Inside Pulse 12

Retro Review: The Black Panther By Kirby, Gillis, Cowan, McGregor & Turner For Marvel Comics

For my next set of columns, I wanted to reread Christopher Priest’s classic run on The Black Panther.  I gathered up a few issues missing from my collection over the last few months, and was ready to get started when I started reflecting on just what it was that I liked about that title so much.  As I did this, I started reflecting on how the Black Panther was portrayed in his own solo comics before Priest got his hands on him, and didn’t so much reinvent him as he did refine him.

To that end, to provide myself with some proper context, I thought I’d read the late 80s miniseries that I remember buying, and the early 90s prestige format title that I also remember starting, but couldn’t remember if I ever finished.

When I went into my longboxes, I was surprised to discover that I also had the first issue of Jack Kirby’s Black Panther series.  I had no memory of reading or buying this book, which I gather from the bag it was in that I spent $0.50 on at some point in my childhood, and which is now probably conservatively worth about $40 in the condition it’s in.  

Anyway, this column is going to be a bit of a grab bag, as I go through this stuff and prepare myself for the glory of Priest’s work.

Black Panther Vol. 1 #1 (January 1977)

Written by Jack Kirby

Pencilled by Jack Kirby

Inked by Mike Royer

Coloured by Dave Hunt

Spoilers from thirty-nine years ago.

Villain:

  • Princess Zanda

Supporting Cast:

  • Mister Little

In the interest of making a full disclaimer, I feel that I should admit that I’m not a huge Jack Kirby fan.  I cannot deny the incredible contributions he made to American superhero and adventure comics, and I love many of his creations, but I don’t always enjoy his work.  There, I’ve said it.

This issue opens with T’Challa and the diminutive and monocled Mr. Little entering the trophy room of the dead Mr. Queely, who is holding King Solomon’s Frog, a brass statue that we learn later has bizarre time travel properties.  They are attacked by an elaborately dressed swordsman who T’Challa fights off.  We learn that T’Challa’s grandfather, Azzari the Wise, once owned the frog.  They leave in Little’s jet-copter, and are pursued by a massive airship that almost captures them.  Mister Little explains that the frog has been known to transport people from other eras, and provided the genie in the Aladdin myth, and brought the Loch Ness Monster to the present.  They are attacked again by guys with jet-packs, but they fly away from them and go to Little’s secret mountain base.  We learn that the men pursuing them work for Princess Zanda.  There are a bunch of her men in the base, and they attack again, shooting Little dead, but it is Princess Zanda who blasts the Panther into submission.  Her men try to convince her to not use the frog, and she tries to recruit the Panther, who kicks the frog out of her hands, and moves to run away.  One of Zanda’s men shoots him, and the frog falls to the ground, activates, and a large-headed creature with the words Hatch 22 appears.

I don’t know.  This is entertaining, but there’s really nothing about this story that makes it have to be about the Black Panther.  He doesn’t show any character, and the things that make him unique (African king, legacy hero, vibranium technology and high intelligence) don’t play into the story at all.  

I’m not sure what Kirby did with the character after this.  I kind of don’t care, really.

Black Panther Vol. 2 #1-4 (July 1988 – October 1988)

Written by Peter B. Gillis

Pencilled by Denys Cowan

Inked by Sam De La Rosa

Coloured by Bob Sharen (#1-3), Christie Scheele (#4)

Spoilers from twenty-eight years ago

I remember being excited to get this miniseries when it came out, because I always thought that the Panther looked cool, especially when he wore a cape, as he does in this story.  I remember liking Denys Cowan’s art, and being happy that he was drawing this story.  I also remember being underwhelmed by the whole thing, so let’s take a look at how it stands up today, and if my thirteen year old self was just not right (as was often the case) about things.

