In 1973, Don McGregor and a scattershot team of artists began releasing a classic 13 part super-hero story that predated the "adult" stylings of Watchmen & the Dark Knight Returns by over a decade. "Panther's Rage" was a dark, dense American super-hero comic that featured African characters in every single one of its key roles, keeping with McGregor's plan that "all of the characters save one would be black".
One month ago, after over 36 years, the story was collected and reprinted for the first time.
This is the first in a multi-part look at that story. The second part is here.
"Panther's Rage" - Chapter 1-3
Originally Appeared in Jungle Action # 6-8, 1973
Written by Don McGregor
Art by Rich Buckler & Klaus Janson
Published by Marvel Comics
"Why would an African chieftain decide to be a school teacher in Harlem?"
-Don McGregor, from his introduction to the Marvel Masterworks
Panther's Rage is a revenge story, about a man who comes home to find another man trying to steal his life, and what he decides to do about it. It's sort of about the selfishness of colonialism, and it's kind of about knowing (and honoring) one's heritage, but it's also about a guy who is really, really good at two things: being unwilling to die, and being a badass motherfucker. Depending on the way you define the second one, the first may be unnecessary.
Panther's Rage opens in media res, and the story of how the Panther got to this moment is only dealt out in blips of exposition--he was away, his country began falling apart, he's back now. By the fifth page, where the above panels come from, he's already failed. He managed to kick some ass (more on whose ass it was later), but he didn't do so quickly enough to save this old man, this old man who he didn't remember, this old man who, unlike quite a few others, still had faith in him.
Making the Panther a volunteer schoolteacher in Harlem wasn't an evil thing for the previous writer to do, but it was, as McGregor so pointedly acknowledges, a pretty stupid thing to do. T'Challa isn't an African-American looking for his place in the world, he's an African, all caps, but more importantly, he's the spiritual and political leader of an entire country. If he wants to dick around above the Upper West Side and teach poor kids, that's sweet, but what McGregor realized (immediately, and irritatedly), was that this effectively meant the character had abandoned Wakanda, and all of his people along with it. Whatever in-story reasons there were for that choice are never brought up in the comic--like the character, McGregor realized that no explanation would be acceptable. He left, they suffered. The "why" doesn't matter.
While the first chapter of "Panther's Rage" has to introduce most of the major players that the story eventually has, it isn't a slog of character introductions. Almost every character (with one notable exception) is introduced by way of side conversations surrounding specific plot developments. The Panther returns to his throne room, carrying the body of the old man above, and we meet W'Kabi (one of his leading warriors) and Monica (his current, American girlfriend). They have a brief conversation that defines the emotional place they're currently at (in so doing, it lays out the arc each of them will follow throughout), and then the Panther leaves, mistakingly thinking he can go and resolve the current situation overnight. On the way, we're introduced to yet another character, Taku, who will join W'Kabi and Monica in the spotlight for the rest of this 13 part story.
But there's somebody else that has to arrive. Somebody who--despite his infrequent appearances--will serve as the primary driver for the story that McGregor has to tell.
Erik Killmonger, the villain of "Panther's Rage" is one of the more complex villains that a super-hero comic can have, if you can forgive the outfit. His motives--to unseat T'Challa and take over as ruler of Wakanda--are standard stuff, as is the "we were close, once" relationship that McGregor includes. But here's the thing about Erik: he only exists because of the choices that Black Panther has made. The strength of the army he's raised to defeat his foe isn't dependent upon the super-powered asylum rejects that serve as his lieutenants, but on the very real feelings of abandonment and impotent contempt with which the Wakandan citizens have towards a leader who has been spending the better part of his time playing boyfriend to an American girl while dicking around in a land far from his own. Erik's methods are barbaric, murderous, they're just plain wrong, but his primary complaint--that T'Challa left his country behind--couldn't be more spot on. If the Panther had stayed at home, hell, if he'd even taken the time to institute some sense that he cared what happened while he was gone, Erik would've been another sole lunatic, decrying injustices that no sane person sees evidence for, standing in an empty hall, cursing at the moon. Instead, he found an army in search of a leader, and a war in search of a plan.
