Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Black Panther review- a promising, subversive start
With the long-awaited new edition of the Marvel star, Coates and his illustrator, Brian Stelfreeze, have delivered on their promise of a dramatic upheaval
Marvel Comics has often turned to writers, famous beyond the world of capes and comics, to reinvent their lesser-known and lesser-loved titles. The novelist Jonathan Lethem, who set Marvels 1970 s output front and center in both Fortress of Solitude and his autobiographical book of essays The Disappointment Artist, wrote a self-contained 10 -issue series for the virtually forgotten Omega The Unknown in 2007. While G Willow Wilson, a comic book and fantasy writer most well known for her novel Alif the Unseen, transformed Ms Marvel into the first major Muslim superhero.
Now, Ta-Nehisi Coates, who ran from his influential blogs and features at the Atlantic to the MacArthur fellowship, and the National Book Award, is helming a new running of Black Panther. If youve never heard of Black Panther, thats about to change. Not merely will he soon be incorporated into the Marvel cinematic cosmo in the new Captain America film, but Coatess first issue of the comic has already hit sale of more than 300,000 copies, more than twice the demand for the previous months bestselling comic, Dark Knight III.
Black Panther has been through this process once before, when mystery novelist David Liss had the character take over for Daredevil and move to Hells Kitchen. The results were a kind of poor mans Batman right down to the goofy gadgets and a conflicted relationship with a mustachioed police officer he fulfilled on rooftops. Somehow, it still run. Never a prominent enough character to have the fixed myth and reader expectations of a Spider-Man or a Batman, Black Panthers exact backstory, powers, code of conduct and attitude have all changed many times over the 40 years that hes been punching evildoers in the face.
There are certain constants, however. The Black Panther isnt a secret identity, its a ceremonial title that belongs to TChalla, the monarch of the fictional African nation of Wakanda. The Black Panther is Wakandas king, the high priest of its Panther cult, and its warrior champion all at once. In some versions of his tale, the title is hereditary, in others it is won by combat every year, but either way, the Black Panther fees a heart-shaped herb as part of his initiation which brings him into touch with the Panther god and grants him some superpowers.
Wakanda is the most technologically advanced nation in the world. It is also one of the wealthiest, thanks to the Great Mound, a meteor made out of vibranium that crashed into its territory eons ago. Before TChallas reign, Wakanda was an isolationist country that many had never heard of, a secret African utopia that wedded tribal customs or white novelists ideas of tribal customs to space-age science fiction.
TChalla has often left Wakanda for one reason or another, and brought difficulty back with him. Over the years, TChalla has jump-kicked the Ku Klux Klan, hunted rich, joined up with the Avengers, wedded an X-Man, survived multiple intrusions from the neighboring country of Niganda, abdicated his throne, filled in for Daredevil in Hells Kitchen, taught in a public school in Harlem, been divorced and staked the hearts of dozens of Confederate vampires in post-Katrina New Orleans. Throughout all this his essential decency has remained intact. In some novelists hands, TChalla is arrogant wouldnt you be if you ruled a techno-futurist Utopia? but he is always, at heart, a good man. TChalla is , no matter what, a beloved, merciful, and only ruler, possessed of a personal sense of restraint and responsibility.
The Black Panthers rule of Wakanda hasnt been seriously interrogated by the various novelists who have told his tale. It is this aspect that feels most fresh about Coatess take on the character. The comic begins with TChalla on his knees, unmasked, continues on to a civilian riot where he virtually kills his own citizens, through to a botched attempt at justice, and a mysterious psychic advising us that the people of Wakanda are ashamed of their monarch. This mysterious psychic is in some way responsible for the riot, but she did not generate the feelings that caused it; the peoples own rage lay there, waiting to be exploited.
Coates may be a first-time comics writer whose entire published catalogue thus far is nonfiction, but he attacks the material with equanimity. The debut issue is the first in a yearlong, 12 -chapter arc. It is a bit overburdened with exposition. But it moves fluidly, lighting the fuses of several plots that will clearly intersect before exploding in the finale.
Emphasizing the broad scope of the series, Coatess script defines TChalla aside for long stretchings of action, focusing instead on characters like Ayo and Aneka, two ex-Dora Milaje who are tired of living and dying on the blood-right of one human. While the dialogue is occasionally overcooked, with lines such as, Spare her, mother, spare her the motherfucker sanction of men whose honor is ostentation, whose justice is deceit, failing to comprehend the epic splendour for which they reach, this first issue appears to be the beginning of a very promising running.
The characters are clear, the ethical issues they face feel real and the world of Wakanda seems lived in. Credit for some of this must surely go to artist Brian Stelfreeze, whose sense of style and visual storytelling are impressive, even in the heat of combat, and who makes great utilize of silhouette and emotive faces. These faces are neatly contrasted with TChallas own, which is often hidden by a mask or turned away from the reader. We read TChallas anguished narration, but he is separate from us in a manner that is reminiscent of how he feels divorced from his people and his nation.
Its a subversive way of looking at Black Panther and long overdue. Marvel Comics has often opened the doors for subversive takes on their titles. One of the best long-running comics series ever published, Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleevs take on Daredevil, was the result of a similarly realistic considered by the world of the character that their predecessors had constructed. The Black Panther has faced down threats to his regulation on multiple fronts before. In Coates and Stelfreezes hands, the comic suggests that this time, maybe he deserves it.
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