As of this writing, we’re not too far from the release of a little movie called Captain America: Civil War. As the marketing campaign has gone to great pains to outline, the movie is chock full of characters, and one of the prominent cast members is Black Panther as played by one Chadwick Boseman. However, one little bit of casting has given plenty of readers a certain amount of excitement: the announcement a while back of Martin Freeman playing one Everett K. Ross from Christopher Priest’s seminal run on Black Panther. While the character appears to be a tad different from his original conception as a State Department attache to T’Challa, it at least gives the perception that Marvel Studios has been mining what’s largely considered the definitive run on the Black Panther. While it seems most people aren’t really going to challenge that, by virtue of the fact the run concluded 13 years ago now, and that Priest himself had disappeared from comics till his recent return to Quantum and Woody with Mark Bright, there’s a generation that doesn’t know of this run, or it’s influence upon the character which given the current ubiquity of Wakanda seems as ripe a time as any for a discussion of the run.
To use a very rough analogy to describe this run of Black Panther would be that Christopher Priest is to King T’Challa, what Grant Morrison was to Batman during that particular run of the character. While Morrison was the one who more or less originated the hyper-prepared “Bat-God” in his JLA run, the insane preparedness of T’Challa in Christopher Priest’s run could give him a run for his money. However, what separates T’Challa from being an ersatz Batman is on full display in this run: he’s not a superhero, he’s a king. While the former sometimes intersects with the latter, while his feelings may lie towards helping people, ultimately his duty towards his country come before the desires of his heart. While that may not seem terribly groundbreaking in retrospect to people who’ve read subsequent runs on the character: most recently in New Avengers by Jonathan Hickman would know this about the character, but there’s a distinction between T’Challa prior to Priest’s run and afterward. While T’Challa was more or less the same character in theory with the advanced country, the high technology, and being a king: that distinction of being ruthless, a hyper-planner beyond his original appearances where he almost defeated the Fantastic Four wasn’t really solidified.
While in-media res being overused is a complaint often levied at Priest’s work, the structured chaos of Black Panther works in that first arc. Using a new character like Everett K. Ross to introduce T’Challa to an audience that might know him, and also functioning as the eyes and mouth of the mostly white audience Priest was writing to. Part of what still distinguishes the run even today is its willingness to pull the rug from under its readers. While Priest did pull from the near entirety of T’Challa’s publishing history up to that point, he contextualized all of those in a way people hadn’t bothered to before. The primary aspect of T’Challa’s personality is that he’s a king, his actions are all in the interest of Wakanda’s safety. One of the questions answered early on is why does a king in a cat suit join a superhero team? Because he’s analyzing their threat to his kingdom at a time where no one knew what the Avengers were, or that his presence in New York is to cultivate eyes and ears to serve him at a later date, and while he does have women he’s loved like Monica Lynne, or even one of the weirder aspects introduced with the Dora Milaje all serve a purpose in the context of his grand schemes.
While there’s plenty more to discuss regarding the Priest Black Panther run than one article can contain: the work speaks for itself. Within the first arc alone: T’Challa fights against a coup while he steps into New York to investigate corruption in his embassy, beats Mephisto to a pulp, and fights a supernatural/international conspiracy against his throne. Not many books would be bold enough to play so many genres within a book, that could’ve gotten by alone with any singular genre Black Panther alone. That sort of switch is a testament both to the versatility of the superhero genre, and of T’Challa in particular. A fused story expands the scope beyond the normal parameters of what people came to expect of the character at that point, and just how well-equipped this man can be to walk alongside mutants, gods, and men in metal suits.
For that matter, the book’s boldness in confronting the weird race politics inherent in a black super-king existing in this world beyond having T’Challa himself fight against broad aspects of racism typical to the era of his creation (i.e T’Challa’s stint as a Harlem school teacher, fighting the Ku Klux Klan, or Apartheid) with the foreign-backed coup in Wakanda, or T’Challa attempting to stop a black community rally in his honor from turning into a massacre (complete with police-trained guns on protestors) resemble things that still happen today. That also flows from a similar nuance that’s at play in the very first issue of Ta Nehisi Coates’ first issue of the Black Panther book. While that’s not to dismiss the work of previous creators who’ve gone to work on the Black Panther, modern writers undeniably owe Priest a great debt in how we perceive the King of Wakanda.
Next Week: The Black Panther and Love