May 5, 2023
Thanks to Chad Greene, a 2023 HMU Fellow in Ideas, for today’s blog.
Sitting side-by-side on the top of my desk in the faculty office at my community college are two printed publications that contain the same story told through sequential art, “The Black Panther!” written by Stan Lee and drawn by Jack Kirby. On the left is a stapled comic book, a facsimile copy of the “floppy” Fantastic Four #52 published by Marvel Comics in 1966. On the right is a perfect-bound trade paperback, a copy of the Penguin Classics Marvel Collection Black Panther published by Penguin Books in 2022. (There is also a hardcover version of the latter available.)
Back in 1966, probably the only way that Fantastic Four comic book was going to be read in a classroom was if it were first smuggled in, inside a textbook, and then thumbed through under a desk. But this year, at least in my classroom, that trade paperback will be the textbook, openly displayed on top of my students’ desks.
Of course, it is the content of a book that is most significant to our modern determinations about if it has achieved the status of a “classic” in our respective cultures. And, indeed, I will review the exceptional content of the Penguin Classics Marvel Collection Black Panther below. But, seeing the floppy comic book and the sturdy trade paperback side-by-side makes me wonder for a few minutes about materiality – about how the physical characteristics of a printed book could conceivably influence our perceptions that its content has achieved the status of a “classic.” As a fan of Penguin Classics, for example, just the sight of the paperback’s black spine, emblazoned with white and orange letters and intersected by a white band containing that tiny penguin logo, communicates “classic” to me.
Speaking of covers, the prices printed on these two publications are only the most obvious signifiers of their value, but they are reflections of the increased durability and respectability of comics starring the Black Panther. The trade paperback of the Penguin Classics Marvel Collection Black Panther has a cover price of $28.00. (The hardcover version has a cover price of $50.00.) In contrast, the first of the eighteen comic books reprinted in it, Fantastic Four #52, was published by Marvel Comics in 1966 with a cover price of $0.12. But my facsimile copy of the comic, which was published in January 2023, has a cover price of $3.99. I’m as aware of inflation as any American nowadays, but $0.12 in 1966 translates to $1.11 in 2023. So why does this comic cost so much more? Because it, like both the paperback and hardcover versions of the Penguin Classics Marvel Collection Black Panther, have two characteristics that the 1966 original lacked: durability and respectability.
In his 2020 book Comics and Stuff, Dr. Henry Jenkins of the University of Southern California points out that, “For most of their history, comics were widely understood as rubbish – you read them and discarded them – and they were printed on pulp paper that decomposed over time” (4). As a result, in order to preserve what were meant to be throwaways, “floppy comics were backed by cardboard, placed in plastic envelopes, stored in long boxes, and rarely, if ever, touched again” (Jenkins 4). But, at this stage in the history of comics, both of the publications on my desktop are printed on much higher quality – and, thus, more expensive – paper than their earlier incarnation.
But doesn’t the better binding of the Penguin Classics Marvel Collection Black Panther make it look even more like a “classic”? As Dr. Ian Hague of the University of Arts London points out in his 2017 sidebar on “Materiality” in the book The Secret Origins of Comics Studies, from a literary studies perspective, “comics improved their sociocultural standing through the repackaging of graphic narrative in hardback and paperback books as opposed to the more ephemeral comic book. The move arguably allowed comics to be understood as ‘literature’ by enabling them to move out of the magazine rack and into the bookshop, where they were sold alongside more ‘established’ forms such as prose” (160). So, it is not only price, but also format that can serve as a signifier of more elevated sociocultural standing.And, as Dr. Aaron Kashtan of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte observes in his 2015 article “Materiality Comics” in the journal Digital Humanities Quarterly, “The physical form of texts necessarily helps influence their reception” (8). And the specific change in physical form that the contents of Fantastic Four #52 are making here is a prime example of this. “[R]eading comic books is a very different experience from reading a trade paperback – even one that reprints the exact same comic books” (Kashtan 11).
One of the differences in the experience of reading a comic book such as Fantastic Four #52 and a trade paperback such as the Penguin Classics Marvel Collection Black Panther is the opportunity to ponder not one, but two introductions by university professors as well as a foreword by a contemporary author – all of whom, in this particular case, have earned doctorates.
