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The Black Panther's Pulp Epic

The pulpiness of Black Panther stories is precisely what enables them to comment brilliantly on a variety of social issues, particularly the politics of race.

Those of us who are fans of Marvel Comics’ Black Panther know, all too well, that developments in his career are few and far between. So perhaps we can be forgiven for feeling a bit of irrational exuberance lately. After all, in the past few months we have learned that the Panther will have a prominent role in the next Marvel movie, and that his latest comic-book reboot will be scripted by the author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates.

That last piece of news is the one that really caught my eye. In general, there’s good reason to be skeptical when celebrities from outside the comics realm are brought in to try their hand at writing a series. Too often it feels like a gimmick: a vanity gig. But maybe this one is different.

In his books and his reporting for the Atlantic, Coates has made a reputation for himself as one of the most interesting and unsparing analysts of racial issues in America these days. He hasn’t been afraid to confront the challenges of the present --mass incarceration, housing discrimination, racist profiling and murders perpetrated by the police --or to trace their inevitable links to our poisonous racial history. Also, the Black Panther is one of the few superheroes whose doings might actually speak to us about ourselves at this moment in American racial politics.

He did so at least once before. That was back in the '70s, when he took center stage in two great story arcs that are among the best, and the least-read, that Marvel has ever produced: “Panther’s Rage” and “The Panther vs. the Klan”, created by the writer Don McGregor and the artists Billy Graham and Rich Buckler. The stories are great, pulpy fun, and the most unusual thing about them is that their pulpiness is precisely what enables them to comment brilliantly on a variety of social issues, particularly the politics of race.

The Black Panther made his first appearance in an issue of The Fantastic Four in 1966, just a few months before Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party. The comic-book Panther didn’t really hit his stride until the '70s, by which time Black Power had moved from the political margins to the cultural mainstream. With George Clinton and Sun-Ra creating an afro-futurist aesthetic out of comic-book images and sci-fi logic, and blaxploitation movies creating their own pulpy black supermen and superwomen -- Shaft, Foxy Brown, Cleopatra Jones -- the comic-book industry went looking for a piece of the action, too. DC Comics had Black Lightning; Marvel had the Falcon and the original blaxploitation comics hero, Luke Cage, who talked jive and showed a lot of bare chest.

The Black Panther, though, was really the anti-blaxploitation superhero. As the king of a small African nation, Wakanda, the Panther evoked an aura of Afro-chic, but he was himself resolutely unhip. No Jones or Brown, his name was T’Challa and he spoke with the precise elocution and gravitas of a foreign diplomat. His role as superhero became necessary when Wakanda was dragged into contact with the world community because it possessed a rare and extremely fictional natural resource called Vibranium. This metal ore had made the country wealthy, and had also, inevitably, brought the unwelcome attention of greedy Westerners.

All this background was sketched out by the masters of comic-book exposition, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, when the Fantastic Four first ran into T’Challa. But the Panther’s career languished as he played token supporting bits, until McGregor, Graham, Buckler, and their collaborators got hold of him and gave the Black Panther as compelling and conflicted a story as any of the real-life political dramas of the '70s. “Panther’s Rage” and “The Panther vs. the Klan” ran in the pages of the bimonthly title Jungle Action from 1973 to 1976, and each of these stories raised the stakes for comics dealing with black characters and racial issues.

"Panther’s Rage” is the story of the Black Panther’s struggle against a revolution within Wakanda. The “revolution” has no particular political aims; it turns out to be yet another battle between good and evil. In case there were any doubts about which side is which, the rebels are led by a spiky character called, of all things, Erik Killmonger. Mr. Killmonger’s lieutenants similarly adhere to the strict comic-book rule stipulating that villains must make their villainy known by their choice of names: Malice, Venomm, Lord Karnaj, Baron Macabre, and King Cadaver. The plotlines and settings are equally over-the-top; it turns out that the tiny nation of Wakanda contains not only huge alligators, giant snakes, and a genetically altered army of evil, but also a mountainous snowscape populated by murderous white gorillas, and even an unusually large dinosaur population.

