Kirby Is Here! : “Black Panther” #1

Posted: August 6, 2017 in comics
Tags: , , ,

I have to admit that when I first started to haphazardly plan my month-long tribute to The King Of Comics, reviewing Black Panther #1 (cover-dated January, 1977) wasn’t on my radar screen. It’s not that it’s a bad book, mind you — anything but — just that the schedule was already looking a little full, and while I left a few makeshift “slots” open to be filled by whatever struck my fancy, I was thinking those would most likely be a good fit for more obscure entries in the Jack Kirby canon like Dingbats Of  Danger Street or Atlas.

Both of which, fair enough, I may still get around to — but circumstances forced (well, okay, maybe forced is a bit strong — let’s go with compelled instead, shall we?) my hand a bit last Wednesday when Marvel started issuing bargain-priced Kirby reprints as part of their “True Believers” line in honor of his centenary and, lo and behold, among the first to hit the stands (for the princely sum of one dollar) was a re-packaged version (a Captain America/Black Panther team-up story is also included as a backup feature) of this very comic, and so — here we are. I’m not gonna pass on a chance to review a Kirby book that you can go and pick up at your LCS right now for a buck. That would just be stupid.

And it has to be said — while not too many people look back at Jack’s brief run chronicling T’Challa’s exploits in the late ’70s as one of the highlights of his career, in retrospect this was exactly the right direction for Marvel to take the character in at the time. The Panther had last been giving a starring turn in the pages of Jungle Action a few years prior, where writer Don McGregor had fashioned a lengthy political thriller heavy with spiritual and psychological undertones entitled “Panther’s Rage,” and he then immediately followed that up by having T’Challa take leave from his kingdom of Wakanda in order to to confront — and be confronted by — numerous societal ills, most notably racism, right here in the good old U.S. of A. The influence of Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams’ “Hard-Travelling Heroes” storyline from the pages of Green Lantern/Green Arrow was fairly obvious, but McGregor’s prose was far more dense and purple, and his star character’s conflicts far more internalized — and paired with the sleek and stylish artwork of Billy Graham, a truly memorable run was concocted, the reverberations of which are still being felt today in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ current Black Panther series. Still, for all that, when it was over, a more “back-to-basics” approach was definitely in order. The Panther had been to hell and back — why not let him have some honest-to-goodness fun again?

And if there’s one thing that’s abundantly clear from the first page of this story, entitled “King Solomon’s Frog!,” onward, it’s that rip-roaring action and adventure were going to be the order of the day. Right off the bat, T’Challa and his new (and very temporary) sidekick —a guy named Mr. Little who’s a collector of rare antiquities and, well, little —- are plunged headfirst into the thick of it : on the trail of a mysterious and powerful artifact that’s said to have the power to warp and bend time itself (our titular frog) they discover the freshly-deceased body of a man named Queely, another collector and the last person unlucky enough to have the wondrous-but-apparently-cursed object in his possession. He’s been run through with a sword and his museum-like residence has been thoroughly ransacked, but the assailant —  an armored warrior hailing from time and place unknown — hasn’t gone far. And by that, I mean that he hasn’t even made it out he front door yet.

A dramatic battle (did Kirby ever do them any other way?) ensues that ends in something of a stalemate, with the torn-from-the-pages-of-the-pulps villain fleeing into the night, but no matter : T’Challa and Little, in a moment that some call curious but I would argue demonstrates both combat- veteran insight as well as a degree of compassion, allow their opponent to make good his escape, confident in the knowledge that he won’t get far looking like he does and that he’s probably every bit as scared as a cornered animal, anyway.  Besides, they’ve got the frog — for now, at any rate.

Our constantly-on-the-move duo — now ensconced aboard a futuristic techno-marvel aircraft upon which a customary bit of historical “info-dumping” takes place — are soon set upon by a wave of jetpack-wearing henchmen (hey, you know henchmen when you see them), which gives Kirby a chance to flex his artistic muscles with a spot of truly breathtaking aerial combat, but when the action returns to the ground, we learn that this particular “goon squad” is operating in  service of the regally cold-blooded Princess Zanda, who has her own plans for the frog once it falls into her grasp — which it does after Little is shot and (apparently) killed, and T’Challa’s own grip on it is loosened thanks to another burst of gunfire.

Still, things aren’t anywhere near as cut-and-dried as they seem here — not only is death in comics never a permanent state of affairs, but Zanda does T’Challa the courtesy of informing him that Little was planning on killing him once he no longer had need of his services, and even though the frog was once the property of our hero’s grandfather, odds are better than good that it would never be making its way back to Wakanda. There’s talk of an “activation code” to get the time-travel functions of the device working, but apparently a good, hard, jolt will do the job just fine, for as this issue ends, we find that a  doorway into the future has been ripped open, and a curious little being with the phrase “Hatch 22” inscribed and/or tattooed on its oddly-shaped forehead has emerged into our time, ready to raise all kinds of hell.

