If you’ve got Black Panther fever and can’t wait for the movie to premiere Friday, here’s a (graphic) novel idea: Catch up on the best of Black Panther comics!
First, this is a must: Read the introduction of the Panther in “Fantastic Four” Nos. 52-53 (1966), however or wherever you can find those issues. Fortunately, they’re available in a lot of “Fantastic Four” and “Black Panther” collections at comic shops, bookstores and online.
Admittedly, those 52-year-old comics haven’t aged flawlessly. Some of the African representations are kinda icky, and at one point the Panther says of battling the Invisible Girl, “I do not consider females to be fair game!” Because, you know, girls are fragile flowers fit only for a fainting couch.
Regressive gender attitudes shouldn’t be a surprise in a story from 1966. But it’s still an amazing story … because of everything else.
Two of the most legendary names in comics, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, decided that what the world needed in 1966 — 1966! — was an African superhero. And not just a superhero, but a king. And not just a king, but a king of an African nation that — unlike every other depiction of African nations at the time — was the richest, most civilized, most technologically advanced nation on Earth.
The audacity was stunning. As was the imagination poured into the concept. Lee invented Wakandan history, giving us the vibranium mound that kick-started Wakanda’s tech and wealth, all explained with proud, slightly exotic Wakandan dialogue. Kirby invented the look of Wakanda, mixing traditional African (mostly Zulu) iconography with elaborate, eye-popping sci-fi contraptions.
It’s fascinating, at every level, that the Black Panther came to be at that time, in such a way, at the hands of two middle-aged Jewish men from the Lower East Side of New York City. If you happened to be alive at that time, seeing how black people were presented in other entertainment media, the amazing-ness is magnified.
For some time after that, though, the Black Panther wandered the wilderness. T’Challa served an unremarkable stretch with the Avengers, and substituted for Daredevil in the Man Without Fear’s title. Neither of those roles really did much for the Panther, a character for whom “superhero” is a hobby.
But then came “Jungle Action” in 1972. OK, that’s a terrible name for anything, even a 1970s comic book. But it was “Jungle Action” that gave T’Challa his first solo series — one that brought the character back to his roots. Heck, this series almost invented those roots.
In the 19-part “Panther’s Rage,” by writer Don McGregor and a variety of superstar artists, King T’Challa faced an existential rebellion from a tribal leader named Erik Killmonger. The threat from within Wakanda’s borders gave us tons of info about this mysterious nation, expanding background and history and social norms in every direction, as well as building a rip-snorting saga described (some would say over-described) by the voluble McGregor’s purplest prose.
Bonus: Erik Killmonger is a major player in the movie, played by the magnetic Michael B. Jordan — so, yeah, “Panther’s Rage” is definitely a must-read.
After “Rage,” there was some weirdness. I tell you this almost as a warning. Because Panther co-creator Jack Kirby returned to write and draw the character in the first-ever eponymous “Black Panther” series in 1976, and … well, you won’t need to read that series to enjoy the movie. Or the Panther. Or for any reason, to be honest.
Kirby, at the fading end of his career, jettisoned everything unique about the character and treated him as a generic superhero. And not just a superhero, but one who had some truly strange adventures, such as battling yeti, searching for the “Sacred Water-Skin” and traveling through time via gewgaws called “King Solomon’s Frogs.” No, I am not making that up.
So don’t be confused if you’re looking for Panther reprints, and see something with Kirby’s name on it. Those will not be the famous, original stories from 1966. And, while these mid-1970s tales can be entertaining in an eccentric sort of way, they’re completely unnecessary for any sort of understanding of the character.
It took another decade for a decent Panther series. And, brother, it was worth the wait.
A writer named Christopher Priest took on the Panther, emphasizing his royal station, his diplomatic responsibilities, his outsized privileges and his contrast with (and distance from) American superheroes. T’Challa had never seemed so formidable, so serious, so … well, kingly. And to give us the proper distance to appreciate the Panther’s majesty, Priest used as his POV character a nebbish-y white State Department bureaucrat named Everett K. Ross (played with nebbish-y perfection by Martin Freeman in Marvel movies).
“He had the classic run on Black Panther, period, and that’s gonna be true for a long time,” said journalist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates in a recent — and excellent — Vulture.com profile on Priest. “People had not put much thought into who and what Black Panther was before Christopher started writing the book. (Priest) thought that Black Panther was a king.”
One of the major lasting changes Priest wrought in the series was the introduction of the Dora Milaje. Wakandan for “Adored Ones,” the Dora Milaje are the all-female bodyguards for the Wakandan royal family, selected from all the country’s tribes in order to knit the nation together. They were also potential wives-in-training at one time, a tradition which has fallen by the wayside as gender equality has become a thing. But the Dora Milaje and T’Challa still address each other as “beloved,” with all romantic overtones removed, an anachronism that has an extra hint of mysterious history.
Are there Dora Milaje in the movie? You bet your vibranium there are. Do the names Lupita Nyong’o and Danai Gureira mean something to ya? So, yeah, the Priest run is a must-read, too.
Sometime after Priest, filmmaker Reginald Hudlin tried his hand at “Black Panther.” That 2003 series was entertaining, but took place while T’Challa was married to Ororo Munroe — aka Storm of the X-Men. Since that marriage was annulled, most of this series is rendered irrelevant to the movie and the Panther’s current status.
Which brings us at last to perhaps the greatest Panther run of all. Despite what Ta-Nehisi Coates said above, the newest “Black Panther” series is the best to date — and it’s written by some guy named Ta-Nehisi Coates.
The celebrated non-fiction writer has taken a deep dive into Wakanda in his first comic series, developing its language, customs, internal tensions, mythology, diplomatic relations, religion and various geographic locations. He’s even explored the gods of Wakanda, the Oshira, which includes the Panther’s totem, Bast the Cat-God. He has also extended and expanded on T’Challa’s friends, foes and family, adding dimensions to Royal Mother Ramonda, rebel leader Zenzi, the Orisha (the Wakandan gods) and even a host of resurrected Priest and McGregor characters. He’s authored a schism between the royals and the Dora Milaje, who now operate independently under the leadership of two well-developed characters named Oya and Aneka.
And he’s advanced the Panther, too, giving us his title in Wakandan (“Damisa-Sarki”), as well as the insult “Orphan-King” his enemies use to disparage his strange origins (“Haramu-Fal”). Coates is expanding on those strange origins, too, in a companion miniseries “Rise of the Black Panther,” which, along with the current “Black Panther,” is required reading.
Bonus: While “Black Panther” itself is a (deserving) best-seller, various companion series have been trotted out, only to fall to ignominious cancellation. But one series that only lasted six issues is available in trade paperback, and worth mention: “World of Wakanda.” That series featured Oya and Aneka, giving us their history as they fell in love, chafed under T’Challa’s leadership — and developed into three-dimensional characters.
Yes, “World of Wakanda” starred two LGBT women of color, a first in possibly any entertainment medium. But that’s “Black Panther” for you, causally moving through glass ceilings and transgressive boundaries and terra incognita like — well, like a panther gliding silently and gracefully through the jungle.
So, here’s your Black Panther reading list: Lee-Kirby, “Panther’s Rage,” Christopher Priest, Ta-Nehisi Coates, “World of Wakanda.” Afterward, if you want to say “N’cos” (“thank you”), well … you’re certainly welcome.
Contact Captain Comics at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more comics news, reviews and commentary, visit his website: comicsroundtable.com.