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JUNGLE ACTION Volume 2, Number 15 (May 1975)
X. THORNS IN THE FLESH, THORNS IN THE MIND
Synopsis: As this chapter of Panther’s Rage begins, we are in the Forest of Thorns, where the Black Panther has followed Killmonger, his army and his long train of caged dinosaurs which they captured in Serpent Valley. T’Challa’s need for rest after his exhausting and trying battle with the Tyrannosaurus Rex that Erik sicced on him added to the head-start which his enemy already had on him.
It is now a day or two later and our hero is deep into the Forest of Thorns. That forest is crowded to claustrophobic levels with nothing but thorned vegetation like trees, bushes, brambles, shrubs and even thorned leaves and fruits on the trees.
For literally millions of years the Forest of Thorns served as an impenetrable natural barrier which prevented Wakandans from penetrating into Serpent Valley along the gradual incline on which that forest lay.
The precipitous, Grand Canyonesque stone walls of the Chasm of Chilling Mist had always prevented foot traffic into Serpent Valley from that direction. Therefore even though the Forest of Thorns spread all the way up to the plateau on which rested Killmonger’s rebel capital of N’Jadaka, no one had ever used it as a downward route into Serpent Valley.
Killmonger being Killmonger, he and his army were simply ramrodding their way through the Forest of Thorns with their machinery, sacrificing much of its natural beauty and leaving gaping pathways in their wake as they made the days-long ascent through this natural wonder.
We join T’Challa as he has paused for a drink and to change the dressing on some of his wounds in the water of a stream which winds its way through the Forest of Thorns. Surreptitiously making their way toward the Black Panther with the intention of attacking him are a few of Killmonger’s soldiers plus their leader, Salamander K’Ruel.
Out of Erik’s most recent visit to Resurrection Altar back in the Land of the Chilling Mist, Salamander K’Ruel was the only one of Killmonger’s men to survive and gain superhuman powers from his exposure to the extraterrestrial rays of that Altar. The others, as usual, died agonizing deaths as their bodies were horribly mutated.
(Remember, as part of Killmonger’s callousness toward even his own followers he is content with those odds: gaining one super-powered minion per group of human guinea pigs, while the others in the group die painfully. Malice, King Cadaver and Sombre were the others who gained paranormal powers from Resurrection Altar while their fellow “offerings” died horribly.)
Salamander K’Ruel, as Erik christened him upon his survival of the ritual, grew raised, pimply sores all over his body and out of each of those sores his body hair continued to grow. Due to his mutation from the rays of Resurrection Altar, K’Ruel’s body hairs (except for those on his head) grew out of the sores as long, thin, needles.
Those long needles covered most of his body and not only served as a natural protection in close-quarters physical combat but could be shot from his body at will like porcupine quills. Salamander K’Ruel’s natural skin oils had mutated into toxic fluid which coated his needle-hairs/ quills and could either knock-out or kill anyone hit by his needle-hairs/ quills.
In addition, Salamander K’Ruel (easily the most whimsical Revolutionary Name that Killmonger bestowed on one of his followers) used a bow from which he fired Napalm-tipped arrows – years before Stallone in Rambo III and O’Keefe in Lone Runner.
At any rate, K’Ruel and his handful of soldiers were left behind by Erik/ N’Jadaka to kill T’Challa just in case he survived his battle with the Tyrannosaurus Rex. They now launch their attack on the Black Panther.
After a lengthy and brutal fight in which K’Ruel’s Napalm-tipped arrows destroy even more of the former beauty of the Forest of Thorns, our hero has defeated Salamander’s subordinates. T’Challa and K’Ruel engage in a savage battle which ends when the Black Panther’s form is pierced by a bunch of Salamander’s quills/ needle hairs and is knocked out by a combination of pain and the toxins on the quills.
When T’Challa comes to, he finds that K’Ruel has bound him painfully between two of the thorn-filled trees of this very odd forest. If our hero pulls at his bonds the end result is that his flesh is driven deeper and more painfully into the thorns on the trees he is bound to.
