Saturday, July 22, 2006

PANTHER IN MOTION

The Leap From King to Priest
By John Jones, Manhunter from Marathon, IL

Had T'challa, infant Prince of the Wakandas, been born with the gift of clairvoyance, he might well have run off to join the circus at an early age. Could the once and future king have gotten even the skimpiest glimpse at a future filled with solid sound supervillains, spindly white State Department workers, hyperthyroid steroid addict rebel leaders with "Kill" in their names, and King Solomon's Frog, for the love of God, he might well have bolted for the back country as fast as his chubby little legs would have carried him.

Fortunately for Sam Wilson's self-esteem, a coma-rayed roster of Earth's Mightiest Heroes, Wyatt Wingfoot and Johnny Storm's tender tootsies, and perhaps the existence of the Marvel Universe itself, the nascent heart-shaped herbee had no apparent abilities to discern what would one day come to be. And so it was that he trotted cheerfully down to the path to his particular destiny, serene as any lamb wandering bleating to the slaughter.

Of course, the path to heroism is a hard one, as nearly any proper ultra-icon can tell you. The first four panels of any hero's origin flashback are often packed to the gunwales with tragedy and torment, as can be seen by the vicious murders of Bruce Wayne's parents, the callous gunning down of Peter Parker's Uncle Ben, the near-death and permanent crippling of Tony Stark (well, it was meant to be permanent, anyway), and the interstellar genocide enacted in order to get that poor tyke from doomed Krypton to Earth where he could start outrunning speeding bullets and leaping tall buildings at a single bound. Compared to many of these, the Black Panther's origin, involving the death of his wise and noble father T'Chaka at the hands of predacious mercenaries out to steal the sacred Vibranium Mound (nearly everything is sacred in Wakanda; the heart shaped herbs, the Vibranium Mound, the Hall of the Ancestors, the Rites of the Panther God, even, presumably, the Bottomless Porcelain Throne) is a virtual bagatelle. Bad guys invade, try to steal stuff, whack the old man... Our Hero gets super powers and kicks their scrofulous asses... for a superhero origin, it's practically pacifistic.

"Pacifistic", however, was the last word that would have occurred to anyone in regard to the Black Panther who debuted in FANTASTIC FOUR #52. This whacked out seeming lunatic stalked and managed to separately defeat each of the Fantastic Four after luring them into some bizarre "techno-jungle" beneath the surface of an exotic African kingdom named Wakanda. In the end, he revealed himself as no less than that kingdom's rightful monarch, who had, he hastily explained, meant the FF no lasting harm, but felt a pressing need to test his combative abilities against foes of great power and renown, to see if he were ready to avenge his father in battle against the mercenaries who had slain him, and who were currently ravaging Wakanda with 'solid sound' animals. (No. We aren't even going to think about this at any length, at least, not right now.)

Nonetheless, from his somewhat sinister and overly aggressive introduction, the Panther quickly segued into an impressively charismatic and kingly fellow indeed, and established himself firmly as one of the FF's staunchest friends. If one wondered exactly why it was that the traditional robes of a Wakandan chieftain were apparently made out of spandex, one certainly put those thoughts aside as unworthy, or perhaps even somewhat surreal, since I'm not even sure spandex had been invented in 1965 or thereabouts.

A spin off creation of "King" Kirby second in fame only to the even weirder Silver Surfer, this brand new Black Panther was a bizarre combination of jungle chieftain, ultra-athlete, uber-warrior, and super-scientist. A sort of Doc Savage for the Dark Continent, young T'Challa was an impressive entity indeed, especially since he evinced, in nearly any single panel, more personality and effusive charm than the stolid, grim, nearly cinder-blocklike Man of Bronze did in 64 pulp novels, one lousy movie, and three different failed comic book series. In terms of overall prowess, competence, charisma, and even socioeconomic power, the Panther was equal to any and superior to most of the characters that had been introduced by that date in the Marvel Universe, or, for that matter, ever would be.

