As we count down to the release of the Black Panther movie, here’s another installment of T’Challa Rising, a four-part series of articles that looks back on landmark moments from Black Panther’s history. Last time, we saw Black Panther triumph over the Grim Reaper himself and become a member of Earth’s mightiest heroes… the Avengers. This time, we’re jumping into the early seventies with the sixth issue of Jungle Action, featuring the debut of one of Black Panther’s most deadly nemeses… Erik Killmonger.
This issue is written by Don McGregor, penciled by Rich Buckler, inked by Klaus Janson, lettered by Tom Orzechowski, and colored by Glynis Wein… and, this time, I want to start by giving it up for this creative team. Both the writing and the art in this issue are the best I’ve covered this month by a mile, with writing that never over-explains but instead tells a tight story through sparing but potent narration and naturalistic dialogue, and artwork that totally breaks from the more common page layouts for some truly creative panelization. It’s a beautiful comic, and perhaps the strongest of the classic comics I’ve covered since Marvel Premiere #15, which introduced Iron Fist in what was unexpectedly my favorite superhero debut issue. Don’t get me wrong – the other stuff was good, especially Fantastic Four #52, but this broke from what I expected in a big way.
The set-up is simple. T’Challa returns to Wakanda to find that his kingdom is no longer the place that he remembers. The lands are ravaged and the Wakandan people are threatened by scavengers and a ruthless, powerful villain named Erik Killmonger. As Black Panther learns more about this foe and what he has done, the looming threat of Killmonger actually pales in comparison to the psychological change that the Wakandans have underwent. To them, T’Challa is no longer the king who has protected them… instead, he is distant, an unfamiliar monarch who has failed them by leaving them to fend for themselves in their most vulnerable hour. Black Panther is shocked that he’s getting shit from his own people, but what stings the most is that he thinks they might be right.
The issue ends with Black Panther facing Killmonger, and throwing down in an all-out scrap. Killmonger is just as powerful as the people of Wakanda warned, and Black Panther, after putting up a valiant fight, gets thrown off of a waterfall. The fight, though… damn, this thing is illustrated with vicious creativity. Artist Rich Buckler knows just the exact beats to highlight to make each crushing blow hurt, ramping up tension with a series of small, focused panels before blowing it all up with the big release of a splash page. The technique here, both in McGregor’s writing and Buckler’s art, is outstanding and cuts to the core of exactly what I love about comics. Even after decades and decades of stories, we’re still finding out what comics can do. From Eisner’s work, to Watchmen, to Sandman, to Blankets, and now to books like The Wicked + The Divine and Snotgirl, this medium has been explored consistently to see new ways that the pairing of artwork and text can tell a story. For all of those years and for all of the geniuses that have worked in the industry, comics, as a form of storytelling, still has so much untapped pontential, so much room to grow and push itself.
I feel that growth when I look back and see stories like this. I can feel these creators reaching out and feeling the walls that have been built around them as comics creators… and pushing at those walls until they crumble.
NEXT UP: Black Panther #1 (1998)