By Jay Rincher
The face of Western comics is changing, but it’s been a long road and a journey that still has many hills to climb. Black characters are taking on more prominent roles in the panels we read, and more Black creators are shaping their stories behind the scenes. But what of the creatives who came before? This column traces the path of Black comics creativity throughout the decades, with each year focusing on a book that features a Black writer, artist, colourist, letterer, or editor. From underground comix through Black Panther and beyond, this series will reveal the evolution of diversity in the comics industry, and shed some light on the unsung Black heroes that have helped to shape it.
1974 was a big year for Marvel comics. With the debut of Wolverine in the pages of The Incredible Hulk, Iron Fist and Colleen Wing in the pages of Marvel Premier, and The Punisher in Amazing Spider-man, characters were introduced whose creative impacts are still being felt today. The careers of writers and artists, not to mention several multimedia franchises all owe a debt to the creative and editorial choices made that year.
And then we have July 1974 which saw the release of Jungle Action #10.
Jungle Action, Don McGregor’s strange little wonder of a serialized novel, had up until that point run with a semi-revolving series of artists. While many of those artists would go to be recognized as legends in the comic book industry, it is hard to imagine the book having the lasting impact it has without the decision to have Billy Graham take over as penciller starting with issue #10.
Graham, who would remain on Jungle Action through the conclusion of “Panther’s Rage” and up until the twenty-second issue of the book, has the distinction of being the first African American to ever work on a Black Panther comic for Marvel.
Don McGregor, who’d been friends with Graham for years at that point and had previously collaborated with him on some horror comics at Graham’s previous employer Warren Magazines, explained the two things that lead to this:
- Marvel Editorial wanted previous artist Rich Buckler on “more important” and higher selling titles than Jungle Action
- Billy Graham was black
“Many people think I chose Billy to draw “Panther’s Rage” after Rich was deluged with so many other projects…At the time the few Black artists that were in the comics business were normally placed on Black characters, and while I was not told this, I am sure that policy was why Billy and I ended up together.”
In the grand scheme of McGregor’s epic “Panther’s Rage,” issue #10 “KING CADAVER IS DEAD AND LIVING IN WAKANDA” is a transitional issue. Narratively it provides a pause for T’Challa and his supporting cast in the midst of Killmonger’s insurgency.
The story so far: T’Challa’s attempts the last few issues to reckon with Killmonger has led to deepening rifts between him, his subjects and his confidants. W’Kabi, his loyal chief of security openly challenges him, and his commitment to Wakanda is questioned due to his time spent in America working with the Avengers as well as his relationship with an American woman, Monica Lynne – accused of murder at the conclusion of Jungle Action #9.
Our issue opens with Don McGregor’s most overused plot beat: pitting T’Challa against an angry jungle creature. It never really matters that Black Panther has ostensibly superhuman abilities, McGregor scripts every tussle between T’Challa and a wild beast as an absolute fight for his life. The wrestling match with an crocodile that kicks off this issue is no exception. Graham masterfully renders the fight like he’s given serious consideration to what it would look like if a man in a cat suit had to grapple a twenty-foot gator in a life or death struggle.
Without missing a note, Graham makes T’Challa and Wakanda his own. At first glance his art in this issue isn’t such a radical departure from Rich Buckler’s broad-shouldered action figure smackdowns or Gil Kane’s cinematic renderings that preceded him. But there is a gothic and hyper-emotive quality to his work that helps this issue breathe as it sets up new beats for the rest of the story arc. Graham’s background as an athlete and seemingly intense study of physiology, shines through clearly in his art work.
In an interview with Sean Howe, Alex Simmons, fellow creator and friend to Graham stated “His art references were on point because Harlem and the 42nd Street theater district were territories he knew very well…To him, Luke Cage was a brother he could hang with.”
The same familiarity Simmons describes Graham bringing to his tenure on Luke Cage, Hero for Hire, shines through in a much different way in Jungle Action. It’s hard to describe how palpable that familiarity is for me, as a black comic reader, in the midst of a story arc that had up until issue #10, been drawn only by white artists. There is almost a loving familiarity that shines through the curve of every face and tuft of hair.
