Bodies and Words:
Don McGregor's Tortured Romantic Individualism
Prose and Pain
When P. Craig Russell, Don McGregor’s artistic collaborator on Amazing Adventures, was interviewed about their 1983 graphic novel continuing the story that had been interrupted by the book’s sudden cancellation, he described a point in the new work where he felt that a transition was too abrupt. As a result, he explained, he was probably “the only artist ever to ask Don McGregor to add more text to the page” (paraphrase; find source). Russell and the interviewer shared a laugh, but it was hardly an in-joke: McGregor’s scripts were notorious for both the sheer quantity of words involved and the florid, emotional style that they brought to he page. While he was still at Marvel, his writing was parodied twice by Steve Gerber (Howard the Duck 2 and 19), and once by Steve Englehart. In Avengers 137, Thor asks the Black Panther if he would like to rejoin the team. The Panther, who at the time was the headliner in McGregor’s extended run on Jungle Action, replies:
“Thor, the fine fool’s gold of stark velvet morning seems to light the mottled tapestry of desire and disaster that comprises the legend of life for my people and myself in this hidden, half-slumbering nation-state we proudly proclaim Wakanda—/—but the amber eyes of reason widen as mauve shadows of regret creep across all the outside worldscape, and scream the bleeding need for Panther’s presence at this time.”
Thor provides a helpful translation for the reader: “Nay.”
Panther’s monologue is literally colorful, running the gamut from gold to amber to mauve in the course of a sentence that threatens to go on forever. But this palette is deceptive: McGregor’s prose is purple.
The parody is funny, but it is not exactly fair. Englehart’s Panther does not speak like any of McGregor’s characters; rather, he sounds like McGregor’s captions. One of the real hallmarks of McGregor’s writing is the ongoing counterpoint between his elaborate, romantic narration and the often witty, and downright funny, dialogue of the characters the narration describes. A McGregor script typically has not one register, but two.
No doubt, we need to pay attention to McGregor’s style, but we should not let his logorrhea distract us from the actual scenes that provoke him to such prolixity, and to what those scenes are about. Yes, McGregor loves words, but those words are so often in the service of a preoccupation with bodies. In particular, with bodies in pain.
There were only three Marvel titles that McGregor wrote for an extended period: Power Man (28, 30-35, 1975-1976), Amazing Adventures (21-32, 34-37, 39, 1973-1975), and Jungle Action (6-22, 24 1973-1976). Two of these titles had generic names that had little to do with the book’s hero (Killraven for Amazing Adventures, the Black Panther for Jungle Action), while the third refers to a superhero identity that never managed to supplant the protagonist’s civilian name (Luke Cage, Hero for Hire/Power Man). In all of them, McGregor cultivates a romantic sensibility tempered by the intense suffering the characters are forced to endure. Where the stereotypical superhero is heroic because he is powerful, McGregor’s protagonists prove their heroism through their ability to survive physical pain.
Torturing the heroic body looks almost like a mission statement in McGregor’s Seventies work; in his first installments of each of these three titles, he subjects his hero to intense, over-the-top excruciation. In Amazing Adventures 21, Killraven is beaten by a cyborg with a metal arm. As comics fare goes, this is a pretty standard trope. But McGregor has given serious thought to the collision of metal and flesh, slowing down the action at the bottom of the page for a four-panel sequence of the hand coming down on Killraven’s (not quite visible) skull:
“Before Killraven can turn toward the harsh voice, the warlord strikes mercilessly.
“Killraven, who has lived a lifetime of torment, buckles under the splintering pain.”
“A third time the metal arm descends—and the long red hair is little sheid for the scalp beneath!”
“Killraven never feels the fourth blow!”
A few pages later, Killraven’s skull is smashed again as he is strapped to table for more torture, a “molten hot” surgical implement burning into his arm while he refuses his torturer’s demand that he scream. Other torments quickly follow, most notably in issue 23, when he is captured and strapped to a table. Sweating and terrified, he hears scurrying sounds, then sees eyes glowing in the darkness. It is a horde of rats, coming to eat him:
“Taloned claws leave red welts creasing Kilraven’s flesh. Furry lips pull back to expose raking fangs that chew and gnaw….”
A twenty pound rat lands on his chest, ready to bite at his jugular. Killraven has tried to break free of is bonds and reach a torch held in a sconce on the wall, “but now he tries again, for the bonds have been severed by ripping teeth!
“Once more, the flames sear his fingertips—
“—but now it is a minor pain, lost besides the savage intensity of the rat’s onslaught.”
Of course Kllraven breaks free, but that is not the point. First, there is the simple fact of dwelling at great length (over several pages) on physical pain and terror, to an extent not found in the superhero fare of the day (unless it is written by Don McGregor). Second, and more important, is the aspect of this torture that makes it specific to Amazing Adventures and absent from Jungle Action and Power Man: this is also a scene that is self-conscious about the viewer’s reception of violence and preoccupied with the question of empathy. Killraven’s suffering is televised.
More than televised, actually. thanks to the science fictional nature of the comic. McGregor did not invent the premise of the Killraven series; like so many of the series we have explored, it changed writers every issue before gaining a permanent scribe (McGregor). But he was the one who fleshed it out. Killraven takes place in the future (2018-2020), after H.G. Wells’ Martians returned to Earth for a successful second invasion in 2001. Jonathan Raven (nicknamed Killraven) was stolen from his mother as a young boy and raised to be a gladiator for the Martians’ amusement. Before the series begins, he has broken free and gathered a band of warriors (the “Freemen”) to rebel against humanity’s oppressors. But since the series takes place in the “future” (35 years separated the date of the first issue’s publication and the time frame it describes), the Martians’ have access to some of the advanced technology developed by humanity before the conquest.
The Martian High Overlord, an alien encased in giant humanoid armor, praises the “mural phonics system” as “one of the last advancements made by your race before the end of their dominance.” Mural phonics is an entertainment system that will make several appearances throughout the series, serving as a vehicle for a set of concerns that might otherwise seem alien to a postapocalyptic saga of war and survival: the value of romantic heroism and the perils of escapist entertainment.1 Here it is introduced as an instrument of twisted entertainment repurposed as torture:
“The system was a psychosensor communication registered directly into the individual mind, creating semi-tangible images and emotions!
“Your death will be transmitted to receivers set in slave quarters—breeding pens—scientific labs across the face of the planet—
“—and they will all witness your death in their minds!
“Through that device, they will smell your fear and hear your screams…as the rats slowly devour you!
“We will kill the legend you’ve become…and the reality of your human whimpering.”
McGregor states the series’ aesthetic credo using the mechanical lips of the main antagonist: heroic storytelling is a matter of shared pain, transmitted through the medium of art. Killraven is built on suffering and empathy. At this particular moment, forced empathy is yet another violation committed by the Martians: “He hears the whirr of the mural phonics system, and knows his fear is not a sacred, private emotion!/ The emotion is ripped raw from him just as fangs tear at his limbs!”
There is a more balanced principle at work here, one that is difficult to see during this moment of torture. While it is easy to mock McGregor’s prose for its excess, the madness not infrequently sublimes into method. McGregor is torturing the reader with his prose, to the extent that the unpleasant reading experience reproduces the misery that he is describing. We are meant to identify with Killraven when he triumphs, but also when he is in pain.
I dwell on this scene, and this question of suffering and empathy more broadly, for two reasons. First, it is connected to, and redeemed by, Killraven’s one legitimate superpower, which he calls clairsentience (more on this below). And second, to provide a counterpoint to a valid critique of McGregor’s work on the Black Panther, Luke Cage, and, eventually, his own creation, Sabre (published by Eclipse Comics as a graphic novel in 1978 and a series from 1982-1985). McGregor’s otherwise defiantly anti-racist comics display a disturbing propensity for extended, graphic scenes featuring the torture of black bodies. The example of Killraven is not used to dismiss the concerns such scenes raise (“he does it to white people too, so there’s nothing racial about it”), but to suggest two possibilities: 1) the preoccupation with physical suffering is not only about race, and 2) there is something about black bodies that McGregor (unconsciously) finds conducive to exploring this particular dynamic.