Strange, then, that for so much of his Silver Age career, the Panther was viewed as a second stringer at best... or perhaps not so strange, when we consider that it wasn't until nearly the end of Marvel's Silver Age that T'Challa was ever given a chance to star in his own feature. Up until then, the Black Panther had always been very little more than a colorful guest star hanging around in the background of comics featuring much more powerful, and generally, well developed, characters. However Buckaroo-Banzaii-with-a-tannish T'Challa may have actually been from the very start, it's hardly likely anyone is going to pay much attention to the poor guy when the Fantastic Four are busy smacking the crap out of Blastaar or Prester John in the foreground while T'Challa hangs around a big cat statue on the fringes of the action drinking rum out of a hollowed out coconut half and occasionally hollering cheerfully "You go, FF".

Nor did things get a great deal better for our jungle action figure in his next few appearances. A guest star shot in DAREDEVIL gave us some lovely Barry Smith visual sequences but little else of lasting worth, and even when Roy Thomas dragooned the Panther into the Avengers and had him save the whole team from the Grim Reaper's coma-ray (and why a character who takes his name from the metaphorical personification of Death Itself uses something like a goddam coma-ray is something I will never understand, but don't get me started on the stupidity of villains who manage to get the heroes in a helpless position and then just put them into comas, or toss them into pits with alligators, or some idiotic thing), he still fairly quickly faded into the background again... except in those misguided stories where Thomas tried to actually feature the poor fellow, using villains even WORSE than the Grim Reaper (yes, Virginia, while there may not be a Santa Claus, there actually are villains worse than the Grim Reaper) like the MAN-APE (!!!)... none of which, most likely, did T'Challa any actual good in the eyes of Marveldom Assembled.

One dimensional, monochrome, and always in danger of being rendered combatively superfluous whenever the similar, flashier, better equipped and far more charismatic Captain America was hanging around the team, T'Challa might as well have raided Jarvis' wardrobe and started serving planter's punches in the main meeting room for all the attention anyone paid him.

Thomas had nothing but good intentions for the Panther, as can be seen by his painfully earnest attempts to invest the character with some 60s style social relevance by giving him a brief turn with his adopted secret identity of "Luke Charles", a ghetto schoolteacher.

Where the wandering African monarch found the time to attend college, bag his Master's, and get his teaching certificate the world may never know (most likely some unpublished time travel adventure involving Immortus had something to do with it), but anyway, there he was, imparting unto nappy headed little urban urchins their ABCs with a solemnity and style worthy of nearly any movie role ever essayed by Sidney Poitier or James Earl Jones.

This made him T'Challa On The Spot, of course, when the eeeeeeevil Sons of the Serpent staged a riot in the heart of Harlem, and if, from our present day vantage point, the whole storyline is even more painfully redolent of the Age of Aquarius than even that dreadful cult favorite BILLY JACK, well, at least we know Roy was trying.

Although the Panther stuck around in the Avengers line up for a great big stack of issues after his debut, he only occasionally got to do anything fun (like the above mentioned Sons of the Serpent story, or, at a later date, bouncing off a corn silo to pummel a stupidly smug Sorcerer Supreme out of the Indiana sky), much less vital to the team effort or the welfare of the world.

With the fickle unfairness so typical of reality, fans fastened onto characters like the Vision with avid eagerness while showing little or no interest in the Wonder from Wakanda. Even a brief name change to the Black Leopard, in hopes of divorcing the character from the racial separatists using the Black Panther name in the late 60s, garnered little attention, and was quickly abandoned.

It could be argued that the Panther was the Avengers token-in-residence long before Henry Peter Gyrich forced them to take on the Falcon in that role. (Since the line up at the time included both the Beast and Iron Man, two characters whose actual human sub-race is difficult to discern at best, this never made a great deal of sense to me. However, that point may well make it the most realistic portrayal of government policy implementation in superhero comics.)

