A guide to the Black Panther comics for fans of the Black Panther movie
If you saw Black Panther in theaters last month—and, based on the film’s box office haul to date, there’s a pretty good chance you did—then you may find yourself wondering how closely the Marvel comics that the film is adapted from reflect that experience and, more importantly for our purposes here, which of those comics to read and recommend to others.
The good news is that while there are no comics exactly like the movie, particularly in its brilliant visuals of costumes and set designs, the filmmakers took a great deal of easily discernible, discrete elements from the comics. Better yet, unlike the vast majority of superhero comics that have been adapted into films in the last 20 years or so, Marvel’s Black Panther comics are small enough in number, distinct enough in vision, and high enough in quality that they are particularly easy to recommend. That is, the Black Panther comics are kind of like the baby bear of the comics world: There aren’t too many, there aren’t too few, they’re just right.
The Black Panther, the African king who dresses in a ceremonial panther costume, was first introduced by writer Stan Lee and writer/artist Jack Kirby in a 1966 issue of Fantastic Four, and in the years that followed he played a role in various FF comics and, even more so, Avengers comics, having officially joined the team in 1968. Being a superhero, a super-genius, and a head of state, the character would continually play a big role in the Marvel Universe’s shared setting, regularly appearing in crossovers and event comics. But the comics he himself headlined were relatively few, certainly when compared to, say, Spider-Man or the X-Men.
In preparation for the film, Marvel has collected pretty much all of the Black Panther comics into library- and bookstore-ready trade paperback format—the publisher has certainly gotten better at this in the decade since the first Iron Man film. Here’s what you can look for, in the order their contents were originally published, although, for the most part, any of these is a fine starting point. All are appropriate for teen readers, but probably not so much for grade-schoolers.
Black Panther Epic Collection: Panther’s Rage
Writers: Don McGregor and Stan Lee
Artists: Rich Buckler, Billy Graham, Klaus Janson, Jack Kirby and others
The title story here is writer Don McGregor and pencil artist Rich Buckler’s epic, 19-part story from the pages of the perhaps unfortunately titled anthology series Jungle Action of the mid-1970s. Both highly unusual and incredibly forward-thinking at the time, Panther’s Rage was essentially a serialized graphic novel, running at a time when the vast majority of super-comics were discrete done-in-one stories in which the thought that went into long-term plotting, theme, and tone was mostly incidental (if it existed at all).
McGregor transformed T’Challa from an occasional Fantastic Four ally and part of the Avengers ensemble cast into a protagonist in his own right, as the hero brought his American girlfriend back home to Wakanda, where the pair received a somewhat frosty reception. Even more notably, McGregor and company began to flesh out the character’s background and home base of Wakanda, the latter of which would become increasingly important in later Black Panther comics…and, of course, the movie. This is where Killmonger, the villain played by Michael B. Jordan in the movie, was first introduced.
This collection also includes Fantastic Four #52 and #53, the first appearance of The Black Panther, in a pair of comics from Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, from a time when their collaboration was at its most volcanically productive. Their FF threw out potent—and, eventually, lucrative—concepts at a dizzying pace. The core elements of Black Panther and Wakanda are present here, although it’s interesting to see how the latter has changed over the years. In Kirby’s original conception, not only is it a highly advanced super-culture, but the Panther’s people live in an elaborate techno-organic jungle, where every tree, vine and boulder is actually a computer.
McGregor would return to the character for future storylines, Panther’s Quest and Panther’s Prey. The former was just released in trade paperback format; one expects the latter will be before long.
Black Panther By Jack Kirby, Vols. 1 and 2
Writer: Jack Kirby
Artists: Jack Kirby and Mike Royer
The very first Black Panther comic actually called Black Panther was this 1977 one, written, drawn, and even edited by the character’s co-creator, Jack Kirby (Mike Royer inked and lettered it, while Archie Goodwin got a “consulting editor” credit). The first two-thirds of Kirby’s 12-issue run on the series is somewhat notable today for how divorced from the familiar milieu of Wakanda the adventures are. T’Challa falls in with a brilliant “collector” named Mr. Little and his rival, Princess Zanda. Together the three quest for King Solomon’s Frogs, an ancient time machine in the form of two small bronze frog statues. The Panther and Little are then forced on another quest, to find immortality-granting water in a secret Samurai City hidden in Africa.
