By now, thanks to his introduction in the MCU, we’re sure that you already know who the Black Panther is. Or do you? T’Challa, the Black Panther, is the revered king of Wakanda, an African nation that has flourished in secrecy and become one of the most tech-advanced nations in the world. He’s a ferocious warrior, fierce ally, and loyal to his people above all else — even the Avengers.

Most importantly, though, is that T’Challa is not only a hero for Wakanda, he is a hero for diversity. Since his first appearance in 1966, Black Panther has provided a beautifully complex black character rich with human strengths and flaws when there have historically not been many. He is a character, no, a hero to look up to whose power is not solely found in his formidable prowess in hand-to-hand combat, but also in his ability to both transcend and elevate the conversation on race in the comic medium.

It would seem to do a disservice to the legacy of the character to say that his importance stems from his race. That sounds placating and condescending. He is noble, he is a king, and he is a teammate equal to all the rest. He is T’Challa, Black Panther, Avenger and King of Wakanda. The selection of must-read titles below reflects all that and more.

FANTASTIC FOUR #52-53 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby

Black Panther
Image courtesy of Marvel Comics

As with any story or character, it’s always best to know where it all began. For Black Panther, that was in 1966’s FANTASTIC FOUR #52-53. The comic begins with Marvel’s First Family getting an invitation from a mysterious man to visit Wakanda. Being amazed by their technological advancements, The Fantastic Four make the trip. Upon arriving, they meet a village led by the mighty T’Challa. Soon, though, T’Challa, disguised in his Black Panther garb, proves too much for the team as he is able to defeat them all before revealing his identity to them. T’Challa tells the Fantastic Four that he has heard of their fabled abilities and wanted to test them before tasking them with a grave challenge.

What makes this book essential is really that it provides a wonderful set-up for the character going forward. In an era where there were not very many positive portrayals of Africans, Black Panther stands out from the pack. That isn’t to say it isn’t without its own time-stamped antiquities, but if you can look past some of the stereotypes you will be treated to the introduction of a formidable new hero to the Marvel Universe.

“Who is the Black Panther?” by Reginald Hudlin and John Romita Jr.

Black Panther
Image courtesy of Marvel Comics

If you’re reading this hoping to get into Black Panther because of the movies then “Who is the Black Panther?” may be the best place to start. However, movie aside,”Who is the Black Panther?” is a great comic arc in its own right. This is Reginald Hudlin’s first arc with T’Challa where he explores the history of the Black Panther mantle. We see flashes to World War II where TChalla’s grandfather met none other than American patriot, Captain America, and highhandedly walloped Steve Rogers. And we also learn more about Wakanda as a nation steadfast in its independence, unwilling to submit to foreign pressures and threats. Of course, as per usual, John Romita Jr. provides beautifully lush art to the already rich story that creates something truly magical.

As a bonus, when asked what research he did for the role, Chadwick Boseman has cited this arc as some of his key preparation material.

“See Wakanda and Die” by Jason Aaron and Jefte Palo

Black Panther
Image courtesy of Marvel Comics

If the threatening title wasn’t giving you enough of an idea, this story is probably not one you’re going to find to be as comically quotable as some other Marvel books. “See Wakanda and Die” is the gritty, gripping, and bloody story of what happens when Wakanda must fight off an army of Skrulls. A 3-part tie-in to Marvel’s SECRET INVASION, we see firsthand why Wakanda has never yet been conquered. The Skrulls have armies, tech, and warships that all outnumber Wakanda. But when backed into a corner, Wakanda fights. In “See Wakanda and Die,” we learn just how far T’Challa is willing to go to protect his people and his country, and it couldn’t be more thrilling.

Episode 51: The Origin of Black Panther

“A Nation Under Our Feet” by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Brian Stelfreeze

Black Panther
Image courtesy of Marvel Comics

When word broke that the prolific civil rights writer, Ta-Nehisi Coates, would be at the helm of the relaunched BLACK PANTHER title, the comic community was abuzz with excitement. The expectation was that having someone who had studied and written about race so extensively and with such an honest delicacy could be nothing but good. It turns out that for once people were right to be excited!