Our story continues with T’Challa returning to court to handle the matter of his now imprisoned paramour. There’s no question that Monica is being framed because she is an outsider, but there is little either of them can do about it. T’Challa understands that his position as ruler is tenuous with an active insurgency terrorizing the country, and using his power to free his foreign lover would turn more people against him. This leads to another confrontation with his security chief, W’Kabi. Tensions between the two have been simmering for issues and Monica’s arrest is a turning point in their conflict.
Once again, the shift in art brought about by Graham is easily noticed. While the kind of layout work featured here might seem incredibly familiar to anyone who has read a comic in the last thirty years, within the scope of Jungle Action to this point, it is a vast departure from the standard six panel grids utilized by Buckler in previous issues. Graham’s layout work is startlingly cinematic for the time period
The issue quickly shifts to a loose end from the previous issue: T’Challa moves to retrieve the body of M’Jumbak, a loyal servant killed by Baron Macabre, another of Killmonger’s vicious insurgents. This is where Graham’s roots as an artist on horror comics really comes through. T’Challa begins an impressive graveyard battle with the “zombie” servants of Baron Macabre (they are merely mercenaries in corpse costumes.) McGregor is right to refer to them as T’Challa’s “victims” in his exposition – unlike the crocodile T’Challa previous battled in this issue, these henchmen stand no real chance against him. He brutalizes them cruelly and acrobatically before torturing the location of their leaders out of them.
As Black Panther dives into the depths of the lair they have secretly constructed under a Wakandan graveyard, we are graced with a two-page spread that I personally consider to be the most iconic imagery Graham produced during his tenure on Jungle Action. T’Challa is plunged into a freakshow hall of mirrors King Cadaver as the ring master. The imagery on these pages is haunting and psychedelic, and every time I read it there is another detail that catches my eye.
Panther easily bests Baron Macabre (a shame, such a great name and design for what is ultimately a throwaway villain) but his battle with King Cadaver is much more intense.
First, he must fight off the psychic intrusion of the villain. Next, he must confront that Cadaver is not, like his other opponents, simply wearing a mask and makeup. The horror of realizing that his foe’s deformed and grotesque visage is not an affectation is amazingly rendered on Panther’s face by Graham. Our hero completely loses his composure and goes bug-eyed and frenzied as he simply pummels and squeezes the eyes of his opponent. This confrontation in many ways underscores the simmering tension that exists throughout “Panther’s Rage” that Killmonger – everything about him, from the cruelty to the unrelenting violence, is not an affectation. He may not have been born a monster like King Cadaver seemingly was, but he was transformed and nurtured into one after being abandoned by T’Challa and Wakanda.
Our issue ends with Black Panther faced with a new horror: the realization that Killmonger and his insurgents have been stealing and using Wakandan weaponry in their insurgency. It is a fantastic reveal, one that stands in stark contrast to the hyper-competence Panther is depicted with in his modern portrayals.
Shifting gears a bit, I want to focus on a moment that comes earlier in the story. After defeating the crocodile at the start of the issue, T’Challa, finally getting to sulk after besting the crocodile and being pulled from the water by one of his confidants, is immediately faced with a new terror: is he really that different than Killmonger? We see this tension reflected back at T’Challa by the reveal at the end of the issue.
Rereading “Panther’s Rage” in 2020, particularly this issue, it is impossible to ignore its fingerprints on Black Panther’s entire narrative trajectory at Marvel. The question posed to T’Challa in the panels above is reminiscent of the narrative through line in Coates’ early run on Black Panther, specifically the “A Nation Under Our Feet” storyline. What is the job of a King besides to rule and ensure that his rule is not challenged? This inescapable conflict between Kingship and heroism has without a doubt become the north star for the Black Panther runs that followed McGregor’s. Peter Gillis, Reginald Hudlin, Christopher Priest and Ta-Nehisi Coates have certainly approached the question with various degrees of cynicism. Under their runs we’ve seen T’Challa portrayed as cold and calculating but ultimately selfless at his most heroic, devious, vicious and self-centered at his worst – but McGregor’s T’Challa is still a relatively new hero, only eight years out from his debut and not yet weighed down by decades of backstory or a need for multimedia synergy.