Villains

  • Azanian government (#1-3)
  • Panther spirit (#1-4)
  • Voortrekker (Supremacist; #2)
  • Captain Blaze (Supremacist; #2)
  • White Avenger (Supremacist; #2)
  • Barricade (Supremacist; #2)
  • Hungyr (Supremacist; #2)
  • Harrier (Surpemacist; #2)
  • General Moorbecx (military leader of the Supremacists; #2-3)

Supporting characters

  • Moise Bomvana (advisor; #1-4)
  • Ndebele (advisor; #1-4)
  • Mendinao (advisor; #1-2, 4)
  • T’Swana (advisor; #2)
  • Melakia (Wakandan trade envoy to Paris; #2-4)
  • Mr. Littel (#3-4)

Here is a summary of the main events in this series, with some commentary as I go along:

  • The book opens with the Panther hunting a rhino in the Wakandan veldt.  He takes it down barehanded, and is approached by two panthers.  For a while, the scenes featuring T’Challa are intercut with scenes set in the neighbouring country of Azania, which is basically a stand-in for South Africa.  Azania is an apartheid nation, and when we first go there, it is to watch a trio of white police beat on an older African man, who invokes the panther spirit.  In Wakanda, the Panther’s entourage is shocked to see the two panthers attack him.  T’Challa fights them off, as the old man in Azania undergoes a transformation.  Once T’Challa has subdued the panthers, a flying craft comes to take them and the rhino to a game preserve.  In Azania, we learn that all of the police have been killed but for one, by a ‘wild animal’.  Word of the attack on T’Challa leads to speculation in the ‘central village’ (there is no sign of the high tech main city we normally see) that the panther spirit has abandoned the king.  In his palace, T’Challa is weakened, and administered to by his friend Moise.  Later, during a dinner with ambassadors from Somalia and Japan, T’Challa learns that there have been a number of attacks in Azania, and that he is being blamed for them.  T’Challa wonders if the panther spirit has abandoned him, as he does not feel as strong as usual.  In Azania, a liberal governor and a right wing reverend debate allowing more freedom for the blacks of Azania, when they are attacked and killed by a panther-like beast man.  This is seen as a signal from T’Challa for the blacks to rise up, and they are attacked by the Azanian military, which then retaliates on many villages, killing scores.  In Wakanda, people debate the notion of the panther spirit providing sovereignty to an inherited monarchy.  T’Challa addresses the nation, condemning the Azanian government, but also urging the Azanian people to stand down from their fight.  Mendinao, an elder and advisor, insists that T’Challa must prove that he’s still chosen by the panther spirit by undergoing the ‘ordeal of the white ape’.  In Azania, the panther beast attacks a white family in the suburbs.  In Wakanda, Moise tries to talk T’Challa out of going through the ordeal, because his arm is injured.  The Panther and his entourage go to a sacred clearing.  T’Challa climbs a mountain alone, and gets a leaf as proof.  On the way back down, he is confronted by the white ape which attacks him.  Unable to defeat it, T’Challa basically jumps off the mountain, surviving by grabbing vines at the bottom.  Other white apes pursue him, but he evades them (while acknowledging that he’s not really doing the ordeal correctly).  When he proves that he survived the ordeal to his entourage, it is discovered that Moise was using a device that would “sap the strength” of the white apes.  I have no idea how a device like that would work.  Mendinao insists that T’Challa step down as ruler.  In Azania, a shadowy figure addresses other shadowy figures.
  • The Panther watches the news to learn how bad things are in Azania, and is escorted by guards when he leaves his room.  In Azania, a team of government-sponsored superheroes called the Supremacists practice.  They are a mixed bunch, with characters like the White Avenger feeling like a Superman parody, while others, like Harrier or Voortrekker could have come from Gillis’s run on Strikeforce: Morituri.  We see them in action to get a sense of how formidable they are as a team, even is Voortrekker wears thigh-high boots with garter straps attaching to his tunic.  The General tells the team that they are going to invade Wakanda.  In the Azanian townships, we see people being rounded up, and the panther beast attacks.  The people rise up, but are mowed down by the Azanian military.  In Wakanda, T’Challa tries to defend his denouncing of the revolt in council, but is silenced by Mendinao, since his powers have been stripped.  T’Swana, a very large man and friend to T’Challa challenges him to fight, since the Black Panther is the only person to ever defeat him in combat, and he figures that if he loses, it’s proof that he still has the support of the panther spirit.  