The Black Panther: Panther's Prey
(1991 - 4 issues, prestige format - Mature Readers - Marvel Comics)
Script: Don McGregor. Art: Dwayne Turner.
Though the Black Panther, the super hero who is also king of an isolated, technologically advanced African kingdom, Wakanda, was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, in many respects it's Don McGregor who defined the character, having been the first writer to star the Panther in a solo series in the pages of Jungle Action in the 1970s. McGregor, who has a penchant for writing ambitious, philosophical, emotionally textured, lyrical -- and rather verbose -- sagas, that can be both profound and pompous, sometimes at the same time. He established the Panther as a philosophical, brooding figure, torn between the conflicts of duty and personal wants, and developed a supporting cast. McGregor had finally returned to writing the Panther for an epic saga, "Panther's Quest", serialized in the pages of Marvel's late-1980s anthology comic, Marvel Comics Presents, and soon after produced this four part, prestige format mini-series.
And it reflects all of McGregor's vices and virtues.
The story has T'Challa, the Black Panther, in Wakanda being bedeviled by Solomon Prey, a taloned and winged villain who is also setting himself up as the kingdom's resident illegal drug lord -- while, at the same time, T'Challa decides to reconnect with his ex-love, the American singer Monica Lynne. Along the way there are ruminations on life, love, responsibility, obsession, loyalty, crime, drugs, old world/new world values...plus some flying dinosaurs, comic relief, and just about everything but the kitchen sink. It's a rambling, meandering saga that seems to veer off on strange tangents, even as it does seem to have a vision of how everything ties together. Sort of.
And regarded as a single, linear story, it can seem frustratingly unfocused and poorly structured...but viewed as a sprawling 184 page epic saga, you can enjoy it more. Each 46 page issue itself is broken up, sometimes into nine chapters, and I read it in bits and pieces, less like a four issue series...and more an eight or twelve issue epic.
McGregor crams his panels with densely poetic, frequently over-written, purple passages, but the result is that even minor supporting characters are fleshed out, their feelings and emotions detailed, and given nuance and dimension, creating a richly introspective saga -- a true graphic "novel". Though there is action, violence and adventure, huge chunks of scenes can trundle by, more concerned with characters and relationships than the conflict. The plot can unfold a tad erratically. In broad strokes it generally makes sense, though in the details there's a feeling McGregor got so caught up in writing his scenes, the connection between can be tenuous. Even the very fact that Prey seems to plan to usurp T'Challa...yet it's not really clear how he expects any of his schemes will accomplish that! As well, Prey is working with a mysterious woman, who is kept in shadow for a long part of the story -- yet then when she is finally identified, it's matter-of-factly, as if McGregor forgot he was treating it as a mystery!
I had been nervous to read this, as some of it was supposed to tie into McGregor's original Jungle Action run which -- at the time I read this -- I hadn't fully collected and I didn't want too many spoilers. But I didn't really feel there were too many of that. Conversely, how well this will read for someone largely unfamiliar with the Black Panther is a question, as McGregor relies a lot on the established mythos. But generally, I think it's explained. Even if a character is referred to rather cryptically in one scene, sooner or later a more thorough explanation is provided.
Dwayne Turner's art, like McGregor's prose, can be uneven, but generally works, going for a fairly realist style. At times his figures are sloppy, the composition unsure, while at his best, there are shades of Neal Adams and the like in his pencils. Turner also experiments, matching McGregor's literary leaps with some unusual panel arrangements and the eclectic way chapter titles are displayed. For old time Panther fans, his art gels quite nicely with Bronze Age Panther artists like Rich Buckler, Billy Graham and Jerry Bingham, giving it all a kind of visual familiarity. A difference being that this employs a multi-toned, semi-painted colouring -- probably more elaborate than most comics use today, and certainly more so than the regular comics published at the time.
Nowadays, the square spined, "prestige" format is really just a binding question, but back when the graphic novel/prestige format was first being employed, it carried with it certain expectations that it be different than a simple run of the mill comic -- such as the more elaborate colours, plus the fact that the story is a "Mature Readers" tale, with some gritty violence and some nudity and sensuality.
Continuity wise, McGregor displays a certain hubris one associates with writers who take their characters to heart. He has the Panther reunite with Monica Lynne, but completely ignores why they broke up, presumably because it was another writer who wrote that story. But it does mean, for a story so consumed with emotion and motivation, McGregor actually glides over the bigger emotional questions -- losing sight of the forest for the trees. Like, why if the Panther never stopped loving Monica, is it only now that he decides to seek her out again?
In the accompanying editorial, McGregor clearly feels that after the Marvel Comics Presents epic, and now this prestigious mini-series, he was back on the Panther for good, even hinting at the next mini-series. But as far as I know, McGregor never wrote it. The Panther did, eventually, get his own series...almost ten years later, but written by Christopher Priest, not McGregor.
I really enjoyed what I read of Priest's run, but I have a special fondness for McGregor's take -- as undisciplined as he can be, the ambition and poetry is enthralling. For detractors of McGregor's densely introspective style, this isn't going to make you a convert, but for fans of his, and fans of his take on the Panther, this is a satisfying epic. And at only four issues, it's a lot easier (and cheaper) to collect that some of his other, much longer, Panther epics.
Uneven? Sure. Overwritten? Yeah. Occasionally inane? Uh huh. But also compelling, involving, textured, lushly illustrated and, in some ways, brilliant.