In the hands of the politically idealist and basically un-edited McGregor, there is an opportunity for a real exploration of whether or not the different sides of T’Challa’s identity, Warrior-Shaman-King and Superhero, can really coexist. He isn’t weighed down by the guilt or burdens that come along with a secret identity, bills and a day job like say, Peter Parker or Matt Murdock – he’s torn between a sacred duty he has to his people and his desire to be a part of world Wakanda has traditionally rejected while strongly believing he must bring Wakandans along with him. Don McGregor has spoken candidly in interviews about how he found T’Challa’s status-quo before the start of his tenure on Jungle Action, living under a secret identity as a teacher in Harlem, absurd. I’m sure he would’ve found Panther’s stint in the late aughts disguised as a Congolese Social Worker in Hell’s Kitchen, equally ridiculous, especially given the number of white characters in T’Challa’s supporting cast. McGregor felt strongly with “Panther’s Rage,” to the chagrin of Marvel editorial that still seemed to mostly stay out of his way, that an African King should be in Africa, surrounded by Africans, doing King shit.
If you asked the average comic book fan to describe a Black Panther story, I wonder what they would say? I think, in our heads, we all have a set vision of what a Spider-Man or X-Men or Fantastic Four story looks and feels like, what kind of highs and lows they hit.
Do we have a similar grasp on Black Panther?
At the start of this piece I mentioned that the year Jungle Action #10 debuted, Wolverine, Iron Fist and the Punisher all made their first appearances in the Marvel Universe. In the years since 1974, have we seen the range of storytelling that has been done with those characters reflected in Black Panther’s publication history?
At the end of the day, editorial teams allowing the Punisher to become an angel, a Frankenstein, wear an Iron Man suit, become a black man or fight Eminem, says nothing inherently about the character itself. But I wonder if Black Panther, King of Wakanda and McGregor’s insistence this be explored, hasn’t created a kind of holding pattern for the character much in the same way Luke Cage, Hero for Hire has for Marvel’s other prominent black hero. Where black characters can go and what type of stories can be told with them seems almost as limited as the path the industry once had for black creatives.
Despite now being lauded as the seminal Black Panther artist, Billy Graham faded away from the pages of comic book history when he left the industry (he went on to become an actor and playwright.) Not more than four sentences are devoted to him in both Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story and Todd Steven Burrough’s Black Panther: A Comic Book Biography. This absence is further reflected in Howe’s own interview with Graham’s surviving family, dismayed his contribution didn’t warrant an acknowledgement in the credits of Black Panther’s film adaptation. That film, if you are not familiar, draws heavily from the “Panther’s Rage” storyline. Graham’s name was also not listed on the In-Memoriam page of the recently published Marvel Comics #1000.
While Graham appears to now be getting more recognition for his work as a comic artist, thanks in part to the tireless efforts of his surviving family working to preserve his legacy and his collaborator Don McGregor’s championing his contributions to Jungle Action, we need to ask why Billy Graham, The Irreverent One, has been pushed out of Marvel’s broader history. His last work with Marvel, 1985’s Power Man & Iron Fist #114 (authored by future Black Panther scribe, Christopher Priest) puts him right back where he started with the company. Rich Buckler, his predecessor on Jungle Action, would go on to draw everything from Iron Man, Spider-man, New Mutants and Thor.
Was there anywhere else for Graham to go at Marvel Comics? Jim Rhodes doesn’t debut as War Machine until the 90s. Perhaps The Falcon? A Blade book to take advantage of Graham’s start in horror comics?
Without speaking to the man himself it’s impossible to know if he felt marginalized during his stint at Marvel. His former boss at Warren Magazines, Jim Warren, stated in a 1999 interview that “all Billy wanted to do his whole life was just be Jack Kirby.”
I wonder how Billy Graham would be remembered if the comic book industry had been willing to take advantage of the talent that dared to grace it with his presence.
Jungle Action #10
Written by Don McGregor
Drawn by Billy Graham
Inked by Klaus Janson
Coloured by Glynis Wein
Lettered by Dave Hunt
Jay Rincher is a writer and critic who has written for publications including The MNT and GWW. You can follow him on Twitter here!