In 1998, Marvel was in a tough spot. A string of real-world events (the Image Revolution, the Heroes World Distribution fiasco, Chapter 11 bankruptcy and ultimately a takeover by Toy Biz in 1997) and storylines of wildly varying quality (“The Clone Saga,” “Heroes Reborn,” “Onslaught”) had left the biggest publisher in comics reeling and in desperate need of new blood. Luckily, they found some.
Similar to how Marvel had farmed out “Heroes Reborn” to Rob Liefeld’s Extreme Studios and Jim Lee’s Wildstorm two years earlier, the publisher reached out to Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti, the founders of Event Comics, then flying high on the success of Ash, Painkiller Jane and George Perez’s Crimson Plague. Seeing which way the wind was blowing, Marvel brass contracted the duo to create a new line focusing on second-tier Marvel heroes who weren’t as overexposed as Spider-Man or the X-Men, and gave them complete creative control.
The result was Marvel Knights, which launched in November 1998 with three titles: Daredevil by Kevin Smith and Quesada, Inhumans by Paul Jenkins and Jae Lee, and Black Panther by Christopher Priest and Mark Texeira. All three titles were critically acclaimed and commercially successful, leading to Daredevil and Black Panther getting higher profiles both inside the Marvel Universe and among fans. The success was so great, it eventually paved the way for other beloved runs like the Brian Michael Bendis/Alex Maleev Daredevil and the Garth Ennis/Steve Dillon Punisher.
But among the many successes of Marvel Knights, the Priest era of Black Panther (illustrated by Texeira, Sal Velluto, Dan Fraga, Norm Breyfogle and others) stands out, if for nothing else, because it didn’t remain under the imprint for very long. Indeed, acclaim and sales were so high that a letter from Priest was published at the end of #12 explaining that the book would move to the mainstream Marvel line of titles “because J[oe] & J[immy] are money grabbing jackals who want to conquer the market with new #1’s” and that this was “not a painful decision.”
In that same letter, Priest — already a pioneer as the first long-lasting African-American writer for the Big Two, with runs on Green Lantern, Conan the Barbarian, Heroes for Hire and more under his belt — talked at length about being a black writer in a largely white industry.
“I hate to bring this up,” the letter begins, “but, yes, I’m black…Sure, it’s a double standard: I get to make cracks about racial issues that a white writer would be strung up for. But that’s not why I do it. Nobody sat me down and told me to make Black Panther about race. And it’s not.
“It’s about family, and loyalty and being true to oneself,” Priest continues. “It’s about devotion to country and duty, being honorable when everyone around you is not…it’s about The Noblest Guy In The World.”
Indeed, Priest’s T’Challa proves, again and again, and at great risk over the 62 issues of the third volume of Black Panther (of which Priest wrote all but 2), that he is indeed a honorable man. Moreover, he values and cherishes that honor above all else, no matter the cost. And there is a lot of cost T’Challa has to bear.
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