Black Panther #1
“A Nation Under Our Feet, Part 1”
Writer: Ta-Nehisi Coates
Artist: Brian Stelfreeze
Colors: Laura Martin
Letters: Virtual Calligraphy
Cover artists: Stelfreeze (regular edition)/Stelfreeze, Olivier Coipel, Felipe Smith, Alex Ross, Skottie Young, Sanford Greene & Ryan Sook (variants)
Editor: Wil Moss
Publisher: Marvel Entertainment
Price: $4.99 US
I’m unfamiliar with the other works of writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, but his CV certainly gave me reason to anticipate this new title and what I expected to be a new take on the King of Wakanda. The character’s mainstream profile is about to take a giant leap thanks to its role in the upcoming Captain America: Civil War movie, and Marvel’s movie to launch a new Panther title ahead of the flick’s release certainly makes a lot of sense. However, many of the storytelling choices made in this inaugural issue don’t make sense. Coates builds on T’Challa’s history here, yes, but that appears to be all he does. This opening chapter in the new series is so completely immersed in the character’s history (especially in the past decade or so) that it promises to be almost completely inaccessible to new readers. Hell, I was a big fan of the complex and challenging BP penned by Priest years ago, and I was often at a loss as I made my way through these new pages.
Wakanda, once one of the most prosperous yet isolated nations on the planet, finds itself in upheaval after so many of its secrets were exposed, after its people and its lands were decimated by disaster and invaders. The formerly unseated King T’Challa finds himself on the throne once again, but instead of looking to him to lead, Wakandans now blame him for their plight. As he tries to rebuild a nation, the Black Panther must also win back the hearts of his people while also concerning himself about rebellion by those aides and warriors who were once his most trusted allies.
It’s been some time since artist Brian Stelfreeze’s work has graced the pages of a higher-profile project such as this one, and his return to the forefront of North American comics is a pleasure and a relief. He handles the unusual mix of the exotic and the technological that’s inherent in a Wakandan story incredibly well. I particularly appreciated his designs for the Midnight Angel armor adopted by the Dora Milaje in this story, but most of all, his portrayal of the title character really pops. Stelfreeze has clearly taken some cues from the big-screen incarnation of the character, but it’s also in keeping with past depictions in comics. If one is a fan of the style of Cully Hamner, one will definitely appreciate Stelfreeze’s work here. That should come as no surprise, given the two artists were studio mates for some time. Stelfreeze also impresses with the unusual but beautiful backdrops he crafts for the fictional and wondrous nation setting.
Coates, in taking on the Black Panther writing assignment, also adopts the role of a teacher, offering a lesson on Wakanda and its king. Unfortunately, he’s also overloaded his students with homework, as there’s a required reading list. Priest’s Panther book. Jonathan Hickman’s New Avengers. The Panther that featured T’Challa’s sister in the role. Whatever book in which the Panther and Namor became mortal enemies. The recent Secret Wars crossover. There’s so much with which one has to be familiar so as to follow the intricate political fiction here, I feel Coates and his editors have asked too much of the audience.
However, that’s not to say the homework isn’t worth doing. Coates is painting a picture for Western readers of an unstable yet noble African country on the brink of war. A radically different, non-consumer culture is at its heart, and that changes the motivations of the characters and how the audience relates to them. Also laudable is the incorporation of so many strong female players in the drama. While is titled for its main male protagonist, this first issue focuses much more on the women around him: his bodyguards who’ve been forced into a position to question their core beliefs, his stepmother and her dedication to law and tradition despite her personal feelings, and an antagonist who’s skilled at manipulating people in the wake tragedy and trauma. 6/10
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