In the long history of Marvel Comics, most characters have come into contact with at least dozens, if not hundreds, of writers and artists. They are a collection of vast influences ranging from a singular issue to titanic multi-year runs. When considering the essence of a single hero (or villain) it becomes clear that some creators had a larger impact than others. In celebration of the Black Panther movie, we are looking at the essential Black Panther creators. These are the comics artisans who have left an indelible mark on T’Challa, Wakanda, and his immense supporting cast. You can see their influence both on the movie and across Marvel Comics today. Black Panther would not be the character we love without their contributions and their comics provide the best path to understanding this incredible hero.
Here we take a look at the creator who created the very first Marvel Comics graphic novel and expanded the Black Panther mythos: Don McGregor.
Donald McGregor (commonly credited and referred to as Don McGregor) was a member of Marvel Comics’ second wave of notable writers in the early 1970s alongside Steve Gerber, Doug Moench, and others. He established himself writing Black Panther and Killraven, pushing industry boundaries and standards on both. McGregor’s career is defined by firsts. In the pages of Killraven he wrote the first interracial kiss at Marvel, and his initial work with Black Panther on Jungle Action is considered by some historians to be the first superhero graphic novel. He continued to pioneer the graphic novel form elsewhere in the '70s with comics like Sabre and Detective Inc. McGregor would later work at both DC Comics and return to Marvel where he revisited Black Panther during the late '80s in the pages of Marvel Comics Presents. He is semi-retired today, but has recently worked on properties like Zorro.
McGregor’s contributions to Black Panther can be divided into two eras: Jungle Action between 1973 and 1976, and Marvel Comics Presents in 1989. His Jungle Action comics can be further divided into two key stories: “Panther’s Rage” and “The Panther Vs The Klan.” “Panther’s Rage” is a highlight of Marvel Comics in the 1970s and exemplifies what McGregor brought to the Black Panther. The story is driven by Erik Killmonger as he attempts to overthrow Black Panther to seize Wakanda for himself. Sprawled across 14 issues, the story traversed all of Wakanda and introduced a wide range of other new villains, including Venomm and King Cadaver. It’s longest lasting additions though were Killmonger, a Black Panther nemesis second only to Klaw, and Ramonda, Black Panther’s adoptive mother. In addition to remaining key parts of the mythos after 40 years, both characters will play a key role in the upcoming film.
“The Panther Vs The Klan” returned Black Panther to the United States when he travels to Georgia to investigate a supposed suicide. It’s there he discovers a modern incarnation of the KKK engaged in terrorism and violence with an updated language from the 1970s. The story only ran for three issues and a one-shot in which the Panther is imagined fighting the Klan during Reconstruction. The cancellation of Jungle Action did not provide McGregor a chance to resolve the story though, and McGregor would not revisit Black Panther for another 13 years.
In 1989, McGregor was given one more opportunity to write Black Panther in the pages of Marvel Comics Presents. “Panther’s Quest” is an indirect sequel to “Panther’s Rage” and returns T’Challa to Africa where he follows rumors that his birth mother might still be alive in South Africa. McGregor again tackled real issues, confronting apartheid in 25 mini-chapters.
McGregor’s work with Black Panther is most notable for shifting how comics’ readers and creators saw the character. Outside of the initial Fantastic Four story, Black Panther had been removed from his home nation and continent of Wakanda and Africa, respectively. Subsequent appearances of the character had taken place in the pages of Avengers where he was treated with a sense of tokenism. Everything about the Panther was viewed through the lens of American heroes interacting with a foreign ally until McGregor shifted the setting of the stories. In “Panther’s Rage”, McGregor both returned the Panther to Africa, but also explored the diversity of life within Wakanda. While individual settings might have been stereotyped, the inclusion of jungles, mountains, grasslands, swamps, and cities revealed a vibrant and complex ecosystem.
“Panther’s Rage” provided a couple of key firsts, as well. It was the first significant Black Panther solo story, positioning the character as a leading man capable of having a title to himself rather than sharing space in The Avengers or Fantastic Four. It was also the first superhero story to take the form of a graphic novel. McGregor’s longform, chapter-based story preceded Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns, the most famous early examples, by more than a decade, while instituting a very similar format.
The emphasis on racial themes in McGregor’s later stories had an important influence on both Black Panther comics and superhero comics for years to come. He addressed issues of racism in America and abroad, confronting obvious examples like the KKK and apartheid along with less obvious, but equally repugnant examples. Tackling these issues might seem uncontroversial to modern readers, but shining a light on systemic racism in the South in the 1970s was unheard of in comics. McGregor’s first run was years ahead of the Green Lantern / Green Arrow stories that still receive so much attention for addressing similar issues, but addressed them in a more nuanced fashion.
McGregor’s greatest legacy with the Black Panther was providing the character his own stories and his own world to inhabit. Removing him from the role of supporting Avenger in America and further establishing him as the King of Wakanda has shaped every Black Panther story to follow. McGregor recognized the potential for the Black Panther to be a leading man and made it impossible to ignore.
Jungle Action (vol. 2) #6-22, 24
Black Panther: Panther’s Prey #1-4
Marvel Comics Presents (vol. 1) #13-37
Erik Killmonger: Jungle Action (vol. 2) #6
Ramonda: Marvel Comics Presents (vol. 1) #14
Malice (N’Jadaka): Jungle Action (vol. 2) #8
Venomm: Jungle Action (vol. 2) #6