This week in Classic Comics Cavalcade, Daniel Elkin and Jason Sacks welcome a very special guest: the legendary Don McGregor dropped (or Skyped) by to join our intrepid Cavalcaders for a special trip down Wakanda way to talk about Don's classic work on the recently-reprintedEssential Black Panther. Don was an absolute treat to talk to, and as you'll see in this really special conversation, Don is still just as passionate about this work as he was on the day it was created.
Don McGregor:It's a bizarre kind of thing. You guys going to actually review Essential Black Panther and the creator is going to be there; that's kind of an unusual thing. Here's the first thing that you should be aware of. You guys read this stuff, I'm assuming, fairly recently, and the last time I would have read "Panther's Rage" was when I was writing "Panther's Prey," and I wouldn't have read all of it. What I would have done was, when I was coming up to a character, say for instance Monica Lynne, I would go and just read all of her scenes, so I would get her voice in my head and I would make sure I hadn't forgotten any of her background. And then the same thing if Taku was coming in, I would read all of Taku's scenes. So that as I was coming into his character, you know a lot of people say, "I want to get the voices out of my head," but for me as a storyteller you actually have to do that. Get the voices in your head, speaking in their voices, not yours.
Daniel Elkin:Hey Don, you mentioned Monica Lynne, I have sort of a strange question for you about her. The character's such an outsider in "Panther's Rage" would you say that she might be the narrative center of the whole story?
McGregor: I have so many wildly inappropriate comments that come to mind.
Jason Sacks: We're adults here.
McGregor: Well, wildly inappropriate comments are one of the few things I’m good at. But I’m going to restrain myself, because what may come across as funny in a video interview can come across quite differently in print. And Daniel asks a question on this series that I’ve never been asked before. I think the characters all have their importance in various ways. Monica's certainly of vital importance and you might notice that there's no series of any length that I have done in my entire career where women characters are not a vital part of that series.
Just to go on for just a moment, years later, when Jim Salicrup approached me to do Zorro, I approached preparing to write the series the same way as I did the Black Panther. I go and read as much as I can on the character and I find what I like and then what I don't like. And one of the things about Zorro was, it was the first time I was going to do a monthly book, and monthly books are much different than doing a bimonthly in many ways that we may or may not get into. But for me to do a monthly book is really going to take up much of my creative time. I'm capable of maybe doing half a book more, if I'm lucky.
That's one of the reasons I didn't end up writing some books for Milestone and join Dwayne McDuffie when I had that choice. And I really wanted to do that story. Dwayne actually caught me at the San Diego Con and we went to eat at the Spaghetti Factory. I had been seriously developing a story, inspired by real events, so when Dwayne and I talked this idea immediately come into play. The story dealt with AIDS, family judgments that carry through the years, the Race card being politically played to devastating human disaster, and murder. Dwayne never blinked.
It was strong material, and inspired, in part, by true tragedy, based on a time when homicide detectives said my wife, Marsha, could well have also been murdered. But that’s another story. There’s always another story.
But Jim Salicrup had come to me maybe four weeks before that meeting about doing Zorro maybe even two months before, but I kept putting him off, knowing that once I committed, Zorro would become a daily force in my life. I kept meeting with Jim, sometimes my son, Rob, along with me.
I love Zorro, and certainly I wanted to do it, but anyway, I finally called Jim and said, "Yeah, I will do it." The first thing I thought was, and now, Daniel, finally we start to come back around to Monica, kind of, "I have to create a woman; a character that can be in can be an essential part of the series.” I could not do a monthly book that was just about men. Yet, I didn't just want to do bar maids, although eventually I did Eulalia in the newspaper strip and I liked her a lot. She was only supposed to be in one scene and she ended up being in it through the entire series. So as you can see, I just couldn't even imagine doing a regular series without women characters who had hopefully an equal impact on the stories and/or series.
Elkin: Monica Lynne makes the most commentary about what's going on during the story, it seems to me, and so I'm wondering if you were using her, maybe as a way to guide the reader as to what you were thematically trying to say.
McGregor: I don't think Monica's character does any one thing at all; I think she definitely illustrates the differences between Wakanda and being in America because she's an outsider and there's a lot of reaction to her because of that. I think any place where someone goes and they're the outsider, the minority, it’s going to take, depending on the circumstances, it will take a long time for them, probably, to become a part of that place.
But I'd love to listen to you guys talk about these books.
Sacks: No, you're kidding me? You're our guest, man; we've got to quiz you on this stuff.
McGregor: I haven't looked at it in twenty years. When the Black Panther Masterworks came out and Cory Sedlmeier had come over, he was putting the collection together. Cory kept his word to me. The only things I read was the introduction, to make sure, because he assured me that if I wrote it, they wouldn't censor it and I wanted to make sure that that was intact; in fact I had to buy the book to learn if the intro made it intact or not.
