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Fear of a Black Panther

In 1973, Don McGregor and a scattershot team of artists began releasing a classic thirteen-part superhero story that predated the "adult" stylings of Watchmen & The Dark Knight Returns by over a decade. "Panther's Rage" was a dark, dense American super-hero comic that featured African characters in every single one of its key roles, keeping with McGregor's plan that "all of the characters save one would be black."

In 2010, thirty-six years after its release, the story was collected and reprinted for the first time.

"Panther's Rage" - Chapter 1-3
Originally Appeared in Jungle Action # 6-8, 1973
Written by Don McGregor
Art by Rich Buckler & Klaus Janson
Published by Marvel Comics

 "Why would an African chieftain decide to be a school teacher in Harlem?"
-Don McGregor, from his introduction to the Marvel Masterworks

"Panther's Rage" is a revenge story, about a man who comes home to find another man trying to steal his life, and what he decides to do about it. It's sort of about the selfishness of colonialism, and it's kind of about knowing (and honoring) one's heritage, but it is also about a guy who is really, really good at two things: being unwilling to die, and being a badass motherfucker. Depending on the way you define the second one, the first may be unnecessary.

(Let's back up for a second.)

"Panther's Rage" opens in media res, and the story of how the Panther got to this moment is only dealt out in blips of exposition--he was away, his country began falling apart, he's back now. By the fifth page, where the above panels come from, he's already failed. He managed to kick some ass (more on whose ass it was later), but he didn't do so quickly enough to save this old man, this old man who he didn't remember, this old man who, unlike quite a few others, still had faith in him.

Making the Panther a volunteer schoolteacher in Harlem wasn't an evil thing for the previous writer to do, but it was, as McGregor so pointedly acknowledges, a pretty stupid thing to do. T'Challa isn't an African-American looking for his place in the world, he's an African, all caps, and more importantly, he's the spiritual and political leader of an entire country. If he wants to dick around above the Upper West Side and teach poor kids, that's sweet, but what McGregor realized (immediately, and irritably), was that this effectively meant the character had abandoned Wakanda and all of his people along with it. Whatever in-story reasons there were for that choice are never brought up in the comic--like the character, McGregor realized that no explanation would be acceptable. He left, they suffered. The "why" doesn't matter.

While the first chapter of "Panther's Rage" has to introduce most of the major players that the story eventually has, it isn't a slog of character introductions. Almost every character (with one notable exception) is introduced by way of side conversations surrounding specific plot developments. The Panther returns to his throne room, carrying the body of the old man above, and we meet W'Kabi (one of his leading warriors) and Monica (his current American girlfriend). They have a brief conversation that defines the emotional place they're currently at (in so doing, it lays out the arc each of them will follow throughout the story), and then the Panther leaves, mistakingly thinking he can go and resolve the current situation overnight. On the way, we're introduced to yet another character, Taku, who will join W'Kabi and Monica in the spotlight for the rest of this 13-part story.

But there's somebody else that has to arrive. Somebody who--despite his infrequent appearances--will serve as the primary driver for the story that McGregor has to tell.

Erik Killmonger, the villain of "Panther's Rage" is one of the more complex villains that a super-hero comic can have, if you can forgive the outfit. His motives--to unseat T'Challa and take over as ruler of Wakanda--are standard stuff, as is the "we were close, once" relationship that McGregor includes. But here's the thing about Erik: he only exists because of the choices that Black Panther has made. The strength of the army he's raised to defeat his foe isn't dependent upon the super-powered asylum rejects that serve as his lieutenants, but on the very real feelings of abandonment and impotent contempt with which the Wakandan citizens have towards a leader who has been spending the better part of his time playing boyfriend to an American while dicking around in a land far from his own. Erik's methods are barbaric, murderous, they're just plain wrong, but his primary complaint--that T'Challa left his country and his people behind--couldn't be more spot on. If the Panther had stayed at home, hell, if he'd even taken the time to institute some sense that he cared what happened in his absence, Erik would've been another sole lunatic, decrying injustices that no sane person sees evidence for, standing in an empty hall, cursing at the moon. Instead, he found an army in search of a leader, and a war in search of a plan.

When they first meet, the Panther doesn't understand this. He doesn't understand Erik. Which is why, when Part One reaches its final page, he loses. He doesn't lose out of trickery, and he doesn't lose because of cheating. He goes up against Erik, he tries as hard as he can, and he fails.

