Still beautiful

Jungle Action #6

#6 (Buckler)

This is how I met the Black Panther, 1973-1974, age nine and ten, with “Panther’s Rage” in Jungle Action #6-19.  Don McGregor had started writing comics the way a lot of people did in the late 1960s, at the Warren magazines Creepy and Eerie, working with art director Billy Graham. He landed his first series gig at Marvel in 1973 on Jungle Action, tasked with the Black Panther, evading oversight by (i) Roy Thomas’ general “let’s see what you can do” policy, (ii) the beta-beta status of the title, and (iii) an agreement with fellow writers to lay off one another’s work.

I repeat: this is when I came in, reading “Panther’s Rage” simultaneously with the early issues of Hero for Hire (Man of steel), the Englehart run on Captain America and the Falcon (Against the Establishment) with the Falcon torn between Layla and Cap (Puh-leeze!), and add to that, some Guy Cowell and other underground comix which pulled no punches. You can quibble with the representation and problematic this-or-that all you want. What I know, and soaked into every brain cell at the time, was that it was the only moment in U.S. pop-media history when black protagonists rejected not only their assigned position in the American hierarchy, but also the offer to rise in it in exchange for allegiance. First in that issue was T’Challa, in no uncertain terms.

It feels odd to have to explain this: well before I was born, the term Negro was considered condescending, associated with the one-day, wait-and-you’ll-see version of civil rights. By the 1950s it wasn’t much different from “nigra” and “nigger” although the white speaker might feel virtuous in using it. The term African-American existed already but it had become associated with humble assimilation, “just another American,” and considered inadequate to address the present and prevalent discrimination. So by the time I was even learning to talk, black became the term of pride, the one without direct acknowledgment of how white people were supposed to look at you, without “place,” meaning, you would go to wherever you would from there – and that such “going” was imperative. It went with two other words, the first being Power, and the second as a phrase: Black is Beautiful. It’s why I use the term.

You probably already know this was the first, and still one of very few, mainstream comics featuring no white protagonists, and only a single white “voice” with Venomm, an alienated, disfigured antagonist. Riffle the pages and there’s no mistake: the subject is black bodies in beauty, across beautiful landscapes which showcase the diverse geography of central Africa. In action or repose, in strength or weakness, whether classical or human-ordinary or outright grotesque, the human form is on display, in rich brown, in spectacular action and fully familiar interaction that completely defy all concept of the Other. No bones in noses, no rolly-eyed superstitious primitives, and not merely New Yorkers in costume either.

#16 (Graham & Marcos)

Beautiful writing? Yup. McGregor’s prose catches heat in every mention of the title, always with an obligatory slam. It’s there in The Comic Book Heroes and Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, and sure to crop up in the comments of any blog post or social media share. Flowery, verbose, excessive, ponderous, blah blah.

This is me telling you, that’s all some horse shit. McGregor’s prose is not only spot-on for the immediate events and imagery per page, but it’s way less flowery and overly-emotional than plenty of what passes for genius word-smithing in comics fandom. I won’t even snark; I’ll play this straight. Go ahead, click on the page I’ve chosen, whihc is pretty typical for “Panther’s Rage,” and feel free to compare it with any page of similar word-count by … let’s see … Alan Moore. Miracleman or Swamp Thing will serve nicely.

Moore’s 80s work is credited with Genius Top-Drawer Comics status, no less than a revolution of content and presentation, “comics grow up,” the works. If that’s so, or even partly so, then McGregor’s comics prose needs crediting as not only a predecessor, but at least as comparable mastery of the form and at least as a comparable contribution to said maturation. You can’t give him crap for word-count, syllable-count per word, or alleged pretension in word-choice, then turn around to genuflect at Moore for those very things. [please note I have said nothing about what Moore himself claims or thinks; to my knowledge he has made no claims of this kind]

#8 (Buckler & Janson)

Speaking of pictures, and staying with beauty, “Panther’s Rage” isn’t a single-illustrator work, but it’s more unified than a simple list would indicate. The first half is tied together by the inks of none other than Klaus Janson on his first (!!) credited comics work, over Rich Buckler, Gil Kane, and Billy Graham. The second is tied together by Graham’s pencils through further inkers including P. Craig Russell and Graham himself. Did you just see me compare the prose in “Panther’s Rage” favorably to Alan Moore’s? I’ll go ahead with some more blasphemy: its art stands with both Jim Steranko in design and Neal Adams in dynamic anatomy.

As for the villains, that’s a big topic, starting with Erik Killmonger of course, with the lesser bads Venomm, Malice, Baron Macabre, King Cadaver, Lord Karnaj, Sombre, Salamander K’ruel (personal favorite), and Madam Slay. Given the rapid-fire rate of their appearance, and the necessarily brief resolutions for the most part, their visual designs, powers, and varied outlooks are remarkably vivid.