But first, Killraven.
Empathy from Outer Space
The postapocalyptic setting McGregor inherited for Amazing Adventures had huge thematic potential, which the writer and his collaborators proceeded to exploit to great effect. The aftermath of the second “War of the Worlds” was hardly unique for the times. Like Jack Kirby’s Kamandi (which began in 1972), the Killraven stories mined territory already made popular by the first Planet of the Apes movie series (1968-1973) (which Doug Moench was simultaneously adapting and extending in his work on Marvel's Planet of the Apes magazine (1974-1977)). As the famous image of the Statue of Liberty buried in the sands at the end of the first Planet of the Apes film so powerfully exemplifies, such stories build upon the sense of near-complete rupture with the culture and history of the past (our present).
On the plot level, Killraven and his Freemen are pursuing the simple, but noble goal of liberating humanity from the Martians, one small battle at a time. They are ridiculously outmatched; at any given moment, they number fewer than 10, while their enemies consist of the entire Martian race, countless human collaborators, and a never-ending series of genetically-altered monstrosities either sowing chaos or working on the invaders' behalf. The incommensurate scale is reminiscent of the abrupt ending of H.G. Wells’ original novel, in which the Martians are laid low by tiny bacteria. But it is also quixotic in every sense of the word: Killraven may not be tilting at windmills, but he is both fighting for an impossible dream and, on occasion, hallucinating a completely different reality. More to the point, he and most of his comrades are motivated by the romantic heroism that is the hallmark of McGregor’s adventure tales.
This is why the High Overlord’s disdain for the mural phonics system is so thematically important. As science fiction adventure, the Killraven stories are escapist, to the extent that we frequently have the chance to revel in the heroes’ success, but the setting, details, and violence are disturbing. Amazing Adventures is meta-escapist in its frequent reflection on the role of stories and the projection of one’s self onto others, both real and imaginary. This is one of the ways that Amazing Adventures grapples with post-apocalyptic rupture, by confronting the culturally-deprived, precarious protagonists with the romantic, escapist entertainments of the past (our present).
Like the Planet of the Apes movies and comics, and, to a lesser extent, Kamandi, the Killraven stories would exploit the characters’ cluelessness for the reader’s amusement (Killraven’s group discover what are clearly Nixon’s secret tapes, and use them for New Year’s decorations), but McGregor would also bring pathos to the comedy. In Amazing Adventures 26, Killraven find himself in Battle Creek, Michigan, engaged in senseless combat with Pstun-Rage, a man who is determined to defend his town’s treasures from outsiders. Killraven is forced to kill him, but stun-Rage manages to crawl back to his holy relics, which turn out to be old cereal boxes: “Darkness descends, but his last conscious thought is triumphant! At least it was…something worth dying for!” 
How fitting, then, that while the High Overlord tries to turn the seemingly vapid entertainment systems of the past into a tool of oppression, subsequent installments show how the Mural Phonics System (and, by extension, presumably any debased medium) can be transformed into a powerful weapon in the hands of the revolutionary/romantic. In Issue 29, one of the humans who has spent years in a Martian breeding pen offers Killraven encouragement as the rebel leader commandeers the Martain’s holographic megaphone to speak to the newly liberated captives:
“[S]ome of them will remember your face[….] some of us were here the night the Martians said your death would be televised over the mural phonics system. / You should have seen [the facility’s keeper] when you turned the tables on them…he actually screamed. You were beautiful.”
And in Issue 25, Killraven encounters Hobie, a young technician enslaved to the Martians. Killraven is shocked that Hobie knows his name. Hobie can barely contain his enthusiasm:
“Ever since that night the High Overlord’s face beamed in over the mural phonics receivers and said you’d been captured—
" —and that for our….viewing enjoyment…the mural phonics system would broadcast your last living moments.
“I saw you when those rats came at you. My flesh crawled with your fear.”
“Your thoughts carved into mine. I sat in that crowded cell, unable to believe that torture wasn’t actually happening to me.
“And then you beat them! And you gave that ultimatum!
“I swear..I shouted those words with you!”
Violent entertainment in Amazing Adventures, then, is not torture porn. Or perhaps, it is not only torture porn. In McGregor’s world, the purpose of art is to harness empathy.
But when Killraven and the Freemen spend an entire issue (32) grappling with the mural phonic system, McGregor takes the opportunity to make a set of programmatic statements about the value of escapism, all while, once again, exploring the problem of post-apocalyptic rupture. The issue is called “Only the Computer Shows Me Any Respect!”, a title that starts to make sense halfway through the story. When they enter a full-scale entertainment complex in Nashville, Killraven is immediately put in the position of the naive audience. Suddenly we are reminded that Killraven, born in 2001, is the youngest member of his band; as M’Shulla tells him, “You forget, K.R. I have mem’ries before the Marian Invasion.” Tellingly, these are memories of a frustrated, boyish escapism: “I used to shadow box in fronta the bathroom mirror—/ —see myself as one of the heroes in those mural phonics shows.” On the day of the Marian attack, M’Shulla’s father walked in on him, declining to play with his son as he usually did.
“I saw ‘im in the mirror…an’ his eyes were dead! He lost his business when I was a baby…and I knew as he looked into the mirror that he was seeing’ the opposite of what I’d seen in my life.
“Like somebody cut him up raw and let ‘im look at himself. He couldn’t…face failure!
“We never played much after that—
“Not much at all.”
For M’Shulla, the Martian attack simultaneously ended his days of innocent playfulness and his closeness with his father.
Indeed, something about being in the mural phonics complex prompts Killraven’s comradess to share not just stories of their past (particular of their fathers), but also reminiscences of their pre-war experiences with entertainment. Hawk, the grim and bitter American Indian stereotype who had been with the series since near its beginning, is suddenly spurred into four and a half pages of intense self-disclosure: “You don’t really want to know what gnaws at me, Killraven. We’ve gone without telling for three years” since the Freemen first joined together. Like M’Shulla, Hawk is older than Killraven—39, in fact, and remembers fighting with his father on the reservation back in 1995. His father spends most of his time on the mural phonics system, which Hawk sees as another version of the whisky that the white men used to enfeeble his ancestors. His father will have none of it, defending himself in an argument that prefigures the next few decades of debates in media studies and fan communities about minority audiences and resistant reading:
Father: “You say I am not an equal.
“But don’t the others outside the reservation and our hogan scurry for these very same things?
“And you forget…I enjoy these shows.”
Hawk: “How about respect? Have you no concern for your loss of dignity?”
Father: “When I walk into a store with my quota and identity card, the computer shows me respect.
“It shows me more respect that my son! Now be still, I’d rather be projected into the world of Hodiah Twist.”
Hawk: “Our fight is real. This Hodiah Twist was never real!”
Father: “He was always real!”
Hawk: “And he’s a racist!”
Father: “How about that. First, he’s not real…now, he’s a racist. You can’t have it both ways, son. Sit down, enjoy.”
“And he’s not a racist when I become him!"
Hawk’s father cleverly catches his son in a logical conflict, although it is one that contemporary media critics could easily dismiss: a character does not have to be real to be racist, whether in attitudes expressed or in manner depicted. This is a point that can (and should) be turned on the equally fictional characters of Hawk and his father. Until this issue, Hawk in particular has been something of a caricature: a taciturn Indian with a chip on his shoulder and a name straight out of Hollywood Westerns’ central casting. To have two Native American men argue the fine points of racial (and racist) representation in a comic that at times betrays a presumably well-meaning liberal’s attempts at diversity suggests that McGregor knows what he is doing here. Through mural phonics, and particularly through Hawk’s father’s argument in favor of the technology, McGregor once again highlights the power of escapist fiction to be pernicious and liberators at the same time. When he writes the Black Panther, McGregor is encouraging his white readers to project themselves onto a Black heroic figure, while Hawk’s father happily inhabits the persona of a Victorian Sherlock Holmes pastiche (one whose adventures McGregor himself chronicled in Marvel’s black and white magazines at the time).
