The Black Panther was a ground-breaking character in his 1966 debut. From his first appearance onward, he was seldom absent for long from Marvel Comics publications, whether as a guest star or part of the ensemble cast of the Avengers. Although the character received several opportunities to star in his own features, there was limited participation from black comic book creators. It would be left for Christopher Priest to fully exploit the hero’s potential.
Prior to the publication of the Black Panther’s first appearance in 1966’s Fantastic Four #52, there had been no true black superheroes in North American comic books and precious few black adventure heroes of any stripe. The most significant achievements in black protagonists prior to the Black Panther were 1947’s All-Negro Comics #1 (a comic fashioned by black creators and starring black heroes) and Dell’s Lobo (a two-issue series from 1965 starring a black cowboy). All-Negro Comics was especially interesting for featuring Lion Man, an African man on the Gold Coast who defended uranium from plunderers – a concept somewhat like the Black Panther.
Marvel Comics had featured black characters going back to the 1940s, but their earliest black characters were racist caricatures such as Whitewash Jones of the Young Allies or Slow-Motion Jones in the Whizzer. The first black character to star in his own story was M’Tuba, a supporting character in Lorna the Jungle Queen. M’Tuba was the wise African mentor to the blonde heroine Lorna throughout her 1953-1957 series. In the series’s first issue in 1953, M’Tuba starred in his own adventure in a back-up tale, but it was his only turn in the spotlight. Meanwhile in Jungle Tales, issues #1-7 (1954-1955) included the adventures of Waku, Prince of the Bantu. Much like the Black Panther, he was the noble chieftain of an African tribe and seemed to be constantly facing challengers to his throne; he even faced the living dead, not unlike the threat of Baron Macabre during Don McGregor’s “Panther’s Rage”.
At the time the Black Panther debuted in 1966, Marvel Comics was already publishing two ongoing series with a black cast member – in fact, they featured the same black cast member! Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos was, like the Black Panther, created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. The series debuted in 1963 with the black soldier Gabe Jones among the World War II team’s ranks. Beginning in 1965 Gabe likewise joined the cast of Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. in Strange Tales, set in contemporary times.
Jack Kirby told the Comics Journal that he came up with the Black Panther “because I realized I had no blacks in my strip. I’d never drawn a black. I needed a black. I suddenly discovered that I had a lot of black readers. My first friend was a black! And here I was ignoring them because I was associating with everybody else. It suddenly dawned on me — believe me, it was for human reasons — I suddenly discovered nobody was doing blacks. And here I am a leading cartoonist and I wasn’t doing a black.”
Kirby’s original design for the hero was dubbed “Coal Tiger” and was decked in somewhat colorful tones, with yellow and black stripes on his chest. More significantly, the hero’s mask was open, exposing his mouth – and thereby demonstrating he was a black man. The final published version of the Black Panther as he appeared in Fantastic Four #52 garbed him in all-black with a full face mask. Whatever the reason may have been for the costume change, it meant that the character’s ethnicity was not evident based on the cover of Fantastic Four #52 – the audience would have to read the story to learn his double identity.
In the story, the Black Panther, chieftain of Wakanda, invites the Fantastic Four to visit his hidden kingdom. The Fantastic Four’s leader Reed Richards was constantly astounded by the technology of the Wakandans and of the Techno-Jungle in Wakanda. At one point, Reed was amazed to see one of the Wakandans in New York transmit a message to King T’Challa in Wakanda using a miniature device: “Can he actually transmit a message half-way ‘round the globe… with that?” Christopher Priest was amused that Reed Richards could be so dumbfounded by technology not dissimilar from a 1990s cellular phone! But Reed’s amazement was at times overwhelmed by the blasé reactions of his teammate the Thing, who at one point tried to end T’Challa’s recounting of his origin by stating: “Yer talkin’ to a guy who seen every Tarzan movie at least a dozen times! And I can recite ya half’a the Bomba, the Jungle Boy books by heart!” As Edward J. Saunders Jr. wrote in the Jack Kirby Collector, “through Reed Richards’ amazement and Ben Grimm’s derision of things African, you had a lot of the stereotypes at once displayed, discussed, and then shattered at the same instant!”