JA #17 (Graham)

JA #17 (Graham)

Erik: in definition, he’s not an ultravillain, but highly personal, more like the Panther’s Green Goblin. Yet it’s charged political content, especially of the moment. Back in 1966 it was about the recently-killed native-nationalist Patrice Lumumba in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; but in 1973, it’s about the rule of the country (renamed Zaire) by its usurper, Mobutu Sese Seko.

The parallels are inexact as always, but there’s no mistaking the “westernization” including the character’s renaming himself to Anglo-German, his brutal ethnic cleansing and immiserating the populace, and the policies that strip Wakanda of its resources and mysteries. It’s actually really well-done that both T’Challa and Erik want the same thing, to modernize Wakanda, but differ on how … and that the latter is better able to win “hearts and minds” through displaying his power (and granting vs. withholding raw death and misery).

There’s a lot to keep discussing, including the civil wars both of the Congo/Zaire and Nigeria, and related areas such as Zimbabwe, as then called Rhodesia by some; and the other so-called Brush Wars. Suffice to say that “Panther’s Rage” unequivocally brings to fruition the same issues, similarly well-grounded, that Lee and Kirby had raised as I wrote about in The Black Panther(s), the Coal Tiger, and US.

This song was playing a bit later – released in 1978, although written well before then.

For days and nights they battled the Bantu to their knees / They killed to earn their living and to help out the Congolese

There’s technical or poetic beauty, and then there’s the question of content, which in this case, means black bodies in agony. Which are abundantly supplied; the story even opens with a man dying under torture. T’Challa is lacerated by a spiked belt, a bullwhip, undead talons, wolf fangs, and Tyrannosaurus everything, then things get imaginative: a monster gorilla slams him against a boulder, Lord Karnaj strangles and claws him with acid-soaked hands, he’s pierced all over by cactus spines, a pteranodon grabs, claws, and drops him, snakes squeeze him, and finally he’s dragged by his legs across desert rocks by leopards, who move apart as they run to draw him crotch-first toward a blade-like boulder.

#15 (Graham)

#15 (Graham & Green)

To give you an idea of how this story works, here’s what happens in one of these sequences. After T’Challa is defeated in shocking agony by Salamander K’ruel’s poison-needled skin, he wakes up tied to cacti, undergoes more agony and bleeding, has a mystical experience with a newt that crawls on his face, gets torn from the cacti by a pteranodon, manages to get onto its back, then swoops it down upon Salamander K’ruel, who nails it in the forehead with one of his nuclear arrows, so the whole scene is filled with exploding archosaur, and meanwhile T’Challa has jumped off it and beaten him senseless with his own bow. Fuck James Bond and the Bruckheimers too; comics are better.

panthersrage2

#15 (Graham & Green)

The excitement got me a little off-track from my point, which is that all the pain is genuinely unsettling. So … is it misery porn? I’m not clear on the boundaries for the term, but as I understand it, it applies when the agents and the victims of the misery are rendered generic, unmotivated, and voiceless. Here, however, the whole thing is founded not merely on a visual aesthetic but the kind of story beauty that comes of many viewpoints, many of them in conflict, some of them changing under pressure. The events move through the measured outcomes of a social and psychological crisis, seen and voiced by multiple characters, all understandable, often in disagreement, rarely if ever resolved in right-vs.-wrong fashion. Including but definitely not limited to:

  • Taku and Venomm: the idealist seeking to reform the alienated villain
  • M’Jumbak and Karota: the traditional peasant couple faced with modern reforms
  • W’Kabi and Chandra: whose marital troubles and W’Kabi’s political position feed into one another
  • T’Challa and Monica: who don’t agree with one another much, and whose romance is trying to find itself

There’s another squickier thing about the agony … is it covert racist-sadism, getting to see the black guy tortured in secret glee? That’s even more obscured to analysis, although I have definitely found works that repelled me when I presumed that an unspecified other person would have that reaction. (Whether that is some form of projection or bad conscience, I leave to professionals to decide.) “Panther’s Rage” doesn’t trip that wire for me at least.

Jungle Action #21 (Graham)

#21 (Graham & McLeod)

However, that discussion may properly belong in the incompleted second story set in the U.S., JA #20-24, when T’Challa comes to stay with his girlfriend Monica in the Deep South. I’ll allow that the cross-burning scene is gutsy, and I guess if Graham was OK with drawing it, then I’m no one to say otherwise. But jeez!

This story wasn’t finished at the time, and I don’t regard it very highly as pure story. It’s ambitious as hell including one issue devoted to a surreal investigation of different perspectives on the Klan, but it wanders and stalls even in just five issues. A lot of it is built from In the Heat of the Night and In Cold Blood, there’s a too-obvious passionate author-avatar, T’Challa is curiously passive for a national ruler, an unconvincing anti-villain appears …

But my point here is not to review. I’m more interested in why T’Challa’s simply not the right guy for that story. For one thing, there’s the usual problem of saying, hey, we have a showcase black character, so let’s pile every possible issue onto him regardless of his particularity. An African superhero king has better things to do than, for instance, to patrol rooftops in New York, which is sorta kinda parta the point of “Panther’s Rage” anyway, so it’s weird to see him doing this too.