This is pulp, in the best sense of the word. Jungle Action was clearly put together on the fly, by people for whom creative work was more a job than a calling. Even on its bi-monthly schedule, the effects of hastily-met deadlines can be seen. In the earlier issues, the Panther stories are fairly short and the comics are fleshed out with secondary jungle-themed stories reprinted from the '50s. These typically feature characters like Lorna the Jungle Girl or Pondo the elephant, who stars in a tale called “The Fury of the Tusk”.

The artwork of the Panther stories is accomplished—Billy Graham’s, in particular, is both sensuous and kinetic, with ambitious, innovative panel arrangements. But it's also uneven; sometimes a comic will switch artists in the middle, and the compositions sometimes appear to be hastily sketched. In several scenes two characters talk calmly in the dialogue balloons while their faces are contorted and shouting in the pictures, like a badly dubbed kung-fu movie.

Meanwhile, the writing of the stories is consistently, delightfully excessive. McGregor is a man who never uses one word when he could use 12, and his overheated narrative commentary sometimes pushes the artwork into the margins as the word-filled boxes expand and multiply like matinee-movie popcorn. The prose is pretentious, prolix, mannered, and didactic. In other words, it’s perfect. It's loaded with solemn McGregorisms like “Oft-times once you slay the dragon, its blood stains more than your hands.” Deep!

However, this oft-times goofy style is put in the service of a serious project. McGregor, along with Graham and his other artistic collaborators, had the rare ability to construct emotionally complex stories and worldly social commentary within the rushed, open-ended, and deadline-driven form of the comic book. In the Jungle Action stories, the modes of high and low culture are hopelessly mixed up, and the comics create a strange fusion of absurdly sophomoric pulp with drama and social observation that are decidedly grown-up.

For example, that revolution in “Panther’s Rage” turns out to be a stand-in for the larger, more irresistible wave of cultural change taking place in Wakanda. The wealth that the country’s unique natural resource has yielded has brought with it an influx of Western technology, and the comics dramatize the conflict between new cultural developments and old traditions as a central struggle of modern Africa. The Panther’s battle scenes are intercut with scenes of this quieter conflict, such as the storyline about a woman who is horrified and betrayed when her local healer takes up residence in a modern medical clinic and insists on giving her a vaccination.

Then there is the troubled situation of one of T’Challa’s military commanders, a traditionalist, who distrusts his new weapons technology and who cannot understand why his wife is leaving him to forge an identity of her own -- a subplot that succeeds in evoking the insoluble sadness of a marriage’s unravelling. In these overlapping narratives of national development and social change, these comics place racial issues in a cosmopolitan context that also reflects upon America’s own changing political landscape.

At the center of the conflict, of course, is the Panther. The story should really be called “Panther’s Progress”, following T’Challa as he moves through a series of battles and adventures that serve as an allegory for his nation’s struggle. At the heart of his journey are anxieties about racial and cultural authenticity. The Panther has brought his African-American girlfriend Monica with him to Wakanda, and this along with his foreign education makes him an object of suspicion to his people, and even to himself. As he battles snakes, alligators, gorillas, thorns, rhinoceroses, wolves and leopards -- threatened on all sides by the nature and landscape of his own nation -- it becomes clear that these are also symbolic battles, and that Killmonger’s forces represent the Panther’s anxieties about whether he is truly an authentic African.

It’s an unusual problem for a comic-book character to face, one that is made possible by the equally unusual racial makeup of the stories. With the exception of Venomm, all the characters are black -- and when black characters are not tokens but are instead simply the population of a particular fiction’s world, then it becomes possible to tell different stories, to ask different questions. Does he truly belong here, the Panther wonders, or has he sold out to the West and become irrevocably tainted? He confronts this fear daily, chiding himself when he catches himself interpreting events by thinking of Tarzan or Hitchcock: “Damn! he thinks,” at one of these moments, “must all of his reference points be so foreign to his native land?”

The comics themselves mix references from both Western and African traditions, emphasizing T’Challa’s dilemma. The Black Panther has a super-serious demeanor and sense of purpose (he is the sort of character who never laughs but occasionally declares himself to be “amused”) and the portentous drama of his quest is lightened up by his periodic run-ins with Tayete and Kazibe, a couple of comic-relief buffoons straight out of Shakespeare.

