9/23/2009

Powerful Panels: Jack Kirby's Black Panther

Of course, we all know Jack Kirby as "the King of Comics" for his creation of much of the Marvel Universe and his wide breadth of more experimental work later on. He’s known for his furious work ethic and due to that the quality of his work can vary sometimes, especially late in his career. These variations can lead to big surprises--things that maybe wouldn't exist if Kirby was more consistent-- when, in the middle of a decent Black Panther comic, you get an engaging and deepy emotional page of Black Panther crawling for his life through the desert.

This three-issue arc’s main thrust consists of a monster running amok in the Black Panther’s kingdom, Wakanda. The Black Panther is off doing his own thing when his plane is hijacked and crash lands in the desert on his way home. The page grabs you at first because it’s such a contrast to what’s going on in the main monster storyline. Here the Black Panther isn’t battling a supervillain or confronting political issues, like in many comics of the time, but rather the real-life effects of nature and a dying body.

The tone of the page, and especially the above panel, parallels Morrison’s recent run on All-Star Superman. Here is a superhero on his dying breath struggling mentally to keep hope alive. Kirby and colorist Irene Varnitoff show the Black Panther’s face as a man on the brink of death by severe dehydration. It’s the same slow death as Superman, where the mind has time to think about what’s coming. Both heroes refuse to accept defeat as Superman inspires hope in those around him in his final days, and Black Panther talks about hope similarly--as the vital component to life. Each hero's ultimate strength come from a spirit that “yields no grounds to the demons of darkness.”

The parallels continue with the end of this Black Panther page and the finale of All Star Superman. The conclusion of Superman shows him sacrificing himself to save the sun thereby saving Earth. Morrison makes Superman/Jesus allusions all throughout the twelve-issue run and the ultimate fate of Superman is left ambiguous. He may return as a clone or maybe he is alive in the heart of the sun. Superman represents a god-like persona and even in defeat, through sheer force of will, turns things around.

Kirby was working with the same ideas decades before, undoubtedly influencing Morrison. Although Black Panther doesn’t represent anything more than human, the strange robot in the last panel becomes a kind of hero to a superhero; a God. God basically is this unknown thing and for all we know could be this crazy giant robot. It’s Black Panther’s saviour here and something that he summoned seemingly from will. Kirby changes from thought bubbles to speech in this panel making the robot’s appearance almost an incantation from Black Panther. In Kirby’s Black Panther and Morrison’s Superman, God is rooted in humanity. Humans are able to create, construct, and continue forward via hope and belief--and those things alone, the reality of such things don't matter--despite being surrounded by unknown and terrible conditions.

Kirby has always been especially interested in the idea of Gods and mythology. Galactus, in his first incarnation in Fantastic Four, represented and God, and years later, Kirby would illustrate a Silver Surfer graphic novel that begins with an introductory, full-page spread of Galactus’s opened hand with the Silver Surfer and cosmic rays bursting out. A comic book creation myth.

Galactus' hand is in the same similar position to the Black Panther’s hand with sand pouring off his fingertips. The thickness of the sand and the appearance of Kirby’s trademark cosmic circles give it a supernatural quality. Almost as if the sand is being created by the hand. It gives the impression that the Black Panther is willing life to surround him and not the more reasonable opposite. The robot that appears, created by Black Panther just as well. It’s a more cynical approach in that man has manufactured God, but it’s hopeful because man has that enormous power. Kirby’s idea of God shifts from an all powerful tyrant in Galactus, to a more human-based one similar to the Silver Surfer. Kirby sees the ability to hope in the face of impossible odds or to shape even shifting sands on his dying breath as representative of this nature.

2 comments:

Michael said...

Well-said, man. Picture/ thousand words, and you made every one count. Thanks for unearthing and excavating this page.

Viagra said...

Kirby might be the king but i still believe that Stan Lee is the comic God.as a hardcore Marvel fan as i am i can't imagine what would it be of the world with him! Excelsior!