There's a lot of ground to cover here. Sit back and sit tight. I doubt I'll get to it all and if I try, this column will be a mess. So pay attention and watch the fur fly.
Nikki, Ross' boss, said it best in the very first issue of the series. "This is like watching Pulp Fiction in rewind. My head is exploding."
Don't worry; you'll get used to it.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
My new favorite super-hero is Everett K. Ross. He bears something of a resemblance to Michael J. Fox in his FAMILY TIES days. He's from the Office of the Chief of Protocol for the United States. His latest assignment is to the King of Wakanda, the Black Panther. It's supposed to be a short term, four-day assignment or so. Didn't quite end up that way.
Ross is your average Joe Whitebread character: college educated, politically astute, but more or less contained. In this book, he's thrown into surreal, bizarre, and outrageous circumstances and manages to get through them all. Ross is a man who can handle floating out in space, floating in a flooded undersea realm, floating in a giant bomb-and-acid-filled gumball machine, and meeting Mephisto (the devil, I say) while on the toilet without any pants on – all with equal aplomb. He's a guy who can sum up the continuity of twenty different comics of three different eras in the span of three panels, and can catch up a new reader in a page of exposition. He's the kind of guy whose exposition is never boring. He's quick with a joke, and it's always a funny one.
While the title on the cover may not have his name, to me this book is about Ross. He's my favorite, probably because I can see myself in his place. I just don't know if I'd have the political acumen to pull off some of the stuff he does. I don't think he starts to realize it until later in the series, either.
Marvel Comics' BLACK PANTHER is a political look at the business of being a super-hero. And it starts with this simple premise: T'Challa – the Black Panther -- is not a super-hero. He is a ruler of a sovereign nation. That must be kept in mind, first and foremost. He's a quiet and introspective person. He's a master manipulator. He's got chutzpah, charm (when necessary), and a variety of control issues. Over the course of the thirty issues so far, you can see him valiantly fight against any and all odds to preserve his country. There's generational familial pathos. You've got your decades-long grudges. You get some mysticism, some open warfare, some diplomatic negotiations, some stock market manipulation, and even guest shots from Deadpool and Storm.
The storytelling used by Christopher Priest here is the style he used originally in QUANTUM AND WOODY. The scenes are out of order. The story isn't linear; It skips around. The conceit is that Everett K. Ross is telling these stories to various people, usually his girlfriend/boss Nikki. It becomes a running gag for her to chastise him for telling the stories all out of order. He just maintains that he's sticking with the highlights to keep it interesting. The joke runs old a couple of times when Ross mention how he's getting ahead of himself as usual, but it's just the conceit of the book.
It's lots of fun, but takes your attention to understand. Scenes in one issue may not have their significance shown until two or three issues down the line. It doesn't usually go past that, though. For the reader, it involves an extra layer of thought to keep things straight. There are some events that are foreshadowed or glossed over in dialogue that aren't explained until the next issue or two issues later.
It's bizarre. It's insane. And it can be a lot of fun, if you give it a chance.
The storytelling style runs the risk of falling flat, but never lapses into it. As the book is being told by a main character in the past tense, a lazier writer could use that style to just tell the story in captions and passively. It would be easier for the writer, but it would bore the reader. Priest doesn't fall for that here. He keeps things active. The captions don't tell the story. They introduce scenes and explain the characters that may not be familiar to the readers. The book never uses the conceit to tell an easy story. It uses it to put the characters and their vast experiences, situations and motivations into perspective. Ross becomes the perspective, and since he acts as the ears and eyes of the readers, it's very important that his exposition tells the story and does so in an entertaining way.
The book is very new reader friendly that way. Ross explains everything in every issue as you go along. Even editor Tom Brevoort gets into the act with enough editorial explanations and definitions along the way to bring a new reader up to speed very quickly. (Bobbie Chase even provided a couple of "guest editor" clarifications, mostly to hype issues of her titles that the issue is referencing.)
It's a good thing to include all of this, because Priest is highlighting a culture not often seen in the Marvel Universe. Very little is known about Wakanda outside of this title aside from the Vibranium stuff. (Wakanda, you see, bases its economy on the export of a mineral called Vibranium that exists only within its borders. It's very valuable stuff.) You don't see Panther's guest appearances in THE AVENGERS, for example, referencing the tribal customs of his people and their warring factions. I have to admit to some level of ignorance about this, though. I didn't read all of the older comics that BLACK PANTHER often references. I don't know how much of the customs and traditions of Wakanda are pure fiction, or how much are based on real traditions in Africa, nor how much are new to this series. It's all interesting and thought provoking, though.
