I was excited. You were excited. Heck, we were all excited when we learned that Marvel Comics had landed one of America’s leading public intellectuals, the esteemed (and rightly so) Ta-Nehisi Coates, to write a new 12-part Black Panther series. And we were doubly excited when we found out that the legendary Brian Stelfreeze was going to draw it. Finally! After too long — way too long, in fact — King T’Challa and his fictitious nation of Wakanda were going to be portrayed with something akin to authenticity. If anyone “gets” this character, it’s gotta be Coates, right? And if anyone out there was born to draw him, it’s Stelfreeze. What could possibly go wrong?
As it turns out, the answer to that question — and I say this with a deep and profound sense of regret — is “a lot.”
Neither Coates nor Stelfeeze is responsible for Marvel’s exorbitant (particularly when it comes to first issues) cover prices these days, but the first “red flag” that this entire enterprise was going to be tethered to a pretty short leash by many readers is the $4.99 (which I paid, no “freebie” digital review “copy” here) price tag attached to a book that contains only 22 pages of story and art and eight pages of pure “filler” backmatter that repeats information one can find for free on any number of comics-related websites. From that point on, Black Panther was moved from the “this’ll probably be pretty good” category to the “this better be damn good” category. Sure, future installments will “only” be $3.99 (with an attendant reduction in editorial content), but when you add it all up, that means that this run will cost a whopping fifty eight bucks (assuming they don’t cook up a way to get an extra dollar or two for the final issue, which they probably will) to purchase in monthly “singles,” and for that we deserve some genuine substance — which, in fairness, may be coming, but is only vaguely hinted at in this breezy, lightweight, frankly inconsequential debut installment.
Am I pissed that I just shelled out five bucks for a comic that can be read in under ten minutes? You bet I am, but mainly I’m pissed because those ten minutes were nowhere near as captivating, interesting, and thought-provoking as I went in assuming they would be. To date, the best “take” on T’Challa and his high-tech “hidden” kingdom was presented in Jack Kirby’s late-’70s Black Panther series, and it’s no exaggeration to say that any random page in that far-too-short run was teeming with more ideas and imagination than we get from this entire issue. And while it’s admittedly inherently unfair to judge anyone’s work against Kirby’s, I’d settle for a new series that’s even marginally as good as what Jack gave us all those years ago, and so far this one just isn’t.
To Marvel’s credit (a phrase you don’t hear me say very often), they’ve been doing a good job of promoting this series to the “non-comics-reading” crowd, hoping that the imprimatur that’s imbued upon any new project with Coates’ name attached to it will generate some “buzz” among intellectuals, wannabe-intellectuals, academics, politically astute folks, and even just people who appreciate good writing. I’m not sure how successful that de facto “outreach” effort has been, but I’ll guarantee you this much : almost anyone setting foot in a comic shop for the first time to grab this issue won’t be back for the second. If you think the box office drop-off for BATMAN V. SUPERMAN between week one and week two was severe, wait until you see the dip in sales between the first and second Black Panther “floppies.”
What makes me so sure of this? For one thing, this issue is decidedly — and surprisingly — unfriendly territory for those not already steeped in detailed Marvel Universe lore. Sure, there’s a brief recap page at the start, but we don’t even see how T’Challa ends up in the weakened, semi-defeated state we find him in on page one, and from that point on the story is buried under layers of Wakandan internal politics of very recent vintage that the slap-dashed intro only vaguely alludes to. In other words, if you haven’t been following this character really closely for a really long time including really recently, you’re gonna be lost. And rather than clarify any of this mess, subsequent events in the story only muddy the waters as we find ourselves introduced to a revolutionary (or, hey, terrorist, depending on how you look at things) force from outside T’Challa’s kingdom called The People, who seem to be seeking to — heaven forbid — democratize access to, and the economic windfall that comes from, the rare mineral Vibranium that is the source of Wakanda’s wealth. It’s pretty hard not to sympathize with their plight, but in all honesty it’s even harder to come to grips with it given that Coates explains next to nothing about The People and has their quasi-“leader” speak more in wooden and sterile pronouncements than in anything resembling actual, ya know, dialogue. It all makes for a frustratingly opaque set-up that doesn’t even go so far as to make you want to find out what you don’t yet know, which is the primary responsibility of any self-respecting first issue, and seems to take nearly-great pains to avoid being too overtly political. If you’d told me before I read this issue that Coates’ take on Black Panther was going to be less politicized than Reginald Hudlin’s was in the early 2000s, I’d have laughed — but you’d have been right.
Still, maybe things are better in the parts of the story directly related to T’Challa himself, right? Wrong. Coates actually spends more time fleshing out the character of his step-mother than he does on letting us get to know what makes his actual protagonist tick, and the brief portions of the issue that are devoted to the Panther himself see us “treated” to a dull and repetitious internal monologue of the bog-standard “dark and brooding” variety that read like a lazier version of any given Scott Snyder issue of Batman, albeit with a monarchical (is that even a word?) twist. “Heavy is the head that wears the crown,” huh? I think I’ve only heard that in about a thousand other places before.
Anyway, as we make our way to the end of this opening chapter, we find that T’Challa’s recent loss of his sister is — stop me if you’ve got this one figured out already — weighing on his mind quite a bit, and that maybe he’s trying to do something about that, but it looks like whatever cockamamie plan he’s got to bring her back from dead (or something) is only coming up empty, so, hey, cue more doom and gloom. And cue my own “jumping-off point,” while you’re at it.
Fortunately for us all, Stelfreeze’s art redeems these lifeless and ill-thought-through proceedings to some degree — his style here is somewhat more angular, abstract, and undefined than we’re used to from him, but it certainly establishes a unique and effective visual language for the book, along with the well-chosen colors of Laura Martin, that can best be described as “sleek with some rough edges.” True, it looks a lot less “polished” than most of his previous efforts, but I think that’s a conscious choice on his part and is hardly indicative of a “rush job” or anything. The pictures are forced to do a lot of the heavy lifting when the script is this tepid, of course, but hey, it’s Marvel — the artist has been doing the lion’s (or panther’s) share of the storytelling work from day one at the self-branded “House of Ideas.”
Okay, I admit — it’s not going to do much for my reputation as a curmudgeon to trash this book as thoroughly as I have, so I’ll try to end things on a positive note: while I won’t be dropping any more cash on single issues of Black Panther, I hardly think that it’s beyond redemption simply because I do have a tremendous amount of faith in Coates’ ability to learn from the doing. Not all great writers are necessarily great comics writers, of course, but anybody as intelligent, and as attuned to the overall cultural and socio-political zeitgeist, as he is certainly has all the tools to figure this thing out as he goes along. If I hear reports to the effect that he’s managing to do just that, then I could still be persuaded — and quite easily — to pick this up in trade when all is said and done. And if things don’t improve, well, who knows? Maybe Marvel can get Cornel West to helm T’Challa’s next revival. Now that I’d definitely ride out all the way through no matter what.