Black Panther (Marvel)
Written by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Art by Brian Stelfreeze
I’m not usually one to give in to hype. That is not to say it hasn’t happened before, or that sometimes the hype isn’t true, just that I have been making a more conscious effort to make my own judgement on stuff I read and watch. In this case, there has been plenty of hype surrounding Ta-Nehisi Coates starting his comic writing career with Black Panther. I decided to pick up his first issue and see if there was any substance behind all the hype.
Much of the excitement about this book had to do with the fact that Coates, a respected and award winning African-American writer, was taking on one of Marvel’s most prominent black characters. While I understand and fully support the need to have more diversity in comics, both on and off the page, I have always been more concerned with good stories. I want to read the best possible stories with the most amazing art; increasing the diversity among creative teams should only serve to improve upon that. If Mr. Coates gives me those wonderful stories, then I don’t care what characters he writes.
Although this is by no means a perfect issue, I’m generally pleased with the results. Black Panther is a character who has been through some pretty rough times lately, as has his country of Wakanda. In this first issue, Coates skillfully introduces several plot threads that I found very intriguing. There is definitely stuff in this issue that will have me coming back for at least the next several issues, just so I can see how Coates chooses to unfold them. I would love to see part of this book turn into a wonderfully twisted political game, taking turns I do not expect. As I’ve already mentioned, Coates is an award winning writer and his skill shines through in the dialogue and in the narration. I love the fact that his characters feel both real and totally appropriate to their time and place. Wakanda is the most technologically advanced society on Earth, but they are also in the middle of Africa. The characters that populate the world Coates is building don’t sound like they are from middle America and I’m glad. Nor do the characters sound like some idiotic stereotype of Africans. Instead, they have their own voice, which is just different enough for them to stand out as a unique people.
With all the focus being on Coates, it’s easy to forget about artist Brian Stelfreeze. This is not to say that Stelfreeze’s art is forgettable, but just that he has taken a back seat to Coates in the news. I enjoyed the art in this book, though I have to admit that it references Jack Kirby a little too heavily. Few artists will ever be on the same level as Kirby, but it is only natural to want to incorporate some of Jack’s style into their own work. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that and it’s often a sign of respect. In this case however, it looks like Stelfreeze has adjusted his own style to add a more Kirby feel to this particular book. Part of the fun of picking up a new book is to see what the artist’s personal style brings to the characters and story. In this case, I’d like to see a little less Kirby and a little more Stelfreeze. Having said all of that, most of the art in this book is solid.
My biggest complaint about the book has to do with graphic storytelling. At several points in the book, there were a series of panels that were obviously meant to convey action and move the story forward with minimal words. In these places I had a tough time understanding exactly what was happening and I felt it did the narrative a disservice. In all honesty, I’m not sure where exactly the blame for this particular issue lies. In the letters column, Coates freely admits that he has never written comics before and I suspect that his inexperience with writing the graphic portion of comics is at fault, but I’m not 100 percent certain. I’m also leaning towards the onus being on Coates because there were certain panels that make sense from a storytelling perspective (wide, theatrical style shots) but that don’t really play to the strengths of his artist. Stelfreeze’s best panels are those that show people much closer up.
Maybe this first issue doesn’t fully live up to the hype. So what? For a first issue from someone who has never written comics before, I’m willing to accept less than perfect. There are so many great places this book can go and I’m excited to see how the characters develop, and how Coates grows and adapts to the medium he enjoys so much.
3.5/5 Death Stars