THE FIRST YEAR SYNDROME
One big problem I've seen with new comics series is that they fall apart after the first year. It seems pretty standard to kick off a new title with a year's worth of plots already outlined. Generally speaking, the first year builds into a nice story arc. For examples of this, look at Peter David's STAR TREK run, John Ostrander's THE SPECTRE, or even Keith Giffen's JUSTICE LEAGUE INTERNATIONAL. Although it didn't happen with the titles I just mentioned, often the second year seems to be an uphill battle. It's like the writer and editor were shocked that the title remained popular enough to justify a second year of publication, so they scramble for something. Usually, you'll get a couple of slower issues for the characters to deal with the ramifications of the big event that just happened while the writer tries to figure out where to send them next. Eventually, the next arc of stories begins and just seems tacked on.
BLACK PANTHER doesn't have this problem. Its first year built to be one big storyline. It was a complex, almost torturous conspiracy between foreign nationals, U.S. intelligence, some super-powered villains, the Devil, the drug cartels, and more. Don't ask me to explain it here. I'm not sure I could. It built to a grand crescendo for the end of the first year but, quite honestly, lost me a little bit near the end as the whole arc was revealed and the complex relationships were described. The plot ruled over all in that first year.
But the progression beings right away. Actions have consequences. All the stories add up. Nothing is forgotten. All avenues are explored. Stuff that happened in the third issue – I'll just leave it at "the kiss" for now so as to avoid spoilers – affects things at the end of the first year as well as the beginning of the third, and looks to be coming back to bite again midway through the third..
The second 'year' story arc stretches from the thirteenth issue until the 25th issue. I think this one is even better. It's the rare case of a second year being better than the first. It's not just because the creators got more comfortable with the characters or found their voices – I think Priest had them from the start in this series. It's just that the storylines were easier to follow, were kept a little simpler, and let the characters hold the power. Handling the relationships between characters became more important than remember which character worked for which faction and who they're aligned with to take down the King. The characters ruled the second year, and Priest had a ball with all of them, adding characters and giving existing ones greater depth.
Major plotlines in the second year revolved around Erik Killmonger's attempt to unseat King T'Challa from his title and become the new ruler of Wakanda. There's no war here. Instead, the challenge is ushered in through the manipulation of the economy of Wakanda, the stock market, and the world. On a much smaller level, the fight becomes one of fisticuffs, but not straight superheroices. It's an honor bound duel between the king and his would-be successor. And while it may seem wacky and strange to outsiders, it's an ages-old tradition of the Wakandan people. It ends in death.
The only weak link in the second year would have been issues 21 and 22, which dealt with resurrecting the dead, as well as some adventures in the Dream World. It seems a lot of writers fell in love with Nightmare in recent years, from Mark Waid in CAPTAIN AMERICA to Chuck Dixon in MARVEL KNIGHTS and now Priest in BLACK PANTHER, as well. I'm just not a fan of those stories that rely on the mystical. So I plowed my way through the issues a little more than usual just to get through them. (But how happy was Fred Hembeck when Brother Voodoo appeared in those issues?)
Priest is so good with this book that he even made a universe-wide crossover event work for him. "Maximum Security," at first glance, would seem to be an odd fit for the book. Instead of writing a filler issue, Priest used the event for BLACK PANTHER #25 to bring everything together and to sort out the relationship between the Panther and Ross. It's great stuff and brings the second year of the title to a close in dramatic and poignant fashion, referencing events going all the way back to the first issue. It wasn't a double-sized issue. The cover wasn't filled with hyperbole about the contents of the issue. It was all wonderfully underplayed. I was surprised in reading the book at how powerful and important it was to the continuity. The cover gave no indication. You know comics these days – if something important is going to happen, they'll be trumpeting it for months in advance and let no spoiler stop them.
The third year started off with the best political thriller Marvel has ever published. "Sturm Und Drang" ran through issues 26 through 29, and started off with a bang, as Storm appeared to visit the increasingly unstable King T'Challa. (The King has more gorgeous women surrounding him and romantically involved with him than I care to count.) When a child of Deviant Lemuria – a sunken land near Atlantis – is born on Wakandan land, T'Challa promises to protect it from the certain death it would be greeted with upon its return to Lemuria. Next thing you know, the leader of Lemuria is promising war over it, and alliances are set. A third party gets involved and all hell breaks loose.
The highlight of the story is in issue #28. Magneto, Namor, Black Panther, Warlord Kro, and Doctor Doom (on a high tech speaker phone, basically) stand around and have a conversation on the state of political affairs in the world in preparation for the third World War that T'Challa is poised to begin. These are the leaders of their respective peoples. These are not super heroes ad super villains. It's a fascinating way to look at the Marvel Universe.
