Detail from Jungle Action featuring the Black Panther #19, by McGregor and Graham, Marvel (1973).

Songs About the Southland: Marvel’s Black Panther vs. the Klan

It was a hot Southern summer when the Black Panther came down South to do battle with the Klan.

“Ain’t no change in the weather.

Ain’t no changes in me.”

— J. J. Cale, “Call Me the Breeze”

It’s a hot summer way down South. Hot in Atlanta. Hot in Memphis. Hot in Jackson and Montgomery and New Orleans, too. Hot in Birmingham.

That ain’t nothing new.

It’s been hot here for as long as I can remember.

It was hot when I was a kid—so hot the crops failed, so hot the bare earth burned our bare feet.

After a long day of play with Matchbox cars that we pushed through dirt roads that had been scratched in the dusty ground in the shade of a mulberry tree, I would go inside, where the window air conditioner hardly stood a chance, and curl up in a chair with a cold bottle of Coca-Cola and a Marvel comic book to help the heat slip away.

In the pages of those comic books I would travel to New York City with the Avengers, to the American Southwest with the Incredible Hulk, to the Blue Area of the moon with the Fantastic Four, and to futuristic Wakanda and the jungles and plains of Africa with Prince T’Challa, the Black Panther.

I didn’t know it at the time, but writer Don McGregor and artists Rich Buckler and Billy Graham were producing a masterpiece in the pages of Marvel’s Jungle Action. From 1973 through 1976, McGregor unfolded the tale that he called “The Panther’s Rage”. T’Challa was brought back to Africa from his self-imposed exile in the United States, brought back to resume the duties that went with his crown and to surround himself with friends and family from Wakanda.

From Jungle Action featuring the Black Panther #21 by McGregor and Graham, published by Marvel (1973)

These were not the “white man brings civilization to the jungle” stories that the name of the book might have implied. As a matter of fact, they were anything but. Whole issues went by with hardly a white face to be seen. Black people made the decisions here, drove the action, fell in love, made mistakes, saved the day. It would be a wonder to see such a book in 2015. It was even more wondrous in 1975.

Then, in the January, 1976 issue, McGregor and Graham brought T’Challa and his lover, Monica, to the American South. They brought Monica home to Georgia and home to the summer heat.

The opening pages of their tale about the Southland are burned into my mind to this day.

The Panther crouches on a tree branch, silhouetted against the brilliant yellow moon. Below, Monica stands at her sister’s grave. The night is hot. September has brought little change to the Southern summer; it seldom does. She is lost in thoughts. In her memories, Monica and her sister push those model cars through those dirt roads under that mulberry tree.

It’s a peaceful moment, peaceful if sad. I imagine that she would stand there forever if she could, lost in those thoughts and memories. I imagine that the walk back in the heat would require too much effort, that it would be better just to stand there in the moonlight, at the grave, on that Georgia clay, on that September summer night, awash in peace—if also in sorrow and sweat.

But the peace does not hold. Violence is in the air. Men in robes and hoods stumble from the shadows. The battle is fought, Panther and Monica against the hooded figures of the night.

There’s a mystery to be solved: the death of Monica’s sister seems more complicated than the local Sheriff wants to believe. There are two groups of villains: the blue and purple clad Soldiers of the Dragon and the hooded wraiths of the Ku Klux Klan. They both use violence and fear and intimidation to get their way, shattering the peace that the sultry heat would seem to impose, breaking the nighttime silence with sounds that echo in the humid air.

From Jungle Action featuring the Black Panther #21 by McGregor and Graham, published by Marvel (1973)

From Jungle Action featuring the Black Panther #21 by McGregor and Graham, published by Marvel (1973)

Throughout their tale, McGregor and Graham juxtapose the peace and stillness of the Southern summer with hatred and violence, a juxtaposition that is as familiar to us Southerners as the flash of lighting bugs against the deep blackness of a summer forest. The Panther, he lingers in the treetops in front of the yellow moon—a thing of wonder and beauty and peaceful perfection—while below him the white sheeted cowards gather ’round their burning cross. Then, the blue, green and purple of the swamp frame the body of the Panther after he has escaped, ablaze, from the cross to which he had been tied.