What we got from Coates is “A Nation Under Our Feet.” It is a story that forces T’Challa as king to confront some difficult turmoil in Wakanda that puts pressure on him as a leader. A super-human terrorist group known as The People spark a violent uprising that throws Wakanda into chaos. In order for Wakanda to survive, it must adapt and that starts with its king. T’Challa is reminded of the weight he carries as one in a long line of Black Panthers. He must show leadership that will push him to his limits if he is to save Wakanda, but it may break him in the process.

Nuanced writing, sublime artwork, and a political current that cuts through like lava,”A Nation Under Our Feet” is not one to be missed.

JUNGLE ACTION #19-22, 24 and MARVEL PREMIERE #51-53 “Black Panther vs. The Klan” by Don McGregor, Billy Graham, Rich Buckler, Keith Pollard and Jerry Bingham

Black Panther
Image courtesy of Marvel Comics

It’s been called one of Black Panther’s more bizarre storylines, and truthfully it is. However, “Black Panther vs. The Klan” is also simultaneously one of the most essential tales you can read featuring the character. This story started under the small time title JUNGLE ACTION, a lesser known Marvel title. And it’s because of its relative obscurity that McGregor and Graham were able to be absolutely daring with the story. It is a plot depicting what happens when T’Challa goes up against the Ku Klux Klan in the American South.

On the surface, it sounds like some easy race-bait title, but its execution is what makes the story so stupendous. McGregor and Graham did not hold back. There were no allusions or metaphors; this was the Klan, with a “K.” There are white robes and terror, cross-burnings and bloodshed. What makes the book so haunting, though, and such a vital read for Black Panther fans is the way it juxtaposes the sleepy southern summers with the blistering violence from the Klan. It’s nothing short of being a work of poetic, tragic, beautiful art.

“The Client” by Christopher Priest, Mark Texeira, Vince Evans

Black Panther
Image courtesy of Marvel Comics

Essential if only for the fact that it is the very beginning of Christopher Priest’s famous run with the character, “The Client” is not just a beginning, but a superb one at that. While T’Challa is visiting the United States, a coup takes place in Wakanda thanks to some supernatural backing. Priest’s run follows the Black Panther as he tries to wade through the political firestorm. What really makes this story work, though, is that Priest doesn’t just let this coup be a backdrop for the action. Rather, it is at the forefront of the narrative, every twist and weave owing itself to Priest’s adept storytelling hand.

NEW AVENGERS: “Everything Dies” by Jonathan Hickman

Black Panther
Image courtesy of Marvel Comics

Solo books are great, but sometimes the best way to dig deeper into a character is to see they interact with others. This couldn’t be more true for Black Panther. He often operates alone and keeps to himself. As such, seeing this serial lone wolf work in a team introduces a new dynamic to the character. NEW AVENGERS: “Everything Dies” is a perfect example of this.

As the members of The Illuminati (Black Panther, Iron Man, Doctor Strange, Namor, Black Bolt, Mr. Fantastic, and Beast) convene to discuss the collision of the multiverse, these revered characters must weigh their options carefully. I know, it sounds like a lesson in politics akin to The Phantom Menace. However, the beauty of it is in Hickman’s very careful characterization of these characters. Each of them are handled with deep appreciation and love. Black Panther, in particular, is leader first and teammate second, his dedication to Wakanda coloring much of his personality. Seeing how a king operates in foreign relations is not something you’d expect to come from a comic, much less from one that leads into a mega-crossover event. Yet, it all works and that’s what makes it so great.

Afrofuturism and the Phenomenon of the Black Panther

BLACK PANTHER #6-12 “Enemy of the State” by Christopher Priest, Joe Jusko, Mike Manley and M.D. Bright

Black Panther
Image courtesy of Marvel Comics

Picking up where “The Client” left off, “Enemy of the State” shows Black Panther facing problems at home. T’Challa is forced out of Wakanda by Achebe and his step-mother. There’s a plot against him that he must level with. Additionally, there is an entertaining reimagining of Panther’s Avengers origins and his true motives for joining. For a character known for his regal presence, seeing a little humor is always a welcome change of pace.

