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Thursday, April 7, 2016

Review: BLACK PANTHER #1


For a long time, Black Panther was the coolest, most in-control guy in the Marvel Universe. Introduced in 1966 taking on the Fantastic Four singlehandedly and nearly winning, the Black Panther, T'Challa, the King of Wakanda, was a bad-ass from the get-go. But he was also never featured quite as often or quite as heavily as many other Marvel characters. He had an amazing backstory - King of an isolationist African nation renowned for its super-science - and a lot of skills, but what he rarely had was a spotlight. Christopher Priest and Reginald Hudlin began to change that in the late 1990s, work Jonathan Hickman continued in the pages of New Avengers and Secret Wars. But with that spotlight in the last 20 years, the character's mythic glow has dimmed some; T'Challa is a man, now. The once-unconquered Wakanda was taken over and nearly destroyed, T'Challa lost his throne, and the Wakandan people are left wondering what it was all for. Enter Ta-Nehisi Coates, Brian Stelfreeze, and Laura Martin, the new creative team on Marvel's Black Panther #1, who seek not to rebuild T'Challa's empire, but to explore him as the type of damaged, struggling, human heroic figure in which Marvel has long specialized.

Fittingly, then, Black Panther #1 opens with T'Challa lost in a way we've rarely seen him before. He went to the Great Mound to work with the miners who deliver Wakanda's most valuable resource, vibranium, only to find a riot brewing. Sure, it's a fight he could easily win, but the fight's not the problem: These are his citizens, under his protection. Even fighting them is only hurting his kingdom, even if their rage is stoked by an empath in the crowd who may have sinister ulterior motives. And that's before the fight is recorded and put on the Wakandan news.... Meanwhile, his guards, the Dora Milaje are in crisis as well, one of their number sentenced to death for murdering a criminal in cold blood. An impending invasion is hinted at, and even T'Challa himself is creating problems for his kingdom as he tries to right a past wrong in secret.

If all that sounds incredibly busy, that's because... well, it is incredibly busy. Coates introduces a ton of different threads here, and, as a first time comics writer more used to one-and-done prose nonfiction than serialized fiction, it would be easy for the book to feel very rushed. But Coates smartly builds all these actions around a theme. The entire book is a reaction to Wakanda's recently collapse under T'Challa's watch, and how that period of intense strife ended up laying the seeds for a thousand other little problems. In Coates' Black Panther, victory isn't always as simple as winning the fight, and there are consequences for every decision. It is that idea, consequence, that drives every moment of the story and ends up tying everything together.

But I suspect a lot of the book's fleetness can be attributed to veteran art team Brian Stelfreeze and Laura Martin, too. Stelfreeze's layouts are simple but effective, as is his design work. One mid-book conversation between a pair of lovers on the run is handled entirely in silhouette, a surprisingly sensitive choice beautifully brought to life by Stelfreeze and colorist Martin. Martin, meanwhile, can convey a lot by adding just a waft of color to proceedings. One early-book moment in which Black Panther tries to track a woman's 'soul' through a crowd could have been confusing or taken up a page full of exposition. Instead, Martin manages to convey what the Panther is following, who has been corrupted, and that the trail has died off in a single panel. With a ton of ground to cover, Stelfreeze and Martin managed to make everything flow naturally.

The other reason Coates' decision to build the book out and set up so many plots works (to the degree that it does) is because it grounds them in world-building, in an expansive supporting cast. This, ultimately, is Black Panther #1's greatest strength, and its greatest weakness. Coates isn't just throwing plots into the air and seeing what sticks; rather, he is introducing us to characters, making sure we know why they are acting, and then putting them on a collision course with T'Challa. As an introduction to T'Challa, I'm not entirely certain Black Panther #1 functions the way it should. The leading man is limited to a few fairly brief scenes with turgid narration, and his most powerful character moment hinges on a cliffhanger reveal that won't mean much to new readers. As the beginning of an epic sci-fi saga about Wakanda in a time of trouble, though, it's damned effective. Only time will tell if Coates can find a way to make T'Challa in crisis as interesting as the world that surrounds him and the nation he rules.


Black Panther #1 was written by Ta-Nehisi Coates, illustrated by Brian Stelfreeze, colored by Laura Martin, and lettered by VC's Joe Sabino. Published by Marvel Comics on April 6th, 2016, Black Panther #1 is 22 pages long and has a list price of $4.99.
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