Friday, 18 October 2013

Essential Black Panther volume 1

Essential Black Panther volume 1 contains Jungle Action #6-22 & #24 (plus the covers of the reprint issues #5 & #23 which reprinted Avengers #62 and Daredevil #69 respectively) and Black Panther #1-10. The Jungle Action stories are written by Don McGregor and drawn mainly by Rich Buckler and Billy Graham, with Gil Kane and Keith Pollard each contributing one issue. The Black Panther issues are all written and drawn by Jack Kirby. Bonus material includes some original layouts, pencils and full art from the series plus some of McGregor's note covered envelopes that held his papers on the series and even a letter from him to a young fan by the name of Ralph Macchio.

Jungle Action was the second series by that name. The original had been a mid 1950s title about white adventurers in the jungle. The 1970s series began life reprinting some of those adventures and stories from Lorna, the Jungle Girl, another 1950s series, before opting to give the Black Panther a headline series. Such was McGregor's dismay with the nature of the reprinted material that he created extra features to keep them out, such as a map of Wakanda or even Jack Kirby's original sketch for T'Challa when he was to be the "Coal Tiger". There were also some reprints of previous artwork featuring the Black Panther, though they're not included here, with the result that the title was fully focused on T'Challa, the Black Panther and King of the African country of Wakanda.

And what a series was launched. The first thirteen issues carry an epic saga entitled "Panther's Rage" that could almost have been written for a collected edition. Some of the other attempts at sagas from this era tended to get bogged down by the need for each part to also be an issue of an ongoing series, and early cancellation frequently led to unsatisfactory resolutions in other places, but here we get a complete story now collected together and it holds up remarkably well in this format. It's even more impressive to see the story made it out completely when one considers it took over two years to tell the story in a mostly bimonthly series that skipped a release between issues #8 & #9. But I am surprised to see it doesn't seem to have had any reprints before the Masterworks in 2010 and then this volume from a couple of years later, and none standing alone.

"Panther's Rage" is a tale about a young king facing a concerted revolution led by an ambitious and embittered rival. Hero kings have been the stars of stories since The Epic of Gilgamesh and it's surprising just how many possibilities there are - far more than just tales of threats to the kingdom from either invasion or an attempted take-over. But even those themes can work anew when handled in the right way. The 1970s was a turbulent time in Africa with the euphoria of decolonisation having passed and many countries found themselves struggling with major social and economic problems with resulting political turbulence. And here we have a partial reflection of that.

T'Challa has returned home to a kingdom which, going by the map that appears twice, seems to be about as small as Liechtenstein. We don't learn too much about the country's history or location, though the map gives it an Atlantic coast thus placing it in west Africa. It doesn't appear to be a recently decolonised country and so it has presumably maintained its independence. However it now experiences a culture clash as the Wakandians' traditional way of life meets the technology and western customs that have come along with its new young king. The result is described as "a super-scientific Disneyland in the African jungle" but it isn't all paradise. Bizarrely the kingdom also contains some very rare wildlife including surviving dinosaurs. But despite the multiple influences upon it, Wakanda is portrayed well and its people are treated with a strong degree of respect, with no primitive savages, just different cultural experiences. This is shown most vividly in a brief scene when the village Karota steps inside a hospital and has no understanding of injections, thinking she has been stabbed, and finds the language of the doctor incomprehensible when he talks about nutrition and vitamins. Ignorance is not stupidity, just a lack of knowledge and experience, and new things don't always mean progress.

At the heart of the story is the villain Erik Killmonger, born N'Jadaka by which moniker a village has been named after him. Yet Killmonger is used rather sparingly, fighting directly with the Black Panther in the first couple of chapters but then taking a slight backseat and working through his agents before the direct confrontation in the climax. It's a bold move but the result is that the key villain isn't overused. Killmonger comes with a backstory that is primarily focused upon his personal objections to T'Challa. There isn't a great exploration of the ideological underpinning of Killmonger's revolt, with a large part of his anger stemming from having been exiled after a previous invasion by Klaw. However there is a sense of the culture clash behind some of the opposition to T'Challa, with even his own supporters and courtiers expressing some reservations about and hostility towards symbols of this influence, most obviously his American born girlfriend Monica Lynne. Killmonger focuses upon these, and at one point arranges for Monica to be framed with murder charges, though T'Challa gets her cleared.

