black panther series commentary

I was so excited. Fan favorite artist and new Marvel Knights honcho Joe Quesada and I had been missing each others' phone calls for a week, but I knew he wanted to talk to me about his new Marvel imprint. This was it, I thought: I was finally gonna get my dream shot. I was finally gonna get a chance to write DAREDEVIL.

I was a little horrified when the words "Black" and "Panther" came out of Joe's mouth. I mean, Black Panther? Who reads Black Panther? Black Panther?! The guy with no powers? The guy in the back of the Avengers class photo, whose main job was to point and cry out, "Look— A BIG, SCALY MONSTER! THOR— GO GET HIM!!" That guy?!

No, PANTHER was not the move. Panther was, by most any objective standard, dull. He had no powers. He had no witty speech pattern, bub. His supporting cast was a bunch of soul brothers in diapers with bones through their noses. King T'Challa is, by necessity, a man of secrecy and cunning, which is difficult to illustrate if he has thought balloons over his head telling the reader everything he's thinking. Or, worse, if he's narrating his own story and blathering on and on and on. Hard to convey cunning from a motormouth.

Also, Panther was a black super-hero and, the most basic economic lesson this business can teach you is, minorities and female super-heroes do not sell (but, kudos to Marvel for trying to do both with the black female version of CAPTAIN MARVEL).

But, Joe and his partner, inker Jimmy Palmiotti, were adamant: the book can work, they insisted. If we have a fresh approach, perhaps along the lines of Eddie Murphy's Coming To America, where the crown prince of an African nation comes to America in search of a bride. Given that kind of energy, taking Wakanda and the Panther seriously, and concentrating on how people react to him- that approach might have a chance in the market. Get him out of the jungle. Bring him to Brooklyn. Make him a night creature, a fearsome African warrior, a manner of black man most blacks in Brooklyn have never seen.

Nah. I was still unconvinced, "Look, guys, we're talking about a king. A black king of not just an African nation but a powerful nation with advanced technology capable of posing a threat to U.S. National security. A king who is prone to occasionally leap out of windows dressed in a kitty cat suit. If this guy, and his nation, actually existed, there's just no way the U.S. State Department would let this guy wander around unescorted, and the CIA would be constantly trying to figure out what's going on in Wakanda. There'd be all manner of global and domestic and racial politics involved." 

For me to flesh out Joe and Jimmy's PANTHER premise, I'd need to go to the wells of snarkdom, for the snarkiest snark I was capable of. Social politics as interpreted by Richard Belzer, Dennis Leary or Dennis Miller. It would be truly sardonic and truly snarky, and Marvel hasn't been the home of true snark since they sent Steve Gerber and his duck packing. I was trying to chase Joe and Jimmy away, but this stuff just excited them. 

Again and again, I whined, there's no way Marvel would let me write this. It's a violation of the Fantasy Land Nice-Nice Accords, signed by both DC and Marvel, that says the US government is always good all the time, everyone accepts Panther, there is no racial divide in America, and the Avengers hold hands and sing and what have you. Mainstream comics were demented places where heroes actually referred to themselves as "heroes," and villains as "villains." These were places run by people who have run comic book companies far, far, far too long and have completely lost touch with popular culture or with what young people today are actually about. I have had my hand slapped more times than I can count for simply pointing out the absurdity of what we do- of these colorful men and women who fly around wearing their underwear on the outside of their clothes.

I believe Chris Claremont was the first writer I experienced who made sense out of all of this for me when he humanized the deadly Magneto. Claremont's brilliant writing had some of his heroes acting in completely unheroic ways, and presented many of his villains as conflicted, desperate souls who never, ever, referred to themselves as "villains," and certainly never thought of Xavier and his ilk as "heroes." 

Frank Miller and others followed suit, bringing more dimension and plurality to the Marvel Universe (while, for the most part, DC continues fairly entrenched in a kind of white-washed estrangement from the real world; nearly all their heroes being beloved, respected and trusted by the average citizen, to whom flying men and women are a mundane and accepted practice).

