Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

15 April 2006

Black Panther, v. 2: Enemy of the State

Collects: Black Panther (v. 3) #6-12 (1999)

Released: April 2002 (Marvel)

If Kurt Busiek’s writing style can be called dense, Christopher Priest’s Black Panther is a neutron star. This is the first thing you’ll notice about Black Panther, the unremitting pace at which Priest will throw plot development, characters, and unfamiliar terms at the reader. The plot rockets from the Wakandan government, Russian mobsters, the secret police of a fictional Latin American country, and elements within the U.S. government. It can be daunting, to say the least.

But it’s worth it, especially for the narration of Everett K. Ross, the Black Panther’s “handler” from Office of the Chief of Protocol. In actuality, Ross handles nothing, and ends up being baggage as the Black Panther does exactly what he wants to do when he wants to do it. Ross’s wry, socially conscious narration is a highlight of the series, even though his in media res style of telling the story adds more confusion.

An example of this is Enemy of the State’s open, which is Black Panther fighting Kraven in a restaurant kitchen with Ross huddled nearby. The fight is wordless and contextless, and rather than explain the fight, Ross immediately starts talking about a White House reception for the Black Panther, which is studded with flashbacks of its own by other characters. Kraven doesn’t appear again until the end of the issue, which is his chronologically first appearance in the story. While the fight gives the book immediate action, it is outweighed by the confusion it may cause.

The one thing that can’t be denied is Priest’s interest in and facility with the character. Although Priest was initially hesitant about writing the Black Panther, the book certainly feels like he threw himself into the book full force. Although I might complain about the dense plot and the occasional acronym that seems to come out of nowhere, Priest shows us the Black Panther’s world, a world where statesmanship and superheroics have to stand side by side. He fleshes out Wakanda and makes it seem real, rather than a bunch of stereotypical African tribesmen in bones and beads with supercomputers.

The characters are more fleshed out than almost any other Marvel Universe comic I’ve read in the last ten years. Monica Lynne, whose whole purpose is to be the Black Panther’s girlfriend, develops more of a personality and role, finally realizing being the girl hostage might not be worth the trouble. Achebe, the man who usurps the Black Panther’s crown, is a driven lunatic — or he might be feigning his lunacy. The rest of the cast — Ross, Nikki, Nakia, the White Wolf, etc. — feel like at any time they could take over the story and be immensely entertaining.

Pencils are provided by a host of artists, including Joe Jusko (#6-8), Mike Manley (#9-10), and Mark Bright (#11-12). Jusko’s textured, realistic art is a fabulous fit for the title, and Bright, one of Priest’s frequent collaborators, turns in excellent, if slightly more standard comic book, pencils of his own. Manley-in-the-Middle is a bit of a problem; his style is more cartoony, with square jaws for all the men and less realism in a gritty story more about international intrigue than superheroes punching one another.

At the time the comics were published, the big revelation from the book was that the Black Panther had joined the Avengers to spy on them. Although not all fans were convinced this was a good decision, and it does raise issues of T’Challa’s behavior toward his friends, it did fit the conception of the character that Priest was trying to bring across: a planner, a plotter, and someone who above all else wants to protect Wakanda. (After all, this is a guy who invited the Fantastic Four to his country in Fantastic Four #51 in order to test them, then invited them to a huge feast in their honor when he finds out what he wants.)

Priest also took flack for having Thor stunned when a stray bullet hits him in the forehead. Even though it doesn’t harm the Thunder God, it doesn’t seem a wise idea; it puts a dent in the majesty of Thor, and it doesn’t do much for the story. It would have been more fun to see the blue-eyed, blond-haired Thunder God interact with the African-Americans fleeing in panic around him.

The book has a strong theme of parenthood and legacy, between what T’Chaka, the Black Panther’s father, has left for his son to Ramonda, T’Chaka’s second wife, who served as a mother to both the Black Panther and the White Wolf. Priest sets up an excellent parallel between Kraven, a man who never knew and was never acknowledged by his powerful, obsessed father, and the White Wolf, an outcast who never felt accepted in his adopted father’s kingdom. Both want to force a measure of acceptance for themselves from the Black Panther, either as a spiritual or actual successor to their fathers, but they both want to be accepted only as they are.

There is one small, final sour note: for some reason, Marvel has deleted some of the footnotes that refer to events in Black Panther, v. 1: The Client. I have no idea why. It’s not like not providing an explanation is going to make the events any more coherent.

If you are interested in the Black Panther, you should start with Black Panther, v. 1: The Client. And both titles are either out of print or somewhat difficult to find. But both are well worth the effort.

Grade: A

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