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FIRST ISSUE: THE NEW BLACK PANTHER

An admirable first issue must, above all else, contain such matter as will compel a reader to buy the second issue. At the same time, while provoking curiosity through mysteriousness, a good first issue must avoid being so mysterious as to be cryptic or incomprehensible. And, thirdly, it should introduce the title’s principals, preferably in a way that makes us care about them. Fourth, a first issue should include a complete “episode”—that is, something should happen, a crisis of some kind, which is resolved by the end of the issue, without, at the same time, detracting from the cliffhanger aspect of the effort that will compel us to buy the next issue.

THE NEW BLACK PANTHER

Black Panther 1 coverFrom my point of view — necessarily the point of view of a white American male pretending he’s not racist— Marvel’s Black Panther character was from the beginning in 1966 a blatant attempt to exploit racism in this country by producing a comic book hero that would champion Africans and African-Americans, appealing thereby to liberal white readers on college campuses and, possibly, to urban black readers. It was blaxploitation in four colors.

The Black Panther first appeared in Fantastic Four No.52, July 1966, written by Stan Lee and drawn by Jack Kirby. He is the first black superhero in mainstream American comics, launched several years before other blaxploitation characters — the Falcon, Luke Cage, Tyroe, and Black Lightning. The name, Black Panther, predates the October 1966 founding of the Black Panther Party. Stan Lee said his inspiration for the name was a pulp adventurer who had a black panther as a helper.

Over the ensuing 50 years, the Black Panther was on and off: he didn’t get his own title until 1977; it ran a couple years, and then the character disappeared for a decade. He came back in 1988, then disappeared again in 1991 for seven years. He’s been back often but never steadily.

Still, as Michael Cavna said at Comic Riffs, the Black Panther is “arguably the most important and well-known black superhero of all time.”

So the Black Panther always seemed like a good idea. And now, in anticipation of a Black Panther movie in a year or so, Marvel is back with another Black Panther-titled six-issue series, this time written and drawn by African Americans, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Brian Stelfreeze.

Black Panther lift panelsStelfreeze is a veteran comic book illustrator whose resume begins sometime in the 1980s; Coates is doing his first comic book work in the current iteration of Black Panther. And he ain’t your ordinary comic book scribe.

Coates, a writer for The Atlantic, is a “race man” known for his 2014 essay “The Case for Reparations” and his 2015 National Book Award winning Between the World and Me, a musing, as African-American journalist and comics author Darryl Holliday says in the May issue of In These Times, “on blackness in America that led Toni Morrison to compare him to James Baldwin.”

Coates rejects any suggestion that he should be doing more serious work than writing a comic book. “In my heart, I’m a comic book writer,” he said, quoted in The Week (April 29).

“When I was a kid,” Coates said, “Spider-Man was right under Malcolm X for me in terms of heroes. I would like Black Panther to be some kid’s Spider-Man.”

He continued: “This isn’t my chance to talk about Black Lives Matter. This is supposed to be fun to read. The politics are in the background. What’s in front is people punching each other.”

Coates “cautions against didacticism in fiction,” said Holliday, “and has promised that the comic will contain ‘no policy papers on the slave trade nor any overly earnest, sepia-tinged Black History Month style of storytelling.’”

Instead, Coates told Holliday, “he seeks to hone in on a simpler question: ‘Can a good man be a king, and would an advanced society tolerate a monarch?’”

The Black Panther is the king of an African nation, Wakanda, the most technologically advanced society on Earth. Black Panther is the ancestral, ceremonial title of the country’s monarch, who, in the current incarnation, is named T’Challa.

As the first issue begins, T’Challa has just returned to Wakanda, which has just suffered a series of setbacks—a flood of Biblical proportions that killed thousands (a machination of Namor, the Submariner?), a coup orchestrated by Doctor Doom, and an invasion by the villain Thanos that resulted in the death of T’Challa’s sister Shuri, who had been sitting in for her brother on the throne. Grieving over his sister’s death, T’Challa finds his people strangely restless, raging against him in their agony at their recent humiliations.

In the opening sequence, T’Challa is thrown into a rage- and hate-filled mob of his people, who leer at him with jade-green eyes, calling him the orphan king. He extracts himself from their hands, his physical prowess enhanced by the tech-assisted Black Panther costume. He vows to find out what has infested his people and to restore their allegiance. This is one of the two complete episodes in the book: it shows T’Challa to be powerful but thoughtful and dedicated to his country.

In the other complete episode, two women, while sympathetic to T’Challa and his dilemma, vow to save their country — whatever T’Challa might think or do. Says one: “No one man should have that much power.”

In the book’s closing moments, we see T’Challa brooding, sadly wondering “how long” he must be separated, divided, from his blood, his people. And from the ghost of his departed sister.

The ending is scarcely a robust cliff-hanger. We may be sympathetic to T’Challa in his grief and sad longing. But is that enough to bring us back to the second issue?

If nothing else, Stelfreeze’s art will bring me back. Most of the pages, even the brightly lit ones, are dipped in black. But the black is not shadowing. His stylized treatment of black-skinned people is stunning: instead of highlights, we have darklights.

 

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In Stelfreeze’s commanding treatment of the Black Panther costume, muscles and forms are etched by black modeling in solid shapes, not feathering.

Says Stelfreeze: “I’ve always liked the simplicity of the Black Panther costume. I’ve never liked when people give him flashy capes and other adornments. ...‘Black Panther’ suggests a sleek efficiency so I’m staying simple. I’m adding small touches to make him feel more aggressive and catlike, but just keeping it simple.”

Even simple, Stelfreeze is worth looking at.

This book may not be about Black Lives Mattering: it may be about the decay of culture akin to that of our own, when huge segments of society reject gay rights as well as black lives. I’m looking forward to seeing what remedy Coates proposes. Meanwhile, for an even more lengthy discussion of Black Panther, Coates and Stelfreeze, visit the Usual Place, RCHarvey.com, and Rants & Raves Archive, Opus 351.

For more Rants & Raves with its comics news and reviews, gossip and cartooning lore, visit www.RCHarvey.com

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