These two pages come from Jungle Action #7, serving as the recap and aftermath of the fight that concluded in issue 6. I'll get into another one of these title pages in more detail below, but for now: look at that prose! So ornate, so florid, so many BOLD WORDS and EXPLICIT DESCRIPTION. This isn't just about a man falling down a waterfall, this is about a man traveling to his past to recall the lessons his father taught him, struggling for breath in the face of paralyzing terror, grasping to accept and yet still battling against the death that hungers for him, and all of it--while he may have only just realized it--because he wasn't good enough.

Having established the status quo, having introduced both reader and character to the villain he's created, the second part of "Panther's Rage" twists the knife. First, McGregor introduces the only white character that will appear in the series, an albino snake freak named Venomm, who will end up playing a key role in Taku's story, as well as the series proper. There's time taken out to give the villain a proper origin, (basically, he's Killer Croc with externalized reptiles) and then the Panther, who barely survived the waterfall and is now licking his wounds in his throne room, explains his past relationship with N'Jadaka, the man who has now become Erik Killmonger. Driving the stake of failure even further, Panther's revelation regarding Erik's past makes it clear that Wakanda didn't fail the man once, but twice--the first time being when no attempt was made to rescue former slaves captured during the raid depicted in the Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four stories--and yet T'Challa still seems a bit unwilling to admit his own culpability in the villain's creation. (Later. Later!) From there, the comic plays to form; a new villain has arrived, the Black Panther has something to prove, and prove it he does. Venomm versus the Panther. This is how it ends.

There's a lot to like about Panther's fight with Venomm, the least of which that it's one of the rare fights in the comic where the battle is between two human beings, but as a whole, the four pages of snarling brutality that the action consists of are a bare shadow of the savagery to come. But the key moment of importance in the panels above aren't in what Black Panther is saying, they're in what he's looking at.

The fight that concludes above takes place on a ledge overlooking "An immense mining operation--bathed in eerie illuminosity, the valuable ore streaking through the stone walls radiating a bluish overcast." (Dig into that sentence. Purple as the costume!) This mining operation, run by Killmonger's men, worked by his "death regiments", has been operating under the Panther's watch, undiscovered by his own guards, right in the heart of his home. He had no idea. After returning to the country he abandoned, he failed to realize that vibranium, the Kirby/Lee created mineral that gives Wakanda its economic power was being quietly stolen from underneath him. Even more than when he was easily bested by Killmonger, this is the moment when the depth of his failure is yanked from under his nose and shoved, forcibly, down his throat. When he lifts his eyes away from what that that ledge overlooks to make his promise, he's looking away not just in keeping with the stories melodramatic style, but because he can't make that that promise, or any like it, while staring at the magnitude of his blindness. He's whispering it because he knows that he can't live up to anything quite yet--based off what the next issue depicts, his next move after what you see above was to sneak out of the cave without capturing or shutting down the operation--and he's whispering it because he's not sure that he will ever be capable of living up to a promise again.

This is what happens when you walk away, the villains keep saying. This is why your friends stare at the girlfriend you've brought into your home with bewildered disgust. "You left us behind, and everything fell apart," they say. "You can blame us if you want..."

But it's obvious where the failure lies.

While all of the chapters of Panther's Rage have great title pages, the one above that opens Jungle Action #8 is undoubtably the most inventive. Everything that takes place in the story--the Panther's exercises on the palace grounds, the appearance and initial attack by new villain "Malice"--it's all laid out in these two pages, hiding amongst the letters that title the story. I'd like to avoid the "this is better than that" comparisons as much as possible, but something like this forces my hand: nobody does title pages like this anymore. It's a masterful introduction to the story of Malice's attack on the castle, far more interesting than it would have been to just tack the words above similar drawings. Beyond that, it's fluid, musical comics, timed out to keep pace with the drums of the ritual depicted, a brilliant piece of "only in comics" extravagance in keeping with the no-whimsy-here attitude that pulses throughout.

Following the revelations of the last issue, T'Challa has returned to his palace, where he has begun the "rituals" that will grant him his "sacred Panther powers." It's all hogwash, of course--old medicinal stuff that supposedly gives the character greater strength, faster healing abilities--but even if it's not, the actual motive is what matters. What matters is that the character is returning; he's embracing the generations of heritage that he had left behind during his absence. These rituals--"boiling juice extracts", uneven, unrelenting combat, immense physical pain--are what his father and his people have done since Wakanda's inception. Even the characters most in doubt of T'Challa's dedication seem impressed, and that's exactly why he's doing it. He tried to go to war alone already, and he failed. But if he's going to restore the glory of serving him--and that's what the Wakandans are, his subjects, born to follow--then he has to prove to them that he deserves their faith. It's the Panther legacy that's kept them around, but the stories are no longer enough. They need something more, they need proof, and this archaic violence is the only acceptable option.

