Black Panther #1
Art: Brian Stelfreeze
Colors: Laura Martin
Letters: Joe Sabino
Design: Manny Mederos
Logo: Ryan Hughes
Variant Covers: Olivier Coipel, Felipe Smith, Alex Ross, Skottie Young, Sanford Greene, Ryan Sook
Black Panther created by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby.
For a whole host of reasons, this latest Black Panther relaunch is one of the most hotly anticipated comic book series to come out of the current Marvel era. Ta-Nehisi Coates is the kind of respected literary figure that no one in their right mind would ever expect to write for hollowed-out corporate properties, let alone a superhero comic. Coates is a black writer widely known and lauded for his commentary about cultural, socio-economic and political issues, particularly those regarding the African-American community. His comics debut comes at a time when the medium is experiencing increased scrutiny for its representation of women, LGBTQ characters, and people of color, both on and of the page. This makes pairing Coates with African-American artist Brian Stelfreeze on a title starring Marvel’s most important black superhero particularly significant, especially given the comic’s release is timed ahead of the character’s cinematic debut in Captain America: Civil War. And then there’s Black Panther himself, a problematic blend of exotized Africanist elements that both idealizes and sidesteps the historic African experience. To say that people were curious to see how Coates would deal with the character is a bit of an understatement. The comic arrived with a lot of goodwill, and the reviews have been generally positive. I too want Coates to succeed. And I was left a little underwhelmed.
Obviously, high expectations could have played a part in my initial response. But let's first tackle the parts of the comic that worked. Coates has gone down the route of deconstructing the Black Panther character, who has been portrayed in the past as an astute political leader, fierce warrior, scientific genius, and crafty manipulator. In short, a superhero. In contrast, Coates T’Challa has lost his way. He’s recently returned to a Wakanda being torn apart by political strife after the death of its last ruler and Black Panther for a short time, his younger sister Shuri. His initial attempts to quell the restless population produce disastrous results. This only causes him to question his own leadership. While armed insurrection is imminent, even members of his elite bodyguard the Dora Milaje are poised to rebel against the government. Coates has created an intriguing setup with a diverse cast of characters to explore the bizarre trope of a technologically advanced society still governed by ancient tribal custom, and more particularly a caste of divinely ordained rulers. What happens when the people stop believing in them?
The drawback, as always, is that the reader still has to consider the wider Marvel Universe. Coates has revealed in interviews that he's a genuine Marvel comics fan. The result of that obsession is that the comic’s beginning is weighed down with the usual continuity porn. There’s the Infinity series to consider, a war with Atlantis during Avengers VS. X-Men, and the events leading up to Secret Wars. All of this is necessary to explain the chaos engulfing Wakanda and T’Challa’s precarious hold on power. But even the rest of the comic is bogged down by a lot of exposition-heavy narration that gets quickly tedious to have to read.
Which brings up Coates thoughtful, articulate, sharply observant, deliberately paced, writing style. Great for prose, but still trying to settle into a proper groove with comic books. If other readers found it powerful and expressive, I just found it ponderous. Coates has carefully assembled his cast to raise certain arguments and consider certain points of view. This does lend a bit of thematic depth to the story. Though it’s one thing when it turns T’Challa into a brooding hero, but does everyone else have to speak with the same gloomy cadence?
As for the other main contributor, Stelfreeze is as good an artist as any working in Marvel today, I’m curious to see how he’ll proceed in fleshing out the nation of Wakanda. But his monolithic style with its stiff heavy lines, strong chiaroscuro, figures held in rigid upright postures while wearing stoic facial expressions, tends to underline Coates own limitations as a comic book writer. In a story filled with so many serious looking talking heads, the brief action sequences don't land with the intended emotional impact.
This is still a good comic that promises to get better as Coates develops his ideas and improves his abilities as a scripter. It’s just a fairly conventional introduction for a superhero comic, and not as inventive or as fun as some of the other relaunches I’ve covered before.