It's hard to know exactly what Jack "King" Kirby was thinking when he was given the Black Panther franchise again after so many years. Though he had co-created the character with Stan Lee in the hallowed pages of the Fantastic Four, his connection with Marvel's first black superhero had been tenuous at best with only a few more appearances having been drawn by Kirby. But here he was back at the House of Ideas and master of his fate to a much greater degree.
The Black Panther had just come off a critically acclaimed run in the pages of Jungle Action where writer Don McGregor and artists Rich Buckler and Billy Graham had made him a distinctive hero, more notable for his heritage and nobility than the happen chance of his skin color. (I'll be looking at this important series in more detail later this month.)The Panther was a legit hero at last and not merely a well developed token to add some necessary variety to the Avengers.
But Kirby, as was his wont with his Bronze Age Marvel series, ignored pretty much all of that and gave us a Prince T'Challa who partners up with a seedy dwarf named Mr. Little, an immoral collector of ancient relics. In the debut story we see the pair discover the body of another collector who has in his possession a beautiful brass frog from the treasure troves of King Solomon. But this frog is actually a time machine and it has brought forth an ancient warrior who has killed the man who unintentionally summoned him.
The Panther fights this confused warrior who escapes. He and Little then take the frog but are attacked by the henchmen of another collector the exotic and beautiful Princess Zanda.
Things happen but in the end the frog is turned on again and it summons this time a powerful figure identified only as Hatch-22 from Earth's distant future.
In the second issue the Panther, Mr. Little and Princess Zanda attempt to survive the amoral attacks of the Hatch-22 The Six-Million Year Old Man.
Coming from the distant future this creature doesn't seem to have anything attachment to these ancient beings and kills them with detachment on a whim. The Panther gets a glimpse of the distant future the creature comes from, a world where what has become of humanity lives underground in a worldwide network of sealed cities, living lives of pure intellect. When a terrific space monster comes to threaten that world we see Hatch-22 rise and obliterate the monster, something he is more than capable of doing to the world he's trapped on now.
Getting the creature back to the future becomes the mission and to accomplish that goal they need the never-before-mentioned second brass frog which will undo the effects of the first. To get that they must find King Solomon's tomb and the treasure trove within. Able to put Hatch-22 to sleep briefly they have a few hour window to accomplish this and Princess Zanda offers up a sleek Kirby-created airship for the task.
In the third issue they find King Solomon's treasure and race to find the second frog but Hatch-22 awakes ahead of schedule and becomes the menace they fear.
They race to get the second frog though the greedy collectors Little and Zanda have a hard time ignoring the treasures around them and become problems for the Panther.
Also a problem is a guardian of the tomb, but they are able to defeat it by tricking Hatch-22 into destroying it. But finally he is able to use the second frog to send the future man back to his own world, saving our own for the time being.
The Black Panther as re-imagined by Jack Kirby is a far far cry from the introspective monarch developed by Don McGregor and Billy Graham and others for several years. He seems less subtle and far less conflicted. This Panther is resolute and a man of action, minus the self-doubts which defined the McGregor Panther. That's possibly one of the reasons so many fans reacted so negatively to this creation. On its face it's yet one more intoxicating Kirby adventure filled with visual feasts of creation, but when one remembers it's a Black Panther adventure it does feel strange.
More to come.