It's not just that the Black Panther is a favorite of mine. He's also one of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's best creations, first showing up in a run that's considered one of the best of all time. Almost everything great about him debuted in those Fantastic Four comics, and it's the fact that those elements are currently shattered that rankles me.
When I think back, I can't remember the first place I encountered the Black Panther. It was probably in an old issue of Marvel Triple Action, a series that reprinted old Avengers stories. When I plowed through the Roy Thomas/John Buscema storylines, I didn't know that the man called T'Challa was arguably the first black superhero I just knew that I liked his costume and the way that Buscema drew the character, all sleek feline muscularity exploding across the page. The fact that he looked more like me than most other crimefighters was just icing on the cake.
As I devoured everything I could find about the character, the elements of his mythos that made him unique started to sing to me: the fact that his superhero persona was a royal title passed on through generations, the improbably advanced technological kingdom he ruled over and the combination of raw emotion and shrewd, genius-level intellect. His first appearance has him smoking a cigarette as he coolly trumps the Fantastic Four in a series of traps designed to test their mettle. From the very first, T'Challa was a different kind of bad-ass.
The best interpretations of T'Challa have sketched him out to be a person torn between personal desire and public duty. In Don McGregor's classic 1970s story arcs, he did things that other superheroes couldn't or wouldn't. He struggled with an attempted coup and tried to balance tribal traditionalism with the encroachment of the outside world. The political tensions surrounding the African monarch's romance with an Black American woman added depth to something that would otherwise just have been a rote subplot. Hell, he fought the Ku Klux Klan.
Nevertheless, he was a second-tier character for years. That changed when Christopher Priest got his hands on the character in the late 1990s. For me, Priest's run was the height of the Panther's publishing history. Here was a Wakanda portrayed as a xenophobic paradise ruled by a lonelier, more emotionally-removed T'Challa. This was a Black Panther who suffered the pains of always putting his homeland first and put forth a harder, more brittle sort of heroism as a result. Priest's run lured readers in with a cooler-than-cool protagonist and then ushered them in the high stakes world of superhero statecraft, where summits with Dr. Doom, the Sub-Mariner and other leaders of the Marvel Universe happened in the most unlikely locations. It was a glorious time to be a Black Panther fan.
But, thanks to the most recent developments in the Marvel Universe, his kingdom lies in ruins, his intellect is given only lip service and his emotional range feels numb and cold. In the Avengers vs. X-Men event, a Phoenix-powered Submariner lays waste to the country of Wakanda and T'Challa blandly informs the X-Man Storm, his wife of the last few years, that they're no longer married. These happenings are a far cry from a realm that once seemed undefeatable and a man who burned with a fiery desire to do what was right.
The current state of the Panther's mythos seems to indicate the path Marvel plans to take him on: plot beats in several recent appearances made a point to drive home the idea that T'Challa is a product of both spiritualism and super-science. One adventure left him as a ruler of the Wakandan underworld, with a link to the knowledge of all his forebears.
And the announcement that a film version of the Black Panther would be amongst the next slate of Marvel movies means that we'll probably start to see a higher profile for the character soon. There might even be a new series as part of the Marvel Now! Relaunch intitative. When I fantasize about what I want out of a relaunched Panther, I like T'Challa most as a character who blends elements of a stalwart ally and a ruthless strategist. You know he'll do the right thing but maybe in the wrong ways. Right now, he's in the worst kind of limbo. Here's hoping Marvel finds him a way out.