A full decade before The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, an entirely different, multi-year saga pioneered modern superhero comic storytelling. “Panther’s Rage” was the first definitive Black Panther story and kickstarted a narrative revolution a decade before Frank Miller and Alan Moore.
While today’s superhero comics tell one story arc over roughly six issues, and then get promptly released in trade paperback format, “Panther’s Rage” dropped at a time when newsstands were still the primary mode of distribution for comic books. It had to be structured a little differently. Don McGregor and his art team — which included artists like Rich Buckler, Gil Kane and Billy Graham; inkers Klaus Janson and P. Craig Russell; colorist Glynis Wein; and letterer Janice Chiang — hit upon a more ... novel approach. And they did it when Marvel Comics was in considerable upheaval.
The roiling cauldron of the Bronze Age of comics
The 1970s were an odd time for superhero comics. Marvel had come back from near-obscurity the decade before, when creators like Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko broke established format to craft long-running soap operas around Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four. Not only that, but Marvel also touched on issues concerning one of their primary audiences: college kids. Peter Parker’s old bully Flash Thompson got drafted to Vietnam; Spidey himself got swept up with campus protesters, and the Hulk represented Cold War nuclear anxieties writ large.
But in 1970, the House of Ideas lost a founding pillar, when Jack Kirby — co-creator of virtually every Marvel superhero except Spider-Man (though he always maintained he’d helped there too) — left the company. Marvel was left floundering, and that wasn’t the only change.
Stan Lee moved on from writing essentially the entire Marvel line to become publisher in 1972, leaving his, Kirby’s and other creations in the hands of ascended fans. These include names like Roy Thomas, Gil Kane and Gerry Conway, who was 19 when he succeeded Lee as writer on The Amazing Spider-Man. As the new creative status quo solidified over the decade, Marvel published a plethora of definitive superhero storylines, including “The Six-Arms Saga,” “The Kree-Skrull War,” and the original (much better) “Secret Empire,” and tapped into the underground comix zeitgeist with tongue-in-cheek creations like Howard the Duck and Man-Thing.
But one of the company’s most pioneering heroes was cast aside. Created by Lee and Kirby, King T’Challa of Wakanda — aka the Black Panther — premiered in the pages of Fantastic Four in 1966 and, after a few more appearances, wound up joining the Avengers. But with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s spilling over into the Black Power movement and anti-racism riots of the 1970s, one Marvel employee felt that just shunting the Panther into a slot with Earth’s Mightiest Heroes wasn’t enough.
From Ancient Reprints Comes … A New Kind Of Hero
Don McGregor joined the staff at Marvel in 1972 as a proofreader and occasional short story writer. As time went on, he found himself dissatisfied with some of the books Marvel was putting out. One title in particular — the bimonthly Jungle Action — rankled him.
Writing in 2010 for Marvel’s Masterworks hardcover reprint of Black Panther, McGregor recalled that “Jungle Action [was] a collection of jungle genre comics from the 1950s, mostly detailing white men and women saving Africans or being threatened by them. I voiced a lament that I thought it was a shame that in 1973 Marvel was printing these stories, and couldn’t we have a black African hero?”
Evidently, one of the higher-ups agreed with him. At an editorial meeting, McGregor was assigned to write both Killraven (a recently launched sci-fi story that would become famous for featuring comics’ first interracial kiss) and a new Black Panther feature that would run in Jungle Action.
Running from 1973 to 1976, “Panther’s Rage” saw the Panther return to his nation and people after a long absence, only to deal with both distrust and anger from his court and a violent revolution led by the sadistic, calculating Erik Killmonger (who, as played by Michael B. Jordan, serves as the villain of the Black Panther film). The overarching story of “Panther’s Rage,” which ran for 13 chapters, was about T’Challa and Killmonger. But each chapter mainly saw T’Challa battle either a specific villain, like the deformed snake handler Venomm, or the elements of his own nation, like the giant white gorillas populating the polar mountains of Wakanda. This provided a complete, contained adventure, while slowly advancing the overall plot to keep readers coming back.
“Stories with a self-contained feel is definitely an ideal way to craft monthly or bi-monthly comic books,” says Joseph P. Illidge, a writer and senior editor with Lion Forge Comics. He’s also a pioneering comics figure in his own right, as a key figure in the black-owned publisher Milestone Media and the first non-white Batman editor in DC history. “The present approach to superhero comics would do well to emulate that model more.”
