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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Friday, March 2, 2018

MYTHCOMICS: "THE BLACK PANTHER" (FANTASTIC FOUR #52-53, 1966)

Perhaps predictably, given that I reviewed the MCU BLACK PANTHER this week, I decided this week's mythcomic would be the original appearance of the Marvel character.

As I recall, both Lee and Kirby claimed they formulated the Panther character in response to the American civil rights movement. Though the political troubles may have been the proximate cause for the Panther character, the two-part story has less to do with American sociological myths than with those pertaining to America's relationship with the Third World. Even in 1966, the dominant attitude of Americans toward the Third World was often-- though not always-- characterized by paternalism toward what Kipling called "our little brown brothers." In the majority of pop culture, Black African culture had not changed since the 19th century, and it consisted of nothing more than assorted backward, often superstitious tribes. The creators had already depicted other exotic civilizations within the sphere of the FANTASTIC FOUR feature, such as the Atlanteans and the Inhumans. In both of these pocket-universes, the natives commanded super-technology beyond that of regular human existence. Lee and Kirby seem to be the first to depict such a hyper-advanced civilization dominated by Black Africans, though technically the fantasy-world of Wakanda is of recent vintage.


I'll pass quickly over the events of the first half of the story. The super-quartet receives an invitation to visit the African nation Wakanda, along with the gift of a super-scientific flying ship. The heroes accept, though the Thing, always the cantankerous type, speaks for the majority of readers in associating all things African with a certain Edgar Rice Burroughs creation: "How does some refugee from a Tarzan movie lay his hands on this kinda gizmo?" The team's leader Reed Richards wonders if the mysterious Black Panther has some ulterior motive. Sure enough, the heroes-- accompanied by Johnny Storm's college-buddy Wyatt Wingfoot-- reach Wakanda, and are immediately trapped in a "techno-jungle," a complex of machines concealed beneath the African vegetation. The Panther himself introduces himself by attacking them, even though he appears to be no more than a super-athlete armed with a handful of weapons. He calls it a "hunt," suggesting a "most dangerous game" motive, but in the ensuing issue, the Panther-- not yet given the proper name "T'Challa"-- reveals that his attack was a means of testing himself against an encroaching enemy. The African chieftain skillfully outmaneuvers the superior fire-power of the four Americans, often forcing them to encounter technological traps. Ironically, another POC hero, Wyatt Wingfoot saves the day, for while the Panther is busy with the foursome, Wyatt sneaks away, knocks out the Panther's henchmen, and frees the Human Torch from captivity, so that the featured heroes recover and force their host to surrender.


Issue #53 is the richer half of the narrative. According to the backstory, Wakanda was still a basically primitive land in the Panther's own childhood, and it's been largely through the chief's efforts that it's been brought into the 20th century, and a little beyond. And ironically, this advancement came about in response to an invasion from the West.



As the Panther narrates, when he was a child his father T'Chaka ruled the tribe, and the tribe venerated a "sacred mound" composed of the unique vibration-absorbing metal, vibranium. (As a side-note, though it's likely that neither Lee nor Kirby knew anything about bonafide African mythology, it's quite possible that one of them was drawing upon the Egyptian story of the primeval mound from which life sprung.)

In contrast to the current film, there's no indication that the tribesmen had any interest in developing the metal for technological use. The impertinent Thing interrupts the story to complain that he knows just where this story is going: that "everything wuz hunky-dory until the greedy ivory hunters made the scene." Though this line would be judged politically incorrect today, in truth it represents little more than a common strategy found in Lee's writing. Often Lee would reuse commonplace pop-culture tropes and make them seem fresh by having the characters remark on how cliche they were.

In place of greedy ivory hunters, the story posits greedy vibranium hunters, led by the European-looking Klaw. He's one of the more one-dimensional Marvel villains of the Silver Age, consumed by the monomaniacal ambition to use vibranium to master sound as a weapon, and with that weapon, to master the world itself. Klaw-- Lee calls him "the unsmiling," as if to indicate his lack of affect-- personally shoots the Panther's father, ending the young boy's "hunky-dory" womb-state.





The crude weapons of the tribesmen are no match for the weapons of Klaw and his men, but Kid Panther repels their assault by turning one of their own super-weapons against them, shattering one of Klaw's hands in the process.


The story returns to the present, with the Panther telling his somewhat abused guests that within the space of his twenty-something years, he managed to build Wakanda into a techno-paradise, as well as becoming "one of the richest men in the world." It's a point of minor irony that he did so by doing something akin to what Klaw wanted to do: the Panther derived small quantities of vibranium from the mound and sold them to other nations, thus amassing his uncharacteristic wealth and power. Yet he's always known that his nemesis would return someday. Not surprisingly, Klaw chooses to return just when the Fantastic Four are still around.



The main heroes are tasked with holding off Klaw's sonic creations: two crimson-colored colossi, respectively resembling an ape and an elephant. Both Lee and Kirby gave this section of the story short shrift, for neither Kirby's visuals nor Lee's captions explain why the apparently invulnerable sound-elephant fades into nothingness just when it seems ready to stomp the Thing into orange-aid.
Their focus was on giving the readers the satisfaction of vengeance, as the Panther corners Klaw in the evil scientist's lair, and causes the lair to blow up. (Naturally, Klaw comes back again and again, often crossing swords-- or rather, his sonic arm-- against the Panther's claws.)



Lee and Kirby clearly conceived of spinning off the Panther in some fashion, since at the closing he strongly implies his plans to pursue a superheroic calling. He didn't get the chance to do so until he joined the Avengers two years later. The team-berth didn't lead to much development of the character, though by coincidence it led to a major reassessment of his mythos when the Black Panther received his own series in 1973. But that's another story.




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