“Captain America: Civil War” does a whole lot of things correctly — pacing, tone, stakes: all of it works really well.
But what that movie does better than anything else is introduce two (and a half) new characters to the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Black Panther, Spider-Man and Ant-Man becoming Giant-Man.
We all know Spider-Man. Ant-Man isn’t technically new (but it was certainly cool seeing the character bust out the embiggening powers).
So let’s talk T’Challa.
Black Panther, aka T’Challa of Wakanda, is the first black superhero in mainstream comics. Created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, he first appeared in Fantastic Four #52-53 in the summer of 1966 (which was several months before activists Huey Newton and Bobby Seale put together the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in October).
T’Challa is the ruler of Wakanda, an African nation that also happens to be the most technologically advanced on Earth, thanks largely to being the sole source of the extremely rare, extremely strong metal vibranium.
It’s complicated, but Black Panther has a connection to the Panther God and is both the ruler of Wakanda and its living champion. He has a whole mess of superpowers, mostly involving enhanced strength, agility, senses, that sort of thing. He might be immune to poisons. (His power set was always a mite vague.)
For a few years, writers seemed a little unsure of what to do with the guy (he was an Avenger for a bit, he hung out with Daredevil once) until Don McGregor took a shot at the character in a feature in a comic called “Jungle Action” in 1973.
Written by McGregor with artists Rich Buckler, Gil Kane, Billy Graham, Klaus Janson and Bob McLeod. The multi-issue arcs that ran in “Jungle Action” #6–24 (September 1973 – November 1976) were essentially the first graphic novel (especially the first, longest arc, called “Panther’s Rage;” the second, shorter arc, “Panther vs. the Klan” is slightly less successful).
While some of the prose scans as a bit purple in 21st century light, “Panther’s Rage” is a jaw-dropping achievement, parts that both stand on their own and add up to a brilliantly realized whole. It remains a terrific primer on how to pace a multi-part arc AND deliver a satisfying reader experience in each issue.
Kirby returned to the character in 1977, but his run is not some of his best work. McGregor returned to the character in the late ’80s and early ’90s for two arcs — both are solid.
But Black Panther really got a shot in the arm in 1998, with writer Christopher Priest, the first African-American writer in mainstream comics, and penciller Mark Texeira’s 1998 “Black Panther,” which ran for 62 issues. Back in 2002, I noted in the Statesman that Priest “turned an underused icon into the locus of a complicated high adventure by taking the Black Panther to his logical conclusion. T’Challa (the title character) is the enigmatic ruler of a technologically advanced, slightly xenophobic African nation, so he acts like it.” I stand by all of that. Marvel has collected Priest’s excellent run in three volumes, and it absolutely holds up.
Filmmaker Reginald Hudlin took over the character in 2005 for a new ” Black Panther,” which ran 41 issues, during which Black Panther and Storm (of the X-Men) got hitched. (As long as Fox owns the rights to the film versions of the X-Men, don’t expect to see this union on screen any time soon). The Hudlin era has been collected in various paperbacks.
Which brings us to T’Challa’s most recent on-going series. Written by Ta-Nehisi Coates and drawn by Brian Stelfreeze, the second issue of “Black Panther” hit stores May 11. The book started strong and stays the course for the second issue, wherein out hero tries to rid himself of an enemy of Wakanda. It goes…poorly. But the book remains on my must-read list.