Hawk reluctantly joins his father in the Hodiah Twist simulation, playing Conrad Jeavons (i.e., Watson) to his father’s Hodiah. When Hodiah is attacked by a demon hound, Conrad/Hawk tries to help, but can’t; unable to differentiate between himself and his character, Hawk is left helpless in a fugue state. But his father was never upset: the hound is just a fiction. Indeed, the hound is fiction itself, and that is the essence of the conflict. Hawk wants to rescue his father from escapist storytelling, but his father sees no danger. Hawk tells his friends “[h]is final words were: Didn’t I tell you this was one helluva show?” Carmilla Frost responds: “Families. […] We’re never free from them.”
Carmilla should know. For several issues, she has been dragging along with her the dying body of Grok, the “clonal man” who will soon be revealed to be derived from her father. Killraven, though technically looking for his brother throughout the series, is the only member of the Freemen not haunted by his family, and certainly not by his father (never mentioned, even in flashback). He is a child of total rupture: humanity as post-Invasion orphan.
[1} “Pstun-Rage” is an anagram for “Grape Nuts.” The other two minor Battle Creek characters follow suit: “Foropulist” (“Fruit Loops”) and “Rangolar” (“Granola”). A fan named Jonathan L. Segal pointed this out on the Issue 28 Letters Page .
A Bridge Between Worlds
When McGregor and Russell finally get the chance to return to the second War of the Worlds in their 1983 graphic novel (seven years after Amazing Adventures was cancelled), Killraven’s disconnection from both the past and his family pays off. The Freemen are confronted with two new characters: an old woman named Jenette Miller, the last human astronaut before the Martian invasion, and Killraven’s brother long-lost brother, Joshua. Joshua proves evil through and through (a surprise to most of the Freemen, but not to any long-time reader who had been paying attention), but Jenette is charming and resilient—if Ruth Gordon’s character in Harold and Maude had been about 20 years younger and an ex-astronaut, she would be Jenette. . Where Joshua’s promise of a reestablished connection with Killraven’s past proves false (not only is Joshua evil, but he insists on recasting what few memories Killraven has of their childhood in a negative light), Jenette’s tales of the pre-war past strike a romantic chord.
Indeed, her mention of the name “Kennedy” sparks a kind of psychic seizure in Killraven, and he suddenly starts remembering details of an assassination that took place decades before he was born. When Killraven is forced to kill his own brother, the shock brings on another fugue state, in which Killraven is confronted with virtually all of human history and culture. This is a result of the experiments performed on him as a child:
“It was Whitman [the scientist] who made him this repository of human history. It was Whitman who injected him with fluids that would advance his physical prowess, sot that a child might survive the bloody Martian arenas.
“It was Whitman who implanted Earth’s human past, carved it with psycho-electronics into his psyche. It was Whitman who knew from the beginning that Martians would attempt to dismember humanity from its heritage.”
Whitman also made sure that this knowledge would not come this until adulthood, and until certain other metrics were met (more on this in a moment). But the result is that Killraven is not just an action hero liberating his people from physical oppression; he is the repository of everything that humanity stood to forget. He is not just the hero of the story; he is story itself.
McGregor’s Killraven stories always had their share of optimism, which was refreshing, given the long odds the character faced, but now, with Killraven poised to restore humanity’s lost heritage, that optimism feels earned. Killraven’s new function as a bridge to the past does not exhaust his capacity to forge bonds across seemingly insurmountable gaps. Throughout the original Amazing Adventures run, Killraven had been slowly developing the other power Keeper Whitman implanted within him: the disorienting, radical empathy McGregor calls “clairsentience.”
In one of his earliest visions, in Amazing Adventures 27, Killraven witnesses the degradation of a captive breeding couple (“Adam” and “Eve”) at the hands of Atalon, a human overseer. But it is only at the end of the vision that we get a sense of a first-person camera angle, when a Martian lays a tentacle on Avalon’s shoulder. The ramifications of this shift in perspective only become clear in the next issue, when Killraven stabs a Martian:
“It is as if he has stabbed…himself!
"Killraven begins to quake, much like his victim, quaking with an undeniable knowledge.
"That he is dying!
“It was dying!
“He comprehends in that searing moment. It has never been human minds he has infiltrated. "
This was a power granted to him to help in his fight against the Martians, but it also has the potential to forge an understanding between the conquerors and the conquered. This was not meant to be, but McGregor spends much of Amazing Adventures 36 (Red Dust Legacy) setting up the possibility for cross-species empathy, only to dash it in a moment of low-key tragedy.
For most of the series, the Martians have been thoroughly generic villains: tentacled, cthulhoid creatures who eat human babies and have their human and humanoid thralls do most of the dirty work. For all that they are the prime movers of the series, they are notable more for their absence than anything else, while it is their servants who get names, backstories, and actual personalities. The only exception is the High Overlord, and it is telling that he is a Martian in a giant, human-shaped exoskeleton (complete with mouth). He stands in for the Martians as a race, but does not “read” as Martian.
Red Dust Legacy is a powerful corrective to the otherwise one-dimensional human/Martian war, made possible entirely by Killraven’s superhuman empathetic/telepathic connection his alien foes (clairsentience). We have already seen that Killraven’s power places his mind within Martian bodies (and the climax of the graphic novel sees him gain the ability to control Martians rather than simply observe). Now it seems that Killraven’s power has brought him to Mars itself. The splash page declares the story’s initial location to be “Nix Olympia Volcano, Mars—December 2019!,” and shows Killraven kneeling in red dust before trying to get his bearings. He is caught up in a Martian tournament, and is, of course, hitchhiking inside a Martian mind, but he is not actually on Mars. The Freemen are in Georgia, near a facility in which the Martians have created a simulacrum of their home in order to breed and raise their offspring.
Red Dust Legacy echoes the earlier “Deathbirth” storyline (27-29, 31) about the breeding of human babies as Martian food. Not only was that the setting for Killraven’s discovery that his clairsentience is a connection specifically to Martians, but the contrast between the melodramatic, pathos-infused tale of young parents-to-be and the dispassionate reproduction of the Martians is effective. The “Eve” of “Deathbirth” goes through a painful labor that never distracts her from her love of the baby about to be born, while the parturition among the asexual Martians is simply a “removal”:
“A pear plucked from a tree!
“The tree does not celebrate!
“The tree does not mourn.
“A simple transaction has taken place. That is all.” 
Killraven shares this experience, which only confirms him in his hostility towards the Martians. Everything about the entire set-up of Red Dust Legacy initially reinforces how irreconcilably alien humans and Martians are. It is not just that the Martian landscape is so strange; it is the fact of the Mars simulacrum that reminds the reader of the distance between the two species. Just four issues ago, we were immersed in the human propensity for losing oneself in fantasy: Killraven’s elders used the Mural Phonics System to experience worlds that never existed. But the Martians are dispassionate and literal, using even more advanced technology to create a perfect replica of the world they left behind.
Killraven resolves to let the Martians know “that fear…is an emotion we will teach them!” Ironically, the next panel features the young Martian whose consciousness he previously shared: “The young Martian’s thoughts seek the replica moon Phobos”. The parallels continue. The young Martian questions his older companion about the elder Martians’ determinate to exterminate the human race, while Killraven and Carmilla Frost, upon discovering the Martian creche, nearly come to blows over Kilraven’s plan to kill the Martian babies. As the Freemen escape, Killraven throws a blade at the younger Martian, chopping off the top of its tentacle. But by the end of the issue, Killraven has gone back into the Martian’s mind, and realized his error: “we have lost more than we have won.”
The final panels show the wounded Martain waving his tentacle, under a caption that reads:
“red dust legacy…blown in the wind…we bequeath you, our descendants, the ability to hate…it is a heritage you will perpetuate with little difficult at all.”
