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

21 October 2016

Black Panther: A Nation under Our Feet, v. 1

Collects: Black Panther v. 4 #1-4 (2016)

Released: August 2016 (Marvel)

Format: 144 pages / color / $16.99 / ISBN: 9781302900533

What is this?: Wakanda is in turmoil, and Black Panther is having difficulty gaining control of the situation.

The culprits: Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates and artist Brian Stelfreeze

As someone who hasn’t read any Black Panther books since the Christopher Priest run, Black Panther: A Nation under Our Feet, v. 1 left me feeling like I had missed a lot.

When a character (or object or country) has a complicated history, the writer has to make a choice: Should the continuity be ignored or deprecated? Should it be quickly reintroduced in a way that doesn’t interfere with the thread of the story? Or should it be recapped in depth?

Black Panther: A Nation under Our Feet, v. 1 coverThat last option hasn’t been in vogue for decades now, and since Black Panther writer Ta-Nehisi Coates is building on the Black Panther’s recent continuity, often using the world-building done by Priest, the second choice is Coates’s only real option. Unfortunately, the continuity I’ve missed is so involved that mentioning the events and moving on leaves me feeling unsatisfied. For instance, how did Black Panther’s long-time nemeses, Erik Killmonger and Man-Ape, die? How and why did Namor flood the landlocked nation of Wakanda? Why was Panther absent from Wakanda when Thanos (of all people) invaded, and where did Panther’s sister, Shuri, come from?

And that’s why you always leave a footnote. It gives the reader context, other than authorial whim, for this complicated interplay of narrative.

Whatever the reason for Wakanda’s troubles, the nation is now in turmoil. For someone who had read only Priest’s run, such internal chaos is hard to come to grips with. But this nation is not run by Priest’s Panther; Coates’s Black Panther is unsure of himself, shaken, and less competent. The first two are obviously what Coates is aiming for. Wakanda’s humbling by invaders and his sister’s death have humbled him personally. The lack of competence is harder to justify; have his personal blind spots allowed his new enemies to get the upper hand? Or is Coates abandoning, consciously or not, the hyper-competent Panther of the past?

As I mentioned earlier, the Panther’s two oldest internal rivals, Killmonger and Man-Ape, are gone. The current unrest — or revolution, in one counselor’s words — is two-headed, and neither seems to be led by costumed aggressors bent on accumulating personal power. As Nation begins, the immediate danger is fueled by a woman who unlocks the people’s latent rage and resentment. The other uprising is started by two renegade Dora Milaje, the king’s all-female elite guard, who have objected to the personal predations of powerful men in the hinterlands who haven’t been checked by the king or his bureaucracy. No one man, these women say, should hold such power over the people.

And that’s the crux of this conflict, one that is rarely explored in superhero comics: that Black Panther is a monarch — perhaps not an absolute monarch, but a monarch nonetheless. Regime change is always a transition between powerful men and women, and the people never remain in charge of a nation we pay attention to. Seeing the people reach for democracy or at least a more egalitarian government is fascinating, and Coates is to be praised for not only showing a “good” ruler being on the receiving end of unrest but also for not showing the revolutionaries as evil or power-hungry.

Readers know Panther is a benevolent ruler, when he has ruled and not been abroad superheroing. But when the people aren’t well served by a leader, whether that be in administration or in national defense, they should have a right to replace that leader. In Nation, the Panther’s government is not doing an acceptable job on either front, and since the Panther is a monarch, it’s only logical for people to conclude he has to go. There’s a reason Changamire, the revolutionary philosophy teacher, is discussing John Locke when we see him lecturing his class.

The rightness of the revolutionaries’ cause is the only way Panther’s difficulties in fighting the unrest make sense: Either he somehow recognizes the legitimacy of the arguments against him and is sabotaging himself or the writer is strengthening the rebels’ argument. Additionally, Panther mentions in issue #2 that a king is more powerful in potential than in actuality: “Every act of might diminished the king, for it diminished his mystique. Might exposed the king’s powers and thus his limits.” The Black Panther’s powers and limits are very exposed in Nation

Still, other aspects of the revolt and Wakandan culture are a mystery. Those unsatisfied with the king call him “Haramu-Fal,” the orphan-king. This is regarded as an insult, although I don’t know why. Another says the Black Panther’s house has fallen, although I don’t know if that’s hyperbole or accurate.

In the Priest run, all readers ever saw of the Dora Milaje was the Panther’s two personal bodyguards, but Coates implies the Dora Milaje are a much larger body. Given that the Dora Milaje was created to keep tribal tensions in check, it makes sense that there are more than two, but the story intimates the Dora Milaje are a small army. That seems like a mistake; the Dora Milaje gain their impressiveness through not only their abilities but the idea that they are a very select group. By the end, not only are the Dora Milaje many, but they are defecting in large numbers, which makes them a poor elite group. (Black Panther never comes close to fighting the renegade Dora Milaje, regardless of what the cover of #3 — re-used for the back cover image of the trade paperback — tells us.)

Artist Brian Stelfreeze draws the Dora Milaje as dressing in a non-Western fashion, in direct contrast to how they had been portrayed in the past. I suppose that’s appropriate, as the Dora Milaje in Priest’s run were usually either in America or in a military capacity. (The experimental armor the renegade Dora Milaje wear is ridiculous, as it has large areas of fishnet mesh — midriff and arms — where a normal person would expect to be protected by armor.) Since this book takes place entirely in Wakanda, very few people wear Western clothes, and the super technology of past runs is largely absent, except for Panther and his allies. This is an African Africa, distancing the Panther from the Western-focused books of the past. The lowered ears on the Panther costume gives Black Panther a look between a wary cat and a slinking one, which is appropriate for a harried and combative leader. I also enjoyed the costume’s circuit-like Kirby lines that show up when his costume performs a technological function; Stelfreeze nicely ties the Dora Milaje to the Panther by giving their heads similar lines.

The price tag for Nation is a bit high: $17 for the series’ first four issues and the often-reprinted Fantastic Four #52, the first appearance of the Black Panther, seems too much. It seems $17 is the going rate for five new issues, but a reprint is not a new issue. Perhaps the increased tag is the price for someone as distinguished as Coates or Stelfreeze; I don’t know. The book tries to compensate for this elevated price by including bonus material, mostly Stelfreeze sketches and alternate covers. Neither does much for me, although your mileage may vary. Other material includes a interview with Stelfreeze, a chronology that serves more as advertisement for Black Panther stories than an informative narrative of the Panther’s history, and a map of Wakanda. The map’s nice, anyway.

I recommend this book, despite my disorientation at the beginning. I’m interested to see where Black Panther: A Nation under Our Feet, v. 2 is going. So interested, in fact, I must admit I think four issues is too short for v. 1; the story stops rather than arriving at a conclusion (or even a decent cliffhanger). Hopefully, the end of the next volume will be less abrupt.

Rating: Black Panther symbol Black Panther symbol Black Panther symbol Half a Panther symbol (3.5 of 5)

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