Panther’s Rage

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“Knock, knock.”

“Who’s there?”

“Wakanda.”

“Wakanda who?”

“Wakanda wild side, babe!”

The above joke taken from the lettercol of Jungle Action #18 (Nov. 1975), as submitted by one Tim Krenke, then of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Tim, if you’re out there, feel free to take a bow in the comments section below.) Joke context for the uncultured:

In case it wasn’t already plain, this post concerns the adventures of a certain African king who will be making his solo debut on the big screen in less than two weeks. Latest trailer here:

Black Panther is a big deal for cultural reasons, yes, but also because it looks like it’s going to be a really great film. Excitement for it is building to an extent that I don’t think we’ve seen since the original Avengers movie dropped in 2012. At the Hollywood premiere last week, performers from the film were asked to attend in attire suited for “African Royalty” and they did not disappoint. Early reviews are absolutely glowing and it’s tracking to do boffo box office. (This despite an apparent conspiracy to kill the film on Rotten Tomatoes.)

Even the soundtrack is getting hyped to the moon—and deservedly so, as it’s practically a hip-hop all-star jam. Three tracks have been released so far; first, “All the Stars” by Kendrick Lamar and SZA:

“King’s Dead” by Jay Rock, Kendrick, Future, and James Blake:

And just within the last few days, we got “Pray for Me” by The Weeknd and Kendrick:

Lamar, the soundtrack’s architect, just tweeted out the full song listing last Wednesday:

Even I, curmudgeon that I am, cannot resist the hype. I’ve already bought my tickets and cannot wait for the film to arrive. I would’ve gone to see the film regardless, but there was a moment in one of the earlier teaser trailers from several months back that really made me lose my mind. It was when Michael B. Jordan appeared and uttered words to the effect of “I want the THRONE!” or “I wanna be the KING!” (I can’t remember his exact phrasing, but I certainly recall the emotion/intent behind the line.) At this, my heart pumped and my blood raced as I asked myself, “Is he Erik Killmonger? Could that possibly be? Could he really be Killmonger??” Well yes Virginia, he was and is. I actually just pinched myself, again, to be sure I wasn’t dreaming.

Killmonger, as illustrated by Rich Buckler and Klaus Janson in a full-page pin-up from Jungle Action #10.

Some of you out there are wondering who the hell Erik Killmonger is and why I would be so excited by the prospect of seeing him in Black Panther. The reasons for my excitement are that Erik Killmonger was/is one of the best comic-book villains ever and that he served as the antagonist in what was clearly the best Black Panther story of all time, “Panther’s Rage,” which ran across issues 6-18 of Jungle Action between 1973 and 1975. For the benefit of those who may have missed it—and in honor of the upcoming film release of Black Panther—I’m going to cover some of the highlights of this comic book masterpiece in today’s post.

Fun fact: Killmonger gets namechecked at 3:32 of “King’s Dead,” above.

Panther Origins

Three years ago (has it really been that long?), in a special post in honor of Black History Month, I went over the Panther’s origins without going into too much detail, as the original post was intended to be about more than just one character. Black Panther was, of course, created by Stan “the Man” Lee and Jack “King” Kirby and first appeared in Fantastic Four #52 (July 1966). What I didn’t delve into three years back was that they had been talking about this character and developing him for some time before he first appeared. In fact, Kirby’s original design was named “the Coal Tiger,” and the costume had no mask, a small cape, and tiger stripes.

Kirby’s original “Coal Tiger” design, as published in Jungle Action #10.

 

Now I don’t know this for certain, but I’ve always suspected that the reason for the switch to the full-body costume a la Spider-Man was to hide the character’s race, at least on the comic covers, so as to avoid the possible headache of racist newsstand owners refusing to sell the book.

Fun fact: The Coal Tiger, as originally designed by the King, would eventually pop up in Avengers #355 (Oct. 1992) as an alternate-universe version of T’Challa/Black Panther. (Tom DeFalco would also add a “Coal Tiger” to his A-Next universe, but with a totally different character design.)

Black Panther meets Coal Tiger in Avengers #355.

 

T’Challa would drop in on the FF again in their fifth annual (1967) before meeting Captain America for the first time in Tales of Suspense #98 (Feb. 1968). At the end of this adventure (which carried through the title change to Captain America with the 100th issue), Cap invites the Panther to join the Avengers, which he did, becoming an official member of the team in Avengers #52 (May 1968). The Panther would be a team mainstay for the next four years or so. During this time, he met love interest Monica Lynne, who first appeared in Avengers #73 (Feb. 1970). A Wakandan named Taku, later to play a much bigger role in the Panther’s Jungle Action adventures, also first appeared in one panel in Avengers #68 (Sept. 1969). On the antagonist side, M’Baku/the Man-Ape was first introduced in Avengers #62 (Mar. 1969). M’Baku would then return to plague the Panther (and his fellow Avengers) as part of the Lethal Legion in Avengers #78-79 (Jul.-Aug. 1970).

