Saturday, July 10, 2021

Trade Weight: Black Panther by Christopher Priest: The Complete Collection vol 1 & 2

5-ish years later...
Why now?
Why is Graig returning Second Printing soooo long after running it into the ground with his prattling on?
Because he has no mouth and he must scream.
About comics.]

 2015, Marvel

I was already late to the party.


I started reading Priest's run of Black Panther as collected in the initial Marvel Knights trade paperbacks released in 2001.  (oddly, while fact checking this blog post, I discovered my copy of volume 2, "Enemy of the State" was published in February 2001, and my copy of volume 1, "The Client" was published in June 2001)

The series had started in '98.  

I was late to the party.

I loved it but I only got two trades (12 issues) deep into the series, mainly because they didn't keep compiling the run in trade.  It made no sense why they didn't keep collecting the series.  For a long, long time it just felt like a huge gap in my comics collection.  It was a gap I had always intended on filling but never quite did.


A couple years back, around 2015, I found a bunch of Priest's run in the dollar bin at a local comic shoppe, so I snapped those up, but they were very random, scattershot issues.  A couple of teens, a few in the 20's, a handful of 30s, 40 and 49, most of the 50s.  It was a start.  But it wasn't something I was dedicated to.

My "to read" comics pile of trades and floppies had grown huge. With kids and pets and work and board games and tv and movies and all the other things, comics had slid down my list of priorities, nevermind filling in back-issues for a 15-year-old series.  

And now that I had started filling in the collection with dollar bin floppies, I'd be damned if I was paying $40 for the new Black Panther by Christopher Priest: The Complete Collection trades Marvel finally started publishing in 2015.  Especially since the first volume collected issues 1-17, and I already had trades with issues 1-12.  What kind of scam were they perpetrating here, anyway?  At the very least I needed to get issues 13-17 before picking up the Complete Collection volume 2, but then I would have two trades, 5 floppies and more trades.  That's just annoying to put on a bookshelf.


2018...well, we all know what happened in 2018.  Black Panther happened in 2018.

Wakanda, and the glorious afrofuturist fantasy it presented, the dreams and fandom it sparked, became the best thing of 2018.

What I had forgotten, in watching the movie, was where it came from (but really, it didn't matter where it came from, only that it exists, and it's something that was embraced like very few films before or since).

I loved the introduction of T'Challa in Civil War but I was like a child, in complete awe of the world of Wakanda in multiple theatrical viewings of Black Panther.  The reality was my knowledge of Black Panther was pretty weak.  I wasn't a Marvel kid, and my reading of Marvel books as a teen through twenties was sporadic. The fact that I had read any Black Panther didn't matter because the entire reality created by Ryan Coogler and his fantastic team of designers and stylists and performers and.and.and just everyone was now the definitive take on it all to me.

I mean, who cared if it was or wasn't authentic.  The majority of Black Panther stories were crafted by (hopefully well-intentioned, but probably misguided) white men.  Who needs to hold to that as "authentic"?  I knew that Priest came along after 30 years and he built a whole new reality (if not entirely new, certainly revised and revamped), but all I really retained of my limited Panther-by-Priest exposure was the goofy antics of in-over-his-head Agent Ross acting as King T'Challa's American liaison.  I recalled the concept of the Dora Milaje, T'Challa's elite, exclusively female security force, but the specifics were completely overwritten by their presentation in the film.  And while watching the movie, it felt like I had no frame of reference for Wakanda.  Priest's Wakanda never stuck out to me because, as noted, I hadn't gotten very deep into his run, and the first two arcs largely take place in America. 

After Feburary 16, 2018, to me, and to most people, Chadwick Boseman was king. I mean, Reginald Hudlin, Dwayne McDuffie in the pages of Fantastic Four), Jonathan Hickman (in New Avengers) and Ta Nehisi Coates had all put a stamp on him, but Boseman literally brought the character to life, and in a meaningful, impactful, inspirational way.


COVID-19 took its pounds of flesh, crippled economies, toppled governments, and sent people down some pretty fucked up paths.  It shattered psyches and wore down stomach linings.  It forced people apart - physically, ideologically.  