McGregor called his multi-part story “The Panther vs. the Klan”. Maybe Marvel editorial was looking the other way when this story went to press. Maybe Jungle Action was just too unimportant a book for anyone to care. Or maybe editor Marv Wolfman was ready to push the envelope, ready to make it real. The fact that the villains in white sheets were called the “Klan” with a “K” on the inside of the book but were called the “Clan” with a “C” on the covers made it seem like there was some second guessing going in. In any event, it sure felt like McGregor and Graham were getting away with something here, straining at the limits of what comic books were supposed to do, of what comic books were allowed to do.

One might think that the character of the Black Panther was always meant to push the limits, and in some respects he was. When Stan Lee and Jack Kirby introduced him in 1966 in the pages of The Fantastic Four #52, he was the first black superhero to be published by either of the big two publishers. Despite the fact that the Marvel character premiered the same year as the founding of the Black Panther Party, there’s little evidence that Lee and Kirby had any broader political agenda in mind other than taking a small first step toward diversifying comics. The fact that the Black Panther was originally to be called the “Coal Tiger” is perhaps an indication that radical politics were not on their mind when the character was introduced. And of course, by making T’Challa an African prince rather than an African-American, Marvel was able to sidestep many of the racial issues that were dividing the country at the time.

At the time? Who am I kidding? The issues were equally at the fore ten years later when McGregor and Graham threw the Panther into the hot Southern summer. They are still with us today.

Especially in the South.

I wasn’t there in 1966 when the Black Panther and the Black Panthers leapt onto the scene.

But I was there in 1976 when T’Challa and Monica came down South to battle the Klan. I was in Alabama—home of George Wallace and Bull Connor (and Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King). I read comic books to escape from where I was. Now, in the pages of Jungle Action, for the first time the superheroes were coming to me, to a place where the kids scraped roadways in the red clay and pushed model cars around like they were somebody important, somebody with someplace to go.

From Jungle Action featuring the Black Panther #21 by McGregor and Graham, published by Marvel (1973)

I knew what this Klan stuff was all about, you bet I did, though I didn’t know anyone who was a part of it. Sometimes they would march around the county courthouse and I would see pictures of them in the newspaper. They carried rebel flags like the one my older brother had tacked to the wall of his bedroom. Sometimes I would sneak into his bedroom when he was away and look at the flag while playing one of his Lynyrd Skynyrd albums. I have distinct memories of carefully dropping the needle of his stereo down on those songs about the Southland.

“Sweet Home Alabama”, of course, and “Free Bird”, too.

“Free Bird” was my brother’s favorite song. It was his anthem, his code of life. A few years back I recited the lyrics at his funeral:

If I leave here tomorrow,

Would you still remember me?

For I must be travelin’ on now.

There’s too many places I got to see.

“Free Bird” told us as much about the South as “Sweet Home Alabama” ever did: “this bird you cannot change”. It was the same thing that Skynyrd told us when they sang J.J. Cale’s “Call Me the Breeze”:

Ain’t no change in the weather.

Ain’t no changes in me.

It’s a hot summer way down South.

And the rebel flag is flying, if not at the state house then in the back of pickup trucks.

And good people face violence and intimidation.

And the Klan and the Black Panthers clash.

That ain’t nothing new.

Ain’t no change in the weather.

Ain’t no changes in me.

Except that some of us were changed, are changing. For the better, we hope. Though the how and why is sometimes a mystery. Maybe because of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn or because of Scout’s clear voice in To Kill a Mockingbird. Maybe it was the courage of Rosa Parks or the resounding eloquence of Dr. King.

For me I think it started here.

When I was just a boy I came in from the Alabama heat and the Alabama clay; I opened an ice cold bottle of Coca-Cola and read Marvel comics.

I read McGregor’s and Graham’s tales of the Black Panther. I read about the evils of the Ku Klux Klan. I saw the burning cross of fear and intimidation, this one with the Panther hung on it—a black Jesus, an African Christ. I read about old Caleb Horton, Monica’s enslaved ancestor. I saw how he was intimidated and murdered by the men under the hoods. Then I saw Caleb’s story with Monica’s hopeful eyes, how she imagined things might have been different had the Panther come to the South, not in 1976 but in 1876. I saw justice and injustice in black and white.

From Jungle Action featuring the Black Panther #21 by McGregor and Graham, published by Marvel (1973)

It was a hot Southern summer when the Black Panther came down South to do battle with the Klan.

Ain’t they all.