in praise of the new black panther comic series
When I was younger, I loved reading comic books. However, I stopped reading them a long time ago since keeping up was getting difficult. I’m therefore thankful that I recently came across the wonderful world of digital comics and grateful that my return has occurred in time to read the new series “Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet,” written by Ta-Nehisi Coates and illustrated by Brian Stelfreeze. I’ve been wanting to read it ever since I heard that Ta-Nehisi Coates was the author. His writing for The Atlantic is insightful and precise, and his book Between the World and Me is one of my favorites. I was also excited to see “Black Panther” again after his appearance in the movie “Captain America: Civil War.”
The comic book is a monthly series that started last April, but the first collected edition (which includes the first four issues) just came out a few weeks ago. I enjoy reading collected editions because of their quick pacing. Unfortunately, that also meant that when I finished reading Black Panther, I was wishing that it hadn’t ended so soon.
“Black Panther” is an excellent comic book that I think a lot of people, even people who don’t read comics often, would enjoy. It presents a compelling story that is both an exciting superhero tale and a profound and thoughtful political drama. I’m eagerly waiting the next collected edition.
Quick plot synopsis: T’Challa, through his ancestry, is the Black Panther, the king of Wakanda, which is the most technologically advanced nation in the world. However, his rule over Wakanda is in danger. The country’s people are upset after a recent series of catastrophes. Two superpowered individuals, Tetu and Zenzi, are channeling the anger of the people to spur violent confrontations with T’Challa. Their goal is to overthrow the king. Meanwhile, Aneka, a former member of the Dora Milaje, the royal guard, is rescued from her death sentence by her lover Ayo, also a former member of the Dora Milaje. The two women don stolen high-tech armor to become the Midnight Angels, who rescue oppressed people in Wakanda who have not been helped by the royal government. The Midnight Angels oppose the monarchy, but do not exactly share the same goals, and definitely not the same methods, as Tetu and Zenzi.
One of the great things about the series is the fact that the characters and themes are more complex than readers might expect from a superhero comic book. T’Challa is the hero at the center, but he is also more than that. He is a king who loves his people and wants to protect them, but he has failed in the past and continues to make mistakes. He is still affected by recent tragedies, which makes him multi-dimensional and human. I never liked reading about flawless superheroes (which is why I didn’t really read Superman comics when I was younger). T’Challa is a compelling character, and even though I wonder if Wakanda might be better with a different type of government, I’m rooting for him.
These somewhat conflicted feelings are the result of superb storytelling, which continues through the characterization of the people who oppose T’Challa. Tetu, though his tactics are cruel, has an admirable goal in mind: a better country. His animosity toward T’Challa for failing the country can be justified. Ayo and Aneka also add to the complexity. They are not on T’Challa’s side, but they are heroes and have saved people who T’Challa hadn’t helped. In these ways, the people opposing T’Challa are also multi-dimensional. Mixed in with the major conflicts are interesting discussions about how governments should function and what type of governments are preferable to others, which add weight to the events that take place.
In the first issue’s letters page, the section that features letters from readers, Ta-Nehisi Coates explains that this series is his first time writing a comic book. A reader who didn’t know that wouldn’t be able to tell. The multiple plotlines are well-balanced and skillfully spun. And Coates has a strong command of language, evidenced by the powerful first lines of narration: “I am the orphan-king. Who defied the blood… Who defied his country… And was divided from you.” The dialogue throughout is rich with powerful imagery, electrifying metaphors, and poetic cadences.
Brian Stelfreeze, the illustrator of the book, is a veteran of comic book art, and his illustrations in this series are stunningly detailed and stylish. The settings are vivid, and the characters appear nothing short of badass. The muscular Black Panther suit captures T’Challa’s incredible power as a hero and as a king. The Midnight Angel armor suits, with their smooth blue plates and retractable wings, radiate a sense of speed and flight.
The color artist of the book, Laura Martin, also does fantastic work. The colors are bold and wonderfully comicbook-y. She doesn’t stick to one color palette, but rather uses different schemes depending on the scene. A night scene is dark green and blue. A daytime scene shines with sky blue and white. Her versatility adds more fuel to the already high-octane book.
“Black Panther” did a great job bringing me back to comics, and I hope that its thrills will attract fellow veterans, as well as many first timers, too.