EP0012: Black Panther by Christopher Priest: The Complete Collection Volume 1

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In preparation for the Black Panther movie, we take a look at the beginning of Christopher Priest’s 1998 influential run on Black Panther, Issues 1-17.

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Transcript follows:

T’Challa fights evil in Wakanda, in the air and in Hell’s Kitchen, while his State Department liaison tries to avoid getting hit by Bill Clinton with a hockey stick. I’ll tell youall about it as we take a look at the beginning of Christopher Priest’s run on Black Panther ahead in the Classy Comics Podcast.

Welcome to the Classy Comics Podcast where we search for the best comics in the universe. From Boise, Idaho here is your host, Adam Graham.

T’Challa, the Black Panther, was the first black superhero. He was introduced in the pages of Fantastic Four by Stanley and Jack Kirby back in 1966. He begins by kidnapping the Fantastic Four. Good heroic opening if I’ve ever heard of it, but it’s only to test them to see if they would be able to help him with the problems he’s going through in his nation of Wakanda. He later makes a big appearance with Captain America, which leads to him joining the Avengers and becoming a long-term character later as he would appear repeatedly as a member of the team and as a guest star in other books.

His own series would be a bit more challenging, that would definitely have some highlights. His first solo series wasn’t in his own book but in the series Jungle Action, and with the story Panthers Quest by Jack McGregor. The series saw him trying to stay alive against Erik Killmonger, a Wakandan expatriate who returned hoping to claim the throne and the power of Wakanda for his own. The story had striking art. It also had some very dark moments as well as a certain reflectiveness. Many consider it Marvel’s first graphic novel, this multiple part story told over two years.

After the cancellation of Jungle Action, Black Panther got his own series written by Jack Kirby who also did the art. This was a lot more adventure/fun/Sci-Fi than the Jungle Action, and it also get a mini-series as well as a few more scripts by McGregor who would create some sequels to his original story in the ’70s.

He continued to be a pretty low profile character until the 1990s, and perhaps the best thing to happen to Black Panther was Marvel going bankrupt. This led to Marvel Knights where Marvel outsourced comics for characters who were kind of low profile including Daredevil, Punisher, The Inhumans. Yes, pushing the Inhumans has been going on that long, and Black Panther was among them.

African-American humor writer Christopher Priest was brought on to write the series. His status as a comedy writer shows throughout – he made many changes and expansions to T’Challa’s world and also redefined the character. Everett Ross, played by Martin Freeman in the upcoming movie was created by Priest.

So, we’ll take a look at the series; we’ll start by looking at his take on the characters before we get into the plots. Everett Ross is Priest’s big innovation. It was his idea that the comic book readership which was predominantly white Americans needed a character who could be a bridge to T’Challa who’s, of course, an African. For that reason he creates Everett Ross, and Ross is hilarious. He can also be frustrating.

Ross is the primary storyteller in the book and he is a bit scatterbrained to put it mildly. He tells the stories in whatever order occurs to him. It’s kind of a thought for thought storytelling process. I have to admit that it probably was a bit maddening if you were getting this book one Issue at a time.

The book opens with Ross making a grand entrance into the Black Panther series sitting in the bathroom with a gun, but without pants, hiding from a rat. We have to take several issues to find out why he ended up in this particular situation. It’s not a big deal if you’re reading it in a collected edition form, but like I said I can understand if you were reading this Issue by Issue it would be absolutely maddening. For many it was like ‘OK, why did this happen? Why do I have to wait till next month to find out why the things are the way they are?’

Ross’ very humorous, very high energy – he’s almost a cartoon character. He’s the sort of balance off the wall kind of guy with silly and clever terms or phrases, random and bizarre physical actions as well as a comical situation such as when he’s left in charge of Wakanda while the Panther tends to some business in New York. My favorite Ross scene is when Bill Clinton is chasing him with a hockey stick while Ross tries to rollerblade away from the angry president, and again we all have to wait several issues to find out what Clinton was so angry about.

What does make Ross particularly good as a narrator despite the scatteredness of the narrative is his overall admiration for T’Challa and the way that he works to communicate the author’s overall perspective. Because, you remember, Wakanda at this point is the home of the world’s Vibranium surprise, a key element in the Marvel Universe. And Priest’s view of T’Challa, I think, is summed up pretty well in Issue Twelve and it’s over a splash page where a giant flying submarine has come out of the East River.

Ross refers to T’Challa as ‘The Client’ and he writes, “The thing people keep forgetting about my Client is, well, he’s a king. He’s not just another nut job in tights. He’s a full-bird monarch from one of the most technologically advanced nations on the planet, and somehow we keep forgetting that. I mean, if there is a guy who is totally capable of hiding an amphibious craft the size of the Jupiter Two in the East River, well a guy other than Prince Namor, my client would be it. There were over 150 heavily armed Wakandan Special Forces group soldiers on board. How long had they been there just waiting for the king’s go call is anybody’s guess, but the lump in my throat told me for all we knew the Client could have parked three hundred of these all over the country.

