Writer: Don McGregor. Pencils: Rich Buckler, Billy Graham, with Gil Kane. Inks: Klaus Janson, various.
Jungle Action #6-18 (1973-1975)
Don McGregor's "Panther's Rage" was the seminal Black Panther epic. In part that was because it was the first Panther solo series (after having guest starred in various other comics and been a member of the Avengers), but as well it largely established the themes and tone that would influence many-a Panther scribe to come like Peter B. Gillis and Christopher Priest, emphasizing T'Challa (the Panther) as a slightly unusual, daringly ambitious and philosophical series. (Gillis even has a fan letter published in one of the issues!) McGregor also largely shies away from the super hero trappings of the character, making only passing references to his association with The Avengers, etc., and eschewing famous guest stars (in a marked contrast to some recent Panther series!). While not removing the character from the Marvel Universe, he definitely sets out to isolate him from it.
The saga is set in the Panther's fictional African kingdom of Wakanda, where super science and old world tribalism rub shoulders -- and it's this clash that serves as one of the underlying themes. Having recently returned from his time abroad, and bringing with him his foreign African-American girlfriend, Monica Lynne (which further ruffles the feathers of traditionalists) the Black Panther discovers the beginnings of an uprising fomented by one Erik Killmonger. And over the next dozen issues, T'Challa must contend with Killmonger's various attacks, and his ghoulish collection of grotesque, super-powered henchmen (King Cadaver, Salamander K'ruel) while also brooding over -- well, everything. Love, responsibility, violence, compassion. T'Challa himself is derisively dismissed as "The Great Dreamer" by Killmonger.
And the result, like a lot of McGregor's work -- or the best of his work -- is a mixed bag of hits and misses but where the strengths overshadow the flaws.
By telling a saga of civil war, the story reflects all too real African politics, although McGregor maybe fails to fully explore the whys. Yes there is an undercurrent of future shock motivating the conflict, as many Wakandans feel the Panther has dragged them to quickly into a technocratic existence they don't understand, and Killmonger's support is often supposed to derive from the hill villages, implying some sort of geographical schism in the country. But McGregor doesn't really delve into it too explicitly, too busy dragging out his array of eccentric, almost Dick Tracy-esque foes for the Panther to battle. And Killmonger's plan seems a bit shy of clear strategy, with his attacks often justified as "distractions" or to destabilize Wakanda -- rather than having any clear cause and effect justification.
For an epic saga strung over two years (the comic being published bi-monthly) McGregor hasn't fully created a Byzantine saga of complex, interwoven threads. Indeed, the saga is episodic, many issues wrapped around a fight with a particular adversary, making for chapters that, on one hand, make it easier to sample the story, even as such conflicts are often inconclusive. Not surprising, there are even times when McGregor seems to be making it up as he goes. When we first meet Killmonger, he makes an intriguingly cryptic reference implying the Panther's family had wronged him in the past -- yet when (eventually) that is followed up on...it turns out to be rather anti-climactic. And towards the end of the saga, a plot thread is introduced involving supporting character W'kabi's marital problems -- but prior to that, we didn't even know he was married! The saga opens with comedic villains Tayette and Kazibe torturing a man to death...yet by the end of the saga, clearly the characters are supposed to be viewed as kind of lovable goofs as if maybe McGregor himself forgot how he introduced the characters!
Which isn't to say the saga is devoid of more carefully threaded sub-plots and character arcs, as McGregor does weave things through the saga, introducing early elements that come to fruition in unexpected ways in later issues, supporting characters who recur, or relationships that evolve. Though some sub-plots, such as a murder mystery teased through a few issues, prove rather minor diversions.
McGregor cleverly uses Killmonger sparingly. After fighting him in the first chapter, they only meet face-to-face once or twice before the climax. The rest of the time the Panther is battling his minions, while we cut away to Killmonger in another part of the country. It allows their conflict not to get overused, and allows Killmonger to seem slightly more formidable by his very absence -- and by the fact that the Panther's fights with him tend to go badly for the Panther.
McGregor introduces a supporting cast of intriguing personalities such as Taku, W'kabi, etc. (even if they tend to repeat themselves from issue to issue). Though it may seem a bit like we're jumping into an already on going story, with already established characters when I don't know if many had ever appeared previously. And this tendency to toss things in without fully foreshadowing them is true both with characters...and the "reality" of the Wakandan culture. At one point T'Challa encounters some giant white apes at the centre of a local religion...but nowhere earlier in McGregor's story had there even been an allusion to white gorillas! (however, if you start the saga with Jungle Action #5, reprinting a Panther-focused Avengers comic, it at least establishes the notion of white gorillas being part of Wakanda folklore).
