Black Panther and the Promised Land

One boy’s trip through the 1970s futurism of Marvel Comics’ fictional African country

My best friend growing up was Bart. Bart had an aunt who owned a convenience store, and at this store, among other things, you could buy comic books. The thing with comic books and magazines generally is that people thumb through them more often than they buy them; as fresh stock cycles in, the old unsold titles must relinquish their places on the spinning racks. In the world of publishing, retailers can return unsold comic books to their distributors for credit; but instead of shipping the whole comic back, which can become weighty and costly, they simply tear off the covers and send those for the distributor to tally and tick in their ledgers. The rest of the then-stripped comics are supposed to be destroyed, trashed, or incinerated in four-color flame.

Bart’s aunt didn’t destroy them. Instead she gave them to her nephew. Not in dribs and drabs, either: she threw them in a box and when she happened to visit, presented him with this box. It contained upwards of a hundred issues. I remember that first meeting with the box, descending from the South Jersey summer into the coolness of his paneled basement, finding Bart sitting like an Indian chief before a mound of pulp. It took us a good couple of days to comb through it all, and more days after that when the heat stifled and we sank with relief into the shag carpet of his cellar boy-cave.

It took us a good couple of days to comb through it all, and more days after that when the heat stifled and we sank with relief into the shag carpet of his cellar boy-cave.

The box eventually migrated under the basement stairs. Then finally when I was over — which was every day Bart wasn’t at my house — he announced his mom had had enough, that the comics would meet their inescapable fate: she was throwing them out. I was told I could take whatever I wanted. In a kind of mild panic I grabbed a bunch, an amount equal to the number I could carry one-handed while riding a BMX bike. I think I had to stop more than once to pick up issues I dropped on the asphalt.

I still have them. None are top-shelf; keep in mind they were the titles that had gone unsold at the store: there was no Batman, no Avengers. Bart’s serendipitous library consisted uniformly of B-listers. An issue where Hulk fights Groot. The origin of a genetically created satyr called Woodgod. And three issues of Jungle Action, featuring the superhero Black Panther. All of them worthless to collectors because they’re missing the top halves of their covers, dating from 1975 and ’76, a couple of years old by the time we tore through them. Bart’s aunt had been working on that box for a while.

Two of those issues — Jungle Action 15 and 16 — particularly fascinated me. They’re part of a greater story arc called “Panther’s Rage.” The writer, Don McGregor, is credited with inventing the form; prior to this, cliffhangers in comics were common but stories rarely lasted more than two or three issues. “Panther’s Rage” spanned an entire thirteen issues — but because Jungle Action was bimonthly, the storyline took two years beginning to end. I pored over those issues like a Benedictine over scripture. Black Panther is ambushed and tied to thorn bushes to die. He escapes and rides a pterodactyl to his high-tech palace. There’s a bizarre goblin creature and various deformed villains working for a master villain named Killmonger, seen only briefly. None of it made a lick of sense. I spent hours trying to unravel the story, piecing together clues from individual panels, from the characters and their dialogue, trying to reassemble an Australopithecus from a jawbone and a tooth.

I pored over those issues like a Benedictine over scripture.

I had to wait close to thirty-five years to figure out what the hell was going on when, this past October, Marvel reprinted “Panther’s Rage” in a 400-page omnibus. The book also includes McGregor’s subsequent storyline “Black Panther vs. the Klan” and the hero’s 1966 origin in Fantastic Four. Black Panther is a hero in the Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark mold, a super-wealthy bachelor who uses science and athleticism to pound on bad guys. There are no secret identities — everyone knows who BP is: he’s T’Challa, the king of the African nation Wakanda, which is a mix of grass huts, deep jungle, and 1970s futurism.

Attention to Black Panther often focuses on the black. At a fiftieth-anniversary panel featuring McGregor, current BP writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, and others at this year’s New York Comic-Con, a recurring point made by both panelists and audience members was the impression a black superhero of Panther’s caliber — a main character, not a sidekick; a king and a scientist — had on them as young black kids. “It was just fun to see someone, I know this gonna sound a little cliché, that looked like me,” said the actor James Iglehart. Strange then that a white kid from the suburbs would become so enamored by that world, and specifically the land of Wakanda where the cast of “Panther’s Rage” is, with very few exceptions, monolithically complexioned.

