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Advance Review: Black Panther #1 by Ta-Nehisi Coates & Brian Stelfreeze

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Advance Review: <i>Black Panther</i> #1 by Ta-Nehisi Coates & Brian Stelfreeze

Writer: Ta-Nehisi Coates
Artist: Brian Stelfreeze
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Release Date: April 6, 2016

BLAP2016001_DC11.jpg It feels nothing short of preordained to see Ta-Nehisi Coates’ name emblazoned on the front cover of a Black Panther book. After all, he’s earned the distinction among his peers for being one of the preeminent writers on the topic of race, identity and institutional prejudice in contemporary America. He’s verbally sparred with the likes of rap artist Killer Mike over the national case for reparations, been awarded a MacArthur “genius grant” for his work as a national correspondent with The Atlantic and was touted as this generation’s answer to James Baldwin by none other than Toni Morrison herself. Who better to assume the mantle of stewardship over the Black Panther, the archetype of black superhero-dom? What better time than now?

“A Nation Under Our Feet” could not be a more apt title for this new arc, describing a country at the crossroads between rejuvenation and ruin. Wakanda, the once-thought unconquerable city, was brought to heel by not one, but two usurpations. The country’s interim leader, Shuri, half-sister to T’Challa and Black Panther in his absence, gave her life to repel the marauding forces of Thanos and the Cabal from her home’s borders in Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers/Infinity saga. T’Challa returns to reassert his kingship over a nation divided; a country clasping collectively at a fresh, throbbing wound of insult and indignation at its subjugation. To add further injury, the people of Wakanda openly resent the absence and seeming abandonment by their former ruler. The question is pressed: does Wakanda need a king? And if so, is T’Challa that king?

Readers are dropped headfirst into the midst of a riot breaking outside the fabled vibranium mines of Wakanda, the spiritual and industrial heart of this nation’s identity, wealth and technological superiority. It is now a heart laid bare, torn between brewing sentiments of insurrectionism and newfound humility. Surprising no one, Coates’ writing in this issue is superb. His dialogue, much like his work as a journalist, bellows with portent divorced of pretension; sobriety absent of self-seriousness. “It is not enough to be the sword,” Ramonda says to her son, T’Challa, “you must be the intelligence that wields it.” Statements like this line the first issue, lending volumes of depth to these complicated characters as they find themselves uneasy in their new roles.

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Black Panther #1 Interior Art by Brian Stelfreeze & Laura Martin

In the wake of these recent catastrophes, Wakanda is now a nation fractured along the fault lines of physical insecurity and spiritual uncertainty. T’Challa’s privileged position insulates his ability to grasp the anger and resentment aimed at the institution of the Black Panther monarchy and consequently, himself. Has Wakanda yet again been infiltrated by a cabal of extortionists plying a nation’s pain to further its own ends, or is that hatred only a plume of smoke billowing from an existing fire? How can someone fight against a terrorist organization named “The People” for the sake of the people? What does the mantle of “Black Panther” mean in this newly shaken world? This first issue is steeped in the quagmire of moral quandaries, withholding neat and tidy answers in lieu of embattled ideologies that sit at both ends of the good-intentions spectrum.

In addition to encapsulating the complexity of these issues within a debut issue, Coates touches poignantly on the gender politics of a monarchical tribalist society. His portrayal doesn’t position those problems as an afterthought in the greater scheme of Wakanda’s internal strife, but rather a central example of that nation’s ongoing crisis of faith. The plight of Aneka and Ayo of the Dora Milaje, the Black Panther’s personal troupe of female bodyguards, poses a heady question: what does it mean to be a female warrior charged to uphold the law established from Wakandan tradition, if that tradition inadvertently exonerates the guilty and punishes the lawful on the premise of gender? Coates unpacks the contradiction of a woman raised to become a resilient “shield-maiden” tasked with self-reliance, while also being groomed as a potential “wife-in-training” to an unmarried king who’s unconcerned with their misspent affections. One can’t shake the feeling that where and how this series culminates will ultimately hinge on the choices made by this disparate tribe of female warriors charged to protect the Black Panther at all costs.

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Black Panther #1 Interior Art by Brian Stelfreeze & Laura Martin

As deft as Coates’ writing is, his words would be little more than a cloud of aphorisms were they not accompanied by Brian Stelfreeze’s stellar illustrations. His line-work and postures are top-notch, infused with a kineticism that surges between every panel. Colorist Laura Martin’s palettes are exquisite, coating every scene in dense colors and light off-notes. Martin’s expertise is most evident in a scene centered on a mysterious, cloaked figure depicted early in the issue—the contours of its body are shaped by a circuit-work of fuchsia accents that pop against the copper gold of the background.

This issue represents a confluence of great and many meanings. It marks the return of a character who hasn’t been featured in his own standalone series since 2012, and the beginning of Coates’ dalliance with comics. Black Panther #1 represents the start of a troubled new chapter in the life of one of Marvel’s most symbolic protagonists, and heralds the 50th anniversary of the character’s debut. But putting aside the precedent of the accolades and analysis, Black Panther #1 is just a damn good read that will appeal to both die-hard enthusiasts and curious literati looking to see what all the fuss is about. Coates and Stelfreeze’s first issue captures the reader’s attention and leaves a deep impression.

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Black Panther #1 Interior Art by Brian Stelfreeze & Laura Martin

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