Black Panther#1, then, is clearly not a book that delves into any of the deeper moral and philosophical questions which Kirby explores with such insight, vigor, and humanity in many of his other works, but it is mile-a-minute thrill ride from start to finish, loaded to the gills with all the best trappings of pulp sci-fi storytelling : mysterious hidden agendas, competing interests, conflicted situational ethics, advanced-bordering-on-magical technology, even a gorgeous-but-deadly femme fatale. Kirby and inker extraordinaire Mike Royer delineate the breakneck proceedings with unmistakable energy and a heavy emphasis on the dramatic, and the end result is a feast for the eyes that won’t leave the mind feeling hungry, either. This comic is a textbook example of smartly-constructed and flawlessly-executed genre storytelling of the “high-octane” variety, and I guarantee that if you pick up the “True Believers” reprint, it’ll be the best dollar you spend all week.

  1. Ryan C. (trashfilmguru) says:

    Reblogged this on Through the Shattered Lens.

  2. “in the pages of Jungle Action a few years prior”

    NO, NO, NO– a few WEEKS prior!!!

    The ASSHOLES cancelled Don McGregor’s 2nd storyline RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE without allowing him to finish it, then dumped Kirby’s 1st issue on the stands before the dust had even been allowed to settle. It was a SLAP-IN-THE-FACE to fans of BOTH McGregor AND Kirby. McGregor fans were SURE to hate Kirby’s stuff, so not only were they kicking Don to the curb, they were making Kirby look bad by presenting his stuff in what was essentially the VERY NEXT ISSUE.

    “when it was over”

    That’s the whole point. IT WASN’T over.

    AFTER Kirby left– again, in MID-story– other, far inferior types, decided to finish Don’s “KLAN” story. When I told Don this at a show in Philly, the first time I met him, he looked at me and said, “How can they? THEY DON’T KNOW HOW IT ENDS!”

    Clearly, that didn’t matter to the IDIOTS running Marvel into the ground.

    WORSE– the “conclusion” of the Klan story was presented as taking place AFTER Kirby’s run– with the “explanation”– GET THIS!!!– that T’challa had been suffering from AMNESIA for the entire length of Kirby’s run. It’s positively INSULTING the the audience, the characters, and the creators.

  3. Somebody on the letters pages of the series– I’m pretty saure it wasn’t me– suggested that Kirby’s entire BLACK PANTHER run would have worked FAR better, made FAR more sense, if it had been presented as “retroactive continuity”. Which is to say… if it took place almost IMMEDIATELY after his earliest appearances in FANTASTIC FOUR. This makes PERFECT sense. Decades later, I read that The Black Panther was intended as a new stand-alone book, but when that plan was scuttled, he was instead introduced in FF, just as The Inhumans had been.

    At the end of his initial story with the FF, T’Challa decided to become a globe-hopping adventurer. it seems to me, Kirby’s BP stories were what he had in mind way back in 1966.

    The character got seriously side-tracked when lifelong superhero and superhero TEAM fanboy Roy Thomas decided it was (in his mind) a good idea to have BP join THE AVENGERS. Now think about how wrong this really is. This guy is the KING of a small country. It might make sense for him to make the occasional foray around the world to explore and adventure, but to settle down IN NEW YORK to join a team of American heroes? WTF??? WORSE– because Roy was clearly a fan of “TO SIR WITH LOVE”, he had T’Challa create a false secret identity in order to become a school teacher in Harlem. W–T–F!!!!!!!!

    Somehow, as a teenager, coming into most of this after-the-fact and out-of-sequence, the full impliocations of how STUPID what Roy did did not occur to me. Until I recently read of how Don McGregor came to write BP.

    At the time, the way things worked, you got hired to work in the office as an “assistant editor” (read: proof-reader). Along with the job came the understanding that you would also have the opportunity to write free-lance in your spare time.

    Someone decided to give BP his own series, and Don was approached about it. “Hey, Don! Wanna write Black Panther?” “SURE!” “Great. It’s due LAST MONDAY.”

    Don said he read every previous appearance of the BP and realized how COMPLETELY non-sensical what Roy had done was. And as a direct result… he crafted his 1st BP story as a DIRECT REBUTTAL of it. BP returns home from adventuring.,.. to discover his ENTIRE COUNTRY has gone to hell as a direct result of his having ABANDONED his people and his responsibilities there. He figured it would be a quick fix. Instead, it took 13 BI-MONTHLY issues to manage. WHOA.

    But I haven’t mntioned the punch line. DECADES later, Don found out the real reason he was given the book. “Editorial” (read: ROY THOMAS) felt it had “NO CHANCE” of succeeding. And, WORSE– Don and his writing was looked on with CONTEMPT. Roy gave Don the book HOPING it would FAIL, so he could then say, “Oh well… we GAVE him his chance.” Imagine the reaction when the book DID NOT fail, but, instead, began receiving MORE POSITIVE fan mail than all their other books combined.

    Later still I figured out WHY Don’s work was held in contempt. He was the ONLY writer at Marvel who was NOT writing “Marvel Method” style. Don would write FULL SCRIPT– with PAGE LAYOUTS. In effect, he was working like Harvey Kurtzman (except his layouts were on typewriter paper instead of full-size bristol board). Don was ROCKING THE BOAT. They DID NOT like that.

    20 years after they came out, I finally got ahold of most of Kirby’s run. It was FUN. But I repeat– they really should be considered as taking place BETWEEN those FF issues, and when he turned up in TALES OF SUSPENSE to team up with Captain America.

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