The entire issue is a missed opportunity, built on metaphors of reproduction and infection. The Martian babies die anyway, victims of the Earth microbes that killed their ancestors during the first invasion. Killraven has been briefly infected with compassion, and the young Martian, who might have grown up to argue against his species’ policy, is now simply part of a chain of generations that have succumbed to the pathogen of hate.
Empathy is the key to the Killraven stories optimism, but it is not all-powerful.
 She flirts with Killraven shamelessly, and their banter on the last page could suggest that they will move beyond flirtation.
 McGregor is unremittingly sentimental about natural human childbirth. The female lead in Sabre, Melissa Siren, is the first “test-tube baby,” and has always felt a sense of profound loss due to her “artificial” conception. Her birth of Sabre’s baby later in the series is an issue-long scene of pain and celebration.
The Keys to the City
Out of all of Don McGregor’s Marvel work, Killraven was the one who checked most of the writer’s favorite boxes: subjectivity, empathy, rupture, and pain. His Black Panther comics would have the greatest impact, fleshing out Wakanda for the first time and supplying most of the plot points and character beats for the 2018 blockbuster movie. Somewhere in the middle we find Luke Cage: Power Man.
Each of McGregor’s ongoing series was abruptly cut short. Amazing Adventures ended with a beautiful, haunting one-off tale that was never intended as a conclusion, while Jungle Action was canceled in the middle of an ongoing mystery involving the Ku Klux Klan, to make room for Jack Kirby’s return to the character he co-created. In both cases, however, McGregor had ample time to make his mark (17 issues of Amazing Adventures and 18 of Jungle Action, each from 1973-1976). On Power Man, McGregor had a total of seven issues (28, 30-35, on the last one sharing a writing credit with Marv Wolfman, from 1975-1976) with five different pencillers (George Tuska, Sal Buscema, Frank Robbins , Rich Buckler and Marie Severin). McGregor introduced several new adversaries, many of whom went on to be featured in the Luke Cage Neftlix series, but left Cage himself surprisingly underdeveloped. True, he came up with a number of ongoing bits (such as Cage’s amusing ongoing struggles with faulty vending machines), but did little in the way of exploring the character.
This may have been because McGregor had a different set of priorities for Power Man. As he explains in his introduction to the third volume of the Marvel Masterworks Luke Cage Power Man collection, “The only comic I ever asked to write at Marvel Comics during the 1970s was Luke Cage” (np). Not because he was heavily invested in storytelling about black characters (although he was), but because he wanted the chance to write about New York City, his adopted home. The setting, rather than the character, was the draw. As a result, Luke Cage becomes a talkative, intelligent analog to Steve Gerber’s Man-Thing, or even an update of Will Eisner’s Danny Colt (The Spirit): he is the excuse for a story, the device that allows McGregor and the readers entree not just into a particular tale, but into the city where his adventures unfolded.
This does not make the Luke Cage stories impersonal or flat. To the contrary, these seven issues showcase a distinct voice. That voice, however, does not belong to Cage. It is the voice of the narrator who treats Cage’s dilemmas, and especially his physical pain, as a kind of free-writing prompt. The result is a set of stories that focus on Cage’s bodily experience accompanied by extended riffs that do not actually represent his consciousness.
The amount of suffering McGregor inflicts on his protagonist is not incidental. Though Cage’s powers are unexceptional by superhero standards, their symbolism has only grown more obvious over the decades (as evidenced by the extensive punditry inspired by the Neflix series). Thanks to experiments performed on him while in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, Cage is not just strong; he has unbreakable skin. Luke Cage is a bulletproof Black man
But McGregor subjects this invulnerable hero to an extended series of ingenious tortures, inflicting agony again and again. Within the first few pages of McGregor’s first issue, Luke is shot off a roof by Cockroach Hamilton and dislocates his arm. He seeks help from his doctor friend, Noah Burstein. Since Noah has a young boy and his mother in his office and wants to make sure the child is not traumatized, Luke is obliged to pretend it doesn’t hurt while Noah spends an entire page resetting his arm: "Luke looks up into the young watching eyes…and knows they will reflect enough pain some day..No need to add to it now.” Noah banters playfully, and Luke whispers “Noah…you../are enjoying this…/…too much!” Noah might not be the only one. And considering that Noah was responsible for the prison experiments that gave Lucas his powers without consent, the superficial lightness of this scene is particularly uncomfortable.
By the issue's end, Luke is chained to the bottom of the Harlem River Bridge, a drawbridge that is about to rise and tear him in half. The next issue of this bi-monthly comic was a fill-in, which means that Luke spent four months in real time hanging from that bridge. When we finally returns, the tone of the comic has changed drastically, and the first five pages depict Luke’s protracted struggle to break free. The chains on his limbs only highlight the chain he regularly wears around his waist, adding several layers to the iconography of this particular ordeal: he recalls a slave trying to escape, a lynching victim, and, of course, Christ on the cross. The issue’s title, “Look What They’ve Done to Our Lives, Ma!” Is a parody of Melanie Safka’s hit song, “Look What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma!”, both repeating and enacting the anxiety of artistic appropriation in the original lyrics. And whose lives, exactly, are these? Certainly, Luke’s is among them, but even as he is facing a solitary and gruesome death, the words point to people besides him.
We’ve seen how McGregor was able to combine graphic bodily torture with heightened interior states in Amazing Adventures, and we will see how he does it again (albeit somewhat differently) in Jungle Action. Here, though, we have a strange disconnect between the visual and verbal depictions of Luke’s suffering body and the emotional monologue that accompanies it. The pain belongs entirely to Luke, even as its description suggests a muddled understanding of Luke’s unbreakable skin (“The chains bite into his wrists”’; “He ignores the fact that his fingers are slippery from the blood coursing from his wrists”). But the pathos is expressed in a prose poem about the city rather than the man:
“Cry a lament.
“Cry it for the skyline that reaches from Harlem to the Bronx. The skyline that used to turn black with nightfall. It still tries, but it seldom succeeds.
“Cry a lament.
“Cry it for all the dead fish, living on their sides in the East River, their eyes mummified by the run, their bodies rotting amid the garbage.
"Cry a lament.
“Cry it for all the Manhattanites who wonder whether they should breathe come the next morning since the eleven o’clock news has told them the air will be unhealthy the next day.
“And cry it, also, for Luke Cage, Power Man, who is chained to the underside of the Harlem River Bridge."
It is not that McGregor’s writing shows a lack of sympathy to Black suffering; far from it. Issue 32 pits Cage against Wildfire, a costumed racist arsonist trying to drive George and Madelyn Simmons, a Black family with two children, out of a white neighborhood. Luke stops him, but only succeeds in saving one of the children. The story seems like a one-off, but McGregor follows up on the parents’ grief two issues later, when Luke attends the funeral. This is exactly the sort of plot that mainstream comics could easily do with a white superhero, giving readers yet another iteration of the white savior narrative. Superhero comics, even as they promoted a liberal message, tended to emphasize the need for Black people to recognize “good” white people as allies, and to abandon what the stories so often construct as paranoia. McGregor, however, is having none of that. The white neighbors are unmoved by the Simmons' plight, and one of them even warns Wildfire when George is sneaking up behind him. The white people are far from friendly, but the Black targets of their racist hostility are not passive. Having a Black character fight for this family makes a difference, as does McGregor’s familiarity with the Black intellectual tradition (the issue is called “The Fire This Time!”).
McGregor’s Luke Cage combines a troubling attention to suffering Black bodies with a role usually reserved for white characters: he is the white audience’s entrée into the “inner city.” With the exception of Wildfire, Luke fights an array of Black villains, which immerses him in the world of Black crime. But besides Clare Temple, who only appears in one issue, everyone who is a regular part of his life is white. If he weren’t Black, he would be like a white hero with One Black Friend. Perhaps if McGregor had had more time on the book, he would have delved more into Luke’s psyche, but as it stands, his Luke Cage stories are a missed opportunity.
