Don McGregor made a name for himself - and cemented it for T'Challa - over the years as the one-time Marvel editor wrote various Black Panther stories. From Jungle Action to Marvel Comics Presents to Black Panther: Panther's Prey, McGregor and various artistic collaborators fleshed out the world of Wakanda and the indentity of T'Challa.
And now, he's doing it again.
Newsarama announced back in November that McGregor was working on a new story for February 2018's Black Panther Annual #1. Working with Captain America artist Daniel Acuna, McGregor's new piece homages stories of his past - and his artists - with "Panther's Heart."
Newsarama talked to McGregor about this new story, as well as his history with the Panther as well as some untold stories from behind-the-scenes of Marvel Comics.
Newsarama: Don, Marvel has briefly told me your story involves New York City and the heart-shaped herb. Can you tell us about it?
Don McGregor: Let me just start from the beginning. Marvel first approached me about a month ago to do a story for this anthology. My initial impulse, however, was not to do it. I love the character, and I spent years of my life working on T’Challa – trying to hear his voice in my head – and seeing all those characters and the world of Wakanda. I lived it on a daily basis, so the idea of coming back to do one 10- or 12-page story… how do you contend with 600+ pages of stories done over the years? I labored over those pages, researched to make the stories the best I possibly could.
Like I said, my first impulse was that I wasn’t inclined to do it, but I mentioned it on my Facebook page and several hundred people stated “No, no you should do it!” so I began seriously thinking about it.
I knew that if I came back, the people who were familiar with my stuff would expect me to do something topical. I toyed around with some ideas as there’s so much going on in the world today – so much divisiveness and extremism – but it’s really difficult to come up with something that you can handle in the superhero genre in just 10 pages. It would have to have some kind of emotional intensity to it as well, so I thought back to a sequence I came up with a few years ago to use.
I had wanted to do this opening sequence for years, but hadn’t determined how to pull it off. But I figured out a way to do it, and do something that focuses emotionally on T’Challa and the people around him – some of them being characters readers liked back when I was writing Black Panther regularly.
This turned into what I’m calling “Panther’s Heart,” with Wakanda’s heart-shaped herb being one of the meanings for the title of the story. But for the story itself, I go into more detail about the heart-shaped herbs and how they’re used.
And while I was deciding what kind of story to tell, a second, very strong reason came to write “Panther’s Heart,” that I could dedicate it to Rich Buckler and Billy Graham, the two talented artists who worked on “Panther’s Rage” with me, way back at the beginning. Without them bringing the words to visual life, without their belief in the stories I wanted to tell, those books would not exist. A writer can bleed onto the page in comics, but without an artist who is willing to go the extra distance to take the time and energy to fulfill those words, you are dead in the water. We have lost both Rich and Billy, Rich just recently, and I miss them both dearly, and this is a chance for me to thank and honor them both for working side by side with me to bring T'Challa to the books readers can still hold in their hands to this day!
Nrama: Like you said, this is a relatively small story… but could you see yourself writing more Black Panther for Marvel, one more time?
McGregor: Like Sean Connery said, “Never say never again.”
Anything is possible – I never thought I’d be doing this.
I would love to return to Sabre. I’ve written a 200-page script for Sabre: The Early Future Years, and Trevor Von Eeden has done an incredible job on it so far. I’d love to see that come to fruition. People who love Sabre would get to see the origins of all the major characters, and get answers to questions I’ve never been able to give until now.
I’ve also done a pair of characters called Alexander and Penelope Risk, which was one of the few times I did something that had a ‘high concept.’ It’s basically Sherlock Holmes meets the Thin Man. It takes place in New York City during World War 2. It was first created with Tom Sutton, then later Mike Mayhew had drawn some samples. At one point it was set-up to be published through Marvel’s Epic line, but then they decided not to do creator-owned books anymore so the rights reverted back to me.
Those two projects are big projects – but they’re as good as anything I ever wrote. If people like what I do here with Black Panther Annual #1 or what I’ve done previously, they should ask for those.
Nrama: You had two major runs with the Black Panther, and you mentioned this new story is based on a sequence that had bubbled up but never used. Have you always had ideas in your back pocket for Black Panther?
McGregor: I did Black Panther over two time periods. The first one was in the 1970s – it was a very electric time, a very exciting time, and a lot of readers were every good to me with their response to Jungle Action. It was exciting, but traumatic as well; when I first started on staff at Marvel, Jungle Action was a reprint book with stories from the 1950s about jungle gods and goddesses with blonde hair saving the natives. It was such a racist portrayal. At an editorial meeting the Marvel line expanded, and there wasn’t enough people to handle all the books. There was an unwritten rule at the time that staff would be given something to write, and because I had made some comments about Black Panther and the state of Jungle Action – and that I had no political ambitions to become Editor-In-Chief – they offered it to me. When we first started, Jungle Action switched from all reprints to being 1/3 reprints and 2/3 new material. They offered me that and Amazing Adventures with Killraven.
They initially had high hopes for Killraven due to War of the Worlds, but it had gone through a quick succession of artists and writers and had floundered. They thought both Amazing Adventures and Jungle Action were going to die because they weren’t big sellers.
But I was lucky to work with Rich Buckler on the Black Panther serial and Craig Russell on the Kill Raven. They believed in what we were doing, and there was positive energy.
In the first couple months of Black Panther’s Jungle Action it was all Wakanda, and I don’t think anyone expected it would be an all-Wakandan cast of characters.