And yet, again, the degraded state of Wakanda is on display. Malice--the female villain depicted in the letters above--easily sneaks past the palace security, making her way to the castle jail. There, she eavesdrops on the gentle Taku as he attempts to make some kind of peace with the imprisoned Venomm. As Taku's quiet openheartedness begins to tear at the shields the bitter albino lives behind, his rescuer finds herself more and more disgusted. This is who she's here to save? "Some palace handmaiden made soft by palace intrigues"? As her revulsion grows, outside, the Panther rekindles the same feeling in his people.

Set upon during the heart of of the ceremony by the American girlfriend he brought with him, T'Challa--in full view of the very men this ritual was intended to win back--abandons his heritage yet again. After Monica interrupts what she views as "torture", T'Challa walks away, ending the ceremony prematurely. As he leaves, one of the older men, a man whose family has passed down these rituals for generations, roars at him, "you must not forget your responsibilities!"  To which T'Challa responds "Not even sleep allows me that comfort." 

But it does, doesn't it? The ritual is important, his country is important, defeating Killmonger matters--as long as his out-of-town girlfriend from isn't upset.

Monica's role in Panther's Rage is a necessary one, but that doesn't make it particularly enjoyable. Outside of this story, she's a strong, independent woman, deserving of respect from the man she's currently seeing, but inside it, she's the narrative embodiment of the choices that T'Challa has made to the betrayed people who live in Wakanda, the choices that resulted in the death and horror that has beset their country. That doesn't make what happened in Wakanda her fault--it isn't, not in the slightest--but it does make her presence, at times, difficult to swallow. She's a harpy, she's a fool, she's selfish, and she's stubborn, and while all of that is in keeping with what she represents, both in the story and in the way anyone might behave if everything they knew and understood was uprooted, transplanted around the world, and then told to accept, she's still an obvious Ugly American stereotype. She exists so that the Panther can struggle against his desire to be an individual (a role where he gets to be with her, romantically, with no other pressing concern) and his obligation to rule, which is a role that allows no time for the nurturing and even-handed fairness he abandons the ceremony to provide her with. He's her boyfriend, sure, but he's also the set-upon god and ruler of a country that desperately needs him, and in that struggle, there's only one acceptable choice.

The battle that ensues when T'Challa returns to the castle is a brief one, expertly depicted by Rich Buckler, and while it ends abruptly, with Malice easily escaping out of a castle window, there's a brilliantly nasty scene that foretells the coming tragedy that will strike W'Kabi.

And like that, Part Three ends. The worst, as any good melodrama demands, is yet to come.

Friend?

Things are going to get far, far worse.

Tucker spent some time talking about how Panther’s Rage is about T’Challa’s failure as a Tucker spent some time talking about how "Panther's Rage" is about T'Challa's failure as a leader. There’s a good reason for that: it’s the glue that holds "Panther’s Rage" together. You can’t not talk about it.

Except now that we’re fully into the story and all the preambles are out of the way, McGregor starts to stack the deck against T’Challa. In part four, the one drawn by Gil Kane, T’Challa wrestles a rhino to the ground to rescue a child. He kills the rhino in favor of the child’s life, which is a pointed statement in and of itself, I think, but the way in which he does it is what’s important. He wrestles the rhino to the ground and snaps its spine, something he learned by watching westerns. T’Challa’s buccaneering habits are learned. The Black Panther, with initial caps and constant swashbuckling, is an act. He saw them on tv, or read them in books, and have adopted them as his own.

T’Challa easily and casually remembers the name of a farmer, stunning him. (Grant Morrison would use this technique thirty-some years later for Bruce Wayne in his run on Batman.) The farmer’s wife is unimpressed, focusing on his “outworlder” girlfriend. She sees the Americans he has emulated and the fact that he has brought back an American girlfriend, Monica Lynne. She feels the pain of desertion. Her husband feels the love of his king. Both are correct.

The conflict is easy to see, but McGregor doesn’t stop there. Before the farmer and his wife appear, Panther slumps over the rhino’s corpse and says, “No loss this time, Monica. This time I won.” He’s four issues into this story and he’s already cracking under the pressure.