  • Ooh! Crucial point: McGregor’s JA run began under Roy Thomas’ editorship, continued through Len Wein’s, and finished under Marv Wolfman’s. This is everything to do with any Marvel title during this period, and there’s no way this somewhat stuttery and opaque finish can be an exception.

To my knowledge there has never been a genuine Southern black comics hero, or super-powered character of any kind. It’s a demographic which remains unknown to most media culture and especially in Hollywood, which keeps falling back on developmentally-delayed or woeful or both. (You can catch a glimpse of my notions in the second One Plus One story.)

If one really, really wanted to see T’Challa interacting with black liberation and/or civil rights in the U.S. in the mid-70s, the opportunity was absolutely there. The Black Panther Party had been reaching out to anti-colonial groups in Africa for some time, and that history is rich in both successes and failures, although most of it seems to have been stuffed into a memory hole, culturally. It’s unrealistic to have expected any such story given the view of the BPP in New York at the time (see Englehart’s depiction in The Avengers and T’Challa’s flat disavowal of them), so I’ll put that into the “someday a story” hopper.

Links: How Don McGregor pioneered modern comics with “Panther’s Rage”, Panther’s Rage: the first Marvel graphic novel

Next column: Not enough Doom lately (February 12)

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About Ron Edwards

Game author and publisher via Adept Press / Biology author and former professor

Posted on February 5, 2017, in Lesser is still great, The 70s me and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Hi Ron,

    The mention of Zaire got me thinking about the Rumble in the Jungle, and how it’s just unimaginable that something like that could happen today (note: I’m not saying it should happen, but I guess I do think it should be imaginable). The way (well, some important ways) that popular culture, “Africa” (real and imagined), and being black in America (or white and at least minimally engaged/aware) interacted at that time is (I think) exemplified by that event. So is (if I read your post right) “Panther’s Rage”. I’ll add it to the “I oughta read that” list. Because, while the way that interaction happened back then certainly had its’ problems, it had advantages too.

    T’Challa interacting with black liberation and/or civil rights does in the US does sound AWESOME. Part of me thinks there is absolutely no way it could be written today, but man, you make wish it had been written then.

    Like

    • The Rumble is just so crazy. I still can’t get over how one of the most heinous CIA-backed rulers of modern times leveraged the whole thing into nativist nationalism. Did you know that the populace in Zaire was generally unaware that Foreman was black, until he arrived?

      And it goes on from there. Imagine too, at the same moment or as close as makes no difference, Eldridge Cleaver arriving in France, already very tired of his fellow-in-exile Timothy Leary, but making fast friends with Jean Genet. That’s a bookshelf pairing of Soul on Ice and Our Lady of the Flowers for a whole term’s course to back up with history and auxiliary readings.

      I briefly mentioned the Black Panther / Black Panthers meeting in the Avengers title of that time, which isn’t one of Englehart’s great moments of comics writing – it’s as eye-rolly as his depiction of the militants as plain thugs in Captain America and the Falcon, justifying the Falcon’s rather tepid centrism.

      The question is, is “black” “African?” That is a huge, huge issue running through American black liberation and civil rights, the whole history. It’s also tied to leftism and the specifications of communism, via W.E.B. Dubois, Frederic Douglass, and later, Huey Newton.

      The tricky point is anti-colonialism: whether the interests of nation-building in Africa free from British, Dutch, Afrikaaner, and U.S. control are synergistic with black interests in the U.S. Finding that synergy is, according to some, exactly what got both King and R. F. Kennedy shot; and according to some, it’s what renewed the media destruction of the BPP after its initial nemesis, Hoover, had died.

      In other words, in seeking civil rights, is a political effort doomed to accept pure assimilation – to be a good American in the worst sense of that term, achieving “legitimacy” by supporting the imperial project “loyally?” That does seem to be the lesson learned by Christian evangelists, Mormons, Jewish Americans with the added fillip of Zionsm, and black Americans – in full. I can see no more instructive comparison than between Huey Newton and Colin Powell.

      Like

      • Thank for that expansion (informative, even in bits I sorta-knew). I’m probably just repeating myself, but that “The Black Panther” comic touches on even parts of that unavoidable, important mess is what puts it on my “I should read” list.

        I’m kinda constitutionally averse to pure-anything, and pure-assimilation sounds especially vile, but I am thinking right now about how it might be wishful thinking to imagine there’s any other kind … and if there is, how to sustain it. Good topics, I think, so again, thanks.

        Like

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