The Black Panther
(1988 - 4 issues, Marvel Comics)
Script: Peter B. Gillis. Pencils: Denys Cowan. Inks: Sam de la Rosa.
T'challa, the superhero known as the Black Panther and who is king of the technologically super advanced, fictional African nation of Wakanda, feels the "panther spirit" leave him, slightly affecting his fighting skills. Meanwhile, in the neighbouring nation of Azania (also fictional), where whites oppress the blacks (this was published when South Africa still suffered under apartheid), a demonic panther creature has arisen inspiring the blacks to rebel against the more heavily armed white minority. The Wakanda's take this as a sign that the Black Panther has fallen from grace with his guardian spirit, in part because he has been critical of armed revolt in Azania (fearing it would only lead to blacks being slaughtered and no real change). While T'Challa must prove his right to maintain his rulership in Wakanda, the Azania's assume the panther demon is the Black Panther, leading to various retaliations against Wakanda (such as sending their own super-team to capture him) that the Black Panther must prevent.
Despite my being thrown by the whole "panther spirit" idea (suggesting a greater supernatural aspect to the character than I generally assumed), and having a certain ambivalence to Cowan's art -- sometimes his figures are good and dynamic, other times seeming just slapped together, with crude backgrounds, mismatched proportions (animals that often seem twice as big as they should), etc. -- this emerges as a fairly compelling saga. One can't help but think that Gillis (like a lot of Black Panther writers) was still heavily influenced by Don McGregor's critically acclaimed run on the character in the early '70s in Jungle Action, investing a certain poetry to his writing. The whole ideological/panther spirit conflict and the apartheid plot attempt to invest the story with greater intellectual weight than a lot of comics, while still having lots of action and suspense. And the exotic African setting means it's not just a standard superhero adventure.
Conversely it doesn't always rise effectively to its own ambitions. There are lapses in logic, and even technical gaffs (like Cowan not drawing the right people in a scene, or the colourist colouring a Japanese ambassador as white, etc.).
Not the best Black Panther story I've ever read, but nonetheless reasonably evocative of the more ambitious tone that used to be applied to the character, making it both sophisticated and entertaining. As well, it's neatly self-contained in four issues...when often Panther stories lean towards multi-issue epics, making this conveniently collectible.