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.
Elkin: You talk about the introduction of the home life, which really did add a whole other dimension to the character as well as it echoed the larger theme that was happening at the time. So it just struck me as being just right. It didn't strike me as being forced in any way or a nod to needing to have the character fit in with the whole overall thematic thing that was happening.
McGregor: I know. Jason, you wrote about this series and you write about how it feels like a 1970s book, but I don't know of any other 1970s book that was … it certainly wasn't emulating any other books that were around. Not better or worse. Whatever it was, it was its own identity.
Sacks: You know it does stand out as its own thing. There are so many elements that are so unique in that kind of post-underground, pre-corporate time frame that you were just discussing that really makes the book have a completely different feel. It's so much more timeless than a lot of the other stuff that you read from that era. So much of that comes from the energy and spirit and intensity that you bring to the stories.
McGregor: There are certain human elements that are timeless. Whether it's the relationship between couples or the relationship of what you owe society in terms of your personal life. Those elements are eternal.
Sacks: I had never picked up on the gay side of things between Taku and Horatio or Venomm.
McGregor: I had to be so careful with it. I mean if you really take a look at what I was doing with M'Shulla and Carmilla you can see the same approach. I never would have got it through, it just wouldn't … there was no way to do that then.
The only way I could eventually do gay characters in comics is when I went over to Eclipse. In the second series of Sabre books, “An Exploitation of Everything Dear”, when I first began developing it, it was scheduled as a graphic novel, short graphic novel, then as a 4 issue mini-series. I knew that Deuces Wild and Summer Ice would be an integral part of the cast in that story. After all the problems with the interracial aspects in the original Sabre, “Slow Fade of An Endangered Species”, I knew I needed an artist who wasn’t going to object to drawing gay characters. I needed renaissance guy, and Billy Graham was that kind of artist. Straight, gay, bi-sexual, transexual (which is who Dearie Decadence was) Billy would have no problem. I had a tag-line for Dearie that always made me smile, but maybe that’s just me: Dearie Decadence - Can have her cake and eat it too.
I think some people think I'm confrontational. But many of the times I had no clue there was going to be a problem until there was a problem.
By the time of the second Sabre, and the first Detectives Inc: A Remembrance of Threatening Green I knew where the trouble could come from, and almost always it was not violence, but sex that would get you into cauldron hot water in comics.
I'm doing this in 1978 – what, am I out of my mind?
Billy's not gonna have a problem, Billy's gonna go, "Fine, Don." I have a great Billy Graham story, but that would take us off the Black Panther and I'm sure you guys want to stay on the Black Panther. But it's a great Billy Graham story.
But anyhow, to do those things, it's worth having a publisher that is going to stand behind you and be an advocate and I've stressed this many times; oftentimes you get to do something that hasn't been done a 100 to 1000 times before, the books need an advocate. Somebody who is willing to fight for your right to be able to do it or you're not going to get to do it. And you have to find a way. You're continually going to have to make decisions about what kind of story-teller who are going to be, and you are going to have to make those decisions not just the first time out, but again and again, if you want to get to write stories that matter to you, and made you want to write in the first place. Especially if you are delving into subject matter that isn’t traditionally a part of the status quo. You're going to have to make those choices again and again and again. I don't think I realized that when I was younger.
Sacks: Now I think what's interesting, is that you kind of fell into that when you were creating these stories back then but you still have the same spirit; it still has the same feeling. As you've mentioned more than once, you've written every script as if it was the last one you'd ever get to write.
McGregor: Well, sometimes it seemed like it might be! (laughs)
Jason, have you ever seen the introduction to the latest edition of Sabre?
Sacks: You know, I have the book. I haven't had a chance to open it yet, I just got it the other day. I didn't even know there was a new edition of it out.
McGregor: You got the hardbound edition?
Sacks: Yeah, from Desperado or whoever? I just picked it up from an online retailer, I was like, "Oh my God there's an edition that I haven't picked up yet!"
McGregor: See if you had told me, I would have sent you a copy.
Sacks: Oh, that's all right. It didn't cost hardly anything.
McGregor: I mention it because the opening line to the introduction is, "Some people should just leave me the fuck alone when you're due to write an introduction piece about your own life." And that's my feeling now when I see people rewriting where they stood, what they did, when they did it.
No, I was there and unfortunately there are things I wish I hadn't seen, wish I hadn't heard, wish I hadn't experienced. But that's part of life.
Let's get back on "Panther's Rage", give me a chance to take a sip of something.
Elkin: When you were doing "Panther vs. Klan", did the Klan ever contact Marvel? Was there any blowback from that?
