Black Panther #1-4
Issue(s): Black Panther #1, Black Panther #2, Black Panther #3, Black Panther #4
The Inhumans, on the other hand, i'd say are the least developed and Marvel never really figured out what to do with them at least, arguably, until Paul Jenkins' 1998 series.
When it comes to the Black Panther, i wouldn't say it's that he's somewhere in the middle so much as there's been several attempts to develop the Wakandan setting and none of them have really stuck. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby introduced a technological paradise in Africa, which was meant to be as fantastic as Atlantis or Attilan. It may have been culturally insensitive to treat Wakanda as a fantasy land (Look! A place in Africa where they aren't primitive!) but even if so, the way that was clawed back is equally reflective of those biases, with stories about trial by combat for leadership with the Man-Ape and attacks by Lion Gods. At the same time, the Panther himself was brought to the US to become an Avenger, where he lost all the technology that Lee and Kirby gave him and became more of a social justice character (since he was Marvel's first black, if not African-American, super-hero) than the powerhouse that defeated the FF in his first appearance. Don McGregor then brought T'Challa back to Wakanda and tried to square the native traditionalist vs. futuristic tech contradiction and also built up a supporting cast and did manage a Games of Thrones-ish style plot with Panther's Rage. You'll notice that none of those supporting cast characters appear in this mini-series, though, and even McGregor took the Panther out of Wakanda again for his unfortunately confused and truncated second arc that put the Panther back in the American social justice role fighting the Ku Klux Klan. Jack Kirby then came back and put the Black Panther through a hyperkinetic set of stories that broadly had the same premise as the Sub-Mariner, with Wakanda just being the launching point for various adventures. And he also ignored McGregor's cast and introduced things like the Black Musketeers, which i think we'd all prefer to forget. After Kirby left, Marvel wrapped up McGregor's unfinished Klan plot and then the Panther's solo series petered out, with the character relegated to guest appearances and cameos, not too different than the Inhumans. I suppose for completeness i should mention Wakanda's war with Atlantis in the Defenders. But basically nothing had been done with the character since 1980.
The above is all just a long-winded way of saying that Peter Gillis, who i think is a good writer, had a lot of challenges in front of him for this four issue mini-series. He meets some of those challenges head on but perpetuates others. The main thing he does is transfer the social justice aspect of the character from America to something more relevant to the region Wakanda is in by having the Black Panther take on (a stand-in for) South Africa's Apartheid. This is the plot of the book and the real-life attention that this topic was getting in 1988 was likely the impetus for this mini-series. It's questionable whether taking on a real life issue like this was a good idea considering that no matter what the Black Panther did in the book, he wasn't going to be able to end real world Apartheid. The fact that the Apartheid country in this story, Azania, is fictional does allow for a happy resolution in the comic, but that just seems tone deaf. It also allows Don McGregor to repeat the Apartheid theme when he returns to the Black Panther in Marvel Comics Presents.
Ok, let's see what we've really got going on here. Actually, let's start with Denys Cowan drawing Black Panther fighting a rhinoceros.
Ok, now let's see what we've got going on in this series.
In Apartheid-ridden Azania on the southern-tip of Africa, a black prisoner being tortured to give up all his "terrorist" and "Communist-backed" compatriots suddenly turns into a Were-Panther...
...and goes on a murderous rampage (even attacking those like the governor below who had been expressing doubts about Apartheid).
Simultaneously, in Wakanda, the Black Panther is attacked by actual panthers...
...which is taken as a sign that the Panther God has abandoned him and that he is no longer fit for rule.
To simplify things, i'll let you now know that there's no twist to this. It's later confirmed that the Panther God has indeed abandoned T'Challa and manifested in Azania to fight Apartheid.
In the meantime, the Panther God's attacks are a rallying point for the Azanians, and the God is mistaken for the Black Panther, so T'Challa and Wakanda are implicated in the uprising. Since despite the Panther God's involvement the uprising is failing under the advanced firepower of the white Azanians, T'Challa goes on television and makes a speech that condemns the Apartheid but also tries to halt the rebellion. This doesn't go over well with the (never seen before) group of advisers or elders or whatever they are...
...and between that and the panther incident, the supposed monarch of Wakanda is forced by the elder Mendinao to undergo "the ordeal of the white ape" to prove his worthiness. We've heard about the white apes before, first in the context of the villain the Man-Ape, and then we saw them during the McGregor issues.
The Panther completes the ordeal, but his rival Ndebele finds (or claims to find?) a device placed by the more westernized Moise Bomvana that will sap the strenth of the white apes, and so Bomvana is exiled and T'Challa is forced to give up the throne until a Tribunal can make a ruling.
During the introductory issue, we definitely see the technological side of Wakanda.
It's still presented as something that T'Challa brought from the west and that the average Wakandan citizen does not trust or feel any pride in.