Joe Quesada's original Panther sketch

The PANTHER book Joe and Jimmy were asking me to produce could not possibly exist in such a world. It would have to exist on the fringes of that world, with our book regularly hacking chunks out of it. This was fine with the guys, and they both encouraged me towards my darker side; the wittier and more gleeful the discourse the more they enjoyed it and the harder they fought for it. Ultimately, for me, it came down to one basic stipulation: BLACK PANTHER could not be a "black" book.

The problem with race and popular media is, in most every "black" movie or "black" music CD you'll see or hear, there is some hostility directed towards whites. Now, were I a white male, I certainly wouldn't want to spend eight bucks to go see a film where white males are portrayed as stupid and are the butt of every joke, or where I am made to feel guilty about things I had nothing to do with, or prejudices I don't actually have.

That's my pet peeve with a lot of black film and black comedians: it's all White People Bashing, fueled by our race's legacy of anger and resentment of centuries-old unreparated wrongs. But, this hostility polarizes rather than unites. There is no healing in it, and it limits our opportunities.

I feel the most profound statement I can make about race is to make Panther so cool he transcends the racial divide here in America. Rather than try and force the readers to identify with a black character, I accepted the fact a great many readers would not be able to overcome the race thing, and withdrew Panther from the reader entirely. 

Borrowing a page from my mentor, legendary comics writer Denny O'Neil, I reinterpreted T'Challa in the mold of Denny's brilliant Ras Al Ghul, a villain from Batman's glory days. Nobody, not even Batman, ever knew, for sure, what Ras was thinking, what his true motives or true plans were. He was the world's greatest poker face, and only the legendary Darknight Detective had the power to challenge him. Ras was, like O'Neil himself, cool. And his coolness transcended race, gender, and even Ras' advanced age. 

That was the energy I wanted for Panther. Rather than get into his head with an enforced intimacy that worked against his stealth, we withdrew altogether, pushing him to the shadows and, to some complaint, making him almost a guest star in his own book. Only, in any reasonable analysis of the series, Panther clearly drives the book. Even if he has only a handful of lines per issue, he is the dominating force.

So, how do we do a book about a black king of a black nation who comes to a black neighborhood and not have it be a "black" book? Moreover, how to we deal with reader apathy and resistance to the return of one of Marvel's least appreciated and dullest characters? Do we turn Panther into WolverPanther? Do we kill him off and replace him with some kid with a crab on his face? Cut off his hand and replace it with a hook?

The answer came to me while watching the brilliant Matthew Perry perform a scene in the NBC hit sitcom Friends. "Gum would be perfection," a line only Friends fans would know, made me howl with laughter for days. Perry's character, an investment banker named Chandler Bing, was actually quite competent at his job. Respected and successful, Bing nevertheless was the horrified fish out of water when caught up in the machinery of his friends' complex personal lives. This was a role Perry freely adapted for the largely ignored but very funny film Fools Rush In, where he plays a brilliant corporate developer who is nonetheless The White Boob around Salma Hayek's Latino community.

I asked Joe and Jimmy, "What if we put that guy- Chandler Bing-into the series? He could be the motormouth, he could give voice to the skeptical readers and validate their doubts and fears about the series. And, best of all, he could amplify the Panther's mystery and overall enigma as his monologues would be, at best, a guess about Panther's whereabouts and motives."

Mark Texeira's original sketch for RossThe guys loved the idea, and we started hammering away at the details. The character's name was, literally, Chandler for the first couple of weeks, until I settled on a Alex P. Keaton vibe in Everett K. Ross. Most fans assumed him to be a one-off of Michael J. Fox, and Fox could certainly bring him to life, but I was writing Chandler, not Alex. I had Ross appear in KA-ZAR #17 as a warm-up of sorts, a run-through with the quick-witted, sardonic half-pint, who effortlessly got Ka-Zar off of an attempted murder charge.