Kirby makes the Panther a sort of POV character for a time, something of a two-fisted, far-out archaeologist in the same way that the Fantastic Four were scientists and explorers. There’s all sorts of wild technology from the present and the ancient world, a super-powered man with world-ending powers from six million years in the future, technological golems, yetis, and a breathless fusion of Arthurian legend with samurais and sci-fi.
In the later issues, T’Challa would return to Wakanda, and face a failed coup by his younger half-brother who is turned into a monster by an alien infection from the Vibranium mound and then an attack from the new villain Kiber. Kirby’s run, and the book, ended rather suddenly, with Marvel’s then-editor Jim Shooter coming in to plot the last few issues just before the book’s cancellation. It would be the last Black Panther solo series until Christopher Priest relaunched it about 20 years later. Kirby’s run was collected into a pair of trade paperbacks in 2005 and 2006, and it’s probably well past due for a newer, single-volume collection.
Black Panther By Christopher Priest: The Complete Collection Vols. 1-4
Writer: Christopher Priest
Artists: Sal Velluto, Mark Texeira, Joe Jusko and others
Vulture recently ran an interview with comics writer Christopher Priest under the headline “The Man Who Made Black Panther Cool,” which pretty much sums up the writer’s seminal five-year, almost 70-issue run (which included a short-lived spin-off series, The Crew). In perhaps the most influential run on the character, Priest reinvented the Panther so that he was as much as a statesman and a king as he was a superhero. This makes the book, which launched in 1998 as part of the Marvel Knights imprint, something of a forerunner to the millennial Marvel Comics as a whole, which leaned into real world-style political intrigue and a cinematic thriller tone after the punch ‘em ups of the ‘90s.
Priest’s Panther was also a funny book, registering its sense of humor in both witty wordplay and political satire. The run was long enough that pretty much the entire Marvel character roster showed up at one point or another, and Priest managed to work in all the character’s previous villains and take the character off in strange directions, including checking in on his distant future, sending him into the pages of another comic book via time travel, and passing the Panther mantle on to a new character.
It’s difficult, if not impossible, to imagine the next two major runs on the title, those of writers Reginald Hudlin and Ta-Nehesi Coates, without Priest’s run. That goes double for the feature film. Priest introduced Everett K. Ross, who is a more bumbling and humorous presence in the comics than Martin Freeman’s more serious portrayal, as well as Nakia, Okoye, and the Dora Milaje.
The main weakness of these comics is that as strong as the writing is, the art is exceptionally inconsistent. Many great artists drew the comics, but they changed pretty frequently, often with too little regard for how well they complimented the characters, the scripts, and, especially, one another. In that regard, these really are, as a whole, Priest’s comics.
Black Panther By Reginald Hudlin: The Complete Collection, Vols. 1-3
Writers: Reginald Hudlin, Peter Milligan and Jason Aaron
Artists: John Romita JR, Scott Eaton, Cafu and others
In 2005, filmmaker Reginald Hudlin relaunched the title with artist John Romita Jr., kicking off a particularly successful, and occasionally controversial, 50-ish issue run. Perhaps most notably, Hudlin had T’Challa marry Storm of the X-Men early in his run, and the popular African mutant became the queen of Wakanda and a frequent presence in the comics.
Coinciding with several big, line-wide event stories like Civil War and Secret Invasion, the book often had to react to the goings-on in the wider Marvel Universe, and so in addition to increased dealings with the X-Men, T’Challa and Storm joined The Thing and The Human Torch to form a new, temporary Fantastic Four while Mr. Fantastic and The Invisible Woman were off working on their marriage. There were also some notable appearances by “The Black Avengers,” as the various black Marvels who looked up to T’Challa—from Blade to Luke Cage to The Falcon—would occasionally help and/or hang out with the king of Wakanda.
