Christopher Priest’s big idea on this series was to take the fact that the Black Panther was a head of state and run with it, blending superheroics and politics.
Well, here is a book that was ahead of its time!
Has this book been an influence on today’s comics or just a coincidence? Because in reading his Black Panther, you see Priest ground the superhero action we all know and love with the political thriller genre in very much the same way as some of Marvel’s comics have for the past few years (the “Dark Reign” storyline, for example), or the way Brian Michael Bendis and Ed Brubaker and others like them sometimes write superheroes as though it’s crime fiction in tights.
Indeed, sitting down and rereading Black Panther recently, I was struck by how much it resembles a recent-model Marvel, right down to the snarky banter about how goofy superhero costumes are; swap the guest appearance by Busiek’s Avengers for Bendis’ team, change the year on the indicia from 1997 to 2007, tear out the Sarah Michelle Gellar “Got Milk?” ads, and you might not even notice.
But should it be a surprise? Black Panther launched under Joe Quesada’s (and Jimmy Palmiotti’s) "Marvel Knights" banner, and the success of these books is what led to him getting the Editor in Chief job (replacing Bob Harras, who oversaw most of the books I’ve been talking about in this series…and who was recently named EiC of DC Comics. Hey, I’m relevant!). Clearly Quesada knew what sort of thing he’d like to see in his Marvel comics even then. If this book is not a direct influence, then it at least comes from the same place as today’s Marvels.
Then why do I like this so much more than the stuff that drives me crazy today? (Don’t say nostalgia, don’t say nostalgia!) Well, we could say that Priest got there first (although he didn’t, of course). We could say his dialogue is funnier. We could say that his political intrigue plots about rogue intelligence agents, political coups, and international economics at least sound more sophisticated than “What if the Green Goblin was in charge of national security?” We could simply say Priest’s writing is better, according to criteria X Y and Z. I could even put it down to that great comics boogeyman of the last decade, decompressed storytelling, but even if I believe that to some extent, how tiring would it be to write, and how much more tiring would it be to read?
We could argue one, some, or all of these things, but a lot of it comes down to taste. Black Panther was a really well-done book. But what I will say is that Christopher Priest approached the material in a different way than those who have followed him, because he played that series Stan Lee-style so he could be knowing and ironic about superheroes while also using them in a very straightforward, sincere way.
That’s one of the things Lee was best at, and part of the reason his books still resonate with today’s considerably more jaded audiences. Stan figured out that you could point out and wink at genre conventions and clichés so that the non-kid audience is in on the joke…but in doing so, it allowed him to use those conventions and clichés just as much and as shamelessly as he pleased all the same. Take the Black Panther’s first appearance in Lee and Kirby's Fantastic Four, where T’Challa reveals the story of his father the chieftain, murdered at the hands of a white outsider, after which the son swears revenge. Lee has the Thing point out -- a couple of times, actually -- that this narrative is cribbed from almost every contemporary movie or book on this subject you can find…but pointing it out deflates any unwarranted, undeserved pretensions and allows Lee the freedom to integrate these tropes into his story, where cliché fuses with traditional superhero narrative and becomes something new.
Priest does this constantly in his Black Panther run, largely through narrator, reader-identification figure, and “useless white boy” Everett K. Ross. Every time there’s a twist in the political intrigue, Ross is there to point out how it’s like something out of a spy thriller to prevent us from pointing out the comparison first. Conspiracies are compared to Oliver Stone’s JFK (actually, the 90s movies references are maybe the only thing dating this comic) regularly. The nonchronological narrative structure is unabashedly pulled from Pulp Fiction, and the characters comment on it all the time just so you know Priest knows. Of course, you could very easily overdo this deflation and nothing would mean anything; everything would just be one more in-joke and hedged bet, but Priest is smart enough -- tactful enough like ol’ Stan was in his day -- to know when to pull back.
Because the criticism isn’t coming from the Black Panther himself. When the Avengers guest-star, they’re not self-deprecating or ironic or anything like that at all. Here’s the difference between Priest’s poking fun at the superhero genre and some of his successors: in Black Panther, there’s nothing funny about superheroes themselves -- it’s Ross’ observations that make them funny.
Remove Ross and the whole thing is played fairly straight, and I think that’s important. Superhero comics for a modern adult audience are a curious animal and a precarious tightrope act. Your average adult readers aren’t going to just take this stuff at face value the way they could as kids -- even the attempt to do so requires some sort of adult-level interaction with text that’s just not present in the way an eight-year-old kid picks up a comic and goes, “Venom? Awesome!”
So how the hell do you write children’s stories for adults? We don’t believe in superheroes, but we still want to believe in superheroes. A tall order! You play it too seriously, and it becomes heavy-handed and overwrought. You can cut it with irony, but it’s easy to go too far and everything becomes a joke, and nothing means anything anymore. If the Avengers aren’t going to take themselves seriously, why should I?
But Priest’s Avengers do take themselves seriously. Issue #8 has the Avengers intervening in a New York City riot, and all the while, Ross’ narration is calling them “Gaudily dressed borderline fascists,” “The Village People with repulsor rays,” “the expression of some chronic self-delusion” and perhaps the ultimate insult, quotation marks around the “super” in “super-hero.” But all the while, the Avengers themselves are played just as they are in their own comic. The Avengers’ "integrity" remains intact, but we also get critique. That critique would ring false coming from the Avengers, because in the world of comics we so desperately want to believe in, there’s nothing funny and there’s nothing shady about the Avengers at all. But Ross isn’t an Avenger and he isn’t a superhero. He’s an outsider*. Ross can make fun of the Panther’s kitty-cat ears all he wants, and we’ll forgive him, because we’re Ross.
So Priest can supply that ironic distance from the Avengers, but he can also have the Avengers doing their Avenger-y stuff. You read Black Panther and you get both at the same time, the same as you do reading Lee/Kirby FF.
That’s classic Marvel Comics in any decade.
(* - Ah, but what about the Thing, you might well arsk? He is a superhero after all and thus not an outsider, so who is he to be poking holes in the Black Panther’s backstory? But I’d argue the Thing, the original “unglamorous” superhero, functions in Lee/Kirby FF is as an outsider as well, albeit one who’s more integrated with the main action. The Human Torch is closer in age to the comic’s original intended readership, but it’s Ben Grimm -- the comedian, the freak -- who’s meant to be the reader-identification figure. Although he’s a plainspoken, unpretentious individual, he’s wise to the tropes of superhero comics so that the rest of the Fantastic Four can afford not to be.)