When it comes to superheroes like Spider-Man or Batman, you can ask 20 different comic readers what their favorite stories are and you might get 20 different answers. Black Panther is a different story. Despite the fact that this character has been around since the 1960’s and headlined a number of ongoing books and limited series, the vast majority of fans will give you one creator’s name in response – Christopher Priest. Rarely has a writer contributed so much to a Marvel hero or exerted such a lasting influence. Priest’s Black Panther run didn’t merely elevate a formerly minor player in the Avengers franchise, it helped save Marvel Comics as a whole during a time when the company was at its lowest ebb.
Perhaps a little background is in order. My own story as a comic book reader is similar to many from my generation. I first got into the hobby in the late ’80s and early ’90s, starting with the handful of random issues my parents would bring home to read and slowly branching out from there. That passion for superhero comics was fueled by the arrival of TV shows like Batman: The Animated Series and X-Men. But like so many fans, I fell off the comic book wagon pretty hard in the mid-’90s, right around time when the entire industry crashed under the weight of bloated, empty storytelling and the collective realization that no one was actually going to get rich hoarding copies of X-Force #1. I started pursuing other hobbies instead, and it wouldn’t be until college years later that I found myself drawn back into the comic book world.
Marvel in particular suffered during that dark period that was the mid to late-’90s. Sales contracted severely, to the point where Marvel actually had to file for bankruptcy. And unlike Marvel’s previous low point in the late ’70s, there was no surprise hit book like Star Wars to come along and suddenly reverse the company’s fortunes. In the short term, Marvel stayed afloat by consolidating its publishing line, merging with Toy Biz and selling off movie rights to studios. But in order to thrive again, Marvel needed to prove that it was actually capable of publishing great comics again and could lure back some of the many readers that, like me, fell off hard after one too many pointless X-Men crossovers.
That’s where Black Panther comes in. Marvel’s first big move came in 1998 when they launched the Marvel Knights imprint, a new line of books targeted at older readers. While Marvel Knights focused on relatively smaller franchises like Daredevil and the Inhumans, the real hallmark of the imprint was the fact that it brought so many fresh and unique voices to Marvel. Kevin Smith brought an indie movie credibility to Marvel as he and artist Joe Quesada relaunched Daredevil under the Marvel Knights banner. Paul Jenkins and Jae Lee made many readers take notice of the Inhumans for the first time. And thanks to Priest and artists like Mark Texeira and Sal Velluto, Black Panther finally had his moment to shine.
More than any other book at the time, Priest’s Black Panther truly embodied what the Marvel Knights imprint had to offer and the sort of publisher Marvel would eventually grow to be. As Priest himself has explained, the goal was to restore the mystique and menace of the character that had been lost with time. “If I could make Panther tough, mysterious, wily, and often at odds with his Avengers comrades, that was a character I’d find interesting,” he told Newsarama. “If he could embrace his monarchship the way Namor does–perhaps not as arrogant, but surely as confidently, a man of supreme power and dominion–that would interest me as well.”
Rather than try to shove a round peg in a square hole and make T’Challa a flawed, relatable hero in the vein of Peter Parker, Priest instead made him an inscrutable, Batman-level badass for whom saving the world was secondary to protecting his kingdom. To balance that out, Priest introduced Everett K. Ross, a goofy everyman character who became the reader’s gateway into a world of political intrigue and advanced technology. Priest further set the series apart by relying on long-from storytelling, almost novelistic storytelling where new issues directly built on what what came before and where clear, multi-part story arcs formed. Even individual issues were broken up into discrete chapters. That’s to say nothing of his novel approach to structuring his stories, where he often employed a Tarantino-esque nonlinear approach with Ross as the befuddled narrator.
Needless to say, I was hooked right away when I discovered the series. Black Panther wasn’t the first comic to lure me back into the hobby. My return to comics started out on a very conservative note, as I gravitated mainly toward new takes on familiar franchises (Brian Bendis and Mark Bagley’s Ultimate Spider-Man, Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s New X-Men, etc.). Priest’s Black Panther is significant for being one of the first cases where I took a risk on a relatively unknown property and was rewarded for it. I may not have read any Black Panther comics as a kid. As a white man who has 95% of pop culture catered directly to me at all times, I’ve never been in the same situation as someone like David Dennis, who writes about finding in Black Panther some sorely needed representation on the printed page. But somehow, I still felt an instant connection to this character with whom I shared almost nothing in common. By the time I saw T’Challa deck Mephisto with one mighty punch while a pantsless Ross looked on in horror, I knew I would be a fan for life.
It’s only with hindsight that it’s become apparent how much Priest’s Black Panther contributed to Marvel’s rebirth and renewal at the time. The series itself never sold terribly well, and was eventually canceled without much in the way of closure. But as with many innovators, Black Panther lit the way for more commercially successful follow-ups. Black Panther was telling complex, nuanced stories at a time when superhero comics were still dominated by empty spectacle. It drew from other media and found new, exciting ways to present stories that appealed to older, more discriminating readers. The mature, story-driven mentality of Marvel Knights ensured Quesada’s rise to power as Editor-in-Chief in 2000, at which point he was able to apply that philosophy on a wider scale. If not for Black Panther and Daredevil, we may never have gotten pivotal early 2000’s Marvel books like Ultimate Spider-Man and New X-Men, and Marvel may never have recovered the momentum it lost after the industry crash.
Fortunately, it seems as though Priest’s Black Panther run is getting the belated recognition it deserves. For one thing, Marvel finally made the whole series available in collected form in 2015. For another, it’s obvious from reading contemporary Black Panther stories (like Ta-Nehisi Coates’ current series and the work Jonathan Hickman did with the character in his Avengers books) that writers are still heavily influenced by the way Priest and his collaborators envisioned the character. The best Black Panther creators today are those who follow in Priests footsteps and portray T’Challa as a king first and a hero a distant second. And from what we’ve seen of the character in the MCU so far, it seems that influence now extends even to Hollywood. If a well-realized Black Panther helped save Marvel from the brink of oblivion, just imagine what he can accomplish with the whole world as his stage.
“Between the Panels” is a bi-weekly column from Jesse Schedeen that focuses on the world of comics. You can see more of his thoughts on comics and pop culture by following @jschedeen on Twitter, or Kicksplode on MyIGN.