Upon their arrival in Wakanda, the Fantastic Four were pursued through the Techno-Jungle by the Black Panther, who had prepared a variety of high-tech traps designed to exploit their weaknesses. However, the Human Torch’s friend Wyatt Wingfoot accompanied the heroes and he freed his friends from the Panther’s traps. Thereupon, in Fantastic Four #53, T’Challa explained to the Fantastic Four how years ago the outsider Ulysses Klaw invaded his country for their priceless Vibranium and killed his father T’Chaka. Klaw has now returned with a device which can transform sonic energy into solid matter. With the Fantastic Four’s help, Klaw is beaten.
Up until the closing panels of Fantastic Four #52, the Black Panther seemed at first to be a villain. Indeed, the outline of the story – an adversary unleashes a foolproof series of traps for the Fantastic Four, only to be undone by one element he neglected to prepare for – is very similar to the team’s clashes against the Mad Thinker by Lee and Kirby. However, this depiction of the Black Panther as a schemer equipped with a variety of high-tech tools would not last; it would take Christopher Priest to return him to these roots.
Stan Lee would gush over he and Kirby’s creation to Alter Ego magazine: “he’s one of the characters I’m most proud of because he was the first important black super-hero.” Henry B. Clay wrote in the letters page of Fantastic Four #56, “This subject, before the advent of Marvel, seemed to be an unwritten taboo, but now a real live Negro super-hero!!! This almost had me doing flip-flops…” David E. Jefferson wrote in the Jack Kirby Collector, “The Black Panther is an archetype, or the original, which represents an excellent example of a black man. He is not a stereotype; he didn’t fit the image of how a black man was/is perceived.” But not all the Fantastic Four’s readership agreed: “The Black Panther stinks!” wrote Alan Finn in the letters page of Fantastic Four #55, complaining at how easily the Black Panther had defeated the Fantastic Four. His complaints were not unlike those Christopher Priest would face 30+ years later.
Adilifu Nama described in Super Black American why the Black Panther’s genesis was so significant against the backdrop of so many real-world African leaders who had proved corrupt or ineffective: “T’Challa, the ethical, incorruptible superscientist, superb warrior, Black Panther superhero, and leader of Wakanda succeeded in achieving economic and political independence for his people where many African nation-states have failed.”
Following his introduction, the Black Panther made several guest appearances in Fantastic Four #56, #60 (wearing a half-mask), and Fantastic Four Annual #5. A lengthy guest role from Tales of Suspense #97 through to its name change as Captain America #100 led to T’Challa’s first meeting with Captain America and set up what would be T’Challa’s first ongoing home: The Avengers.
In the letters page of Avengers #54, schoolteacher Lawrence Isaacson wrote in. Noting the Avengers membership had been depleted (they had only three members: Hawkeye, Goliath and the Wasp) he suggested: “As there is never too much that can be done to lessen the tensions between the races, why not introduce a black Avenger in the lineup. The effect upon your youthful (and occasionally more adult) readers could only be beneficial.” Before the letter saw print, the Avengers’ first black member arrived.
Roy Thomas was the writer of Avengers at the time and set up the Black Panther’s arrival in the closing panels of Avengers #51. But when T’Challa arrived to join the team in Avengers #52, declaring he was “One who has given up a throne, that he may better serve a greater kingdom… the whole of mankind itself!”, it was not as the Black Panther – but as merely “the Panther”. Sporting a half-mask until Avengers #56, these changes did not go unnoticed. “Just because he is a Negro is no reason to take ‘Black’ out of his name,” wrote Lee Gray in the letters page of Avengers #55. By Avengers #54 he had resumed the full “Black Panther” moniker.
The Black Panther remained a member of Roy Thomas’ Avengers through issue #87. During these years he also made a memorable guest appearance in Daredevil #52 where artist Barry Windsor-Smith depicted him in dynamic Kirby-inspired artwork. In these days, the Avengers used a rotating chairmanship position rather than their later system where chairmen could hold the position for years of consecutive stories in a row. T’Challa served as chairman in Avengers #63-65. He also provided the Avengers with their first Quinjet vehicle in Avengers #61, which would ultimately become codified as the team’s primary mode of transportation.