They begin to fight, but are attacked by the Supremacists, who break into the council chamber.  T’Swana is taken out first.  The Panther begins to fight them, but outnumbered, he chooses to retreat.  The Supremacists begin to wreck the capital city, which still looks largely like a village.  The Panther is worried about everything, but waits to plan before striking back.  In Paris, Moise visits a woman named Melaika, who is the Wakandan trade envoy to France.  He wants to use her priority channel to contact the king.  At first she refuses, since he is an exile, but then she relents because they are both in the Order of the Panther.  In Wakanda, the Panther starts to take out the Supremacists one by one, starting with Voortrekker, and then Harrier.  He gets Captain Blaze next, and lures the White Avenger into the jungle, which is full of machines.  He uses the unconscious Hungyr to drain the White Avenger’s powers, and then takes out Barricade, the last of the Supremacists.  His people are pleased with him and celebrate, but T’Challa receives word from Moise that General Moorbecx is planning on launching a nuclear device at Wakanda.  T’Challa feels that his people won’t listen to him when he tries to get their attention, so he decides to abdicate the throne.
  • T’Challa goes to see Malaika in Paris, where he flirts with her, she holds a gun on him, and then he convinces her to take him to see her informant.  He pays the man, Frank Littel, twenty-five million francs and gives him his Avengers ID card in return for the location of the Azanian missile base.  We see that General Moorbecx is preparing to launch a very large nuclear missile at Wakanda.  In that nation, Ndebele, who has been critical of T’Challa, discovers that the Wakandan defense system is aware of the nuclear threat, although the council is not.  In Zaire, T’Challa and Malaika (who we strangely calls Monica in one panel only) buy a helicopter and soup it up using vibranium.  They fly into Azania, where the Panther dons his garb and heads into the jungle.  He makes his way to the missile silo, and with ten minutes left before the launch, makes his way into the General’s office and confronts him.  He promises to surrender and make a statement on TV if the General stops the launch.  This appeals to the General’s sense of superiority, so he agrees.  We see that Malaika is approached by the panther-beast, but don’t really know what happens.  In Wakanda, Ndebele meets with Moise, and they discover that the Panther is going on TV as an Azanian prisoner.  T’Challa again denounces the violence of the Azanian uprising, but then urges that everyone stand up to the genocidal regime.  He springs into action, attacking his guards (on TV) but is brought down by a gas that has been messing with his blood pressure.  Later, we see that he is incarcerated and chained up in a stress position.  The panther-beast visits him and removes his chains; it tells him that it wants him to stop the missile, but that later it will kill him.  The Panther fights his way up the missile silo, and is supported by Malaika in the helicopter.  T’Challa disables the missile as it is flying, but falls off and into the jungle, where it is implied he is badly injured.
  • T’Challa is back in Wakanda, and uninjured.  The people are throwing a celebration for him, but he feels that things are undone, and gets up and leaves, disappearing.  His agents track him to the edge of a jungle, and his advisors try to convince him to return to the city (village?), but he goes to confront the panther spirit.  That being, which he sees as a god, is still unhappy with him, and they fight.  It isn’t going all that well, so Malaika and Moise decide to turn on the ‘electronic jungle’, which still doesn’t make a lot of sense to me as a concept.  This provides T’Challa some weaponry to use against the panther-beast.  In Azania, Mr. Littel arrives to meet with the ruling council.  He provides proof that T’Challa could not have led the revolt, and proves it using the Avengers ID card he took from T’Challa, which convinces them of the truth.  I don’t know who this guy is or what his motivations are.  In Wakanda, the Panther is able to take down the panther-beast, who reverts to human.  In Azania, the spokesman for the parliament addresses the nation and claims that it will start working with its black citizens to forge peace.  In Wakanda, T’Challa is confronted with the actual panther spirit, not tied to a human body.  They argue, and the spirit leaves, confirming T’Challa’s rule.  Later, in Azania, we see three white men sit down to meet with a representative of the tribal people.  In Wakanda, we see T’Challa on his throne.

