Comics Writer Don McGregor Talks "Black Panther"

Writer Don McGregor redefined the "Black Panther" comic series in the 1970s with an all-black cast. He talks to SLJ about his work, returning to the character, and the upcoming film adaptation.
When the Black Panther movie hits theaters in February, mainstream audiences will finally understand why comics readers have loved the character for more than five decades. Based on the Marvel character, Black Panther is the mantle of T'Challa, king of technologically-advanced, fictional African nation of Wakanda. Though a number of creators have chronicled his adventures, it was writer Don McGregor’s pivotal work with the epic "Panther's Rage" storyline in the 1970s that not only redefined Panther but the comics medium itself. McGregor is returning to the character with a short story entitled "Panther's Heart" in the Black Panther Annual anthology, which comes out on February 21. McGregor talked with SLJ about his role in the legend of the king of Wakanda and the character's impact. Taimur Dar: Let's start with the obvious question. After being away from the Black Panther for decades, how did "Panther's Heart" come about?  Don McGregor: When Marvel first asked me about doing the Black Panther again, my initial response was "No." I loved the character and, for years, lived with T'Challa's voice in my head. My initial thought when they asked for a 10-page story was, how can 10 pages compete with more than 600 pages over a span of six years of my life? If I was going to come back, it was going to be something worth doing. I posted about my hesitance on Facebook and few hundred people kept saying, "No, you should do it!" It started making me think what kind of story it would be. I know certain people would be expecting something topical, but my belief is that being in a costume doesn't resolve the complexities of those issues. So then I came up with something with all of the characters that involved an emotional truth. I think there are certain emotional situations that transcend time and space. TD: Going back, how did you begin your seminal work on the character in the ’70s with the "Panther's Rage" storyline in the comic book series Jungle Action DM: Originally Marvel had reprint books during that time period, and one of them was Jungle Action that reprinted 1950s "jungle comics"—essentially white jungle gods and goddesses who came in and saved the natives. It was just horrendous material. When the line was being expanded, it was decided they would put Black Panther into Jungle Action. One of the things I don't think anyone thought of ahead of time  was that virtually all of the characters would be Wakandan. That meant that the cast would be African, since Wakanda, according to their established mythology, was a super technologically advanced, but hidden, nation in Africa.  There were no comics at Marvel or DC that had an all black cast of characters, and that would become a troublesome point during the unfolding of "Panther's Rage." I had met [artist] Rich Buckler while working on staff, and we both had a great passion for comics and the kind of stories that could be told.  Rich was on those first issues of "Panther's Rage." He was considered too important to use on a title like Jungle Action, but because he wanted us to work together, he insisted.  With Rich backing my play, we did those books in close proximity. Sometimes I even posed as the Panther, showing Rich how I felt he should look. I came up with elaborate title pages, and Rich never complained that it was too difficult or time consuming. He exulted in us telling the story with the most visual and literary impact we could try. Even though I had the general parameters of "Panther's Rage," I knew how it was going to end. The first book ends at Warrior Falls and the last book ends at Warrior Falls. Originally I had "Panther's Rage" planned for 10 books. I'm not sure why because I always loved the Republic and Columbia serials and they tended to run 12-13 chapters, which is what "Panther's Rage" eventually became. TD: Black Panther wasn't known for particularly well-defined villains until you and Buckler introduced Erik Killmonger. Considered perhaps T'Challa's greatest adversary, he is portrayed by actor Michael B. Jordon in the upcoming film. How did you end up creating this antagonist?   DM: If you had the king of a nation come back after abandoning the throne for whatever crazy reasons, [and then] you had one villain after another suddenly threatening Wakanda, the people would go, "Man, we were better off when you were gone."  But if the opposition were connected, it would have a unifying affect. And that meant I needed a strong figure who would lead such an insurrection.  And thus came about Erik Killmonger. TD: There was trepidation about publishing a book with an all-black cast. Did you have any concerns at any point?  DM: My concern was always what was immediately in front of me in the story: What is the next page? Sometimes, what is the next panel? As the books went on, there were people who wanted the Avengers brought in, or more white characters. I felt that what we were doing was way too important to the medium and the audience for the black hero to have the white heroes come in to save him. I stood ground on it fiercely. So it was more or less having blinders on during the horse race and just keeping your eyes on the finish line. Fortunately, so many readers really responded and took to heart many of those characters even though the stories themselves weren't that accepted in the hallowed halls. TD: Your work outside Black Panther, such as Sabre from Eclipse Comics or Marvel's Killraven,  which featured the first interracial kiss in a mainstream color comic, has been lauded for its diverse representation.   DM: I never understood why comics did not want to have diversity or handle gay characters. None of this was ever said out loud. I had gay characters with Taku and Venomm planned right from the very start, but I knew that would be my last book if I ever tried it. It is not enough to want to do something in comics, you have to find a way to get it in, to become something the reader can experience. TD:  Black Panther could be a game changer if it’s as big at the box office as the other Marvel films. How do you view the movie’s impact on the culture, especially in relation to your own work?  DM: Jungle Action and "Panther's Rage" featured an all-black cast in comics for two and a half years and opened it up for more diversity in comics. If the film is successful enough, it will change Hollywood's idea that they can't do a multimillion-dollar movie with an all-black cast. The bottom line for any of this: the only color that matters is green. I believe the reason there has been so much difficulty getting Sabre as a film is that it has a take-charge black character as the lead, and that it is a love story at its core. Doing an interracial couple at the center of a costumed hero, set in the future, film would give many pause. But in the future, with T'Challa leading the way, who knows what may happen.

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