In a two-part story in Avengers #73-74, T’Challa’s status as a black superhero was made public knowledge; according to the story, it was previously unknown. Singer Monica Lynne is surprised when she hears T’Challa call himself a “soul brother” and wonders why he hadn’t let the public know. He answers, “I thought it was enough to be just a man! But now I know it’s time to stand up and be counted!” The story featured the Sons of the Serpent, a team of white supremacist villains; in this story, their leadership proved to be headed by a white man and a black man – an unfortunate centrist perspective on 1960s racial relations which smacked of arguing “both sides”-ism. But Monica Lynne would endure beyond this storyline as T’Challa’s love interest.
Thomas addressed the status of Wakanda during T’Challa’s protracted absence in Avengers #62, wherein the Avengers visited Wakanda and revealed his friend M’Baku had been left in command (T’Challa’s security chief W’Kabi also made his first appearance), but M’Baku was a worshiper of Wakanda’s outlawed White Gorilla religion, which was in opposition to T’Challa’s Panther God. M’Baku became the Man-Ape, a formidable foe for the Panther, but somewhat undermined by his visual appearance within a white gorilla skin – to say nothing of the racist implications of a black man being compared to a gorilla. T’Challa would later become a schoolteacher as “Luke Charles” in Avengers #77, by which time it seemed as though Thomas was trying to write Wakanda out of the hero’s backstory – but he would eventually send T’Challa back to Wakanda in Avengers #87.
Almost a year after leaving the Avengers, T’Challa returned in 1972’s Fantastic Four #119 – but he changed his name to “the Black Leopard”. Encountering the Thing and the Human Torch in Rudyarda, a fictional African nation ruled by apartheid, he justified the name change thusly: “I contemplate a return to your country, Ben Grimm, where the latter term has — political connotations. I neither condemn nor condone those who took up the name — but T’Challa is a law unto himself.” Roy Thomas told the Hollywood Reporter that he made this name change at the request of Stan Lee. Unfortunately, much like Thomas’s Sons of the Serpent story, it again took a centrist approach to racial problems with the Black Panther refusing to state an opinion about US social troubles.
Nine months after that story, Steve Englehart became the new writer of Avengers and in issue #105, his first, he restored the Black Panther’s name and Avengers membership. The front cover went so far as to boast: “Heads up people!! The Black Panther is back!” In the story, when Hawkeye notes T’Challa’s recent change of moniker T’Challa elucidates: “I did not want my personal goals and tribal heritage confused with political plans made by others. But in the final analysis, I decided that made as much sense as altering the Scarlet Witch’s name — because witches are generally thought of as ugly. I am not a stereotype. I am myself. And I am — the Black Panther!” As writer of Captain America, Englehart also had the Black Panther gift Captain America’s black sidekick the Falcon with a pair of high-tech artificial wings. Englehart also revisited Rudyarda in Avengers #126 where the Black Panther testily confronts an ambassador from that nation (who ultimately proves to be Klaw in disguise). The story would be referenced in Randall Kenan’s 1989 novel A Visitation of Spirits as the story’s black protagonist recalls his favorite superheroes (albeit Rudyarda is referenced as Rhodesia). But after this story, the Panther again left the team.
The Falcon had become Marvel’s first American black superhero in 1969, while Luke Cage, Hero for Hire became the first black hero with his own series in 1972. More would follow, including Blade, the Living Mummy, and Brother Voodoo all in 1973, and Storm in 1975. By comparison, Marvel’s nearest competitor, DC Comics, was struggling to adopt black heroes among their titles. In 1970, Dennis O’Neil wrote a sequence in Green Lantern #76 where an aging black man demanded of the titular hero, having helped ‘the green skins’ and ‘the purple skins’: “There’s skins you’ve never bothered with — the black skins! I want to know… how come?!” Looking back on this dialogue, Dwayne McDuffie commented, “And this was actually progress!”
The Teen Titans had their ally Mal Duncan starting in 1970, but he wouldn’t become a costumed hero until 1976. Tyroc was introduced to the Legion of Super-Heroes in 1976, but his co-creator Mike Grell detested the story’s rationale that all black people in the Legion’s future lived on a separate island; Tyroc would remain a lesser light for many decades. John Stewart became the replacement Green Lantern in 1971 but would not hold that title on a regular basis until 1984. It wasn’t until 1977 that Tony Isabella and Trevor von Eeden’s Black Lightning became DC’s first black superhero to star in his own series.
