Last week I finished the hardback collection Marvel Masterworks: Black Panther, but it’s good enough it deserved its own post rather than joining the general TPB reviews (cover by Rich Buckler, rights to current holder).
Writer Don McGregor (the various artists included Rich Buckler and Billy Graham) says in the intro text that he’d been editor of Jungle Action in the early 1970s and mortally embarrassed Marvel was still putting out African adventures where the heroes where white guys (Tharn the Magnificent, Jann of the Jungle). When he realized Marvel might be open to new material, he proposed a Black Panther series as the obvious choice. Marvel agreed, though apparently nobody thought the idea had a chance. Not so much because T’Challa was black, but because the entire cast (except minor villain Venomm) was black and everyone but Venomm and T’Challa’s girlfriend Monica was Wakandan—wouldn’t that be too alienating for American readers (McGregor says he was tired of Klaw, Zemo, the Lethal Legion and other villains from outside finding the supposed hidden land so easily).
The 12-issue “Panther’s Rage” arc (and a year-long arc was a novel idea back then in itself) concerned a Wakandan, Killmonger, determined to set himself up as new king of Wakanda. He has the allies (Baron Macabre, Sombre, Venomm, Malice, Salamander K’Ruel), the kaijin (dinosaurs from the unmapped areas of Wakanda), the tech, plus the muscle to go one on one with his ruler. Stopping him proves an epic struggle in the best way (though the twist at the end still doesn’t work for me). Where Christopher Priest’s Panther was impressive because he was always one step ahead of his enemies—he’d won the fight before it started—McGregor’s T’Challa is impressive because the bad guys put him through the ringer and he still survives—scarred, clawed, bitten, poisoned, trampled—to fight again.
About the only thing that might be a little much is McGregor’s caption-writing. They blew me away at the time with their ornate language, because you didn’t see captions back then that said more than “meanwhile, back at the palace.” Rereading, sometimes they’re a little over-the-top—but most of the time they still work. However it’s a comics-writing style that’s out of fashion so YMMV.
The second arc, “The Panther vs. the Klan,” has T’Challa and Monica visit her family in a small Southern town, currently experiencing a resurgence of the Klan, and the scheming of an even more sinister group, the Dragon Circle (cover by John Romita, all rights with current holder). T’Challa, needless to say, is not going to let things lie. The five stories we got before Jungle Action bit the dust were good; #22 is one of my favorites, as Monica fantasizes what her former-slave ancestor’s life might have been like if he’d the Black Panther beside him.
Sales, however, dropped, whether because of the politics, moving away from Wakanda or something else (McGregor says he suggested publicizing the political elements to draw attention from beyond regular comics readers, but that marketing found that too strange a concept). Jungle Action died and when T’Challa returned it was in Kirby’s Black Panther, which ignored everything in McGregor (and as noted at the link, pretty much sucked). Writer Ed Hannigan wrapped up McGregor’s plotline in Marvel Premiere eventually, explaining that the bad guys had wiped the Panther’s mind so he went into the Kirby adventures with no memory of his battles with the KKK. It wasn’t a very good resolution, but maybe it was the best that could be managed at that point.
The original McGregor stuff, though? Still awesome after all these years.