Everett K. Ross as Mephisto? Positioning in Christopher Priest’s Black Panther

In the previous post, I wrote about the narrative point-of-view (pov) in Christopher Priest’s Black Panther (1998-2003). There, I discussed Priest’s comments about placing Everett K. Ross as the narrator of Black Panther and how that narrative position related to the work of Quentin Tarantino. Today, I want to look at a shift that occurs in issue #34, part one of “Gorilla Warfare.” Ross’ narrative voice remains; however, his appearance changes, and that change positions Ross as the Other in the text.

Issue # 34 opens with a section entitled “The Devil You Know.” The first page contains eight almost completely black panels, suggesting a dark room, with Ross’s narration then speech spattered throughout. Ross sums up the story so far, as he normally does, before stepping out of bed, hitting his head on the door frame, and then hurting his feet. As he climbs out of bed, he smells a “curious burning,” but he does not know the origins of the smell. As readers, we are left wondering what will happen on the next page when Ross eventually flips on the light. There, we see a full page image of Ross’ reflection in the bathroom mirror, but instead of Ross staring back, it is Mephisto staring back at him. (I do not want to get into the plot here, but if you would like to see why Ross looks like Mephisto here, check out Priest’s blog where he discusses “The Return of the Dragon” story arc.)

Ross’ appearance alienates him. He is no longer a young white male working for the government. Instead, he looks like a demon. One would think that Ross’ new appearance would cause a reaction from people during his travels through the streets of New York, but nobody reacts like Ross looks like Mephisto. Rather, they treat him first as if he is invisible then as if he is a threat, without acknowledging the fact that he looks like a hell spawned demon. In fact, Ross’ appearance as Mephisto does not come up until the end of the issue when he goes to Avengers’ headquarters seeking help and the Avengers attack him. What does this lack of recognition say? Why have Ross walk through the streets as Mephisto without being recognized, necessarily, as Mephisto?

The lack of recognition presents a comment about Blackness in America. The next time we see Ross, he is on a bus with a Yankees cap on and a long coat sitting next to an older white woman on a subway train. The woman, and the other white passengers, do not pay any attention to him. The first panel shows the subway car with Ross’ narration over the image. Ross tells the reader, “Really hard to get a taxi to stop for you when you’re seven feet tall and bright red.” As such, Ross takes the train. With this comment, Ross becomes Black even though he is “bright red.” The cabs don’t stop, and they don’t see him as Mephisto. Cabs not stopping for Black passengers is a sign of racism, and is something that still occurs today as Paul Larosa writes about in the Huffington Post and it even happens with Uber and Lyft as Henry Grabar points out in Slate.

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The final panel on the subway shows Ross turning to the older white woman next to him and saying, “It’s a long story.” Here, the woman does not even acknowledge Ross. In fact, her countenance and gaze are the same in all three panels, staring ahead of her. The younger white woman to the right has the same pose throughout as well, looking at her laptop. Essentially, Ross becomes invisible. No one acknowledges him, even when he does speak, thus he does not even register as a person to the passengers sitting next to him.

The women’s nonrecognition of Ross brings to mind Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, specifically the opening paragraph where the protagonist talks about being invisible to those around him. He says,

I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie extoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me.

Taking this paragraph in relation to Ross’ appearance, we see points of convergence. On top of being invisible to those around him, we see that the women only see their “surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination.” They do not see the “flesh and bone” Ross as Mephisto sitting next to them. He becomes obscured. Likewise, we see the reference to a mirror that eliminates people and aspects of the surrounding area. Ross learns about his transformation in the mirror when he turns the light on in the bathroom. Ross, as he once was physically, gets lost and transformed.

After he leaves the train, we see two panels at the bottom of the page with Ross outside of the Wakandan Consulate. Here, a policeman confronts him. Again, the policeman does not comment on Ross’ appearance as Mephisto. He points his nightstick at Ross an commands, “Move along!” When Ross tries to explain, the policeman continues and asks, “Mister, you wanna get locked up—?!?” The policeman refers to Ross as “mister,” not as a demon. As on the train, we get another comment on race. Ross comes across not as a threat because he is “seven feet tall and bright red”; he comes across as a threat because he is an Other, specifically in this case Black.

The only instance, before Ross gets to the Avengers’ mansion, where someone comments on his appearance happens when Ross sees his body, occupied by someone else, on television screens in a shop. Ross stares through the window, and a Black man approaches him saying, “Hey Red, quit foggin’ the glass!” Here, we get a comment on Ross’ appearance, but notice it does not come from a white person. What does that say? The man sees Ross’, and even though he is mad about Ross fogging up the window, he acknowledges Ross’ appearance.

Right before he goes to Avengers’ mansion, we see Ross at a newsstand looking at a magazine. He questions how in the world he can get away walking the streets of New York looking like Mephisto. Ross ponders, “I spent most of my day trying to find the Panther—and becoming increasingly alarmed at how Mephisto can apparently wander around New York unnoticed.” Again, Ross notices that he is, in fact, invisible to those around him. They see their surroundings, not him. Even when he walks up to the gate at Avengers’ mansion, the policemen and the crowd gathered there do not say anything about his appearance. When the security system identifies Ross as Mephisto, then an acknowledgement occurs and Ross flies away.

By having Ross as a white male for 33 issues then altering his appearance, Priest causes the white reader to shift identification. The reader now gets placed in the position of the Other. Ross’ appearance as Mephisto, which carries over for a few issues, shows the reader the experiences, in microcosm, of being Black in America. It shows the white reader, whose lens we see the narrative through, what it is like to be considered invisible, or when visible, seen as a threat. Priest accomplishes this subtly by not overemphasizing the scenes and by having Ross look like Mephisto, not T’Challa.

When looking over these scenes, I could not help but think about W.E.B. DuBois’ discussion of “Double Consciousness,” Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask,” and other texts. I do not have time to delve into these ideas here, but I would love to hear your thoughts. Let me know what you think in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.

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