Marvel Comics were ahead of their competitor in terms of black representation – but Don McGregor wanted to do more. In 1972, Marvel had begun publishing a reprint series called Jungle Action which brought back Lorna and other 1950s jungle stories. McGregor despised the series. “I can’t believe you guys are putting out this racist stuff,” he complained to editorial. Accepting his challenge, McGregor was put in charge of Jungle Action and asked to use the Black Panther. Editorial’s only stipulation was that the story had to be set in Wakanda (to justify the “jungle” title). McGregor agreed as, “why the king of an African nation would be a schoolteacher in New York, is beyond me.”
The Black Panther appeared first in Jungle Action #5 via a reprint of the Man-Ape’s debut in Avengers #62, but beginning in Jungle Action #6, Don McGregor – joined by artists Rich Buckler, Gil Kane and Billy Graham (the first black artist to depict T’Challa’s solo adventures) – started “Panther’s Rage”, a 12-part story featuring a bold new adversary for T’Challa: Erik Killmonger, a Wakandan who had been captured by Klaw during the villain’s invasion of Wakanda during T’Challa’s boyhood. Raised in Harlem, Killmonger returns to Wakanda to attempt a coup, leading an army of superhuman allies. McGregor chose a revolution as his source of conflict because, “You can’t have stories where there’s white people just keep stumbling into Wakanda, and finding Vibranium, and trying to steal it. There’s got to be other storylines.”
T’Challa’s chief lieutenants in these stories were the pacifistic communications chief Taku and the militant security chief W’Kabi. Their differing perspectives as advisors to King T’Challa created a trio like that of Star Trek’s Captain Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. Monica Lynne accompanied T’Challa through the series and, as an outsider, she experienced the underbelly of Wakanda’s seeming utopia – an abiding xenophobia against non-Wakandans. The stories depicted T’Challa as a noble and courageous man; his physical prowess was notably shown in Jungle Action #9 where he wrestled a rhinoceros to the ground – a scene considered so memorable it would be duplicated by many other creators, including Christopher Priest.
“Panther’s Rage” was warmly received by most of comics fandom. Dwayne McDuffie was eleven when the storyline began. He recalled Jungle Action #6 as his first exposure to the Black Panther. “The irony of a black character being the lead in a book called Jungle Action escaped me completely. What didn’t escape me was the powerful sense of dignity that the characters in this book possessed. I was instantly and hopelessly hooked. Moreover, the Black Panther was king of a mythical African country where black people were visible in every position in society, soldier, doctor, philosopher, street sweeper, ambassador & suddenly everything was possible. In the space of 15 pages, black people moved from invisible to inevitable.”
Reviewer John Jones opined, “Generally the phrase ‘bold new direction’ is a flashing red light on a comic book, denoting that some new hotshot is going to take over and send someone’s favorite character careening off on a completely insane and creatively clueless orbital path, but in this case, McGregor actually gave us a textbook definition of what that phrase should actually mean. Realizing that T’Challa was always overpowered by immersion in the mainstream Marvel continuity, McGregor had the wit to send the Panther back to his native Wakanda and do a series exploring the internal politics of that strangely contradictory African nation, playing up T’Challa’s dual and often conflicting roles as both chieftain and conduit between his people’s ancient traditions and the overwhelmingly technological outside world.”
Where some fans disagreed with McGregor was the climax in Jungle Action #17. After losing his first match against Killmonger in Jungle Action #6, T’Challa finally held a rematch – but was once again overpowered. Suddenly, Kantu, a child who was orphaned by Killmonger’s army, charged up and pushed Killmonger over Warrior Falls. McGregor chose this ending because in his estimation, “Panther was very thoughtful. And in such thoughtfulness was his strength. And also, there was a very deep literary device in the Panther’s rage arc – when the little boy saved T’Challa in the end, it reflected T’Challa’s own coming of age when his father died. It was a symbolic resolution of T’Challa’s inability to save his own father. Now, to my mind, THAT is very deep.”
Bob Almond, who inked most of Christopher Priest’s stories, offered a dissenting opinion: “The stories were very sophisticated and epic in scale and many feel ‘Panther’s Rage’ to be the definitive BP saga. But as noble and brave as Panther was, he was always getting the tar kicked out of him, his costume was often being torn to shreds and he’d be a bloody, pulpy mess half the time with Don at the helm.”
