The Black Panther is one of the most important characters in the Marvel Universe, not only because he’s the first black superhero in mainstream comics, arriving before the likes of Marvel’s own Falcon and DC’s Green Lantern, John Stewart, but he comes with the highest of Marvel’s pedigrees: he has “created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby” under his name. And this is, of course, a huge year for the character. Black Panther is set to make his live-action debut in next month’s Captain America: Civil War, played by Chadwick Boseman, which will be followed up with his own movie in 2018.
For those of you who are reading this with little knowledge of the character, the Black Panther is the superheroic moniker of T’Challa, the ruler of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, and current holder of the ceremonial title of the Black Panther. In the Marvel Universe, Wakanda is one of the richest and most advanced nations on Earth. Wakanda is home to the world’s only known deposit of Vibranium, one of the strongest metals on Earth, which fell to Wakanda as a meteor eons ago. When his father, T’Chaka, is murdered, T’Challa assumed the mantle of the Panther, and became not only a ruler, but a superhero as well. Black Panther became a member of the Avengers, and made appearances all over the Marvel Universe, even when he wasn’t starring in his own solo book.
In spite of his formidable pedigree, the Black Panther has always had a difficult time keeping his own ongoing series published for any extended period of time. While that is is subject for much debate, I’m sure, it seems that with this All-New, All-Different Marvel initiative, the publisher isn’t taking any chances when it comes to properly launching Black Panther for a new generation of comics fans.
This latest series is written by esteemed author (and longtime comics nerd) Ta-Nahesi Coates, who is known for his writings in magazines like The Atlantic and acclaimed non-fiction books like The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood and Between the World and Me. The art is from one of comics most amazing but under-appreciated artists, Brian Stelfreeze, who has worked on books like Batman: Shadow of the Bat and Matador for Wildstorm. This first issue finds T’Challa returning to Wakanda after his homeland has been through brutal times, to take the mantle of leader back, and restore Wakanda to its proper place in the world.
So with all that talent behind it, why did I come across thinking this book was just okay? Ultimately, I think it’s great that Black Panther #1 embraces all the recent past of the character, most of which happened in comics like New Avengers and Avengers vs X-Men. However, as someone who isn’t up on all the latest drama in the life of T’Challa these past several years, I kept finding myself a bit lost. There’s all this stuff that’s happened to Wakanda in the recent months — Namor flooding the city, Dr. Doom and then Thanos invading, and more — which makes the world feel lived in at the expense of welcoming newer readers. Instead of making that history fade a bit into the background while this new series starts up, it makes it feel like issue #50, not issue #1.
Aside from a few action beats in the beginning of the book, this is a really talky issue, with lots of time allocated to T’Challa’s stepmother Ramonda making speeches and giving T’Challa regal advice. There’s also the beginning of a subplot about two of T’Challa’s elite female guard, the Dora Milaje, who have been sentenced to die for failing in their duty to the kingdom, and who are also in a relationship. All of this seems interesting, but I can’t help but feel I’m missing a ton of backstory here.
I know that it’s always hard to present a longstanding character, especially one with decades of history like the Panther, with a new fresh series that’s palatable to new readers without making it confusing. But Marvel has done wonders recently, relaunching books like Doctor Strange and even Thor, where you only needed to know the bare minimum about the history of these characters to get onboard and understand what was going on. I have never read a Doctor Strange book in my life, and yet I was instantly hooked on Jason Aaron’s new series without feeling lost at all. With Black Panther #1, I couldn’t help but feel the opposite.
That’s not to say it’s a bad issue, or that there’s a lack of potential. Clearly Coates is a skilled writer, and he’s hinting at interesting things. Brian Stelfreeze’s art is absolutely beautiful, and his design sense is perfect for a book like this. Coates does do a good job of showing T’Challa trying to take back the reins of his country after letting others — specifically his sister Shuri — rule in his stead. There is hatred and dissent among his people now, which feels at odds with what I know about Wakanda, a nationa usually shown as being pretty idyllic and almost perfect. There’s fascinating stuff here, but for whatever reason it doesn’t all come together for me like it should.
So should you buy Black Panther #1? If you’re a big fan of the character, then I’d say yes, as it seems tailor-made for people who have been following T’Challa’s adventures for years. If you’re a newbie to the character, then I can only give a tepid recommendation, although the book is probably worth getting for the artwork alone. This book is full of potential. I just hope it gets the time to live up to it.
RATING: 3 OUT OF 5 BURRITOS
Black Panther #1 is available on April 6, 2016 at your local comic book store.