Black Panther is finally returning with his own monthly title (again) and Marvel has been hyping the event pretty seriously. No small wonder. They brought in Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic to Pen the Panther’s comeback and Brian Stelfreeze to handle the pencils and inks. With an African American creative team at the helm it appears that Marvel are serious this time around. Serious about putting out a quality title and serious about doing right by the African American community in general and comic readers of color in particular.
Besides writing for The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates has also contributed to The Village Voice, Time, Washington City Paper, The New York Times and The Washington Post. He’s won the National Book Award for Nonfiction (2015) and the Polk Award for Commentary (2014). Without a doubt, Coates is a heavy-hitter. Stelfreeze has over 25 years of experience drawing, inking and coloring books for a variety of publishers. The title is in good hands and everything should be peachy.
Yeah, not so much. At least, not yet. Granted, I’m only one issue in and admittedly, inaugural issues tend to be long on expositions and short on yarn. But already, I am seeing some serious problems that need to be addressed. The writing and the art are both quite apt. Kudos to everyone for being proficient at your objective. No, the problem isn’t in how the story is being told, it’s in what story we are being given.
Two pages in and we are already looking at civil strife in what turns out to be a war torn African nation. Now, I know that there is a lot of civil strife in Africa and more than a few war torn nations….But fuck, is that really the story you’re going to feed us? Can’t anyone tell us another story about Africa? Africa is a big place. Flippin’ huge. You can shove North America and Europe right into it and still have room for countries that aren’t experiencing civil war.
I was hoping for a new look at Africa. White writers have given us plenty of African bush wars and civil wars and warlords and every other thing with “war” in the title. When was the last time you saw a vaguely contemporary movie or TV show about Africa that didn’t include civil strife? I was expecting an award winning African American writer to give us a new vision of the birthplace of humanity. Maybe something a little bit more hopeful…or at least a little more fanciful.
I know I am being unfair. It’s only the first issue. I should give them a chance. I just panicked when I saw what I feared was Vibranium becoming a metaphor for blood diamonds. Obviously, we need stories about blood diamonds and human trafficking and every other evil that has been visited on Africa in the name of money, power and empire. These are despicable crimes against humanity and they need light shined on them. But Africa needs light shined on it as well or, rather, Africa needs a chance to shine. There are a great many positive things happening in Africa, things that Western media has zero interest in showing us. I’d like to see some of that hope shine through in Black Panther. After all, he really was the first real, black superhero. I don’t want him stuck in a perpetual Jackie Robinson mode but I would like to see something besides the constant media narrative that says Africa is a shit hole.
On the other hand, what the fuck do I know? I’m just a (mostly) white guy trying to tell an award winning African American author how to write a comic book about Africa. Talk about hubris. Seriously, I’m a dick! What was I even thinking?! I deserve a throat punch. Don’t we all sound like twat-farts when we try to whitesplain things to African American writers? Yes, yes we do. And by the same token, don’t we all sound like twat-farts when we bitch and moan that somebody else didn’t write the story we would have written? Yes, yes we do. Let this be a lesson to you.
OK, I’m off my soapbox. Back to Black Panther as promised. The book has a good pedigree. The art, while not inspiring, is easy to look at. Stelfreeze’s pencils are reminiscent of Alex Toth (and that’s never a bad thing). The action flows well and the layouts are strong. The colors, by Laura Martin, are subtle and evocative. Martin has a clear skill for portraying
mood just through her palette. Taken as a whole the visuals, while not instantly classic, still stand on their own.
As for Coates’ words? Well, he has the thankless task of writing a book about one of Marvel’s less likable characters. Face it, the Black Panther may be endlessly cool (he’s like reed Richards meets DareDevil…with claws) but T’Challa is kind of a tool. The King of Wakanda usually struts around like he has a stick up his ass (as kings in comic books are wont to do). The rest of the time he is going off and acting in some outrageous and unilateral manner that ends up pissing off the rest of the Marvel Universe. He has a cuddle-factor to rival Namor’s. The guy just isn’t very lovable.
The supporting cast is going to have to bring the warmth and humor to Black Panther if it is to succeed (and with King Sour Puss on the throne) we are going to need some warmth and humor). Coates looks to have the human end of things covered on two fronts. First, their is T’Challa’s stepmother, Ramonda, acting here as his counselor. She has the burden of being his conscience as well as his chief advisor. Additionally there is Aneka and Ayo, two members of the Dora Milaje, T’Challa’s female bodyguard squad. The otherwise noble ladies, who also happen to be lovers, are forced by circumstance, love and their sense of justice, into open rebellion against their king pretty quickly. Almost too quickly, really. This particular plot point could have used a slower gestation period. Still, their relationship is being treated tastefully and with dignity and I think it’s safe to assume that they are present to help redirect the King back onto the straight and narrow…as they understand it.
So, one issue down. Lots of promise. A couple of possible pitfalls. I have high hopes. Hell, it’s already 5 times as interesting as the Red Wolf reboot. I’ll report back on this one in a few months. For now, things look positive.
He also sings for the Supra-70s band, RIFLE.