"Panther's Rage" Chapters 7-9
Originally Appeared in Jungle Action # 12-14
Written by Don McGregor
Art by Billy Graham, Klaus Janson, P. Craig Russell & Pablo Marcos
Published by Marvel Comics
As "Panther's Rage" begins its march towards conclusion, the separate chapters have a tendency to bleed together. Plot wise, they all follow a similar track: the Panther moves deeper into Wakanda's hinterlands, discovering truths about his country that he either didn't believe in, or was completely unaware of in the first place. Throughout the Panther's journey, his compatriots at home face their own, personal struggles. We'll get back to them, and that, later.
For now, let's talk about violence.
The basic plot of what T'Challa faces in the 7th through 9th chapters of "Panther's Rage" might most concisely be described as "Education Through Suffering". If you prefer your explanations with a bit less of what one might call "pithy bullshit", you've come to the wrong place, but you could also stick closely to the text on hand: as the Panther goes deeper into the unknown regions of his kingdom, he's forced into mortal combat with a continually heightened level of competition. He's ostensibly chasing Erik Killmonger, although you couldn't tell that from the way Erik laughs off his presence.
Instead, he fights. At first, it's against Erik--who bests him yet again, this time with the help of an acid-palmed associate named Sombre--but afterwords, it's against a pack of wolves. It isn't the first time that the Panther's fought animals in the story, it won't be the last, but it's these non-human battles where McGregor's smartest trick becomes apparent. There's limitations on how far the comic could've gone with the violence--I couldn't begin to specify what they are, but it was 1973 and we know that there were lines McGregor wouldn't have tried to cross--but if you examine the language and results of the battles that do occur, it's obvious how much more graphic all of the Panther's fights are against these non-human opponents. The three panels above depict the conclusions of each of those fights, and all three are lyrical journeys into flayed skin, claws ripping "into his chest and stomach", and a moment when "the panther's torn costume has become a dark cloth sponge that absorbs the warmth of his blood". Hell, when fighting the pack of wolves, T'Challa immediately spears one so that he can use its carcass as a weapon against the rest of the pack.
There's something at work here, and to get at it, we've got to take a look at something that might make you giggle.
There's no irony or humor in Don McGregor's descriptions of the Black Panther fighting a pack of hungry wolves, a bunch of albino demon gorillas, or even when he's up against a Tyrannosaurus Rex. That doesn't mean that it isn't funny, because it is funny, very much so. But it's not funny because it was intended to be, its funny because this is 2010, and having super-heroes fight dinosaurs is now considered something that's a bit quaint and archaic. That's not a criticism, exactly--well, not during the course of this paragraph. Super-hero comics have moved towards a sort of hyperbolic SWAT team realism and embraced a try-and-be-quirky conversationalist style because their readers and creators want them to be like that, and it's the height of foolishness to complain that super-hero comics shouldn't gear themselves towards whatever will please the group, considering how poorly they sell. They're almost always accidentally art, never by purpose--primarily products, designed to move, that's why there's always more next week. Their genius moments are rarer, and that's a good thing, otherwise you'd go broke chasing glory. Anyway, that's a one-off nothing, back to the point.
Snakes on a Plane.
Does it need further explanation? I'll try. See, if you're reading a super-hero comic that involves something on the magnitude of Hero Fights Dino, it's done with a wink nowadays, complete with a bloated solicitation that adopts a cringing "this is just between you and me pal, but The Hulk will be Taking Care of some Prehistoric Bizness, if you catch my drift", and of course, that's always followed by the requisite tweets from one of the creators the day of release that implies What A Bunch Of Gee Golly Craziness they were able to get past the suits down at the Corporate Frown Factory.
But it's Snakes on a Plane! You know it, they know it, anybody opening the comic knows it--it's that winking irony, the "we know you're a grown-up, but here's your chuckles anyway", it's the understated criticism of the act itself, as if there's some moral codicil that super-hero comics are graded against, and "fighting dinosaurs"--or giant albino demon gorilla tribes--is to be viewed as a lower grade of entertainment. (Specific examples of what people actually think of super-hero comics exist in abundance, but we're lacking in large consensus agreements; still, doesn't it seem that Grant Morrison's work in Batman RIP is generally viewed as being "smarter" than his "Batman fights Ninja Man-Bats" opener, despite the vastly more entertaining qualities inherent to the latter?)
How did this happen? That's a question I can't begin to answer--in part because I cannot, but more so that I simply do not care--but it's obvious that the attitude exists, laden as it is across every Avengers page where super-hero characters make fun of one another's costumes.
