Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Classics - Black Panther #1

You occasionally get a bit of a jolt when the creative team changes on a comic and things move in a different direction.

But I don't think any comic ever experienced a more radical change than the Black Panther in the mid-'70s.

The early part of that decade featured T'Challa taking over the spotlight in the (formerly) reprint comic Jungle Action. His adventures were written by Don McGregor, who created dramatic, prose-intensive adventures that were more adult than most Marvel Comics, very serious and wonderful to read (one day I'll review one of his issues).

Sadly, the series was finally canceled - only to be brought back in 1976 with a new first issue, and a surprising new writer and artist - Jack "King" Kirby!

No one could dispute Kirby's claim to the character - after all, he co-created the Black Panther with Stan Lee in 1966 in issue #52 of the Fantastic Four.

Kirby left Marvel in the early '70s, and when he returned the company seemed to struggle with what to do with him. Ever creative, Kirby came up with a new, cosmic scale series - The Eternals - and he took over Captain America just in time for an epic bicentennial adventure. (Not to mention Devil Dinosaur, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Mister Machine.)

But in 1976 the King needed a new title to tackle, and they put him on this one.

One suspects he didn't even look at McGregor's series, which was a completely different style of hero. Instead, Kirby played to his strength - wild, over-the-top action, strange characters and exotic locales.

And I don't mean any of this as a put-down for either McGregor or Kirby, because I loved both series - but I distinctly remember my neck almost snapping from the change in direction.

In this issue, the Panther is working with Mister Little, a mysterious man who's hunting a small brass frog known as King Solomon's Frog. It holds a powerful secret - namely, it's actually a time machine - and it's drawing creatures through time, seemingly at random!

Powerful forces are trying to control it, and the Panther is right in the middle of the action.

As you'd expect from Kirby, the art is amazing (it's inked by Mike Royer), with incredible detail, huge action sequences, bone-breaking fight scenes, inventive battles in the air and below ground, and strange villains from the past, present and distant future.

It's just a pure delight though undeniably strange. Kirby's run on this series continued that streak throughout, as ideas geysered out unabated.

Some may not care for this series, because it's complete fantasy and it followed right behind McGregor's more realistic series - there was controversy at the time about it.

But Kirby's work, as always, shines with energy and creativity beyond imagination - it's amazing stuff, and I enjoyed it!

Grade: B+



Anonymous said...

Yes, Marvel seemed to struggle with what to do with Kirby. And likewise, Kirby was struggling at the same time. His exodus to DC seemed like a failure then. (We didn't know that his characters and concepts would go on and on and be a part of DC today.)
He returned to Marvel reluctantly and cranked out some amazing books; but he never really fit into the Marvel of the '70's. They had evolved and moved on from the early days; Kirby's books looked at if they were from a different world...and time.
Kirby co-created the Marvel Age at about the age of 40, and the Fourth World for DC at the age of 50...but by the time he returned to Marvel, one last time, his age was catching up to him. His art was still incredible and arresting, but we were now aware that it was being produced by someone from our parents' generation.
And sometimes, in the case of Marvel, you just can't go home again.

Sam Kujava

Chuck said...

Sam, I think that's spot-on. By the mid-'70s the industry had changed, but Kirby wasn't going to try to shift with it - he stuck to his guns and kept doing what he did best. In retrospect (as with his DC work), his genius is evident, but at the time I think some fans (and perhaps some of the editors at Marvel) didn't appreciate what they had.

Glen Davis said...

This is the only Black Panther series I've really collected.

Chuck said...

Glen, it's one of my favorites, although I also love Don McGregor's version - all dark and adult and taking on serious issues - the Panther actually fights the KKK in an issue! I also liked the most recent version (the one adapted into an animated series) with Romita, Jr. art.