Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The All-New, Intergalactic Black Panther

When you turn the first pages of Jack Kirby's Black Panther series from 1977, you realize almost immediately that, just as in Captain America which the writer/artist had also absorbed on his return to Marvel Comics, Kirby had his own ideas on how and in what kind of adventure environment the character should operate. There is no preamble to speak of in the situation which T'Challa finds himself: tagging along with a diminutive collector known as Mister Little (I trust you've made the wry connection between description and name) who's tracking down an artifact from King Solomon's tomb called the Brass Frog, which apparently exacts a deadly price for being found. Little is not alone in his quest--he's soon joined by a more unscrupulous collector, Princess Zanda, who even employs a detachment of armed men to deal with any resistance. Quite a club, these collectors.

Little and T'Challa have located another collector who has been run through with a sword by what appears to be a warrior from the past; though once the assailant is dealt with, Zanda makes her entrance and seemingly terminates Little before claiming the Frog for herself. And I can almost hear the questions you're asking at this point: just what the heck is T'Challa doing here? Aside from a loose reference to T'Challa's grandfather, what does any of this have to do with Wakanda, the African nation over which T'Challa reigns? Why would Little approach him, or vice versa? What's T'Challa's stake in a collectors' spat?

So you get a sense of what we're dealing with here:  the Black Panther, removed from the "comfort zone" of his kingdom as well as the Avengers, and thrown into the wildly incredible--now speaking and reacting as any other central Kirby character might, if mixed into the same circumstances. For all intents and purposes, T'Challa, at least as we know and understand him, is gone; instead, his eyes are our eyes, and his reactions our reactions, with the reader clearly meant to be put in his shoes. As T'Challa slowly peels the onion skin away from this adventure, we're thus able to mimic his surprise or sense of revelation. We're not just along for the ride--we're riding shotgun with the Black Panther.

And if you think that things stabilize in issue 2, well, that's just not the way Jack Kirby rolls, bub. Because when a stray shot from one of Zanda's men hits the Frog, we get a man from six million years in the future added to the mix. And things quickly fall apart from there:

Much, of course, has been said and written about Kirby's writing--and, specifically, Kirby's writing on the books he took over on his return to Marvel. If you look through this blog alone, you would certainly come across my own frank thoughts on the matter. Perhaps in the case of Black Panther, it's helpful to distinguish Kirby's writing from the otherwise incredible and amazing concepts he's produced over the years for the medium of comic books, if only to make the important point that the scripting that many have taken issue with does not necessarily drag down with it the ideas that Kirby has routinely churned out for comics stories during his career. Those ideas and concepts per se, taken out of the context of any Marvel character(s) injected into them, are not only impressive but are arguably what comic books strive for in order to entertain their readers in the worlds of adventure and fantasy.

So at times I find myself cutting these Kirby stories some slack, even when seeing characters like the Panther and Captain America being integral to them. For instance, in this particular story, if I imagined the Panther without the long history and characteristics associated with him, I rather enjoyed riding shotgun on this story with him--and I was able to read Kirby's scripting without wincing much of the time. Zanda, albeit deadly, is delightfully ruthless; Abner Little may be a pushy pest, but he's difficult or downright impossible to ignore; the interaction between the two, particularly showing Zanda's contempt for him, is believable; and there's of course Kirby's stunning art. So in just over an issue, this story has gotten my attention, and in a good way.

It's really only when the Black Panther is obviously being "the Black Panther," rather than, say, Kamandi or Mister Miracle, that Kirby's dated colloquialisms tend to be intrusive and detract from the character that we're otherwise familiar with. For example, the scene where he disables the future being, "Hatch 22":

(Man, those ears on the Panther aren't helping matters, either. I could almost swear Kirby has them moving, depending on T'Challa's mood.)

Yet, again, if you suspend most of what you know about the Panther for the duration, the story has some merit. In this particular issue, given that the Frog has brought the strange being into the 20th century, Kirby takes the opportunity to explore his origin, his abilities, and the future version of Earth in which he lives. One such ability is unfortunately discovered when one of Zanda's men makes the mistake of attacking the being from behind, not yet realizing that "Hatch 22" need not see him using traditional means:

The Panther then takes him out with that punch we've already seen--and then turns to find Mister Little alive, thanks to taking the precaution of wearing an armored vest. Once Zanda has expressed her disappointment at that turn of events, the three make plans to send their visitor back to his proper time:

Yet before they can initiate their plan, they discover that the mind of "Hatch 22" is still active, as it transmits a series of images of its home:

Of course, it's not like Kirby to stop there, so it's not entirely unexpected to see him stack the deck with even more strangeness:

Finally, the being's "dreams" end, and Little brings the party to their transportation:

It's a good example of what I was referring to when speaking of two different Panthers. "Our" Black Panther is of course no stranger to sophisticated air transport, and he might have responded to Little's unveiling with something like "Ah, yes. I won't ask how you obtained it, but this will be sufficient for our needs." Kirby's Panther, on the other hand, is meant to draw the reader in with the promise of getting to the adventure to come--and so his job is to react as we would react, had we been in that hangar in his place.

You've probably noticed that weird lettering style of Mike Royer's when dealing with large titles, which could be found in Devil Dinosaur, Captain America, and other books he was working on with Kirby at the time. Along with his inking, Royer seems to have been hand-picked by Kirby to be his wing man on these titles, and the bizarre lettering seems to be designed to welcome the reader into the unknown, as it were.

The Panther's association with Little will take another four issues to run its course, and then Kirby pivots to fulfill the other part of his immediate plans for the Panther--examining "the true beginnings of the Panther Cult and the intergalactic reasons for its creation." Looking back at these stories, Kirby makes a telling statement in the foreword he gives in the first issue: "With one new issue fresh off the drawing board, and another almost on its way at this writing, I can only say that you're due to see the Panther the way he was originally intended to be." To Kirby, I think that mostly meant that the Panther's purpose was, first and foremost, to entertain the reader; and for this writer/artist whose imagination seemingly knew no bounds, Wakanda or the Avengers had no real hold on the Panther as far as what kind of stories he could tell to accomplish that.

And so... the Panther spends the first few issues of his new mag with an antique, brass frog which doubles as a time machine.  And it's actually a pretty good story--depending on which Black Panther you want to see in it.

Black Panther #2

Script and Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inks and Letters: Mike Royer


dbutler16 said...

I read this via the Black Panther by Jack Kirby vol. 1 TPB, and I enjoyed it. It wasn't what I was expecting from a Black Panther comic - more like an Indiana Jones story - but still entertaining. I'll have have to pick up vol. 2 one of these days.

Comicsfan said...

I was surprised by Kirby's investment in this series, dbutler16. You may find, as I did, that his later issues didn't fizzle out in quality to any great extent, but rather maintained Kirby's direction for the character and, hopefully, continue to appeal to you.