Unlike many (but very much like many others, I suppose), I have to date been decidedly underwhelmed by Ta-Nehisi Coates’ take on the Black Panther. I found “A Nation Under Our Feet” to be a dour, navel-gazing, self-important, and frankly confused attempt to “modernize” both T’Challa and his kingdom of Wakanda that pretty much failed miserably at everything it set out to do, reached its apex with a bog-standard fight, and followed that up with an issue-length epilogue that essentially changed nothing about the status quo for its characters and their world apart from stating that they were, in essence, all gonna try to listen to both listen, and be nicer, to each other more. Not exactly the groundbreaking work we’d been hoping for from one of the leading intellectuals of our times.
Still, ya gotta figure, the man is smarter than you and me put together, and eventually he’ll get this whole comic book thing figured out. Maybe a change of scenery will be just what he needs?
To that end, he’s decided to oversee a re-vamp of Marvel’s urban super-hero non-team, The Crew, with Black Panther at the helm. The name of this new(-ish) enterprise? Why, Black Panther & The Crew, of course, and while Coates has essentially nothing to do with the other title spun off from the BP “mothership,” Black Panther: World Of Wakanda (apart from laying an entirely unjust claim to the top spot in the book’s credits as a “consultant”), with this one he’s actually co-writing the series, and flying solo altogether with the scripting on this first issue. And whaddya know? It appears as though going from the actual jungle to the so-called urban jungle wasn’t such a bad idea, after all.
To be sure, this comic has some glaring flaws — no appearance whatsoever from its title character being chief among them — but it’s a reasonably entertaining and engaging romp that manages to be topical without resorting to brow-beating and posits the existence of some hitherto-unseen history for the venerable old “616 Universe” (is it still called that post-Secret Wars?) that might just make Harlem the printed-page equivalent of Netflix’s Hell’s Kitchen. We shall see.
Misty Knight is the primary mover and shaker this time out, and for those of us who feel a solo series for her is long overdue, this book at least seems determined to be an acceptable-enough substitute in the meantime. After a brief introductory flashback segment that hints at some of that “hidden history” I was just talking about, we see Misty take the point in an investigation focused on the death in police of one of the folks whose 1957 iteration we just met, and this allows Coates to touch on things you know he’s probably been dying to ever since signing on with Marvel — BLM, police brutality, the usual suspects. The privatized, mercenary Americops, who have been doing their level best to screw up Sam Wilson’s tenure as Captain America, would appear to be the primary “baddies” here, but pulling their strings are larger forces with very deep pockets, and my best guess based on some of the less-than-subtle hints peppered throughout the dialogue in this issue is that the very real evil of gentrification is going to be revealed as the “big bad” our heroes are tackling sooner rather than later. Coates displays a fairly sharp understanding of what makes Misty tick right off the bat and odds seem good that we won’t be seeing her in any of the “boob window” costumes or latex bodysuits that the always-risible Nick Spencer seems to look for every opportunity to put her in, over in the pages of that just-referenced Cap book. Here, by contrast, she’s tough, capable, smart, and a pillar of her community. Things are looking up for her character already.
Storm, Manifold, and Luke Cage make up the rest of the team, and while keeping one of them under wraps (literally) for most of this chapter makes for a “reveal” that has to be considered one of the most anti-climactic cliffhangers in recent memory, on a purely technical level it still works, even if it’s less than surprising. Before we get to that point, though, we have some solidly-scripted police procedural work and some fairly strong fight sequences, as well as some short “establishing scenes” that actually do the job they’re supposed to do rather than just muddying the waters as was too often the case in the pages of “A Nation Under Our Feet.” All in all, then, while this is hardly groundbreaking stuff, it’s a more-than-competent opening segment for a story that seems to bear all the hallmarks of a politically-charged and intriguing little mystery.
Steady, veteran hands handling the art chores definitely help the proceedings here, as well. Butch Guice has always been a reliably good penciller with a strong sense of fluidity and realism to his work, and here he adds a welcome touch of urban grit to his repetoire that’s ably accentuated by the faithful inks of Scott Hanna. The visuals aren’t going to knock your socks off, but they belie a keen understanding of how to move a story along with ease in front of a reader’s eyes that too many people out to “wow” you with their style never seem to understand. Top it off with Dan Brown‘s well-chosen color palette and what you have here is a comic that knows it’s more important to tell you a story than to floor you with it — always appreciated, as far as I’m concerned, and almost a lost art these days.
Capping off the “old school” look and feel is John Cassaday’s sleek and graceful cover, where he seems to be content to deviate a bit from his usual style and channel his inner Paul Gulacy with a ’70s-style composite-image “jam” that fits the tone of the interior pages to a proverbial “T,” and goes some way toward mitigating the pain always inflicted by Marvel’s outrageous $3.99 cover price (which I shelled for out of my own pocket, by the way, no “freebie” review copy here).
So, yeah — count me as being borderline-impressed by Black Panther & The Crew #1. Low expectations may have played a part in that, but even going in “blind,” so to speak, I probably would have walked away wanting to know what would happen next. With the writing duties being farmed out (at least partially) next month, we’ll see if things suffer at all, but I feel reasonably confident that the groundwork has been laid for a nice little series here that we can probably look forward to at least 12 (or thereabouts) issues from.
Now, about that Misty Knight solo book —