One of Black Panther's greatest strengths as a character is that, as a King, he embodies the strength of not just one man, but a whole nation of people. But what happens when that nation starts slowly splintering apart beneath him? That's the foundation of the new Black Panther comic, and this promises an intriguing examination of T'Challa. Note: This is a spoiler-free review of Black Panther #1.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, Brian Stelfreeze and Laura Martin's first issue of Black Panther, out this week, spends a lot of its time exploring Wakanda through the lens of characters other than T'Challa himself. Recently in the comics, as Black Panther himself has played a larger role beyond its borders (he's currently a member of the cosmos-hopping Ultimates, for example), Wakanda has become the target of multiple disasters — great floods damaged the capital, and T'Challa's sister Shuri, ruling in his stead, was killed during an invasion attempt by Thanos that greatly damaged the country.
In the wake of these incidents, Coates explores a side of Wakanda that is rarely given any time in the comics: a society whose faith in its ruler has all but vanished. Jonathan Hickman and Esad Ribic's Secret Wars ended with Wakanda and Black Panther looking forward to a hopeful future, a nation restored to its highest powers, but Black Panther instead walks a darker, and far more intriguing path in its examination of a utopia in crisis.
Black Panther #1 opens with an incredibly powerful image from Stelfreeze (whose art, paired with Martin's vivid colouring, beautifully renders a visually diverse, distinctly African world throughout the issue): T'Challa, bloodied and bent over, as he reflects on the failures that have isolated himself as a ruler from his own children, amidst a riot among Vibranium miners.
If Black Panther as a hero is a symbol of Wakanda's prowess as a nation, the sight of its leader, bruised and surrounded by enemies — his own people as enemies — is symbolic of the personal and political crisis T'Challa is going through. From this first page, Black Panther hauntingly sets the stage for a conflict about power and change that will sit at the heart of this first arc. Andwe get a hint as to what this will mean for Black Panther, as a person as well as a superhero.
And this is not essentially a story about superhuman power — there are some brief moments of superpower-enhanced conflict in this first issue, but they're few and far between. Instead, "A Nation Under Our Feet" sets out to examine a grounded and human story about actual political power. It's about a society that has taken knocks to its pride, just as its king has, and is going through a period of upheaval that affects everyone, from average citizens to kings. It's about how those moments of change can divide people as they're driven by a need to seek prominence in the power struggle left in their wake. Coates' storytelling — steeped in the same sort of cultural conflicts and divides that have driven his prior writing about the black experience in 21st century America — is an examination of what this change means to T'Challa as a hero, not just to Wakanda and its people, but himself as a person.
This is a compelling direction to take a character who's largely known for his all-round excellence — or even for his arrogance, because of that excellence — and a perfect foil to his upcoming cinematic debut in Captain America: Civil War. Just as Black Panther is about to take a larger step into the mainstream pop culture world, his comic is taking a step back, to examine the character himself on a deeper level. This shows us what makes T'Challa tick, in a way we've rarely seen before. By giving us a starting point of T'Challa at his weakest, Black Panther is setting itself on a road that could give us some of his strongest stories in years.
Black Panther #1 hits shelves this week.