Skip to main content

Dwayne McDuffie and the power fantasy of superhero comics (and the cosmic armbar)

Dwayne McDuffie's understanding of fandom created one of the wildest moments in Black Panther history.

T’Challa rides Silver Surfer’s cosmic board through an asteroid field. Art by Paul Pelletier, Rick Magyar, and Paul Mounts, from Fantastic Four #545.
Image credit: Marvel Comics

A War of Fan Egos

Rumble threads are the boxing ring of fandom. Who would win in a fight: Batman or Captain America? Captain Marvel or Shazam? Aquaman or Namor? Fans of various characters grab screenshots of various fights to demonstrate why their preferred hypothetical combatant would win the bout. This type of fervor goes beyond comics of course, who hasn't heard the sports debates: Jordan or LeBron? Tyson or Ali?

These impassioned arguments reveal a truth of us fans — we love the characters and want to see them win out, even if it's just in our imagination. They're extensions of our own egos. We need our favorite hero to win out at the end because we need to win out at the end. This is something the late Dwayne McDuffie understood intrinsically. McDuffie's work, whether in comics like Hardware or Static or television like Justice League Unlimited or Ben 10, speaks to an understanding of the joy and empowerment people get from these stories. But McDuffie also understood the limits that were often imposed upon these fantasies and who got to have them.

Speaking with Dr. Jonathan Gayles of Georgia State University as part of a series of documentaries, Dwayne McDuffie said of the superhero genre, "the fundamental thing that we're getting out of the genre, which is our heroic image of ourselves... It's very much a power fantasy. It's very much a male power fantasy. It's very much a white power fantasy. So, if I write, as I have many times, a story where Daredevil, who doesn't have powers, gets the drop on Thor, who has unbelievable powers, people go 'Oh, that's so cool, Daredevil was so clever!' If I have the Black Panther do the same thing, 'That's impossible!' It's like yeah, it's impossible with Daredevil too, man."

Dwayne McDuffie, of course, never settled on the limits of the readers' imagination, and this is what makes his work so entertaining and empowering. And in regards to the specifics of the presented examples, McDuffie is responsible for a particularly 'impossible' moment in Black Panther history: the "cosmic armbar." But for context, we need to visit one of Marvel's most famous characters, the Silver Surfer.

Silver Surfer rides his board through a meteor storm. Art by Jack Kirby, from Fantastic Four #48.
Image credit: Marvel Comics

The Combatants

Silver Surfer is Marvel's original powerhouse hero. Since his debut in the pages of Fantastic Four #48, he has been identified by his nigh invulnerability. Imbued with the power cosmic by the planet-devouring being known as Galactus, Silver Surfer rides the galaxy on a board faster than the speed of light. Punches from characters like Thor or the Thing do little to damage him, and his offensive capabilities match his invulnerability. Indeed, in many stories, Silver Surfer, is the hero that falls to show just how powerful the villain is. It is the Silver Surfer who crashes into Doctor Strange's home to warn of the coming of Thanos in Jim Starlin and the late George Pérez's Infinity Gauntlet which serves as a testament to the power wielded by the Mad Titan. It is the Silver Surfer who is chosen by the emperor of an alien world to be the final opponent in a test of the Hulk's might in 'Planet Hulk.'

T'Challa aka the Black Panther is my favorite fictional character. Though I am a light-skinned biracial American, T'Challa lives in my mind as a heroic image of myself. Debuting in Fantastic Four #52, Black Panther is imbued with the power of the heart-shaped herb that gives him enhanced strength and speed. But his real superpower is his genius, both scientific and strategic. Panther is — in terms of ability — a cross between Iron Man and Captain America. In other words, he really should have no business fighting Silver Surfer in a 1-on-1 bout.

Enter Dwayne McDuffie's genius.

Dwayne McDuffie took over writing duties on Fantastic Four #542, in a time of turmoil for the superhero team. This was during the fallout of the crossover 'Civil War' event, which saw the implementation of the Superhero Registration Act, which required superheroes within the United States to register with the government and caused a rift in the superhero community within the Marvel Universe. Reed Richards aka Mr. Fantastic and Susan Storm aka Invisible Woman fell on different sides quite dramatically, and a potential divorce was looming. In the fallout, they left the team, but not without nominating Black Panther and Storm (who had just married) to take their place. The relationship dynamics provided new material for McDuffie to explore, but it also gave opportunity to take Black Panther and Storm to the cosmos.

It is in Fantastic Four #545, that the new Fantastic Four meet up with the Silver Surfer. It's a classic superhero misunderstanding, but it's also a direct fight. The Thing attempts to clobber Surfer and fails. Storm, master of the elements, launches a barrage of lightning at Surfer, and fails. The Human Torch attempts to make him yield to flame, and fails, as Surfer launches his board at him. Yet when Silver Surfer summons his board back, he finds Black Panther riding aboard it. And then the most ridiculous thing happens. In a series of panels brought to life by penciller Paul Pelletier, inker Rick Magyar, and colorist Paul Mounts, Black Panther slips one arm around Surfer's neck while pulling Surfer's right arm behind him, restraining him.

Black Panther retrains the Silver Surfer while explaining the limits of his body to him. From Fantastic Four #545.
Image credit: Marvel Comics

Affectionately called the "Cosmic Armbar" by Black Panther fans (though it's really more of a shoulder lock), the moment became an ace-in-the-hole in rumble threads. Thanks to McDuffie, Black Panther was now a character who could face down opponents on a cosmic scale. Does he need to acquire kryptonite to go toe-to-toe in a cross-universe bout with Superman? No, he just needs to apply the Cosmic Armbar. This moment also wasn't a hypothetical. It was one Black Panther fans like myself could point to, and post images of. You couldn't deny it, because it happened.

I couldn't deny it either. I was 19 years old when this story first hit comic book stands. If you'd have asked me if T'Challa could beat Silver Surfer in a 1-on-1 fight without the benefit of mythical 'prep time,' my answer would have been a resounding 'no,' likely with an expletive or two thrown in for good measure. Yet it happened, and this is the powerful gift of Dwayne McDuffie's writing — it repeatedly breaks the barriers in our own minds and expanding our imaginations.

The best Black Panther stories in all of comics
Featured events