Though the Avengers book was his primary comic-book home during this era, Black Panther also made several appearances in Daredevil, forging what would prove to be a very enduring friendship with ol’ hornhead. He also showed up to fight Doctor Doom in a couple of issues of Astonishing Tales.

Panther made a few other appearances here and there, one of them being Fantastic Four #119 (Feb. 1972). What made this appearance notable was that this was where he announced his intent to change his name to “Black Leopard” so as not to be associated with the Black Panther political party. But don’t worry kids—this barely lasted a hot minute. I don’t think he was ever billed as “Black Leopard,” nor referred to as such, even once afterward. A recently published article on AV Club offered a rather cogent argument as to why it’s foolish for a character like Black Panther to try and avoid sociopolitical issues like this.

Jungle Action

At last, the Black Panther gets the spotlight with Jungle Action #5 (Jul. 1973). This issue reprinted the Panther’s first battle with the Man-Ape from Avengers #62, giving the new creative team a chance to get ahead of schedule (which I can only assume is the reason for the reprint). Writer Don McGregor and penciler Rich Buckler would then start pumping out fresh, original material with the sixth issue.

In the seventh issue, Steve Gerber, then a full-time editorial staffer, would offer a text piece entitled “Do You Know the Way to Wakanda?” to explain how the Panther came to star in Jungle Action:

Suppose you’re an editorial assistant, just sitting there one day, proofing an issue of COMBAT KELLY or arguing with the production department about how many D’s there are on Daredevil’s costume, when a certain bright-eyed, blond-haired editor named ROY THOMAS walks into your office and says, ‘We’ve decided to do an all-original BLACK PANTHER strip in JUNGLE ACTION.”

You react with instant enthusiasm. “Great,” you say, “the Panther has always deserved a series of his own!”

Then the editor drops the bomb. “Oh, by the way… you’re going to write it. And we need a synopsis tomorrow.”

Before you can pick your lower jaw up from the floor, Roy has disappeared into that much-hallowed sanctum known as “Stan’s office”, having left you with the not inconsiderable task of creating an African nation—overnight. Out of your head! With only a few issues of FANTASTIC FOUR and THE AVENGERS to draw on for guidance. What do you do?

If you’re DON McGREGOR and RICH BUCKLER, you do what has been done in this issue and its predecessor of JUNGLE ACTION. You let your imagination run wild. You take what was basically a sidelight idea—the super- technological nation of Wakanda co-existing anachronistically with the primitive jungle—and you develop it into a full-blown culture with its own social structure, history and mythology, its own mores, taboos and values.

You ask yourself, what kind of geography and people surround a paradoxical wonderland like that? And you begin to develop notions about what kind of tribes and individuals would comprise Wakanda’s friends—and foes. Which, in turn, leads you to malevolent menaces like Killmonger and Venomm. And so on. And on. And on. Once the creative wheels start spinning as they have with this new series, they’re hard to stop. And so you’ll be seeing more of Wakanda in each and every episode of this precedent-shattering series.

Why precedent-shattering? Because of who the hero happens to be. Not an abandoned child raised by apes or lions or armadillos or whatever. Not an accidental visitor to this jungle paradise— but its king; not one of the restless natives of B-movie fame, but a man who has a logical reason to he there… because he was born there! THE BLACK PANTHER.

T’Challa, king of the Wakandan nation, heir to its land, son of its mythos and its past, guardian of its future. Perhaps the first jungle hero who’s not a foreign import. And that’s one precedent which badly needed shattering.

T’Challa. Regal, sophisticated, even urbane—yet part of the world that birthed him, the diametrical opposite of the pulp-magazine white man-or-woman-gone-wild-syndrome. T’Challa and his people are black men who have abandoned their votes as spear-carriers and safari boys to take up the tools of technology and use them to preserve and protect, rather than exploit, the continent called Africa.

You gotta admit: it’s more than a little intriguing.

And these first two issues are only the beginning. Don and Rich are working closely together. Don hanging over Rich’s drawing board, Rich peering over Don’s shoulder at the typewriter, to make THE BLACK PANTHER one of the most unusual and interesting series of the seventies. KLAUS JANSON, Marvels newest inker, hovers over both of them like some demented, starved vulture, wondering if they’ll ever be satisfied enough to pass pages into his hands. And Stan, Roy and the rest of the Marvel Bullpen are pretty proud of the nation these two have created overnight.