Killmonger has a wide variety of henchmen, with several chapters devoted to their individual struggles with the Black Panther. They include the likes of Venomm, a master of snakes, Malice, a court handmaiden and assassin who seeks to frame Monica, Baron Macabre, who can raise the dead as zombies, King Cadaver, a mutated being who fights by distorting perceptions, Lord Karnaj, a more technological foe who fights with sonic disrupters, Sombre, a mystical being who dwells in the mountains and who can control fierce animals, and Salamander K'Ruel, an archer whose blistered body can generate thorns. There are also more general foot soldiers, with commentary by Tayete and Kazibe. T'Challa also clashes with a variety of wild animals such as Preyy, Killmonger's leopard, the White Gorilla, giant crocodiles, giant serpents, pterodactyls, and tyrannosaurus rexes. In the epilogue to the saga, the Black Panther encounters Madame Slay, who lives among and commands leopards, and her silent henchman, imaginatively named Mute. All in all it's quite a diverse set of foes that enhance and enliven the saga.

So too do the various supporting cast members. By far the most prominent is Monica Lynne, the woman T'Challa met in the United States and brought home. She is the source of much tension in the court but the Black Panther remains devoted to her, including clearing her of framed murder charges, and there are some particularly tender scenes between them. T'Challa's court is also present, with the most prominent being W'Kabi, the Security Chief, and Taku, T'Challa's Chief Advisor. W'Kabi is developed somewhat over the stories as we see his marital troubles, and he also badly wounded with the result that his right arm is replaced with a bionic limb, one of the few points where the series shows its age.

"Panther's Rage" is a well-constructed story but it's also surprisingly violent for its era. T'Challa regularly staggers from fights with his costume torn and his body bleeding, rather than the spotless look superheroes had often had up until now. There’s a high body count in many of the fights and the artwork isn't afraid to show it, including some of the covers such as issue #10's which is reused as the volume's cover. Very often the biggest developments in comics are made in obscure series starring less well-known characters, and here is almost the definitive example of a hidden classic.

The saga is followed by "The Panther vs. the Klan!" (a title that seems to run through just about every combination of abbreviation and punctuation in its short run) in which T'Challa and Monica are in Georgia in the States, investigating the death of Monica's sister Angela with the help of local reporter Kevin Trublood. It appears that the Ku Klux Klan are responsible but the revelation that one of the hooded attackers is black shows the involvement of another sinister organisation, the Dragon's Circle. Whilst meeting with Monica's parents Lloyde and Jessica, T'Challa has several encounters with what appear to be the Klan, including a fight with the mysterious Wind Eagle, and is badly burnt on a cross. However the saga doesn't get very far with signs of artistic problems including a fill-in reprint in issue #23 and issue #22 being slightly diverted as Jessica recounts the story of what happened to her grandfather's cousin Caleb in the early years after the Civil War when the Klan was establishing itself and support facilities for ex-slaves were really concerned about securing their votes. As the tale is told Monica starts to imagine a version in which T'Challa was present and saved the day; a sign of how much mythology is generated from true stories.

It's surprising to see a head of state seemingly abandon his kingdom, even if he is investigating his girlfriend's family, so soon after the recent revolution in Wakanda. And T'Challa moves about Georgia like a private person, even if he is wearing his costume, rather than as a head of state with all the resultant security. The story as a whole seems to have some good ideas behind it but it's very slow to get going and when pace does pick up it's suddenly abandoned as Jungle Action was cancelled in favour of an ongoing Black Panther title written and drawn by Jack Kirby.

