Black Panther: The Man Without Fear, Vol. 1: Urban Jungle – David Liss

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Mar 252012

Writers who started out doing other things are showing up more and more often in comics these days, it seems like, and David Liss is a good example. He became well known for writing historical mystery novels (I haven’t read any of them yet, but I plan to get around to it), so at first he seems like an odd choice to take over the writing chores on a superhero comic. But he’s the scripter of BLACK PANTHER, THE MAN WITHOUT FEAR, and the trade paperback URBAN JUNGLE collects the six issues of his first storyline on that title.
As long-time Marvel fans might guess from that title, T’Challa, the Black Panther, former king of the African nation of Wakanda, has abdicated his throne, moved to New York, and taken over from Daredevil as the protector of the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. This storyline has its roots in things that happened while I wasn’t reading comics, so I wasn’t clear on all the details, but I got up to speed quickly enough. And the set-up is really pretty simple, as I just summarized. T’Challa works as the manager of a diner, and in his spare time he battles a super-powered Romanian crime lord known as Vlad. Liss throws in a nice twist, though, because in addition to all the organized crime shenanigans and superhero battles (and guest appearances by Spider-Man and Luke Cage), there’s also a serial killer roaming Hell’s Kitchen, apparently selecting victims at random.
Liss does a good job of managing the different threads of this plot, and his scripts are well written. There’s a lot of dialogue, a lot of captions, and although these stories take longer to read than many comics stories do, which isn’t a bad thing as far as I’m concerned, they don’t come across as wordy. Those of you who are really long-time Marvel readers may recall a previous Black Panther series that ran in a title called JUNGLE ACTION. That one was written by Don McGregor, who established a tradition of densely packed but very well written scripts. Liss doesn’t take that to the extremes that McGregor did, but I still find his work here refreshing compared to some of the more bare-bones writers in the comics field these days.
The art is by Francesco Francavilla. It’s a little dark and murky, but what would you expect, considering the setting? I’m not a big fan, but it’s okay, and there are some pages that are very effective.
I almost started buying this title when it first came out but decided not to. Now that I’ve read the first collection, I may have to change my mind. It’s pretty darned good stuff if you’re a fan of the grittier side of superhero comics.
Feb 222012

I grew up loving comics, so I was thrilled when, 2000, shortly after my first novel was published, to be contacted by an editor at Marvel.  He had read my book, A Conspiracy of Paper, and there was something in it that made him think I ought to be writing comics – I seem to recall being quite pleased by his saying the main character reminded him of an 18th century Luke Cage.

I loved the idea of writing for Marvel, but I’d spent much of the previous decade working on a Ph.D. in English (which I never finished!), and I hadn’t read comics in a several years.  Marvel left the ball in my court, and I never pursued it.  The truth was, I was writing my second book – always the hardest one to write – and I was too busy trying to figure out how to write novels to take the time to figure out how to write comics.

Eight years later, the same editor, Bill Rosemann, got in touch again.  This time he had a project in mind, and it was perfect.  For Marvel’s 70th anniversary, they were putting together a series of single issue stories about some of the earliest Marvel heroes.  In my case, Bill asked if I would an issue about the Phantom Reporter – cub reporter by day, scourge of the underworld by night.   I loved the idea, and it was comics writing with training wheels.  There was only one issue, no continuity worries, and the Phantom Reporter had only appeared a few times back in the early comics, so I was free to make up as much as I needed to.

I loved the project, but I didn’t want to learn how to write comics and then never get another crack at the medium, so Bill promised me he’d look for more work.  About the time we were finishing up with the Phantom Reporter, I received another call from Bill.  Would I have any interest in writing a comic with five original characters, set in the early 1930s that pushed back the origins of the Marvel Universe by several years?  I’m pretty sure there’s only one answer to that question.

Bill and I got to work, and over several phone calls we discussed what kinds of characters they should be.  We both felt strongly that since this was to be a book about the first generation of urban vigilantes to put on costumes, they ought to have a reason for doing so, and we tossed around a lot of ideas for heroes who would already be in costume.  The slot that ended up being filled by the Surgeon almost went to a clown.  The important thing was that Bill wanted the characters to have both a pulp feel and a modern Marvel sensibility – that is, they had to seem like real people and have real problems holding them back.  Personally, I wouldn’t want it any other way.  Perfect characters are boring, but troubled characters are much more fun to both read and write.  I got to working putting together my concept and populating it with misfits, trouble-makers, and the mildly deranged.

Once I wrote up a pitch and it safely ran the editorial gauntlet, I had to get down to the work of actual scripting.  I soon discovered the difficulties of writing an ensemble book with new characters who needed to be introduced and have their own stories.  Bill and Senior Editor Tom Brevoort read though and commented on three completely different (and differently terrible) first scripts before I finally got the hang of it.  I like to think I learned a great deal from both of these terrific editors, but it is also equally possible I simply ran out of mistakes to make.  In the end, it was the best comics-writing education I could imagine.

Meanwhile, Bill was searching for an artist, and he floated several possible names.  When he ran Patrick Zircher’s work past me, I immediately knew he was the guy I wanted.  Patrick’s art is clean, precise, beautiful and detailed – exactly what I thought our story needed.  As a writer, I’ve had few experiences as much fun as receiving Patrick’s concept drawings of the five principle characters in Mystery Men.  These were people who came out of my imagination, but it was Patrick who first made them seem real.  It is no exaggeration to say that his take on the characters ended up shaping the way they developed over the course of the series.  It’s also no exaggeration to say that Patrick’s art is a major reason this book received so much critical attention.  Mystery Men is simply one of the best looking books around. This was my first experience with working with an artist on an on-going project, I it was very exciting to experience the give and take of collaboration.  With each script I wrote more with Patrick’s style in mind, and I could look forward to seeing where his imagination would flesh out the initial concepts.

When Bill first ran the idea by me, I thought it sounded like a great idea, but I was new enough to comics that I didn’t appreciate what a rare opportunity it was as well.  When you write stories in a continuity, you want them to count.  Mystery Men gave me an opportunity to write about period in the history of the Marvel Universe that was relatively untouched, the period just before characters like Namor, the Human Torch and Captain America emerged.  Now those five damaged vigilantes are a part of the Marvel Universe forever.  It doesn’t get much cooler than that.

David Liss is the author of The Devil’s Company, The Whiskey Rebels, The Ethical Assassin, A Spectacle of Corruption, The Coffee Trader, and A Conspiracy of Paper, winner of the Edgar Award for Best First Novel. He lives in San Antonio with his wife and children. Visit him at