In fact, the Panther's status as token black for not just the Avengers, but the entire Marvel comics line, was pretty clearly established by the decision to have him wear a half-face mask in his first AVENGERS appearance, thus showing off his melanin-enhanced complexion for all to see. The pointy-eared, lower face baring cowl bore an alarming resemblance to that of Batman, though, and the Panther's full face mask was quickly restored; perhaps some cogent soul advised Roy the Boy that a character named The Black Panther being published in the late 60s would most likely not be mistaken by anyone as a White Anglo Saxon Protestant.

Thomas might have managed to give the Panther some distinction as a character by playing up his scientific genius, but for various reasons, chose not to. A more racially hyper-sensitive person than this particular fat aging white geek might hypothesize that this had to do with an instinctive reluctance to display an ultra-intelligent black man, but I tend to think it was more that the Avengers already had a near-embarrassing surfeit of super-scientists on the roster, and besides, super-scientist in residence was pretty much the trademark of then-team leader Hank Pym, and Thomas most likely didn't want to undercut him.

Teams of balance were a standard approach to superheroing back then, and the Panther was pretty much relegated to the 'super agile hand to hand fighter' role... a role in which, as I say, he tended to be immediately overshadowed any time Captain America dropped by for a visit.

The Panther did make other contributions to Marvel continuity during this time period, perhaps the most lasting of which was to outfit the Falcon with jet powered, microtip, underarm mounted glider wings that in some absolutely unfathomable way actually allowed the big whiney wank to fly through the air like a birdie. The engineering involved in that particular feat is frankly astounding even within the already frankly astounding context of advanced comic book tech, and given that the Panther basically seems to have done it on a whim, as a favor for Captain America when the Falcon sniveled a little about not having any superpowers, one has to wonder why Rick Jones has never thrown a similar hissy fit at Avengers Mansion to get some one of the super-scientists on the team to whip up something equally spiffy for him. Perhaps Wilson's wings were paid for under some obscure Affirmative Action government grant that the Jones boy couldn't qualify for.

(While I did indeed skip right over the weirdness of the Panther's introductory story, I think I'll dwell for just a moment on the sheer overwhelming absurdity of Sam Wilson's functional underarm wings. Here we have an 'upright, cheerful Negro', as Englehart's Red Skull once described him, of well above Olympic level athletic prowess - we'll assume, since he keeps up with Captain America, and has demonstrated the singular ability to defeat half a dozen armed men with his bare hands in a no-holds barred street fight, not just barely emerging with his life, but actually pummeling them all unconscious and coming out unscratched himself - who has suddenly been gifted with wings that apparently have little more substance to them than Spider-man's underarm webbing. Yet, somehow, these magical devices manage to provide enough lift for this melanin-enhanced mass of mesomorphic muscle to hurtle through the air like a Mercury missile. And T'Challa seems to have accomplished this startling display of scientific acumen casually, in response to a request for a favor from a fellow Avenger. HAIL the Panther! Stark's invention of the Iron Man armor, Pym's creation of size changing gas, Reed Richard's discovery of the Negative Zone... surely none of these are more wondrous than the Falcon's frickin' wings.)

A low point for T'Challa during this period was his guest starring appearance in a dreadful DAREDEVIL annual in which he helped DD defeat... I don't know... the Maggia, I think... including a briefly super-powered mob boss transformed for a few seconds by some idiotic experimental apparatus malfunction into an appalling idiot who regaled the audience by calling himself "Mind Master" right before DD and T'Challa beat him unconscious. There's no reason for me to mention this horrible thing at all, other than to note it was written by Chris Claremont and is as good a reason as any to fire the loathsome fellow out of nearly any working replica of a medieval catapult, or alternatively, large ship-mounted Naval artillery piece, that comes easily to hand.

The Panther lapsed even more into obscurity after Steve Englehart chased him out of AVENGERS in order to have more room to focus on Mantis, whose general combat style the Panther's presence tended to overwhelm, anyway. However, the African monarch's dismissal from the comic that had kept him, more or less, in some kind of audience spotlight for nearly a decade actually wound up working in his favor... as a relatively short time later (at least, as comics time goes), a young, hotshot comics writer named Don McGregor somehow managed to talk the Marvel editorial staff into letting him revive an old title named JUNGLE ACTION (try and publish THAT one in the relentlessly PC 21st Century, Don) with the Black Panther as the featured player.