Issue #2 goes in a more super-hero direction, although in a very openly allegorical way, with the Azanian government sending a group of super-soldiers to attack Wakanda in retaliation for the Black Panther's supposed involvement in the uprising. The characters have names like White Avenger and Barricade and the team name is The Supremacists, so if you wanted to see the Black Panther punch Apartheid, your chance is coming up.
Their attack comes while the political debate in Wakanda continues. T'Challa participates but is reminded that he has no voice in the council.
And even before the Supremacists show up, T'Challa gets into a fight with a challenger. The continued Trials By Combat feed the impression that Wakanda is a very primitive culture founded on mystical mumbo jumbo instead of being a highly advanced one.
The Black Panther is in the process of losing the fight to T'Swana when the Supremacists arrive. But it's the Panther who fights back against them.
It interests me a little that the Panther is making a distinction between the Voortrekker character and the others, although it isn't developed. The idea that some of these guys may be non-racists (to the degree that they could be while working for the white Azanian government) that legitimately think that the Panther is engaged in violent terrorism in Azania might have been interesting.
The Panther escapes the Supremacists to get some time to formulate a strategy against a team of super-powered foes...
...but that leaves them free to wreck the Wakandan capital.
The Black Panther eventually leads the Supremacists into his techno-jungle, where he first defeated the Fantastic Four...
...and he's able to defeat them too, although the technology of the jungle doesn't seem to be all that important a factor.
Meanwhile, in Paris, the exiled Moise Bomvana contacts a Wakandan ambassador named Melaika, and invokes the "Order of the Panther" to get her to allow him to send a message back home.
After the battle with the Supremacists battle is over, T'Challa gets the message, which is that the general in charge of the Supremacists, General Moorbecx, intends to follow up the attack with a nuclear missile. T'Challa tries to warn the council but they completely ignore him. So T'Challa instead travels to Paris, where it turns out that he has a romantic history with Melaika (who is another character we haven't seen before this series, and there's no telling where this fits in with the Panther's longtime love interest Monica Lynne).
Melaika has arranged a meeting between T'Challa and an ex-CIA troubleshooter named Frank Littel. Littel asks for 25 million Francs and Black Panther's ID card in exchange for saving his country.
After that, the Panther and Melaika fly to Zaire and then buy a helicopter to fly the rest of the way to Azania, with the help of some vibranium.
The Panther locates the missile and it seems to be a super-high tech missile full of Kirby lines. T'Challa says that "a normal missile" would be repelled by Wakanda's defenses, but i'm not sure if he means a normal nuclear missile or simply a non-nuclear missile. I'd prefer it to be the former, since i'd like to think that the high tech Wakanda has a super-science missile defense shield.
Panther first tries surrendering to General Moorbecx in return for stopping the missile. However, when he's forced to make a televised speech telling the rebels to lay down their arms, he instead takes a much stronger stand than he did in his first speech.
The Panther is then imprisoned, but the Panther God shows up to release him.
A few times in this series, even before the Panther God comes to him, we see the Black Panther's face depicted as an actual cat-man instead of his usual mask.
The Panther manages to disable the missile.
The final issue begins with T'Challa back on the throne in Wakanda, watching his people perform a re-enacting of his battle with the Supremacists, which is a little weird.
However, T'Challa knows that he hasn't really earned his throne back and he still has to settle things with the Panther god. The westernized Moise Bomvana asks, "What does this mumbo-jumbo have to do with ruling a country?", and i agree but you can't argue with the fact that there really is a Panther God walking around.
Here's where the Panther God confirms that it's really about T'Challa not doing anything about Apartheid.
T'Challa fights the god by leading him into the techno-jungle, taking advantage of the fact that the God is in a mortal body.
In the end, Black Panther is pretty much unbowed in his defense of himself, but the Panther God seems humbled and appeased.
Meanwhile, the Avengers ID card given to Frank Littel makes its way to the Azanian government, proving that the Black Panther was not in Azania while the killings were happening. This has the effect of not just taking the blame for the uprisings of Azania, but it makes them question the idea that the uprisings are only happening due to Communist agitation.
I don't want the comments to get into a big debate about the degree of Soviet involvement in the anti-Apartheid movement but i'll say that there's a big difference between Communists (perhaps opportunistically) aiding the anti-Apartheid revolutionaries or even the anti-Apartheid faction gravitating towards Communism (especially while portions of the capitalist world were supporting the Apartheid regime) and saying that the uprising was only due to Communist agitation, which is what the Azanian government is saying and what a lot of its real-world counterparts maintained. All that said, disproving that the Black Panther was not involved in the uprising shouldn't prove one way or another whether or not outside Communist interests were involved. And that's where this story becomes too good to be true, with this revelation causing the Azanian government to start implementing reforms. It's not an unambiguously happy ending, but the implication is one of progress.