With Ross in place, the book began to take shape. Ross became the key to making the book work. He was the voice of the average Marvel reader, who no doubt wondered why Marvel was bothering with another Panther series.

Ross' monologues began to steal the show, offsetting the mysterious night creature, the man of few words whom Ross was attached to. The monologues were often outrageous, with Ross interpreting the Marvel universe through his Everyman's eyes rather than through the eyes of someone who's been reading comics all their life. It was a new voice, one seemingly hostile towards the Marvel Universe (and, by extension, its fans), but actually, the intent is more to be a social observer and deconstructionist.

Rather than ignore or run from the looming shadow of skepticism and low expectation, Joe and Jimmy and I turned that stuff into kindling for the fire; the secret skepticism of most every Marvel reader became grist for our humor mill, as Ross blurted out what many fans were likely thinking, but never dared to so much as commit to paper or post on a newsgroup; questions of race and values and our own insecurity about being super-hero fans well into adulthood. Ross giddily makes salad of all of the anxiety of the adult super-hero fan, kicking over many a sacred cow in the process.

Panther's ethnicity is certainly a component of the series, but it is not the central theme. We neither ignore it nor build our stories around it. One of Joe and Jimmy's earliest battles with Marvel was to get the Politically Correct handcuffs off and allow us to poke fun at race (in issue #1 Ross assumed Panther's going to 'hang out at Avengers mansion and order up some ribs').

That was the scene: that was the scene that would tell us whether Marvel was prepared to allow us to do this book. And, once J&J convinced the powers that be to leave us alone, it opened up a flood gate of possibilities for outrageous adventure and a gleeful evisceration of some of the most cherished tenets of the Marvel Universe. Jimmy and Joe were regularly summoned to the principal's office and kept after school for our Don Imus/David Letterman snark-fest (calling the Avengers "Gaudily Dressed Fascists," and wondering, "Who appointed them to 'avenge' me?! I don't need any 'avenging'!"). This was how the book achieved its small cult following. The core, die-hard PANTHER fans regularly tune in not so much for the super-hero battles or the villain of the month as to see what Ross will say about it. 

Realizing Panther couldn't be Ross' foil (Ross defers too much to him), we created Nikki Adams as Ross' boss and girlfriend, a relationship that would likely get them both fired. I called MK Managing Editor Nanci Dakesian for advice on Nikki, and she helped me flesh Nikki out into a kind of tempest in a Pepsi can. A strong willed, get-it-done administrator who, inexplicably, fell in love with this half-pint bozo.

I met Nanci for the first time at a Marvel Knights event at the Kevin Eastman's Museum of Cartoon Art outside of Boston. I was a little stunned to meet her, and realized artist Mark Texeira had, literally, drawn Nanci into the book as Nikki Adams. It was like, the joke was on me. A lot of the energy between Ross and Nikki was actually derived from Nanci and Joe (and/or Jimmy and/or Tex; she was always hollering at somebody).

Everything else was simple. Pursuing the Batman/Ras thing, we gave Panther likely the most unique "Batmobile" in mainstream comics today: a sleek, stretch Lexus LS400. And, the first time we see him is not in the costume, but in Armani silk with a shaved head, flanked by Tyra Banks and Naomi Campbell- famous models the Dora Milaje were based upon.

The concept of the Dora Milaje (Wakandan for "Adored Ones") evolved out of the brilliant work of Panther scribe Don McGregor, who theorized Wakanda was actually made up of a great many indigenous tribes, and that not all tribes liked each other. Joe and Jimmy just thought it'd be cool to have Panther travel with a pair of 6-foot tall gorgeous women, and I certainly agreed, but the order of the Dora Milaje, a kind of nun/wife-in-training deal, gave us a foot in both of the worlds the Panther struggled to maintain peace between: the modern and the tribal. From the very beginning, we planned to have one of the girls go nuts and evolve into one of Panther's deadliest villains (Malice, now making Panther's life a living hell in the currently shipping issues of BLACK PANTHER). And we added in Zuri, a kind of lovable but troublesome Uncle Charlie who was vested in the old ways and customs, and had enormous trouble ordering at a Chinese fast food joint.

