Are Jack Kirby’s Black Musketeers hideously insulting? Inspirationally stupid? Neither? Both? – Black Panther #9
Oh Jack. Oh oh Jack.
The unfettered creation of Jack Kirby’s post-Silver Age period is an amazingly mixed bag. While his artwork was unleashed, entering into what may be argued to be his most fantastic, eye-poppingly delicious span, some of his story ideas crashed like the Hindenburg — all that was lacking was the pained voice of a shocked radio announcer. The pulpish “anything goes” attitude was sometimes undermined by words that simply didn’t live up to the pictures. Some might label this career epoch, thanks to the quality of the scripting, “Hack Kirby.”
I wouldn’t go that far. There’s an irrepressible joy in Kirby’s work from the 1970s, like a kid at play in the world’s biggest, most colorful sandbox. There’s a “Why not?” ethos behind so many of the work (a corollary to “Anything goes”), an optimism. But no one can deny that, at times, Kirby shot airballs. Swung at a ball in the dirt. Shanked it. Threw a pick 6.
It was one thing when his hit and miss sorcery was worked with characters like OMAC, Kamandi, or Devil Dinosaur, or, in the next decade, barely remembered titles like Captain Victory and the Galactic Rangers. But the title that’s a part of this post, Black Panther, was a departure from that purely experimental pattern. Yes, this was a character that he had, along with Stan Lee, created. But the Panther was well established by the time Kirby’s series hit the newsstands. T’Challa had solo stories (quite accomplished ones, actually) in Jungle Action to go along with his stints among the Avengers and in his original Fantastic Four stomping grounds. There’s sacred ground here too, because the Black Panther was the first black costumed superhero to grace the bigtime comic book scene in the United States. He’s a character with a pre-installed dignity, and a fictional self, as the benevolent ruler of an African kingdom, who’s not to be trifled with. He’s Aquaman without the suck.
So Kirby’s craziness had to mind its steps when going through this hallowed territory.
This is one of those cases where there’s stuff that I just don’t know how to categorize. Is it unbelievably terrible, a blight to the newsprint upon which it’s emblazoned? Or is it exactly the sort of thing that makes people gravitate towards comics in the first place?
What am I referring to? THE BLACK MUSKETEERS, THAT’S WHAT.
This issue (inked by Mike Royer) is the costumed apex of the Black Musketeers arc. As T’Challa was away and Wakanda was menaced by an unstoppable mutated beast (wearing Fruit of the Foom underwear, of course), other members of the ruling family were called in to help defeat this foe. The roster included Ishanta, an older money-man, Zuni, a big fat lady, Joshua Itobo, a young Doogie Howser-esque doctor, and Khanata, a racecar driver. An eclectic foursome. As alluded, their unifying glue was that they were all cousins of T’Challa, making them the Wakandan Dukes and Duchesses of York. The Fergies. One imagines that if Wakanda had tabloids, their back pages would have a field day with these clowns.
And in this issue they finally get to cram themselves into goofy tights and headgear and hurl themselves into action. Most of their heroic derring-do comes in one page, after Khanata rams the villain, Jakarra, with his car (they needed to call in a specialist to do this?):
I’m not going to quibble with their results. They stepped in where angels fear to tread and all that. But boy, are they ever proud of themselves after this brief, adrenaline-pumping fight:
Yeah, I’m sure T’Challa would be beaming, and not pinching the bridge of his nose as he shuts his eyes tight against the piercing glare of your ridiculousness. Thinking “Now I know how Jimmy Carter feels.”
Speaking of chagrin, let’s cut to N’Gassi, the man who summoned the Musketeers to help deal with the crisis. I imagine he has the same response as any civilian administrator running up against the spending habits of a monarch’s family:
THE FREE-SPENDING MUSKETEERS ARE EVEN INSUFFERABLE OUT OF SAID COSTUMES:
I’ll say it right now: Let’s cast Tyler Perry as Zuni in any future Black Panther movie. “Tyler Perry is Madea as Zuni in The Black Panther…” And Joshua Itobo looks like Scooby-Doo’s Velma.
Not to burst their bubble, but Jakarra isn’t dead, just immobilized, and he awakes more powerful and mindlessly hell-bent on destruction than before. So they just threw fuel on the fire. SO THEY SHOULD SHUT UP.
Remember the Black Panther? T’Challa, the star of the show? Wondering what he’s up to during these shenanigans? Well, it’s actually worthy of note. He’s wandering through the desert, trying to get back to his besieged realm. He passes out under the pounding sun, but is rescued by a film production. Yes, a film production. Let’s see if you can guess which mid-70s sci-fi/fantasy flick that was partially filmed in an African desert is referenced here:
There’s even a little dude inside the trashcan-looking white robot on the left. Jack might as well have named this diminutive actor “Lenny Baker” or something. And one wonders of the green dude next to him shoots first and misses the guy sitting right in front of him at point blank range. (YES, GEORGE, I’M STILL PISSED.)
Here’s the vaguely Mos Eisley-ish set:
Whatever. T’Challa eventually busts out of there and starts his journey back to Wakanda and his weirdo cousins.
Objectively, this isn’t that bad. It really isn’t. The story structure is standard, and the faux Star Wars is neat. But you never get a second chance to make a first impression, and it’s the cover blurb that bothered me most going in. “Black” Musketeers. The old impulse to slide “black” into every black superhero’s proper name is a grating one, and Kirby, with his Black Racers and whatnot, wasn’t alone in that. See Black Goliath, Black Lighting, etc., etc. And when I saw that little circle on the cover and thought ill of this thing at first glance. They looked more like doughy overgrown Mouseketeers than anything else. It’s like they come with ready-to-roll derision, you know? (We’ll let their lack of muskets slide. Apparently Wakanda has been thoroughly penetrated by the ideals of swashbuckling camaraderie found in the works of Alexandre Dumas.)
Never once in the comic itself is the “Black” appended to the “Musketeers,” and it’s odd to think that, had that small bit of copy been edited out, the entire outlook would have been altered.
But it wasn’t. Maybe I’m being too hard on this comic and the Musketeers, but they rub me the wrong way. They’re a bridge too far in Kirby’s 70s oeuvre. T’Challa deserves better, and so do the rest of Wakanda’s royals. Yes, even the dopey cousins, whether they’re fat, old, short or what have you. The Fergies. Even if they’re intended for comedic purposes, they stand out like sore thumbs. Some might see this as a low point of Jack’s solo period. A Black Mark, if you will. Put me in that club.