Salamander proves to be a very apt disciple of Erik Killmonger, even aping his leader’s contemptuous attitude toward T’Challa. He didn’t bother killing the Panther while he was unconscious and helpless because he considers T’Challa beneath him.
Better to let him linger, parched with thirst in the sweltering heat, unable to let himself fully rest his body without getting further impaled on the thorny trees and bushes. Inevitably he’ll either die naturally or fall victim to one of the Forest of Thorn’s carnivorous plants or curious dinosaurs wandering up from Serpent Valley below, hungry for already-wounded prey.
Further demonstrating his hero-worship levels of Killmonger mimicry, Salamander K’Ruel repeatedly, mockingly calls T’Challa “Chieftain of the Wakandas” in the same sneering, sarcastic manner employed by Erik. Eventually the conversation between K’Ruel and our hero ends and the villain saunters up the incline, where he sent his men on ahead while T’Challa was unconscious.
Cut to Wakanda City. T’Challa’s Royal Consort, the African-American singer Monica Lynne, is once again visiting Karota and her son Kantu. Karota’s husband was killed several installments back by Baron Macabre, one of Killmonger’s men.
Kantu is going through the same process of mourning and baffled hatred that the young T’Challa went through many years earlier, when he was a child and Ulysses Klaw murdered his father, T’Chaka. Kantu will have metaphorical significance in the next two chapters of Panther’s Rage.
Monica is rambling during this visit, a fact noticed by Karota, who, like most Wakandans, regards Monica as a hated Outworlder. Taku, T’Challa’s Chief of Communications Technology, has accompanied Monica on her visit, and he asks Karota to be kind to Monica for once.
As Taku points out, T’Challa has been gone on his pursuit of Killmonger for more than a week, leaving Monica terrified that the man she loves may be dead. Karota’s harsh attitude toward Monica softens a little over Ms Lynne’s obvious feelings for her (Karota’s) king, T’Challa.
Back at the Royal Palace, the marital trouble continues between W’Kabi – T’Challa’s Chief of Security – and his wife Chandra. The strain of having to rule Wakanda in T’Challa’s absence on top of his other duties in this nation at war, seems to have permanently damaged their relationship and frightened their children.
W’Kabi and Chandra go through another argument and its aftermath. The author Don McGregor writes a bit that nicely sums up countless similar situations among countless couples whose relationship is falling apart: “At times they are fierce … at times they weaken. Unfortunately they are seldom fierce or weak at the same time.”
Yep. Everybody’s been there. And I can’t help but point out that that is a more “real” moment than any ever delivered by the overrated and over-praised Alan Moore.
Elsewhere, at N’Jadaka, Killmonger’s Rebel Capital, Erik, King Cadaver and their troops have arrived with their haul of captive dinosaurs to be used as mounts for their upcoming attack on Wakanda City. The “King” throws a fit of anger over the smoking ruins which are all that’s left after the Black Panther led his troops in a successful attack on the village four chapters back.
Killmonger, of course, displays his usual air of bemusement toward anything and everything that T’Challa does. In front of King Cadaver and the rest of his troops Erik plays up the role of the superior man granting a decidedly inferior foe an unforeseen victory. (Plus he’s had a lot of time to let it sink in after Tayette and Kazibe no doubt told Erik about N’Jadaka’s destruction to explain their plight as T’Challa’s captives a few chapters back. I know … it’s more likely a continuity error.)
Killmonger theatrically mocks the notion of T’Challa going to his presumed death in Serpent Valley with a delusion of possible victory in his mind. Erik assures Cadaver and the surrounding troops that they can link up with one of the hill settlements still loyal to him. There they can train their dinosaur mounts and eventually launch their attack on Wakanda City.
In closing, Killmonger says “Our triumph is mere weeks away. And the only survivors will pay homage to us.”
Meanwhile, back with the bound and suffering T’Challa, he has been going through a series of fever-dream style visions. (Think of Wolverine in the much later story Fever Dream. What else?)
This time around Don McGregor’s subtext to the Black Panther’s literal struggle in the narrative dwells upon all the issues he’s been philosophically resolving within himself. His battles with Killmonger and his minions throughout the Hidden Realms of Wakanda have proven to be like ritual ordeals in Stages of Initiation around the world.