But now it’s up to you. To put it crassly, if you don’t buy it, we don’t get to produce it anymore. And if you don’t write all kinds of letters about it, we’ll never know if you like it or not.

Thus, a pair of requests:

*Put two dimes away in a very special place every two months, and please use them to share with us the Black Panther’s adventures.

*And put pencil, pen, typewriter, or even crayon to paper and tell us what you think of what we’ve done.

In return, we hereby pledge to knock you Outta your gourd with some of the wildest jungle adventures ever to see print in the pages of a comic magazine. Fair ‘nuff? Then, in the immortal words of some bygone yippie philosopher—DO IT!

For Stan, Roy, Don, Rich & the Bullpen
Sincerely,
Steve Gerber

The key statement above being, “Once the creative wheels start spinning as they have with this new series, they’re hard to stop.” Because McGregor would add a ton of material to Wakanda and the larger Black Panther mythos over the course of this storyline.

McGregor and company engage in some literal world-building with this map of Wakanda published in Jungle Action #6.
…And here’s the royal palace of Wakanda, from Jungle Action #8.

 

Bring On The (Wakandan) Bad Guys!

Going over some of these McGregor additions, I’ll start with the villains.

In their first issue, Jungle Action #6 (Sept. 1973), we get the amazing Erik Killmonger, aka N’Jadaka. McGregor will then introduce a fresh, new villain in nearly every issue of the saga thereafter. We get, in chronological order:

  • Venomm (JA # 7, Nov. 1973)
  • Malice (JA # 8, Jan. 1974)
  • Baron Macabre (JA # 9, Apr. 1974)
  • King Cadaver (JA # 10, Jul. 1974)
  • Lord Karnaj (JA # 11, Sept. 1974)
  • Sombre (JA # 12, Nov. 1974)
  • Salamander K’ruel (JA # 15, May 1975)
  • Madam Slay (JA # 18, Nov. 1975)

It seems most of these villains got their extraordinary powers from the Resurrection Altar, another McGregor supplement to the mythos. In addition to all these awesome baddies, there’s a slew of other supporting characters introduced, among them: Tayette & Kazibe, the original Turk & Grotto; security chief W’Kabi, a fierce Wakandan traditionalist; handmaiden Tanzika; and the nine-year-old orphan, Kantu, among others.

And, remarkably enough, all this comes (usually) in a less-than-standard number of story pages. Early on, the page count would be padded with reprints from the 50s like “Lorna the Jungle Girl” (JA #6) and “The Fury of the Tusk!” (JA #7), but thereafter we’d get far more interesting and insightful supplemental material, like maps of the region and text pieces explaining some of the creative and artistic choices of McGregor and company.

For me, the most important thing to note here is that with all these additions, not one of them undid, erased, or betrayed anything that came before. THIS IS HOW YOU WRITE COMICS, FOLKS. In the words of Dwayne McDuffie:

“The Panther’s Rage” was everything a super-hero comic should be. This overlooked and underrated classic is arguably the most tightly-written multi-part superhero epic ever…. sit down and read the whole thing. It’s damn-near flawless, every issue, every scene, a functional, necessary part of the whole. Okay, now go back and read any individual issue. You’ll find in seamlessly integrated words and pictures; clearly introduced characters and situations; a concise (sometimes even transparent) recap; beautifully developed character relationships; at least one cool new villain; a stunning action set piece to test our hero’s skills and resolve; and a story that is always moving forward towards a definite and satisfying conclusion. That’s what we should all be delivering, every single month. Don and company did it in only 17 story pages per issue. Compare this to the bloated, empty, ill-planned “story arcs” you see in many of today’s comics. Four 22-page issues to tell about one issue’s worth of story seems to be the norm. Ah, but now I’m just bitching.

Again, the key takeaway here: That’s what we should all be delivering, every single month.

I’ll be exploring this classic further after the jump to page 2. If you want to avoid spoilers for “Panther’s Rage,” stay put. If you want to avoid spoilers for the Black Panther film, you may also want to stay put. No, I obviously have not seen the film yet, but we know it has Erik Killmonger in it, loudly proclaiming his desire to assume the kingship of Wakanda, so I think there’s a good chance that a lot of plot points from this classic story just might end up in the movie. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

NEXT: Diving Deeper into “Panther’s Rage!”

Click below to continue to page 2!

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