McGregor: No. There was a reaction, I'll tell you a good story about Billy Graham when we started on that, but there was a reaction when I wrote the “God Killer.” And this goes to show that you can never know how every individual is going to react to a story. I thought that it was pretty clear, what the “God Killer” thematically was about. Apparently there was at least one individual out there that got something completely different out of it. He wrote a letter saying that he was going to bomb the Marvel Comics offices, because I was saying that all black people should go out and kill all white people.
Sacks: What?! That's a hell of a jump.
McGregor: Don't ask me. Really. That's the truth. That's what happened.
But with the Klan stuff, I started preparing the Klan storyline and Billy was drawing it, and at that time I was living in Queens, so I get a call from Billy and he says, "Don, you should be careful." And Billy said, "I'm living up in Harlem, they're not gonna come and get me." I said, "Oh come on Billy, they have a sense of humor, don’t they?" And Billy goes, "No they don't, Don."
So there was more reaction from Marvel Comics to the Ku Klux Klan than there was from the outside.
Sacks: I love how the first cover calls it the Clan with a "C" too. It's like, how cowardly.
McGregor: I had nothing to do with the cover. It's very odd because, I really had nothing to do with covers at all. They were done by editors looking at the artwork before it was scripted.
So that's the story on that, on the Klan stuff. Did you have any feelings on the individual issues, or how they held together?
Elkin: While I was reading, you know I read it over a couple of days, and what I was struck with was that it didn't feel like individual issues. It really felt like an extended narrative throughout the whole thing. When I was thinking about things I wanted to ask you about it, I just kept thinking of the larger issues and not individual moments.
McGregor: I really tried to make sure that with each individual issue that you were introduced to those characters, but that there was something new about them so that if you were an old reader you were able to read that introduction; you would think, “I know that about the character.” So that even if it was a character responding to something individually as only they would respond to it and then you would have a feeling, hopefully, that it collected them all together, not that I knew they would. I hope as the people out there reread it they would be like, "Oh look as early as this, this was being set up over here" or get new meaning out of it.
And that the story would still have some value to them, give them some insight or expect to give them something new if they went back to reread it again. I'm not saying I always achieved it. People were sometimes really divided on the books. People seem to love or hate them. There's often no in between.
Sacks: You're kind of notorious for your mixed reputation. Some people love the long, emotional paragraphs and the flowery dialogue and the interesting character names and for some people it just drives them crazy.
McGregor: I think if you look at the Black Panther, for instance, the writing on the Black Pantheris nothing like the writing on Ragamuffins. And there's different approaches in the writing forDetectives Inc., or Nathaniel Dusk. They all hopefully have their own stylistic approach.
Someone did a dissertation for their university thesis paper about comics and the different writing approaches to those different series. So superhero stories, for me, demands kind of a different approach, and not to every heroic-based series the same approach, especially if you have a limited number of pages because you're really trying to draw the readers into the reality of that situation and really an understanding of what it's like if you've got these powers or if you can do these amazing things.
It's asking for an understanding. If you can create a situation where there's something in that story that stays with you after you have read it and a dozen other superhero comics. One of the challenges for me is if I can make you forget for ten seconds that the Black Panther has to come back for the next issue. Then, I feel I done one of the things a writer should be doing for that kind of book.
If I'm telling a horror story, there should be a moment where hopefully I've horrified you; if I'm telling a love story, that there's something in there that touches you and moves you romantically and if I'm writing about sex, that it turns you on.
Tell us more about the books, guys, what are your thoughts on it?
Elkin: The thing that I kept noticing was – and this was an easy thing to notice – but the Will Eisner's Spirit type opening pages to a lot of these issues. And I was wondering: was that something you pushed Don? Or was that more of an artist's choice?
McGregor: The title page designs? Those are mine. Almost all of those are mine. The initial designs for them, I think I still have some of my original layouts for them. Almost all of those ones with Billy Graham, I designed them.
The last issue of "Panther's Rage", not the epilogue so much, but a lot of those pages like when the war is going on and the Panther is trying to get in to get at Killmonger and the war is between the two of them, those I designed. I kind of wish I'd tried to have Cory find those pages, because the illustration is probably right on the scripts.
Billy loved when I did it, but you do that differently with different artists. I'd never do layouts for Gene Colan. Although with the exception on "Panther's Quest", because I wanted to continue that idea of integrated titles. I had to do those pages specifically; you have to stay with the visual motif you have set up. That’s a separate challenge, but pretty neat when it works out.
So it's something I always liked, I wrote a column that I should probably send to Jason at some point, you might want to use it. It's called "Full Circle Pop Culture". I wasn't really influenced by Will Eisner on those; I was probably influenced by Jim Steranko. I love the stuff that Steranko had done, in fact, like "Malice by Crimson Moonlight" is a direct homage to Steranko's "Dark Moon Rise, Hell Hound Kill." It's exactly the same kind of layout just with different incidents and obviously different letters.
