Review – Black Panther by Christopher Priest

This Black Panther never freezes.

Black Panther Cover

Overview

Synopsis The Black Panther is brought into the 21st Century, courtesy of Christopher Priest. The king of Wakanda finds himself pushed to the physical and psychological brink as he stares down the barrels of arch-villains, terrorists, rival monarchs, warlords, and even fellow heroes and American leaders in his quest to keep his homeland safe and secure.

Author Christopher Priest

Artist Mark Texeira, Vince Evans, Joe Jusko, Mike Manley, Mark Bright, Sal Velluto, Kyle Hotz, Norm Breyfogle, Jim Calafiore, Jorge Lucas, Dan Fraga, Ryan Bodenheim, Patrick Zircher
Publisher Marvel Comics
Genre Superhero

Length 1736 pages

Release Date November 1998-September 2003

In 2018, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther film raked in over $1.3 billion at the worldwide box office, becoming the second-highest-grossing movie of the year (beat out by its Marvel Cinematic Universe compatriot, Avengers: Infinity War) and the highest-grossing film by a black director. Starring the late Chadwick Boseman, Black Panther re-introduced viewers to its titular protagonist, first seen in Captain America: Civil War.

Though a fairly recent addition to the MCU, T’Challa has a long history in the comics. Introduced in Fantastic Four #52 (July 1966) by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the Black Panther has been written by acclaimed creators such as Don McGregor, Reginald Hudlin, and most recently, Ta-Nehisi Coates. Yet it was Christopher Priest who placed the most indelible mark on the Black Panther; his work has greatly influenced current depictions of the hero in both comic and film formats.

Black Panther changes

Doesn’t even need a phonebooth

Content Guide

Violence: We witness various fisticuffs and skirmishes throughout the series – ranging from back alley brawls, to ritual combat, to large-scale war scenes – where characters are punched, kicked, headbutted, electrocuted, cut, stabbed, and shot. A few people are bitten or choked. Some deaths or injuries are implied or only discussed. Buildings, ships, cars, and planes are demolished in war scenes, smaller battles, or chases. A few folks unsuccessfully try to kill other people. A few people drown. A man’s throat is slit. Someone benefits from the suicide of others. A man is poisoned.

Sexual Content: Multiple characters kiss. Several women wear revealing outfits. References are made to sleeping around. Several plot points revolve around the Black Panther’s Dora Milaje, or “wives-in-training,” and their exact role and what Panther can ask of them. A few women are shown undressed, but obscured. A man cheats on his wife. Another man lives with his pregnant girlfriend.

Drug/Alcohol Use: Several characters smoke and drink. A few people make references to “crack.” Someone is accused of taking drugs. The Black Panther’s powers are derived from a heart-shaped herb; a character takes a manufactured derivative of this compound.

Spiritual Content: Several references are made to Wakanda’s religion. These include discussions on gods, religious ceremonies, and the Black Panther’s spiritual role (including a reference to a deified previous Panther). A few characters visit a spiritual realm of the dead where they interact with spirits and godlike deities. Thor, Loki, and the demon lord Mephisto appear briefly. Someone is brought to life temporarily through a “resurrection altar.” Someone refers to “the Second Coming.” One character practices voodoo. A villain is a former priest. Characters interact with zombies. Someone prays. One person references Thomas Aquinas, and another mentions evolution. A witch doctor uses magic. The Torah is mentioned, and a reference to King Solomon is made.

Black Panther punches Mephisto

Ever box with the devil in the pale moonlight?

Language/Crude Humor: Several uses of God’s name in vain, along with a few uses of h***, d***, and a**, as well as a couple of bleeped-out words and a few unfinished uses of “son of a…”. Someone says “B.S.” “Queer” is used a few times. Alternate pronunciations of curse words – “punkazz,” “bastid,” and “beyotch” – are mixed in. A woman is referred to as a w****. A couple characters uses the British profanity “bloody.” Someone says “Bejezus.” A few people make crude jokes.

Other Negative Content: Characters deceive others; some omit information as a way to cover up past indiscretions. Lying is occasionally justified. Characters break someone out of prison.

Positive Content: Several individuals, including the Black Panther, are firmly in the business of protecting people and saving lives, even at great risk to themselves. The Panther often risks his physical safety and reputation by taking dramatic, often drastic steps to ensure the protection and prosperity of his home country. Characters who previously underestimate Panther start viewing him through a new, more supportive lens.

Representation: Black (fictional African country)

Kraven the Hunter, Panther, Everett Ross

A craven, a hunter, and Kraven the Hunter walk into a bar…

Review

When Everett K. Ross is asked to serve as U.S. liaison for a visiting African dignitary, he doesn’t think much of the job. In fact, he thinks so little of the foreign monarch he tries backing down from the assignment. But when your boss/girlfriend asks you to do something, Everett learns, the right response is to say “Yes, ma’am” and do it. I mean, what’s the harm? King T’Challa of Wakanda is only supposed to be here for, what, a week at most?