But if McGregor's overall arc is unevenly plotted, that's because he's often more concerned with the trees than the forest. Writing in a dense, introspective style that would be unheard of today, cramming panels with text captions, thought balloons, and characters uttering philosophical monologues at the drop of a hat, Panther's Rage is decidedly over written and pretentious. At times the passages are lyrical and thoughtful...and other times, I'm not fully convinced McGregor is even employing the words correctly, as though maybe he's misusing his thesaurus. And sometimes sentences can seem grammatically nonsensical! But even then, it can take on aspects of poetry more than prose. If you let it, the passages sweep over you like a warm African wind, embedding you with these characters and events. Though there's plenty of action, there's a sense the real purpose of the story is the introspection, the events catalysts for ruminations on life and love. Even sunlight reflecting off a lake can inspire whole paragraphs ruminating on the meaning of existence. McGregor once wrote that he felt the most comfortable writing T'Challa, and it shows. There is a sureness and a depth to the character, a symbiosis between writer and character, that is rare.
The saga mixes elements in a way that no other medium does -- and, indeed, even modern comics don't. High brow and low brow, grim seriousness, and comedic silliness, adult scenes tackling relationships, death, intolerance...with bizarre villains and rampaging dinosaurs. Super hero adventure and gritty violence and underlining elements of horror. In fact, the saga is quite brutal at times (within the confines of a Comics Code comic), with the Panther himself taking quite a few savage beatings. Although a bit overdone at times, it also combines with McGregor's portrait of the Panther as a brooding, occasionally self-doubting personality to make the character vulnerable and human, so that his triumphs resonate as the acts of a true hero overcoming staggering odds. A problem I've had with some later takes on the character is that they tend to up the "cool" factor, making the Panther seem a little too superhuman and unstoppable. McGregor's Panther bleeds and struggles and sometimes fails...making his eventual victories all the more profound.
Mind you, in this day and age of environmental concerns, McGregor seems a bit too quick to throw in a fight-to-the-death with a wild animal just to add some action.
The art chores start out handled by Rich Buckler, then get taken over by Billy Graham for the lion's share (Gil Kane pinch hits an issue). Buckler's art is some of the best I've seen by him, and though Graham seemed a little less polished, their styles are sufficiently similar that it makes for a fairly smooth visual flow. Klaus Janson inks both men at first, and this is an early, more restrained Janson, and it's beautiful work, genuinely enriching the pencils with mood and dimension. Unfortunately, once Janson leaves, and Graham is teamed with other inkers (including inking himself) his art becomes a little rougher (or maybe he was struggling to meet deadlines). Still, the art is decent throughout -- and evocative, establishing a distinctive tone and milieu, the jungle backgrounds lushly rendered. The storytelling and composition is also striking and unique. Perhaps as a reflection of McGregor's incredibly dense scripting, often the scenes are broken down into small panels, actions and movements virtually dissected as they unfold across the page -- while also sometimes exploding into double-page spreads. The colours, too, particularly in the first few issues (usually by Glynis Oliver Wein) are particularly rich and nuanced, as if she was inspired by the unusual locale to really try to evoke crimson sunsets and verdant jungles.
For all it's flaws, it's structural weaknesses, it's overwritten passages that can slide toward pompous, Panther's Rage is a poetic epic of imagination, incorporating themes of real life political struggles, with sci-fi trappings, and dinosaurs! It draws you in, carries you away from your world to this jungle kingdom of philosopher kings and would be king slayers, and demands that you ponder the complexities of life and share the Panther's introspective musings.
I know it's not trendy to say this now, but for all its flaws, Panther's Rage is the sort of heady, ambitious, multi-layered saga that Marvel attempted back in the 1970s and wouldn't be written today -- and the medium is the poorer for it.
Jungle Action #6-18 -- #18 is more an epilogue, so you could get by without it...but ideally you should get it. And Jungle Action #5, which started the Black Panther run, is just a reprint of an Avengers comic by Thomas and Buscema that focuses on the Panther and so, though not part of the "Panther's Rage" saga, nevertheless acts as a kind of overture, anticipating the theme of a usurper and old world/new world conflicts as well as better introducing us to the Panther's world -- so it can act as a sort of prologue.