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-reprinted Essential 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.
Sacks: Okay, Well … I've read these stories I don't know how many times now and I'm always taken aback by a few things. One is the fact that the Panther goes through literal hell to get back home and fight this revolution. Everywhere he goes throughout Wakanda, he fights creatures and people and he's literally ripped to shreds in order to preserve his kingdom.
He really goes through a hero's journey, literally through blackness and into light again, in order to save Wakanda. I always just thought the character arc is just beautiful in this and the story arc is just extremely powerful in Jungle Action. I'm curious what Daniel thought as an educated teacher about that whole arc?
Elkin: I was struck by what you just said that the hero's journey aspect of it and how so much of what was happening in the physical world was reflected in his interior, but as well, through this whole thing, I was incredibly impressed with how you were able to blend those two things together so seamlessly.
McGregor: Well, thank you. “Panther’s Rage” truly was conceived as a hero’s journey. T’Challa wins the important battles that, obviously in less physically incredible ways, we all, as human beings face on some level. I appreciate that. My feeling about it was I wanted to make it as real as possible. The bad thing about the Essential being in black and white is that there was so much work done on the coloring, because color was so much a part of creating that ambiance of Wakanda and making it a special place.
Elkin: I notice in your narrative, you reference colors quite a bit so adding that juxtaposition to the black and white was a little disconcerting.
McGregor: Well, I was very fortunate to have Glynis Oliver as my prime colorist. I believe the reason she stayed with the series so long was because it was a jungle book and didn't take place in New York City. I was always putting the characters into very visual places. There are very distinct things that I wanted in the color. I would continually tell Glynis that whenever it is night time, there's never a regular moon, it's never pale; it's always a Frank Frazetta moon and its always got clouds going through. It's always got a shade, a little bit of orange in there or a little bit of pink or red or something in it. I would tell Billy Graham this too, and Billy would get it right away. We both loved Frank Frazetta.
So for me this approach made it very distinct, it's only there in Wakanda and you have a feeling, every time you go in there, "Hey we're in this unique, special, hidden place that's full of fantastic things."
But, on the other hand, going back to what you were saying, Daniel, is that I was trying to make everything as real as possible. You know, if you're dealing with dinosaurs then well, what would that be like if I had to go through that? And some people they think, "Oh it's so glamorous being a writer."
I could take "Panther's Quest" which I really hoped they would someday collect. “Panther’s Quest” as it stands now is buried in 25 different issues of Marvel Comics Presents and most people don't even know that “Panther’s Quest” exists even though Gene Colan did a terrific art job on it, and Tom Palmer inked it, and John Costantza lettered it, plus we had good coloring through-out. I had great editorial support at that time, mostly because of Terry Kavanagh and because the story was a buried in the middle of an anthology comic. Otherwise it couldn't have existed.
What we got to do was a series on South Africa at a time period where hardly any media were covering much on Apartheid. And we got to do it in comics.
But again going into the coloring, there were very specific approaches that I wanted for the coloring; what kind of blues are used in the Black Panther's outfit, and what kind of blues aren't used in this outfit. So there was a lot of attention played to details that would have an overall impact on the book.
Elkin: And you lose the whole aspect of that in this Essential collection.
McGregor: Yeah, exactly. When they sent me a copy of the Essential, I literally just flipped the pages. And it doesn’t have the introduction that gives a detailed history of what happened during the course of writing those books, and what was done in them during the early 70s, at Marvel, and in pop culture in general. It also doesn’t have Dwayne McDuffie’s writing the afterword, so I miss that. It was curious to see the art without color. I guess because I’ve seen it colored for decades, it just seemed strange.
Elkin: One thing that happens, though, is that it really forces, at least for me as a reader, to focus a lot more on the writing itself. Certainly the art is incredible but because it's a black and white presentation, the writing stands out more. So, as I said before, the different references that you make to colors really were evocative enough for me to sort of put the colors in there.
McGregor: I'm glad to hear that. The one thing that I wish they had put in to the Masterworks collection, and I lobbied for it but I know that Cory somehow got them to put 16 more pages into the book at the same price to put all those backup features into it. But the one thing I wish, and I think there may have been room, there were some places where they had to put an illustration of the Black Panther's silhouette to save a page for a double page spread or whatever. I would have loved to have the letters pages in there because there were such a synergy that went between me and the readers who wrote to the books as they came out; as the stories went along and as the readers reacted more and more to the story, as a storyteller I had never experienced that.