While one can, in retrospect, barely imagine any editorial reaction to such a pitch but "Are you HIGH?", still, somehow, McGregor managed to get the book green lighted. Perhaps his strange near-success on AMAZING ADVENTURES (back then, it was not only possible, but actually common, for a particular series to be a 'fan favorite' and yet not be commercially successful, because the 'fan' segment of the mass newsstand audience was still only a highly vocal minority of the paying customer base) greased the skids for him, or maybe someone pointed out that there was, apparently, an audience for black superheroes, as shown, at the very least, by the modest success of LUKE CAGE, POWER MAN. Whatever the case, McGregor's JUNGLE ACTION got underway, and was to prove a pivotal point for the Panther.

However much, in hindsight, one feels an urge to heap scorn and outrage on Don McGregor, and however justified that impulse may seem to be to anyone who ever read SABRE or that awful graphic novel about the salt and pepper detective due he did with Marshall Rogers whose name I can't even remember... DETECTIVES, INC.? Something like that... we must give the Donald his due: at the time, his work on Killraven and T'Challa were the freakiest fricking things any superhero fan had ever seen.

Yes, his captions clustered the panels thicker than flies at a barbecue, yes, he abandoned nearly every singular strength the comics artform has for scripters, like thought balloons, for an overwhelming onslaught of purple prosed narrative the likes of which dazzled the young and naïve fans quite as much as it appalled the older experienced ones.

Still, there was a truly bizarre grandeur to the astonishing narrative overload, which probably emanated at least in part from the pretentiously pedantic splendor of McGregor's astonishingly over-erudite vocabulary. Any 12 year old who could manage to puzzle through any particular issue of AMAZING ADVENTURES or JUNGLE ACTION had to be moved by the sheer raw importuning emotion of McGregor's words, if only because we were truly impressed that we could actually understand them.

For all McGregor's failings as a comics writer... and the litany is impressive... no one can cogently deny that his work on the Black Panther was a high water mark for the world weary Kirby scion.

Generally the phrase 'bold new direction' is a flashing red light on a comic book, denoting that some new hotshot is going to take over and send someone's favorite character careening off on a completely insane and creatively clueless orbital path, but in this case, McGregor actually gave us a textbook definition of what that phrase should actually mean.

Realizing that T'challa was always overpowered by immersion in the mainstream Marvel continuity, McGregor had the wit to send the Panther back to his native Wakanda and do a series exploring the internal politics of that strangely contradictory African nation, playing up T'Challa's dual and often conflicting roles as both chieftain and conduit between his people's ancient traditions and the overwhelmingly technological outside world.

McGregor should also be touted for never once so much as even mentioning astonishing idiocies like Klaw, the supervillain composed of solid sound (a truly bizarre Kirby Koncept that has to number among the small handful of such that really sort of just laid there lamely, making absolutely no sense whatsoever no matter how much we might have wished otherwise) nor even making more than a passing mention of the goddam sacred Vibranium Mound. McGregor, in fact, kept the Panther's often overwhelming bonds with the outside Marvel Universe to a complete minimum, playing up, instead, the incendiary upheavals implicit in the heavily armed political campaigning of a revolutionary rival named Erik Killmonger.

Killmonger, with his bitterly motivated political agenda at odds with the Panther's technological liberalism, and his penchant for recruiting weird but effective super-minions like Malice, Baron Macabre, and Venomm, made a much more impressive arch villain than the dopey nostril-free Klaw had ever dreamed of being.

McGregor also explored the historical background and mystical ritual implicit in the Panther's origin, showing us T'Challa actually undergoing the sacred ritual of the heart shaped herbs, and delineating for us both the geography and the internal tribal politics of Wakanda for the first time. In another startling first, he also gave the Panther a sex life, something T'Challa was doubtless infinitely grateful for after spending all that time hanging around with other superteams in which the perpetually leotard-clad hotties were all monogamously entwined with other male characters, nearly any of whom could beat him up if they really wanted to, if not in straight up, fair, hand to hand combat like Real Men, then certainly, by employing sneaky stretching powers or unfair tactical uses of insects.

