likely elements of previous arcs will be discussed. It is difficult to assess each author’s work on the the character without examining the cumulative histories that build on previous authors’ writing. I’ll try to keep them to a minimum but some major plot points in each run are necessary to fully analyze the works. You have been warned!
Kevin Smith and Joe Quesada (#1-8): In 1998, Joe Quesada, the mastermind behind the Marvel Knights initiative at Marvel, chose the snarky writer Kevin Smith to headline the most famous of the four Marvel Knights properties – Daredevil: The Man Without Fear. Smith, famous for his quirky films Clerks, Chasing Amy, and Dogma, as well as his iconic role as Silent Bob in the Jay and Silent Bob duo, had not written any mainstream superhero comics before. A lifelong nerd and comic fan, Smith had only recently forayed into the comic medium with a tale about Jay and Silent Bob set between his films. I’m sure this seemed like a pretty big risk at the time, but Quesada was confident enough that he did the penciling himself for Smith’s run. His gamble certainly paid off.
Smith built up a complex mysterious plot for the Man Without Fear with a highly allegorical tale of belief, doubt, and redemption. The plot drew heavily on biblical stories of the apocalypse and its parallels to Smith’s film Dogma, which was released a year later, were numerous. A first-time read through the story is very compelling and surprising. Smith does an expert job of gradually revealing plot lines while letting the suspense build. And the big reveal is actually surprising. It is hard to discuss the story too much without giving it away, but the basic premise is that Matt Murdock (currently set up in a swanky law office with Foggy and Foggy’s mom) hears a young girl with a baby fleeing some bad dudes in car and goes down to rescue her. Then, after the girl leaves the baby with Matt, series of mind games and self-doubt circles around Daredevil as he tries to unravel the mystery around this baby and the strange things that keep happening. The result is a surprising and emotional psychological thriller. The heavily allegorical tale is rife with religious symbolism, all of which makes the tale particularly personal for Matt Murdock and is a good fit (if unsurprising from Smith). The dialogue is pretty verbose at times, making each page a little more wordy than I tend to prefer, but the story progresses pretty well.
Rating: 8 of 10 for first-time readers, mostly due to the elements of mystery and handling of the villain. 6 of 10 on re-reading, since most of the value in the series is the unfolding of its mysteries.
David Mack and Joe Quesada (#9-15, 51-55): Taking over for Smith, Mack certainly had his hands full. But I’m not sure that the hand-off was all that clean, as Mack’s run doesn’t really show Matt suffering or dwelling on the earth-shattering conclusion to Smith’s arc. I think it is somewhat implausible for Matt to seemingly recover so quickly and start to develop a new love interest. Perhaps Mack supposed a large time gap or he just wanted to tell this story regardless of how stark a contrast it paints from the previous arc. So, right off the bat, the transition is a little weird and definitely represents a big stylistic change from Smith’s 8-issue run. And oddly enough, it’s only tangentially about Daredevil. However, don’t let that dissuade you. Mack’s work (both after Smith and later in a Bendis/Maleev gap) are really timeless examinations of a new character he introduced in issue #9: Maya Lopez.
Mack’s artistic style is really unique. Paintings with mixed media functioning as a sort of character collage with an interesting amount of repetition, reusing portions of the paintings again on multiple pages to show emphasis. The first handful of issues in his run were actually still drawn by Joe Quesada, but Mack’s storytelling style still influenced the artist layout with the words in sheet music and other stylized choices (issue #12 is the one exception, as it is more of a standalone written by Palmotti/Haynes interrupting Mack’s story for one month). The full Mack-effect is seen in the first few issues of Bendis’ run in #16-19, as well as Mack’s #51-55 full on scrapbook, modern art, paint explosion in the “Vision Quest” arc. It is pretty impressive and definitely enjoyable. Mack’s depiction of dream sequences, memory, and emotion are very unique and involve very artsy representations of his characters. The most impressive visual aspect of all is how Mack integrates the visual representations of sound into the storytelling. He showcases different techniques to show music or silence or other key auditory sensations with visual approximations. The result is definitely enjoyable.
I enjoyed Mack’s work as a creative riff on the superhero comic genre and his care for character development, especially Maya: the deaf Native American savant who gradually became Echo, the first deaf superhero, over the course of his run. It is interesting that Daredevil/Matt Murdock falls into more of a supporting character role, as Mack’s focus is on exploring the psyche of Maya: her pain, her memories, and her motivations on the quest for vengeance and eventually redemption through understanding. Mack also deserves some solid recognition for his infusion of Native American cultural histories into Echo’s narrative. He did a great job creating the origin story of his character, Echo, but the result is that is not really a Daredevil comic. Sure, Matt is the love interest and/or adversary for Echo, but it is Maya’s struggle not Matt’s that is the emphasis. At times the narratives became too repetitive, like Mack didn’t trust that his readers would catch the artistic references he made, which seemed to slow down the plot in his later issues. However, the overall feel for these two story pieces is quite good. I hope it is all collected into one “Echo Collection” of sorts soon. I would definitely buy it, if only to skim through the art again.