When they first meet, the Panther doesn't understand this. He doesn't understand Erik. Which is why, when Part One reaches its final page, he loses. He doesn't lose out of trickery, and he doesn't lose because of cheating. He goes up against Erik, he tries as hard as he can, and he fails.
These two pages come from Jungle Action # 7, serving as the recap and aftermath of the fight that concluded in issue 6. I'll get into another one of these title pages in more detail below, but for now: look at that prose! So ornate, so florid, so many BOLD WORDS and EXPLICIT DESCRIPTION. This isn't just about a man falling down a waterfall, this is about a man traveling to his to past to recall the lessons his father taught him, struggling for breath in the face of paralyzing terror, grasping to accept and yet still battling against the death that hungers for him, and all of it--while he may have only just realized it--because he wasn't good enough.
Having established the status quo, having introduced both reader and character to the villain he's created, the second part of "Panther's Rage" twists the knife. First, McGregor introduces the only white character that will appear in the series, an albino snake freak named Venomm, who will end up playing a key role in Taku's story, as well as the series proper. There's time taken out to give the villain a proper origin, (basically, he's Killer Croc with externalized reptiles) and then the Panther, who barely survived the waterfall and is now licking his wounds in his throne room, explains his past relationship with N'Jadaka, the man who has now become Erik Killmonger. Driving the stake of failure even further, Panther's revelation regarding Erik's past makes it clear that Wakanda didn't fail the man once, but twice--the first time being when no attempt was made to rescue former slaves captured during the raid depicted in the Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four stories--and yet T'Challa still seems a bit unwilling to admit his own culpability in the villain's creation. (Later. Later!) From there, the comic plays to form; a new villain has arrived, the Black Panther has something to prove, and prove it he does. Venomm versus the Panther. This is how it ends.
There's a lot to like about Panther's fight with Venomm, the least of which that it's one of the rare fights in the comic where the battle is between two human beings, but as a whole, the four pages of snarling brutality that the action consists of are a bare shadow of the savagery to come. But the key moment of importance in the panels above aren't in what Black Panther is saying, they're in what he's looking at.
The fight that concludes above takes place on a ledge overlooking "An immense mining operation--bathed in eerie illuminosity, the valuable ore streaking through the stone walls radiating a bluish overcast". (Dig into that sentence. Purple as the costume!) This mining operation, run by Killmonger's men, worked by his "death regiments", has been operating under the Panther's watch, undiscovered by his own guards, right in the heart of his home. He had no idea. After returning to the country he abandoned, he failed to realize that the Kirby/Lee created mineral that gives Wakanda its economic power was being quietly stolen from underneath him. Even more than when he was easily bested by Killmonger, this is the moment when the depth of his failure is yanked from under his nose and shoved, forcibly, down his throat. When he lifts his eyes away from what that that ledge overlooks to make his promise, he's looking away not just in keeping with the stories melodramatic style, but because he can't make that that promise, or any like it, while staring at the extravagant magnitude of his blindness. He's whispering it because he knows that he can't live up to anything quite yet--based off what the next issue depicts, his next move after what you see above was to sneak out of the cave without capturing or shutting down the operation--and he's whispering it because he's not sure that he will ever be capable of living up to a promise again.
This is what happens when you walk away, the villains keep saying. This is why your friends stare at the girlfriend you've brought into your home with bewildered disgust. "You left us behind, and everything fell apart." they say. "You can blame us if you want..."
But it's obvious where the failure lies.