When McGregor got the Luke Cage assignment, he took on a city he knew and a character he didn’t. The Black Panther was an entirely different matter. Created by Lee and Kirby in Fantastic Four 52, T’Challa (the Panther’s real name) had been around since 1966, as had his home country, the (fictional) African nation of Wakanda. The Black Panther and Wakanda were introduced at the same time, with both of them destabilizing any preconceptions Reed Richards and his team might have brought along with them. Thanks to the discovery of Vibranium, a meteor-derived metal with the capacity to still any vibrations, Wakanda was scientifically advanced, and, as the sole source of the metal, fabulously wealthy. T’Challa was crowned while still a youth, when a European plunderer named Ulysses Klaw killed his father in a failed attempt on the country’s riches. As both king and clan chieftain, T’Challa assumed the ceremonial garb of the Black Panther, along with the enhanced abilities granted him by a special heart-shaped herb.
After just a few more guest appearances in various comics, T’Challa left Wakanda for America, where he joined the Avengers. Given the geography of the Marvel Universe (not to mention the demography of its audience), the change in continents was probably inevitable. The only way T’Challa was going to interact with the other Marvel characters would be if he were in their proximity. As a result, Wakanda remained underdeveloped as both a backdrop and a cultural milieu. Nor did T’Challa himself benefit greatly from his broader exposure. His team adventures left him with little to do, while his character remained flat.
By the time McGregor began chronicling the Panther’s adventures in Jungle Action (yes, that name is just as bad as it sounds), he did not exactly have a blank slate to work with, but he did have a great deal of latitude. For a few years, at least, the Black Panther was entirely at the disposal of McGregor and his artistic collaborators. Expectations were low.2 Jungle Action, a bimonthly book, was never a best seller. Over the course of the first extended storyline, McGregor had a relatively free hand (although he did have to patiently explain to his editors why a book set in an isolationist African country that had never been colonized had virtually no white characters).
Decades later, Reggie Hudlin and John Romita, Jr. would start their new volume of Black Panther comics with a storyline called “Who Is the Black Panther?”, but it was McGregor and his collaborators who endeavored to answer that question first. Rather than simply retell T’Challa’s origin story, or ease the reader in with a one-off, introductory tale, McGregor immediately embarked on a multipart storyline that is a contender for the title of Marvel’s first true “graphic novel.” "Panther’s Rage” ran from Jungle Action 6 through 17, with an epilogue in issue 18, quixotically counting on the continued readership of a struggling book about a character with a small fanbase patient enough to follow a story from September 1973 through November 1975. To be fair, the serialization of the story was sufficiently episodic for someone to pick it up in the middle; new antagonists were introduced in almost every issue, and any given individual battle got wrapped up by the issue’s end.3 As with Killraven, it took some time for McGregor to get a permanent artist, but he was fortunate enough to have Rich Buckler for three issues and Gil Kane for one, before finally working with Billy Graham, whose nine issues of the initial storyline were the beginning of a collaboration that would last long after Jungle Action was canceled.
Perhaps a better implied title for McGregor’s Black Panther comics is not “Who Is the Black Panther?” But “Who Is the Black Panther for?” Jungle Action’s reintroduction of the Black Panther was also a reintroduction of Wakanda, to which T’Challa had just returned after a long absence with the Avengers in America. The Black Panther’s duties here are theoretically clear: he exists for Wakanda, and Wakanda is going to demand a great deal from him. The unfinished second storyline, “The Panther vs. the Klan,” brings him to the Georgia hometown of his girlfriend, Monica Lynne, where the Panther serves an entirely different purpose (and different constituency).4 The Panther is central to each story, but the lens focusing on him varies.
In the days before the “graphic novel” came into vogue, common mainstream comics parlance was to call an extended, multiple-part story an “epic.” There are many features to such stories that make “epic” an apt term, from the larger-than-life scale of many of the overarching conflicts to the creation of a long story out of several individual battles (issues). But if we recall Mikhail Bakhtin’s opposition of the “epic” and the “novel” (with the latter much more concerned with individual subjectivity and the former keeping its “closed-off” characters at a distance), “epic” becomes a problem. The epic does not work as well with a human scale, nor is it a genre that typically lends itself to introspection. In the case of “Panther’s Rage,” however, the epic designation has real merit. A story of long-delayed homecoming and a country on the verge of civil war, “Panther’s Rage” is an idiosyncratic combination of The Iliad and The Odyssey that reverses their temporality. First the hero comes home (not to his faithful wife, but with his future fiancée), then the war begins.5 
With all of these epic and mythic structures as the backdrop (not to mention the political and palace intrigue that fuels the plot), pinning down the Panther’s subjectivity is a bit of a challenge. Like Luke Cage, T’Challa at times seems to be a pretext for the narrator to put his physical sensations of pain and peril into words, but without letting us see much of the Panther’s actual thoughts,. The Panther’s subjectivity is thus described or conveyed more than it is actually presented. His inner conflicts play themselves out through allegory, making Panther’s Rage a kind of Pilgrim’s Progress. Thanks to McGregor’s fondness for hokey wordplay, T’Challa fights (among others) Venomm, Lord Karnaj, and Malice. The challenges to the Black Panther’s reign and to Wakanda’s prosperity are spelled right out in the villains’ names.
“Panther’s Rage” exploits the homology of king and country implicit in both these Greek epics, as well as their fundamental sense of cosmos (as above, with the gods, so below, with the humans). In T’Challa’s case, that means that the multiple competing demands on his time and attention (Wakanda, the outside world, Monica) play themselves out on the level of national politics, while the ongoing sense that the country is being torn apart is enacted again and again on the tortured body of Wakanda’s king. The combined threat and allure of breaking with the past is played out in three different father-son relations that end in (partial) orphanhood: the memory of T’Challa’s father, T’Chaka, that haunts the Panther’s rule; Killimonger’s bitterness, stemming in part from the unfair treatment and death of his own father; and the little boy, Kantu, whom T’Challa saves early in the saga, but who loses his own father, and eventually plays the deciding role in the physical conflict between the Black Panther and Killmonger.
The Panther’s Two Bodies
As king of Wakanda, T’Challa is more than just an individual man. In The King’s Two Bodies, Ernst Kontorowicz advanced the thesis that, in medieval Europe, the monarch had both the “body natural” (i.e, that of an ordinary human being) and the “body politic” (a symbolic, non-corporeal phenomenon that neither ages nor dies, but inhabits the flesh worn by a given king during his lifetime). [CITE] The context is, of course, Christian, which hardly seems appropriate for the worshipper of a panther god, but then, none of T’Challa’s writers were ever his coreligionists. When his adventures are chronicled by writers and artists of at least a nominal Christian background, Christian symbolism tends to make itself available.
Placing Kontorowicz in a context that he would doubtless fine objectionable, we can see the two bodies as more than just Christological. In having both an ordinary and a supernatural body, Kontorowicz’ king is something of a superhero. Rather than swapping a secret and masked identity in complimentary distribution, the king is simultaneously man and superman. The drama of both the king and the superhero is one in which duty must overcome passion. A good king puts his country’s interests before himself, like Peter Parker or Clark Kent sacrificing their personal lives on the altar of Great Responsibility. A bad king is selfish and self-indulgent, lacking in empathy for those who suffer. A bad king is a supervillain.
Before McGregor, T”Challa’s writers tended to treat King T’Challa as the perennially neglected secret identity of the Black Panther, hero and Avenger. In these stories, it is not just that the two identities are no longer occupied simultaneously (as they are in the person of the medieval king); they are separated geographically. Though The Avengers would occasionally show the Black Panther dropping by the Wakandan Embassy or fighting an African villain who happened to be in town to take in a Broadway show, T’Challa was an absentee king. Eventually he would be so rooted in his New York self-imposed exile as to take on still another identity: Luke Charles, schoolteacher.
