Christopher Priest didn’t want to write Black Panther. Conventional wisdom suggested that a predominantly white comic book audience won’t buy a book starring a black hero. And in the 20 years since Panther’s Rage, T’Challa had been watered down into a pretty boring character. Why write a book destined to be canceled within a year?
He was convinced to take the job anyways, and the book hit the ground running, with the freedom that comes from having nothing to lose. The first story arc features a complicated conspiracy involving a coup in Wakanda, mud wrestling, Bill Clinton with a hockey stick, and The Devil’s Pants. And when the book sold just well enough to avoid cancellation, the book just got weirder.
Priest’s T’Challa is a big picture guy. He sees the world as a chessboard, and he is always five moves ahead of everyone else. He is Batman with a nation, Doctor Doom with a conscience. He’s a hard character to identify with, and for this reason, he isn’t really the main character of the book. That role falls to Everett K. Ross, T’Challa’s government attaché, and self-proclaimed whitest white guy in America. Ross is a (frequently hilarious) everyman, and he narrates almost every issue.
Ross, a cynical wisecracker, completely out of his element, stands in sharp contrast to Black Panther, who is noble and stoic and always in control. The end result feels like two separate comic books layered on top of each other. T’Challa’s story is one of triple-dog-serious matters of state: A book for people who liked Suicide Squad. On the flip side, Ross’s story is an irreverent deconstruction of the Marvel universe: Jokes and indignity for people who liked the Justice League International.
For the whole run, it felt like Priest pretty much did whatever crazy thing he wanted. The book would have action and adventure and politics and drama and humor, and it would have all of these things in the same 22 page issue. During its course, not only did it crossed over with Deadpool, it crossed over with Quantum & Woody, which isn’t published by Marvel, and it crossed over with Thor #370, a fill-in issue from 1986.
Panther’s archenemy in this book is The White Wolf, who is T’Challa’s brother, and a Wakandan superspy. White Wolf keeps doing evil superspy stuff against Panther’s wishes in order to help Wakanda. And its king. He excellently fills the role of the flip side of Black Panther’s coin.
Also causing trouble in Wakanda is Rev. ibn-al-Hajj Achebe and his hand puppet, Daki. Achebe is a dude who sold his soul to the devil for revenge and insanity, and who now wants to be king and queen of the universe. This book is weird.
Any part of Panther’s history that didn’t ring true, Priest would try to fix. Why would an African king fight dress up and fight crime? Why would he join an American superhero team? There was a teenage Wakandan superhero named Vibraxis, master of Vibration? What the hell was up with Kirby’s Panther? This book connected all aspects of Black Panther’s history, including the return of several elements from McGregor’s run, most notably Erik Killmonger, who Priest fashioned into a complex, sympathetic villain.
In celebration of Black Panther’s 35th anniversary, we were treated with a 100 page issue reprinting Fantastic Four #52, 53, Jungle Action #8, as well as giving us a glimpse of the character 25 years in the future, all for $3.50. Then, for the book’s fourth year, my favorite, T’Challa must deal with a man from his past (or is that future) the swashbuckling Kirby Black Panther from the 70’s.
With two Panthers, the book achieves maximum loopiness. Panther and Iron Man steal each other’s companies. T’Challa annexes a Canadian island. The whole supporting cast hook up with Thor and Loki in the wild west. And as Ross tries to figure out who the hell this extra T’Challa was, the serious one becomes increasingly worried that he is turning into a supervillain. Great stuff.
And then things changed drastically. After four brushes with cancellation, Marvel mixes things up in a big way. For the book’s final year Sal Velluto and Bob Almond, the book’s stalwart art team were kicked off of the book, and with them went almost the entire cast, including Ross and T’Challa. The book becomes about Casper Cole, a police officer who finds one of T’Challa’s costumes, and uses it to try to dig himself out of the crime drama-y mess that he finds himself in. This story isn’t bad, but it is a major letdown after the large scale nuttiness of the prior four years, and it fails to keep the book alive.
The book had been a rollercoaster ride. You never knew what the next twist was going to be, but you could rely on there being one. And if it occasionally seemed as if the payoffs should have been bigger, you didn’t worry about it because the book kept moving continuously forward. It was a hell of ride.
Tomorrow, the ride is over as Black Panther Week continues.
Originally published at The Triangle. You can comment here or there.