Yet, as Everett also quickly finds out, the face the king of Wakanda wears is far different than the man behind the eyes… especially when those eyes are covered by the mask of the Black Panther.

Black Panther leap

Priest’s Panther is better than other versions by leaps and bounds

Christopher Priest, perhaps more than any other writer before him, fully understands the significance of the Black Panther, particularly in a modern climate. Panther, in years past, had already been hailed as Marvel’s first black superhero and the Avengers’ first black team member. Yet in several stories I recall, Panther’s significance never stretched much beyond the color of his skin. He seemed, in some cases, to become just another Avenger. Or, like fellow characters Dr. Doom and Prince Namor, another Marvel character with a nation.

Over five years, Priest takes T’Challa and examines him at a core level, pulling out Panther’s deepest traits and allowing the hero to flourish. His Panther isn’t just another Avenger. His Panther isn’t even just a hero. His Panther, foremost, is a king who loves his people.

Panther and Avengers

The enemy of my enemy could still be an enemy?

You’re asked by Priest, politely, to wrestle with not only your previously conceived notions of the Black Panther but of the superhuman definition overall. So often, our heroes reside in some American metropolis, real or fictional, and represent Western ideals. Captain America is dressed in the American flag, Batman and Iron Man are capitalist billionaires in their alternate identities, and Superman battles for “truth, justice, and the American way.” None of these notions are necessarily wrong to read or support. Yet with so much focus on Western principles, it’s easy to forget comics can represent more than one corner of the world.

So when a writer tackles a superhero from a different cultural background or ethnicity, you’re asked to change your perceptions. Priest’s Panther isn’t anti-American, but his utmost goal is to defend his homeland. Wakanda. In Africa. Panther’s focus is his people, and if it means going up against Captain America to prove that an American-backed conspiracy threatens Wakanda, he’ll do it. He stands up to the Avengers, offering the juicy tidbit that he may have joined them in the first place to assess them as a potential danger to Wakanda (an intriguing rewriting of some much older Avengers stories). He risks war with Namor and Magneto over his people. Throughout the series, Priest toys with the idea of Panther being misunderstood and underestimated. But is that a result of his deep-seated dedication (if not paranoia) or the continued ignorance of others who should try to better understand the Panther as a man?

Black Panther vs. Killmonger

Two foes take a moment to chill-monger

“I Am King of a Small African Nation.”

As you read, you’re asked to grapple with how the rest of the world functions. Priest’s Wakanda straddles a line between mysticism and technology, controlled by a blend of advanced military prowess and centuries-old ritual. Priest threads his way through both concepts, creating a land futuristic in form yet ancient in law. But not stuck. Wakanda is not primitive, backward, foreign. Wakanda is only isolated from the nations because it worries how the outside world will harm it. T’Challa must guide his homeland through a world that wishes to exploit her vibranium resources and invade her borders.

Most of the series is told through Ross’ eyes, as he transforms from a political flunky to T’Challa’s friend. Priest makes it clear from the start that Ross is his audience equivalent; it is through Ross that we come to view, and struggle to accept, the world Priest constructs. One brief arc sees T’Challa instate Ross as regent over Wakanda temporarily. The man is asked to cooperate with hunting trips, policies, and traditions he’s unfamiliar with. He doesn’t understand, and at first, he pushes Wakandan tradition aside. As the series progresses, however, Ross allows his willingness to love T’Challa and better understand the king’s function as Black Panther supersedes his discomfort.

Ross' Realization

Considering the Ross-ibilities

Priest’s series hinges heavily on history. Ample reference is made to Don McGregor’s classic “Panther’s Rage” narrative (which I would recommend as an integral companion piece to this series). Arch-villain Erik Killmonger and love interest Monica Lynne are updated for a more modern mindset. Priest cleverly capitalizes on Killmonger’s genius, giving the villain opportunities to attack Panther from more angles than physical. Much like Ross serves as the audience’s eyes and ears, Monica serves a meta function as well – her scathing perspective of her history with T’Challa, including multiple kidnappings, allows Priest to prod the past. He acknowledges the strength of older stories yet critiques when necessary. Why allow Monica to simply remain a plot point when she could be so much more?

Yet Priest is no slouch when weaving creative, new tales for readers. His original character, Queen Divine Justice, represents Priest’s political voice. A vocal firebrand, Queen isn’t afraid to shoot her mouth to make a statement about inequality; further into the series, she becomes more than Priest’s mouthpiece, turning into a young hero with a deep connection to Wakanda. Priest eventually references his own continuity as well as other writers’, tethering a time travel arc to an issue of Thor he wrote back in the ’80s (as Jim Owlsey)! Though self-referential, Priest is not unnecessarily self-congratulatory. Everything from the past serves the stories moving forward.

