Friday, April 20, 2018

Black Panther: Panther's Rage

One of many dynamic pages from Graham and McGregor

Black Panther: Panther's Rage (Marvel Epic Collection Volume 1) (1966, 1973-1976; collected 2015): written by Don McGregor; illustrated by Billy Graham, Rich Buckler, Gil Kane, Klaus Janson, and others: Jack Kirby and Stan Lee gave Black Panther life. Don McGregor and artists Rich Buckler and especially Billy Graham gave the character a soul. And note that the character predates the 1960's political movement of the same name by several months.

The recent Marvel movie used a number of elements from the McGregor-penned run included in this collection. Much is different, however. After reprinting the Black Panther's first two-issue appearance in Fantastic Four in 1966, this volume reprints McGregor's entire run on Black Panther from Marvel's Jungle Action comic book. What a ride it is!

The Lee/Kirby two-parter is fascinating insofar as it gives us an African superhero who rules over a seemingly backwater African nation that's actually a hive of super-technological sophistication. Beyond that, Black Panther is fairly boilerplate -- a noble fellow with a desire for revenge against white villain Ulysses Klaw. Still, the storyline is notable not only because the Black Panther is the first modern black superhero from a major comic-book company, but because Wyatt Wingfoot, a smart non-superhero Native American, saves the day in the first of the two Lee/Kirby issues. It's sort of a racial milestone for American superheroes.

McGregor's stuff is a whole different story. The mix of super-science and tradition remains in the Black Panther's country of Wakanda. McGregor's interests are such that Black Panther becomes a self-sacrificing, self-doubting character very early in the arc, with subsequent issues building on these attributes. 

This Black Panther had moved to America and joined the Avengers after his intro in FF; McGregor's work brings him back to a Wakanda that's grown turbulent in his absence. And Erik Killmonger (the villain of the movie as well) intends to wrest control of Wakanda from the Black Panther.

What follows is one of the longest sustained narratives in American superhero comic books to that point in the mid-1970's, one of the first true serialized graphic novels. Initial artist Rich Buckler does solid work. Once Billy Graham comes on board, the art really soars. And it's notable that Graham is one of the first African-American artists to work on a major publisher's superhero book.

Graham and McGregor are ambitious in their storytelling ambitions -- a variety of intriguing single and double-page compositions are just one way the art stands out. Graham is especially good at character work, faces and poses that make each character an individual. An issue inked by P. Craig Russell is especially fine as a horror story filled with grotesques.

The Black Panther's physical sufferings throughout McGregor's run, depicted and described in detail, cast him repeatedly in the role of a suffering Christ figure -- albeit a two-fisted Christ. I don't know that any mainstream superhero has had his suffering depicted in such detail. It ties into McGregor's ethos insofar as McGregor tempers the thrills of superheroics with repeated examinations of the physical and mental ramifications of Men in Tights walloping one another.

Erik Killmonger's plans ultimately occupy 13 (!) issues of Jungle Action. As Jungle Action was bimonthly, this first arc (titled Panther's Rage) went on for more than two years. Subsequently, McGregor and Graham send the Black Panther back to America to battle the KKK. Never let it be said that McGregor shied away from political and social issues. Alas, Marvel cancelled Jungle Action before the Klan storyline was over. It's still a bracing bit of storytelling. In all, highly recommended.

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