While all of the chapters of Panther's Rage have great title pages, the one above that opens Jungle Action # 8 is undoubtably the most inventive. Everything that takes place in the story--the Panther's exercises on the palace grounds, the appearance and initial attack by new villian "Malice"--it's all laid out in these two pages, hiding amongst the letters that title the story. I'd like to avoid the "this is better than that" comparisons as much as possible, but something like this forces my hand: nobody does title pages like this anymore. It's a masterful introduction to the story of Malice's attack on the castle, far more interesting than it would have been to just tack the words above similar drawings. Beyond that, it's fluid, musical comics, timed out to keep pace with the drums of the ritual depicted, a brilliant piece of "only in comics" extravagance in keeping with the no-whimsy-here attitude that pulses throughout.
Following the revelations of the last issue, T'Challa has returned to his palace, where he has begun the "rituals" that will grant him his "sacred Panther powers". It's all hogwash, of course--old medicinal stuff that supposedly gives the character greater strength, faster healing abilities--but even if it's not, the actual motive is what matters. What matters is that the character is returning; he's embracing the generations of heritage that he had left behind during his absence. These rituals--"boiling juice extracts", uneven, unrelenting combat, immense physical pain--are what his father and his people have done since Wakanda's inception. Even the characters most in doubt of T'Challa's dedication seem impressed, and that's exactly why he's doing it. He tried to go to war alone already, and he failed. But if he's going to restore the glory of serving him--and that's what the Wakandans are, his subjects, born to follow--then he has to prove to them that he deserves their faith. It's the Panther legacy that's kept them around, but the stories are no longer enough. They need something more, they need proof, and this archaic violence is the only acceptable option.
And yet, again, the degraded state of Wakanda is on display. Malice--the female villain depicted in the letters above--easily sneaks past the palace security, making her way to the castle jail. There, she eavesdrops on the gentle Taku as he attempts to make some kind of peace with the imprisoned Venomm. As Taku's quiet openheartedness begins to tear at the shields the bitter albino lives behind, his rescuer finds herself more and more disgusted. This is who she's here to save? "Some palace handmaiden made soft by palace intrigues"? As her revulsion grows, outside, the Panther rekindles the same feeling in his people.
Set upon during the heart of of the ceremony by the American girlfriend he brought with him, T'Challa--in full view of the very men this ritual was intended to win back--abandons his heritage yet again. After Monica interrupts what she views as "torture", T'Challa walks away, ending the ceremony prematurely. As he leaves, one of the older men, a man whose family has passed down these rituals for generations, roars at him, "you must not forget your responsibilities!" To which T'Challa responds "Not even sleep allows me that comfort."
But it does, doesn't it? The ritual is important, his country is important, defeating Killmonger matters--as long as his out-of-town girlfriend isn't upset.
Monica's role in Panther's Rage is a necessary one, but that doesn't make it particularly enjoyable. Outside of this story, she's a strong, independent woman, deserving of respect from the man she's currently seeing, but inside it, she's the physical representation of the choices that T'Challa has made to the betrayed people who live in Wakanda, the choices that resulted in the death and horror that has beset their country. That doesn't make what happened in Wakanda her fault--it isn't, not in the slightest--but it does make her presence, at times, difficult to swallow. She's a harpy, she's a fool, she's selfish, and she's stubborn, and while all of that is in keeping with what she represents, both in the story and in the way anyone might behave if everything they knew and understood was uprooted, transplanted around the world, and then told to accept, she's still an obvious Ugly American stereotype. She exists so that the Panther can struggle against his desire to be an individual (a role where he gets to be with her, romantically, with no other pressing concern) and his obligation to rule, which is a role that allows no time for the nurturing and even-handed fairness he abandons the ceremony to provide her with. He's her boyfriend, sure, but he's also the set-upon god and ruler of a country that desperately needs him, and in that struggle, there's only one acceptable choice.
The battle that ensues when T'Challa returns to the castle is a brief one, expertly depicted by Rich Buckler, and while it ends abruptly, with Malice easily escaping out of a castle window, there's a brilliantly nasty scene that foretells the coming tragedy that will strike W'Kabi.
Things are going to get far, far worse.
-Tucker Stone, 2010