McGregor wanted to follow up “Panther’s Rage” with a story set in South Africa so he could address apartheid (at the time, the notorious Soweto uprising was a year away), but unprepared for the research involved instead he sent the Black Panther back to the USA to face the Ku Klux Klan. Unfortunately, low sales caused the cancellation of Jungle Action after issue #24; McGregor would never finish the story arc. Still, utilizing the real-life Klan instead of a stand-in won acclaim from Adilifu Nama in Super Black American: “racism was no longer symbolized by bizarre-looking villains but by bona fide racial villains.”
If McGregor’s stories created the impression that the Black Panther lost many of his fights, his appearances in Jim Shooter’s Avengers stories could only have accelerated the difficulties. Jim Shooter (who was also Marvel’s editor-in-chief at the time) brought T’Challa back to the team in Avengers #159 during a battle with a new villain called Graviton who could control gravity itself. The Black Panther and Thor arrived as reinforcements to renew the fight after the others had been defeated, but while Thor battled Graviton (and Iron Man freed himself), the Black Panther’s only function in the story was to liberate the other Avengers. And thus it went throughout Shooter’s Avengers stories – the indestructible robot Ultron, the Superman-level powerhouse Count Nefaria, the cosmic threat of Michael Korvac – the Black Panther’s athleticism was a poor match for such threats. Little wonder that the next writer, David Michelinie, chose to write the Black Panther out of the Avengers in his first issue, Avengers #181. Thereafter, the Black Panther would return to the Avengers on special occasions (such as the gathering of virtually every Avenger in 1986’s West Coast Avengers Annual #1), but he would not become a regular presence in the Avengers series until writer Geoff Johns used him in 2002, 23 years after Michelinie wrote him out! It was ultimately the revitalization of T’Challa under Christopher Priest during 1998-2003 which renewed interest in him as an Avenger.
In 1971, Jack Kirby had left Marvel for DC Comics, hoping for greater creative freedom, but the initial failure of his “Fourth World” series dispirited him. He returned to Marvel Comics in 1976 under an arrangement where he could write and draw his own stories with little-to-no contact with Marvel’s editorial team. In 1977, Kirby launched a new series of Black Panther solo adventures with the first-ever Black Panther #1. The series used none of the Wakandans whom Roy Thomas or Don McGregor had developed; likewise, there were no familiar Marvel villains, solely brand-new creations. Kirby wrote and drew 12 issues of bi-monthly adventures, opening with T’Challa joining the eclectic Collectors Guild as they searched for “King Solomon’s Frogs” – a time machine in the shape of twin brass frogs. He also introduced T’Challa’s cousins (“the Black Musketeers”) and granted the hero ESP abilities after close-up exposure to the Vibranium mound.
As Sean Howe reported in Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, “Rumors circulated that the Captain America letters pages, which were edited in the New York office, had been intentionally tilted toward negative feedback—some of it fabricated by members of the staff.” The same rumors held true for the Black Panther. And certainly, the letters pages demonstrate many negative letters, particularly from fans of Don McGregor’s work. In the letters page of Black Panther #3, Jane C. Hollingsworth wrote: “After ‘The Panther’s Rage’ and ‘The Panther vs. the Clan’ there is only one word to describe ‘King Solomon’s Frog’: obscene.” Likewise, Richard Roder in Black Panther #8: “It’s one of Jack’s best works, focusing his many beliefs into human form, combining fantasy and reality into a single medium that is both hard action and high adventure. However, it is the total opposite of what was so finely accomplished by Don McGregor and Billy Graham in Jungle Action.”
Other critical letters dug deeper; Bill Thelin wrote in Black Panther #5: “No offense, but a lot of the time your writing is childish.” In Black Panther #7, John Judge wrote: “To take Marvel’s first black character and depersonalize him so severely is criminal.” A rare positive letter came from Robin Snyder (who would soon become a comics editor) in Black Panther #7, where she wrote about both Black Panther and Captain America: “Granted, Kirby has changed the two characters to suit his own ends, but so had the previous writers and editors. Both concepts were Kirby’s to begin with, and when he left them, so did I. The only reason I buy them now is because Kirby is handling them.”
