(Notes: This article primarily covers Black Panther(1998) #1-5 written by Christopher Priest and art by Mark ‘Tex’ Texiera, so a fair spoiler warning for those..)
In any written medium, good characters are important universally. I stand by a belief that any story should possess layered characters that we can understand. The great thing about characters is that the more stories they appear in, the more intricate they become. They become more complex, develop more history, those layers that I mentioned only build. That’s one of the many reasons that I’ve always been so drawn toward comic book superheroes. The mountains of continuity and mythology that envelopes these characters are so vastly interesting to me.
However, with a medium that contains decade-old characters, some of which may be older than you reading this article, there’s bound to be times when these characters turn a bit stale. Sometimes things need to change. We’re going to talk about how Christopher Priest’s iconic run on Black Panther serves as a perfect example of character reinvention
To first understand, we need to set up a little bit of context. The year was 1998, Marvel Comics at that time was attempting something new. An imprint known as Marvel Knights. Marvel Knights was an idea spearheaded by Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti and the goal of which was to create more mature, edgier stories with some street-level Marvel characters.
Marvel Knights would produce several titles such as Daredevil: Guardian Devil by Kevin Smith, The Sensational Spider-Man by Mark Millar, Punisher by Garth Ennis, and also Black Panther by Christopher Priest just to name a few. The chance to write either Daredevil or Spider-Man would be a pure dream of mine, but who cares about Black Panther?
Asking a question like this now would certainly turn some heads or spike some downvotes. Black Panther is now an iconic figure in not just comic books but also pop culture, a character now synonymous with the late Chadwick Boseman. Black Panther may’ve transformed into an icon now, but he wasn’t so much of a hit before then.
In SYFY Wire’s The Making of Marvel Knights: Black Panther, Priest mentioned his initial disdain toward learning he was going to be writing T’Challa. “When he[Quesada] started making noise about, about the Marvel Knights project I thought: ‘well hey, here's my chance to write Daredevil’. You know, I've always wanted to write Daredevil, I still want to write Daredevil. When he said Black Panther I was like: ‘Who?’ I was so focused on Daredevil that it took me a while to hear him when he said Black Panther, and I had no interest in writing Black Panther.”
What’s also worth noting was at this time Black Panther had not been a very memorable character. Not many people knew nor really cared much about him, having last been relevant sometime in the 70s. Also mentioned in the video, Priest later agreed to take on the project under the idea that he would get to tell the story the way he wanted. “He's got to be smarter than the other guys. He's got to be tougher than the other guys. Got to have technology. You know and I laid out these basic tent poles of the character as I saw him. We have to go back to Stan. My reference is Stan, you know, with all due respect to Don and Roy and all these guys that wrote him, I'm going back to the guy who created him.”
I think the interesting thing about Priest’s reinvention of Black Panther was that he did it in a unique way by actually returning the character back to his roots and amplifying the traits he wanted to see to a thousand. He reinvented him by embracing the character’s past and using that as the blueprint for the future.
While Priest wrote the series for a total of 62 issues, it’s his first story arc(#1-5) that I have to talk about. For the first arc, Black Panther is not even the main character. I guess I need to clarify, while the entire focus revolves around him, he’s not who we follow. Our protagonist is this guy:
I love Everett K. Ross, a humorous out-of-touch caricature who falls into the bumbling idiot trope at times, he may sound familiar to some of you. That’s because he showed up in the 2018 Black Panther movie played by Martin Freeman alongside the Dora Milaje. While these characters have become well known in the MCU, it was in the pages of Priest’s Black Panther where they first got their start.
For issues 1-5(and likely beyond that, however, my foggy memory makes me less than 100% certain), we follow Ross as he attempts to survive protecting the ‘Client’ who happens to be King T’Challa who’s visited America. They get into numerous comical escapades often which are narrated by Ross to his girlfriend/boss Nikki Adams. It needs to be said that Priest is especially good at comedy in his writing. Need another example? Consider checking out his Quantum and Woody series by Valiant.
Well, that’s likely a story for another time. These escapades often accompany a much more serious plot. Everett serves as a great comedic foil to T’Challa’s serious almost broody self. At one point Ross ends up meeting Mephisto (Marvel’s sorta-sorta-not- Devil) and sells his soul for a pair of pants. It’d be funny if I were making this up, right?
Like I mentioned, the dynamic between Ross and T’Challa is very well done. Priest is able to make them gel very well together. From just the first 5 issues, it can be seen how T’Challa had largely become a more layered and intriguing character within Priest’s story. He was taken more seriously and so was Wakanda.
I think Priest’s Black Panther also serves as a perfect example of character reinvention because he was able to do something completely new: make Black Panther a serious and memorable name.
While it was something completely new, he was also able to do that by pulling inspiration from the original version of the character. I feel like this is a great way to reinvent character.
Character reinvention should try to do something new that can not only progress character but also build and improve lore. When we think of Black Panther today, we think of such an incredible character and so much of that is tied back to Christopher Priest. This isn’t to say that nobody else has ever made anything impactful with Black Panther, far from it, but if it weren’t for Christoper Priest’s run, who knows where Black Panther would be now?
About the Author: Izhan Arif is a Teaching of English major at UIC who loves to write in his spare time. Izhan is also a very big fan of comic books and comic book TV shows and movies, he hopes to write his own comic books at some point as well.