The book went out of the office and then in a month it was on sale. So even though that sounds like a long time, you know with the Internet and emails and Twitter and all that now, still you're getting response to these stories four, five, six weeks after you wrote them. People are writing 5, 6, and 7 typed, single spaced lines, analyses of these stories and what they meant to them.
It was an incredible experience; it was kind of scary in a lot of ways, I really felt I was climbing a cliff and the next issue I'm just gonna go right off the edge and they were going to go, "Are you out of your mind?"
It was very clear when they came to me about doing this series. They had been doing Jungle Action as a reprint book, and I was working on staff at the time as a proofreader. I was appalled that Marvel was printing blonde Gentile gods and goddesses in the jungle and some of the stories are incredibly racist. And I mentioned that, "If you're going to do a jungle series, why don't you have a black character in there." I wasn't even thinking of the Black Panther and I wasn't thinking about me doing it. Just, "Hey guys, really seriously, isn't there a way to put this stuff out and not have this racist stuff in there?"
There are a lot of unwritten rules when you get into comics, and maybe some of those unwritten rules have changed now from that time period. Those particular stories could only have existed within I think the two or three year time period that they were around, because the line was burgeoning so much. There were so many books that the editor-in-chief really couldn't go over every book.
So they were really concentrating on their major titles like Spider-Man or Fantastic Four and Thor, and as much as I loved all those characters, the great thing about doing the Black Panther or Killraven, they would just look at the artwork to get a cover idea and to see what you were doing. And so one of the things I knew I had to do was kind of like spinning pretty pictures for them because they were seeing it before the final script was written.
As long as there was a lot of Black Panther in there, then I could play around with my supporting cast. I knew with the supporting cast, again this is an unwritten rule, kind of, but if you create the characters then you can well enough do what you want with them. You don't have to go ask permission, "Oh, I want to do this." Or even do something with, like marry the Black Panther, well then it has to go through committees. You can't just do it. You have to find a way to do it.
And it's not enough to want to do certain things; certainly back in 1973, you had to find a way to get it to be that kind of paper reality, even though Jason tells me that paper is dead. (laughs) The reality you can hold in your hand and the book is real. I kept creating scenes where Taku and Venomm were together. I did the same thing with M'Shulla and Carmilla. For a lot of people it may be difficult to comprehend, but in those days you could not just do an interracial couple. In early stages of Killraven, when M’Shulla and Carmilla had scenes together in each issue, I had an artist go to the editor and threaten to quit if I was doing a “salt and pepper” relationship as it was referred to when I was called into editorial. I could not say in the beginning that that was exactly where I was going to go, so I referred to them as a Modesty Blainse and Willie Garvin duo, which the comics people could equate, because it existed.
My hope was the fans would come through and write about when would I get them together. Because on the outside few people will know the writer can’t just do a thing. And the fans, as they have so many times, came through for me. And then it's protocol cause then I could go to the editor and say "I want to have a meeting with Stan." And I think you just had to know how to approach Stan. And I know that Stan wanted Marvel Comics to be the first to do things and so to do the interracial kiss in “Killraven” we had to have a big meeting and at one point Stan said, "Can't she be green, Don?" And I said, "No, it’s already established that Carmilla is white" and finally it was decided I could do it, but I had to do it in knockout colors. In other words, both characters would be in purple or something like that.
And then when the book came out, I don't know what happened there, it wasn't in knockout colors. I got certainly called into the editorial office and they said, "Jesus, Don! Look at this; this is in full color. How did this --" And I'm like, "It is?" So, they weren't too thrilled, but the roof didn't fall in on their heads, that made it a little easier for someone to do the next time.
But it was a real fight there for a while. So if I had gone towards trying to put gay characters in to the comics, at Marvel at that time that would have been my last book. I would have been out of there. So I managed to do it with Detectives Inc. and then later Sabre, because Deuces Wild and Summer Ice were the first gay male supporting characters in mass marketed American comics.
And there was no agenda there. People tried to read all kinds of things into this. What I didn't understand was, why in comics you could only have one particular kind of people. And if comics' basic bottom line is green, then why wouldn’t you want to represent potential buyers of comics, "No we could never have a gay character there; no we could never have any kind of other ethnic persuasion." I never understood it at all.
With this series, they set up the fact that it was going to be the Black Panther in Wakanda. But then it was an all black cast of characters and I would get called into the office all the time and told, "You need to get white people in here, where's the white people?" And I said, "This is a hidden African nation, you guys set up the idea of it, where are all these white people supposed to come from?" When I did "Panther vs. the Klan", all hell broke loose. I was actually in the office one time and very upset, I said, "For two years you people have been bugging me for white people. Finally I added some. There's no satisfying you people."