Kirby’s former assistant Mark Evanier explained, “When Jack was asked to take over Black Panther, he said, in effect, ‘I can’t do someone else’s book… I have to start from scratch. If you don’t want that, have someone else do it.’ Marvel didn’t want the McGregor version — if they had, they’ve have kept McGregor on it — so Jack took on the assignment with that understanding. I don’t think it was that he had no ‘respect’ for what had gone before. I doubt he even read the McGregor issues. That was just the way Jack’s mind worked; he had to view a strip in totality. As far as he was concerned, Don McGregor wrote one book about a guy called Black Panther and he [Kirby] wrote a different book about a different guy called Black Panther.”
Disillusioned, Kirby left Marvel Comics again in 1978, this time exiting permanently. Black Panther continued for three more issues under writer Ed Hannigan and artist Jerry Bingham. They quickly wrapped up Kirby’s dangling plot then sent the Black Panther to Manhattan to battle Klaw and team up with the Avengers while reintroducing Don McGregor’s cast. In Black Panther #15, the final issue, the letters page published nothing but positive letters about Hannigan & Bingham’s work, a subtle parting shot at Kirby. The frequently published “letterhack” Jim Burke (alias the Mad Maple) wrote: “Now, this may be almost sacrilegious, but I’m glad that Mr. Kirby is gone from the mag.”
Hannigan and Bingham continued their stories in Marvel Premiere #51-53, where they wrapped up McGregor’s Ku Klux Klan story. Incredibly, Marvel Premiere #52 featured a letter from the man who would revive the Black Panther’s fortunes: Christopher Priest. Then an assistant editor on Marvel’s Crazy Magazine, Priest (then “Jim Owsley”) wrote in to complain about the cover to Marvel Premiere #49, featuring the Falcon by artists Frank Miller and Klaus Janson. Priest felt the cover relied on tired stereotypes of black people. Little did he guess the role he would play in the futures of the Falcon and the Black Panther!
With his solo adventures concluded, the Black Panther remained an active character in Marvel Comics titles, but no longer had a home series. Keith P. Feldman, noting how the Black Panther hero had been born the same year as the Black Panther Party, then diminished in popularity as the Black Power movement waned opined, “in 1979, with that same sense of uncanniness and the near-eclipse of the Black Power movement, the Black Panther will fade into the background of Marvel’s stable of narratives.”
In Marvel Team-Up #100, Chris Claremont wrote a back-up tale revealing Storm (from his X-Men series) had once met T’Challa in their youth. The Black Panther appeared in an arc during Ed Hannigan’s Defenders where he wound up in a political power play against Prince Namor of Atlantis. In Daredevil #235, one of T’Challa’s cousins proved to have entered a voluntary exile in the USA. The Fantastic Four met a young Wakandan with Vibranium-based powers of vibration called Vibraxas. All of these were facets of the Black Panther which would be further explored by Christopher Priest. But Priest’s personal reading of the Black Panther during the 1980s and 1990s was largely unfavorable. He dubbed the hero “Doormat Man (TM) who has traditionally been the colorless, humorless, often clueless guy standing in the back row of the Avengers class picture, or showing up for the odd guest-shot to fight *yawn* Klaw again, the guy who got beat up and dragged more often than I can mention.”
In 1982, writer Peter B. Gillis used the Black Panther in a guest appearance for Iron Man Annual #5, pitting the Black Panther and Iron Man against Killmonger, who had been resurrected by Iron Man’s enemy the Mandarin. This soon led to Gillis being offered a Black Panther limited series with artist Denys Cowan. Cowan had his own ideas about how he wanted to see the hero portrayed. Gillis and Cowan delved deeper into T’Challa’s religion, exploring his relationship with the Panther God. Simultaneously they commented upon the still-active issue of apartheid, creating yet another fictional nation (Azania) to explore the topic. Gillis wrote an enthusiastic article in Marvel Age #20 featuring previews of finished pages (inked, colored, lettered) from the series. Its publication seemed imminent but was caught in development hell for four years. The four-issue series was finally published in 1988. The Slings and Arrows Comic Guide wrote dismissively that it was “a good-looking, well intentioned, but ultimately insubstantial story.”
The following year, Don McGregor returned to the Black Panther with artist Gene Colan. In Marvel Comics Presents, a bi-weekly series which published stories in 8-page installments, McGregor finally wrote the story on South African apartheid which he had in mind since 1975. “Panther’s Quest” ran for 25 installments (the longest serial to ever run in the series) and concerned T’Challa’s search for his adoptive mother Ramonda, a woman being held in South Africa. McGregor faced many of the same criticisms he had endured in the 1970s. The Slings and Arrows Comic Guide felt it “falls far short of the standard expected from Gene Colan and Don McGregor.”
