Monday, April 12, 2021

Black Panther Epic Collection, Volume 2: Revenge of the Black Panther by Jack Kirby, et al.

A less than kingly collection, except for Kirby
Among the many trade paperbacks put out by Marvel Comics are the Epic Collection series, which gathers classic stories of the past and reproduces them in full color. The Black Panther Epic Collection: Revenge of the Black Panther, was published in 2019. It reprints issues 1 to 15 of the Black Panther’s solo series (1977-1979), which continues in three issues of Marvel Premiere (#51-53, 1979-1980). Also included is a short story from Marvel Team-Up #100 (1980) featuring Black Panther and Storm, and the four-issue Black Panther miniseries from 1988. The editors also throw in a few relevant pages from the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe.

Though it’s not clearly marked on the cover, this Epic Collection is actually Black Panther, Volume 2. The character Black Panther debuted in Fantastic Four #52 (1966). His solo adventures in the pages of the Marvel title Jungle Action are generally considered to be the quintessential Black Panther adventures prior to the Modern Age of Comics (mid-1980s to the present). Those early adventures are collected in Black Panther Epic Collection, Volume 1: Panther’s Rage. The stories included in Volume 2: Revenge of the Black Panther are not at all quintessential Black Panther comic; at least I hope not, because they are not of particularly distinguished quality. The one remarkable thing about this volume, however, is that issues 1 through 12 of the 1977 Black Panther series were written and drawn by Jack Kirby, one of the most important figures in the history of not only Marvel Comics but comics in general. Kirby’s art in these issues is spectacular, and his stories are characteristically bizarre. Don’t expect to learn a lot about Wakanda or the history of the character, however, as Kirby mostly has the Panther fighting space aliens and monsters, similar to what he just got done doing with Captain America in the mid- to late ‘70s.

No doubt one of the reasons for reprinting old Black Panther comics is to capitalize on the recent motion picture. Those who only know T’Challa from the movie, however, may be surprised or disappointed from what they find here in Volume 2. Although I enjoyed Kirby’s take on the character, I can’t say I learned much about T’Challa or Wakanda from reading this book. In the movies, Wakanda is depicted as a technologically advanced society. While that’s hinted at in these comics, a lot of the Panther’s power comes from magic and mysticism. In the 1988 miniseries T’Challa inexplicably has cat’s eyes. Though his suit is laced with vibranium, it doesn’t have a lot of gadgets in it. In his early days the Black Panther was mostly just a good fighter, on a par with Captain America’s strength but with more kung fu skills.

The second half of the book, without Kirby, is not very good at all. The ten-page story from Marvel Team-Up by Chris Claremont and John Byrne is fine, but the remaining issues are handled by artists and writers whose talents are middling at best. The Panther’s archenemy is Klaw, a being made of “solid sound,” who makes for a rather silly nemesis. The 1988 miniseries has the Panther battling the Ku Klux Klan and South African apartheid, but any social realism is undermined by the extensive emphasis on the Panther’s mystical origins. As the first Black superhero, Black Panther was a groundbreaking character, but in the ‘70s and ‘80s, most of the Black superheroes were still treated as second-rate characters who got second-rate powers and story lines. That’s apparent from this collection, though one has to give credit to Kirby for the Herculean effort he puts into his issues.

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