Monday, August 27, 2018

The Black Leopard--M.I.A.!

While Roy Thomas's initial run on Fantastic Four lasted only seven issues--followed by a two-issue encore with a story which paid homage to the 1950s--he submitted a sampler of sorts of what he would bring to the FF's table with a fine effort from 1972 that demonstrated what an excellent fit he would be for the book. For the tale's plot, he tackled nothing less than the issue of apartheid, a state of racial segregation that existed in South Africa from the late 1940s until the early 1990s (with no small amount of political violence). The catalyst for the involvement of the FF is the Black Panther, having gone missing after pursuing a criminal investigation that led him to the (fictional) nation of Rudyarda, which we're told is situated near Wakanda.

T'Challa's chief advisor, Taku, explains the situation to the FF in a briefing, detailing how two men slipped into Wakanda under false pretenses and made off with a device they plan to sell to their contact in Rudyarda:

Two observations of note here: One, that Taku chooses to contact the FF rather than the Avengers, T'Challa's more recent associates and certainly a group that has the resources and clout to make inquiries with the Rudyardan government, either through official channels or personally. That said, there's really no reason why Taku would need to weigh a choice between the two groups as to which one would be more suited to the mission at hand; and as he reminds us, Wakanda and the FF have a history, and it's a nice touch by Thomas (who also might have reason to go with the Avengers) to maintain their quid pro quo status of mutual respect and cooperation.

Secondly, on a lesser note--assuming this is the same Taku featured in "Panther's Rage," he either apparently enjoyed a greater standing with T'Challa in this story than in his later post as T'Challa's communications specialist, or by then T'Challa had dispensed with having a "chief advisor" in favor of relying on several advisors as part of his palace inner circle.

But while Taku and the FF don't yet know the circumstances of T'Challa's disappearance, we can see by this issue's cover that he won't be in danger for long if the Thing and the Human Torch have anything to say about it.

Yet as this story unfolds, we'll find there's more to this situation than meets the eye.

Given the subject matter (aside from the hunt for Jeth Robards and Nathan Kumalo, the men who have the Vibrotron device), Thomas establishes the setting in a country steeped in an open culture of white supremacy--making it a conspicuous part of the story, but not its focus. In addition, instead of sending the entire FF, he makes an interesting choice by pairing only the Human Torch and the Thing--who in this outing work quite well together in the field, leaving well behind their hijinks in their 1964-65 Strange Tales features and proving to be both capable and coordinated in their approach to the mission. Every so often it's nice to see the initiative of Ben, Sue, and Johnny independent of Reed's direction, something that Thomas or his successor Gerry Conway would indulge in a number of times during their time on the book.

In the case of Ben Grimm, Thomas has the perfect combination of restraint (to a point!) and blunt assessment to offer commentary on this country's discriminatory policies when the situation calls for it.

With helpful information from Taku, the pair is able to track down one of the men involved in the theft--Kumalo, left to stew in his own juices (and, worse, in a country that all but shackles him) after his partner, Robards, ditches him to make the sale of the Vibrotron on his own. He doesn't find the Thing to be the most sympathetic of souls; but the situation escalates when Thomas has Kumalo exercise his own brand of racial hatred.

Having learned of T'Challa's fate, and with time now of the essence, Ben and Johnny move to free him from the city's prison in order to intercept the sale of the Vibrotron to the as yet unknown buyer. Yet while keeping with the drama of the issue's cover, the decision to break T'Challa out of police custody in a foreign country doesn't align with the FF's profile as we've come to know it. And after all, both Johnny and Ben know where and when the meeting with the buyer is going down--since when do the Thing and the Human Torch need the Black Panther along to stop the illicit sale of a stolen device? Therefore, why the jailbreak? Why not wrap up the case and simply return to the prison afterward to vouch for T'Challa's identity?

But we did plunk down 20¢ to see Ben and Johnny charging to the rescue--and as a bonus, we're witness to a change of moniker for our chieftain of the Wakandas.

In short, T'Challa wishes to distance himself from the Black Panther Party that existed from the late '60s to the early '80s. At the time of this story, the BPP had gained national prominence but was hip-deep in controversy--as well as conflicts with Government forces, particularly the F.B.I. (More on "the Black Leopard" in a future post.)

Following his "release," we learn why T'Challa was detained--and while the explanation is plausible, it does throw a damper on the perception readers might have of every Avenger never leaving home with their Avengers Priority I.D.

Finally, though, the midnight meeting at the abandoned metal works building takes place--where Robards gets his (though not in cash, unfortunately), and an old enemy of the Panther re-emerges to menace Wakanda and the world anew.

Klaw, having blasted his only transportation out of the country, hasn't done himself any favors by meeting with defeat and being subsequently handed over to the authorities, considering their treatment of those whose skin color is other than caucasian--an experience that determines his actions when he next appears to challenge the Avengers.

As for the Pan... er, the Leopard, he and his comrades smooth things over with the armed watchmen (of an abandoned facility?), which in turn leads to this story's powerful ending--courtesy of the Thing, who has held in check his distaste for the segregational practices of Rudyarda but no longer.

It was quite a statement by Thomas at the time; but one can't help but wonder how the young writer might have reacted had he somehow known that the ugly concept of white supremacy would still be finding a receptive culture nearly fifty years later.

Just what happened to the Black Leopard, anyway?

Fantastic Four #119

Script: Roy Thomas
Pencils: John Buscema
Inks: Joe Sinnott
Letterer: Artie Simek


Anonymous said...

I wonder what African-American readers thought of this story. "Rudyarda" (named after Rudyard Kipling?) wasn't that much different to how black people were treated in America, particularly in the southern states with their segregation laws, lynchings and the Ku Klux Klan. I know things were getting much better by the time of this FF story but the criticism of apartheid in a fictional African country must have seemed rather hypocritical to black American readers.

Comicsfan said...

With the Black Panther movement having reached its peak around this time, Colin, the apartheid story seemed appropriate, IMO--standing out not only from a subject matter standpoint, but also because the FF had generally been spared involvement in these kinds of politically sensitive tales. I also think that Marvel (Stan Lee and Thomas in particular) had done a fair job up to this point of dealing with the issue of racism stateside, mostly with its stories featuring the Sons of the Serpent (to say nothing of giving readers its first black hero, in the form of the Panther).

Anonymous said...

Sometimes the social commentary in these Marvel comics seems a bit dated and clumsy now, but I think they were definitely on the side if the angels. They informed my world view as a kid.
Hey, comics were a big deal back then! We didn't have as much mental stimulation as kids do now.
And Ben Grimm, he's my favorite comic character. He's a hero for his basic decency and hatred for injustice, rather than just his physical strength.


Comicsfan said...

All very good points, M.P.