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What to read before you see Black Panther

Brush up before your audience with the king

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From the cover of Black Panther #33, Marvel Comics, 2001. Sal Velluto/Marvel Comics

Marvel’s Black Panther is only a few short weeks from hitting theaters on Feb. 16, and once you’ve gotten the basic details of the story down — long line of kings, Panther God’s Chosen, hidden African nation — you might be interested in diving into the character’s comic books.

I can help.

Black Panther’s first appearance

From the cover of The Fantastic Four #52, Black Panther’s first appearance, Marvel Comics, 1966. Jack Kirby, Stan Lee/Marvel Comics

I don’t always recommend starting with a character’s first appearance, and I don’t necessarily recommend that with Black Panther. While his origin has remained roughly the same as Jack Kirby and Stan Lee penned it in 1966, Black Panther’s stories have certainly reached greater tonal and emotional heights since.

But if you simply must start from the beginning, there’s no harm in getting some historical perspective. T’Challa’s first appearance and telling of his origin story occurred over the course of Fantastic Four #52 and #53, in which he recruits the Fantastic Four to help him with the return of an old foe.

But if you don’t have Marvel Unlimited, don’t shell out money on the issues until you read the next entry!

Panther’s Rage

From the cover of Black Panther Epic Collection: Panther’s Rage, Marvel Comics (reprinted in 2016). Marvel Comics

Panther’s Rage, Don McGregor’s 19-part story, doesn’t just hold a special place in Black Panther’s history. It’s also in the running to be considered the earliest superhero graphic novel: a novel-length tale told over multiple parts, and designed to tell a story of that length from the get-go.

Told as the main feature of 19 issues of Marvel’s Jungle Action anthology series, Panther’s Rage saw McGregor and a slew of the top artists of the time (including penciller Gil Kane and inker Klaus Janson) take the Black Panther on a globe-trotting quest. McGregor focused on the character’s adventures in Wakanda for the first time, placing him among his own people, rather than in America with the Avengers.

Panther’s Rage was the first series to take him seriously and sincerely as a solo character, and to flesh out his mythos with a cast of supporting characters. Some of those characters are still a core part of Black Panther stories today, like Erik Killmonger, who fills the role of central villain in the Black Panther movie (and is played by Michael B. Jordan).

Panther’s Rage is one of the only entries on this list that can’t be found on Marvel Unlimited, so if you want to get your hands on it, you’ll have to find its 2016 collected edition, Black Panther Epic Collection: Panther’s Rage, in hard or digital copy.

The collection also includes Black Panther’s debut Fantastic Four issues. If you want to read both, you can pick them all up in one package.

Black Panther (1998)

Everett K. Ross in Black Panther, Marvel Comics, 1998. Christopher Priest, Mark Texeira/Marvel Comics

Are you ready for something completely different? Priest’s (a writer who has also been credited as Christopher Priest and Jim Owsley) 1998 run on Black Panther is still regarded as one of the character’s most iconic.

The above image is taken from the very first panel in the whole thing, showing the U.S. State Department’s Everett K. Ross (cast very accurately as Martin Freeman in the Marvel movies) in medias res. The “client” he refers to is the King of Wakanda, née the superhero Black Panther, whose visit to America Ross is charged with facilitating. Priest’s run uses Ross as a point of view character, and a necessary one for the major tonal shift he had planned.

Priest’s Black Panther elevated T’Challa’s standing within the fiction of the Marvel universe — underscoring his kingship, displaying political responsibilities and political advantages, and exploring his outsider status among American superheroes. Priest’s run made sure that Black Panther was no longer interchangable with any other “jungle” hero or martial arts master: He was the Black Panther.

You can read the whole thing on Marvel Unlimited, or pick up collections on Comixology. These issues also contain the first appearances of the Dora Milaje, the all-female bodyguards of Wakanda’s royal family.

Black Panther (2005)

S’yan, the uncle of T’Challa, as the Black Panther in Black Panther #2, Marvel Comics, 2005. Reginald Hudlin, John Romita Jr./Marvel Comics

2005’s Black Panther series was known for the writing of Hollywood director/producer Reginald Hudlin (House Party, Django Unchained) and the artistic talents of John Romita Jr.

Hudlin crafted a story that focused on T’Challa’s family and his rule in Wakanda. He gave the reader a closer look at the interior life of the Black Panther, humanizing him as a character, while Romita’s stylization showed off a kinetic and cinematic world.

The series also introduced the character of Shuri, T’Challa’s half-sister and heir to his throne.

Black Panther (2016)

From the cover of Black Panther #9, Marvel Comics, 2016. Brian Stelfreeze, Laura Martin/Marvel Comics

Among Marvel’s biggest comics these days is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Black Panther, which launched in 2016 to significant critical acclaim and the kind of mainstream attention that comics rarely get.

Coates’ (and veteran artist Brian Stelfreeze’s) first arc, “A Nation Under Our Feet,” finds T’Challa at a crossroads: He has lost the confidence of his people, many of whom believe that he abandoned Wakanda for his work with the Avengers. The story guides Wakanda through its second massive transition of T’Challa’s reign, as the nation becomes a democratic constitutional monarchy.

And, you know, there are cool fights and badass warrior women and even Storm of the X-Men.

Rise of the Black Panther (2018)

Evan Narcisse, Paul Renaud/Marvel Comics

And finally, if all you want is one quick comic to read to get a handle on the character’s origin story from a modern standpoint, go out and get Rise of the Black Panther #1.

The first issue of Evan Narcisse and Paul Renaud’s six-issue miniseries is all about T’Challa’s earliest adventures as Black Panther. The first issue retells his complete origin story in a concise 20 pages, giving you everything you need to know about Wakanda, its gods and its royal family in one, beautifully drawn installment.

It’s a great starting point — but then, so is any of these picks. Happy reading!

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