Stabs have been made at black utopias over the centuries; like regular old utopias, most didn’t last. In 1826 Frances Wright founded Nashoba, Tennessee as a manifestation that a peaceful transition for blacks from slavery to freedom in the south was possible; four years later she threw in the towel and transported the town’s population en masse to Haiti, where slavery was outlawed. More than one attempt was made to forge towns for freed slaves after the Civil War, including in the Pine Barrens. Soul City was contemporaneous with McGregor’s Panther run, a planned community in rural North Carolina that couldn’t escape the racism just beyond the town line. Liberia, utopian in the sense that it was a planned settlement, is not without problems.

Stabs have been made at black utopias over the centuries; like regular old utopias, most didn’t last.

Wakanda resonated with me more than the geography of most comics, set as they were in New York and Gotham and Metropolis. Black Panther leaped through trees and dove off waterfalls and wrestled megafauna. Cities were largely foreign to my experience; our town perched on the periphery between Philadelphia in one direction, orchards and blueberry fields and the Pine Barrens in the other. My mom hated Philly so we never visited, twenty minutes away. Bart once described our childhood afternoons as either climbing trees or not climbing trees. We soaked our sneakers in bogs and streams chasing turtles and frogs.

My dad is an industrial engineer, now retired, and a lifelong member of the World Future Society. They’re a group of practical science-fictionists, visionaries who extrapolate present technology into Nostradamic tomorrows. Dad would often leave copies of their magazine The Futurist laying around the house, chock full of conceptual art depicting artificial islands and elevated forests deep among the next century’s concrete and glass landscapes. The WFS conceived seasteading before a single libertarian foundered on the reefs of Minerva, they imagined the High Line while locomotives still rumbled over New Yorkers’ heads. And sod-roofed houses, half-buried under earth and grass to keep their interior temperatures stable — I distinctly remember the sod-roofed houses.

Dad would often leave copies of their magazine The Futurist laying around the house, chock full of conceptual art depicting artificial islands and elevated forests deep among the next century’s concrete and glass landscapes.

I grew up in a house with solar panels. My dad still lives there and the panels still work. During the 70s he taught a course at the community college on solar power. Sometimes my mom was working or something and he would take me to the class where I would sit in the back and read or putter at some home-made board game of mine. Years later, with fresh interest in renewables everywhere, I asked him why he stopped teaching it. He told me enrollment dropped to the point where there were barely any students. “Once the oil crisis ended, interest died away,” he said.

Among the jungle and lost valleys full of dinosaurs of Wakanda, Black Panther lived in an ultra-modern palace of sliding Star Trek portals and African folk art. Located outside the palace was the source of this technology, an enormous meteorite composed of an alien metal called vibranium, exclusive to Wakanda. By selling off small amounts of the metal, Panther funded his flying cars and laser weapons with the goal of protecting his citizenry from invaders. In Black Panther’s origin story, we learn the palace cannot be seen by the Fantastic Four from the air because it is disguised beneath the jungle canopy; when the Four land and inevitably battle Panther (only later to work together, natch) among the Jack Kirby gizmos and inexplicable tech, it’s impossible to tell if they’re inside or out. Are they under a dome? There are no smokestacks or emissions, and lights and generators hum away without explanation, making Wakanda more than a black utopia: it’s an eco-topia that just so happens to be run by black people.

This month Marvel will debut a new comic, World of Wakanda, a spin-off of Coates’s run on Black Panther. Both titles, just like McGregor’s “Panther’s Rage” forty years ago, deal with political instability and the difficulties of maintaining a monarchy, no matter how high-tech, in the modern world. Throughout “Panther’s Rage,” T’Challa endures criticism from his lieutenants bordering on the seditious while putting down a coup orchestrated by Killmonger — he can’t catch a break. Wakanda, steely and green, is no Eden. Perhaps the Blade Runner future of Lagos imagined by artist Lekan Jeyifo is a more relevant vision than 1970s Wakanda, omitting any attempt at perfection with its dapper gents among satellite dishes and traffic congested by concept cars. Enthralling, engrossing. And imperfect.

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