“Panther’s Rage” was operatic in the way that other iconic Marvel runs often are. It often focused on even the emotions of secondary characters, like the agony of a small boy named Kantu whose father was murdered, then zombified by Killmonger’s forces — and on the mutual understanding between Venomm and T’Challa’s sensitive right-hand man Taku (a relationship McGregor recently said he intended as a gay romance).
The psychological weight — and physical, since he gets progressively beaten to hell as the story goes on — all comes back to T’Challa. Yet, despite all the considerable agony he goes through, he makes sure to come out on top. Because he knows he has to. During a fight with Venomm, the snake-handling baddie cries, “I won’t let you steal my chance for respect!”
“Respect!” T’Challa retorts, rendered by Buckler as a terrifyingly intense fighter. “Speak not to me of respect! You’ve made a mockery of that word — and to attain respect, you must first acquire such ability for others!”
That moment demonstrates what Illidge sees as one of Black Panther’s key attributes.
“His kingship is his character,” he said. “Unlike [other contemporary black Marvel heroes], he has the responsibility of an entire African nation on his shoulders. An African nation which remained free from colonization, while other empires rose and fell ... ‘Panther’s Rage’ is the first and possibly most distilled exploration of that status and burden of responsibility.”
To Illidge, “‘Panther’s Rage’ is a revolutionary movement in comic book form. Its further value is to examine the storytelling techniques, and to gain insights into how the comic book medium uses imagery and design to affect the reading experience. Comic books are a synthesis of words and images with narrative qualities not found in any other medium, and “Panther’s Rage” is a clear confirmation of that fact.”
The legacy of ‘Panther’s Rage’
While appearing slightly dated to modern eyes, “Rage” still has a host of arresting visual moments. From the way Buckler draws T’Challa springing into action to rescue an old man being tortured, to the way the story’s seventh chapter re-stages the climax of the first, it’s frequently breathtaking to behold. The artist’s work with individual chapter titles echoes what Will Eisner was doing in The Spirit not 30 years before.
McGregor and company went the extra mile for practical reasons — one chapter ends with a visual recap page summarizing the story so far — and for purely artistic ones. McGregor justified including elaborate maps of Wakanda as spreads by arguing that, as there hadn’t been a solo Black Panther story before and little exploration of Wakanda before that, if “you were going to set an entire series in Wakanda, and how T’Challa worked as a King within that culture, then that had to be a prime area of focus and research.”
And, as the late Dwayne McDuffie pointed out, McGregor, Graham and the rest “only [had] 17 story pages per issue … [in every issue you’ll] find seamlessly integrated words and pictures; clearly introduced characters and situations; a concise (sometimes even transparent) recap; beautifully developed character relationships; at least one cool new villain; a stunning action set piece to test our hero’s skills and resolve; and a story that is always moving forward towards a definite and satisfying conclusion.”
Sadly, despite its thrilling conclusion, “Panther’s Rage” gave way to a more bittersweet ending for Jungle Action. A second story arc, “Panther vs. the Klan,” which pitted T’Challa against the Ku Klux Klan, was cut short when Action was cancelled in 1976. Instead, Marvel made way for a solo Panther comic written and drawn by Jack Kirby (who by then had returned to the company). “Panther vs. the Klan” was somewhat resolved in that series, then finished in a completely different title written by someone else.
Luckily for people curious about Black Panther comics — like the current, critically acclaimed comic written by Ta’Nehesi Coates and drawn by Brian Stelfreeze— or the Black Panther film (which has been getting rave reviews across the board), “Panther’s Rage” was republished as an affordable trade in Marvel’s Epic Collections line last year. Its chapters are also just beginning to be rolled out online, on Marvel Unlimited. Bound to be on display in bookstores and sites like Comixology to tie into the movie, it’s worth picking up — if only to learn that epic superhero storytelling didn’t just spring up fully formed in the 1980s.
Tom Speelman is the former manga/anime critic for the Eisner Award-winning Comics Alliance. He’s proofread and edited several books for Seven Seas Entertainment and other clients and can be found on Twitter @tomtificate, where he’s usually yelling about comics.