A different cultural context is evoked when, deep in the Wakandan jungle, the Panther meets an impish character called Mokadi, who seems to have his lineage in the trickster figure from African folk tale. (The Panther is irked to find himself comparing Mokadi to a woodland nymph—yet another Western reference.) He mocks the Panther with seemingly absurd questions and generally deflates his heroism, serving both as a representative of local tradition and also as a kind of ecological conscience, an oddball Lorax who objects to the Panther’s intrusion into the natural world of the jungle.

Once Killmonger’s revolution has been put down, T’Challa and Monica make a visit to her Georgia home and turn their attention explicitly to racial conflict in America. Investigating the mysterious death of Monica’s sister, they come into conflict with the Ku Klux Klan, who burn the Panther on a cross and leave him for dead. The cover images from this series, showing the Panther battling knife-wielding Klansmen and breaking free of the burning cross to attack his tormentors, make a surprisingly direct political statement. (This despite the weird choice of the editors to obfuscate by spelling the word as “Clan” on the covers; inside the comic it is spelled with a K.)

Although the Panther’s original appearance in 1966 was apparently coincidental to the formation of the Panther party, by 1975 a superhero named the Black Panther necessarily called black revolutionary politics to mind -- and an image of that hero fighting the Ku Klux Klan made the connection unmistakable. Readers are implicitly asked to align themselves with the politics of Black Power as a matter of superhero-comic convention and therefore of common decency; the Panther is necessarily “good” and so the Klan are evil.

It's unusual for a comic to abandon metaphor and put its hero into conflict with a real-life villain in this way, but McGregor and Graham go even further in this attempt to bring the banality of evil into the comics. The Panther’s fight with the Klan threatens Monica’s parents, who fear reprisals, and also suggests the extent to which the Klan is not a force of abstract malevolence, like Killmonger and his minions. The racist mission of the sheet-heads is shown to have its roots in the xenophobia and provincialism of ordinary citizens, like the mob that attacks T’Challa in a supermarket after he beats up two white criminals. We have met the enemy and he is us.

In one of the final issues of this story arc, the Panther even steps into the past to confront the history of Southern Reconstruction, to battle the Klan at the moment of its creation. Monica’s mother tells the Panther the story of her grandfather’s cousin Caleb, who in 1867 was threatened and then lynched by the Klan for meeting with politicians who were urging ex-slaves to vote. But while her mother speaks, Monica conjures for herself a comic-book version of the story. (The two stories run side-by-side on facing pages throughout the comic.) In Monica’s version a muscular and heroic Caleb stands up to the Klansmen and, with the help of the Black Panther, defeats them.

Like many works of African-American literature, including such very different novels as Sherley Anne Williams’s Dessa Rose and Colson Whitehead’s John Henry Days, this comic book views America’s racial history through the lens of the present in order to reclaim that history through the transformative power of the imagination. The juxtaposition of the two stories offers a fantasized alternative to America’s racial history, but also raises questions about the function and value of these fantasies of heroism, which are the stock-in-trade of the superhero comic.

All this realism, social commentary, and questioning of comic-book convention seems to have been too much for the editors and the readers. Jungle Action was cancelled in 1976, before the Klan story could reach any kind of satisfying conclusion. The Panther was safer when he stayed in the jungle.

The Jungle Action stories can still be hard to find -- unless you’re an obsessive like the 13-year-old me who tracked down all the back issues in comic-book shops, way back when. The two story arcs were reprinted as a volume in the “Marvel Masterworks” series, but that’s out of print now, too. (Of course in that format there are some unfortunate limitations anyway; you miss out on Lorna the Jungle Girl, not to mention the ads for Sea Monkeys and X-Ray Specs.)

Over the past 40 years, various writers and artists, including Don McGregor, have given the Black Panther just enough work to keep his Comics Hero Guild membership active, but none of these series have been nearly as fun or as interesting. So we’ll just have to keep hoping that Coates or some other writer comes along one of these days with a Panther plot that speaks to the racial politics of the 21st century in the way that McGregor and Graham and their pulp Panther intervened in the '70s. Those Jungle Action stories serve to remind us that a comic book aesthetic doesn’t have to be simple, that it doesn’t have to be separate from the messy dynamics of human relationships, politics, history, and race -- in America, Africa, or anywhere else.

Erik Dussere is the author, most recently, of America Is Elsewhere: The Noir Tradition in the Age of Consumer Culture (Oxford University Press, November 2013). He teaches literature and film studies at American University.

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