I know I warned everyone back on page 1, but just to be extra safe…
Ah yes, let’s kick it off with the best thing this epic has going for it: the primary antagonist. We’ll start with his fictional background, as the backstory McGregor gives this guy is absolute gold.
Now if you’ve read the Panther’s first appearance in the pages of Fantastic Four, you know that Wakanda was once invaded by Ulysses Klaw for the purpose of plundering the land’s vibranium. During this time, Klaw captured several natives and forced them to work the vibranium mines for him. A very young Wakandan named N’jadaka saw his parents die in those mines. In due time Klaw gets chased from Wakanda, but he takes several of the natives he’s enslaved with him, including the very young and now orphaned N’jadaka.
Eventually, N’jadaka winds up in the United States and grows to adulthood there, cut off from his homeland. In a stroke of subversive genius, McGregor has his villain pull a reverse Malcom X by swapping out his true, African name for an Anglicized, American-sounding one: Erik Killmonger. The name is meant to reflect his rage. He hates Klaw, of course, but he hates the Wakandan royal family even more (particularly T’Challa’s father, T’Chaka) for allowing Klaw to invade the country in the first place.
This was brilliant on multiple levels. First, it gives Killmonger a lot of depth and, despite his being the villain here, he’s going to garner some sympathy from the primarily-American audience because he’s one of just three characters (the other two being Monica Lynne and Venomm) that grew up in the U. S. and is culturally American. Going a layer deeper, his backstory mirrors the slave experience almost perfectly, which should (theoretically at least) get him still further sympathy from African-American readers. While I may not be of African descent myself, it’s not hard for me to imagine that a great number of African Americans have fantasized at one time or another about leaving the U. S. behind and returning to their ancestral continent to found a kingdom for themselves. This is precisely what Erik Killmonger wants.
Make no mistake: Killmonger lives up to his name throughout this storyline. He is absolutely vicious and ruthless and his actions are irredeemable. But at the same time, can you understand where the guy is coming from? Can you understand how his circumstances made him who he is? Yes you can.
Killmonger in the Movie
At the beginning of this piece, I posted a link to some early Twitter reviews of the film, several of which made special note of the Killmonger character. (What the heck, I’ll repost the link in case anyone missed it on the first page.) Some highlights:
“The antagonist [Killmonger] actually has an arc with emotional motivations.”
“A superhero movie about why representation & identity matters, and how tragic it is when those things are denied to people. The 1st MCU movie about something real; Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger had me weeping and he’s the VILLAIN.”
“Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger, a top tier villain for Marvel or otherwise. He owns every scene he’s in and the film is everything it’s been billed as. Long may it reign.”
Reactions like this are the reason I think (and hope) that the background of movie-Killmonger hews very closely, if not exactly, to comics-Killmonger. If I’m right, we’re in for a great film.
Killmonger, Kicker of All the Asses
Another thing that makes Killmonger great is that he is simply one of the toughest s.o.b.’s walking the planet.
Back in the old, OLD days, a villain would hatch a plot, bedevil our hero for a bit, then the hero would punch the villain in the face and send him to jail, end of story. For the reader, this was greatly satisfying, emotionally, but rather simplistic, intellectually. Killmonger was one of a new breed of villains (along with the likes of Thanos in the pages of Captain Marvel around this same time) that would really make the hero (and readers) sweat the outcome of the conflict. In this case, Killmonger would kick the crap out of the Panther every time they met. Literally every time.
To put it plainly, the Black Panther endures beatings and hardship like you can’t begin to imagine throughout the storyline. Every issue it seemed his costume would end up shredded as the Panther gets knocked around, scratched up, stabbed, battered, bloodied, and generally worn to a nub. In addition to all the super-villains, he’s also got to fight walking corpses, wild gorillas, T-Rexes, and pterodactyls, all of which pushes him to his absolute limits.
And even when we get to the final battle, the Panther still does not defeat Killmonger himself. In fact, Killmonger is about to throw him off Warrior Falls for the second time in this storyline when the orphan Kantu suddenly knocks Killmonger off the falls instead, seemingly ending the vilain’s life. (Like all great bad guys, of course, Killmonger would return.)
A number of readers had a problem with this. After all he had endured, hadn’t the Panther earned the right, in dramatic terms, to vanquish his foe on his own in the end? And honestly, I kinda agree, but at the same time I can certainly see how McGregor’s choice makes artistic sense. Killmonger’s story began with the murder of his parents, leaving him orphaned; then in the midst of his violent insurrection, Killmonger winds up committing the same unpardonable sin against Kantu. Then in the end, it’s Kantu that causes Killmonger’s undoing. There’s some gloriously beautiful artistic symmetry here.
