Monday, February 11, 2008

Jungle Action featuring the Black Panther #21

Jungle Action featuring the Black Panther #21, May 1976, Marvel Comics
writer: Don McGregor
penciller: Billy Graham
inker: Bob McLeod
letterer: Harry Blumfield
colorist: Phil Rachelson
editor: Marv Wolfman

Blogger's note: Entry for Saturday, February 9, 2008.

I hadn’t heard of Jungle Action prior to 2006’s San Diego Comic Con. I had just begun the A Comic A Day challenge and hadn’t thought much of themed reviews, but as I flipped through the variety of back issues at my disposal in that vast exhibit hall, I discovered a few patterns I could easily incorporate into a year-long look at comics. For example, as I’ve mentioned before, Santa Claus has made numerous appearances in multiple comic books, from hamming it up with Mickey Mouse to fighting alongside the Justice League, so a series of Christmas-oriented reviews in December during a diverse daily exercise like A Comic A Day just makes sense. The entire horror genre, from its pre-code days to the contemporary masterpieces of Steve Niles, befits October, just as the war genre suits Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Veterans Day. So, as I formulated this comics-driven syllabus, my mind recalled Black History Month, and the necessary characters quickly came to me: Steel, Storm, Luke Cage, John Stewart, Black Lightning, Black Panther . . .

No sooner did I think his name than did Jungle Action #19 appear under my thumb in that quarter-priced back issue box. Yes, I understand that Black Panther is otherwise known as T’Challa, king of the Wakandans native to a jungle island, so the potentially offensive title didn’t strike me as much as that issue’s chosen enemies: the Ku Klux Klan. Even if I wasn’t aiming for comics featuring prominent black superheroes, for a quarter, who could resist? Not only was one of Marvel’s first black superheroes called the “Black” “Panther,” starring in a comic book called “Jungle Action,” but he also fights the Klan? Does Reverend Jesse Jackson know this title exists?

Seriously, Black Panther is undoubtedly the brainchild of a racially ambivalent era, in which writers and artists wanted to thrust black protagonists into the mainstream, yet couldn’t do so without subconsciously recreating the very stereotypes they wanted to avoid. At the time, it was the only language they knew, and fortunately their character-creating skills were more influential than anything else. Interestingly, as I read some of those other titles I mentioned over this past week, I discovered that the writers’ internal struggle isn’t over yet; in both Steel and Luke Cage and Power Man, street slang that might be too “hip” for a “straight edge” audience to understand is footnoted and interpreted. Considering the decade spanning these two issues, these proverbial glossaries offer intriguing insights into the editorial decision to include them; both 1980s Marvel and 1990s DC assumed that their readers would be progressive enough to read comics with urban themes, but not understand them. At the very least, they asserted these captions as shallow attempts to appear hip to the jive, and I don’t know which is more disturbing.

Jungle Action featuring Black Panther #21 brings the Ku Klux Klan story arc I began a year ago to an unsettling conclusion, or so I assume, as the next issue blurb diverts T’Challa on a time travelling mission. Thanks to some well crafted, introductory dialogue, I was quickly reacquainted with this story’s details; when reporter Kevin Trublood decides to investigate a new coworker’s apparent suicide, the trial leads him to the victim’s sister Angela, the Klan and its splinter group the Dragon Circle, and of course the Black Panther. Since we last saw him, the Panther has been captured by the Klan, strung to a wooden cross, and set on fire! Fortunately, our hero conquers the psychological aspect of this deathtrap enough to escape -- indeed, in one of the most exciting, melodramatic escape sequences I’ve beheld in a long time. (Okay, in brief, the flames lick T’Challa’s feet enough to burn through the ropes binding them, so he swings his feet up to snap the cross in half and ram it through the slack-jawed Klan like a battering ram!) In the end, the Black Panther obviously cannot dissolve the Klan, but, with the help of Angela’s family, he demoralizes them, which is a presumably satisfactory resolution for all. Perhaps like the stigmas attached to writing such stories, the implications of tales featuring bigotry and violence sadly boast a certain tenacity that reflect their reciprocal roots in reality.

Still, at least in the realm of comics, society can derive a shallow satisfaction from the justices our superheroes claim over such evils. Further, the joy of beholding these adventures told in the Might Marvel Manner is a timeless guilty pleasure, in this issue specifically thanks to the craftsmanship of artists Billy Graham and Bob McLeod. This issue was much less cluttered than I remember of #19, thanks to McGregor’s well paced story and emotional conclusion, in which fewer words were actually best. As we get further away from the tumultuous times that birthed Black Panther, and the necessity of his heroic island jungle-to-urban jungle crusade, perhaps this issue’s lesson is one worth adapting -- that fewer, more intended words are better than too many that we might not even understand, anyway. Thanks to Black Panther’s escape, I’m reminded of the old saying, where there’s a will, there’s a way. Who says will has any defined language other than itself?

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