Tuesday, April 12, 2016

‘A Journalist Comes To Wakanda’: Black Panther #1

Black Panther’ #1 sees the long-awaited comics debut of writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates regularly writes for ‘The Atlantic’, has worked as a journalist for several publications, and won the National Book Award for Nonfiction for his most recent book, ‘Between The World And Me’. That book, which expresses Coates’ anger at the past and present treatment of black people in the US, is my only exposure to date of his writing.
Given the heavy theme of race in that book, and the Black Panther’s skin colour and fictional history, had half an expectation that Coates’ first issue of ‘Black Panther’ would be in a similar vein. The Panther was the first black superhero in comics, which has made him a sort of figurehead for dealing with issues of race, as he was during his early ‘Avengers’ appearances. Of course, that aside, there is no real reason why Coates’ ‘Black Panther’ should recall the themes of ‘Between The World And Me’: if nothing else that was a book that was distinctly about the experience of African-Americans, whereas the Black Panther character is African, not American at all.
Instead ‘Black Panther’ #1 does feel more African than American, both in setting and politically, dealing with the Panther’s business of trying to rule his country while rebel groups look to overthrow him. T’Challa has been the subject of these types of stories before, dating back to Don McGregor’s ‘Panther’s Rage’ epic in the 1970s. But Coates’ story has some more modern elements. For example, while a relatively progressive writer like McGregor may have been able to include a group like the Dora Milaje, who are the Panther’s all-female bodyguards, in a ‘70s Marvel comic, it is hard to imagine that he would have gotten away with developing a close and intimate relationship between two of its members. (Christopher Priest, who created the Dora Milaje in the late-‘90s, may have had more of a chance.)

But in other ways the setting is not quite like Africa either. The Panther’s fictional land of Wakanda, as we are told on the introduction page, is the (Marvel) world’s most technologically advanced nation. Its citizens walk the streets holding advanced gadgets, and presumably enjoy a pretty high standard of living, which seems hardly reflective of the poorest continent on Earth.
Reviews of this book have generally been quite positive. Coates and artist Brian Stelfreeze both note in their text pieces at the end that it is Coates’ first comic ever. Writers from other mediums, such as Kevin Smith, Joss Whedon, and J. Michael Straczynski, have in the past, been fairly successful with little comics writing experience, showing that some people can succeed in the medium just by being a good writer overall. Coates’ transition though is even a bit different to that, in that I don’t think he even has much experience as a fiction or genre writer. But he is according to his text piece a comics reader, and therefore is probably, like those other authors, pretty familiar with how comics work. Anyway, it’s not like his ‘rawness’ in the comics field shows at all, at least not for me, so it doesn’t seem like it will be a barrier.
I was listening to the guys on the iFanboy Pick of the Week podcast, and they were a bit more reserved in their praise, although they said that they would definitely keep reading. Their main problem was that it felt like you were thrown into the middle of a story, and it was hard to work out who the characters were, even for readers familiar with the Panther character. They suggested this could be a bit confusing and daunting for readers, particularly the new readers that Marvel hopes to attract.
It will be interesting to see what kind of audience this book gets. The comics world often hopes that bringing in well-known writers from other mediums will mean that their usual audiences come with them. I suspect that there won’t actually be a huge flood of ‘The Atlantic’ readers picking up ‘Black Panther’ (although I’m not sure that there even is a huge flood of ‘Atlantic’ readers). But at the least it feels like a distinct offering in a field where often the major titles seem largely indistinguishable. I’m pretty sure I’ll follow all 11 issues of Coates’ run. Quality of story aside, it’s the type of expansion in scope that I want to see Marvel do more of, and hopefully it’s enough of a success to encourage them to keep looking beyond NYC’s borders.

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