T’Challa’s constantly struggling, and not in the way that heroes struggle against villains. He’s fighting to not actually choose between American culture and Wakandan culture. He’s fighting to keep his kingdom, despite the fact that he left it behind at will in the past. He’s fighting to keep both Monica and W’Kabi. He’s fighting Killmonger and he’s fighting the results of his own swashbuckling. He wants it both ways, and even though he knows he can’t have it, he’s still fighting for it. He’s selfish. When the pressure becomes too much, what does he do? He goes to the river to brood alone, like a child.

Panther’s battles manifest themselves in several ways over the course of Panther’s Rage. At the heart of each of them is the question of Wakanda versus America, in one way or another. Sometimes he outright fails. Sometimes he triumphs. He never actually wins, however. His victories are caked in loss.

The farmer who T’Challa recognized was killed by zombies that very same night, leaving his wife and child alone. When the wife comes to the palace, requesting that the king go find her husband, T’Challa immediately goes to investigate. He runs afoul of those zombies and is beaten easily. He eventually escapes and runs back to the castle. He doesn’t win. He doesn’t even retrieve the farmer’s body. In fact, the farmer’s body sits there, baking in the sun, until the next night when T’Challa gets his nerve up to go back to the graveyard. The wife doesn’t find out that her husband is dead until later because T’Challa is preoccupied with his own problems. Result: failure.

Yes, there are zombies and monsters in "Panther’s Rage". The villains have names like Baron Macabre and Lord Karnaj. Yes, their names are goofy and stupid, about as generically superheroic as you can get. Except: Macabre is a mask, someone playing a role. Karnaj emphasizes that Erik Killmonger, the villain behind the villains, gave him that name. The zombies are rebels, dressed up with fake talons and ghoulish makeup.

This is Killmonger’s plan, and it’s a doozy. He’s using T’Challa’s language, superheroes and faked up gimmicks, to terrorize Wakanda. He’s playing on the superstitions of the populace to get the job done, and he’s using the very thing T’Challa deserted Wakanda for to do it. It’s America vs Wakanda, but viewed through a twisted mirror.

Monica is accused of murder partway through these chapters and exonerated in the final one. Just before proving Monica’s innocence, T’Challa approaches his prey and idly makes a reference to Alfred Hitchcock in his thoughts. “Damn! he thinks. Must all of his reference points be so foreign to his native land?” Wakanda attacked his American woman, and even in the middle of that, he’s fighting Wakanda vs America on the inside.

"Panther’s Rage" puts me in mind of Ann Nocenti and John Romita, Jr’s run on Daredevil, where every act of violence was a sign of Daredevil’s shortcomings as a hero. A hero can solve problems without making mistakes and without anyone getting hurt. T’Challa, however, has already made his mistakes, and now the only thing that’s left is the pain.

What’s sad about that is that T’Challa won’t be the focus for all of the pain. The farmer dies and his wife and son suffer. Monica is harassed and imprisoned. W’Kabi has lost faith in his king. Wakanda is being battered by Killmonger’s Death Regiment. Taku, T’Challa’s good friend and a definite pacifist, is forever tainted when he experiences the horrors of the war against Killmonger firsthand.

T’Challa? Some people just kind of point out how much he’s screwed up and he gets beaten up every once and a while. These three chapters lay the consequences for his actions on everyone but T’Challa, which in turn serves to increase his burden. Everyone around T’Challa ends up twisted and distorted by the pressure of the situation. Monica is miserable. W’Kabi is furious. Taku is understanding, but even he’s losing his patience. This is T’Challa’s fault.

Taku is the saddest casualty of this war, for my money. He’s quiet and sensible, seeking only to help where he can. The narration describes him as a man who “listens instead of inflicting his personality upon others.” Despite this, he’s not afraid to call T’Challa out on his crap. When T’Challa is pulling his ‘woe is me’ act beside a river, Taku sits beside him and they speak. T’Challa laments the fact that he has lost W’Kabi, and Taku says, “Part of it is Killmonger. Surely you know that?” T’Challa, clearly misreading Taku, goes off on how Killmonger only wants to govern Wakanda according to his own desires. Taku, though, brings the ether and asks T’Challa if he has been any different.