Queen Divine Justice

The ice Queen sheds a tear

Some Gray Mixed in

Occasionally, Priest does this too well. Standing on continuity serves his narrative, but when the writer latches onto minor bits of history to support larger stories, he falters. Significant arcs resting on the shoulders of McGregor and Jack Kirby may confuse unfamiliar readers. If you aren’t aware of what King Solomon’s Frogs are, or who Princess Zanda is, or why some dude’s running around in a white gorilla outfit… you may get a little confused.

Also periodically, Priest’s Panther can be a bit too incredible. He solidifies his argument that the Black Panther is more than a man in cat-suit early on, maintaining T’Challa’s Batman-like status throughout the series. Most times, it’s believable. Yet at moments, Priest uses T’Challa’s intelligence and fortitude to write himself out of some narrative corners. Scenes where the king seems stuck or defeated lose their tension when Priest reveals Panther always had a backup plan to free himself or deal with the situation. These are not plans the audience was aware of prior to those specific scenes. Moments made to look like Panther’s forethought saved his life smack of Priest drumming up an explanation right then and there.

Black Panther and friends

King T’Challa, meet Jack “King” Kirby

The series’ final issues, sadly, take a bit of a downturn, as the Black Panther mantle falls to Kevin “Kasper” Cole, a young New York cop of African American and Jewish descent. Priest himself has spoken out against this twist; in a 2006 post on his website, he referred to the decision as a “disastrous creative choice.” Priest’s narrative prowess and dialogue are still strong in these final issues, but everything he’s been working on feels a little lost. The shift is sudden, cutting off potentially good stories and turning T’Challa into a side character in his own book.

One could argue, perhaps, that the switch is meant to showcase how the Black Panther could really be anybody. If not the king of Wakanda, why not a street level cop living in a rat-infested apartment instead of an opulent palace? Priest wrestles with the character best he can, giving Kasper relatable characteristics and understandable goals. But Kasper is not the same as T’Challa. For most of the series, Priest rectifies the Black Panther of old, peering into history and reformatting what may not have worked for the character in the past. He emphasizes T’Challa’s cultural heritage, how the circumstances of his birth and race impact his personality. Kasper just doesn’t fit that mold.

Black Panther Kasper Cole with a leather jacket and gun

More Black Widow than Black Panther

The story thus far…

How do readers understand the mindset of an African monarch? As Ross learns, grace is found in the attempt. He chooses, despite apprehensions and differences, to befriend and love the king of Wakanda. Even when T’Challa’s motivations are cloudy. Even when Ross is uncomfortable. Even when it’s inconvenient. Ross learns the differences between himself and T’Challa could either make a chasm they can’t cross or offer an opportunity to narrow the gap. Priest invites readers into his story to experience that same understanding, to employ that same grace. And maybe the telling isn’t flawless, but the nobility within these stories sparkles like vibranium beneath a Wakandan sunset.

Positives

+ A powerful, evolving central character
+ Memorable supporting cast
+ Thrilling political narratives

Negatives

- Weak final issues
- Some tepid moments of coincidence

The Bottom Line

Christopher Priest reinvents the Black Panther, creating a character reliant on past history yet focused on the present, a powerful take on a classic Marvel hero

 

Story/Plot 9.0

Writing 9.0

Editing 9.0

Art 9.0

9.0

Nathan Kiehn

Nathan has loved comic books and graphic novels for as long as he can remember, ever since his father handed him a digest sized volume of "Marvel Age: Spider-Man." He's dedicated a lot of time and effort to exploring the far reaches of the Spider-Verse, but he's also been known to dive into other corners of the Marvel Universe and maybe even stuck his nose in a Batman story arc or two (just don't tell Spidey).

1 Comments

  1. Maurice Pogue on July 30, 2021 at 6:12 pm

    A few years back, I purchased Priest’s BP run in its entirety with the intention of reviewing it for GUG as you have here.

    In your outstanding review, you have encapsulated my feelings on Priest’s interpretation of the character here: “His Panther isn’t even just a hero. His Panther, foremost, is a king who loves his people.”

    Yes, I wanted him to be a hero, the one who punches Mephisto and similar-tier characters in the face. I wanted to see his gadgets compete with Batman’s, and lines to match. A Captain…Africa?

    Instead, he says very little. I think his fight with Killmonger, and the cameo of his former self (Days of Future’s Past), is when he says the most. His story is told through the perspective of Ross, who is a clownish facsimile of a government agent. He looks on T’challa with the reverence a king deserves, but Priest cuts the rug under me with the Kraven and Iron Fist cameos. His tech is treated as “show, don’t tell,” and one almost misses the nuclear stealth sub that is forgotten in the next panel.

    Glad you were able to do this series justice. Some additional input: Queen Divine Justice is a Sister Soujha-type character more than a manifestation of Priest’s own views. Priest had something going with The Crew (esp with Josiah X); the mistake was giving Priest the blessing to run a comic like that without support. As he writes, it was not marketed properly, to the correct audience.

    Fast forward to the present, and Coates did a run with The Crew. It works if you work it.

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