While there might be echoes of the Elian Gonzalez case, this is as good a time as any to point out that the book has managed to be political without taking up political issues. T'Challa doesn't give any gun control speeches in this book. There's no discussion of specific public figures, aside from the rather clichéd Pat Buchanan references. There's no deep message issue. The politics are those of international diplomacy, for the most part, and Priest keeps the book away from becoming an "issue of the day"-driven affair.
That pretty much brings us up to the present day. The thirtieth issue is a nice summation of the character of the Black Panther, as Everett Ross defends him in front of a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing. If you want a more dignified and elegant definition of what this series is about and who the Black Panther is, I would suggest that this issue would make a good starting point. It should, at the very least, interest you enough to start hunting down the back issues.
Sal Velluto is the regular artist on the book, and does a tremendous job. Bob Almond handles inking duties. (Mark "Quantum & Woody" Bright handles the occasional fill-in issue. Norm Breyfogle fills in for the latest issue, #30.) I remember first seeing his artwork in a two-parter for JUSTICE LEAGUE TASK FORCE that Peter David wrote a few years back. That's the one where Martian Manhunter masquerades as a woman. His artwork had real depth and a sense of three-dimensionality to it. It's only gotten better with time. With the help of good shadow placement and a variety of angles to look at the action from, you really get the feeling that you are looking at people populating the page, and not just some icons for them. As much as I may like Ed McGuinness' work or Erik Larsen's, for two examples, I don't look at their stuff and think about how natural it looks. I know I'm looking at stylized comic artists.
Velluto and Almond have settled into the book. The art looks a lot less scratchy than it did when they first came onto it. Personally, I liked the scratchier look better. I found it more distinctive and interesting to look at. But it's a subtle difference and I don't think there's anything wrong with the current style.
There's a trade paperback of the first five issues coming out from Marvel soon. It'll be titled THE CLIENT, which is Ross' pet name for T'Challa. You'll have to scramble for the other 25 issues yourself, for now. Hopefully, Marvel will put the rest of the back issues in trade format. If ever a series deserved it, this is the one. This book has the potential to live on for a long time.
For more of the backstory on the Black Panther, you can check out his character profile on Marvel's web site.
Christopher Priest's home page has lots of good stuff on it, both about comics and society, in general.
And you can even catch a recent interview Priest did with CBR's own Beau Yarbrough a couple of months ago about the "Sturm Und Drang" storyline.
There's so much more to talk about when discussing BLACK PANTHER. I've just run out of room and ways to make it all flow together. (There's a great supporting cast that would just fill up another 2,000 words to adequately bring to life for you.) I just hope this column pushes a few of you into giving the comic a try. It's well worth it. We need to show Marvel that we'll support the quality comics. And this is definitely one of them. In fact, I think it's my favorite Marvel title right now. I can't think of another that has been this stirring in the past year.
QUICK UPDATE: MINI COMICS
Pipeline reader Max Ink writes in response to my comments in the THE COPYBOOK TALES column a couple of weeks ago about the dearth of mini-comics today:
"Mini-comics, Digest-sized books (which is what TCT was) and magazine-format books, all photocopied, folded and stapled with loving care continue on to this day. In fact, at the end of this month, on March 31st, there are going to be FIFTY Small Press writers and artist getting together in Columbus, Ohio at a shindig called SPACE 2001 (Small Press & Alternative Comic Expo). The event is well regarded enough for Dave Sim to be a featured guest…"
Thanks for the info, Max! Now someone go out there and find the next COPYBOOK TALES.
Pipeline marches on: Stop by again on Tuesday. I'll have a review of a high-profile book not scheduled to be available until mid-April, and some sample pages from next week's IMAGE TWO-IN-ONE one-shot. It's interesting stuff. Wait till you get a look at it.
You can e-mail me your comments on this column, or post them for all the world to see and respond to over on the Pipeline Message Board. Let's discuss some of the other aspects of the BLACK PANTHER book over there this week.
Close to 200 columns are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They're sorted chronologically. The first 100 columns are still available at the Original Pipeline page, a horrifically coded piece of HTML. Those columns are even migrating over here in drips and drabs. Eventually, they'll all be on CBR. I can't believe Pipeline is entering its fifth year in a few short weeks…
This year, I'll be at the Chicago Comicon (i.e. WizardWorld) the San Diego Comicon (i.e. the Comic Con International: San Diego), and the Pittsburgh Comicon, which requires no second name. Hope to meet some of you there.
Finally, I write DVD movie reviews (occasionally) for the gang over at DVD Channel News. If you're into DVD, check out my stuff there.Marvel's Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man Is About Way More than Peter Parker
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