If you stood outside a showing of Black Panther, and listened in on the conversations of people as they came out of the theater, you’d likely hear the same thing over and over. Aside from, "Man, that was great," and "Damn, Michael B Jordan is hot," I mean.
A single common question: "Where do I start with the Black Panther comics?"
Ta-Nehisi Coates and his artistic collaborators have spent the last couple of years making sure that "just pick up the current series" is a good answer to this question. But what if you want to dig into the Black Panther’s back catalogue?
Black Panther Annual #1 seems designed specifically to answer this. Its three stories are positioned as tales of T’Challa’s present, past and future, but really this comic is a primer on the most influential stories in the character’s publishing history. There’s a story each written by Christopher Priest, Don McGregor and Reginald Hudlin -- arguably the three most important Black Panther writers from the long period between his creation by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and the beginning of Coates’ run.
First up: Priest, who reinvented Black Panther -- and in particular Wakanda as a nation -- in a five-year run over the turn of the millennium. As well as concepts like the Dora Milaje, Priest created Everett K. Ross, portrayed by Martin Freeman in the movie, who returns as the narrator and main character in Priest’s story here.
Titled “Back in Black” and illustrated by Mike Perkins, the story ties into Wakanda’s current status quo in the Marvel Universe. More importantly, though, it serves as an intro to Priest’s style. Equally comfortable referencing gangsta rap and the workings of constitutional monarchies, it's politically minded plotting and heavy on the quips, all told through Ross’ narrative captions. Plus, a shark gets kicked in the face.
The second story comes from Don McGregor, writer of the underrated ’70s classic “Panther’s Rage”. McGregor revitalized T’Challa and gave him a nemesis -- Erik Killmonger -- who tried to overthrow the Wakandan government. If you’ve seen the movie, that might just sound familiar.
The Annual teams up McGregor with Daniel Acuña for a spiritual sequel to that story, “Panther’s Heart”. Dealing with the death of Monica Lynne, T’Challa’s love interest in that era, the story even flashes back to images lifted straight from “Rage”.
It’s nearly a silent comic, in terms of dialogue-- there are a dozen speech bubbles -- with most of the storytelling done through third-person narration. It's a device that has fallen out of favor since the ‘70s, and along with McGregor’s wonderfully purple prose, the whole thing feels a little old-fashioned.
Finally, we get “Black to the Future Part II,” a direct follow-up to a 2008 story written by Reggie Hudlin. As well as writing Black Panther comics, at a time when T’Challa was married to Ororo "Storm" Munroe, and introducing the character of Shuri, Hudlin produced a 2010 animated TV series starring the character.
This sequel reunites Hudlin with Ken Lashley, one of the artists on the original story, and revisits the future timeline where Wakanda -- led by T’Challa and Storm -- rules the world. Its themes of imperialism chime with the Black Panther movie, but it’s the shortest story in the Annual, and feels more like a recap of that story than a real development.
As standalone stories, with their own narrative arcs, none of these stories are incredibly strong. But this doesn’t feel like their purpose. Each is a sampler of that writer’s take on Black Panther. If you enjoy the style, supporting characters or themes, chances are you’ll enjoy the past comics.
For a character who has often failed to get his due, with many of these stories long out of print -- something that’s finally changing now T’Challa is setting box-office records -- Black Panther Annual is a very welcome signpost of what you might want to read next.