This was a decent miniseries.  I like how, two years before Nelson Mandela was released from prison, Gillis had T’Challa take on apartheid and represented the government of South Africa (I mean Azania) in a very negative light.  I remember the late 80s as a time when people around the globe started to protest and boycott the South African regime in a variety of ways, and find it fitting that Marvel’s only prominent African character who lives in Africa (differentiating him from Storm) would have to address that issue.

There are some things that I wondered about throughout this mini.  First off, Wakanda is portrayed as a very strange place.  It’s a monarchy based on animist religion, yet highly technologically advanced, yet there are no cities?  Implying that T’Challa’s palace is in a rural village, complete with thatch huts doesn’t make a lot of sense in the 80s, before we get to the fact that it is near a jungle made out of electronics disguised to look like a jungle.  It doesn’t make a lot of sense.

T’Challa is shown as driven and devoted, but isn’t given a whole lot of personality here, again.  

I’ve always liked Denys Cowan’s art, but his work here is not as loose and exciting as his later work becomes.  Perhaps that’s the fault of inker Sam De La Rosa; I couldn’t help but think about how much better this would have looked with Klaus Janson inking.

Black Panther: Panther’s Prey #1-4 (May – October 1991)

Written by Don McGregor

Art by Dwayne Turner

Colouring by Steve Mattsson (#1-2), Brad Vancata (#2-4)

Spoilers from twenty-six years ago

I know that Don McGregor is one of the most celebrated Black Panther writers of all time, having chronicled T’Challa’s exploits in the series Jungle Adventures, which I have never read a single issue of, and can’t speak to at all.  I also know that before this bookshelf format (I always thought it so strange that Marvel wouldn’t use DC’s term prestige format) miniseries was published, McGregor wrote a Panther story in Marvel Comics Presents, and while I have those issues, they are inaccessible at the moment, and are completely nonexistent in my memory.

I remember that I gave up on this series after two issues (they were almost $6 each in Canada, in 1991!), but recently grabbed the final two issues at a sale (for $2.50 each – you do not recoup your investment in comics very often, people).  I remember being vaguely bored with these comics, but that might have been a function of my tender age at the time instead of the quality of the books.  Let’s find out!

Villains

  • Solomon Prey
  • Zambada
  • Other pteranodon riders (Lumbo; #2-4)
  • Tanzika (Prey’s woman)

Supporting Characters

  • Dr. Kaza (#1, 2, 4)
  • Kantu (young friend of T’Challa’s; drug dealer and user; #1-2)
  • Ramonda (T’Challa’s mother)
  • W’Kabi (Chief of Court Security)
  • Dr. Tambar (T’Challa’s doctor; #2
  • Horatio Venomm (reptilian looking guy with a large snake; #2, 4)
  • Clifford Scott (American computer company representative; #2, 4)
  • Taku (communications advisor; #2, 4)
  • Gabriel Mason (employee at Wakanda’s US embassy; #3-4)
  • Monica Lynne (#3-4)

Let’s take a look at what happens in this:

