When I saw that Ta-Nehisi Coates, a writer renowned for the book he wrote about what it means to be a black person in the U.S. today (Between the World and Me), was writing the new Black Panther, I was beyond excited. Coates went from writing influential blogs and articles for The Atlantic to a MacArthur Fellowship to the National Book Award, and although he’s never written for comics before, I knew he’d have a lot to say. And the first issue of the 12-issue planned series did not disappoint.
To start with some background on Black Panther, the character was never one of Marvel’s most popular and wasn’t prominent enough to be bestowed with a fixed mythology. This led to the story of Black Panther being more of a meandering river than a concrete road. The character’s exact powers, backstory, attitude, and codex have changed and shifted many times over the approximate 40 years of his existence. But throughout the shifts and changes in the story, one thing has remained constant: Black Panther is not a secret identity. It’s always been the ceremonial title of T’Challa, the ruler of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, the most technologically advanced nation in the world. The Black Panther, or Damisa-Sarki, is Wakanda’s ruler, champion, and warrior, and he gets his powers from eating a heart-shaped herb as part of his initiation.
Prior to Coates’s story, recent events have brought the kingdom of Wakanda to its knees: a flood that killed thousands, an invasion by Thanos, and a Doctor Doom-orchestrated coup. T’Challa has been away from Wakanda, and his sister, Shuri, had been ruling as Black Panther and queen in his absence. T’Challa returns to find that his sister has died while defending Wakanda against Thanos’s army, and the comic opens with T’Challa, Black Panther, unmasked, on his knees, ready to break up a civilian riot. He nearly slaughters many of his own citizens before pulling away, and in the midst of the riots, he notices a mysterious psychic woman, whom he knows is somehow responsible.
From there, a narrative forms, weaving in different plotlines and carefully placing landmines that are sure to detonate in later issues. For much of this issue, Black Panther is in the background, and Coates focuses instead on new, badass women characters. Aneka and Ayo are two members of the Dora Milaje, the Black Panther’s all-woman royal guard, who are also lovers and are “tired of living and dying on the blood-right of one man.” Ramonda, his stepmother, is doing her best to keep law and order in the midst of chaos and strife. And the mysterious psychic woman who’s responsible for the riots is insistent that she’s liberating the Wakandan people, which humanizes the villain and makes the reader question whether Black Panther is truly doing right by the Wakandans. The artist, Brian Stelfreeze, paints these characters beautifully, while Coates gives them voices that are unmistakably strong and individual.
The writing does sometimes lean a little too much on exposition, but that’s to be expected in a first issue of a brand-new story. Coates is setting a lot of things up, and the narratives and characters he’s establishing are engaging, exciting, and diverse. The characters and the world in which they live are real, and the ethical and political issues they face are wonderfully brought to life. I think credit for the worldbuilding and the feeling of realness should go to artist Stelfreeze, whose artwork and focus on emotive faces is what truly brings the world and the characters to life. Interestingly, none of these emotive faces are Black Panther’s, as throughout most of the issue he’s either masked or turned away from the reader, which distances him from us and suggests the distance he himself feels from his own people.
Coates and Stelfreeze bring to life a new, revolutionary, and modern Black Panther story that subverts the way we’ve always seen it, and they humanize this character well, making the reader question his ability to rule his nation instead of putting him on the pedestal we’ve historically seen from superhero stories. This story joins the ranks of the new, more real, more human superhero stories that are much more about the people underneath the masks. Considering that Coates is known for his nonfiction and this is his first foray into writing for comics, the narrative he’s presented is promising, and I’m excited to watch it play out over the rest of the series.