The news wasn't great, for so long, so we all had but one objective...escape into media, into content.  But for a time new content had slowed to a trickle, so older content was being explored...and it was time for me to FINALLY get back to Priest's Black Panther.

Except, because of the 2018 cultural phenomenon that was Coogler's Best Picture Oscar nominated (and award-winning) blockbuster, the price of individual issues of Priest's Black Panther had shot up in value.  They were no longer dollar bin fodder but, in some cases, upwards of twenty dollars per issue.  I mean, if I'm being completely honest, that Priest's Black Panther run was ever dollar bin fodder is absurd.


I've reached a point in my life where I'm making decent money, the bills are paid and, especially since COVID limits what we can actually spend money on, I have some excess disposable income.  Some goes to charity, some goes into retirement savings, and some goes into my hobbies, allowing myself a few luxuries, like buying the first volume of The Complete Collection, even though I already have trades that cover 2/3 of that volume.

I also bought volume 2, even though I had half of that volume from the scattershot dollar bin issues I had found.  I tried to find Volumes 3 and 4 but they just seem gone, at least in Canada, and people have started hiking up the price on the secondary market.  The last printings of these Complete Collection volumes seemed to be in conjunction with the release of the film in 2018.

And after all this history, I finally sit down and read.

[I need a young priest and an old priest]

I wish I was a better fan back in the 1990s and early 2000s.  Priest was always a writer I connected with.  His storytelling sensibilities were (and still are) so uniquely his own, his sense of humour is right in my wheelhouse, and his thirst for knowledge is evident in his stories.  He's easily one of the most intelligent and intellectual writers to ever work in superhero comics.  I read all of his DC books in the 1990's but because I wasn't a Marvel kid I didn't really follow his late 90's/early 2000's work over there.  It sucks that the industry never really saw fit to put him on the books he wanted to work on the most... a frustration that saw him quit comics for too long a period (2005-2014).

Priest had said many times he never wanted to be known as the Black writer of Black superheroes.  He was an editor at Marvel for a long time, his business savvy was about selling comics.  Back in the 70's and 80's when Priest was coming up, you became a name as a writer not by quality alone, but by exposure, by the characters you write.  You write Superman or Spider-Man, you maybe take some of that large audience with you to your next gig.  I've likewise seen female writers in the industry before the turn of the millennium say much the same thing, that they didn't want to write female superheroes because that would paint them in a corner they would never get out of.   As a writer, Priest wanted to write books and characters that sold, and, as he states in "The Story Thus Far...", his 2001 intro to "The Client" trade paperback:
"Panther was a black super hero, and the most basic economic lesson this business can teach you is minorities and female super heroes do not sell".

Now, that statement has been proven false over, and over again since, but his run on Black Panther was absolutely necessary in proving that false.  A large part of the problem was largely that BIPOC and female characters were written from an inauthentic point of view, as comic books (and TV and Film and pretty every entertainment industry in America) was dominated by white men.  "Minorities and female super heroes do not sell" because comics, and comic shops were not always the most inviting place for them.  And the industry didn't value them as an audience in any way for a very, very, very long time.  

Priest's approach to Black Panther, as he explains in "The Story Thus Far...":
"we withdrew [T'Challa] altogether, pushing him to the shadows and, to some complaint, making him almost a guest star in his own book.  Only, in any reasonable analysis of the series, Panther clearly drives the book.  Even if he has only a handful of lines per issue, he is the dominating force."

When you watch Coogler's Black Panther that's clearly a lesson he learned from Priest.  T'Challa is the dominating force of that film, even if, like in the movie, Killmonger's presence threatens that dominance.

Priest continues in "The Story Thus Far..." to discuss his approach, to make it accessible to the hetero white male audience that was the target demographic of mainstream comics at the time.  20 years later it's more than a little infuriating that he had to put that amount of thought into it, that he needed to think so explicitly about a white audience and be sensitive to them.  But for trailblazers like Priest, that's what you needed to do to work, to survive.