I went into Manhattan and I was actually going to just look at The Marvel Masterworks, but they had it shrink-wrapped and you couldn't look inside, and I had to go to Penn Station to pick up my daughter, Lauren, and son-in-law, Gil and my grandkids. I stopped on the way to meet them and picked the book up and certainly Cory had kept his word.
I read Dwayne's afterword, because the only things I read in the book were the introduction and Dwayne's piece. I had called Dwayne about including the feature he had written about “Panther’s Rage” in one of his columns, and if he would mind if it was reprinted in the book. He had written about the time he first read the book, when young, and what it had meant to him. He said, “Yes,” with the caveat that he re-write it. I told him I didn’t want to make extra work for him, but he insisted. When I finally did read it, he brought me to tears.
And, oh yes, of course I checked the backup features and I had no idea that Cory was going to take the envelopes, for instance, and reproduce them with all the original, hand-written notes and lettering.
Sacks: There's a beautiful collection of bonus features at the back of the Masterworks, Daniel; there's pages of original art, some of Don's notes on envelopes and stuff, even some photos from the era. It really is like a DVD package.
McGregor: The one thing, he was looking for scripts on the Black Panther. I have a number of file cabinets and I couldn't find them. Over the years I've become a real packrat. I collect just about everything. And thank god my wife Marsha hasn't decided to kill me over the years. But, on the other hand, I was a packrat when she met me; so, I guess she knew what she was getting in to.
Anyhow, we looked all over for those scripts, and I said to Cory, “I really don't know, maybe there's a cabinet on top of the other cabinets that I'm too short to reach, you're a lot taller than I am, Cory, reach up inside one of those top drawers there.” And sure enough, there was one of the Pantherscripts. But, I wish I had used some of the later ones because those, especially as the series progressed, had a number of my page designs drawn on them. I basically designed all the title pages that are in "Panther's Rage"; I had a very specific visual idea for them. The artists must have all thought, "Are you out of your mind, Don?" Of course, then Billy had to pull those intricate designs off and make sure they worked.
Sacks: That's one thing that's really striking about the book, the title pages are just incredible. I think my favorite issue of the whole series is, "And All Our Past Decades Have Seen Revolutions", the one that starts with the Panther and Monica on the turtles. It's just so beautiful; it's like something out of Steranko.
McGregor: I love that one too. I love that scene because it was so totally different from the previous three issues, this time of love and passion, with all the superb visuals against this beautiful background, and with the graceful movements of the giant tortoises. The sequence had some friction at the Bullpen, but the most telling line no one ever said anything about. I never thought I’d get it through. Pages after they have been swimming, and they are embracing, and there is this orgasmic burst behind them, T’Challs says, “You’re beautiful when you’re wet.”
How that got by, I’ll never know.
One of the proofreaders thought there was nipple bumps on the silhouette of Monica. Nipples are apparently always a demarcation point. It had passed editorial, and now in the Bullpen, someone was going to use whiteout on Billy’s art. Since I was there I was able to defend the art, and the claim that “We are not publishing books for sailors!” I’m not making that up. There were things like that behind the scenes. There's no incentive to get your books in early, at least in that stage of time. If you're doing something where the books were … we were doing material that weren't traditional to comics or pop culture at that time. I was basically called into the editorial conference for book after book after book. When this particular one came out, it not only got through editorial but then when the artwork would come in, I would always make sure it would arrive on the day it had to go out. Less time for anyone to fuck with the book. They had to really want to make the change, and there was seldom anything important enough, I guess, for them to hold the book up.
Because I knew John Verpooten would be overseeing it, and unless it was something really, that they just couldn't live with, or the Code wouldn't let go through, or whatever the thing was, then it had to go out that day and I would make sure I was in the office that day. It was a fight; every issue was a fight. To get the book the reader would hold in their hands, that would become the reality of the books we’re discussing decades later, to get that issue as close to the vision you had in your head, to the book you could live with.
Sacks: But if they don't get a chance to look them over first, you could just kind of do what you gotta do.
McGregor: Well, I was able to really oversee the books, I don't know so much with the planned material because by that time, when I was on staff, you were pretty safe. I think they didn’t mind me on staff because I had no editorial designs. I wasn't trying to become editor-in-chief, or if I was I was going about it in the most bizarre, peculiar kind of way possible. So they had no fear of me that way.
I don't think I was particularly good at the job, but I was no threat to anybody either. The books they gave me to write weren't expected to sell, literally when they gave me these books, I learned after I had been on them, they said, "We'll give Don Jungle Action and Amazing Adventures, ‘Killraven’. Science fiction and jungle books don't sell, and we'll tell him we gave him a chance."