  • The first issue opens on T’Challa running through the jungle, while very descriptive prose explains what he is clearly doing.  He returns to the city of Wakanda, suggesting that at this time, Wakanda is really just a city state surrounded by jungle and located next to the vibranium mound.  A man named Solomon Prey is going through a strange and painful (he refuses any pain killers) operation that ends with him having wings and claws.  A boy named Kantu looks at a statue of himself, and remembers when he saved T’Challa from Killmonger, but does not feel like a hero.  It looks like something leathery and winged is stalking him.  T’Challa and Ramonda visit the tomb of T’Chaka, where the older woman pays her respects to her dead husband.  We learn that Ramonda was held prisoner for decades somewhere else, and has only recently returned.  Zambada, a guy who works for Prey and flies a pteranodon, swoops at Kantu, while T’Challa continues to show his mother around the city and explain how he balances innovation with tribalism.  T’Challa senses something is wrong, and finds Zambada and another two pteranodon riders.  They fight, the kid and T’Challa get cut up, and Zambada escapes.  One other rider is captured, and Kantu gives T’Challa some attitude.  Solomon Prey’s girlfriend visits him while he is recovering from his procedure, and gives his doctor attitude.  W’Kabi, T’Challa’s head of security, practices shooting his metal laser arm, before changing into a metal arm that looks real.  He goes to speak to T’Challa in his chambers and finds him getting out of the bath.  They go out for dinner together, to a pizza place that T’Challa has had imported, and argue over the lack of an heir to the throne.  Their banter is easy but a little forced.  Prey has healed, and wants to show himself to T’Challa to make the king worry about him before eventually killing him.  Dr. Kaza thinks Prey should kill him immediately.  T’Challa stalks Kantu, and finds him smoking crack.  When he takes his pipe, the youth is angry with him.  This was forty-eight pages of setup.
  • T’Challa is lured to a remote swamp by rumors of a winged man, and is set upon by Solomon Prey, who we learn is a drug smuggler, and a pair of his pteranodon riders.  They fight, and injure each other some, before Prey withdraws.  T’Challa gets stitched up, and then chats with W’Kabi for a bit.  We learn he has a meeting with an American who develops technology, and that T’Challa thinks Prey is bringing drugs into the country through cultural exchanges such as this one.  Taku, his chief of communications, explains that he believes someone is accessing Wakanda’s store of computers for nefarious purposes, and they debate what that could be (and if it’s attached to Prey’s drug smuggling).  W’Kabi and T’Challa talk about Horatio Venomm, and how they don’t trust him.  Ramonda wants to talk to T’Challa about Kantu, who is recovering from his addiction in the palace, but T’Challa decides to see the youth first.  Kantu is still angry with T’Challa, and refuses to reveal anything about his actions selling drugs in the palace (like to who, since we haven’t seen any drug addicts).  Their argument feels very personal.  Later, Ramonda berates the Panther for keeping the youth locked up.  T’Challa talks a lot about his love for Monica Lynne and how he had to let her go for the good of his country, but also decides to go looking for her.  Ramonda says she is going to free Kantu, and T’Challa says that if she does, they will have to fight one another (probably not physically).  Kantu finds some drugs in his luxurious cell, and it looks like smoking them kills him.  After his body is found, T’Challa and Ramonda reconcile, negating the last bunch of pages.  T’Challa wants revenge on Solomon Prey, but he also wants to go looking for Monica.  Solomon Prey goes to see his woman, who is still not identified, and they talk about fighting the Panther as a form of foreplay.  Two issues into this series, I’m still not sure what it’s all about, but I can see why my younger self gave up on it here.
  • Issue three opens on an exploration of what Wakandan biochemists think of the heart-shaped herb poultice that seems to give T’Challa his enhanced abilities.  In Washington DC, Monica Lynne performs in a nightclub, has an argument with the club manager, and reflects on her time as the Panther’s girlfriend.  T’Challa travels to Washington, and reflects on Kantu’s funeral while in the air.  When he arrives at the Wakandan embassy, we meet some of the staff (including Gabriel Mason, who expresses his sympathies over Kantu’s death), and he confers with Jacomba, his ambassador.  Solomon Prey, his pteranodon riders, and Tanzika (we finally learn the name of his woman) are in the Vibranium Mound, stealing a small amount of that precious metal, to fund their drug trade.  They kill a guard, and Prey and Tanzika almost have sex, before Prey talks about travelling to the US.  T’Challa goes to see Monica, appearing at her window late at night.  She is surprised to see him, and is kind of antagonistic for a while.  T’Challa proposes, and they continue to have a very genteel argument about what marriage to him would mean to her life and singing career, but while they speak rationally about this stuff, the visuals tell a very different story.  The issue ends with T’Challa carrying her into the bedroom.
  • T’Challa tracks Gabriel Mason, who he began to suspect as being involved in the Wakandan drug trade, since he knew about Kantu’s death, and an Italian executive, to a meeting in the woods with Solomon Prey’s pteranodon riders, to exchange drugs for vibranium.  The Panther attacks, but is in turn attacked by the invisible Solomon Prey.  Both Americans get killed, and the Panther is given a big beating.  T’Challa comes to buried deeply in the Earth with the two dead Americans.  He manages to dig his way back to the surface before running out of air.  T’Challa and Monica go to visit Alicia, Mason’s girlfriend, to tell her about his death, and to find out what she knows about the drug trade.  Then they go to Georgia to meet with Monica’s parents.  T’Challa asks for permission to marry their daughter, and Monica’s father makes some odd comments about sex and T’Challa’s religion.  Later, T’Challa announces his engagement to Monica on Wakandan TV.  We see how T’Challa’s friends and mother react to this news, and see that it upsets Tanzika, who once loved T’Challa and now wants him dead.  She instructs Prey to destroy the Vibranium Mound the day T’Challa returns to the country.  When the couple does arrive in Wakanda, T’Challa’s inner circle brings him up to speed on the murder in the Vibranium Mound, and W’Kabi accuses Venomm of being the person accessing the computers.  T’Challa takes Venomm aside to talk to him and figure out if he is the culprit.  Things get really hectic as Tabu (who is wearing Hammer pants) defends Venomm, and T’Challa gets a knife and starts performing surgery on Venomm’s snake.  W’Kabi attacks Venomm, Tabu jumps in the middle, and ends up hitting Monica.  It turns out that the snake had a listening device in it, that belongs to Clifford Scott, who is really CIA, sent to discover Wakanda’s technological secrets.  Their discussion of this is cut short when the Wakandan strato-carriage (think gondola) suddenly breaks and T’Challa springs into action.  Prey and Tanzika start setting off charges on the Vibranium Mound while T’Challa fights the pteranodon riders in the air.  He gets the detonator before they blow the biggest charge, and starts fighting with Prey.  W’Kabi shoots one of the riders, and the rider’s beast kills Prey.  Tanzika starts to attack his body, and Monica punches her.  All is wrapped up, and later, a woman smokes crack at Kantu’s statue.  The end.

