Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Panther's Prey, More or Less

Normally in these comparisons between the original cover of a Fantastic Four story and its reinterpretation by another artist for the story's reprint in the pages of Marvel's Greatest Comics, there's a balance between the original work and the newer that lets you equally appreciate the interesting choices made by their respective artists. But in the case of Fantastic Four #52, which introduces the Black Panther, the covers by Jack Kirby and Jim Starlin make striking such a balance difficult:

Both covers are inked by Joe Sinnott, which levels the playing field a little--but as with many of these cover line-ups, the real meat of the debate is in the different approaches taken by the pencillers with respect to the issue's story. The Panther, the mysterious chieftain of Wakanda, issues an invitation to the FF to be his guests, but arranges an elaborate trap for them in order to test himself in battle before he faced an old enemy (Klaw, the "Master of Sound") returning to steal Wakanda's mound of vibranium. Yet for this particular issue, the reader only knows that the Panther is intent on trapping and taking out the FF, for reasons unknown. So the cover has to really do only a couple of things for the reader: give the Panther a dramatic introduction, and show him being a threat to the FF.

As you can see, Starlin throws out subtlety altogether and cuts to the chase of the story on his cover, with perhaps practical reasons. For one thing, since this story has been published before, Starlin has to do more on the cover to "sell" (or in this case, re-sell) the story of the Panther, who by the time of this reprint is now an established character as well as one of the Avengers; as a result, there's no need to "introduce" or otherwise feature the Panther prominently on the cover, and so the more popular FF takes front and center (obviously in peril) while the Panther is moved to the background. Also, Starlin is handicapped by the smaller cover area he's given to work with, as opposed to the original's full-size area which Kirby can take advantage of--so cramming the important elements of the story into the frame may have been his only option. He also ditches the Panther's original cape motif, which might have confused contemporary readers.

As for Kirby, he meets the two cover conditions given above yet chooses to heighten the drama and stay true to the actual theme of the story. Here, the Black Panther is a mysterious new character, and receives appropriate attention on the cover while still keeping the FF reasonably visible in a marketing sense, neither stealing the other's thunder. Though Kirby's symbolic splash page, which nearly duplicates the cover, drives home the point that it's the Black Panther who's the focus of this story:

And while Starlin "spills the beans" of how the Panther traps the members of the FF*, Kirby only lets the reader know that the FF are being stalked--and that while they're approaching the danger in force, their caution speaks volumes.

*Starlin obviously doesn't have room to show the Torch's actual trap, so instead the Torch gets a pose that indicates the Panther has rendered him helpless in some way. As for the Invisible Girl, let's just pretend she's invisible--well, invisibly trapped, I guess.


Anonymous said...

Yeah, we're looking at two great coves here, two different approaches. I'm a big Starlin fan, but I prefer the Kirby version. The Panther doesn't have a visually striking or colorful costume, compared to most characters, it's pretty subdued. What Kirby did was draw him as quite feline and exaggerated, which caught my eye. He played up that element, that "hook", I guess, to sell this new character. And it's quite significant, because unless I'm mistaken, it's the first black superhero.

Comicsfan said...

That's a good point about the exaggerated pose being used to catch the eye. I might go one further and suggest that the use of the moon in the background also served to highlight the character in that regard.

karl said...

Wasn't there an urban myth going around that there were TWO different covers to that iconic first appearance of the Black Panther? One had the Panther with a full-face mask- the other had a partial half- mask [like Batman, showing his mouth]. And that Marvel demanded that the one with him in a full-face mask be the one distributed, as they felt uncomfortable having a black hero/villain appear on the front cover.

Comicsfan said...

Gosh, the only time I remember the Panther having a half-mask was when he first joined the Avengers. It was only about two years later than the FF story--which I guess was time enough for Marvel to reconsider the mask, assuming there was any substance to that myth.