I don't think anybody expected at the time the fan reaction, and what led to. There's a lot of egos involved -- this is stuff you don't think about when you get to Marvel. And certainly the story-teller, the writer, never thought about, is that there are a lot of politics, and a lot of juggling for positions of power, sometimes a narrowness of vision that limits what you can do, or may ruin your career. When people get upset about politicians doing something corrupt, at that time period there was the whole Watergate break-in for instance, for me this is just part of political shenanigans. I was just writing the stories. But, for some reason, because I loved Marvel Comics ... I loved comic books, I was dismayed by the attacks that could be made on any writer or artist if they weren’t around to defend themselves. And so since that was going on then, there were so many politics going on, and what I found to be saddening treatment of other talent, at times, it was still for me it was just about writing the stories.
But Dean Mullaney said to me in recent years, "Don, you must have been like an alien creature to them; they could not understand what the hell's going on with this guy." Because all I wanted to do was write stories. And I wanted to write stories that meant something to me. All I wanted to do was write my books and be left alone.
Elkin: Don, did you have all of "Panther's Rage" plotted out before you even started it? Or was it developing as you were writing it?
McGregor: Okay; see none of these questions have just simple, easy answers to them. There's a lot of things that influence why I made the decisions I did. There wasn’t just one decision; there were a number that I would make in those early stages. And they keep coming in to it, but essentially, ignoring the beginning stuff, "Panther's Rage" was designed to be ten chapters. And I'm not sure why I did that because I was a big fan of the Republic serials and normally they would run 12-13 chapters, and as it turns out "Panther's Rage" did end up being 12-13 chapters. Each book had an individual theme that hopefully amplified the major theme that the entire series was about.
Whenever someone asks me how a story is going to end, my real feelings about that is that to say this is the ending is virtually meaningless unless you know what leads up to that ending. So, you can see from the ending of Book One that the story has a symmetry and comes full circle and ends right where it started. Kantu is introduced as early as Book Four, so, yes, on one level, I knew exactly how it was going to end. On the other hand, I did not know everything that was going to be in the book. That was very organic, and the story itself evolved and became more complex in characters and themes as I wrote them. If I had told anyone the ending as it is, I don’t think it ever would have made it to reality. As I was writing the series, the story grew once I took him into the snow swept, icy environs, and then into the valley of the dinosaurs. That’s when “Panther’s Rage” became a 13 chapter graphic novel.
Sacks: So you had it plotted out as a ten-part story, more or less?
McGregor: Yeah, something like that. Yeah there were about ten. I'm not sure I totally had the epilogue in mind in the beginning. I wanted something that really would put it all together.
Here's the way my mind works: Before I even wrote any of "Panther's Rage", when I was coming up with the idea for "Panther's Rage" -- and I've done this with every major series I've had, I'm so afraid I won't have anything later on that I actually had -- my feeling was it's kind of one continuous story, even the complete story that the next story in mind would be something totally different. Because again, being afraid that I would get bored with it, or I didn't want to have to be writing the same story over and over and over again.
So I already had in mind to do the South Africa storyline and the search for Panther's mother. I had that when I was doing the research stage for "Panther's Rage" because I realized they had never done anything with his mother. I said I'm not going to handle that in this and I really wanted to do something about Apartheid and South Africa. In fact, Dean Mullaney told me he or Frank Lovece still have interviews I did that has a comment on that.
The problem was by the time I was getting to the end of "Panther's Rage", I was going through a pretty tough divorce. I was going in to court to get to see my daughter, to keep my visitation rights to see her. I was just trying to stay alive as a writer. And then my dad had a heart attack. Literally on the day I moved out of the house, I came back that night, and I got a phone call. I came back late because I didn't want to just come back to the empty house and it was like 1:00 in the morning when I found out I had to travel back to Rhode Island, where I was born, because my dad had a heart attack and they weren't sure he was going to make it through the weekend.
I hear people like Jim Shooter saying, "You know Don, Mr. Sincerity,” as he has been quoted, knew Gerry Conway was just letting me go with the line “You’re too close to the black experience.” and that I knew that was the way, according to him, I guess, that Gerry did things. Well, I didn’t know. As important as the books were, going to court to see my daughter was more important, and more traumatic; my dad almost dying overrode a lot of the other things in my life. And then there was learning much about the theft of artwork at Marvel that I wished I never learned. But before all that onslaught, there was the initial coping with the separation, and that’s how “Panther Vs. The Klan” came about rather than the story with Apartheid. I knew I wasn't going to have the time to do the kind of research that was going to be required to do the material on South Africa. It was America's Bicentennial, so I said I'll stick to America and the Klan became the next story line.
Now, are you guys going to review these books or what? Because I'm going to be interested to hear your comments on these stories.
Don McGregor is the writer of Killraven, Black Panther, Nathaniel Dusk, and a slew of other classic comic books. Order a copy of The Variable Syndrome and other comics from his website or his outstanding Detectives, Inc. at Amazon.