After what has felt like 800 years of waiting and anticipating, the release of Marvel Studios’ Black Panther is just around the corner. Thanks to the buildup, the title character — the superhero king of the fictional, technologically advanced African nation of Wakanda — has never been more popular, and he’s only going to become more so after the predicted massive opening for the film. If you can’t wait and want something to sate your hunger, or if you want a chaser after seeing the flick, we can recommend five comic-book collections that put the big guy in the spotlight.
Black Panther Epic Collection: Panther’s Rage
This one’s a twofer. First, you get the two-issue Fantastic Four story from 1966 that introduced the Panther — real name T’Challa — to the world. It came from two of the greatest creators in comics history, writer Stan Lee and writer-artist Jack Kirby, and though its depictions of Africa read as dated today, the fact that Wakanda was a land of brilliant scientists and unbelievable technology was a massive step forward for representation in its era. But the bulk of this collection is dedicated to a far superior story: writer Don McGregor’s “Panther’s Rage” arc from the archaically titled Jungle Action. In it, McGregor and an array of superstar artists (including Rich Buckler, Billy Graham, and Gil Kane) told an epic saga that introduced the Black Panther movie’s villain, Erik Killmonger, and set T’Challa against him in a pitched battle for control of Wakanda. No spoilers, but I have it on good authority that the film draws heavily on McGregor’s storied run, so this will be essential reading.
Black Panther by Jack Kirby Vol. 1
Kirby was one of the greatest creators to ever grace the comics page, but his career was a troubled one. Disrespected at Marvel during his 1960s heyday, he fled the publisher to launch an epic legendarium at rival DC in 1970. When that didn’t work out, either, Kirby returned to Marvel to write and draw an assortment of books, none of which caught on with audiences. Nevertheless, they hold up as important work four decades later. One of his titles from that period was Black Panther, in which he — to the chagrin of fans — more or less ignored everything McGregor & Co. had done and plowed his own, weird path. (Get ready for odd stories with names like “King Solomon’s Frog” and villains like the Six-Million Year Man.) The narratives may not be your cup of tea, but it’s hard to argue with Kirby’s stunning pencils, which lent T’Challa and Wakanda a heaping dose of awe-inspiring Afrofuturism in an age when it was all too rare in popular fiction.
Black Panther by Christopher Priest: The Complete Collection Vol. 1
After the eras of Kirby and McGregor, the Panther languished in relative obscurity for many long years. That all changed when Marvel editors Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti decided to revive him with the talents of writer Christopher Priest and artist Mark Texeira under their “Marvel Knights” banner. The results were stunning. The African-American Priest, resistant to being pegged solely as a writer of black characters, introduced a co-protagonist for T’Challa in the form of dweeby white G-man Everett K. Ross, played in the upcoming film by Martin Freeman. But fear not — the Panther roars in these stories, as well. In settings ranging from Wakanda to Brooklyn, Priest and his artists (Texeira left after the first few issues) lent a regal splendor to T’Challa that gives readers chills to this day. Honestly, if you only pick up one Black Panther collection, it should probably be this one.
Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet Vol. 1
When Marvel announced in 2015 that Ta-Nehisi Coates would be writing a new Black Panther series, the news rocked the comics world. One of the greatest living nonfiction writers, a person at the top of his craft who was enjoying an incredible explosion of fame, deciding to slum it in the funnybooks? It was unheard of. But people shouldn’t have been too surprised, as Coates has long been a massive Marvel geek — trust me, I know. When his run launched with art from Brian Stelfreeze and Laura Martin, it was an instant sensation, and this collection of the first four issues has been a best seller at comic shops and bookstores. Within its pages, you’ll find a tale about T’Challa struggling to hold onto his dominion in the face of entirely legitimate populist opposition from women who find kingship repugnant and outdated. Coates’s writing is what will bring you to the party (and if you need a primer on some of the stuff he references, we have some annotations to offer you), but once you’re there, you’ll find just as delicious a treat in the form of Stelfreeze and Martin’s lush renderings of Wakanda and its denizens.
Black Panther: World of Wakanda
The Coates era of Black Panther has been a fruitful one, in that it’s spawned not one, not two, not three, but four additional series about the character. However, some of them were taken from us all too soon, and one of those canceled gems was World of Wakanda. In it, Coates co-wrote stories about T’Challa’s supporting cast alongside brilliant scribes from outside the world of comics. The most famous of them was, like Coates, one of the finest essayists of the present moment, Bad Feminist’s Roxane Gay. Alongside artists Alitha E. Martinez and Rachelle Rosenberg, Gay penned a prequel to A Nation Under Our Feet in which we saw the origins of two of the members of Wakanda’s elite all-woman soldier squad known as the Dora Milaje. In a crowded superhero-comics marketplace, it stood out not just for its dynamic action, but also for its queer romance between two women of color — something that, it sadly goes without saying, one doesn’t see very often in mainstream comic books. But hey, Black Panther has always been all about breaking barriers.