Thursday, February 15, 2018

Fantastic Four #52

Black Panther
Fantastic Four #52

The SENSATIONAL Black Panther!

"The Black Panther!”
Writer – Stan Lee
Penciller – Jack Kirby
Inker – Joe Sinnott
Letterer – Sammy Rosen
Editor – Stan Lee
July 1966

Opening today nationwide is the Marvel movie The Black Panther, and I’m pretty hyped for it. The Black Panther was the first superhero in mainstream American comics of African descent, having debuted years before African-American heroes the Falcon (1969), Luke Cage (1972) and John Stewart’s Green Lantern (1971).

What we are saying in very precisely worded terms is The Black Panther was the first black-skinned superhero in mainstream comics.

There were other black heroes before him in comics, but none with actual superpowers. As well, there were various supporting characters who were black, but many of them were portrayed as caricatures. Which is a nice way of saying they were drawn in an almost disparaging way, with oversized lips and eyes.

Damn it, Will Eisner! Not you TOO!

It is important to bring up how different the Panther was from what had come before. To NOT whitewash history or apologize for mistakes made by our predecessors when it came to giving equal treatment to people of all colors and nationalities, but to recognize how differently black characters were treated until around the time that Panther came along.

I first encountered the Panther in Steve Englehart’s Avengers, working alongside the Beast as they attempted to use the Zodiac’s Star Blaster thing to kill off the beast known as the Stalker from the Stars in Avengers # 124. Not a stellar issue, to be certain and Panther’s part in it was on par with what you expect from an ensemble piece like Avengers. He did come off as a tech genius and a powerful physical fighter. And a fully accepted member of the team. THAT made an impact for me.

If T’Challa was good enough for those guys, he was certainly a superhero in my eyes.

I didn’t know where he came from or his origin, but I liked that the Avengers had another powerful and smart member in the fight against evil.

And since many of you may not know either, I thought we should explore that. Starting with his first appearance way back in Fantastic Four number 52, which takes us back to the magic days of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Of course, I don’t have issue number 52, which is sure to become a “mortgage your house if you want to buy a copy graded at a 1.0” comic, if it isn’t already. It’s an important issue for lots of reasons.

After our opening Splash, we jump right into Reed, Sue, and Ben zooming around in a spiffy little Kirby-tech vehicle. Ben asks Reed when he had time to build it and we learn from the exposition that this high-tech magnetic flyer came as a gift from the mysterious African Chieftain called Black Panther.

Reed puts the craft through its paces, making Ben airsick in the process before landing back at the Baxter Building in front of the Black Panther’s Emissary.

While Sue sees to Ben’s malady, Reed accepts the craft (note it’s such a cool toy that he’s delighted to get accept it) and the Emissary pulls out a tiny headset to communicate with Wakanda. Reed looks on incredulous to all this undiscovered technology, chomping at the bit to have a look at it.

This is the first time we hear of Wakanda and note the dichotomy Kirby and Lee set up with the more traditional African dress, which looks primitive with its off the shoulder draping of the robe and sash exposing one side of the person’s chest, to the clearly higher tech tools the Emissary is using. This is a cool story element, to take a culture we generally view as less advanced then our own and turn our perceptions of it on their ear. Making Wakanda so much more advanced than modern America was a stroke of genius. As an audience member, I want to know all about this place now.

So the story does just that, we see this odd juxtaposition continue as we meet T’Challa for the first time. He is surrounded by a rowdy crowd carrying both primitive spears and advanced machine guns. There are hints of ceremonial drums and shade bearers, yet the largest structure shown in the panels is the Panther totem, which rises up to expose the technological trappings of something beyond modern. 

Again, all this does is whet our appetite for more. There are story hints of a “great hunt” and we get right away that this will set T’Challa’s Black Panther against the FF in some way, what is unknown is if it will be a friendly competition or if he is a deadly foe. LOTS of things to draw us into the book at this point, right?

We see the Panther in his outfit for the first time and note the lack of ears in that panel. Kirby was still fleshing out the look, which had changed in coloration greatly. Originally mock-ups of the Black Panther looked much more like the villain Madcap from Daredevil/Power pack with lots of yellow and purple. This more subdued all blue-black is SO much better.

Then we head to Metro College, where we find Johnny’s studies interrupted by Ben’s tom-foolery. I like that Lee and Kirby took Johnny seriously and gave him arcs that showed he worked to advance himself. Too often Johnny is left as the colorful mischief maker who is an emotional hot-head just out to skirt chase and have fun. Lee and Kirby showed he had more than one side. 

We also get a view of Wyatt Wingfoot, the FF’s constant companion for several adventures and one of the first major Native American characters in comics. I have a fondness for Wyatt, too. He’s the non-powered sidekick that perseveres under pressure and, as we will see today, is instrumental in the FF’s fight against injustice.

And here they invite Johnny, and by extension Wyatt, along with them for the trip to Wakanda. The page ends with a peek into the Great Refuge of the Inhumans.

Here we have an ongoing subplot of the Inhumans who are trapped within their own city by the machinations of the insane Maximus and the struggles of Karnak, who can find the weakness in any structure, attempting to break though the barrier holding them in.

