PRINT September 2016


Marvel’s Black Panther

Cover of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Brian Stelfreeze’s Black Panther, no. 1 (Marvel, June 2016).

Black Panther (issues 1 and 2) by Ta-Nehisi Coates (writer) and Brian Stelfreeze (artist), with Laura Martin (color artist). New York: Marvel, 2016. 36 and 28 pages, respectively.

THIS WAKANDA looks a lot like Dubai to me. The African kingdom is, we are told, “the most technologically advanced society on the globe,” and yet in the new edition of Marvel’s Black Panther, the imperial guard is still using spears—albeit ones that also discharge some kind of electric ray. Likewise, hologram-projecting beads just don’t inspire the sense of awesomeness and wonder one might reasonably expect from Wakanda’s masters of invention. To be fair, I’m only looking at the first two issues of what will be at least an eleven-episode series, written by Ta-Nehisi Coates and illustrated by Brian Stelfreeze. We may yet see dazzling gadgets and paraphernalia worthy of a singular people’s engineering genius.

In this latest revival of the Black Panther saga, award-winning writer, Atlantic journalist, and 2015 MacArthur fellow Coates loosens the last stays of civic cohesion, and full-scale revolt threatens to rip the kingdom apart. The powerful cover of the first issue (June 2016; the digital edition appeared in April), drawn by Stelfreeze, with its muscular, more catlike Black Panther, makes it clear there is trouble in paradise. And all hell has broken loose on the cover of issue 2 (July 2016) in a statue-toppling scene reminiscent of the fall of Baghdad. Funny, even imaginary utopias seem to offer little in the way of pleasure for a black-run nation. Coates himself told interviewer Charlie Rose that he does not believe the long arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. So I guess anarchy and chaos will be this comic book’s way. Perhaps the new story will tell of Wakandan refugees seeking relief from incessant conflict.

It has been six years since the last Panther cycle went out of print, and because of Coates’s celebrity and strong political voice, a lot of excitement has swirled around this latest version. Issue 1 is already Marvel’s highest-selling release this year, and the series is predicted to be a game changer by some reviewers. The trouble with revivals, though, is that the new authors must preserve enough of the original for a series to remain recognizable to die-hard fans while simultaneously opening it outward to more universal experiences, all the while probing more deeply into underexplored layers of the protagonist’s interior complexity. A certain amount of digression is necessary to bring everyone back up to speed, but too much exposition risks losing the audience before the story gets going good. Coates has asked readers to be patient while he lays down a less conventional foundation for what he says will be a very different Black Panther narrative.

But given where the story left off in 2010—with the Black Panther, T’Challa, king of the Wakandas, nearly dead at the hands of Doctor Doom and T’Challa’s half-sister, Shuri, assuming the mantle of Black Panther to protect the homeland—it might have been wiser to jump-start the series with something more revelatory than disaffection. A lesbian relationship has been revealed within the leadership of the elite Dora Milaje, an all-female security force, and Coates has promised more fighting to come. But there are ways to propel a narrative and create suspense in comics other than fight scenes, even when it’s women throwing down.

Shot selection, framing, dialogue, and lettering all contribute to the physiological and psychological dynamics experienced by the reader of sequential art. The language in this first issue is spare and sluggish. Instead of crisp dialogue, Coates opens with a solipsistic dirge in tune with the brooding monologues of despots like former Zaire dictator Mobutu Sese Seko and Zimbabwean president-for-life Robert Mugabe. Compounding the linguistic dullness, poorly designed page layouts and weak, almost perfunctory compositional arrangements behave like those vinyl storyboard plates in Colorforms toys from the 1960s or like clip art, without personality or detail. Maybe this is what Stelfreeze meant when he said that “as a creator, I try my best to be invisible.” But this is not the way to put your stamp on a character with an already rich legacy.

Stealth and cunning have been the Panther’s signature attributes since he first appeared in print. Having lured the Fantastic Four into his jungle trap with a high-tech flying vehicle similar to their own Fantasticar, T’Challa outwits, then ultimately disables, the superpowered team in his introductory appearance in Fantastic Four 52 (July 1966). The African hero’s dirty tricks are discovered by Wyatt Wingfoot, the Human Torch’s Native American best friend. And with his advantage neutralized, the Panther is easily subdued, so the match ends in a kind of draw.

Much has been made by Coates of the Panther’s victory over the Fantastic Four and subsequent tussle with Captain America, flashed back to in Reginald Hudlin’s first issue of the title in 2005. T’Challa won that battle too. Truth is, there was no way in 1966 that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the character’s creators, would show the first black superhero in comics history start out getting his ass kicked by a bunch of white folks, super or not!

On a tour of the royal quarters in Fantastic Four 53 (August 1966), Mister Fantastic (Reed Richards) summed up what is, arguably, the paradox of Africa and its place in Western fantasies of time and culture: “Still another example of the old and the new . . . Look at that elaborate stereo music system—complete with tape recorders.” Seeking answers to the mystery of this remarkable country, the likes of which remain unimaginable for the real world except in Afrofuturist dreams, the quartet quiz their host. His answer—“Actually, the Black Panther lives under a tragic curse”—immediately set the stage for a spin-off. Headlining his own title with issue 5, Jungle Action (July 1973), Black Panther and his Wakandan nation have, from the start, been under constant threat and in turmoil. Doubts about T’Challa’s commitment to his subjects festered early. Fortune hunters and pretenders to the throne were many and relentless. Near death from torture at the hands of archrival Erik Killmonger’s henchmen, a loyal subject gasps a dying confession to his king in issue 6 (September 1973): “Many of the people said you’d never come back . . . that the Wakandas had lost their king. That you would desert us! But I knew they were wrong. You must believe . . . I never lost faith in you T’Challa! I always believed.”

Over its fifty years of publication, no fewer than eight writers and seventeen artists have scripted and drawn the legendary character created by Lee and Kirby. Contrary to some reports, the Coates-Stelfreeze edition is not the first by a black writer-and-artist team. That distinction goes to Hudlin and Ken Lashley on the fabulous Dark Reign series in 2009 (probably the best-executed Panther story arc since artist Billy Graham drew the Don McGregor–scripted stories in the mid-’70s).

When approached by Marvel to write his first comic book, Coates initially proposed a run on Spider Man. Black Panther was not even on his list. Likewise, Christopher Priest, the first black writer at Marvel, who penned Black Panther from 1998 to 2003, hoped for Daredevil as his debut adventure story. In his case, there was clearly resistance to the assumption that because he was black he would want to write about a black character. Could the initial indifference of Coates, and a general reluctance by Stelfreeze to be pigeonholed on a “black” project, account for such an uninspired start? Perhaps, although Coates clearly seems engaged in the historical significance of the Panther franchise. Let’s hope the energy rises with our hero long before issue 11 marks the one-year point.

Kerry James Marshall is an artist based in Chicago. A major traveling survey of his work is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago until September 25.

Read Marshall’s discussion of his Rythm Mastr comics (Summer 2014).