Rating: 6 of 10, the art is unique and very cleverly rolled into the story. The story itself is solid but nothing spectacular.
Bob Gale (#20-25): What started off as an intriguing arc focusing on Murdock in the courtroom, gradually started to go downhill. Gale’s idea for a lawsuit brought against Daredevil for damages made for an interesting idea. He pushed it even further with the notion that it was in Nelson and Murdock’s best interest to take the plaintiff’s suit themselves, so as to best protect Matt’s secret identity from another prosecuting attorney. The Matt Murdock side of the lawsuit was actually fairly intriguing, as the plaintiff’s back story with murky details and a mysterious possible brainwashing sub-plot progressed in a fun way. However, the weird semi-romantic plot between Matt and the defense attorney was pretty forced and didn’t really due either character credit. Even worse was the “multiple Daredevils” development. I would have preferred to see such a complicated legal set up to be resolved with Matt and/or Foggy’s legal genius rather than some cheap costume stunts. All in all, Gale’s run is not bad, but largely forgettable considering Bendis’ incredible writing on either side of this arc. The most important aspect of this story is the legal implications of the Daredevil suit on Bendis’ later arcs.
Rating: 5 of 10, a solidly middle-of-the-road comic, that I won’t seek out to re-read but didn’t mind while in it. I don’t necessarily recommend it, but it’s not a bad read if you’re a Marvel: Unlimited subscriber or a completionist.
Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev (#16-19, 26-50, 56-81): The first four issues of this run (#16-19) were not actually drawn by Maleev, but were instead a Bendis/Mack collaboration. The short arc was intended as a guest appearance by Bendis, and featured a self-contained story about a young boy dealing with trauma following an altercation between Daredevil and the boy’s father, a B-list villain. The story is told from the perspective of Ben Urich, the intrepid reporter for the Daily Bugle, who interviews the boy, his mother, and Matt Murdock to get a sense for what happened during this altercation. The result is a deeply emotional story arc with expressive and evocative art, along the same style as Mack’s other work on the series. But the key difference is that Mack’s writing in his own arc came up a little short, whereas here, he could rely upon Bendis’ strong characterization to drive the story. This short story is very well done and really sets the tone for the kind of stories that Bendis wanted to write about the Daredevil character. He really touched on the negative ripple effect that even good deeds can have on innocent people, highlighting something almost taboo in the superhero comic genre: touching on the victims of superhero intervention, which so often escalates a conflict into a much broader and prolonged event. Though it is only a short four-issue story arc, it packs a pretty significant emotional punch, and despite only appearing in a few frames, Daredevil’s impact on the plot is crucial, and even surprising.
The remaining 50 issues of the Bendis and Maleev run was nothing short of incredible. Maleev’s art is one of my personal favorites and a perfect fit for the dark and dingy corners of Hell’s Kitchen. Maleev emphasizes shadows and uses a lot of black lines to show details and muted colors that make each panel seem distressed. The tone was just as dark, as Daredevil was pushed to new extremes, and the brutal realities of his dual identity and vigilantism came to a surprising head. Bendis did a great job of integrating crucial character history into the story, all while introducing some new characters (Milla Donovan first and foremost) and spinning a completely new tale. Bendis knew all of the right themes to emphasize: loss, faith, identity, violence, and that ever-so-delicate balance between law and justice that has always been a pivotal debate for Murdock’s character. The difference between the man and the mask was written in as well, giving some insight into the emotional relationship a hero has with their alter-ego. Bendis seemed to take some inspiration from Miller’s seminal Born Again saga, but he provided his own spin on those familiar themes. I don’t want to give much away, but I highly recommend it to anyone who likes comics, especially those with a darker, grittier tone.
Rating: 10 of 10, a rare feat. This is definitely one of the strongest comic runs I have ever read and it is in my top ten favorites. I bought all three Ultimate Collections as soon as I finished and will certainly reread this many times. Bendis and Maleev just presented a high quality product with great art, story, and characterization. That’s what the medium is all about. I highly recommend it.
Ed Brubaker and Michael Lark (#82-119, 500): The end of Bendis and Maleev’s run had readers reeling with a real cliff-hanger, but if anyone was up to the task, it was Ed Brubaker. Brubaker is the author of my all-time favorite comic run, Captain America (2004) #1-42. His bread and butter is a noir style full of political intrigue and espionage. Daredevil was a natural fit, with his gritty style and the penchant for bloody violence and moral ambiguity that accompanies a high-profile street-level hero. Brubaker, along with the primary penciller, Michael Lark, did an admirable job picking up where Bendis and Maleev left off, delivering a believable spiritual successor in the “Devil Inside and Out” arc. *SPOILER* the fallout of Matt’s prison time, as well as the Punisher’s inclusion, and the attack on Foggy maintained that same dour and hopeless tone that Bendis had cultivated, continuing Daredevil’s downward spiral. The emphasis of his emotional torment seemed fitting, and Matt’s continued struggle with interpersonal relationships is, as always, at the forefront of plot lines.