“The main difference between King T’Challa and Prince Namor is the attitude. Either of them could park an army in our back yard and it would be all over before we knew what hit us. The King of New Jersey had declared war on the United States of America but what nobody actually realized he was totally capable of fighting it and maybe even winning it.”

This goes to build, I think, a lot of the impression of Black Panther as a legitimate hero and someone not to be trifled with. Other things that were introduced are the Dora Milaje, and essentially these were two karate expert teenaged girls who were from rival Wakandan tribes who served as T’Challa’s bodyguard as well as additionally being wives-in-waiting, though it’s made clear T’Challa had no intention of taking advantage of them in that way. And actually the only really interesting thing to happen with them was when T’Challa was under influence he thought one of them was his ex-fiancée and kissed them, leading her to believe that they were engaged, which ultimately led to her doing something that had T’Challa dismiss her.

But I think from a [writing perspective] part of the reason that she was dismissed is that they just were not interesting, so in the latter portion of the book we get a new member to replace the departed one and that is a young woman who calls herself Queen Divine Justice. She was Wakandan-born but actually raised up in Chicago and became a bit of a social activist and Priest manages to poke some fun at that and gets away with it because it was the 1990s. She’s a fun character and I think definitely adds something to the book that the other girls did not quite have. There are other characters too that don’t quite have much purpose. There was Zuri who is a long time ally of T’Challa’s. He’s a huge guy – he has to be about eight foot tall. He’s got proportions very similar to Thor when they are in the same panel [missing audio] other than provide a humorous moment every few Issues.

Now, in terms of plot, the first Twelve Issues are a pretty well-connected story even though they ended up originally published in a couple different trade paperback. The first was The Client which essentially had the first five Issues. The first part of the story finds the Panther in the United States after a child was killed who is involved in a charity that the Panther had sponsored. His investigation leads to the involvement of Mephisto, a malevolent bane who is at times portrayed as the Marvel Universe’s version of Satan, and at times kind of not. In this version I think it’s more of a kind of not situation – he’s clearly malevolent, very dangerous and ends up taking T’Challa and Ross to a Hellscape environment – though he did first give Ross a pair of pants and with no strings attached.

However, this whole thing actually had been a plot to overthrow T’Challa’s government and put a mad, phony religious leader named Achebe in charge. Achebe was several breaks short of a full load. Wakanda had chosen to take in refugees from a war torn country, and Achebe had been among them. This led to some resentment at home which was then exploited and end up putting Achebe in charge.

The next half of that first year was dedicated to finding out who exactly was behind this, and it ends up being a kind of complicated political conspiracy involving organized crime, some actors within the US government, and led to T’Challa making some accusations at the United Nation which Bill Clinton got angry at Ross for T’Challa doing it and wanted to get him to recant them.

The final five Issues in The Complete Collection which we’re reviewing, Black Panther: Complete Collection -Volume One by Christopher Priest feature a more loose plot – stories do tie together but it’s not quite as clear cut as in the initial Twelve Issue run. You have him fighting Hydra Man on a hijacked airplane; you have a guest appearance by The Hulk, and there reemergence of Eric Killmonger – although what exactly his plan is doesn’t emerge in this first Volume.

There’s also an effort to kill T’Challa in Hell’s Kitchen with someone having enlisted a lot of Marvel’s 1970 street-level villains such as Cottonmouth, Stiletto, Cockroach in order to finish off the Panther, but as the villains gather at the end of Issue Sixteen we’re introduced with the heroes who will stand with T’Challa and you have a very cool spread featuring Blue Cage, the Falcon and Iron Hand. It’s an awesome close to Issue Sixteen and Issue Seventeen has a very solid fight.

The art within the first Seventeen Issues of this collection is uneven – there was a lot of different artist who worked on this. It started with Mark Texeira. Texeira’s art has a kind of realistic quality to it but also there are some weird looks on faces and some very odd things about it. The story then goes to a more traditional artist but quite a few pencillers in a short issue – we’ve only got Seventeen Issues in this Volume, and there were a total of Five or Six different pencillers on this. So, you see a wide variety of art styles – probably Joe Jusko’s was the best with a very vibrant drawings that look cutting edge for the time, but also done in such a way that they’re very attractive to look at. The book still features a lot of excesses of 1990s art with a little bit of over-muscling here and there, and the plots do have some problems. I don’t, for example, really understand the issue where a local black politician is trying to set up a rally with T’Challa without his permission, and there’s the police trying to stop him from speaking – even if it leads to a riot, and then Ross has some hear and see issues of his own at times.

I wouldn’t recommend the comic for young readers – it mostly stays out of the gutter but there are some issues that have a moment or two you might not want to show to your eight or nine year old, though it foreswears gore and overall remains pretty enjoyable. So I would gladly rate Black Panther: The Complete Collection – Volume one by Christopher Priest a Classy Comic despite its few problems.

Alright, that’s it for now. If you have a comment e-mail it to me classycomicsguy@gmail.com. From Boise, Idaho this is your host, Adam Graham signing off.

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