He fails and we leave this plot thread to travel back to the FF, a still sleeping Wyatt and the Emissary approaching Wakanda in what looks to be a very cramped flying car. Note that Wyatt looks like they just scooped him up without waking him and deposited him in the boot of this vehicle. I find that funny for some reason. Like the FF stole the college student right out of his bed.

We move out of the African jungle on the very next page and abruptly into a full-on Kirby cosmic science lab, which is supposed to be under the foliage of the above jungle. The FF are astonished, the Emissary disappears, and Wyatt wakes up.

The Thing catches sight of the Emissary descending into the ground on some kind of platform deal, so he bum rushes it…only to run into a trap that shocks him silly. The blast leaves Ben weakened, exactly as the Black Panther planned. And speaking of the Panther, he chooses this moment to make himself known to the quintet by leaping down from a perch and Jean Claude Van Damming Johnny and the helpless Ben.

Which means it’s Rumble in the Jungle time as the rest of the FF rush to the rescue. Before Wyatt can get his head handed to him by the Panther (and remember I LIKE Wyatt, but seriously T’Challa would clean his clockworks in less time than it takes to read this parenthetical), Johnny flames on and attempts to flash fry the African superhero. Which is also exactly what Panther had anticipated, leading Johnny into a flame proof cage, which drops into the floor. 

We turn back to our foursome planning how to react to this unexpected combat greeting while T’Challa looks on. Ben wants to go all “tear the joint up” but surprisingly Wyatt talks him down. I like that he gets to be a man of action from the get go. While the FF act as decoys, Wyatt slips away to track the Panther.

Now some might say the Native American scout thing is a trope and a stereotype, which I’ll grant is a valid complaint. However, Wyatt becomes a pretty deep character over the course of his time with the FF, and Kirby-Lee don’t overuse those clich├ęs about his heritage to exclusively define who Wyatt is. I always viewed him as a bit of Doc Savage mixed with the common man. A little stronger, wiser, and better than us, but still human.

While Wyatt disappears, Reed confides in the others that he doesn’t think the Panther is trying to kill them and feels this is more of a test than anything. He’s curious as to his motives, but doesn’t use the word “deadly” or “dangerous”. Reed’s superior intellect doesn’t save the trio from being tagged with repulsive magnetic anti-polarity beams though. The beams send the three of them hurtling away from each other negating the advantage of teamwork.

T’Challa goes after Sue first and manages to not only discern her location with his heightened senses. He springs on her before she can put up a force field…

…and knocks her out with fingertip gas jets which I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen him use since. Then he goes after Ben, who has predictably drunk from a water pool (like a horse. Who slides up to an ornamental pool and starts gulping down handfuls? I mean, seriously Ben!) which was laced with a drug to keep him weak. The Panther brawls with him a bit…

And even takes a few punches, but a final feint gets Ben entangled in a cable carrying a charge powerful enough to knock him out. Three down and one to go.

Wyatt has meanwhile snuck around and taken out one of the monitoring posts before coming across a portion of the floor that feels hot. Putting two and two together, Wyatt knows this has to be where Johnny is trapped and he sets about trying to free him.

But time has run out for Reed. He faces the intellect and cunning of the Panther, who turns out the lights on him. Thus hobbled, Reed has a hard time fighting off an enemy with the Black Panther’s exceptional senses. Not only that…

…but he is leading Reed into a trap. With his arms pinned, that makes the Panther four for four and would have been the end of this, except that Wyatt has freed the Torch and between them they have gathered the others. They free Reed and are able to turn the tables on the Panther.

While Reed boasts that without the element of surprise, the Panther wouldn’t have caught them, I’m not quite sure. Not to mention it does take all four of them to corner this cat. T’Challa’s subjects rush to his aid, but Johnny holds them back. At this, the Panther yields and the FF listen as he starts an explanation…That’s continued next issue….

So, there is the Panther’s first adventure where he takes out the Fantastic Four but is foiled by the courage of Wyatt Wingfoot. It’s great that we have two such characters in this book. It shows that as early as five years after its inception that Marvel started adding diversity initiatives to the stories it produced. This story is respectful to both Wyatt and T’Challa’s characters, showing each as honorable, brave and smart, all the while pitting them against each other in a contest of strategy and skill.

To finish off I think it is important to see what impact the Black Panther had on the readers back in 1966. To that we turn to the letters pages in the issues that followed…

First off, a generally positive review of both new characters and a call out to their ethnic backgrounds being a boon.

And then one with thinly veiled racism. Wyatt is good but the Panther is “ridiculous” and the writer represents “a group in his neighborhood” that feels the same. I assume they get their Klan robes all done at the same dry cleaners.

Whatever the gripes, they had no weight on Marvel. Lee and Kirby continued to push the social envelope in their stories, in as much a way as Roddenberry did with Star Trek. And because of them we have a movie opening tonight that should be stellar, ground-breaking, family entertainment. My ticket is for Saturday morning, so until then I’ll just have to keep reading Black Panther comics out of the Crapbox, which isn’t a bad substitute at all.

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