Once you’ve watched a single trailer for Black Panther, the visual appeal of the character becomes obvious immediately. Whether you’re looking at T’Challa’s sleek bodysuit or the spiraling towers of Wakanda, the world of Black Panther is filled with grace and wonder. The film appears to have done an incredible job in realizing the characters, technology, fashion, and architecture. All of these items trace their roots to more than five decades of comics artwork at Marvel Comics.
Black Panther has been defined in comics by some of the most unique and talented superhero artists since he first appeared in Fantastic Four #52. Looking at the significant artists who have defined T’Challa in his own series and team-ups provides a list both of legends and artists who were too often looked over. Reading up on the Black Panther offers a great historical lens on superhero artists. That’s why we’ve assembled a list of the seven best artists to significantly contribute to the story of the Black Panther. Their artwork and inventions have both reshaped the legend of the Black Panther and provided comics with some outstanding stories.
The story of “Panther’s Quest” is a sprawling epic in which the Black Panther travels to South Africa so he can rescue his adoptive mother Ramonda. Each of the installments was only eight pages, a part of the Marvel Universe Presents model, and that meant that every bit of the story required a bit of action, a cliffhanger, and intense close-ups. This is where Colan excelled. Every new installment of the story provided the character opportunities to charge into action and reflect on political affairs in Africa. Colan made all of it feel real and important with his layouts sprawling naturally along cliff sides and cityscapes. Not only was “Panther’s Quest” one of the first superhero graphic novels, but it provided the artistic craftsmanship to earn the title.
When the newest volume of Black Panther was announced, longtime fans of comics recognized the significance of Stelfreeze returning to a monthly series. The artist’s pedigree for design and storytelling has made him one of the most sought-after talents today, and he showed just why that was in the pages of Black Panther. Stelfreeze distilled action into lightning fast sequences and offered tremendous emotion in minimalist designs. However, his greatest contribution lays in the new conception of Wakanda. The current volume of Black Panther has offered a design for technology, fashion, and architecture that is entirely removed from Western influences. It is an afrofuturist design that makes Wakanda a paradise in the 21st Century.
After Black Panther was initially introduced in the pages of Fantastic Four and Tales of Suspense, he was made a foundational element in the Marvel universe within The Avengers. T’Challa joined the team during the seminal run of writer Roy Thomas and artist John Buscema. While Thomas added many notable villains and moments, it’s Buscema’s depiction that has defined the character for decades to come. In his pencils the Black Panther was always lithe, graceful, and capable. He moved more stealthily than Batman and was more acrobatic than Captain America. Buscema is responsible for making Black Panther stand out as a unique and uniquely capable superhero. It is a legacy that has never left the character.
There is a definitive run of Black Panther, and those 62 issues have a definitive artist. Christopher Priest, more than any other writer, defined who Black Panther was as an individual and a powerful figure of Marvel Comics. Almost half of those issues were drawn by Sal Velluto, who allotted strength and grace to the Panther in so many different scenarios. Velluto’s greatest strength rests in his versatility. He contributed to many of the best Black Panther stories of all time: “Sturm und Drang”, “Enemy of the State II”, and “Killmonger’s Rage.” In each of them, T’Challa and all of his supporting cast found life in a variety of unique settings and circumstances. Velluto is undoubtedly one of the most versatile and significant Black Panther artists of all time.
While white men like Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, and Don McGregor wrote almost every Black Panther story over the character’s first few decades, Billy Graham was the first great black artist to contribute to the legend. In the pages of “Panther’s Rage” and “Black Panther Vs The Klan”, Graham was the artist who most instilled the character with grace, strength, and rage. His layouts sprawled down and across pages, exploring the terrain of waterfalls as the Panther pounced on human and animal enemies. There’s perhaps no better spread than one in which Black Panther crashes a meeting of the KKK to distill Graham’s impact. He did not simply make the Panther powerful, but used that power to send very real enemies fleeing.
Palo only tackled the Black Panther for a handful of issues, but those stories remain one of the most celebrated in the canon for very good reason. The construction of alien invaders and bizarre Super Skrull’s are impressive enough, but it’s the depiction of Black Panther that makes “See Wakanda and Die” an all-time great story. Palo focused heavily on contrast, building T’Challa into a shadow of the Wakandan landscape and filling his enemies with terror. Violence and blood are shown in stark blacks as the nation invades a force that is superior in everything but honor. Palo’s few issues of Black Panther remain some of the best of all time and his take on depicting the character has been acknowledged by many artists to follow him.
Kirby might not be the greatest Black Panther artist, but no one is more important in defining how the character or Wakanda appears. From the very start, Kirby conceived of Black Panther as a graceful figure dressed entirely in black with very few points of definition, in stark contrast to his normal style. Panther still stands out from the Kirby oeuvre. The advanced technology that populated Wakanda also helped to define its future as exceeding anything Stark or others might hope to offer. These early contributions both set the stage for the character’s abilities and his world’s uniqueness. They are elements that have continued to define Black Panther for decades without fail.