Rather than sweep the problem of T’Challa’s lackadaisical history as a monarch under the rug, McGregor makes it central to the plot of his first extended storyline. Though it is called “Panther’s Rage,” T’Challa actually spends relatively little time in a state of fury. Instead, the rage is what greets him upon his arrival, surrounds him through almost the entire story, motivates his antagonists, and threatens the future of his country. All of this rage could have been avoided had T’Challa simply stayed home. Wakandan advanced technology could presumably have enabled T’Challa to run his country remotely with a fair amount of efficiency, but that was not the point: Wakanda needed the Black Panther not just in spirit, but in body.
Intentionally or not, with “Panther’s Rage” McGregor established the master plot for so many stories set in Wakanda: unity and prosperity are threatened by inner strife (often encouraged by a malign external presence).6 A rebellion is being waged by a new antagonist, Eric Killmonger, while even some of T’Challa’s closest advisers now doubt his fitness to rule. This is the context in which I propose we try to understand the bodily torments T’Challa endures over 13 issues: his physical body is also a sign of the suffering political body that is Wakanda. He is beaten by Killmonger’s spiked weapon, mauled by his pet leopard, and thrown over Warrior Falls (an allegorical name if I ever heard one) (Jungle Action 6); thrown into a fiery pit and mauled by wolves (Jungle Action 12); beaten to a pulp by white gorillas (Jungle Action 13); mauled by a t-rex (Jungle Action 14); tied to cacti and left to die , only to be “rescued” by a pterodyctyl that drops him onto another set of cacti, only to “rescue” him again at the last minute; choked nearly to death by snakes (Jungle Action 16); and dragged over a rocky dessert by the two leopards to which he is chained (Jungle Action 18). If nothing else, T’Challa certainly bleeds for his country.
Unlike Killraven (although a bit like Luke Cage), T’Challa’s sense of selfhood is conveyed from an intellectual distance combined with a visceral closeness. The narrator only shares consciousness with the hero when the Panther is suffering, and in those moments the text is primarily about his physical pain and his resolve to overcome it. Unless it is a matter of watching T’Challa formulate a plan to survive an attack, we do not get a window into his actual thought processes, even though the narrator of Jungle Action is quite willing to follow Monica’s train of thought on more than one occasion. Is this a case of white male fetishization of the suffering black male body? Given the similar example of Luke Cage, this is a proposition that is difficult to dispute. But even if this is the case, I would argue that fetishization alone does not explain it, or that this fetishization opens up other narrative and thematic possibilities in addition to the racial context.
T’Challa’s selfhood is diffuse and scattered because of the multiple roles integral to his identity, and because of the ruptures in the fabric of his country and the incompatibility of the personal and political demands and desires that focus on his person. By daring to love an outsider (Monica), the Panther is challenging his inward-looking people to accept a relationship with the outside world made literal by the relationship between Wakanda’s king and an American woman.7 The resentment of Monica is xenophobic, pure and simple, and in a number of instances (such as Monica’s interactions with Kantu’s mother), that explanation seems close to enough. But she is also a warning to T’Challa’s subjects that his attention is easily drawn elsewhere.
Overall, McGregor’s Panther is competent, powerful, and noble, which makes the first chapter of “Panther’s Rage” so radical: Issue 6 is a catalogue of T’Challa’s failures. The splash page, which shows the Panther leaping into action, tells us that T’Challa had only returned recently: “A moment before, he was re-communicating with this land that is more than his in name, re-establishing the link that has weakened since his absence from his kingdom!” He beats Killmonger’s men, Tayete and Kazibe (who rapidly become figures of comic relief for most of “Panther’s Rage”), but he is too late to save the loyal old man they had been tormenting. With his dying breath, the man tells T’Challa:
“Many of the people said you’d never come back…
“…that the Wakandas had lost their king!…that you would desert us!…
“But I knew they were wrong.”
Carrying the body back to the village, T’Challa is forced to admit:
“He has been away too long.
“Once, he was acutely attuned to this land…once, he was part of it, and it was a part of him…
“But now he is aware that there has been a subtle, undefinable change…
“…and he is no longer an integral part of his heritage!”
Back at the palace, T’Challa finds no respite. His chief adviser, W’Kabi, has lost the faith that the dying old man had maintained:
“What tears at us is a whispered threat—that leaves terror in his wake! Erik Killmonger!
“Perhaps if you’d spent more time here, you would not have to ask!”
Throughout “Panther’s Rage,” W’Kabi is the voice of doubt, in contact to T’Challa’s more faithful communications advisor, Taku. Taku reprimands W’Kabi for blaming their king for the atrocities that have beset Wakanda, but even he cannot help but express gentle criticism of T’Challa.
“Wakanda expands, T’Challa!
“There are many small villages as this one,.
“Consider… when was the last time you visited any of the isolated mountain settlements?”
W’Kabi warns T’Challa that his country is on the verge of separatism: “are you strong enough to pull it back together?” The answer implicit within Jungle Action 6 is: no. It is fitting that the story ends not just in the Panther’s failure, but in his apparent death. From now until “Panther’s Rage” reaches its conclusion, T’Challa’s fight against the fragmentation of Wakanda’s civic body will be enacted in the continued assaults on the Panther’s own bodily integrity. In terms of politics, T’Challa does rather little to assuages his countrymen’s concerns (besides defeating Killmonger), but in a heroic fantasy such as “Panther’s Rage,” this is an easy thing to miss. Instead, T’Challa wages against his country’s disintegration in heroic acts of sympathetic magic, purging Wakanda’s conflicts through his own suffering and eventual triumph,
In fact, nearly all of “Panther’s Rage” resolves political problems allegorically. Monica is framed for murder by a female palace servant, resulting in extended discord in the course. So whom does T’Challa fight at this point? A woman named Malice. After clearing Monica’s name and making peace with W’Kabi, T’Challa and his advisers face her again. How perfect, then, that a now loyal and placated W’Kabi offers to take her on: “I’ve got malice under control, my chieftain!” Malice herself knows that W’Kabi is being naive : “There isn’t anyone who has malice under control. You remember that!”
W’Kabi, so concerned with maintaining Wakanda’s integrity, cannot hold his own family together. He and his wife grow increasingly estranged over the course of the storyline, splitting up after W’Kabi’s own bodily integrity is permanently violated: he loses an arm, and now has to wear a cybernetic (i.e., alien) replacement. By contrast, it is not for nothing that the much gentler Taku is in charge of communications. He is the only Wakandan who makes it his mission to establish a bond with an outsider even more foreign than Monica: a white man with a scarred face and a passion for snakes who goes by the name Venomm. It is strongly implied that the two men are on the verge of becoming lovers (confirmed by McGregor in subsequent interviews and in Panther’s Prey).
By the end of the story proper (Jungle Action 17), we are told that it has been a year since “Panther’s Rage” began. A casual reader could be forgiven for thinking they had missed an issue, since, despite an 11-issue lead in, Jungle Action 17 begins in medias res: the Wakandan capital is under attack by enormous dinosaurs (introduced as a threat in previous issues). The palace, and virtually every building we see, is crushed beneath their hooves. Even the cemetery where young Kantu’s father is buried has been “needlessly desecrated.” The hospital where a wounded W’Kabi is being treated collapses around him, crushing his left arm. The destruction of the prison cells releases all the adversaries T’Challa had beaten over the past year, giving Monica a chance to clobber Malice (a literal villainess, but also the embodiment of all the hostility she has faced since her arrival). The story that began with T’Challa’s failure seems on the verge of ending with it: the city he calls home is gone. Graham’s layout emphasizes Wakanda’s role as literal battleground between the Panther and Killmonger, with a two-page spread of T’Challa fighting his way through crowds thematically framed by oversized images of the two men.
Once again T’Challa confronts Killmonger at Warrior Falls (that name again!), and once again, Killmlnger is on the verge of killing him and throwing him over the cliff. In a rushed final page, however, the battle is decided in T’Challa’s favor thanks to an intervention that is as symbolic as it is physical. Kantu charges at Killmonger, knocking him over the Falls and sending him to his (presumed, but eventually reversible) death. Killmonger destroyed Central Wakanda with the hulking embodiments of the distant past (dinosaurs), but the Panther is saved by a child representing the future.