Two brief mentions of villains and villainy: Achebe, who is baldly the Joker to Panther's Batman (even appearing so in Ross's nightmare in issue #22), actually sprung more out of thoughts of Hannibal Lechter or Hans Gruber (the brilliant villain from Die Hard). Achebe's unpredictable nature, his insanity, made him the perfect foil for Panther- a methodical and analytical genius whose powers were nulled by Achebe's wackiness. Tying Achebe briefly into the malevolent Mephisto and the CIA (not sure which was scarier), we made Achebe an accomplice to the ethnical cleansing and racial genocide going on in neighboring Ghudaza; a holocaust begun for the simple purpose of inserting Achebe into Wakanda in a coup attempt. Achebe was the only character in the book who did not defer to Panther, but, rather, gleefully egged him on. Achebe is a joy to write, and Joe's designs (with the huge ears and the eternal, mocking grin) really brought Achebe to life for me.

Lastly, we needed a doppelganger. A Reverse Flash. We needed a mirror image of Panther. A man who is, himself, completely enigmatic, and whose powers of reason and deduction rivaled (if not surpassed) Panther's own. The White Wolf was, obviously, his name, but I stumbled around looking for a hook for this guy until I saw Clint Eastwood's film Midnight In The Garden of Good and Evil. Of the many, many wacked-out characters in that very odd film, there was Kevin Spacey, playing a kind of southern gentleman with a raft of secrets. I called Joe and said, "That's the guy. That's the white wolf— he's, literally, a white guy. He's Kevin Spacey."

Joe's original sketches for the Wolf were brilliant. I taped that face up on my computer monitor, and constructed the character (a child orphaned in a plane crash and adopted by King T'Chaka, Panther's father) from the visual. The Hatut Zeraze ("Dogs of War" ) were based loosely on the Ton Ton Macutes, the dreaded Haitian secret police.

Joe Quesada's original White Wolf sketch

Joe and Jimmy rammed all of this through Marvel's approval process, fighting the good fights and winning most every battle. And then they placed it all in the hands of the brilliant Mark Texeira. I'd known Mark for decades, since my days as a Marvel editor. Tex is a man of great warmth and great humor, who gets very excited about his work and invests himself in it. Tex more or less moved into the Marvel Knights offices, drawing a great deal of the PANTHER pages in-house. Tex wanted to try a new technique that involved applying gray wash to the inked pages, and having the color technicians interpret the gray as color gradients. The net result was a kind of painted look that reminded me of Richard Corbin's brilliant work for Heavy Metal Magazine. The painted look got PANTHER a lot of attention, and made this, the opening arc to the series, the most successful issues of the book to date.

To the great surprise of most industry experts, and even to myself, BLACK PANTHER is, at this writing, still going strong. Still attracting new fans and pursing new adventures. We're thrilled and grateful to everyone who's been along for the ride. To old friends and new: to Joe, Jimmy and Nanci, to Chris Claremont who fought the good fight, to Bob Harras who often beat up Chris for us, to our pal Ruben who brought us back into the family, the great Tom Brevoort who took us to the next level, our new pal Michael Marts, to Bill Jemas for being in our corner when it really counted, the wonderful Alitha Martinez without whom we'd have NEVER shipped on time, to colorist Brian Haberlin, letterers Siobhan Hanna and Richard Starkings (who spent many an hour with me on the phone designing the look of Panther's graphics), and the fabulous Mark Texeira- thanks everyone for this ground-breaking comic. And for those who are meeting the Panther, Ross and the gang for the first time- enjoy!

Christopher J. Priest
June, 2001
from the introduction to The Client trade paperback

  Black Panther Year One

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