No preamble this week; I just want to talk about some really good comics that I never thought would see the light of day. So let’s do that, shall we?
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Black Panther: The Complete Collection, Volume 1
I’ve liked the concept of The Black Panther from when I was a little kid, even though I hadn’t read much of anything he’d actually been in. T’Challa, The Black Panther, is actually the king of the mysterious and technically advanced African country of Wakanda. He defeated and later befriended the Fantastic Four, became a member of The Avengers, and had a kick-ass costume. Though I didn’t know much about him beyond what I just said in those last two sentences, I was always interested in any comic book that he showed up in. He always struck me as kind of like a heroic version of Doctor Doom, which is high praise indeed if you know anything about my feelings about Doctor Doom (i.e., he’s the greatest villain in the Marvel universe).
When I was seriously getting back into comics in the mid 2000s, one of the things that other fans always told me was how good Christopher Priest’s run on Black Panther was. It hat the reputation of being a “smart book,” a book that left a number of hard-line Marvel fans cold yet lasted over 60 issues. It was hard to track down back issues of the series, especially in Edmonton, and nobody I talked to ever thought the whole series would be collected.
And then the Marvel movie slate was announced. Which eventually led to this:
I was very excited when this collection was originally announced but it was one of those bits of comic book news that went in one ear and out the other; I figured I’d get around to reading it eventually. It was only when I was catching up on my episodes of The Daily Rios, host Peter Rios highlighted this book on a New Comics Wednesday episode and I went to buy it the very same day.
It’s as wonderful as I had hoped.
Priest’s take on Black Panther, perfectly set up in the first 12 issues in this collection — the issues originally published under the Marvel Knights banner before the title was absorbed into the regular Marvel publishing arm — are funny, clever, exciting, funny, action-packed, and also really, really funny. It seems a little strange at first to have a comic that deals with some serious and gritty stories and ideas being saturated with humour, but that’s one of Priest’s many, many strengths. A lot of the humour comes from having Everett K. Ross, “Emperor of Useless White Boys,” as the book’s narrator. A lawyer who has been attached to King T’Challa during his visit to the United states, Ross is irreverent and pompous, not taking his client seriously at all. This is also Preist’s way of commenting on and undermining the general reading public’s impressions of the Black Panther, an announcement to the casual reader — you think this character is a joke. He is not. Underestimate him at your peril.
It’s an extremely ambitious book. There are so many story threads being explored at once in this book, so many different aspects of the character that need to be established, that it threatens to overwhelm a reader who’s just giving the book a cursory reading. This book demands the reader’s attention; Priest explores what it means to be The Black Panther as a diplomat, an Avenger, a son, a lover, a philanthropist, a pacifist, a warrior, and a king. Having Ross and not T’Challa narrate Black Panther ensures that T’Challa is a bit of a mystery to the reader. In this way, Priest’s T’Challa is a man defined by his actions, not what he thinks or says about himself. The lack of internal monologue means that his incredibly intricate plans cannot be predicted. This storytelling method established Black Panther as the most dangerous man in the Marvel Universe. As he should be.
Priest also uses a non-linear storytelling style (that he also used in Valiant’s Quantum & Woody series) that instantly grabs the reader’s attention. It’s slightly Tarantino-esque, as Priest himself admits in a few fourth-wall breaking moments in the book, but for a reader who is accustomed to focusing her attention on a book, it’s extremely rewarding. It’s also a convention that I think is more accessible to the current comics reader than the readers of 1999 and 2000. Mainstream comic book narratives have become more complex and involved in the 17 years since Black Panther was first published thanks to the influence of “indie creators” working for Marvel (and to a lesser extent, DC), and Preist’s method of jumping back and forth in the narrative has become much more accessible. This means that it’s still a fresh and invigorating book despite being nearly two decades old. Yet another way that Black Panther is a book that was too ahead of its time.
I could talk about how much I love Priest and his writing all day, but there’s more to Black Panther than the story and the characters. The art on this book is almost universally excellent. There are a lot of different artists on these first 17 issues, and normally that kind of inconsistency in art would make me a little upset. The thing is, they’re all so good. Mark Teixeira’s painted work overtop of Joe Quesada’s breakdowns on he first four issues is absolutely beautiful, like a soft yet vibrant painting. Texiera gives way to Joe Jusko, who keeps that slight softness to the art but keeps the action going through both the panel layout and dynamic figures. Later on Mike Manley’s work feels like Bruce Timm in the best possible way, and allows some real fluidity to the action. Preist’s Quantum & Woody collaborator, M.D. Bright, lays down some clean, crisp superhero art; his issues absolutely crackle with energy. There’s even a five page sequence where Amanda Conner homages Jack Kirby! This collection is just a treasure trove of amazing comic art.
It makes me so happy to read a series by one of my favourite writers, about one of my favourite Marvel characters, that I thought would languish in obscurity. It’s an amazing comic book that deserves to be read by anyone who’s interested in smart superhero fare. I read it from cover to cover in four hours, and I’m going to read it again this weekend. That’s how much I liked it.
(Final note: Newsarama has a fantastic three-part interview with Priest that is open and frank and delves into not only his mindset and ideas when he was writing Black Panther but also his look at the character in general, comics fandom, the comics industry, and his hopes for the upcoming Black Panther film. It’s a really eye-opening read from one of the most interesting comics writers. Check out Parts One, Two, and Three for a “director’s commentary” on the series, but be warned: the interview covers the entire series and may spoil some plot developments that will come in later collections.)
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That’s going to be all for this week. Until next time, appreciate the things that you never thought you’d get to experience. I’ll see you in seven days.