I know that before Priest came along, McGregor was THE Black Panther writer.  He clearly has a deep love for the character, and was responsible for most of the development of Wakanda and its denizens.  The thing is, even in the early nineties, he was writing in a very seventies style involving lengthy descriptions of what’s in a panel and visually presented to us.  These were long, wordy comics to read.

My other problem with it is that so much of this story could have been safely excised without affecting the story.  It’s obvious that he wanted to give many of the supporting cast invididual moments to shine, but I’m not sure that any of them were aided by this.  There’s not a lot of development going on, and Solomon Prey never seems like a formidable enough foe to give T’Challa so much difficulty.  I also don’t really understand Prey’s motivation.  If his goal is to get rich, I don’t see how destroying the Vibranium Mound would accomplish that.  If his goal is to get revenge on T’Challa, then I don’t know what the reason for his beef with the king is, unless perhaps to make Tanzika happy.  I feel like this story really needed some more editing, or needed to be a twenty-issue series.  McGregor’s ambitions for the story don’t ever match the reality of it.

Dwayne Turner’s art is lovely, but too condensed on the page.  This series reminded me of European comics that have been resized to fit on an American comics page.  Were this published in an oversized format, it would look a lot better, and be much easier to follow across the page.

There’s a lot of stuff here that Priest clearly set about retconning in a hurry.  McGregor has Ramonda portrayed as T’Challa’s mother, but she is his stepmother in Priest’s run.  The other thing he changed greatly was Wakanda itself, which we will look at in my next column.

If you’d like to see the archives of all of my retro review columns, click here.

If you’d like to read any of the stories I talk about here, it appears that only Kirby’s stuff has been collected in trade or hardcover:

Marvel Masterworks: The Black Panther

 

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