For nearly fifteen years, Black Panther has been featured in a starring role on the shelves. It began in 1998 with the launch of his Marvel Knights series and continued since then through various relaunches and limited series. While it’s true that some months did go by without a Black Panther book when he was in between series, these gaps were never wide and long lasting. The next book was always on the horizon. I think this is something that gets overlooked a lot when people talk about comic companies’ dedication to improving diversity. Marvel Comics may not have launched so many titles starring minority leads as DC Comic recently has, but Marvel has shown a longstanding commitment to one of their top black heroes that will be hard to match.
But is that a commitment that should continue? With the end of Black Panther: Most Dangerous Man Alive, it may be time for Marvel to move on.
It has also been nearly fifteen years of struggle for Black Panther. Attempt after attempt, the character fails to find a large enough audience. Every time interest in him spikes, readership quickly falls back to the previous levels and then goes even lower. Consistently, sales of his books seem to settle at a level that is just too low to sustain a series.
Now, good excuses can be made for all of these failures. Critically acclaimed as it was, Christopher Priest’s Black Panther was not friendly at all to new and casual readers once it got going. Reginald Hudlin’s Black Panther may have gotten every break and stunt possible from Marvel to spike its sales, but let’s just say it was definitely not critically acclaimed. It could be argued that Jonathan Maberry never really got a fair shot because readers had already made up their minds about Black Panther at the time. And despite being well written, David Liss’ Black Panther: Man Without Fear launched out of a weak event with a premise that few readers seemed to buy into. I’m not disputing any of this.
Yet, none of that means the character is innocent in all of this. Maybe even under ideal circumstances, Black Panther is just too tough of a sell for readers.
This will sound weird, but Black Panther’s problem is that he is such a fictional character. What I mean by that is there is so little about him that is familiar or real. He is the royalty of a fictional country and head of its fictional religion. This country, due to its isolated history, has its own fictional culture. It also has wildly fictional technology based on a wildly fictional metal. Sometimes, it seems like you need a Ph.D. in Wakandan Studies to follow Black Panther. At the very least, you need to have a basic understanding of vibranium, Wakanda and the Panther Cult to get the character. This is a lot more baggage to dump on a reader than your average character.
This isn’t a problem exclusive to Black Panther, and there are potential ways around it. Fictional countries are obstacles for many monarch characters. There’s good reason that Geoff Johns has distanced Aquaman so much from Atlantis in the currently successful Aquaman series. Hell, this was the reason for the strained premise of Black Panther: Man Without Fear. Yet, it doesn’t work for T’Challa. He’s not that guy. He isn’t like Arthur or Namor. You can have them turn their backs on their countries without much problem. T’Challa, as he has usually been characterized, is too determined and patriotic for that. Trying to distance him from Wakanda is more akin to trying to distance Batman from Gotham City. You can get away with it as a short term thing, but it just doesn’t work as anything ongoing.
Written as he should be, Black Panther is virtually impenetrable to new readers. Written as he shouldn’t be, preexisting fans become divided by a watered down version of their character. This isn’t an impossible challenge, but it is a major one that should be acknowledged. It’s also one that Marvel hasn’t been able to overcome after more than a decade of trying.
In the Marvel Universe, Black Panther may be the top black hero around, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he is fit to be Marvel’s top black character. It’s not like Spider-Man and Wolverine are really the top heroes inside the universe. Yet, they are the top characters of Marvel Comics while Captain America and Iron Man are not. Marvel has other black characters, and several of them do not have the challenges that Black Panther has in reaching out to readers. It may be worth Marvel’s time to refocus on some of these other characters.
After all Brian Michael Bendis has done for Luke Cage, there’s really nothing left to do but finally launch an ongoing series. I’ve always been dumbstruck at Marvel’s inability to get a decent Blade series going. Since Victor Gischler is aching so much to tell vampire stories, he may as well be supported in writing a new Blade book. I believe Greg Pak has said he would love to write a Storm series. Why not let him give it a shot? There’s something wrong if Greg Rucka is at Marvel Comics and no one there has considered the idea of pairing him up with Misty Knight. I don’t know if Falcon can ever work as a solo character, but the best time to give it a shot is while Marvel is trying to build up a Captain America franchise. At the very least, why isn't it Captain America and the Falcon?
I’m not saying these characters would have more success than Black Panther. But I am saying it’s worth a try. In fact, I’m saying it’s more worth it than another Black Panther attempt. Short of having Jonathan Hickman writing it, I don’t care to see another Black Panther series for quite awhile. Give the character a break before his name becomes even more synonymous with low sales and cancellation. Set sights on a character less challenging to get new readers interested in. I appreciate Marvel's dedication to the character and diversity, but there comes a point where you have to rethink your game plan.
The response to this suggestion is obvious, though. Why focus on only one character? That’s valid. There’s no reason for there to be only one black character starring in their own title. But look at DC’s latest attempt at diversity in the New 52. Look quickly too, because most of those books seem to be getting cancelled father than any Black Panther book. There’s something to be said for keeping your focus tight and strong versus throwing a bunch of titles out there with weak creative support and haphazard execution. Quality over quantity.
Or should Black Panther be that one and get another chance?
Hey. If Hickman wants to go for it, I’d be there.
Misty Knight: Hero for Hire by Greg Rucka, though. Think about it, Marvel.