The thing is: we, readers, don't want the characters (or the creators) to be in on our dinosaur jokes. We'll tolerate it, sure, but at our core, we want them to take these things seriously, this fight that could never occur in their super-hero movies, so that we can enjoy it on both levels--the one where it matters to the story, and the one where it's just Fucking Ridiculous. The laugh is supposed to be ours, not shared in some digital salon with the creators in tow, seated amongst us on their marble slabs of authority. It's not a joke anymore, because we're all telling it together, and if there's only an audience, than we're not reading stories, we've drowned in sharing.
It's all a rub, so here's a payoff: there's nowhere else that these moments can work. Brett Ratner's a shitty action director, but it wasn't his fault that the "fastball special" looked crappy in the last X-Men film, it looked crappy because "realistic" comic book goofiness becomes a silly and strange thing that few people enjoy. Super-hero comic book characters aren't supposed to be like you and me (plus a gym), they're supposed to look like candy-colored explosions on paper, and when they don't--when they bend themselves into the contortions of realism that "mature readers" demand--they become hideously depressing beasts, inherently dopier than their gonzo counterparts. (At times, depression itself can work out its own gonzo advantage--witness the initial issues of Ed Brubaker's run on Captain America, where Steve Rogers is fastidiously portrayed as a depressive lunatic, shadow-boxing in his lonely Brooklyn warehouse of memory, or spend some time with Matthew Murdock, a character whose best stories are always built on a rock-solid foundation of Catholic-based self-laceration. But most of the time, the tact completely fails: examine the inability of everybody but Mark Millar (!) and Robert Downey Jr. to comprehend that being Iron Man might, despite what every current Marvel comic book keeps repeating, actually be fun.)
Is it a bit of a contradiction, what's being lambasted here? It shouldn't be, although the obtuse wording may make it so. It's actually pretty simple: in the decision to "grow up", super-hero comic books have tried to embrace a realism that their constituent parts--the fantasy, the costumes, the goof-shoes origins and stacks of cornball "history"--struggle against constantly. The discordant clamor of the two replaced the Serious Gravity of a dino punch-out with the winking gag, it replaced the screaming matches of expository soliloquies and "let's fox-a-trot over to that disco fire, Robin" with the hip-speak word deluge pages of a bunch of sub-Mamets, and it left the "Let's Get Radical" comics to those most inclined to understand its impact. It turned the silly parts serious, and it made fun of what it couldn't. (The success of Geoff Johns will always be in large part due to his ability to make his comics "matter" in terms of world comprehension, but there's something else noticeable about what he so frequently does: namely, that he seems to find nothing in the DC Universe to be the slightest bit funny.)
No matter--the reader has the advantage of being audience alone, no participation required. We don't have to fix this stuff, we just have to read it. Let's put it like this, and move on: Don McGregor was a hungry first-time Marvel writer when these stories came about. He'd left a secure job with far better pay to join the Marvel team, only to experience a dearth of editorial support and see his marriage collapse as a result. "Panther's Rage" and his work on Killraven were his attempts to prove his mettle at the company, this story a full-throated roar in hopes of getting the attention of readers. He put the character against a pack of wolves, then against massive white devil gorillas (catch that symbolism?) and then, finally, against an at-times terribly drawn T Rex. In the margins, his arch villain used crude oil to disrupt, corrupt, and ultimately capture the portions of Wakanda's natural world that T'Challa was too lazy to have ever known about. At home, the characters faced their own struggles, one against a swelling violence that eventually breaks into spousal abuse, the other against the terrors of an encroaching Western civilization, and two more in shared emotional combat with their own conflicting natures. Through it all, McGregor wrote long, copious sentences about the ever graphic damage a bunch of animals were doing to T'Challa, and at no point does he seem to have taken a breath and said "well, this is all a bit silly, isn't it?"
Not once. Instead, he plays it like some bastard version of Shakespeare, predating the soap-dripping mouth of Chris Claremont's Phoenix love poems completely, choosing instead to channel Robert E. Howard's barbarian violence through a Jack Kirby view of the world. If it didn't move as fast as it does, it might make one tone-deaf, and honestly, there's times when "Panther's Rage" hits the wall of monotony that jam-packed 70's comics always do when read in quick succession. If it reads strangely today, that's to its benefit--it shouldn't seem like something that just fell off the rack. It's nothing like what we have nowadays, because it does things differently.
Maybe not better, but definitely, without a doubt, not worse.
-Tucker Stone, 2010