Taku befriended Venomm, a villain from chapters one through three, and refers to him by his first name, Horatio. While Venomm did side against Wakanda, he is still a human being, and Taku manages to pull that out. When it comes time to strike back against Killmonger, Taku must betray his friend. When he expresses that thought, W’Kabi reacts with shock. What betrayal? They don’t owe Venom anything. Taku knows the truth, though. He says that by betraying “a confidence,” he has “betrayed [himself] as well.” Being true to yourself means being true to yourself at all times. Bending your rules just shows how little you believed in those rules. Taku is a man of integrity, and T’Challa’s actions have forced him to break with that integrity in a way that he is not comfortable with.

While W’Kabi is eager to do battle against Killmonger, Taku simply did the best he could to intellectually prepare for it. It didn’t work. When Lord Karnaj kills a child as a side effect of trying to kill Panther, Taku loses it. In a killer and mostly silent Billy Graham page, Taku approaches Karnaj, shrugging off two sonic blasts. He drops his spear, because certain jobs just require the satisfaction of working with your hands. He beats Karnaj near to death, ranting at him all the while, before Panther stops him. Even W’Kabi, who believes that everything that Killmonger’s lackeys get is what they deserve, is troubled by this new change.

I feel like there weren’t a lot of superhero comics working in this mode back then. You can trace every terrible thing that happens in "Panther’s Rage" can be easily traced back to T’Challa’s betrayal, which places a certain measure of responsibility on his shoulders for the entire situation. Amazing Spider-Man flirted with it during the death of Gwen Stacy storyline for about three pages and a half (also in 1973), and Green Lantern had the hamfisted “What about the brown skins, Mr. Charlie?” scene, but this is an extended takedown of a hero and a deconstruction of him at the same time.

McGregor, Graham, and Buckler are going hard at who T’Challa is and what he represents, and the result is a story where the superhero doesn’t look so superheroic any more.

"Panther's Rage" Chapters 7-9
Originally Appeared in Jungle Action # 12-14
Written by Don McGregor
Art by Billy Graham, Klaus Janson, P. Craig Russell & Pablo Marcos
Published by Marvel Comics

As "Panther's Rage" begins its march towards conclusion, the separate chapters have a tendency to bleed together. Plot wise, they all follow a similar track: the Panther moves deeper into Wakanda's hinterlands, discovering truths about his country that he either didn't believe in, or was completely unaware of in the first place. Throughout the Panther's journey, his compatriots at home face their own, personal struggles. We'll get back to them, and that, later.

For now, let's talk about violence.

The basic plot of what T'Challa faces in the 7th through 9th chapters of "Panther's Rage" might most concisely be described as "Education Through Suffering". If you prefer your explanations with a bit less of what one might call "pithy bullshit", you've come to the wrong place, but you could also stick closely to the text on hand: as the Panther goes deeper into the unknown regions of his kingdom, he's forced into mortal combat with a continually heightened level of competition. He's ostensibly chasing Erik Killmonger, although you couldn't tell that from the way Erik laughs off his presence.

Instead, he fights. At first, it's against Erik--who bests him yet again, this time with the help of an acid-palmed associate named Sombre--but afterwords, it's against a pack of wolves. It isn't the first time that the Panther's fought animals in the story, it won't be the last, but it's these non-human battles where McGregor's smartest trick becomes apparent. There's limitations on how far the comic could've gone with the violence--I couldn't begin to specify what they are, but it was 1973 and we know that there were lines McGregor wouldn't have tried to cross--but if you examine the language and results of the battles that do occur, it's obvious how much more graphic all of the Panther's fights are against these non-human opponents. The three panels above depict the conclusions of each of those fights, and all three are lyrical journeys into flayed skin, claws ripping "into his chest and stomach", and a moment when "the panther's torn costume has become a dark cloth sponge that absorbs the warmth of his blood". Hell, when fighting the pack of wolves, T'Challa immediately spears one so that he can use its carcass as a weapon against the rest of the pack.

There's something at work here, and to get at it, we've got to take a look at something that might make you giggle.

There's no irony or humor in Don McGregor's descriptions of the Black Panther fighting a pack of hungry wolves, a bunch of albino demon gorillas, or even when he's up against a Tyrannosaurus Rex. That doesn't mean that it isn't funny, because it is funny, very much so. But it's not funny because it was intended to be, its funny because this is decades later, and having super-heroes fight dinosaurs is now considered a bit quaint and archaic. That's not a criticism, exactly--well, not during the course of this paragraph. Super-hero comics have moved towards a sort of hyperbolic SWAT team realism and embraced a try-and-be-quirky conversationalist style because their readers and creators want them to be like that, and it's the height of foolishness to complain that super-hero comics shouldn't gear themselves towards whatever will please the group, considering how poorly they sell. They're almost always accidentally art, never by purpose--primarily products, designed to move, that's why there are always more on the way next week. Their genius moments are rarer, and that's a good thing, otherwise you'd go broke chasing glory. Anyway, that's a one-off nothing, back to the point.

