WRITER: Ta-Nehisi Coates
ARTIST: Brian Stelfreeze
COLOR ARTIST: Laura Martin
LETTERER: VC’s Joe Sabino
DESIGN: Manny Mederos
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ first arc of “Black Panther” is titled “A Nation Under Our Feet”. It takes its title from a Pulitzer-prize winning book by Steven Hahn that examines the world of politics and leadership in the African-American community following the Civil War. In a number of ways, “Black Panther” draws on similar themes; it’s a political tale in the best sense of the word.
Those themes are part of what makes this book unique in the grand spectrum of superhero comics. But “Black Panther” has always been unique. Not only was T’Challa the first black superhero in mainstream comics, but he’s also the ruler of an African kingdom. He’s one of the ten smartest people on the planet, not typical for a world leader to say the least, but Wakanda is not your typical country. It’s at once a utopia, a monarchy, and the most technologically advanced nation in the world. It’s the pinnacle of what we as a society could become. You might be thinking, that sounds too good to be true, and you’d be right. This book is the story of what happens when that world is fractured.
There are essentially three factions fighting for the future of Wakanda, the first being T’Challa and his government, who have recently lost the trust of the people. A nation that for generations has prided itself on never being conquered, has, in the past year or so, been put through the ringer. A flood brought on by Namor, T’Challa’s rival and monarch of Atlantis. An invasion by Thanos and his Black Order. The death of T’Challa’s confidant, sister, and former ruler, Shuri. All of these things have brought a once mighty kingdom to it’s knees. The Black Panther, the heart and soul of Wakanda, seems rusty and more unsure of himself than ever before.
Not quite opposing T’Challa, but definitely not on the same team, are the “Midnight Angels”, a duo of female vigilantes who have become fugitives because the bureaucracy restricts them from doing what’s right. Not that Black Panther isn’t doing what’s right, but his role as king and inheritor of an ancient legacy has him focused on other battles to be fought. It’s the same argument at the heart of many great conflicts in comics from Batman/Superman to Captain America/Iron Man: do we do what we believe is just, even if it breaks the rules that hold society together?
The third party is a rebellion that is brewing on the border of Wakanda where a splinter group has been gaining followers. Led by a man named Tetu, they are angry that the legacy of their country is being tarnished and no longer see T’Challa fit to run it. On one hand, T’Challa has made some pretty questionable choices in recent times that have resulted in death and destruction. Being one of the smartest people on the planet doesn’t preclude you from letting your emotions control your actions (just ask Tony Stark). On the other hand, Tetu is using a young woman named Zenzi to… not so much brainwash people, but allow their instincts and their rage at T’Challa to take over and control them. She’s really just amplifying what’s already there, but using it to tear the country apart and drive it to a coup d’état.
It’s a complex conflict of different moralities and that’s what makes this book so great. It’s not a metaphorical civil war like what’s brewing between all the big whig superheroes, it’s an actual civil war that is breaking Wakanda, and no matter who wins or who you think is right, there is going to be blood and nobody is going home happy.
I was worried initially as I found the first issue decidedly less compelling than the second. It’s focused on world-building and setting up the brewing conflicts. Honestly, as well written and drawn as it is, I wasn’t sure I needed to add another comic to my pull-list just because it starred a character that I like (a mistake I, and surely many other comic book fans, frequently make, that keeps Marvel and DC from trying anything new). But instead of focusing on soap opera, the second issue doubles down on it’s emphasis on philosophical conflicts. Things really fell into place for me in a moment of debate between Tetu and his former mentor Baba, an argument hinging on the multi-faceted question “What is my remedy against the robber, who so broke into my house?” Tetu asks Baba if he can answer his own question. Baba responds that “the questions are the point” and “what you think is an answer is simply another question.” Which, when I write it, sounds like some Matrix-inspired metaphysical mumbo-jumbo, but in the context of the story does bring up more questions than answers. Is Tetu right to seek vengeance for his perceived injustice? Are the Midnight Angels right to appoint themselves as judge, jury, and executioner? Are T’Challa’s actions the right ones to combat the threats to the kingdom he has sworn to protect? Who is the robber here and whose house is it really? In truth, they are all fighting for Wakanda as each sees fit.
The fact that “Black Panther” is an intelligent, layered read should be enough to get you to pick up it up, but supporting it is also important because this book is in a unique position to foster diversity in genre entertainment. Everybody knows there is a problem with representation in mainstream comics (hell, everybody knows there is a problem with representation in mainstream media, period), and whether it’s corporate calculation or just plain serendipitous timing, Black Panther is becoming the emissary for black representation in the superhero world. With many proclaiming that he stole the show in "Captain America: Civil War" (quick, someone call the police, a black person stole something) and anticipation for his solo movie at it’s peak, this was the perfect time for a great “Black Panther” run to hit, and BOY HOWDY did it hit. In a world where even the best-selling books struggle to sell 100,000 copies, “Black Panther” hit 300,000 on it’s first print (making it the best-selling comic of 2016), and surely will sell more copies as Marvel does God-knows-how-many more printings.
It tackles representation behind the scenes too, uniting two prominent black creators, Brian Stelfreeze, a veteran artist at the top of his game, with Coates, the National Book Award-winning, MacArthur “Genius Grant”-receiving, author/journalist/professor who is in a exceptional place to give the comic book world some perspective about it’s black characters and how they relate to the real world. And kudos to Eisner-award winning colorist Laura Martin for making the characters look like BLACK characters as opposed to the white-washed cinnamon hue that’s been the go to for a caucasian-dominated industry for too long. It’s not just the skin tones; from her choice of deep greens, blues and purples that glow from the page to the pop of the bright red blood that runs down T’Challa’s face, the expert coloring gives this book a singular, vivid look.
Whether it’s The X-Men or Captain America or Spider-Man, Marvel has always been at it’s best when it’s telling a story about the big ideas related to the human experience, and Coates’ “Black Panther” does just that. It’s a story that makes you see the world through different lenses, and in the end, isn’t that something we want from our comic books?
If your favorite comic book retailer has a brain and likes money, they’ll have a copy of “Black Panther” #2 you can pick up right now.