Saturday, February 4, 2017

Black Panther - King Of Wakanda!

The Black Panther appeared on the scene suddenly in the pages of the Fantastic Four magazine during its most fecund era. Lee and Kirby had just given us delightful creations like the Inhumans, Galactus and the Silver Surfer and suddenly we are hit with another hidden kingdom, this one in the depths of darkest Africa.

When Reed Richards gets a present from "The Black Panther", the apparent leader of a remote kingdom named Wakanda, he is at first smitten with the grand technology of the flying machine he receives. This unfortunately lowers his guard and he and the rest of the FF head to Wakanda, a land they find to be a technological jungle of a spectacular nature and come under attack by the Black Panther himself. It appears to be a test of some sort, a ritual hunt which the Panther pursues by isolated the members of the FF and using his advanced technology and extreme agility to capture or momentarily defeat them. But he had not reckoned with the unexpected addition of Wyatt Wingfoot, a college buddy of Johnny Storm, who frees the team and allows them to bring the King of the Wakandans to bay. The issue ends with the Panther making peace with the team.

In the very next issue we get a very Panther centered story as amid the splendor of his rich kingdom we learn of his history. He is T'Challa, son of T'Chaka who was killed by a high-tech robber named Klaw who came for the mysterious metal called Vibranium.

He has trained himself for ten years pending Klaw's return and of course now is the propitious moment. Giant strangely red animals attack hunters in the jungle and soon enough the edges of the Wakandan territory itself. The Panther and the FF alongside battle a giant red ape, a giant red elephant and even eventually the Panther confronts a red panther. These are the creations of Klaw, a master of sound and the creatures themselves are solid sound. But the Black Panther confronts the slayer of his father and destroys his technology ending the threat. In the explosion it seems Klaw is killed but we see he is not as he enters the still operating portal which will alter his tissues. But that story will come at a later time. For now the FF and the Black Panther part ways.

(Unused cover for Fantastic Four Panther debut.)
This is era when the FF stories swiftly moved from one high concept to the next and so the Panther had to make way for the FF's next adventures against the likes of Prester John, Doctor Doom, Blastaar, and the Kree Sentry.

He is little seen for quite some time but does make an appearance along with about all the other FF creations in the Fab 4's fifth annual where the team battles the Psycho Man.

The Black Panther presents a problem for Marvel for sure. For one thing he's their first black superhero, though not an American one. But his name of course doesn't immediately make one think of the King of the Wakandans,

But rather of the somewhat infamous militant political group headed by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. This notorious party came along in 1966 the same year Marvel's new hero debuted. Given the racial tensions all too evident at the time T'Challa's name was problematic to say the least. I'm frankly surprised to see him called the "Black Panther" on the cover of the FF annual because subsequent cover appearances all shied away from his full title and called him merely "Panther" or referenced his name not at all.

Marvel was savvy in that they encased him in a suit which hid his race completely, at least at first so this allowed the character to be distributed in areas of the United States where a black superhero would've caused quite a ruckus if they'd known what was underneath the cover. You'll note the cover which was not used ultimately shows the Panther with a mask revealing his lower face, but that was replaced by one which did. Discounting the fact the latter is a better and more mysterious design, it also had the benefit of confusing the race issue for those overly bothered by it.

But Marvel for all its tepidness on race in many respects was not done with the Panther. More next time as he meets Captain America and becomes an Avenger.

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  1. And that sequence at the end where he removes the mask to reveal a black face was pretty amazing at the time (even though we already knew). I remember flipping through the comic in a drugstore and being stopped in my tracks at the now-obvious concept of a black superhero.

    According to Mark Evanier, the Panther and the Inhumans were originally meant to debut in their own books at a time when Martin Goodman thought he'd be able to negotiate for more titles from his distributor. They're both really strong concepts, with fantastic built-in villains, and unique cosmologies. Being essentially forced to make them supporting characters in an established book had the unexpected consequence of turning the FF into one of the most staggering spectacles in comics. You look at that annual and it's offering you a mind-blowing assemblage of great Kirby characters, including that solo tale of the Silver Surfer, originally meant to be a start of his own series in one of the double feature books. Lee and Kirby were at their zenith here and it might have propelled Marvel to #1 several years early.

    1. The FF being a book about explorers who become superheroes was especially a neat fit for introducing new characters like the Inhumans and the Panther, new lands filled with new concepts. I wonder how a Black Panther comic would have sold in the Southern United States in the mid 60's? I cannot see them trying very hard. Dell had Lobo, a western and that's about it for black title characters at the time. By the early 70's we had a nice little helping of them but times they were a'changing.

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