Overall, McGregor's multipart, seemingly endless "Panther's Rage" story arc was, at the very least, a dramatic and artistic success, and it was also the story that, for the first time, made both T'Challa, his heritage, and his world come alive with any real depth or credibility. It provided T'Challa with a solid history and continuity that was to lay the essential groundwork for nearly every future storyline using the character.

If Don McGregor contributed anything of lasting substance to the Marvel Universe's mainstream continuity, it was on JUNGLE ACTION and through the development of the Black Panther. (Certainly, we're all just as happy, if not downright eager, to lapse back into blissful, healthy, traumatic amnesia regarding McGregor's truly appalling tenure on POWER MAN, where poor Luke Cage was veritably besieged by staggeringly, painfully horrible villains like Tobias Whale, Spearr, and Piranha Jones. Steve Englehart had, arguably, defined a trend for awful antagonists with initial unworthies like Black Mariah, Big Ben, Shades, Comanche, and Lionmane, but it was only under McGregor's truly hallucinatory run on the book that a nadir was reached, not just for the Cage character, but arguably for Marvel Comics in its entirety. Prior to this no comics fan or pro would ever have believed that the Lousiest Villains Of All Time Award could ever be wrested from the Lee-Colan stable of Daredevil baddies, but McGregor accomplished it with apparent ease.)

Sometime after the cancellation of JUNGLE ACTION (which followed shortly after the conclusion of "Panther's Rage"; McGregor's follow up, a storyline in which the Panther battled racism in the American South that was nearly as painfully socially conscious as any Billy Jack movie, and didn't have the cool fight scenes, isn't really even worthy of that much mention), Kirby himself returned to Marvel for a brief, abortive sortie as a writer/artist. He was awarded CAPTAIN AMERICA, a new BLACK PANTHER series, and two original series, DEVIL DINOSAUR, now perhaps best remembered as a frantic favorite of long time fan artist powerhouse Rich Howell, and THE ETERNALS, which was never quite as good as it was interesting.

Of them all, BLACK PANTHER was easily the most truly, mind bogglingly horrifying, featuring, as it did, "The Secret of King Solomon's Frog!", which apparently had something to do with weird guys who reached out of walls and... I don't know what all, really. The series imploded faster than a Larry Lieber comics line, and Kirby's return to Marvel lasted hardly longer anywhere else, with only THE ETERNALS hanging on into the double digits. Recent revelations on IRON MAN that apparently, this godawful Panther series was actually in some way valid in Marvel continuity are one of the few things I'd like to slap Roger Stern for, since up until that story I'd thought they were safely ensconced in some improbable WHAT IF timeline.

After the death of the Kirby series, the Panther bopped around the MU desultorily, occasionally reappearing for brief runs in AVENGERS, getting another brief feature awarded to him in a late 80s Marvel anthology title whose name honestly escapes me, and generally, exciting little to no interest as a character, or at least, so it seems to ME, and I'm the guy typing all this. Anyone who recalls a seminally brilliant Panther story arc I've overlooked during this time period, perhaps because it took place in a back up series in DEADLY HANDS OF KUNG FU and was written by John Warner and drawn by Ernie Chua, feel free to write in and call me an idiot.

For purposes of THIS article, though, I'm going to state that the character and concept of the Black Panther pretty much languished from the end of JUNGLE ACTION until the Marvel Knights mini-series with his name on it came along about twenty years later.

If Don McGregor's choice to divorce T'Challa from an overpowering Marvel mainstream was inspired and productive, how much more then must we admire the generally superb job that a pseudononymous Chris Priest did with this recent mini-series, which garnered enough positive and commercial attention to be extended into its own ongoing series.

