Marvel Studios’ Black Panther launched pretty much every character in it to a new height of fame, including the movie’s compellingly complicated villain, Erik Killmonger. Like Shuri before him, this week he’s thrust into the spotlight thanks to a solo comic of his own.
Written by Bryan Hill, with art by Juan Ferreyra, Killmonger tells the story of how the man who would come to take over Wakanda by force rose to power, before his eventual downfall.
This week’s Killmonger #1 begins in a position familiar to anyone who’s seen the film: A shirtless Erik beating T’Challa in a one-on-one match and preparing to throw him off a mountain waterfall. But instead of asking if this is their king, Erik flashes back to how he got to where he is today. In Erik’s Marvel Comics origin story, he was a young child named N’Jadaka when his family was exiled, after Ulysses Klaw forced his father, N’Jobu, to help him to attack Wakanda.
His childhood exile in Harlem led Erik to change his name and to abandon a promising post-MIT graduation future in favor of a mission of revenge against Klaw. And naturally, just as Killmonger has Klaw lined up in his sights, things go wrong.
Both the film and comic versions of Erik love to be in control. This Killmonger is trying to grab control of his life back after it had been so suddenly uprooted, and that desire is spread across the issue. He sleeps with his college counselor because it doesn’t just allow him to feel in control of how he leaves MIT, he can also call her a “colonizer” before he departs: he can think of himself as a superior Wakandan sleeping with an unworthy white woman. True to Michael B. Jordan’s portrayal of the character, he’s even worse when things veer even slightly off plan, as when, in a fit of rage, he executes a poor soul by slamming a window full of broken glass onto his neck.
Denied of his vengeance, Erik gets beat down and tied up by a trio of enforcers working for Wilson Fisk, who is doing his natural Kingpin thing by being in business with Klaw. Rather than being driven out of town, Erik gets approached by one of the enforcers — a man known only as Mr. King, who’s sporting some telekinetic powers — who asks him to join their crew. Since Erik’s botched assassination drove Klaw into hiding, King figures that Erik can help King’s crew get more clientele through Fisk. And Fisk’s connections will get Erik close enough to kill Klaw.
In a letter in the issue’s backmatter, Hill notes that his Killmonger is a tragedy, delving briefly into the tragedy of his own anger at the world, for reasons parallel to Erik’s, and the fear that stemmed from those emotions.
“Fear is a confident pilot, but a poor one,” he writes. “It tends to crash the plane. Erik, despite all his power and ability, won’t allow himself to face his fears. And that’s why this ends the way we all know it will.”
A story about Erik Killmonger is one that’s always going to end in him dying while trying to conquer Wakanda, angry and afraid of being abandoned by his people. He’s been dead for years in the comics, and he died in the film. But while Erik Killmonger the character may never really get to win — Killmonger #1 is a great kick off to a new series. One that just might become the victory he deserves.