But what makes his Black Panther run so great is that he made T'Challa and Wakanda accessible not just to white male comic book readers, but to everyone.  He built up the character's mystique, his intelligence, his calm, cool, calculating nature, his leadership savvy, and eventually he reveals his heart.  T'Challa and Wakanda are treated as sort of unknowns to start, then are slowly revealed over the first few arcs.  With Wakanda Priest builds a culture, a prosperous, technologically advanced African nation, but one still beholden to tribal structures and customs requiring an entirely unique sense of diplomacy and leadership.  If you've seen the movie, a lot of the foundation of Wakanda comes from the groundwork Priest laid for it.

As a result of T'Challa and Wakanda being African, and yet fictional and unique, Priest is able to approach American politics, sociology and race from an outside perspective.  Using the Matthew Perry-inspired Agent Ross - a wisecracking dope who means well but has a hard time seeing past his own frame of reference (that's called "privilege") - as the tour guide to T'Challa's reality Priest has his cake and eats it too.  Via Ross, Priest was also able to make the pop culture jokes and make the book very American.  Ross is kind of an inept fool, yet T'Challa still sees value in him as a person and calls him a friend.  It's also kind of clear that Priest loves writing Ross, because he's the clown, the book's comic relief, and Priest loves writing comedy.  

In a modern sense, Ross seems like an unnecessary gateway, an appeasement to de-Black-ify Black Panther and make him more palatable.  Priest basically says as much ("How do we do a book about a black king of a black nation who comes to a black neighborhood and not have it be a 'black' book").  In the interviews and editorials published in the back of Black Panther by Christopher Priest: The Complete Collection volume 1 Priest downplays the book's Blackness. "Panther's ethnicity is certainly a component of the series, but it's not the central theme.  We neither ignore it, nor build our stories around it."  But that's all just the sell, the pitch to the white fanboys who are maybe thinking "this can't be for me, I can't identify with this".  

I have to think that Priest was thinking about Milestone Comics, the Black-owned imprint over at DC comics which was shut down during the comics downturn the late 90's.  Milestone's focus was a FUBU-like mentality to start and quickly expanded into even more diverse voices and characters.  It wasn't catering at all to that white fanboy market.  I should also note that it was also not excluding it.  That it shut down publishing I think was maybe seen as a failure, but it was just the comics economy at the time.  Priest's awareness of Milestone's perceived failure meant that Black Panther needed the most eyes on it.  If that meant downplaying race or creating a gateway character, so be it.

But Priest's words aren't the complete reality.  Where a white writer would probably write a bog-standard comic with the occasional treacly "a very special issue", Priest's Black Panther understands the world a Black man lives in, and in this case he gets to envision the viewpoint of a Black man raised to be a king and has powers and technology and intellect and training most people could only dream about.  Ethnicity, race, culture, they are all elements of the stories Priest tells throughout the series.  Not the driving element, as he said, but they pour out of Priest onto the page in the 35 issues I read, whether he wanted them to or not (and I think he did).  They exist in this reality, they exist in any reality, it's just a matter of whether you acknowledge their existence.  But Priest never makes "a very special issue" out of them, he treats them as they need to be treated, sometimes as a matter of fact, sometimes as something more.

As Priest notes in one column "Now every time I mention I'm black, everyone at the office starts having meetings." It's again endemic of who's running the show.  I'm reminded of stories about Black sitcom writers being getting jokes cut, being told their jokes aren't funny because the white showrunners didn't understand them.  With Black Panther, Priest and his editors fought to let his voice come through undisturbed, that impeding his voice lessens the material. 

I've read pretty much all of Priest's work since his return in 2014.  I thought his Deathstroke run was often brilliant, U.S. Agent was tremendous fun, and Vampirella frequent surprising (although buying Vampirella comics is like buying condoms as a teenager...there's nothing actually wrong with it, but it feels wrong somehow, or embarassing at least).  I've also spent time over the years catching up on and collecting earlier work, all of it, even his lesser work (like, say, DC's Triumph mini-series) is still a fairly good read.  He's incapable of bad work.  But I think his Black Panther run is going to be his greatest accomplishment.

[35 issues plus a Deadpool]

Coming back to Priest's Black Panther so long after its original run, and following the film, I found some surprises, good and bad.

