Can't wait for 'Black Panther'? Here are the must-read collections

Andrew A. Smith

Tribune Content Agency

If you’ve got Black Panther fever and can’t wait for the movie to premiere Feb. 16, 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 #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 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.

Cover by Gil Kane. Copyright Marvel Entertainment Inc.

Don McGregor’s seminal “Panther’s Rage” story has been collected in Marvel’s Masterworks line, and in a separate series of hardbacks and trade paperbacks. 

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 another 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.

Cover by Joe Quesada. Copyright Marvel Entertainment Inc.

Christopher Priest’s Black Panther run is another must-read, and is available in a series of hardcovers and trade paperbacks. 

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 the 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.

Cover by Brian Stelfreeze. Copyright Marvel Entertainment Inc.

The latest Black Panther series began in 2016, written by celebrated author Ta-Nehisi Coates with art by Brian Stelfreeze. It’s being collected in an ongoing fashion in both hardcover and trade paperback. 

 

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.

Find Captain Comics by email (capncomics@aol.com), on his website (captaincomics.ning.com), on Facebook (Captain Comics Round Table) or on Twitter (@CaptainComics).

 

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The only Panther stories I've read are the Kirby ones that reached Earth-44 from Earth-J.  As with many Kirby stories of that period, they pretty much ignored the existence of the Greater Marvel Universe.

It was the Christopher Priest run that made the Black Panther something somebody would even want to put in a movie. 

I don't think the Black Panther time-travels in the frog story. The frog brings Hatch-22 from the future and the united frogs return him.

Agreed. I knew there was something wrong with Panther being a schoolteacher in Harlem and subbing for Daredevil and being in the Avengers as nothing more than a glorified acrobat, but I didn't really put in any thought to how all those situations were wrong and how they should be fixed. But Priest did, and fixed them all, and set in stone that the Panther is a king first, and everything else second. And that elevated the Panther to an A-list character whose uniqueness is now obvious.

Which takes nothing away from Coates. Priest was first, and did the heavy lifting, but Coates is doing now is just remarkable. This isn't a story, it's a narrative epic like Gilgamesh or something, where you keep learning new stuff at ever turn that feeds the narrative so you're in position to understand the next thing. 


ClarkKent_DC said:

It was the Christopher Priest run that made the Black Panther something somebody would even want to put in a movie. 

"Panther's Rage" was one of those seminal stories that continue to reverberate through T'Challa's life in various ways. The problem was that no one else could write that Panther into other stories or make him as compelling. That was the reason for the backlash against the Kirby series because it was practically a Bizarro Panther compared to McGregor's.

That being said, as a child, I first read about the Panther in Avengers #121-124 so he was always this super-acrobatic fighter that didn't need super-powers to be effective. After that he was written out of the book and he always seemed not as important when he returned for brief periods, especially when Captain America was there.

I consider Priest's run on Black Panther as an all-time favorite of mine. 

I tried Coates' series, and it just didn't work for me, and I gave up on it fairly quick. I know it gets pretty high praise, so maybe I will revisit it if I can find trades on the cheap. 

What do folks think of Panther’s Quest, the McGregor / Colan run that was collected last month?

Honestly?

It didn't work for me. I said so much in a review from a few years ago.Actually, I don't think I've ever liked anything I've read by McGregor. I'm sure other people feel differently though.


Mark James Schryver said:

What do folks think of Panther’s Quest, the McGregor / Colan run that was collected last month?

Horse races and all that. 

I wasn't much of a fan of "Panther's Rage," either, Randy -- I thought it over-written and self-indulgent, like most of McGregor's material. But I get how important it is in Panther history, and consider it a must-read for any fan of the character.

It's also available as Marvel Masterworks: Black Panther Vol. 1. The second and last MM volume is the Kirby material.

The Priest run has been reprinted as four books, and I sure recommend those.

As to Coates, Travis, I do recommend you give it a second try. If I had been buying it monthly, I might have stopped after the first couple of issues, because he threw a lot of irons in the fire -- so many, none of them seemed to be moving forward or related in any way. Hey, it was his first comics-writing job! But I read about 20 issues in a row, so it had time to grow on me. It begins to gel around the fourth issue, and the dialogue gets really sharp. 

"Over-written" and "self-indulgent" are Don McGregor's middle names.

On the off chance that anyone is interested in the Kirby run, feel free to comment here

Thanks for the recommendation, Cap. I will definitely re-examine Coates' series

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