The Black Panther is one of Marvel’s oldest heroes — the first black hero in mainstream comic books and one of the industry’s most radical ever. We’ve grown a little used to the idea now, but at the time, a secret African nation with technology so advanced it humbled even the brilliant Reed Richards was quite a concept.
Now that the character is making his big-screen debut, here is the best of his catalogue. This list isn’t in any particular order and serves as a list of every essential Black Panther comic book you should read to gain a deeper understanding of the character.
Although not as well-known as The Dark Knight Returns or The Night Gwen Stacy Died, “Panther’s Rage” — a 13-part series that ran from 1973 to 1975 — casts a much longer shadow over the superhero comics genre than its relative obscurity might imply. Written by Don McGregor, with scrumptious art by Rich Buckler, Gil Kane and Billy Graham, the story is a single, contained arc — charting Black Panther’s first battle against Erik Killmonger. It is, as comics historian Jason Sacks called it, “Marvel’s first graphic novel,” and it holds up beautifully today — a pulse-pounding, eye-popping page turner with nuanced characterization to spare.
Christopher Priest was the first black person to hold an editorial role at Marvel Comics, and while he has a number of dynamite stories to his name there, his Black Panther run caught him at his most revolutionary. He opened with “The Client,” which introduced us to Everett K. Ross, a low-level political figure assigned to keep an eye on the Panther and act as readers’ window into T’Challa’s world. As a framing device, Ross’ narration is jarring in how it describes everything through his scatterbrained perspective, but the story’s mark on the Black Panther’s legacy is undeniable. Up to this point, T’Challa had spent several decades as an Avengers B-lister. It was Priest who, along with Mark Texeira as an illustrator, made T’Challa as regal, ruthless and raw as a king should be.
Priest’s run opened in New York City, but Black Panther eventually made his way back to Wakanda, where he faced off against Erik Killmonger, a villain who’s as complex and tragic as any in the Marvel canon. By this point, Priest had established T’Challa as a brilliant, nearly unbeatable hero, so it’s saying something that “Killmonger’s Rage” successfully set its titular antagonist up as a worthy adversary, Black Panther’s physical and intellectual rival. Michael B. Jordan is playing Killmonger in the movie, and this is your best bet for prepping yourself on just what makes him such an intriguing foe.
Reginald Hudlin’s run is more traditionally superhero-esque in nature than many other titles on this list, featuring costumed villains and super guest stars like the X-Men and Namor. It also introduces a number of characters who’ve become key players in the Black Panther’s life (like his sister Shuri) and tells what has now become the definitive origin story. It’s a good entry point into the Black Panther’s world, and contains some great art by the reliably terrific superhero comic book legend John Romita Jr. If you’re completely unfamiliar with the Black Panther and are just looking for an introduction to Wakanda, this is for you.
In 2010, Reginald Hudlin and artist Denys Cowan created this boldly unconventional tale in which they revealed that Captain America and Nick Fury’s Howling Commandos had been deployed to Wakanda during World War II, where Cap ended up facing off, and eventually teaming up with T’Challa’s grandfather, who wore the mantle of the Black Panther at that time. It’s a fun story — any chance to return to Captain America’s Nazi-bashing days is worthwhile — but it also delves into complex issues of racism and politics, in which Wakanda’s isolationism is contrasted against the United States’ interventionist policies.