Priest's choice to attempt to fuse McGregor's depth of development on the Panther's ethnic background with the Marvel superhero mainstream could not have been an easy one to follow through on. And yet, Priest has accomplished that goal with remarkable deftness, managing to anchor the Panther believably in both worlds while also updating the Panther's power definition to include some notable technological advances that, while not removing one whit of the Panther's athletic hand to hand combat prowess, unmistakably delineate him as the scientific genius he is as well. A still skintight costume that incorporates vibranium-weave body armor to ablate focused energy attacks (the Panther being fast enough himself to dodge nearly any solid projectile, up to and including machine gun bullets), as well as wristbands that allow him to create vibratory daggers he can throw as simple but effective distance weapons (so effective, in fact, that they can even momentarily disrupt and disorient the damn near impervious Ultron) have managed to make T'Challa a more formidable and credible competitor in the super-arena, in much the same way Thomas' hastily concocted 'heart shaped herbs' lifted a guy who before that had simply been a superb 'costumed athlete' into the lower reaches of metahumanity.

And Priest's relatively deft interweaving of storylines dealing with both the Panther as an Avenger, the Panther as an ambassador for Wakanda to the outside world, the Panther as CEO and chief engineer of a wealthy company that manufactures the Avengers quinjet fleet, and the Panther as both King of Wakanda and hereditary chieftain of Wakanda's majority tribe, have really synthesized all the disparate elements of the character concept into one cohesive, credible whole for the first time ever.

Yet one scarcely finds so much honey without any bees, and Priest's ongoing take on T'Challa is no exception. Priest has apparently enraged at least a few of the more petulant Old Guard Silver Age geeks with his retroactive revelation that T'Challa's original joining of the Avengers was done with the intention of gathering intelligence information regarding the American superhero community on behalf of Wakanda. Exactly why this aggravates some people I don't understand; apparently, in their eternally adolescent perceptions, the Black Panther must always be an Avenger first and everything else - including foreign national and monarch of Wakanda - second.

Now, I myself have been known to throw a more than occasional textual tantrum at some bit of, in my opinion, poorly judged retroactive character development being inflicted on one of my favorite Silver Age imaginary buddies. A recent mention to me by an email pal that John Byrne had at one time been reportedly considering having Peter Parker join the ranks of male street trash non-role models with the revelation that Parker had fathered an illegitimate child on some unspecified Silver Age paramour filled me with outrage, and of course, I've never been silent on just how much I hated virtually every personality ret-con inflicted on the post Crisis DC heroes. Yet sometimes, retroactive continuity can actually accomplish what its only legitimate purpose is, namely, to provide more credible depth to a character that badly needs it. When such a continuity implant does not directly defy already established story elements, or significantly demean the innate nobility of one of my favorite Silver Age heroes, I'm usually okay with it.

In this case, I don't think the revelation that T'Challa joined the Avengers with a covert pro-Wakanda agenda makes him any less heroic, nor do I think it significantly contradicts any already established continuity. I think it does exactly what retroactive continuity is supposed to do, namely, gives a character who was primarily two dimensional at best during that particular period a much needed additional dimension, transforming him from a background token tossed into the roster as a sop to racial inclusiveness to a real, living, breathing character of verisimilitude and credibility. To an extent, I think it validates and legitimizes the Panther's presence in those early Avengers issues, at least, in terms of actual internal rationality.

I have other difficulties, or at least, wry notations, on Priest's approach to the scripting duties on the modern BLACK PANTHER, though. First, I think it's worth noting that the thematic glue holding together Priest's whole creative conceit is that of a smart mouthed, obnoxious, somewhat nebbishy little white guy named Ross who has been assigned by the U.S. State Department as the American liaison to Wakanda, and who has become more or less the reader's surrogate character as he gets yanked along willy-nilly on virtually all of the Panther's adventures. That Ross is clearly a storytelling device lifted virtually whole cloth from Steve Gerber's Silver Age scripts for Marvel, with speech patterns and personality all but entirely intact, can't be lucidly denied. Ross' literary precursors can be found in characters like Kyle Richmond and Jack Norris, and even, to an extent, in the whinier moments of Vance Astro during Gerber's brief, fun tenure on a revived GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY strip.