The epilogue (Jungle Action 18) lingers over the damage Killmonger wrought, with the Panther perched on the fallen idol of the god for which he is named. He is distracted from his melancholy by Monica, who has discovered the new piano he had shipped in. The piano, T’Challa remarks, is “not a natural instrument in Wakanda,” but he has missed it. The piano in the rubble, along with W’Kabi’s bionic arm, suggest a new future for T’Challa’s country: a broken body to be mended with all the available pieces (domestic and imported). The issue ends on an equally allegorical note: attacked by Killmonger’s hitherto unmentioned lover Madam Slay, he has been tied to two leopards and dragged over rocks. They almost pull his arms part, but he gains control, and manages to avoid the death that awaits him (a spiky rock formation right in his path). T’Challa leaps, and manages to ride both leopards (one leg on each), steering them back towards their mistress. No longer will he tolerate being torn in two different directions, though Madame Slay turns his newfound resolve literally on its head:
“I’ll tear you open, T’Challa.
“And I’m really surprised you stuck it out! Idealists…when faced with reality. . normally bury their heads like ostriches!
“Before the day is over you’ll be buried, T’Challa—
“—and the rest of your body will join your head in the sand!”
In the end, T’Challa is saved by W’Kabi, whose mechanical arm blasts a laser beam at Madame Slay, inadvertently leading to her death. The Panther keeps his own body whole, just as he prevents the total ruination of Wakanda, but it is the hybrid body of W’Kabi that puts an end to the conflict. The Panther’s problem has always been that he is split between two worlds, leading his subjects to resent him, but now Wakanda’s future lies in the unification of local tradition and innovation.
Dear White People
After making a point of keeping T’Challa in Wakanda for two years in real time, McGregor brought the Panther back to America. If it weren’t for the actual content of the stories serialized in Jungle Action 19-22 and 24, this would be a step backwards.8 America was the site of unremarkable Panther stories in which T’Challa rarely had much to do unless the theme was racism; now McGregor launched a new serial called “The Panther vs. the Klan.” But this series was an attempt to do right with the kind of story at which previous Panther writers failed. In an issue of The Avengers, the Panther fought Marvel’s go-to stand-in for the KKK, the “Sons of the Serpent.” The Sons of the Serpent were Marvels’ attempt to be anti-racist without actually offending racists, since none of their crimes are attributable to the Klan.
Even worse, these stories consistently deployed a trope that played down racism in favor of “colorblind” evil. In their first appearance (Avengers 32), the Serpents attack the African-American scientist (and future Giant-Man) Bill Foster, as well as Asian dictator General Chen. It turns out, however, that Chen is actually the group’s leader, cynically exploiting racism to advance his communist agenda. When the Serpents return in Avengers 73 (Monica Lynne’s first appearance), their white supremacy (and Black power!) is simply a scam perpetrated by two incendiary talkshow hosts, one white, the other Black. In their third appearance (Defenders 22-25, published between May and July 1975, during the tail end of “Panther’s Rage”), it is revealed that they are financed thanks to the machinations of a Black money manager as part of a money-making scheme.9 Despite these comics' ostensible liberalism, their overall message was to downplay the reality of racism as an ideology, insulating white readers from the discomfort that could arise from a more trenchant critique while gaslighting Black readers with the narrative that people of color are partially responsible for their own oppression.10
McGregor would have none of that. As he puts in his introduction to one of the collected editions of his Black Panther stories:
“It was America’s bi-centennial, and I would joke that it was my birthday gift.
“And there was an uproar about the Klan.
“My response was, ‘Hey, you want white people, I gave you white people. There’s no satisfying you folks.’”
The storyline was cut off before it could be completed, whether because of low sales, or Jack Kirby’s desire to take over the character, or the reason McGregor claims was given to him at the time: “When I was taken off the Panther, I was told it was because I was too close to the black experience. I looked at my white hands.” Nearly four decades later, not everything about the story has aged well. Monica’s mother greets T’Challa with a meal that makes sure the reader knows it is “soul food” (“country fried chicken, spare ribs, hamhocks, chit'lins, collard greens and homemade cornbread”) McGregor’s inclusion of a thinly disguised stand-in for himself, the painfully earnest white liberal reporter actually named Kevin Trublood, is certainly a detriment.11 But other moments seem uncomfortably contemporary, such as the scene in Jungle Action 20 when the Panther tries to stop a crime in a grocery store, only to be met with violence from some of the local whites (including an old lady who hits him on the head with a can of cat food) before the arrival of the police, who promptly point their guns at him. Monica berates them for “staging [their] own improvisation of “the Ox-Bow Incident,” but twenty-first century readers could easily provide more current referents.
It makes sense that Monica is the one who ties a bow onto that particular scene. In moving his characters to Georgia, McGregor reverses the premise of “Panther’s Rage”: now it is T’Challa who is the outsider, while Monica tries to provide him the local knowledge that might allow him to navigate his new surroundings. Monica has come home as a result of her sister’s murder, making the story intensely personal for her in a way that “Panther’s Rage” never quite became personal for T’Challa. Issue 19 starts in a cemetery, with everyone watching Monica. As Monica stares at her sister’s grave, five men from the Dragon’s Circle (a rival to the Klan) approach her from behind, while T’Challa stalks them from the trees and Kevin Trublood approaches by car. Submerged in her own grief, Monica notices none of this at first. McGregor and Graham give her a lovely full-page spread in which Monica’s memories of her childhood with her sister are framed by the image of the adult Monica standing before Angela’s grave. While never letting the reader forget the racial context, McGregor lets Monica be an individual rather than a demographic. Thinking about a fight they had when they were pre-teens, Monica remarks:
“It’s obvious, dear sister, that we did not have the same childhood as James Baldwin or Eldridge Cleaver. Our bitterness did not come till much later…and it never was a part of our make-up! In fact, about the only thing I hated in the world that summer was…you!"
As in “Panther’s Rage,” the narrator only comes close to T’Challa’s consciousness when the Black Panther is being tortured. His selfhood is still very much about his body (which might explain the bizarre choice of having him go shopping at the grocery story with Monica while wearing his full costume). The last issue of Jungle Action has him tied to a wooden wheel that revolves him in and out of the river, mechanically water-boarding him almost to death. Even more resonant, however, is the scene in issues 20 and 21, where the Klan ties T’Challa to a cross that they light on fire. As [find name later] points out, during the fight that results in his crucifixion, the Panther is merely a body fighting to the accompaniment of Kevin Trublood’s long, overly idealistic speeches to Monica (they are back at her family home, unaware of what is happening to T’Challa.” The Panther is being tortured to death, but it is Kevin’s heroism that is on (verbal )display:
“…others told me they’ll firebomb you, You don’t mess with the Klan."
“And they asked me what I hoped to change?
“Write your piece. The Klan’ll still be here.”
“I don’t want to be scared…but somebody.. somewhere… made a terrible mistake.
“They made me a moral man.
“I can’t turn away. I don’t want to be hurt. I don’t want my family hurt. I love them very much.
“But I also love freedom, and I know I couldn’t live with myself if I turned away from this and pretended it didn’t exist.
“I just hope I don’t have to die…because I believe…
Watching T’Challa tied to a burning cross is painful enough, but accompanying it with a speech from a white man standing in a kitchen and explaining his own heroism is a difficult pill to swallow. Issue 20 literally gives Kevin the last word, overshadowing the Panther’s physical battle with the writer’s moral posturing. The more time we spend with Kevin Trublood, the more McGregor’s choice of an almost all-Black cast for “Panther’s Rage” seems wise. Kevin is a sponge for meaning, virtue, and symbolism, leaving no room for the Panther to speak.
T’Challa (Almost) Died for Your Sins
In his Introduction, McGregor admits that he is particularly proud of the opening line of Issue 21, appearing on a splash page with T’Challa on the burning cross: “He is not a symbolic Christ!”:
“Forget about turning his flesh and blood into some esoteric allusion to the persecution of contemporary man.
