April was a gangbusters month for comic book fans. The Wicked and the Divine returned with a huge reveal, Grant Morrison continued DC’s trend of disappointing Wonder Woman reboots, Xena returned to comic books, and even Poe Dameron’s tousled locks got to play comic book hero. But the main event was, of course, Black Panther. This month’s Pull List is all catsuits, Afrofuturism, and intersectional feminism, so strap in, kiddos.
Wakanda is in crisis. T’Challa has returned to his kingdom to find it battered by a coup staged by two mysterious, mystical figures, Tetu and Zenzi. His sister, Shuri, is dead and Aneka, the captain of his elite, all-female military unit known as the Dora Milaje, committed a capital offense in her haste to defend her people. No longer do his subjects venerate him as damisa-sarki, “the panther,” but instead they call him haramu-fal, “the orphan king.” The attacks of the recent years—perpetrated by Doctor Doom and Thanos—have left a once proudly independent nation weakened, and Tetu and Zenzi are ready to exploit their growing fear and hatred for their own means.
Marvel relaunched Black Panther on April 6, 2016, with #2 due out May 4. The task of bringing Black Panther to life is up to first-time comic book writer and long-time non-fiction writer and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates (Imma just leave this here), artist Brian Stelfreeze (dude’s a cover artist maverick), colorist Laura Martin (one of Stelfreeze’s Gaijin Studios colleagues and a Marvel regular), and letterer Joe Sabino (pretty much all the Deadpools). Coates is only scheduled for 11 issues; whether the series will continue without him remains to be seem.
To Pull or Not To Pull
Black Panther was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and made his first appearance in July 1966. T’Challa’s superhero mantle predates the Black Panther Party by a few months, and for a short time his name was even changed to Black Leopard to ease confusion. He is the first African superhero in mainstream American comics and we couldn’t have asked for a better one. Not only does he possess a keen intellect, has super strength, healing, and agility, and was once deemed worthy enough to wed by none other than Storm herself, but he’s also the king of the fictional nation of Wakanda.
Sitting on the world’s only source of vibranium (well, the Savage Land has anti-metal, but let’s not split hairs…), Wakanda is one of the richest and most technologically advanced nations in the Marvel ‘verse. Tony Stark’s $100 million net worth pales in comparison to Black Panther’s $500 million. More importantly, Wakanda exists outside the white savior complex and the “noble savage.” Its people are a beacon of success and empowerment, a living record of what happens when being young, gifted, and Black are traits to be praised and reinforced rather than degraded and oppressed.
The biggest complaint of Coates’ new take on Black Panther is the confusing plot. And sure, it’s certainly not straightforward. Coates and Brian Stelfreeze throw you right in the middle of unfolding chaos with only a brief prologue to set the stage. There’s a lot going on here and the issue merits a few readings to untangle the surface issues and metanarrative. Coates is known for his unapologetic nonfiction covering the convergence of politics and race, and Marvel is getting exactly what they signed up for. Coates’ Black Panther is as much of a comment on what it means to be Black as Queen Bey’s Lemonade.
As the outside world pummels Wakanda, its society is split between those who revel in their country’s respected place in the global community and expanding factions of disaffected traditionalists. One group stokes another’s fear into hatred for their own nefarious purposes, turning citizens against the state and each other. Violence begets violence. Protests turn to riots turn to massacres. Blood spilled in the name of the people is a punishable act, but blood spilled in the name of the government is blessed. Justice becomes a weapon of vengeance rather than a tool for peace. Sound familiar?
With anyone else at the helm, Black Panther would have been a bloody but accessible tale about civil strife and a king at risk of losing his kingdom. Coates took a standard trope and transformed it into a powerhouse of social commentary and intersectional feminism. The people of Wakanda have built themselves a haven out of blood and bone and now shame created cracks in the foundation. Those who mete out justice with a sword are just as guilty as those who reap the rewards from that state sanctioned violence. Aneka the warrior who killed prisoners is just as guilty as her lover who slaughters her own kind to rescue her, and they are just as guilty as the late king’s consort who passes judgement without compassion.
Black Panther is laden with Afrofuturism, and the one-two punch of Brian Stelfreeze’s art and Laura Martin’s colors dial the whole thing up to 11. The vivid streaks of blood, the pitch black of T’Challa’s suit, the startling green of the enemy all conspire to make each page a tapestry. With guidance from Stelfreeze, Coates knows when to explain and when to let the art do the talking for him. Marvel done good by dropping this series ahead of Black Panther’s live action feature film debut in May, but any iteration other than this one will have his work cut out for him.
Yes, Coates’ Black Panther is a steep hill to climb both for those unfamiliar with the T’Challa back catalogue and new comic book readers. That latter group is probably larger than Marvel anticipated, to the comic’s benefit and detriment. On one hand Marvel’s sale figures are going to be fan-freaking-tastic this month with the zeitgeist hurling newbies into shops, apps, and online retailers. On the other hand, this is probably not the best way to hook in newbies long enough to stick around for #2. It’s a disjointed, arty, scattered opening with not enough explanation and too many characters. On the other other hand, who the hell cares? This is an amazing #1, complicated plot points aside. Too often comic books aim for the cheap seats. I’d take a single issue of Bitch Planet or ODY-C or Saga or Black Panther over a hundred rehashes of Batman or Superman. Sometimes messy is good.
You’re gonna wanna get in on the ground floor of Black Panther. Even when I had no clue what was happening I still loved Every. Single. Panel. I trust Coates implicitly and absolutely. Dude’s never led me wrong before, and I can’t imagine him starting now. This is one of those series teachers are going to use in college classes one day. Break out that wallet, people. You’ve got some comics to buy.
Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.