Sunday, July 6, 2014

Finding Your Inner Panther

Jack Kirby's run on his Black Panther title lasted twelve issues, which may not seem like a substantial contribution in comparison to his other projects during his return to Marvel in the late 1970s--but it actually works out to a two-year stretch, since the book was published on a bi-monthly schedule. His work on that book unfortunately met with the same reception that he found with readers of Captain America, another title that he took over as both writer and artist and basically made into his own vision of the character. Marvel, to its credit, acknowledged the flood of discontent in its letters columns--and while Captain America, published monthly, bore the brunt of readers' comments, the Panther book didn't slip by unscathed.

One reader sums up the situation in the book:
"This strip, even more than CAPTAIN AMERICA, shows your weakness as a writer. To take Marvel's first black character and depersonalize him so severely is criminal. So far, T'Challa has been a pawn of others, totally devoid of personality, black or otherwise.

"Perhaps the saddest thing is that the life has left your art. Three monthlies and a bi-monthly have taken their toll. We readers can say it until we're blue in the face: You can plot, but let someone else script."

Given Kirby's preoccupation of having the Panther deal with more adventure-based matters such as the fountain of youth, futuristic threats, time-travel artifacts, and a pack of armed collectors, it would take some time before this ruler of Wakanda would give us some sense of who he was by returning to Wakanda--and that wait is regrettable, because Kirby had an interesting take on Wakandans and the Panther's heritage, with its meshing of tribal tradition and technological distinction. In the original Fantastic Four stories, a great deal of emphasis was placed on the Panther's "jungle" of technology; but while Kirby gives nods to the contemporary aspects of Wakanda in these newer stories, he throttles back on the technological and focuses more on the traditional. The fascinating thing about Wakanda, aside from its Panther cult, is that there is a deep respect and adherence to traditional ways, yet co-existing with the financial and technological benefits of the Vibranium mound--and Kirby doesn't forget that.

In the issue where the Panther makes his journey back to Wakanda, we actually see little of the Panther himself, as he deals with mobster Nick Scarpa whom he's rescued from a raft adrift off the African coast. Instead, the story mainly centers on a crisis in Wakanda, where the step-brother of T'Challa, Jakarra, has made a bid for power by exposing himself to raw Vibranium, heedless of the mutating effects which have doomed prior victims. With the Panther's absence, it's an opportunity to see how Wakanda is governed, and who steps in to represent the Panther cult when that presence is needed. The premise which Kirby offers is intriguing, though his choice of the story's title could have been given more thought:

Once you flip the title page (assuming you haven't been put off by it), we're greeted with a much more compelling scene--the Black Panther, involved in a periodic ritual where challengers to his title attempt to gain it in combat:

Yet Kirby has taken us to the past, where T'Challa is remembering how he came of age and finally assumed the mantle of leadership that his father had held before him. In prior issues, dealing with situations far from his homeland, T'Challa has interjected his status as a ruler when appropriate--but it's here that we finally begin to see Kirby embrace T'Challa's heritage.

As for the current crisis that Wakanda is dealing with, at first glance you would think its people are being menaced by another Kirby misshapen monster, the kind that Captain America would also find himself fighting during Kirby's handling of the character. But while Wakanda has made great use of and benefitted from its rich source of Vibranium, it makes sense that precautions would have to be taken in mining it since it wasn't indigenous to Earth--and that at times there would be those individuals who would pay no heed to the consequences of overexposure. And with T'Challa's frequent and extended absences from his kingdom, it's understandable that power vacuums would be created where the ambitious would attempt to bypass ritual and seize power. So a perfect storm can form when the two meet--a storm which becomes more interesting when a member of T'Challa's own family is the catalyst:

N'Gassi, T'Challa's regent, is forced to summon other members of T'Challa's family--the "ruling Panthers" who are authorized to step in and deal with a national crisis during T'Challa's absence. It's an unusual concept, certainly at odds with governments of other nations where familial members assuming the role of President or King if the duly elected or crowned individual is absent would be both unacceptable and illegal. Even those N'Gassi has settled on, summoned from their respective careers elsewhere, voice their doubts about the wisdom of assuming roles as Wakanda's defenders:

Jakarra, meanwhile, is giving no quarter as he smashes his way from village to village--turning his overexposure to Vibranium to his advantage and embracing whatever changes result from it in his quest to seize power. In turn, we're provided glimpses of average Wakandans as well as government forces which are in place to meet threats:

Jakarra, of course, makes a beeline toward the seat of power in Wakanda--where the "ruling Panthers" remain reluctant and cynical.  But, thanks to Jakarra's sudden attack, they find their strength and resolve as Wakandans still within themselves, and roaring to get out:

The guards burst in to drive Jakarra away with special weaponry. But, for these new warriors, the die is cast:

For an issue with barely any Black Panther to speak of, it does a fairly good job of entertaining the reader. Though perhaps Kirby does himself no favors by pinning the informal label "the Black Musketeers" on these novice Panthers when they debut in costume in the next issue.  A motley group they may be, but the one thing we're unlikely to see them brimming with is swaggering overconfidence.

Black Panther #8

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

1 comment:

Unknown said...

been waiting nearly 3 years to see a comment one this one; sad to see no-one else stepped-up to the plate. :( having inked a 'noteworthy' penciller in my day, and having pencilled a famous character or two, I'd really hoped to see some love for Mr. Royer, whom had to provide amazingly fluid work over The King, here, only a few short years after the final delights of Joltin' Joe inking The King.

All in the decades before anyone could hide a lack of talent behind a wacom tablet.