“This is the Black Panther…king of the Wakandas…also known as T’Challa.
“And he is made of flesh and blood. And the flames which consumer the cross and his body prove his humanity. “
McGregor is trying to avail himself of the visceral power that the crucifix carries while grounding the moment in the physical, human suffering of the Black Panther. Presumably, he is trying to make T’Challa’s pain real. But, once again, T’Challa’s pain is framed by Kevin Trublood’s verbiage. And the insistence on a lack of symbolism is puzzling. Yes, it’s real pain, but why even spend pages with a body tortured on a cross while insisting that the cross means nothing? Even theologically, it’s a problematic choice. The point of Christ’s suffering is supposed to be that, on the cross, he suffers like any human would, and not like a divinity. The sheer physical agony T’Challa endures is Christlike in its intensity. The real question is: is it Christlike in its purpose?
This, in turn, brings us back to the fundamental question raised earlier in the chapter: not “Who is the Black Panther?” but “Who is the Black Panther for?” In "Panther’s Rage,” he exists for Wakanda, with his home country developed more than his character. In “Panther vs the Klan,” he is fighting on behalf of Monica, engaging in a struggle that, despite its obvious relevance for a Black man, is not, at heart, his: “X vs. the Klan” is a quintessentially American story. It makes perfect sense that he involves himself in his lover’s family tragedy: what kind of partner, let alone hero, would he be if he did not?
But again, Kevin Trublood’s role is indicative. The Panther is suffering not just at the hands of whites, but in her service of a melodramatic narrative whiteness. He is acting out the drama that Trublood is narrating, a Black man taking a beating in a story mean to raise the consciousness of its primarily white readers. As always, McGregor is at great plains to make his hero’s pains real; violence is not to be taken lightly, for it always has a human cost. But the Panther’s body is tortured as part of struggle against one of America’s original sins, that is, the commodification, abuse, and murder of Black bodies over the course of more than four centuries. If T’Challa is hurt in the process of confronting white American readers with their country’s crime, how is that not Christlike? T’Challa suffers for the readers’ sins.
Yet martyrdom and whiteness are not the entire story. McGregor takes a detour from the main plot in Issue 22, when T’Challa and Monica listen to Mrs. Lynne’s tale of her ancestor Kaleb, a freed man tormented by the Klan in the aftermath of the Civil War.12 McGregor, Graham and co-penciler Rich Buckler turn most of the comic into an illustration of Mrs. Lynne,’s story, but with a twist: the initial portrayal of Mrs. Lynne’s words shares the page with the visual depiction of Monica’s own appropriation of the narrative. In Mrs. Lynne's depressingly familiar tale of intimidation and lynching, Caleb is a skinny old man who could not possibly hold his own against the white supremacists, but Monica turns her mother’s family legend into her own personal heroic fan fiction:
“And in her interpretation of the story, Caleb is noble and unconquered, proud and defiant…a giant capable of compassion.
“And the night the klan met her cousin Caleb and his family was an ebon mystery…. And her man, the Panther, was there!
“Before they appear on the horizon, the Panther is aware of their approach.
“He waits with considerable cool for the inevitable conflict!”
In her mind, Caleb is taller and stronger; thanks to the Panther, he will survive rather than be lynched.
While this issue might seem to be irrelevant to the arc’s overall plot, it is the thematic key to everything McGregor and his collaborators are trying to do. Heroic fantasy can be gratifying and even restorative in its depictions of oppression and abuse, and in this particular issue, the Black Panther is, for the first time, framed specifically as a wish-fulfillment figure for African Americans. At a time when Hollywood had yet to turn to chattel slavery as the defining narrative for the Black American experience, Jungle Action was already imagining the next imaginative leap away from a seemingly endless series of stories about Black victimization. This issue also demonstrates the power that consumers of popular narrative (including, but by no means limited to comics) can read against the grain and create meanings for themselves that the texts would seem to lack.
In fighting the Klan, the Panther is tangled in a complex narrative and ethical knot. He is not in this story for himself, but for Monica, for Kevin Trublood, and, by extension, for implied Black and white readers with their own backgrounds, baggage, and agendas. He is also faced with the fundamental problem of the superhero confronting social injustice: he cannot solve the problem with his fists, and if he “solves” it in some other way (magic, super science), he shatters the illusions that the world of the comic book differs from the “real” world only in the existence of superheroes. To have T’Challa stop a lynching in the 19th century would be to whitewash history. McGregor’s solution is to double down on the power of comics: imagination. Jungle Action 22 stops short of proposing that the Black Panther actually go back into the past and prevents a racially-motivated murder; instead, the comic shows the solace provided by the fantasy of a Black hero who could stand up to racist terrorists and fight for justice.
As an exploration of subjectivity, “The Panther vs the Klan” succeeds not by exploring the consciousness of the Black Panther. This is not because McGregor is incapable of doing so, or uninterested in T’Challa. When he finally gets the opportunity to write the story of T’Challa’s search for his long-lost mother in South Africa in 1989’s “Panther’s Quest,” this very personal story is accompanied by the Panther’s full-fledged interior monologues. But during the brief time that Jungle Action spends in Georgia, it excels at portraying the inner life of Monica Lynne.
McGregor never actually explains what mural phonics is or how it works, and neither the word “mural” nor “phonics” is particularly helpful. The term was probably a transposition of Phil Spector’s famous music production formula known as the “wall of sound"↩
Find quote from podcast interview about how he was expected to fail.↩
Even so, this was an unusually high level of continuity. By comparison, during that same time-period, 27 issues of The Incredible Hulk (167-194) were scripted by four different writers (Steve Englehart, Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway, and Len Wein); depending on how one counts them, these represented 19 different stories (although one should note the artistic consistency provided by Herber Trimpe as penciller for every single one of them). ↩
In the 1980s and 1990s, McGregor returned to the character two more times (though not to the KKK storylines, which had been wrapped up by others). In “Panther’s Quest” (1989), a 25-part story serialized in 8-page installments for a weekly anthology title, T’Challa goes to South Africa to find his long-lost mother (later retconned as his step-mother), while in the four-part Panther’s Prey (1991), T’Challa brings Monica back to Wakanda with the intention of marrying her. Drawn by Gene Colan and Dwayne Turner respectively, they are an important part of McGregor’s work on the Black Panther, but are outside the scope of the present study. ↩
T'Challa and Monica finally get engaged in the McGregor-penned ministers Panther’s Prey (1991). They were supposed to get married in McGregor’s next Panther story. No follow-up was published, however, and when Christopher Priest brings Monica back for his run, she is embittered over T’Challa’s breaking of their engagement. McGregor has only written one more Black Panther story to date, a short piece in an anniversary issue, about T’Challa visiting a cancer-stricken Monica on her deathbed. [Find issue]↩
Both Christopher Priest and Ta-Nehisi Coates would start their runs on Black Panther with Wakanda on the verge of civil war. ↩
One of the many ways in which “Panther’s Rage” subverted convention was to have the insider/outsider conflict not be a problem of race or “miscegenation;” to follow the story, readers had to internalize the fact that being Black does not universally confer identity or commonality. Black or not, for many Wakandans Monica was a foreign interloper not to be trusted. ↩
Issue 23 was a reprint of a Black Panther story from an old Daredevil comic. Jungle Action was canceled after Issue 24. ↩
This was not Steve Gerber’s finest hour.↩
When completing the “Panther vs. the Klan” years later without McGregor’s involvement, Ed Hannigan gestures in the same direction when he reveals that Monica’s father was a member of the Dragon Circle, a competing secret society whose goals were not explicitly white supermacist. ↩
By contrast, the cringe-inducing Trublood highlights the cleverness of Christopher Priest’s later run on the Panther, where the white viewpoint character he introduces as a possible figure of identification for white readers is funny, obnoxious, and prone to low-key racist assumptions and statements.↩
Kevin blathers about freedom on the second page, but after that, he is mercifully silent↩