Of course, the best writers in comics steal, and at least Priest isn't grabbing creative concepts by the discounted ton, filing off their serial numbers, slapping fresh names and costumes on them like new coats of paint on stolen Corvettes, and then re-trademarking them through a one-panel background appearance in a creator owned alternate press anthology series set off by the so-called 'creator's name in 32 point type above the actual title of the series itself.

In fact, Priest's use of the central, smart ass projection character could far more legitimately be defined as an 'homage' than nearly any Marvelman/Superman hybrid who spends an entire issue in a 'dream of flying' whenever he's not tucking his trophies away in an extradimensional hypercloset startlingly reminiscent of the conceptual hyperzone where the Miracleman family keeps all their spare bodies stored.

Nonetheless, the fact is, this one particular character/gimmick provides virtually every single bit of charm and personality the ongoing series displays. Coming up with such a character as a thematic interface between the Wakandan T'Challa and the Avengers Black Panther is an inspired creative move, but Priest's constant use of it sometimes makes one wonder if we really shouldn't change the name of the series to AGENT ROSS and the Black Panther COMICS. More seriously, it points out that while Priest has accomplished a great deal with his competent synthesis of the Panther's disparate thematic elements, McGregor's accomplishments in providing the array of depth that he did for the Panther's Wakandan aspects should be respected even more, since he did all this through focusing on T'Challa himself, not how T'Challa is perceived by a snotty little white guy with a trendy wise ass speech pattern and the currently in-vogue cynical personality.

Beyond this notation, I'd also add that Priest sometimes seems to get himself in over his head, as with the most recent issue of BLACK PANTHER, in which he tries to interweave a series of steadily escalating plot threads in such a way as to bring off a wholly surprising climax, and only ends up being completely confusing. Doubtless he was helped greatly in creating this contextual chaos by the inept flounderings of a hopefully short duration fill in artist, whose most profound accomplishment for the issue was to actually make me miss Sal Velluto, but nonetheless, I honestly think that Priest simply does not yet have the skill to pull this sort of thing off well. Alan Moore does it fairly often and smoothly, but Priest needs a lot more practice before he gets it right.

However, Priest's strong grounding of the Black Panther's presentation in his Silver Age roots, while just as firmly updating the character into a modern context, makes this comic one of the two books at Marvel that actually gives... or gave... me hope that the Silver Age continuity at Marvel could possibly be conserved as a valid basis and foundation for high quality, well written, ongoing series. I feel Busiek and Priest's work on, respectively, AVENGERS and BLACK PANTHER, give the lie to all the aging defeatists and shrieking young crybabies who have united in one loud, sniveling voice to demand that Marvel abandon their near four decades of continuity and reboot all their stodgy and decrepit old characters into fresh, trendy, revitalized "Ultimate" versions designed to appeal to the shallow, sensory overloaded tastes and microsecond attention spans of the increasingly less literate adolescent... an audience that, by and large, is abandoning comics by the brattish boatload as costs continue to rise to a point where the average cover price is easily in the same range as a matinee movie ticket or a video rental.

However, as I've noted before, the ascent of Joe Quesada to Marvel's hot seat fills me with no great hope for any movements towards continuity conservation, or even a prioritization of good writing.

Carlos Pacheco's first issue as writer/artist on FANTASTIC FOUR looks great and reads terribly, reinforcing my trepidation, as does the apparent commercial success of the Ultimates line, as well as Marvel's new announcement that they will be packaging the Ultimates' direct sales issues into a bigger, glossier, more newsstand/mass market oriented slick magazine format, along with various teen-oriented articles and interviews, in what I suspect will be the shape of successful comics as we head into the 21st Century.

