In 1966, Marvel fans opened up their copies of FANTASTIC FOUR #52 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby to discover a brand new character waiting for them inside. Clothed all in black from head to toe, the mystery man exhibited the abilities of a jungle cat to such a degree that they enabled him to take on each member of the FF and best them, one at a time.
But his powers didn’t end with mere physicality; Mr. Fantastic and his team swiftly realized that their new ally stood as a scientific genius and the ruler of the African nation of Wakanda, a near-utopia hid away from the eyes of man. He called himself the Black Panther, and not only would the Marvel Universe never be the same, neither would comic books as a whole. The first black super hero had arrived and taken the world by storm.
Out of the Jungle
Inevitably, the Black Panther arrived in America and found there a different sort of jungle, an urban landscape filled with predators that demanded his attention. After the Panther shared an adventure with Captain America in TALES OF SUSPENSE, Cap recommended T’Challa as his replacement in Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, and so Stan Lee and artist John Buscema brought the Panther to the United States in AVENGERS #52, in 1968. The hero enjoyed a long run on the team, even participating in the Avengers-Defenders War, and his popularity with readers continued to grow as thoughts of a solo series for the landmark character began to form in the hallowed Marvel Bullpen.
The Black Panther won what would become the first in many titles in 1973, courtesy of writer Don McGregor and a small team of artists, in JUNGLE ACTION #6. McGregor saw immense potential in the character and began to craft what would become among the earliest self-contained, multi-part comic book story lines, with a beginning and an end.
“I guess if ‘Panther’s Rage’ has any overall significance in Marvel Comics history, it is that for the run of the [story], it has virtually an all-black cast of characters,” says McGregor of his first JUNGLE ACTION arc. “The company had nothing even close to such diversity at that time. It often resulted in frequent consequences over the course of two-plus years of books, and close to 200 pages of story-telling. Some claim it is Marvel’s first planned graphic novel, but others would know more about that than me.
“I did not take on the Panther; the series was assigned to me. I had no influence whatsoever in artists that would draw the series I was writing. It was a kind of unwritten rule in that time period that if you worked on staff at Marvel and you were a writer, you would eventually land something to write. What I really recall is that Marvel Comics was doing a reprint series called JUNGLE ACTION. I was working on staff at the time as a proof-reader. I was appalled that Marvel was printing these blond jungle gods and goddesses saving the natives stories, and I mentioned that. I said if they were going to do a jungle strip, they should have a black character as the hero. I wasn’t saying it to get a series to write; I only said it because I had to read this stuff. And I wasn’t particularly thinking about the Black Panther. I hadn’t given it any thought more than that I hated them reprinting a lot of those terribly insulting, often racist, stories.
“I was concerned about one thing only: Writing the best damn comics I could.
“Thanks to the fans being so avid about the books, [the titles] became noticed. I suspect it was unsuspected by most of editorial. Writing that I did not take on the Panther doesn’t mean I did not fully commit to T’Challa and the series. I read every Panther book that existed at that time. [Marvel staffer] Jim Salicrup loaned me his copies since mine were still back in my home state of Rhode Island. I was extremely lucky that I had met [artist] Rich Buckler, who was at that time working out of his own space in the Marvel offices. Rich and I were both passionate about comics. If he had not insisted he draw the first issues of ‘Panther’s Rage,’ editorial would never have appointed him to the series. It was not important enough for them to waste his talents on a minor league jungle title.
“I knew I only had 13 pages, maybe 15 pages, which would appear every two months to tell a story. One of the first decisions I made, after being told the series would be set in Wakanda, was that the only approach that made sense to me was if the stories were somehow connected. If each issue was handled as single stories, it meant T’Challa coming back to his kingdom, would suddenly find new super villains threatening everyone, every two months.”
Instead, McGregor filled JUNGLE ACTION’s “Panther’s Rage” storyline with T’Challa’s struggle to stem the tide of a Wakandan civil war and the machinations of the evil Erik Killmonger to foment even more chaos in the African nation. With JUNGLE ACTION #19, the writer launched a new story arc, this time pitting the Panther against a real-world challenge, the Ku Klux Klan.
“While I was still formulating the themes and characters of ‘Panther’s Rage’, I was already worried about what I would do next,” remembers McGregor. “I did not want to write the same book over and over again. I realized in reading the earlier Panther stories that his mother had never been mentioned. Before I had really started writing ‘Panther’s Rage,’ I already had decided that the stories should be separate novels, so that I was not locked into doing only one type of story.
“I planned, and I did talk about it in interviews during that time period, of doing a series with the Panther in South Africa, and dealing with Apartheid. I had no idea what happened or why his mother would be there, but I had a storyline to go that seemed important to write. I ended up not doing that search for his mother in 1976, at the end of ‘Panther’s Rage,’ because I was going through a divorce, and much time was expended in going to court to keep seeing my daughter, Lauren. I knew I did not have the energy to do the kind of research that would be necessary to tell a valid, complex story of this magnitude.
“It was 1976, and I thought, okay, I’ll bring T’Challa to America with [love interest] Monica Lynne, and have him face the Ku Klux Klan, which was having some resurgence at the time. There were also other groups who felt their way was the only way, and not only was anyone who did not believe the way they did an idiot, but that violence and threat could be used against you. They were all different, but all the same.
“If anything, the Internet has only profoundly increased the presence of such intolerance and bigotry. It has also fostered, on the positive side, a communal voice, with people who now inter relate with people they might never have before cyberspace.
“Although some people apparently think I had the power at the time to choose artists for my books, I did not. Yes, Billy Graham had been a close friend from back to the days when he was the first black Art Director at Warren Magazines, but that was not the reason he was assigned the book. You don’t have to believe me, just look at the attitude of the times. They almost always placed black artists on books with black characters. I never saw a black writer at Marvel in those days.”
The story of the Black Panther continues later this week on Marvel.com, with more from Don McGregor as the character pushes into the 1980’s! Visit marvel.com/75 for more Marvel 75th anniversary content and join the conversation on Twitter using #Marvel75