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Ta-Nehisi Coates’ much-acclaimed take on Black Panther greets its second calendar year with a new collection. As the name suggests, A Nation Under Our Feet, Book Two continues where the last volume left off. Having failed to stop the nascent revolution in Wakanda, King T’Challa is now forced to look to new methods of suppression.
His first strategy is the latest thoughtful plot point in a book that has cast an unflinching eye at T’Challa’s dual duties as superhero and ruler. Black Panther is famously Marvel’s first black superhero, but the thing that really sets him apart from his peers is his nature as a king. As Coates made clear in the first volume, that sometimes means doing unsavory things, since Black Panther’s ultimate goal isn’t just “keep the people safe” but also “keep the people in line.” To that end, T’Challa begins this second volume by recruiting a council of authoritarian rulers and secret police commanders from around the world to instruct him in counter-revolutionary strategy. Amidst current political protests and a fiery mood that has clearly not abated even after the U.S. presidential election, it’s interesting to watch a leading superhero temporarily align himself with such repressive forces. The media fallout from the meeting within the story also resembles a very modern political scandal.
Unfortunately, the political drama subsides over the rest of the story. Connecting the book to the greater Marvel Universe, Coates brings in recent Iron Man villain Ezekiel Stane to aid the Wakandan opposition with money, technology, and plenty of good old-fashioned evil. That gives Black Panther an easy enemy to fight while the overarching story builds toward its epic conclusion but removes the ambiguity that makes his struggle with “The People” so compelling. This new enemy does, however, give T’Challa a good excuse to call for backup.
Coates’ Black Panther is still just as concerned with its supporting cast as the eponymous hero. But with Ayo and Aneka — the former Dora Milaje who became renegade Midnight Angels and forbidden lovers and were spun off into their own book, Black Panther: World of Wakanda — their presence here is limited. Instead, Black Panther must bring in some other faces to compensate. That means reuniting “The Crew,” a team of black Marvel heroes originally created in the ’90s by previous Black Panther mastermind Christopher Priest. Coates is a self-admitted Marvel fanboy, and his joy at playing with toys like Luke Cage and Storm spills off the page. He also makes great use of Manifold, a new teleporting hero originally created by Jonathan Hickman, making him the latest touchstone carried over from Hickman’s recent Avengers run.
The single most important legacy of Hickman’s Avengers/New Avengers/Secret Wars saga here, however, is the fate of Shuri, T’Challa’s sister. As recently as two years ago, Shuri ruled Wakanda as queen and Black Panther but was seemingly killed by a cabal of villains during the invasion and devastation of the country. Last volume dropped the bombshell revelation that Shuri is still alive, or rather trapped between life and death in a state of suspended animation that has sent her spirit to a far astral plane. This volume spends a lot of time with Shuri on her spiritual journey, which adds mythic resonance to the superhero story and allows Coates to riff on themes from African history and mythology, typically underutilized in mainstream American pop culture. But it also provides a real change of pace from the first volume. More time is spent on meditative digressions into folklore, rather than political intrigue or constant action.
In general, this collection is very “talk-y,” especially when compared to Coates’ first. He has been open about the struggles of adjusting to comic scripts after working in journalism and narrative non-fiction, and in that regard, Coates hits a bit of a sophomore slump. The volume features a lot of exposition and monologues, broken only by The Crew’s welcome head-knocking antics. Artist Chris Sprouse provides a solid replacement for Brian Stelfreeze, but lacks both Stelfreeze’s unique world-building skills and his ability to keep Coates’ more literary impulses in check.
At four issues apiece, these Black Panther collections run a little thin on new material. Though T’Challa is enjoying mainstream popularity now, both due to this big-name series and the character’s recent on-screen debut in Captain America: Civil War, he has a long and storied tradition at Marvel. The two issues of Jungle Action are a welcome look at writer Don McGregor’s historic take on the character and a fine introduction to the villainous Erik Killmonger, soon to be played by Michael B. Jordan on big screens everywhere.
A Nation Under Our Feet, Book Two feels a lot like a second act, concerned mostly with setting up pieces and transitioning from one part of the overarching saga to the next, and suffers from some growing pains. But there’s enough here to get fans excited for the sure-to-be-epic conclusion to Coates’ story.