After the resolution of the first arc, Brubaker and Lark’s run seemed to ebb and flow a bit. Some arcs were pretty strong (Mr. Fear in particular), while others seemed to be affected by the event-apalooza that was taking the Marvel Universe through the Civil War, Secret Invasion, Dark Reign, Siege, and Heroic Age. Some of those events started during Bendis’ run, but the real fallout didn’t seem to trickle into Daredevil until Brubaker took over. Some of these influences (the Iron Fist bit, Daredevil’s foreign travel, Osborn crossovers) had definite impacts on story developments and were, to some extent, unavoidable. Brubaker did an adequate job covering for the stresses that superhero registration and Osborn’s eventual Dark Reign would have on Murdock’s character, for whom anonymity and street-level crime and corruption have always been defining characteristics. It is clear that Brubaker understood Daredevil pretty well, alternating between taking him out of his element to challenge him, and returning him to his roots. The mind games and mysterious noir elements of many of these struggles provide the perfect tonal fit for the character. Michael Lark’s art, while not quite as beautiful as Alex Maleev’s, was perfectly enjoyable. The occasional inclusion of echolocation-type rings around Daredevil’s head was a cool effect and timed well with the story’s progression. Definitely a solid artistic showing.
Unfortunately, I did not get the sense that Brubaker really knew Matt’s supporting cast all that well (apart from Foggy), and attempted to undo select pieces of Bendis’ run (Milla, particularly). The characterization of Dakota North was a bit cheap, focused primarily on telling readers how cool she was, rather than giving her much of a chance to show it herself. The weird relationship between her and Matt did not feel natural, and served mostly to jettison Milla from the forefront more than anything else. Of course I definitely enjoyed the Iron Fist cameos, since Brubaker was scripting his solo series concurrently, making the tie-ins and character take seem pretty well developed. His use of Vanessa Fisk and the little-known Mr. Fear were also quite well-executed in their respective arcs. Brubaker also reimagined the Black Tarantula, giving him much more sympathetic characteristics and making him another solid supporting character to contrast with Matt Murdock. In contrast, Lady Bullseye was pretty shmeh.
My biggest problem with Brubaker’s run, however, was its ending. The final handful of issues left a cliff-hanger that I fundamentally disagreed with. I don’t want to give it away to those who have not read it, but *SPOILER* if you know what the Shadowland arc is about, you’ll know what happened here. I understand the desire to push a character in new directions or to challenge them in new ways, but the decision to flip on such important issues is unacceptable to a fan of the Daredevil character. The final four issues of the run docked the whole series by at least a point (in my arbitrary rating scale), taking what could have been a great comic run, and turning it into just a solid one.
Rating: 7 of 10, it hurts me to rate Brubaker with anything less than an 9. He penned my all-time favorite Captain America (2004) run and he in unparalleled in writing noir-esque political intrigue into superhero comics. However, this Daredevil run is not quite as consistent as his typical work. Though there are flashes of brilliance (Ryker’s, Mr. Fear), there are also some plot elements that seemed rushed or under-developed. I prefer to give him the benefit of the doubt, blaming some of this on editorial pressure to tie into Marvel-wide events. Either way, it’s worth a read, and at least the first 20ish issues will offer some resolution of the massive cliffhanger Bendis left. I would recommend it to Brubaker or Daredevil fans, though Bendis’ run is certainly a prerequisite.
Andy Diggle and Roberto Delatorre/Marco Checchetto (#501-507; Shadowland #508-512): It is hard to give Diggle and co. a fair assessment here. They were handed a poor concept and had to usher in this street-level event with just a few months of lead-in time. The art is fine, dark and blurry, with a bit too much computer editing for my taste, but definitely serviceable for the themes. Diggle, whose greatest comic writing achievement was for Marvel’s Distinguished Competitors on the Green Arrow: Year One mini-series. I think Diggle’s attempts to show a gradual descent into madness were admirable, but that doesn’t mean I liked it or that I would recommend it. The whole concept was a betrayal to the character of Matt Murdock, his honor, and his principles. There is no way I can rationalize it to make it seem good. If you like other street heroes (Iron Fist, Luke Cage, Shang-Chi) but aren’t particularly attached to Daredevil, then maybe you will disagree with me and enjoy Diggle’s run along with the Shadowland event (read my review here).
Rating: 4 of 10, an ok story line with a bad premise, makes this just a slightly below-average comic. It could have been worse, but I didn’t like it, though I am not sure who to blame: the writers, the editors, or just the larger culture of eventification.
Brave Blorgons, thanks for making it this far! But that was just 12 years of comics, you couldn’t have really expected me to do it too quickly! Here’s a little bonus for your dedication:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.