Later on, I did use, in an adaptation I was doing on a Classics Illustrated that Marvel was doing on Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone. I had to do a page where all the separate characters are in a rooming house. I had to cut about 100 pages from the original book. And I actually used the exact design that Will used in a Spirit story with P’Gell. By that time I had a lot of exposure to Will Eisner and The Spirit. And he had a shot of a boarding house, for girls and Will cut away at all the walls so you could see inside every room and what all the people were doing.
And I used that – the format was beautiful to me – to show what people were doing and then I could use actual text from the book to cut about 100 pages to that book if I remember right.
For the title pages, I was basically influenced by Steranko, who certainly had been influenced, I'm sure, by Eisner and was well aware of Eisner's material. So you kind of get to some other place and then you can realize, "Oh it's over here, that these are people that started it.” That's when you look at the amazing work that Dean Mullaney and Bruce Canwell are doing with the Library of American Comics, like Terry and the Pirates and Dick Tracy, and at Gasoline Alley, you're rediscovering early comic story telling; this material that developed the language of comics. We think we are so clever and do so much thinking about coming up with something new. We go, "I thought I was the first one to think of that. No, they were ahead of us."
Sacks: No there's nothing new. But it's all great. So many great comics out there, so little time to read them.
McGregor: You know the good thing about the comic strips like those is that, these people dedicated their entire lives to doing their work, whether it was Frank King with Gasoline Alley or Milton Caniff with Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon, or Elsie Segar with Popeye.
It's another thing if you're just doing it for a year or two and then moving on to something else. But I know there are writers who state boldly that they won’t give their best work to a series that is owned by a big company.
For me it's like, these may be the last stories I ever get to tell. I'm going to tell the best stories that I'm capable of telling. And if I get a chance to do James Bond or Zorro, well I grew up with those characters, I love those characters. And if you had told the kid from Rhode Island that he'd have a chance to write James Bond or Zorro, I'd say, “Are you out of your mind?! You're crazy! Why would that ever happen?”
So when you have a chance to do that, well you want to make the most of it. And when somebody screws the books up, those are things that really stay with me, more than what's going on inside the individual books.
I have a funny side story, I was back in Rhode Island a couple years ago and I forgot to bring anything to read with me. The only thing at the place I was at was an old issue of Nathaniel Duskthat had been waterlogged and on the cover was Dusk in a rainstorm on a lawn with a corpse in front of him. And I'm thinking, "I wonder who this dead person is on this cover?" And I didn't have a clue. I put months and months of research into that book and I love it dearly. And I recall clearly that I timed the discovery of the body around an actual thunderstorm that was taking place in New York at that precise time. But I could not for the life of me remember who the corpse was.
Sacks: So Don, do you remember where "The Panther vs. Klan" would have gone if you would have stayed with the book for longer?
McGregor: There's no way for me to just tell you the ending; we were too far away from it. Don't believe anything anybody is saying. Some of it is very subjective and they don't have their facts right and some people outright lie. It definitely would have looked at the variety of different organizations that are very dogmatic in their views and felt that their way was the only way to believe and that if you didn't agree with them, they could use violence against you or kill you to enforce their ideology. The separatism that I saw at that point in time going on in America, I see much more of that is happening now. The book was, in that aspect I think, somewhat prescient.
Sacks: Yeah, that's unfortunately a depressing fact about modern life in America.
McGregor: We're too far away from the original story for me tell you the ending. It wouldn’t mean anything. I spoke about this earlier. Until you have read the journey to the finale, it really has little meaning. And you’ll miss not only the journey but what was revealed during the journey.
So if I told you the kid pushes Killmonger off the cliff at the end of "Panther's Rage," you'd say, "What the hell are you talking about?" A lot of people said that. The readers loved it; the readers understood it. I don't know about all the readers, but the ones that wrote in to the books, the readers that I heard from at conventions over the years, they got it.
Every once in a while someone would come up with thoughts and I'd realize that nobody has ever mentioned that to me before. I know Malcolm Deeley did that a few years back with The Variable Syndrome, when all the people would come talk to me about The Variable Syndrome over the years. The Variable Syndrome is about time travel and many other things, and Malcolm said, "It's not just about time travel, it's about human relationships. They're variable, they keep changing, and you can't control them." And I said, "Out of all the hundreds of people that have talked to me about that book, you're the first one that caught that other meaning." Normally titles will have a number of meanings, maybe two or three, depending on how good I'm doing at a point in time.
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.