We included this book, though, because it is yet another shining example of Priest’s contributions to the Black Panther mythos. Hot off of “The Client,” Priest weaves an incredibly tight narrative that’s riveting at one moment and heart-wrenching the next. The art’s great even if it doesn’t always match up, but the true star of this book is the story. If you want to get into Black Panther, there’s really no better run you could read than Priest’s.

AVENGERS #52 (1968) by Roy Thomas and John Buscema

Black Panther
Image courtesy of Marvel Comics

If you haven’t caught on by now, one of the key themes of BLACK PANTHER books is superheroism vs. royalty. This is explored in AVENGERS #52 when Black Panther arrives at the Avengers manor to find its inhabitants apparently dead. When authorities arrive, they believe that it was T’Challa who killed them. However, after defeating the villain known as The Grim Reaper, Panther clears his name and is recognized as equal to the other heroes. Black Panther must then face a tough decision: continue serving as King of Wakanda or as a full-time Avenger?

JUNGLE ACTION #6-18 “Panther’s Rage” (1973) by Don McGregor, Rich Buckler, Gil Kane and Billy Graham

Black Panther
Image courtesy of Marvel Comics

It has been called “the first graphic novel.” It’s also a landmark book for comics, in general, being the first to feature an all-black cast. Doc McGregor felt it odd that the stories being reprinted in JUNGLE ACTION showed exclusively white heroes saving natives. He made this known to Marvel who assigned him the task of writing original stories for JUNGLE ACTION. McGregor seized the opportunity with both hands by bringing in Black Panther. Using the opportunity to explore a war-torn Wakanda, McGregor wrote the first story to be set entirely in the previously overlooked African nation. Superlatives aside, though, “Panther’s Rage” proved that there were stories worth telling with T’Challa. Had McGregor not spoken up, it is not difficult to imagine what might have happened to Black Panther. Either way, we’re sure glad he did.

 

BLACK PANTHER: “The Complete Collection” by Christopher Priest

Black Panther
Image courtesy of Marvel Comics

We’ve made the case for the beginning of Christopher Priest’s BLACK PANTHER run. Now it’s time to take the deep dive. Priest had six long years to explore the many facets of T’Challa’s character. In the process, he developed much of what we know to be Black Panther today. The largest of the themes explored is the balance between being a superhero and being the king of a nation. What does that look like? How does that uniquely influence T’Challa’s character?

Priest’s run is also the longest solo run for the character. Priest really got to spread his wings through Black Panther’s entire corner of the Marvel universe. There’s Ulysses Klaw, there’s Killmonger, there’s Everett Ross. Everyone’s here. So if you want the most complete modern compendium of the character, look no further.

In Conclusion…

Black Panther has had a long and complicated history since he first appeared in 1966. Not often a major linchpin in the Marvel Universe, the character has often had to flourish on the sidelines. He keeps his distance from much of the main action, or at the very least tries to if possible. His duty is to Wakanda first and foremost. He will play with others, but also makes sure they know that his interests are that of his nation’s.

In a way, this almost places him in closer company with DC’s pantheon of heroes than it does Marvel’s. He’s a king who does not deal with the kind of “real world” problems that often characterize Marvel’s character struggles. His problems are with legacy and how the weights of the crown and duty weigh upon him. It’s not unlike some of the problems that Aquaman has faced in recent years: large and classically dramatic. But T’Challa’s unconventional characterization provides a greater dynamic to the Marvel universe and it would be a severely less interesting place without him. A pioneering and original character, Black Panther is just now getting his time to shine and it’s long overdue. These eleven titles, though among the best, just scratch the surface. There’s so much more from here to excite, delight, and entertain you. Welcome to Wakanda.

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