Marvel Comics Presents’s editor Terry Kavanagh also edited Marvel’s humor comic What The-?!, where he invited McGregor to satirize “Panther’s Quest” in What The-?! #9, an issue-long parody of Marvel Comics Presents. In his “Black n’ Blue Panther” dubbed “Part 231 of 8” McGregor made light of his verbose captions and the frequent beatings which T’Challa endured under his pen. The next year McGregor wrote the “prestige format” limited series Black Panther: Panther’s Prey with artist Dwayne Turner (after Billy Graham and Denys Cowan, only the third black artist to depict the hero’s solo adventures). Again, the Slings and Arrows Comic Guide came down hard: “a bland and overblown mess”.
Panther’s Prey included T’Challa and Monica Lynne’s official engagement and the stage seemed set for their marriage. But although this would be paid lip service (such as in 1993’s Captain America #414) and McGregor himself had hopes of writing their marriage, it kept being put off.
During this period of stasis, something outrageous happened to the Black Panther: he was written by a black man. In Deathlok #22-25, Dwayne McDuffie wrote a storyline in which his hero Deathlok (a pacifist computer programmer trapped in the body of a cybernetic killing machine) was invited to Wakanda to assist against a cybersecurity threat. Deathlok was enthused by the prospect from the outset; “You can’t even front and tell me you don’t want to go to the motherland,” Deathlok suggested to his wife, ultimately bringing she and their son on the adventure.
Previous Black Panther appearances had seen black Americans visit Wakanda, but in the hands of white writers it was lacking; when the Falcon brought his girlfriend Leila Taylor to Wakanda in Captain America #170 or when James Rhodes accompanied Iron man to Wakanda in Iron Man Annual #5, they simply made cynical remarks about the country. Perhaps only a black man in 1993 could have written Deathlok’s dialogue in Deathlok #23 when he had a moment alone with the Black Panther: “When you became an Avenger, it was a matter of pride for a whole generation of African-Americans. … I see you as a personal hero.” It was drawn from McDuffie’s own experiences as a fan of the character, and Christopher Priest and Reginald Hudlin would carry these notions further.
Jack Kirby passed away in 1994. As he became eulogized by comics fandom, all his work underwent reappraisal and a newfound appreciation for his 1970s stories crept in among fandom publications and in internet conversations. Even the once-maligned Black Panther stories were being reconsidered. “His Panther eschewed all political and social relevance in favour of fantastic science and breakneck adventure,” wrote the Slings and Arrows Comic Guide. The Jack Kirby Collector published several laudatory articles. Eventually the swell of support reached Marvel Comics themselves.
In 1998, creators Joe Casey and Jose Ladronn were at the start of their run on Marvel’s Cable. As the mutant hero had been viewed as the epitome of 1990s excesses due to his massive physique and immense guns, Casey and Ladronn lanced the hero from the detritus of the 1990s by intentionally evoking the styles of Jack Kirby. And even then, unlike artists such as John Byrne and Ron Frenz who lovingly referenced Kirby’s 1960s work, Ladronn drew on the Kirby styles of the 1970s.
It should be no surprise, then, that in Cable #54 when Cable visits Wakanda it would be a tribute to the 1970s Black Panther series. Although the villain was once again Klaw, supporting characters never seen outside of Kirby’s pen were reintroduced. The Techno-Jungle was depicted a thing of awe-inspiring technology (aided in that Cable was a fresh set of eyes for Wakanda). Most audaciously, in one scene the telepathic Cable is surprised when the Black Panther evades detection by his mind. When Cable asks if the hero has psychic abilities T’Challa avoids a direct response. This cheeky reference to the ESP powers of Kirby’s Panther would have been previously unthinkable.
With Jack Kirby’s Black Panther finally reconciled and appreciated as its own unique interpretation of the character, the Black Panther began 1998 in a place of harmony.
Six months after Cable #54, Christopher Priest launched a bold new interpretation of the character. Priest drew on characters, situations, and personalities from those whose work preceded him, but he had his own ideas about how to interpret the Black Panther – and his innovations would provide a sturdy foundation for the hero’s pop culture breakthrough.