The first thing that got me was the Dora Milaje.  Here Nakia and Okoye are beautiful, statuesque teenagers who are betrothed to the King. 


Ross drools in their presence on the reg.

Double Ew.

This whole betrothed-teen thing is exceptionally gross, and Ross' objectification of them doubles down on the grossness.  I really hate this element of Priest's run.

To his credit, T'Challa in Priest's hands things of these young women as daughters, not future wives or any kind of lover.  He has no interest in them beyond his usual compassion for their well being.  Their place in his life is more duty and tradition than anything of his own design.

Things get complicated when a possessed T'Challa kisses Nakia and the young girl goes crush-mad and becomes the vengeful Malice.  If she weren't so over-sexualized (and by 90's standards she's quite tame) nor 16-years-old, the Nakia/Malice arc would still be guilty of being a bit of an overplayed stereotype, and yet Priest still manages to subvert cliches and find a character in there as well as a bigger impact on both T'Challa and Wakanda.

The Dora Milaje in the MCU are incredible, and I like that they've been adapted into something a little different, and much more powerful (I've not finished Priest's run, and I've only read a little bit of Hudlin's run so I'm not sure if they were modified before hitting the screen).

Another thing that stood out was Priest's adeptness at political intrigue. The series in its second arc starts running with the politics of Wakanda, both within and without, and it continues to build, and build and build throughout the run (at least through to issue 35 at the end of The Complete Collection volume 2).  It's this intrigue that creates a bingeable comic book, something that you want to just keep devouring because it keeps finding new levels to delve into.  Comics have long had a serialized nature but Priest was looking more towards television rather than other comics as a guidepost for serialized storytelling.

Going back to Priest's Panther now though, is a little difficult because the film's Wakanda is so strikingly realized.  The costuming, building and vehicle designs are so outstanding that the Wakanda in Priest's book are underwhelming in comparison.  Sal Velluto and Bob Almond, who handled art chores the longest on the series, are a wonderful team, but their design sense can't compare to the dedicated team of designers and artists who worked on the film (and won Awards for it).  As much as Priest's run redefined Wakanda, the film has supplanted that presentation.  Coates took Wakanda on a different journey in the comics and I'm eagerly awaiting the omnibus for that (I did read the first year and a half of stories though).

Priest never forgot he was writing in the greater Marvel Universe.  He integrates Black Panther into the Universe so well, mainly as a means of showing how much T'Challa stands out, what makes him different from other heroes (mainly his responsibility as a leader of a nation, but comparing that to, say, Namor or Doctor Doom really puts a finer point on it).  Captain America pokes his head in here and there, sometimes with the Avengers, sometimes without, and there's a big international war that T'Challa nearly started which gathered a lot of attention.  And there's the time Mephisto gave Ross unlimited pants (twice), as well as the time Queen (an American-born Dora Milaje) took the Hulk dancing.

But more to Priest's ability to weave through the Marvel Universe is his depth of historical knowledge, of both the Universe and specifically Panther's history.  He draws upon it a lot, but reshapes and recontextualizes it.  He makes Killmonger a frighteningly sensible foe (there's a framework for what we see from Michael B. Jordan here), while M'Baku, the Man-Ape is given some relevance (though his realization in the 2018 movie is far and away the best interpretation).  Klaw has long been worked as T'Challa's nemesis, but Priest shies away from his importance in T'Challa's life (which resembles how downgraded he seemed in the film).  

As a former editor and continuity cop, Priest took what came before and rebirthed it into something new, better, and less problematic, and in the process solidified Black Panther's place as an A-lister in Marvel's pantheon.   Without Priest, we don't get the 2018 film (look up what John Singleton wanted to do with Black Panther sometime, and shiver at what could have been instead).

I'm so excited by diving into Priest's run that I desperately want to finish it.  I'll be hunting trades or floppies to complete it, and then seeking out Hudlin's collection hopefully finishing it all in time for that inevitable Coates omnibus.


1 comment:

Jason Langlois said...

I have always enjoyed Priest's writing, whatever name it was under. Glad you're discovering his BP run - one of my favorites and made Black Panther one of my favorites.