With the resolution to both the Apartheid problem and Panther's problems with his God both being a bit too pat, it's worth looking at the other aspects of the series. Unfortunately, the characters are all flat and devoid of interesting personality. The Black Panther himself is a pretty staid kind of guy, but none of the newly introduced characters balance that in any way. Nor do they do anything to add interest or clarification to Wakandan culture. Gillis has identified the schism between the traditionalists and modernists in Wakanda, but he doesn't do anything with it, doesn't advance it, doesn't have anyone making any interesting arguments about it. I'm personally entirely in line with Moise Bomvana, the westernized character, but he's not presented as being right or wrong, or if anything he is wrong because at Marvel and especially in this series there is an actual Panther God. I don't have a problem with that if it's an explanation for why the Black Panther has his powers and why a monarchy is an acceptable form of government in an advanced culture, but beyond that i'd love to stay away from the mystic mumbo-jumbo and Calvin-ball like requirements for rulership and focus instead on what makes Wakanda a wonder country: its vibrant technology that should be a point of national pride. I'm trying to not judge this mini based on what i want it to be about, but with Gillis discarding all past supporting characters and bringing in a whole new cast, it's really on him to develop that into something and that doesn't really happen. On the other hand, i admire the ambitiousness of the plot and there are some good adventure and action sequences - the fight with the Panther God in particular - and i find Denys Cowan's art to be cleaner than his scratchy Power Man & Iron Fist run and pretty enjoyable. So there's a lot to like here, but it doesn't resolve the fundamental problems with a Black Panther series and instead kind of adds to the mess.
Quality Rating: C+
Chronological Placement Considerations: One of the Supremacists, Hungyr, appears again in an issue of Night Thrasher. I've listed all the Supremacists for consistency.
Continuity Insert? N
My Reprint: N/A
Inbound References (1): showBarricade, Black Panther, Captain Blaze, Harrier, Hungyr, Panther God, Voortrekker, White Avenger
Between this limited series and that FF story, that means there are TWO fake South Africas in the Marvel Universe.
Posted by: Michael | June 30, 2014 9:57 PM
Thanks, Michael. I should have mentioned Fantastic Four #119 in this review. But Mark made a good point on that entry, which is that Rhodesia/Zimbabwe also practiced a form of Apartheid (granted it had ended in 1980), so it's not too much of a stretch to assume there were multiple Apartheid states in the Marvel universe.
Based on your comment, i'm adding the Panther God as a character but i'm not yet naming him (or her?!) Bast.
Posted by: fnord12 | June 30, 2014 10:15 PM
@Michael: why, of course a Panther god would oppose Apartheid, isolationism be darned. The trick is in establishing that he exists in the first place.
I agree about the lack of meaning of the evidence about Paris.
Posted by: Luis Dantas | July 1, 2014 12:22 AM
Azania is a historic term for Southern Africa, and was being actively used by a number of South African militant groups during this time:
Posted by: Cullen | July 2, 2014 5:11 AM
The Black Panther story I always wanted to see was not BP against aparthiad, of course they are bad guys. I always wanted to see the Panther challenged by a democratic reformer. It could put us in the position of having our hero oppose democracy, something that would be hard to pull off at old marvel but interesting nevertheless. but ive always liked seeing heroes opposed by villains who may have the moral high ground.
Anyway, Voortrekker might be the coolest name possible for a south african character.
Posted by: kveto from prague | July 3, 2014 3:20 PM
This series was first announced way back in 1985, and some statements imply that it was fully completed long before it got published. Denys Cowan actually quit Marvel for DC due to the interminable delay in publishing.
Posted by: Mark Drummond | July 5, 2014 5:10 PM
Correction: this was first announced in 12/82. It was sitting on the back burner for a loooooong time.
Posted by: Mark Drummond | July 6, 2014 3:21 PM
I remember seeing the preview in Marvel Age years before the series actually came out. No wonder Denys Cowan left. I was still hoping for he and Gillis to work on an ongoing if the sales for this were good but it was too little, too late.
Posted by: Clutch | July 7, 2014 11:44 AM
Denys Cowan provided more background for this in Amazing Heroes #163: Jim Shooter had a problem with the first issue, claiming "it looks like all the white people are killing all the black people". Despite this, Cowan continued work on the book and had #3 finished when, as #1 was at press and going to the printers, Shooter yanked it back and said "it just wasn't good enough". Cowan basically went "fuck this, I've had it", and stormed away from Marvel. Five years later, DeFalco and Gruenwald persuaded Cowan to return, where he did the 4th issue and added 3 pages to the 1st.
Posted by: Mark Drummond | February 17, 2015 11:52 AM
Really boring miniseries. And the cat-like features on T'Challa as if he were an actual cat-man are abhorrent.
Posted by: will | October 29, 2017 11:23 AM
I have just read this mini-series, having read Panther's Quest a month or so before, so yes, technically in the wrong order.
Posted by: Mike Teague | March 9, 2018 7:54 AM
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