With the Black Panther entering the Marvel Cinematic Universe soon, I figured it was high time I explored the character in print, at least more so that I have previously. I’ve always liked T’Challa but besides a miniseries or two I’ve only read him in team books like the Avengers or guest stars in another character’s book. I’ve long heard that the two best Black Panther runs were from the unfortunately named Jungle Action run in the 1970s, written by Don McGregor, and the late 1990s–early 2000s Christopher Priest penned run. The McGregor run is one of my comics “white whales”, as I’ve been reading about it for decades but have yet to find the back issues or the now out-of-print and expensive hardcover collection. So when I found Priest’s run digitally last month, I dove in feet first.
I’d previously read the first handful of issues of the run but that was years ago. This time I spent a good month immersed in the years-long tale that Priest spun out slowly and then frantically over time. The pace of the series heightened as it moved from one high-pitched adventure to the next. The book under Priest was equal parts morality tale, espionage, comedy, psychological thriller, science fiction and fantasy, and horror. He crammed in an awful lot of plot, and characters, over the length of his tenure on the book. He reached back to earlier Panther stories, including McGregor’s landmark run, and utilized elements from the Panther’s history to build rich portrayals of the technologically advanced African nation of Wakanda and its ruler, King T’Challa. The book featured an ever-growing cast of characters from the Panther mythology, including Killmonger, Monica Lynne, White Wolf, and even Man-Ape, along with a rotating guest list from across the Marvel Universe, like Moon Knight, Brother Voodoo, Nightshade, and Iron Fist, to name a few.
Priest introduced the Dora Milaje (“Adored Ones”), expertly trained women who act as not only soldiers and bodyguards for T’Challa but also, according to Wakandan tradition, as wives-in-waiting. They’re some of the most lethal women in all the Marvel Universe, as evidenced by any number of scenes where Priest showcased their brutal and effective fighting techniques and utter lack of fear in battle. Okoye is the Panther’s most trusted Dora Milaje in the series. Not unlike T’Challa himself, she is stunning, with modelesque height and cheekbones, but first and foremost is a fierce and intelligent warrior. She defies death so many times throughout the series that I lost count, all while she’s protecting her king. The Dora Milaje are selfless, serving their spiritual leader and following him wherever he leads. You can imagine how this could be a problematic female portrayal in the wrong hands. But for the most part, Priest handles it splendidly, showing us that the Dora Milaje are really no different from other soldiers willing to fight and die for a nation and a cause they believe in. And Priest makes a point of repeating that T’Challa does not treat them as wives-in-waiting, instead treating them with respect and trust. Except that one time when he is under Mephisto’s spell and kisses one of his Dora Milaje, Nakia, which only exacerbates her unhealthy obsession with him and leads to her becoming the villain Malice and basically making T’Challa’s life a living hell for a while. That arc was riveting, but also relied a bit too much on the cliched “woman scorned” trope. But all in all, the Dora Milaje are an exceptional and important part of Priest’s run on Black Panther.
Priest used humor throughout the series to offset the otherworldly sci-fi, fantasy, and superhero theatrics on display. Never is this more clear than in the character of Everett K. Ross, the U.S government liaison to T’Challa, sent to escort the king while he’s in New York. That short stint stretches into a year or two in comic book time and Ross winds up traversing the globe with Black Panther. Priest based Ross on Matthew Perry, or to be more specific his character Chandler Bing from Friends, complete with the biting wit and self-deprecating sarcasm. He inserted Ross into the action to serve as an audience surrogate. Priest has said in interviews that in agreeing to write Black Panther he needed to defy what people would expect from a black man writing Marvel’s premiere male black hero. Would a majority white audience stick with a series featuring a majority African (and African American) cast? Priest’s solution to circumventing readers’ expectations while also making a meta-commentary on those very same expectations, was to give readers a character who would act as their gateway into this incredible world of Wakanda and beyond. Ross was all of us–when he was awestruck at what was transpiring in the Panther’s world, so were we. Ross narrated most of the run, often beginning each issue with “The story so far…” before catching up readers on the insanity that had transpired in precious issues. And insanity it was. Priest’s Black Panther was an absurdist romp, full of both subtle and broad humor, but juxtaposed with scenes of great seriousness. This was how he structured each issue, for the most part. When someone close to Ross is killed, it comes as a huge shock because just moments earlier the mood was light and quippy. Ross’s life is turned upside down once he enters the Panther’s world, mirroring the readers’ experiences as we tag along on this wild ride through Wakandan politics, tribal wars, and global conflicts.
T’Challa himself anchors Priest’s run, at times mercurial and insouciant, but always displaying the certainty and indomitable will befitting his status as king. Priest sees the Panther as Marvel’s Batman. Instead of overseeing a Batcave full of gadgets though, the Panther rules the world’s most technologically advanced nation, utilizing all of the resources at his disposal. Priest portrays T’Challa as always several steps ahead of everyone else, similar to most modern portrayals of Batman. He even puts him at odds with his fellow Avengers, who are none too pleased to learn that he joined as a way of keeping tabs on the world’s most powerful humans. This is similar to how Batman has been known to keep files on how to stop Superman and other Justice Leaguers, should the need arise. Both characters are always prepared, always several steps ahead. Priest’s Black Panther might be similar to Batman, but it’s not at the expense of the character. The Panther is a fascinating character during the run, as Priest reveals more layers to him the deeper we go in the series. His love for Monica Lynne, an African American woman who will always be an outsider in Wakanda (and who Priest also uses as a nod to McGregor’s run, which featured Monica), is deep but complicated, and T’Challa struggles with how to navigate that relationship throughout the run. So even though Priest gives us a hyper-prepared T’Challa with genius level intellect, he never fails to make him utterly human as well. His foibles are on display through the series, and how he reacts to and handles the repercussions of his own actions are often what drives Priest’s narrative.
Marvel would be smart to model their cinematic Black Panther on Priest’s comic book Black Panther. All of the ingredients are there, from the Dora Milaje to the conflict with the Avengers to the phenomenal array of technology on display in Wakanda. The thought of the movies bringing us an onscreen realization of what Marvel has done so well in comics for so long, namely their depiction of the spectacular Afrofuturism of Wakanda, is exciting to contemplate.