Sacks: You think that's not quite what they had in mind, Don?
McGregor: Probably not.
Sacks: One thing I wondered about forever is, the book got canceled and then very quickly there was the Jack Kirby Black Panther book. What happened there? Was that a commentary about your work, or did Kirby ask for the Panther? How did you end up losing the series?
McGregor: I think the book was dropping in sales. Although I always intended to put costumed characters into the series. No, I don't think Jack was aware. I'm not even sure he was aware Don McGregor existed. Certainly probably he never saw any of the books that I ever done. I think Jack was coming back to Marvel. You're going into another area that I had only been maybe vaguely aware of; I never read Jack’s Panther books, read any of the Panther stuff after I did it. In fact I don't do that with any of the characters.
Part of the reason for that is that, it's like with the Black Panther, you live two or three years with that character, you have things you plan to do with him. My feeling is, other writers may come in and do the character better than I ever did. But I don't know that you could come to it objectively when you've invested so much of your life into these characters. People have a right to do anything else they want with those characters. Now not with Sabre and not with Detectives Inc., you've never seen anybody else write Sabre. When Eclipse did a thing called Total Eclipse Dean Mullaney knew and understood my position on this and said he never even bothered to ask if Sabre could be in there, he knew my answer.
Because, unless they are paying me so much money that my wife doesn't have to worry for the rest of her life, then someone could take it and I'd say to myself, "Please God, let me stay away from it." But I’d have to repeat it like a mantra, I’m sure.
Sacks: So one of the things that I always meant to ask you Don is, why does the Panther fight so many different animals? Rhinos and leopards and snow apes, and he seems to fight an entire zoo's worth of animals. Is there a symbolic reason behind that, in terms of his journey? Or is this more just a lot of really interesting antagonists for him to have? And even the villains have real animalistic tendencies to them; Venomm being one, Erik Kilmonger has his leopard. Is there a reason why it really is very much about him fighting natural creatures as opposed to conventional villains?
McGregor: Now I have to think about this.
There's a certain kind of ferocity that comes on a purely physical level when T'Challa is going up against some of the creatures that he's going up against. Also, I really wanted to take a lot of the elements that were in classic jungle epics and have them represented in one big story. So there's a lot of ferocity that it would have been harder to do at times with human characters. Although they could be pretty ferocious, too, at times. It really was subtle. It was a jungle epic. I tried to have all the different elements in there, but hopefully bring something new to it and have it work on more than one level because that was one of the major feelings I had about what I should try to incorporate into the series.
When people that are reviewing comics very often, what they're not taking into account is what was done WHEN. The historical context is often lost after years. My hope when writing the books that the human conflicts, the choices and desires and defeats and the wins will not date. That “Panther’s Rage”, for instance, will still resonate on more than one level for some readers, and that it doesn’t read as if this is a book that is one of the first to have an all black cast characters, that you still are just involved with T’Challa, Monica, Taku, and W’Kabi, and the others as individual human beings. It would be great if there were some recognition that it was one of the comics that helped open up to what could be done in the medium. There are so many writers and artists that have fought this over the decades, to dare, to try, to express their own stories.
There were other factors that made me make the decisions I did on these books. Those were bimonthly books and I know I've talked about this in other places. But, for instance, if you have supporting characters like W'Kabi and Taku and Monica, if you write them off for one issue, in a bimonthly comic, -- remember at the beginning we had I think 13 pages -- 13 pages of story that had to last with the readers for two months. So, if you didn't write those characters into one issue, that's four months that the readers don't see those characters. Write them off for two issues, that's half a year and that's a long time to ask an audience to build up an emotional response to those characters and to care about their lives.
So I was always conscious of that and tried to make sure that they each had their a scene, a moment that was truly theirs alone. I liked the idea that you could use what the traditional type of supporting cast is in a series. In other words, you come to know their function in the book, and what they bring to it. And we normally see them in one element, how they relate to the lead character.
After a year, the readers have a pretty good idea of who the characters are. I hope at the beginning of a second year to take those expectations and twist them and show them in a totally different dramatic light.
In the very first issue of the second year of the strip, suddenly you're going to see W'Kabi, a guy who's on the job, a guy who's the adviser to T'Challa and there's an opposition to the way he's doing things. He’s a military man with a stern idea of how things should be and is often in opposition to T’Challa. We almost always see him as strong and implacable. And then suddenly you see his home life and to me that just opens up the series and makes those characters more human. And the audience doesn't know which way you're going to go with these characters because there's more to them than they had expected in the beginning.
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.