“Where’s the white people?”
But that was the only thing that made sense to me. I was continually having to fight for these characters.
Then in my second stint in the 1980s, it began when then-Marvel editor Michael Higgins asked me to come back to Black Panther. I feigned him off at the time.
Archie Goodwin had previously convinced me to come back to Killraven under the agreement the only Marvel person I’d have to deal with was him. Archie was terrific – one of the best people in the world. He kept his word to me on every single thing – I love him, and I miss him dearly.
Archie actually finagled me into doing Killraven again at a comic book function by coming up to me and saying “Don, would you be interested in doing Killraven? Craig Russell’s interested.” I jumped at the chance, then he went to Craig and did the same thing: “Craig, would you be interested in doing Killraven? Don’s interested.”
And it turned out terrific. If every book came out looking that good, no one would ever complain. IDW just published an Artist’s Edition of it all, and it looks terrific.
So anyway, I had agreed to do Killraven an then Michael Higgins said “Well, you’re going to do Black Panther too!” I had intended to do “Panther’s Quest” back in the 1970s during my original run. I re-read T’Challa’s earlier stories and realized that his mother was never talked about – his father, T’Chaka, yes, but never his mom. I don’t really know the reasons why, but my second Jungle Action story was going to be T’Challa going into South Africa to find his mom amidst a racist regime like Apartheid: a son trying to find his mother. I thought it would have emotional resonance there.
Anyway, that was my intended second story back in the 1970s and I even mentioned it briefly in some interviews done at the time. But after I finished “Panther’s Rage”, I was in the middle of a divorce and a child custody case. I didn’t have the emotional confidence to do a story like “Panther’s Quest,” so instead I did the Ku Klux Klan story. That was around America’s bicentennial, and I thought myself pretty well-versed on American history. The story caused a real stir, which would only have intensified if it happened today due to social media. It really made a number of people upset.
So now in the 1980s, Higgins was asking me to come back but I said no. But when we were discussing Killraven, Michael took me out to dinner. This is back when Marvel had expense accounts for this sort of thing, and I thought he was going to try to get me drunk and agree to do Black Panther. I wasn’t a big drinker, so I didn’t think he could get me.
“Oh yeah, we’re doing Black Panther…” he would say.
“That’s not what I want to do, Michael,” I replied.
“No, we’re doing it.”
I finally said okay when he got Gene Colan onboard. Again, I was so fortunate in the artists I was able to work with. I felt like Gene climbed inside my head and knew exactly what the characters should look like and what emotions we were playing with. I was very privileged to work with a lot of talented people, especially Gene.
So anyway, two pages into writing “Panther’s Quest” and I get a midnight phone call from Michael Higgins: “I’m not on the book anymore. I’m not at Marvel anymore.”
I thought he was yanking my chain because of the hard time I gave him about coming back to Black Panther, but unfortunately it was true. I called up the Editor-In-Chief at the time, Tom DeFalco. He explained the situation and that he thought it didn’t matter what editor I worked with.
“Oh, it does matter,” I told him. “It’s whether I’ll write the story or not.” They then assigned Terry Kavanaugh to take over editing. I was apprehensive about someone new coming in, but after meeting him I realized he was someone I could trust – and he was enthusiastic about the project.
“Panther’s Quest” ended up running through 25 issues of Marvel Comics Presents in 1989. I always thought the story would get collected, and now it finally is in January 2018.
I can only say of the experience that I was really fortunate; I worked with talented people who were enthusiastic about the project, and Terry especially was an advocate. When we were at the 12th chapter, Marvel asked “How many more chapters will it be?” I didn’t know as I was still doing researc
Storyline ran 25 chapters in MCP, always thought that story get collected, actually doing in January 2018. I can only say, got really fortunate. Working with people enthusiastic about it, and Terry was advocate for.
At 12, asked “how many chapters?” Didnt’ know, still researching, visiting the Schomberg Center for Research on Black Culture, and making sure I had everything. Terry said, “I’ll tell them 25. That’s a good number.” We ended up – [Laughs] – actually needing some double-sized chapters to make it fit in 25 installments.
After that we went immediately to do Black Panther: Panther’s Prey as a standalone miniseries. Gene Colan couldn’t draw it, so we were looking around. I happened to be at Marvel one day Xeroxing something, and a staffer at the time named Chris Ivy asked If I’d seen Dwayne Turner’s work. I explained how I had only seen eight pages or so, but Ivy then informed me that Black Panther was Dwayne’s favorite character. I knew he was the person, as I’d rather work with a young person on their favorite character than just someone treating it as just another gig.
Working on Panther’s Prey, Dwayne and I probably talked on the phone every other day – and we remain friends even now. We met up again at Comic-Con International: San Diego earlier this year – we hadn’t seen each other in 10 years, but once we started talking it didn’t feel like a day had passed.
So once again, I’m really fortunate to have artists who believed in what I wanted to do.
Nrama: Black Panther Annual #1 will come out the same month as Marvel Studios’ Black Panther movie. What are your thoughts on it so far?
McGregor: Marvel has been really great about this. I just finished writing the introduction to the Panther’s Quest collection, and Marvel worked it out so Chadwick Boseman and I could meet at SDCC.
I loved him in Captain America: Civil War. Back when I was writing Black Panther, I always envisioned him as someone with poetic, lyrical, kinetic energy – like an Olympic-trained athlete. And Chadwick is doing that, showing real beauty and grace.