Hiring a slick looking artist who can't necessarily write well to handle all the creative tasks on a comic is always going to be easier and cheaper than recruiting and keeping a good writer and a good artist, and such cost consciousness will most likely continue to play a major role in the editorial and creative decisions on what comics survive into the new millenium. The notion that there will be ANY Marvel comics other than rebooted Ultimate editions and high quality Silver and early Modern Age reprints for the nostalgia market in another five years is looking more and more doubtful.

Which brings us right back to the Black Panther, and his troubled tenure as comic's first black superhero. The Panther has at best enjoyed moderate sales success and fan approval, and given that, what chance is there that we'll ever see an ULTIMATE BLACK PANTHER series taking the concept onto the supermarket magazine racks and newsstands of the 21st Century? Perhaps if the rumored Wesley Snipes movie adaptation gets made and does well, some kind of Panther comic will continue to be published, if only to provide cross-media exposure for the character... but that hasn't happened for Blade, Vampire Hunter, as far as I know, so it seems unlikely to happen for a perpetual second-stringer like T'Challa.

Still, for now, Chris Priest is giving us a pretty decent version of a character I've always kind of liked, with a lot of healthy respect for the concept's Silver Age roots stirred into the mix. In the context of modern Marvel, that's a miracle in itself, and I suppose the only sane thing to do is enjoy it for as long as it lasts.


John Jones, the Manhunter from Marathon, IL, no longer dwells in Marathon, IL. He thinks the Black Panther is very very cool, but admits with some chagrin that he thought the character was cooler back when he actually had hair. But then, John Jones also thinks black male characters in comics were cooler before they all felt it necessary to start looking exactly like Samuel L. Jackson or Wesley Snipes, too. He's probably just too old to understand these things. Pity him. He'll never understand.

1 Comments:

Blogger MJ Norton said...

A generally pleasant trip back not only over comics going back to when I first started reading comics (FF #52 was the first issue of FF I owned, having it in isolation by several years between the time I received it and when I started actively collecting comics) but over the now long-vanished era of Priest's take on Black Panther.

What struck me as I read this again (and likely hit me the same time the first go-round, though I don't recall) is that as best I can recall T'challa as scientific genius was something brought in rather late in the game, and so wasn't something already in place for Roy to focus on. Sure, he was head of a super-scientific nation, but there was little to nothing to imply that he was anything but a reasonably well-informed and clear-thinking monarch who strangely took considerable time off to seemingly find himself via costumed adventuring. My perspective was that he wasn't much more of a scientific whiz for most of his early career than Prince Namor was; he simply had the advantage of a super-science to draw on, though he plainly took much more pride in his education than Namor ever did. Namor, really, was so much more into strength of arms as to be more akin to someone like Arkon, treating the actual science as if it were more a sense of treachery and dishonestly than anything else.

Giving T'Challa a creative and scientific turn of mind was something... I'd have to look into to determine when it was first strongly hinted at, much less stated.

Presumably T'Challa had already received a university education before he ever sent out that invitation to the FF. It was the late 60s, too, and I doubt there were as many strict standards and teaching-specific courses for a prospective teacher to pass -- especially if they were applying for a job as teacher in an inner city environment. If a specific bit of documentation had to be forged or bought, well, the kids likely got better than they would have otherwise.

Besides, for all of Roy's terrible, "hip" dialogue and forced social relevance, I still have a great fondness for that Sons of the Serpent two-parter (issues 73 & 74), with the Black and White angry television personalities turning out to have a common agenda.

Also, while we weren't given boudoir scenes, Roy did give T'Challa a romantic interest via Monica Lynne right around this time.

The whole McGregor era, being something I was aware of but only picked up as remaindered comics from second-hand comics shops (by then that meant the top quarter to third of the cover was missing and there was a razor cut part way through the issue) here and there months after the fact, is the section of this piece of greatest interest to me because, even now, I'm not sure I ever got around to seeing if I had the run collected and actually read it. I certainly seem to have little to no memory of it beyond some of the covers.

That Priest revisited the whole Avengers period and recast it in the framework of his gathering intel on the Avengers, etc. was a nice stroke in the long term, all the moreso since it (in the short term) ruffled some fan feathers.

9:41 PM  

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