Snakes on a Plane.

Does it need further explanation? I'll try. See, if you're reading a super-hero comic that involves something on the magnitude of Hero Fights Dino, it's done with a wink nowadays, complete with a bloated solicitation that adopts a cringing "this is just between you and me pal, but The Hulk will be Taking Care of some Prehistoric Bizness, if you catch my drift", and of course, that's always followed by the requisite tweets from one of the creators the day of release that implies What A Bunch Of Gee Golly Craziness they were able to get past the suits down at the Corporate Frown Factory.

But it's Snakes on a Plane! You know it, they know it, anybody opening the comic knows it--it's that winking irony, the "we know you're a grown-up, but here's your chuckles anyway", it's the understated criticism of the act itself, as if there's some moral codicil that super-hero comics are graded against, and "fighting dinosaurs"--or giant albino demon gorilla tribes--is to be viewed as a lower grade of entertainment. (Specific examples of what people actually think of super-hero comics exist in abundance, but we're lacking in large consensus agreements; still, doesn't it seem that Grant Morrison's work in Batman RIP is generally viewed as being "smarter" than his "Batman fights Ninja Man-Bats" opener, despite the vastly more entertaining qualities inherent to the latter?)

How did this happen? That's a question I can't begin to answer--in part because I cannot, but more so that I simply do not care--but it's obvious that the attitude exists, laden as it is across every Avengers page where super-hero characters make fun of one another's costumes.

The thing is: we, readers, don't want the characters (or the creators) to be in on our dinosaur jokes. We'll tolerate it, sure, but at our core, we want them to take these things seriously, this fight that could never occur in their super-hero movies, so that we can enjoy it on both levels--the one where it matters to the story, and the one where it's just Fucking Ridiculous. The laugh is supposed to be ours, not shared in some digital salon with the creators in tow, seated amongst us on their marble slabs of authority. It's not a joke anymore, because we're all telling it together, and if there's only an audience, than we're not reading stories, we've drowned in sharing.

It's all a rub, so here's a payoff: there's nowhere else that these moments can work. Brett Ratner's a shitty action director, but it wasn't his fault that the "fastball special" looked crappy in his X-Men film, it looked crappy because "realistic" comic book goofiness becomes a silly and strange thing that few people enjoy. Super-hero comic book characters aren't supposed to be like you and me (plus a gym), they're supposed to look like candy-colored explosions on paper, and when they don't--when they bend themselves into the contortions of realism that "mature readers" demand--they become hideously depressing beasts, inherently dopier than their gonzo counterparts. (At times, depression itself can work out its own gonzo advantage--witness the initial issues of Ed Brubaker's run on Captain America, where Steve Rogers is fastidiously portrayed as a depressive lunatic, shadow-boxing in his lonely Brooklyn warehouse of memory, or spend some time with Matthew Murdock, a character whose best stories are always built on a rock-solid foundation of Catholic-based self-laceration. But most of the time, the tact completely fails: examine the inability of everybody but Mark Millar (!) and Robert Downey Jr. to comprehend that being Iron Man might, despite what every current Marvel comic book keeps repeating, actually be fun.)

Is it a bit of a contradiction, what's being lambasted here? It shouldn't be, although the obtuse wording may make it so. It's actually pretty simple: in the decision to "grow up", super-hero comic books have tried to embrace a realism that their constituent parts--the fantasy, the costumes, the goof-shoes origins and stacks of cornball "history"--struggle against constantly. The discordant clamor of the two replaced the Serious Gravity of a dino punch-out with the winking gag, it replaced the screaming matches of expository soliloquies and "let's fox-a-trot over to that disco fire, Robin" with the hip-speak word deluge pages of a bunch of sub-Mamets, and it left the "Let's Get Radical" comics to those most inclined to understand its impact. It turned the silly parts serious, and it made fun of what it couldn't. (The success of Geoff Johns will always be in large part due to his ability to make his comics "matter" in terms of world comprehension, but there's something else noticeable about what he so frequently does: namely, that he seems to find nothing in the DC Universe to be the slightest bit funny.)