In his series introduction, for example, Dr. Ben Saunders of the University of Oregon enumerates multiple levels of “intellectual scrutiny” that the comics included in the Penguin Classics Marvel Collection could conceivably sustain (xvi). Of those, perhaps the most interesting in the Black Panther volume containing comics created by Don McGregor, Rich Buckler, Billy Graham, Stan Lee, and Jack Kirby is the “relationship between power and responsibility” because the character of T’Challa is not only the superhero the Black Panther, but also the hereditary ruler of the fictional African country of Wakanda” (xvi).
Yet, as Dr. Nnedi Okorafor of Arizona State University points out in her foreword, “King T’Challa, the mantle of Black Panther, and the country of Wakanda have all evolved so much over the decades” (xx). As introduced by Lee and Kirby in the 1966 comics Fantastic Four #52 and #53, Wakanda is an Afrofuturist utopia of technology. As Reed Richards exclaims in Fantastic Four #53, “Though the Wakanda Tribe lives in the tradition of their forefathers, they possess modern, super-scientific wonders we can only marvel at!” (25). Essentially, Lee and Kirby present Wakanda – with that remarkable blend of the traditional and the technological – as a completed utopian project that T’Challa had initiated on his ascension to the throne ten years earlier.
However, in the true centerpiece of this collection – the critically acclaimed “Panther’s Rage” storyline that started in 1973’s Jungle Action #6 and ended in 1975’s Jungle Action #18 – writer Don McGregor and artists Rich Buckler and Billy Graham instead show us that T’Challa’s utopian project in Wakanda is still very much a work-in-progress. Both verbally and visually, McGregor, Buckler, and Graham communicate a constant state of tension between the traditional and technological and declare that the Wakandans are suffering from “culture shock” (224). Two of the futuristic structures that T’Challa was responsible for erecting in Central Wakanda, the palace and the hospital, provide opportunities to expertly portray the culture clash. In multiple panels, the artists show the contrast between the exteriors of the technological palace and the traditional huts it towers over. In its interior, there is a similarly striking contrast between two communications tools from different eras: drums and computers. In the hospital where herbalists work alongside surgeons, a patient first notes that “the few tribal decorations on the wall are familiar” but then dismisses them as “only token reminders of Wakandan tradition” (262). The reality of this continuing culture shock causes multiple characters, including T’Challa’s antagonist Erik Killmonger, to dismiss their ruler as simply a “dreamer” (261).
Part of what makes the “Panther’s Rage” storyline such a standout is its strong supporting cast – particularly the two characters most loyal to T’Challa, his lieutenant Taku and his lover Monica. During their most thoughtful talk about the tense state of Wakanda, Taku observes that “T’Challa saw only the beneficial things technology could bring his land…. Perhaps he chose to ignore anything that threatened his dream – or else convinced himself he could overcome any setback that might arise” (224). Despite those setbacks, Monica continues to believe in T’Challa – and in his dream of technology turning Wakanda into a paradise for its people. “Everyone is seeking paradise. There must be a truth about paradise that scholars have overlooked” (224).
After reading the Penguin Classics Marvel Collection Black Panther, I am convinced that there is indeed “a truth about paradise” in its exceptionally thoughtful verbal and visual portrayals of the struggles it would take to create a utopia of technology. And I am satisfied to see that scholars such as Saunders, Okorafor, and Dr. Qiana Whitted of the University of South Carolina – who wrote the volume introduction – are not overlooking “classics” such as these comics starring the Black Panther.
Whether or not you have read the Penguin Classics Marvel Collection Black Panther, I would love for HMU students and/or tutors to “join the conversation” about the materiality of “classics.” How do the physical characteristics of a printed book influence your perception that its content has, indeed, achieved the status of a “classic”?
Hague, Ian. “Sidebar: Materiality.” The Secret Origins of Comics Studies, edited by Matthew Smith and Randy Duncan, Routledge, 2017, pp. 159-161.
Jenkins, Henry. Comics and Stuff. NYU Press, 2020.
Kashtan, Aaron. “Materiality Comics.” Digital Humanities Quarterly, Vol. 9, No. 4, 2015.
McGregor, Don, Rich Buckler, Billy Graham, Stan Lee, and Jack Kirby. Black Panther. Penguin Books, 2022.
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