Black Panther #1

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“The hate fades. And we must reckon with what we have done to our own blood.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates in most notably known for authoring The Case for Reparations, in addition to numerous other articles for The Atlantic centered on racial politics in America. It was always in the context of those writings that his run on Black Panther would be analyzed. While this first issue mostly bears the burden of introducing incoming readers to the character of T’Challa and laying the seeds of the story to come, already the expectations established by bringing on such a clear and consistent political voice as Coates are fulfilled and subverted in surprising ways.

For example, consider the opening story page. The three flashback panels are all images familiar to Jonathan Hickman’s grand Avengers/New Avengers/Secret Wars opus. That Coates should draw from the character’s recent history is not what’s surprising. Exceptionally erudite even among the most the elite intelligentsia, he’s also always been publicly facing with his fandom as a lifelong comic reader. He had no need to prove any bona fides in the pages of Black Panther when he’d already done so time and again in the pages of The Atlantic, having even exhorted his readers to check out Hickman’s cape opera. Rather, the shock is that he does not retrospect on more of T’Challa’s history, particularly parts more potent with racial politics, such as the Roy Thomas or Don McGregor eras.

More surprising still was Coates decision to have his antagonist Aneka be incarcerated and awaiting execution as the result of a zero-tolerance enforcement on the part of T’Challa’s step-mother Romanda, acting on behalf of the king. Ayo’s defense of her sister-in-arms sounds almost as if it could be taken directly from Coates’ cover article The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration:

“Spare her the bastard sanction of men whose honor is ostentation, whose justice is deceit.”

Aneka is, of course, no racial minority in Wakanda, nor even a tribal one. She is in fact in a position of privilege and prominence, an elite body-guard to T’Challa himself. Yet her incarceration is not so removed from Coates’ familiar themes of systemic oppression and injustice as it first appears. Her assassination was of a corrupt chieftain committing wanton sexual misconduct against his female subjects, upon which Wakandan society had willfully turned a blind eye. Race may be traded for gender, but the underlying politics remain the same. So as surprising it is that Coates positions Ayo and Aneka as villains, they are nevertheless clearly intended as sympathetic foes.

Even the issue’s primary antagonist, Zenzi, articulates convictions and concerns more closely aligned with Coates’ own than the system of supremacy he rails against. Her words regarding the labor class in Wakanda could just as easily be Coates’ own observations regarding the Black experience in America:

“I saw an agony in them so complete that it eclipsed everything… Duty to country, king, even each other. Agony all over. Humiliation sadness, all agony. And then, under the agony, I saw something else… Rage.”

Perhaps one such as myself familiar with the writings of Mr. Coates should have anticipated any Black Panther story by him to initially position the adversaries in the moral high ground. Irrespective of the color of his skin, T’Challa is, as the king, The Man – the face of the systematic oppression and injustice which perpetuates inequality. And what is more unequal than one man on a throne above all others, privileged by the chance circumstances of birth? Yet even as The Man he is still just one man – even with all his intelligence, compassion, and moral fortitude, he alone cannot restructure the system which he sits at the heart of. I anticipate this tension will serve as the dramatic core of this opening arc, with T’Challa coming to comprehend the causes for which Ayo, Aneka, and Zenzi struggle, even as he battles and defeats the extremist methodologies they’ll doubtlessly employ.

The biggest barrier to Coates’ successfully telling such a story will be Brian Stelfreeze’s art. He has difficulty composing the scenes within each panel and from one panel to the next in a way that clearly communicates the action. On several occasion I found the need to return several pages back when it became evident that I’d overlooked an important story element which was initially unobvious, particularly in the massacre at the Great Mound. Zenzi’s presence here is relegated to a single panel, and it is only when T’Challa later states a woman caused the rioting that the green garbed girl appeared to have significance beyond that of a background character. Moreover, it is not immediately apparent what effects the various uses of Zenzi’s magic or Wakandan technology are having. Stelfreeze’s style is bold and consistent, but lacks flair enough to forgive these failures in storytelling.

While I’ve never invested in Black Panther other than when Jonathan Hickman was writing the character, the announcement that Ta-Nahesi Coates was attached made this among my most anticipated arrivals in the All-New, All-Different Marvel line-up. It’s definitely a better debut effort than most first time comic writers could deliver, though disappointingly lacks the depth that his journalistic endeavors display (at least one issue in; the full arc or run could prove those words wrong). Coates tackles the themes of inequality and oppression as one familiar with his work would expect, but does so in an entirely unexpected manner, offering complex villains and establishing a direction for growth even in genius superheroic king.

7.25/10

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P.S. Mr. Coates, if you’re reading this, now that you’re an industry insider, please use some of those inroads to make connections for your colleague Conor Friedersdorf.  Comics need an influx of more intellectuals as articulate as yourself, and Mr. Friedersdorf would undoubtedly explore interesting new angles; I’m sure the Jean Grey School contains contentious campus politics, or that the Daily Planet staff overcomes regular challenges to freedoms of speech and the press.

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