No matter--the reader has the advantage of being audience alone, no participation required. We don't have to fix this stuff, we just have to read it. Let's put it like this, and move on: Don McGregor was a hungry first-time Marvel writer when these stories came about. He'd left a secure job with far better pay to join the Marvel team, only to experience a dearth of editorial support and see his marriage collapse as a result. "Panther's Rage" and his work on Killraven were his attempts to prove his mettle at the company, this story a full-throated roar in hopes of getting the attention of readers. He put the character against a pack of wolves, then against massive white devil gorillas (catch that symbolism?) and then, finally, against an at-times terribly drawn T Rex. In the margins, his arch villain used crude oil to disrupt, corrupt, and ultimately capture the portions of Wakanda's natural world that T'Challa was too lazy to have ever known about. At home, the characters faced their own struggles, one against a swelling violence that eventually breaks into spousal abuse, the other against the terrors of an encroaching Western civilization, and two more in shared emotional combat with their own conflicting natures. Through it all, McGregor wrote long, copious sentences about the ever graphic damage a bunch of animals were doing to T'Challa, and at no point does he seem to have taken a breath and said "well, this is all a bit silly, isn't it?"

Not once. Instead, he plays it like some bastard version of Shakespeare, predating the soap-dripping mouth of Chris Claremont's Phoenix love poems completely, choosing instead to channel Robert E. Howard's barbarian violence through a Jack Kirby view of the world. If it didn't move as fast as it does, it might make one tone-deaf, and honestly, there's times when "Panther's Rage" hits the wall of monotony that jam-packed 70's comics always do when read in quick succession. If it reads strangely today, that's to its benefit--it shouldn't seem like something that just fell off the rack. It's nothing like what we have nowadays, because it does things differently. 

Maybe not better, but definitely, without a doubt, not worse.

Here’s the end of the story: T’Challa makes his peace with his mistakes, in part by rejecting a certain portion of them, rediscovers his self-confidence, and goes after Erik Killmonger for his sins. They battle, and a rejuvenated T’Challa definitely holds his own… until Killmonger reasserts his dominance, explains that he was just playing with T’Challa, and easily lifts T’Challa’s body over his head and gets ready to snap his spine. That’s right: the hero makes his peace with his conflict, rediscovers himself, and does all the things that people are supposed to do before going off to fight the dragon, and he still loses. The battle isn’t even in question. Killmonger toys with him and then prepares to make a show of destroying him. No chance. There is no dignity, no honor in violence. Hey T’Challa, how’s failure taste?

But there’s one thing that Killmonger, T’Challa, and the other larger than life characters in superhero comics forgot, and forget, about: the little guy. You know, the normal humans who provide so much flavor to superhero stories, and dead bodies when the need arises. In this case, Kantu, the son of the man who was killed by zombies, is the one that saves the day.

T’Challa had a brief meeting with Kantu on his way to battle Venomm for the last time. It’s brief and depressing, as Kantu is mourning his father’s death and T’Challa has no answers for him. McGregor’s typically florid prose has T’Challa asking “if there is any hope left at all.” Kantu, however, “does not know the words to ask such a question, but wonders the same thing.” After this meeting, T’Challa, like Spider-Man on a bad day, gives himself over to being the black cat, which “does not ask any questions. It needs very few answers or truths.” Violence is an escape.

Kantu is a casualty of T’Challa and Killmonger’s war. T’Challa gave birth to Killmonger’s rage. Killmonger’s rage resulted in the revenge scheme that killed Wakandans by the dozen, including Kantu’s father. Kantu is therefore, in the end, the ultimate representation of the effect of Killmonger and T’Challa’s conflict. The back and forth chess match, the tug of war of intellects between these two men are what formed all of the exciting scenes and drama. Kantu is a reminder that nothing happens in a vacuum. When a villain knocks down a building or idly kills a bystander, it counts. When a hero mows down dozens of bad guys with a machine gun and a one-liner, that is dozens of orphans being introduced into the world.

The idea of collateral damage being something that isn’t meaningless at all is an idea that Grant Morrison explored in The Invisibles in “Best Man Fall.” King Mob killed a nameless foot soldier early in the series. Issues later, Morrison dedicated an entire story to that nameless foot soldier, showing his life, his history, and the tragedy of his death.

We read stories and the only people that matter are the heroes and villains. Joker breaks out of jail, kills dozens, and then Batman pops him on the jaw and sends him back to jail. Six months later, it happens again. Stories that actually deal with the repercussions of that are rare compared to the ones that indulge in wholesale slaughter for the amusement of the audience.