It was Hudlin who created T’Challa’s little sister Shuri, played by Letitia Wright in the movie, and, as his run neared its end, he had Shuri supplant her older brother as The Black Panther. That may be something to look forward to in future movies, given how popular Wright’s Shuri has proved with audiences.
As with the Priest run, Hudlin’s was marked by a a too-quickly rotating roster of artists, so the book’s visual identity is never clearly established and maintained.
Black Panther: Doomwar
Writers: Jonathan Maberry and Reginald Hudlin
Artists: Scot Eaton, Will Conrad, Gianluca Gugliotta
If you are one of the fans who enjoyed Letitia Wright’s Shuri in the movie, here’s some good news and bad news for you. Good news? This volume is all her as the Black Panther. Bad news? Comic Book Shuri has almost nothing in common with Movie Shuri, aside from being T’Challa’s little sister.
Rather than being the super-genius of the family, Shuri lacks T’Challa’s smarts, and so she struggles with the role of the Panther, being forced to rely on physical violence more than she would like.
The title story in this 400-page collection is a 2010 miniseries that pits the ruler of fictional Marvel Universe nation Latveria, Doctor Victor Von Doom, against the rulers of fictional Marvel Universe nation Wakanda in all-out war for the latter’s store of vibranium, with Doom achieving what no one else had previously been able to do: Conquer Wakanda, At least temporarily, anyway. It doesn’t take Shuri, T’Challa, and their superhero allies like Storm, The X-Men, The Fantastic Four, Namor, Deadpool, and War Machine too long to re-take their country and defeat Doom, although it does cost Wakanda its greatest natural resource.
The book also includes the miniseries Klaws of The Panther, in which Shuri teams up with an eclectic series of guest stars at the rate of one per issue—Shanna the She-Devil, Wolverine, Spider-Man and The Black Widow—in an epic campaign against her big brother’s archenemy, Klaw, with the fate of the world hanging in the balance.
Overall, the art in this book is pretty messy, varying sharply in style and consistency from story to story and, sometimes, issue to issue, and it somewhat sacrifices focus on T’Challa and Shuri in its efforts to tell a story of import to the Marvel Universe as a whole, but then, all those guest-stars are also something of a selling point too.
Black Panther: The Man Without Fear
Writer: David Liss
Artists: Francesco Francavilla, Jefte Palo and others
While Black Panther was undergoing a major status quo changing event series in the Doomwar, so too was his fellow superhero Daredevil in Shadowland. In the aftermath, the exiled, de-powered former king of Wakanda came to New York City to fill in for The Man Without Fear, while Daredevil went on a journey of self-discovery.
It was honestly a pretty weird premise, made all the weirder because Marvel had Black Panther essentially just take over the Daredevil’s numbering and sub-title, but changing the book’s title and creative team. Weirdness aside, it worked.
Bereft of his panther powers, the resources of the nation of Wakanda, and even his super-mutant wife Storm, T’Challa takes the secret identity of Mr. Okonkwo, a Congolese immigrant who manages a Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood diner, fighting organized crime as an anonymous street vigilante by night.
Writer David Liss, who was already a successful novelist at the time, managed to scale T’Challa’s adventures down from the world stage to a few gritty urban blocks and make it work as part of the character’s overall story arc. For much of the 18-or-so-issue run, Liss writes Black Panther as a superhero/crime drama genre mash-up, and he has an invaluable assist from artist Francesco Francavilla, whose stripped down, darkness-filled artwork gives it a unique noir look.
A few acknowledgements to Marvel Universe weirdness and superhero guest-stars aside, Man Without Fear is, in this collected form, a graphic novel that actually reads like a pretty satisfying novel. One story line, involving the ghost of the Hatemonger returning from space and possessing a down-on-his-luck, anti-immigrant nationalist, is eerily prescient and even a little disturbing, given some of the events of the last few years in our own universe.
Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, Books 1-3
Writer: Ta-Nehesi Coates
Artists: Brian Stelfreeze, Chris Sprouse, Karl Story and others
In one of their better “gets” in recent years, Marvel recruited author and journalist Ta-Nehesi Coates to launch a new, sixth volume of Black Panther in 2015. In this extremely well-received series, Coates didn’t attempt to reinvent the wheel but merely kept it rolling, finding T’Challa, Shuri, and Wakanda right where they were left off in other various Marvel Comics and going from there. While his book was very much in the mold of what Priest and Hudlin had done before him, focusing on Wakanda itself as a character in the drama, Coates’s run almost immediately distinguished itself by spreading that focus all around the nation, adopting a rather sizable ensemble cast, and, as might be expected from the writer’s background, paying greater attention to the politics and culture of the fictional country and how they fit together.
It was a comic book where a page or three are just as likely to be devoted to a discussion of political science or African myth as to people in tights punching each other. That is probably precisely why some people love it and some people dislike it rather intensely. While the comic is extremely well-written, it’s also true that Coates was and is prone to a common deficiency among writers who come to the medium after successful careers in prose, film, television, or other kinds of writing: Overwriting everything, making for comics that rely overmuch on the word half of the words-and-picture equation.
For these first three books, Coates was paired with Brian Stelfreeze, who drew the first and third collections, and Chris Sprouse, who drew the second. Both are pretty incredible draftsmen, with Stelfreeze’s work being particularly interesting, given that interior work from him is relatively rare.
Coates is still writing the title, and the fourth collection of his run—Black Panther Vol. 4: Avengers of The New World Book One—was just released last fall.
As Coates’ initial issues of the new series were so well received, Marvel decided to strike while the iron was, well, if not hot then at least warm, and attempted an ill-advised Black Panther line of comics. They announced two spin-off titles that were canceled almost immediately, but that was long enough to produce a single trade collection apiece: Black Panther: World of Wakanda and Black Panther and The Crew.
Marvel’s Black Panther Prelude
Writes: Will Corona Pilgrim, Don McGregor, Christopher Priest and others
Artists: Annapaola Martello, Rich Buckler, Klaus Janson and others
Marvel generally publishes a prelude comic of some kind whenever a movie comes out, and they are usually completely superfluous: Given that their movies are generally based on decades worth of comics, it’s not like there’s much in the way of a need to produce more comics based on the filmmakers’ version of those comics. That is, when you get to the point of making comics based on movies based on comics, you’re getting into real ouroboros territory.
The actual prelude by writer Will Corona Pilgrim and artist Annapaolo Martello has The Black Panther T’Challa teaming with Okoye—who he has just met for the first time—to rescue some Wakandans who were captured among other civilians in a hostage situation in Paraguay. It’s basically just superhero busy work set in the world of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, executed in unremarkable fashion. Perhaps the most interesting part of this story is that it is set ten years ago, when Tony Stark comes out as Iron Man in the final scene of 2008’s Iron Man, which I guess means the Marvel Cinematic Universe unfolds in real time, something I had not given much thought to.
After the 40-page prelude, the rest of the trade paperback is filled with reprints, essentially offering a sort of sample platter of various Black Panther runs, complete with a short text tag at the end of each instructing a reader where to find more of that particular story. The first two issues of McGregor, Buckler, and company’s “Panther’s Rage” are reprinted, then there’s a short story from Priest’s run, the second issue of Hudlin and Romita Jr’s run (the issue that introduced Shuri), and, finally, the first issue of Coates’ run.
It would be a strange book to buy, but it’s probably a pretty great one to borrow from a library, as it offers a good overview of key runs in Black Panther comics history, enough to know if you want to invest your time and/or money in a graphic novel or series of graphic novels or not.
About J. Caleb Mozzocco
J. Caleb Mozzocco is a way-too-busy freelance writer who has written about comics for online and print venues for a rather long time now. He currently contributes to Comic Book Resources' Robot 6 blog and ComicsAlliance, and maintains his own daily-ish blog at EveryDayIsLikeWednesday.blogspot.com. He lives in northeast Ohio, where he works as a circulation clerk at a public library by day.
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