For Reginald Hudlin, the news that the Black Panther animated series was finally being made available for mass consumption must have elicited one thought:
It's about time.
Marvel Knights Animation: Black Panther , out January 18 from Shout! Factory, collects the six-episode motion comic series produced in 2008 for BET, but which never made air on that network or anywhere else on American television. "You'll have to ask them why" it never aired, Hudlin told Newsarama in an exclusive interview to promote the DVD release.
Hudlin is a prolific film and TV director as well as comic book writer -- his Black Panther story arc for the Marvel Knights imprint served as the basis for the animated series. Back in 2008, he was also head of entertainment for BET and greenlighted the 'toon.
Featuring a stellar voice cast that included Oscar nominee Djimon Hounsou as T'Challa/Black Panther, fellow Academy Award nominee and Emmy winner Alfre Woodard (Dondi Reese, Queen Mother), Kerry Washington and even Stan Lee, Black Panther seemed headed for a high-profile launch, at the very least. A screening of footage at Comic-Con International: San Diego in '08 garnered strong buzz. And then it just …went away.
"By the time it went into production, I had left [BET] and wound up producing the project," Hudlin said. "When the show was completed, the network had changed direction and gone in a much different direction programming-wise, going for an older, more female audience."
Since animated shows about comic book superheroes with adult themes and violence don't usually go over well with the 25-54 female demo, Black Panther was shelved. It became a turnaround victim, as many film and TV projects do in the fickle entertainment industry. An attempt to release the six completed episodes online also fell through. "This will be the first time it will actually be available in the United States, so it's a very big deal," he said.
Hudlin has kept busy developing his own film and television projects, as well as directing episodes of sitcoms such as Modern Family, The Office, and Outsourced. He also an original graphic novel in the works.
But in talking with him, you can sense his affection for the character of the Black Panther . And he remains proud of his work on the comic, and the animated series. Hudlin also takes issue with it being labeled a motion comic series, since he believes that to be a slight on the program's visual style.
“I always feel conflicted about it being called a motion comic. There’s actually more motion in this [animated series] than any Hanna-Barbara cartoon,” he said, punctuating the statement with a laugh.
“I think the reality is, we’re going into a new territory. What a quote unquote ‘motion comic’ is still has to be defined," Hudlin continued. "When we first started working on the project – and this was before the Watchmen or the X-Men motion comics people see now – people were still experimenting with the form. Should there be word balloons in there? Should there be panels? And I really wasn’t happy with anything I had seen.”
Hudlin thinks the audience will ultimately determine how to categorize the series, which is as graphic in its depiction of violence in animated form as it was on the printed page.
“Whatever you call it, I think Black Panther is a model for what comic books-to-series or adaptations look like. Because the voice work is strong, [the look] is fluid…it best captures the spirit of the book.”
Hudlin thinks we're in the middle of a Golden Age of sorts for comic book-related material. He cites direct-to-DVD titles like the growing library of DC and Marvel original films, as well as new cartoons such as the Marvel Superhero Squad, as examples of the variety of material available to consumers.
"When people talk about the comic book market, I think that's the wrong term," he said. "There are several different markets for comic book product. It's a matter of creating the right product for the right audience."
The voice cast in Black Panther is loaded with top talent, including several Oscar-nominated actors. According to Hudlin, it wasn't difficult lining up the castmembers, because many had been fans of the character for some time.
"[Djimon] had been following the project for awhile. Absolutely wanted to get involved," noted Hudlin. "When I talked with Jill Scott (the voice of Ororo), she said when she was a kid, she made a list of life goals, and one of them was to play Storm. Isn't that amazing? So she said 'I was happy you called Reggie, but I wasn't surprised.'"
Black Panther offered Hudlin the chance to finally work with a few old friends, such as Alfre Woodard and Kerry Washington.
During the course of the interview, the filmmaker recalled a recent charity dinner where he dined with several people, and legendary P-Funk frontman George Clinton. A discussion sprouted drawing comparisons between Eddie Murphy's comedy hit Boomerang, which Hudlin directed, and the world of the Black Panther .
"One of the people at the dinner said he saw complete continuity between the world of Boomerang and the world of Wakanda [the Black Panther 's native country]."
In the comedy, Hudlin pointed out, black professionals were front and center, working together in successful fashion. "This person said when he read my version of Wakanda in Black Panther , he saw the same idea, on a global level. So one is a comedy, and the other is a sci-fi action drama…but there is a thematic thread that connects the two."
Hudlin revealed that he has come tantalizingly close to bring T'Challa to the big screen on more than one occasion, but ran into roadblocks each time.
"I've danced with it several times through the years. After I did my first film, House Party, and I had a deal with Sony Pictures. We had talked about doing it. When I had a deal with Tri-Star, the rights [to the Panther film] were at Columbia. Either way, it never happened. And then the rights were tied up with Wesley Snipes, and he had his own vision about what he wanted to do. Then he ended up doing Blade films."
He may not have been able to make his theatrical vision of the Panther a reality, but comics’ fans may owe Hudlin a small debt regardless. He said over the years, he read early drafts of Black Panther scripts that took extreme liberties with T'Challa's character. He was vocal about his displeasure with the changes.
"Some of the drafts had T'Challa as an American with no knowledge of his African heritage," Hudlin said. "I remember telling the head of a studio, 'whether I make this movie or not, if you make this version of the film, that is evil and wrong."
While the window for his involvement in a Black Panther movie may have closed, Hudlin is content with the contributions he's made to the character's legacy. "Ultimately, Marvel controls the movie rights. They're going to make their decision."
"I'm just glad that by writing the comic book and doing the animated series, I at least gave the world my vision of who T'Challa is and what the Black Panther is."
(Michael Avila is a writer in New York City. Follow him on Twitter for more of his Pop Culture musings.)