Kantu, then, is what gets lost in the action. His father died something like eight issues ago, forever for a character created to die, and yet, here he is, taking center stage. Kantu demands attention, and when a young boy says, “I could kill him!” and speaks of hate, you should be paying attention, because something has gone horribly wrong.

The real world, the place that hates you for existing and where people are cruel because that’s the only way to get results, came to Wakanda and took Kantu’s father away. When Kantu slams into Killmonger’s back, saving T’Challa’s life and knocking Killmonger to his death, that’s the end of his battered innocence.

With two pages to go in the chapter, Kantu reappears and becomes the most important, and most tragic, figure in the book. T’Challa will go on with his superheroing, suffering larger than life wins and losses, but Kantu is normal. He doesn’t get to have the big wins that boost your confidence, the impossibly attractive temporary girlfriends, and the team of friends who smile and let you ride around in their jet. No, he’s just got his father’s remains, which T’Challa’s failure left out in the sun for two whole days, and his grief.

Now: Billy Graham.

I like a lot of artists. Both Romitas, Jack Kirby, the entire Kubert family, Jim Lee, Chris Bachalo, Kevin Huizenga, Akira Toriyama, and dozens more. With his work in Panther’s Rage, Graham is solidified in my mind as one of the greats who has been sadly forgotten. He has inventive layouts that run counter to traditional comics thinking but are instantly understandable, grotesque and burly heroes, and a fantastic use of type.

(The last true chapter of Panther’s Rage features the word “Epilogue” integrated into the sky on three pages. It doesn’t bring any new angles to text or push a certain theme. It’s just an artist who knows exactly what he’s doing flaunting his skill, and more power to him.)

Graham can flipflop from Kirby sci-fi to hard realism between panels, and manages to make it all look cohesive. Embracing lovers, a broken marriage, a desperate run, and a little boy getting caught crying by the bank of a river all look exactly as they should.

He uses scale to great effect, he draws detailed backgrounds, his people look like actual people, his black people look like black people, and Kantu in particular is that kind of awkward and gangly mess of arms and legs that kids tend to be.

He drew the first seventeen issues of Luke Cage, Hero for Hire before moving onto Jungle Action. That’s the first issue of the first, or one of the first, ongoing comics starring a black American.

Billy Graham’s black, too. Comicbookdb suggests that he left comics after the ’80s. He died back in 1999. Check out his Wikipedia entry for more info.

Pay attention, because black history is everywhere.

Next: It’s not over.

 

 

 

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7 Responses to Fear of a Black Panther

  1. Mitch says:

    tl;dr

  2. Caleb Orecchio says:

    Good to see Billy Graham getting some attention

  3. Cheers to what Caleb’s saying. I’ve seen Graham described as someone who kept pushing the Steranko school of layout design, but without the stiffness that other disciples like Gulacy seemed to inherit. Didn’t Graham do an editorial stint at Warren after his Marvel days?

    (And for my money, his Janson-inked stuff is great, but Bob McLeod made him look even better during that aborted “Panther vs. The Klan” arc.)

    Thanks for bringing this back out, y’all. I miss the David Brothers blogging days! This is a fun reminder.

  4. Rob Clough says:

    McGregor has said that he made it as implicit as he possibly could given editorial constraints, but that both Taku and Venomm were gay.

    Great article.

  5. great stuff, the comIcs and this piece. i can’t remember the last time i actually made it to the end of something like this. i love these issues, so that helps, but this is some special and insightful longform criticism. really dug the tangent on the relationship comics have with the fantastic and the realistic. and i have to echo the appreciation here for your spotlight on billy graham, a sick artist who did some amazing things that always get more and more impressive whenever i revisit them. thanks for this!

  6. I really enjoyed this, admittedly, you say much that I’m already in agreement with, so maybe it’s just good to hear something i agree with!?!

    In all fairness, this period of Marvel, with all of its implicit weirdness, is really the zenith of superhero comics – Kirby, and probably a few others (like Ann Nocenti) got that superhero comics are about the IDEAS.

    There’s this laboured belief nowadays that MATURE content looks and sounds like all the bad things that happen in the world. Last time I looked, the greatest achievements in humanity were not death and hatred.

    My personal soft spot goes to the David Anthony Kraft run on Defenders though.

  7. Jon says:

    This is exactly what I needed after seeing Kevin Feige’s disappointing film version. Thanks!

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