This was the start of the second year of Kirby's 1970s return to Marvel after just over five years over at DC. On both occasions his arrival was trumpeted by the companies, even putting his name on the cover, recognising he was one of the earliest star creators with an acknowledged fan following that transcended individual titles. Kirby was now doing his own writing, a practice he'd followed on many of his 1940s & 1950s strips but then stopped for virtually all his Silver Age Marvel work before doing it almost exclusively since just before his 1970 move to DC. Marvel in this period also had a practice of the "Writer/Editor" with a single individual filling both key roles on a series. Although Archie Goodwin is credited on all ten issues as "Consulting Editor", "Overseen by", "Glimpsed by" and various more exotic credits, this was a time when his position was evolving into the "Editor-in-Chief" role that would be fully formalised around Jim Shooter in the next few years, and many individual books were left to the own devices of established writers. This could restrict the amount of overview such a creator might otherwise have been subjected to. And there's a long history of star name creators who move back and forth between companies such that they often have a latter day return. And it's a sad truth that many have been unable to reclaim their past glory years. Either their best work was in a collaboration that at last one member won't return to, or their style is no longer in tune with modern tastes, or modern editorial conditions make it impossible for them to work under the same conditions or for the same goals as before, or they may just not be able to recapture their past glories. The list of once great names producing lesser work in later years is sadly quite long and the reaction to the recall of a past star can be quite harsh. Sadly what we get here is very much a change for the worst.

Often when a series changes writer the new one rapidly phases out elements of what has come before and wraps up ongoing storylines in a way not intended by their initiator. But here Kirby just ignores everything completely and starts afresh. Even the Black Panther's status appears to have altered before someone seems to have pointed it out. T'Challa has suddenly become the "son of the king" and the "Prince of Wakanda". In story terms it probably makes more sense for the hero to be a crown prince who can go out into the wider world rather than a ruler who should be looking after the kingdom (although later in the series he's stated to be the ruler albeit through a regent), but in continuity terms it feels like Kirby hadn't even being paying attention to what had come before. The concept of an explicit continuity reboot was extremely rare at the time but in other ways the approach feels rather like something that came decades later in comics. A previous big name artist had left the company to go and create, both writing and drawing, a new world of characters at another company, and now returns to the first company taking over an existing series but in the process it's restarted from #1 and existing continuity is ignored with even some of the basic details of the characters changed, and the reaction is muted with the once all conquering artist coming in for huge levels of criticism? Yes it feels rather like the Heroes Reborn of its day.

No one can deny the greatness of Kirby's contribution to the foundations of the Marvel universe. But his latter-day work presented here feels awkward and stilted, and very much out of line with the prevailing trends of the day. Even the artwork feels off - particularly the Black Panther himself whose appearance in black and white is let down by the heavy use of ink blobs on his costume to stimulate its dark appearance (although this may be the fault of Mike Royer's inks rather than Kirby's pencils). And when compared to what they replace, the storylines just don't feel spectacular. T'Challa is caught up in the quests of a group called the Collectors who seek rare artefacts. Allied with one of them called Mister Little, T'Challa gets caught in conflict with another Princess Zanda in the search for brass frogs that work as time machines, or immortality granting water, with the searches taking in King Solomon's tomb and a group of immortal Samurai in a hidden mountain lair and struggles with various strange beings such as a man from the far future or a Yeti. Meanwhile back in Wakanda (which, in another alteration to what had come before, now appears to be about three hundred miles due south of somewhere in Sudan - then including what is now South Sudan) T'Challa's half-brother Jakarra leads a brief military coup before exposing himself to the country's mound of Vibranium and mutates into a monster that spreads disease and nearly explodes the Vibranium. Whilst T'Challa seeks to make his way home, with a Mafia boss and the filming of a science fiction movie in the desert both delaying his journey, several of his cousins are summoned and despite having all taken non-fighting lifestyles as members of the Panther Clan they do what they can to delay the monster until T'Challa makes it home to defend his kingdom. It may sound an exciting chain of events but there's no convincing reason for T'Challa to have left in the first place to get tied up with the Collectors and the execution feels rather flat.

It's a curse of the Essential format that the bad is regularly automatically caught alongside the fantastic. Here that's especially true. Jack Kirby may have co-created the Black Panther and was on of the greatest giants of Marvel but this piece of his later 1970s work shows that even the biggest names produce less than stellar work and that when they replace spectacular other creators the result isn't always an improvement. However Kirby's dialogue, whilst not spectacular, doesn't feel as awkward and stilted as critics often claim. But overall the end of the volume is a sheer disappointment. Don McGregor may have had a slow start on "The Panther vs. the Klan!" but it could have gone somewhere and it was real insult to simply ignore both the storyline and all of the characters he had built up. Kirby's Black Panther work might as well be from an alternate reality, such is the difference between the two.

However this volume as a whole is more than worth it for the McGregor issues which are amazing and deserved to be more widely seen.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...