Black Panther is a character that comes with history, as well as the weight of new expectations.
The Black Panther first debuted in Fantastic Four in 1966, years before other African-American superheroes, such as Marvel’s Luke Cage (1972). The character’s name pre-dates the official formation of the Black Panther Party – the black nationalist organisation active in the US from the 60s to the 80s – although not the logo used by the party.
The character, like all comic book characters, has been reinvented many times over since then. While he was still one of the lesser known Marvel regulars up until Chadwick Boseman made an appearance as the character in Captain America: Civil War (2016), that’s all changing. Now, Black Panther is receiving a standalone film, set for release in 2018.
To coincide with the character’s increasing involvement in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the National Book Award-winning and New York Times best-selling author of Between The World And Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates, was brought on to helm a new comic run. Ta-Nehisi Coates' first volume, with illustrator Brian Stelfreeze, is a complex and riveting reading.
The Black Panther is not just a superhero identity – it’s a title given to T’Challa, the king of the (fictional) African nation of Wakanda. In the Marvel universe, Wakanda is the most technologically advanced country in the world, not to mention the wealthiest, thanks to its abundant resource of the rarest metal on the planet: vibranium. Think techno-futurist utopia, with a dash of isolationist policy. Wakanda’s depiction in comics is a blend of space-age cityscapes and tribal decorative themes.
When Coates’ run begins, T’Challa finds himself struggling to show his people that he can (or should) be their ruler and protector. A superhuman terrorist group called The People has sparked a violent uprising among citizens of the country, aided by a physic who can exploit the emotions of others – but that’s not to say that the citizens are merely pawns. The people of Wakanda have real complaints. They are filled with rage; T’Challa’s new foe, the physic, merely let them see their rage.
There are subplots aplenty, but the best is the thread that follows the two women who once belonged to the Dora Milaje; warriors who protect the king. After experiencing firsthand how the current leadership doesn’t always support the people, they start their own guerrilla camp, because “no one man” should have all that power.
It’s also worth mentioning that Coates, in the very first issue of his run, centres the story of a Black lesbian couple. Virtual high five, Coates, virtual high five.
There are past plot points and events, from previous stories told in comics, that bring T’Challa to the point where Coates’ story starts. This is not an origin story, for either the Black Panther or his nation.
T’Challa has a past. There are betrayals, and lost loves, and family members murdered that are mentioned, but that the reader never gets to see. They are alluded to, but never explained through ham-fisted exposition. The audience is expected to be smart enough to fill in the blanks.
Wakanda has a past, too. Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet is as much the story of this nation, as it is about the title character. This is a country where political tensions have been simmering under the surface for years, where generations of families have fought and struggled, where, despite technological advancement and wealth, there remain vast inequalities. (Hey, why does that sound so familiar?)
In some ways, this isn’t classic comic book fare. At least, not the kind of comic stories audiences may have come to expect from narratives tied in with the MCU. This story of politics and power, violence and retribution. The story is focussed on the man T’Challa, not the icon Black Panther.
Coates’ Black Panther story isn’t just about superpowers, it’s about power. Full stop.
Brian Stelfreeze’s art is all about shadows and silhouettes; the body language of his characters convey their emotions when their faces are turned away. Or, you know, obscured by superhero masks. T’Challa himself, in costume, is a commanding shadow filling the pages.
This first volume sets up the themes and moral struggles for issues to come. The last line of dialogue in volume one comes from T’Challa: “We are Wakanda. We will not be terrorised. We are terror itself.”
The line between right and wrong in Wakanda is set to become a lot more shadowy.
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