Who Was Billy Graham?

By | Thursday, February 01, 2024 Leave a Comment
When talking about creators who've worked on Black Panther, it of course makes sense that Jack Kirby (and Stan Lee) get called up as creating the character in the first place. Christopher Priest comes up regularly as much of the approach that is used in the movie stems from his take on the character, and Ta-Nehisi Coates certainly comes up as a well-known and recent author of Panther's exploits. Don McGregor occasionally comes up, but his artistic partner on the first real series to flesh out Black Panther's world is often glossed over. While Billy Graham wasn't the initial artist on the Panther stories in Jungle Action, he was the one who provided the most long-lasting and compelling visuals for the run.

Graham was born in 1935 and went to New York City's Music & Art High School. His earliest comics work was in the late 1960s for Warren's horror comics, including Vampirella #1. Publisher James Warren promoted him to art director soon after...
I sensed Billy had the ability to handle it; certain artists and writers are great but they can't shift out of their specialty and do something else. Billy could. So I said, 'Billy, you are now art director! Whether you like it or not.' Now you have to understand that all Billy wanted to do his whole life was just be Jack Kirby. I said, ' You'll be the Black Jack Kirby, but not today! Today you are art director of Warren Publishing.'
Graham wasn't in that position very long, however, heading over to Marvel to work as inker on the debut issue of Luke Cage, Hero for Hire. He took over as penciller with #4 and writer Steve Englehart noted that he did a lot of the story work as well, even getting a co-writer credit for the final two issues.

Graham began working on Jungle Action with #10 and continuing through #22. His work included showing the death of Erik Killmonger and an extended story that pit T'Challa against the Ku Klux Klan. A lot of work was put into fleshing out Wakanda, and showcasing different villages within the country.

He gravitated away from superheroes in the 1980s, working on the early issues of Eclipse, and teaming up again with McGregor on Sabre after Paul Gulacy left after only two issues. That team-up continued as McGregor filmed a low-budget movie version of Detectives Inc. in 1985, casting Graham as one of the leads. (McGregor actually had some prior acting experience, doing some commercial work at least as far back as 1974.)

By the 1990s, he was largely out of comics and seemed to focus more on commercial illustration work, even doing some of the courtroom sketch artist pieces for Law & Order. One of the last things he was working on before he passed away in 1999 was a novel and screenplay called Lucky Ace which he described as...
A tongue-in-cheek action comedy screenplay about a high-living, BLACK Vietnam vet, now an eccentric limousine driver who has EPISODIC ADVENTURES after he's drafted into the C.I.A.
For as short a run as Graham had working on the Black Panther, it remains incredibly powerful and many comic artists today cite his as their definitive version of the character. The work has been reprinted in Marvel Masterworks, Essentials, and Epic Collection formats, any one of them worth picking up!
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