In recent news, Erik Killmonger, the breakout villain from Marvel’s Black Panther film, is set to star in his own comic mini-series written by Bryan Edward Hill (Detective Comics, The Wild Storm: Michael Cray) and pencilled by Juan Ferreyra (Green Arrow). According to the writer, the premise will be a sort of origin story that leads to what we see from Michael B. Jordan’s character in the film. Predictably, the character in the movie differs from the character’s iteration in the original comics, but what makes Killmonger so fascinating is the changes he experiences in the transition from page to screen.
Killmonger was given a new kind of backstory and motivation for the film, and audiences latched onto his villainous ambitions to take over Wakanda for a global revolution. Killmonger’s plan in the comics just stopped at taking over Wakanda. However, he not only provides a powerful foundation in his silver screen counterpart but also the thematic core of the Black Panther mythos. He also gets points for brandishing a spiked whip and having a pet Jaguar named Preyy. (Comics are weird.)
Obviously, the gap in popularity between the movie and comic Killmongers is vast. Their differences might be incompatible with one another, but interpreting them can offer us more insight into what Black Panther represents and what he can teach us about the world. Now let’s dive into the world of Wakanda to see what this villain is all about.
Let’s start with the Killmonger from comicsdom. He first appeared in one of T’Challa’s oldest and most prominent stories, “Panther’s Rage.” It was a thirteen-part epic written by Don McGregor and drawn by Rick Buckler and Billy Graham within the pages of Jungle Action (which is unfortunate for such a title). It established the Black Panther and his world in a story of war with dense prose and beautifully complex layouts. While it was not the Afro-futurist utopia we know today, the Wakanda of 1973-1975 was still an advanced country that focused on its mystical elements and embraced a tribal aesthetic.
In this story, T’Challa returns to his home country after adventuring in America with the Avengers, but he comes to a place wrecked by violence from a revolting army led by the monstrous Killmonger. He confronts this foe but gets roundly defeated, igniting a decades-old rivalry. What made Killmonger stand out was not just his power of the main character or his cool pet cat-monster, but his quest to just make Wakanda a better place.
You see, Killmonger was merely a citizen of his beloved home until the supersonic Ulysses Klaue attacked in a storyline that happened in Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four #52-53. During that attack, Killmonger was captured and forced into slavery in America, sparking a hatred against what he saw as a weak king exposing his country to foreign heroes. In his battle against the monarchy, he enlists and commiserates with fellow outcasts like the snake charmer Venomm and the death-like Baron Macabre. Not only was Erik born and raised in Wakanda, but he was also a team player.
The foundation of this Killmonger’s character is the idea of national identity, and a very violent-minded one at that. He believes in keeping Wakanda’s borders closed so it can empower itself. In the pages of the comics, he does not believe in a better world, just a better nation.He embraces more war-like traditions while breaking sacred taboos like raising the dead, teaming-up with terrorists, and enlisting dinosaurs (DINOSAURS!) to serve as beasts of burden. Nothing matters except making Wakanda great again. This ideology only makes it more ironic that he is beaten by the push of a single child, traumatized and sick of war and violence, over a mountainside.
The battles T’Challa had to go through to even put a scratch on Killmonger were symbolic of a tradition weakened by foreign excursion struggle. Killmonger served as a catalyst for T’Challa to realign his priorities in his nascent rule, challenging the idea that serving with other people only made him softer. This conflict led him to form bonds with his trusted guardsman W’Kabi and Taku as well as his former love Monica Lynne, who came to Wakanda from America to understand her boyfriend’s culture. Killmonger led to an internal conflict for the Black Panther while the external fights served as fireworks, beautifully drawn ones I might add. If you are ever curious about older comics, “Panther’s Rage” is the book for you.
Meanwhile, the Erik Killmonger from the film takes on a more tragic, Shakespearean origin. His father N’Jobu was brother to the king T’Chaka and served as a Wakandan spy in Oakland during the early 1990s. He sees the suffering of Black America against a cruel government and an oppressive police force. Recognizing his own unfair privilege built on the rare metal Vibranium, he decides to take direct action. He builds up an arsenal and movement until making a grievous decision, betraying Wakanda and letting an outsider in to steal Vibranium. This outsider’s name was Ulysses Klaue.
T’Chaka, upon learning of his brother’s treachery, comes to Oakland to arrest him, only to wind up killing him for defending another man. He learns that N’Jobu had a child named N’Jadaka, but for the sake of keeping Wakanda’s existence a secret, he abandons it to America’s poverty and racism. This leads to an anger from a Killmonger that has a different goal in mind. He wants to complete his father’s revolutionary work, declaring war on oppressive (mostly white) governments. He uses Wakanda and its resources as a mere stepping stone toward that goal. Erik never cared about Wakanda as a country or as a people in the film. He only cared about gaining his revenge and arming “his people.”
Instead of a national identity, Erik Killmonger defines his actions by a strong sense of racial identity. Erik is a black man from a country built on the oppression of those like him. He believes actions should be taken to empower that sense of racial pride and dominance. He prefers to make a people more powerful than make a nation better, abandoning any sense of understanding with his home or his culture.
This version of the villain captured the imagination of audiences worldwide most likely because his ethos is built from events and ideologies at play in the current world. (Michael B. Jordan’s star power certainly didn’t hurt.) Comics Killmonger can feel as strongly as he can about Wakanda and its place in the Marvel Universe, but Wakanda is still not a real place. When you build a character that’s practically ripped from today’s headlines, you end up with a character whose every action communicates meaning.
Black Panther’s World
This version also places Black Panther’s conflict solely in the center of the world and its politics. What does it mean to be an Afro-futurist nation in face of American xenophobia? What should your responsibilities be to other Black people around the world? These questions were made possible thanks to Killmonger’s tragic origin and lust for revenge. These questions even made T’Challa a better king in the film’s story, creating outreach programs and revealing Wakanda to the world.
The film’s Killmonger successfully made Black Panther a more complete character whose internal conflicts are equal to the external. The Killmonger from the comics helped build the foundation for future creators to contribute towards. Overall, the biggest contribution T’Challa’s nemesis gave to the mythos was making him matter to the whole world.
When he doesn’t have his head in the clouds, Jose keeps his head down studying and reading books, both graphic and novel. When he’s not reading, you can see him writing his own sci-fi adventures, photographing life in Los Angeles, catching up on television he’s missed, or watching the latest MCU film. He’s happy to live in the now.