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August 15, 2010

Panthers, Rages, & Emblematic Series: What Were THE Comics Of The ‘70s?


A mention of the "Panther's Rage" storyline in Jungle Action this week at CR as one of the emblematic works in comics in the 1970s brought with it some e-mail. Most of the correspondence engaged what that designation meant in terms of an overall endorsement of the Black Panther-starring comic book. The answer is it really doesn't. I think it's entirely possible for a comic to be of a time or a place or an era in a way that derives from a judgment or series of judgments distinct from a more ruthless, straight-up appraisal of that work's quality. It's the way with film and music and prose, too. I think more of Ry Cooder's Boomer's Story than I do The Eagles' Hotel California, but the latter is one of the first albums I think of when I think of 1970s pop music and the former is not. Evincing positive qualities will help any work remain relevant long enough for people to consider and re-consider its place in various made-up critical firmaments, but it's not a sole requirement, and the formula does not necessarily apply in reverse: being important to a time, a place or a movement likely won't impart quality that's not already there.

I think the "Panther's Rage" storyline in Jungle Action is a key or emblematic work of its decade because it has all of the qualities that came to define a major form of expression within mainstream comics, and it came out during a decade when multiple works began to lean in that direction. As described, "Panther's Rage" sounds like a book that could be solicited today. It's driven by prose. The art is allowed a level of freedom of design and depiction because of the presence of that prose. Its storyline is the result of sitting down and thinking through the logical, "real world" implications of past narratives (an African king teaching in Harlem is a king that has abandoned his subjects). There is a shift in tone to the more serious and somber. It borrows elements from outside genres (horror, mostly) to thwart expectations inherent to the main genre (the superhero story). The plot's progression is both a play against outside forces and a reconsideration of the protagonist's basic character concept, so that when the former ends the latter is in a different place. It is also essentially a graphic novel -- a long story with a beginning and an end -- and it targets a little-used character with perceived grander qualities in an attempt to rehabilitate them for future stories. My personal reaction to "Panther's Rage" is that it's a sweetly ambitious, clunkily-told superhero saga where the cape-and-costume confuse the stabs at more serious, more directly relevant plot points. Answers to question of royal obligation and nation building are never likely to be found in a march of dinosaurs or a spiked-belt fight near a waterfall. Its potential influence or at least its presentation in almost full flower of a powerful formula that would dominate the field for decades makes it a hard story to dismiss, though. If it's not a road map, it's a sign of things to come. "Panther's Rage" is either vastly influential or terrifyingly precocious, or both. Either one would be enough to put it on the decade's must-considers.

So what are some other works like that? If you were a librarian in 2612 working at the Grand Library Of Comics located on a floating platform above the city of Des Moines, and a student from Neil Gaiman Academy came to you wanting to know what comics in the 1970s were like, what works would be on the shelf you walked them over to see?

Let's build such a list. Send me one selection. Send me two. Send me three. (But don't send me more than three.) Make them comics that are remembered for being read rather than simply as novelty publishing events or collectors' events (we'll save the number ones and first appearances for another post).

I'll add your selections to this post with your name on it, whether or not I agree or disagree, and call attention to the final result when we're done. So what specific publications or specific series are the emblematic 1970s comics? And if you have time to write or sentnence or two, why? Here are three from me.

1. "Panther's Rage," Jungle Action #6-18, Don McGregor, Gil Kane, Rich Buckler, Billy Graham, et al; 1973-1975.
"Panther's Rage" prefigured nearly every element of the modern superhero comic book, from its focus on a "secondary" character to its shift in tone to making a part of its plot a reconsideration of the character itself and its place in the wider Marvel Comics world.

2. Arcade, Edited by Art Spiegelman and Bill Griffith, 1975-1976
The first modern anthology, bridging the underground and alternative generation with a shared sensibility rather than an editorial imperative. It featured nearly every major young talent of the time that would become a comics-lifer.

3. The Holt, Rinehart and Winston Doonesbury paperbacks, Garry Trudeau
This was the best presentation of the decade's finest newspaper comic strip. In a pre-Internet age getting the paperbacks was just about the only way for most folks to see all of Trudeau's comics in a way that allowed one to follow the longer narratives or just keep track of Trudeau's already exponentially expanding cast. They are near-perfect little books, especially when the main storyline contained therein crackled.

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