T’Challa has been physically and spiritually strengthened – “like irons in a refiner’s fire” – to use an old quote. That process has continued this day as he has endured crawling visits from hungry insects and small lizards, aching pains from the thorny vegetation he is bound to and, of course, ever-present thirst from the tropical rain-forest climate.
Fittingly, our hero’s final vision is a more sedate one which fills him with a certain inner peace. He recalls an afternoon with his father T’Chaka when he (T’Challa) was only a child of Kantu’s age. The lesson his father taught him that day was of a ruler’s need to periodically disengage from the perpetual cares of his office.
Presently, arriving on the scene is one of those dinosaurs which Salamander K’Ruel predicted would eventually get curious enough to follow Killmonger’s trail of destruction and find the bound and helpless Black Panther. It is a pterodactyl.
Our hero calls upon the inner reserves of strength which his ordeals have taught him to access and he manages to survive the airborne creature’s attack AND use it to free himself. Impossibly (well, it IS a comic book), T’Challa even manages to clamber aboard the pterodactyl and “ride” it in its flight. He guides it up the incline along which the Forest of Thorns runs.
Much further up the incline, Salamander K’Ruel is walking along, relishing the memory of having abandoned his subordinates. They were too injured by their battle with T’Challa to keep up with K’Ruel, who callously left them to their deaths at the hands of lizards, carnivorous plant-life and insects.
It’s a further indication of his slavish dedication to being just like his idol Killmonger, right down to the parallel with Erik’s words to Tayette after preventing him from saving the mired bird last time around: “If we were to pause to help every weaker creature we encounter on our path to greatness, we would never reach our destination.”
At present, K’Ruel becomes aware of a sound behind him in the distance. He soon realizes it is a pterodactyl. A pterodactyl being ridden and “piloted” by T’Challa … and coming right FOR him.
To play up this moment of Salamander K’Ruel getting his comeuppance from a foe he had treated with disdain, Don McGregor’s narration points out K’Ruel’s sudden fear of our hero, adding “He makes with no sneering ‘Chieftain of the Wakandas’ … but the words Panther Devil are close upon his lips.”
Again, nice writing from McGregor, since if you’ll recall “Panther Devil” is the superstitious term which Killmonger’s comic relief lieutenants Tayette and Kazibe use to describe T’Challa.
Needless to say, neither K’Ruel’s Napalm-tipped arrows nor his bodily quills do him much good against the Black Panther in this rematch, though one of his arrows DOES kill the hapless pterodactyl by blowing it to bits.
T’Challa defeats Salamander K’Ruel and then takes the precaution of pulling out all of the fiend’s needle-hairs/ quills, which will apparently take days to grow back. Next he drags the unconscious villain all the way back to Wakanda City over the next couple of days.
In the dead of night the Black Panther arrives back in his capital, to be greeted by a joyful Monica Lynne. He then passes out into much-needed sleep but the narration is all positive, telling us readers that T’Challa wants to tell Monica all about all the insights and epiphanies and resolutions and answers that he found on his sojourn.
“But now that he’s found them, there’s no reason to hurry … No reason at all.”
I personally feel that these past four chapters, featuring T’Challa’s pursuit of Killmonger through Wakanda’s Hidden Realms, constitute some of the best writing and art (though the art got really sketchy this time around) in the history of comic books. For whatever that’s worth, anyway. +++
CHECK BACK TOMORROW FOR PART ELEVEN. SAME PANTHER-TIME, SAME PANTHER-CHANNEL.
FOR MY ARTICLE ON THE MAIN LIST OF CENTAUR COMICS SUPERHEROES CLICK HERE
FOR MY ARTICLE ON THE MAIN LIST OF THE RURAL HOME/ CROYDON SUPERHEROES CLICK HERE
FOR MY ARTICLE ON THE MEMBERS OF INFINITE HORIZON CLICK HERE
FOR THE AUSTRALIAN SUPERHERO PANTHEON CLICK HERE
FOR MORE SUPERHEROES CLICK HERE: Superheroes
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