In the late 1980s, Marvel began releasing an anthology series named Marvel Comics Presents. Each issue featured installments of three or four ongoing stories, some lasting only a few issues. “Panther’s Quest”, reprinted here in Black Panther Epic Collection: Panther’s Prey, was one of the longest, running 24 issues over the course of 1989.
Several of the early Marvel Comics Presents stories have cropped up in my personal reading of late — stories that feature a handful of X-Men having some solo adventures — and while none of the stories are exactly bad, none of them are particularly vital. “Panther’s Prey” is vital.
Set in South Africa during the height of Apartheid, each eight-or-so page installment of the story functions as a vignette centered around one of many characters caught up in the action, providing insight into said character’s life experience and frame of mind (wrongheaded or not). While this narrative structure pulls us away from T’Challa’s quest to find his long-missing mother, it manages to deepen that quest’s importance by providing the bleak and horrifying context of institutionalized racism and violence — when we experience the Panther’s vigilante justice against local militia from the perspective of a tear-gassed child, T’Challa’s concerns for his mother becomes universal. It becomes a plea, to the reader and the world at large, to turn their attention to injustice.
That the story was effectively buried in the pages of Marvel Comics Presents among stories of widely varying degrees of quality instead of an ongoing Black Panther series—something the character wouldn’t have again until 1998, nearly twenty years since the end of his previous ongoing — might speak volumes about comic books and their racial politics in that era. That the two creators most linked to the character at that point (co-creator Jack Kirby and writer Don McGregor) were both white men speaks volumes more. These details, however, shouldn’t be allowed to undermine the integrity and quality of this work.
There are, however, several issues with Panther’s Quest, primary among them the density of the prose — McGregor heaps it on, overcomplicating the narrative with overwrought faux-poetics that end up reading as stiff and heavy-handed melodrama. These uneven caption boxes pile up with all that rigid writing, providing no small barricade to the accessibility of vital, real-world importance.
Another barrier is the frankly awful artwork by the incredible Gene Colan, here presenting his worst and most frantic, imprecise work, presumably working pell-mell to turn out two-hundred odd pages of comics over the incredibly short time provided. Remember, the entirety of the story ran weekly over the course of about six months. The result is barely recognizable as Colan, with some panels so muddied and over-worked that the precious details are reduced to meaningless blobs and misshapen blocks of blacks. It’s a huge disservice not only to the story but to such a prolific artist, whose genius shines out only occasionally, making the reader wish, again, that this story was told with the care and pacing of an ongoing.
As if to make up for this disappointment, the volume ends with 1991’s Panther’s Prey, memorably one of the most distinct-looking books of its time. Artist Dwayne Turner presents a version of Wakanda that is dense with color and packed with detail, and while McGregor’s prose remains just as dense and florid as in Panther’s Quest, the near-tactile nature of the visuals sink the reader into an experience almost independent of the cluttered, many-threaded narrative. A true sense of physicality is apparent on each page, whether Turner intimates a half-imagined scene of sensuality or a gruesome and bloody transformation, and while the colors range from subtle to overbearing, an earnest emotional space is hewn out from them, allowing T’Challa and series villain Solomon Prey odd moments of reflection and intimacy. That these moments of genuine emotion are crowded by dinosaurs, drug rings, and cyborgs with guns for arms only makes them all the more special, oddities before the coming onslaught of Marvel in the 1990s.
Sprinkled in between and after the major two stories are a handful of other one-off tales, further brief flirtations with the character during a period in which he was mostly forgotten, utilized sparingly and in passing. Still, Panther’s Prey is an Epic Collection volume that cements the Black Panther as a political character in a period when comics often forgot their political roots, and while those politics might be clunky and generalized they are no less a piece of the character’s rich history.
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