When he’s not fighting for his life in the wilds of Wakanda, the Black Panther still has all manner of thorny politics and palace intrigue to worry about. There simply is no rest for our weary king in this story.
At the center of it all is the Panther’s American girlfriend, Monica Lynne. What makes this subplot so compelling is just how real it feels. Wakanda is a closed-off, insulated, and proud nation—so of course they’re going to be offended when their king brings some American commoner home to the palace with him. This would have been a big enough headache for T’Challa as it was, but McGregor upped the stakes considerably when he had Monica framed for murder.
It’s one more aspect of the story that sets it apart from standard comics. Black Panther is a superhero, but this comic and this storyline is about much more than just superhero stuff. It adds another layer to a story that was already quite rich and very deep.
Speaking of depth, another part of “Panther’s Rage” that might feel unusual to modern readers is just how deep it is in actual words.
In the early 80s, Frank Miller revolutionized the comics industry by taking a very cinematic approach to writing, drawing, and designing comics. This approach included almost entirely eschewing thought balloons and narrative captions, which meant far less text and a much greater emphasis on the visuals to tell the story. It was a fresh, exciting, dynamic new way to do comics and Frank Miller made it work like gangbusters. Naturally, in the wake of Miller’s artistic and commercial success, a lot of writers and artists (practically everyone, really) started to make comics using Miller’s approach. Eventually, this became an excuse/rationalization for the writer’s laziness. It got to the point where you could absorb the contents of some comics in less than five minutes, as there were barely any words to be read at all.
In the decade or two that preceded Miller’s ascent, however, writers prided themselves on pulling their weight by adding a great deal of text to complement the art. Sometimes this would backfire, as superfluous words would often smother some lovely artwork (which is why Miller’s approach felt like such a breath of fresh air when he started). Yes, there were times when a writer’s words could be very poetic and just as captivating as any art, but as time went on, these large amounts of text began to feel more intrusive than complementary, more often than not.
In any case, Bronze Age comics like those in this storyline are going to take a bit more than five minutes to absorb. Getting through these stories is going to require some honest-to-God reading on the reader’s part.
And yes, there are a few instances when McGregor’s text adds little to the splendid artwork given to us courtesy of Rich Buckler (the first three issues), Gil Kane (one issue fill-in), and Billy Graham (the back nine). But it adds to the story far more often than it fails, as McGregor is a wonderful wordsmith. Honestly, unless you’re Frank Miller (or as gifted an artist as Miller), this more classic approach to comics is probably better suited to most writers and artists.
Art of the Comic Book Story
If you want to appreciate the craft of comic-book storytelling, there’s no better way to do so than go back and enjoy some of the supplemental pages offered in the pages of Jungle Action by the creators themselves. Some highlights:
Now this was an interesting choice. The original idea was a larger panel showcasing the Black Panther dramatically breaking the wooden bars of the cage, with McGregor adding the two panels on the left for symmetrical balance—but might the shot of Panther rending the bars have looked bigger (and better) without these additions? I wonder.
Still looks good though, in any case.
Even in full costume, it’s amazing how much a good artist like Rich Buckler can do just with a slow zoom into a close-up of a character’s eyes, as shown here. Very cinematic as well.
An early Christmas present for all the lit majors with this scene—love the juxtaposition of Tanzika preparing a murder weapon in the foreground while the Panther waxes philosophical about love and life in the background. Absolutely superb storytelling here.
I probably haven’t said enough about the art in this storyline, which is wonderful, both the interiors by Rich Buckler, Gil Kane, and Billy Graham (with nearly all of them inked by Klaus Janson), and the covers (nearly all of which were penciled by Kane—my favorite is the Panther in the jaws of that T-Rex from issue #14, penciled by Kane and inked by Pablo Marcos).
Even as the assignment passed hands from one penciler to another, it’s great how they all continued to experiment with panel arrangements, full-page splashes, and two-page spreads. Here’s a particularly good two-pager courtesy of Graham from issue #17, the one where the Panther and Killmonger have their climactic big showdown:
By the way, if you want to let the Graham family know how much you appreciate Billy’s work, there’s a Facebook page for him here.
Just checked Amazon and “Panther’s Rage” is available as an “Epic Collection” from Marvel, in either paperback form ($23.41) or digital ($12.50). If you’ve never read it before, what the hell are you waiting for?