Even in an era saturated by superheroes, where comic books seem closer to the pop cultural mainstream than ever, Marvel’s announcement that it had scored Ta-Nehisi Coates for a run on Black Panther felt like a major event. The best-selling, critically acclaimed author behind Between the World and Me taking on the company’s original black superhero alongside veteran artist Brian Stelfreeze made for one of the most highly-anticipated mainstream comics in years. The first issue, which hit stores in April, was the kind of major event that brings new readers into comic stores (according to Marvel, it ended up selling over 300,000 copies, making it one of the top-selling comics of the year so far). However, getting new readers into the habit of coming into a comic store every month for new issues isn’t something easily done, and sales for subsequent installments fell off sharply. Fortunately for those kinds of readers, Marvel has already pumped out the series’ first paperback collection, Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, Book One, which includes the first four issues.
Even at this relatively early juncture (Coates is signed on for at least 12 issues), Coates’ Black Panther run feels like a full story with something to say, set in a fully-realized world. That’s due to both Coates, who effortlessly segues from recent Marvel events like Secret Wars into exploring a new status quo for Black Panther (a.k.a. King T’Challa of Wakanda), and Stelfreeze, who excels at both high-concept sci-fi spectacles and emotional facial expressions. Ryan Coogler’s upcoming film adaptation would do well to take notes from Stelfreeze’s innovative depiction of Wakanda.
The story picks up shortly after Secret Wars. Wakanda has been invaded and devastated, and Black Panther’s sister Shuri slain. This is especially traumatic for the people of Wakanda, since the country had long been impenetrable thanks to both their resident superhero ruler and their powerful technology. As a result, the people have lost faith in their king, and the story kicks off with a sudden revolt at the Great Mound, the source of Wakanda’s all-important super metal vibranium. Seeing his people are being mind-controlled by an unseen foe, T’Challa and his soldiers hit back – possibly too hard, killing several citizens. Even as T’Challa tries to pursue his telepathic opponent, he struggles against this newfound dissent among Wakandan citizens.
So far, the story lives up to its title: “A Nation Under Our Feet.” For a superhero comic, Coates and Stelfreeze’s Black Panther is interested in tough questions: What makes a nation? What is a king’s duty, and what is his responsibility to his people? In this, it takes advantage of one of the unique characteristics that separates Black Panther form other superheroes: he’s not just a vigilante or a crime fighter, he’s a king. As such, he sometimes has to make the kind of difficult decisions – using force against your own citizens for the greater good, for instance – that heroes like Batman are exempt from. But the story doesn’t just focus on T’Challa alone. His name might be the title and he might appear on every cover, but Black Panther often finds himself sharing page-time with all kinds of characters: his wise old stepmother, his former bodyguards, and even his opponents, who actually make some good arguments against him. That last part may actually be the comic’s most fascinating element so far: Maybe T’Challa is wrong. Maybe an advanced country like Wakanda has moved beyond the need for kings. It will be interesting to see how Coates balances such a thought-provoking, game-changing idea with the demands of mainstream superhero continuity, where few things can ever really change the status quo.
The other most fascinating element of the story so far involves T’Challa’s former bodyguards. Once known as the Dora Milaje (“Adored Ones”), Aneka and Ayo were the king’s elite Amazon soldiers, dedicated to his protection above all else. Things change at the beginning of this series, when Aneka is arrested and sentenced to death for extra-judicially executing a violent rapist. Luckily, Ayo steals two prototype robot suits and breaks her comrade (and lover) out of prison. Together they become the Midnight Angels, armored African Furiosa’s dedicated to protecting their fellow Wakandan women from patriarchal violence. This reversal of a somewhat sexist character depiction (the Dora Milaje as warrior women in thrall to a man) into fully realized, badass female figures is one of the series’ signature accomplishments. Credit that to both Coates (who turned the Kanye West lyric “no one man should have all that power” into their mantra) and Stelfreeze, who gives them fresh and innovative sci-fi looks. It’s no wonder they’ve already got an upcoming spin-off, Black Panther: World of Wakanda, to be written by Roxane Gay and Yona Harvey.
Four issues in, Black Panther is obviously far from completing its story. But this first volume is extremely promising. Coates has done an excellent job, especially for a first-time comic writer, of introducing fresh concepts and ideas to the character while also still acknowledging his past — longtime Black Panther fans will find plenty of shout-outs and cameos, but never the kind that are hard for new readers to follow. There’s a deep, interesting cast of characters, a fully-realized world, and interesting politics at play. Its vibrancy is also a demonstration of how diversity can breathe new life into old concepts. In recent years, Marvel has made strides toward acknowledging diversity, whether paying homage to hip-hop album covers or giving the mantles of iconic characters like Captain America and the Hulk to minority characters. But Black Panther is one of the company’s first series to feature black characters depicted by black creators, and as a result none of it feels superficial or forced. It’s a new kind of Marvel story. Let’s hope there’s more to come. A-