Black Panther #1
Written by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Art by Brian Stelfreeze and Laura Martin
Lettering by Joe Sabino
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Robert Reed
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10
After more than four years, the Black Panther finally gets another solo title. With critically acclaimed author Ta-Nehisi Coates and artist Brian Stelfreeze at the helm, T’Challa is being put into a position of prominence that he has never had before. However, Black Panther #1 comes with a slew of questions surrounding its release. How will Coates, a prose writer, transition to the collaborative medium of comic books? What pieces of the fluctuating Black Panther mythos will remain? Which will be discarded? Fortunately, Black Panther #1 is able to answer those questions with aplomb.
Longtime readers of T’Challa will find some thematic familiarity with Coates’ story. T’Challa’s struggle to balance his duties as king and hero have been a source of dramitas since Don McGregor’s Jungle Action series. However, recent events in the character’s history (such as Doomwar, Avengers vs. X-Men and New Avengers) allow Coates to give more weight to that inner conflict. T’Challa must now face the fact that he may very well not be a good fit as his nation’s ruler. Coates’ captions subtly encapsulate the conflict, “And now I must reckon with what is loose in my country… And now we must reckon with what we have done to our own blood.”
Coates’ prosaic talents also lend themselves to the dialogue of the characters. When Ramonda chastises Ayo, the specificity of her word choice is paramount, “‘Your answer to this villainy is to turn the upholders of Wakandan law into its flouters.’” For his part, Coates also demonstrates a great ability to allow the art to speak for itself. One of the fears around a prose writer approaching the comic book medium is that they may be overly verbose, but Coates finds a great balance with precise captions that add to the artwork rather than distract from it.
Thematically, Coates is also commenting on the gender politics within the kingdom. One of the conflicts in the issue involves the Dora Milaje, an all-women elite guard of the Wakandan royal family. Coates directly challenges the institution, humanizing members Ayo and Aneka in their show of disloyalty to the crown. This heightens the stakes of the story; these are two of Wakanda’s most devoted warriors turning their backs on their duty and on their king. In reading the issue, it becomes apparent that the women in this story, in T’Challa’s world, are extremely important. T’Challa’s mother is his support system, his sister is a ghost who weighs over him and even the enemy that plots against him is a woman. It’s nice to see a book starring a male character have such a varied female presence around him.
If there is one flaw within the issue, it’s that the villain, the manipulative Zenzi, is not well-defined. While it’s not a huge drawback, it’s noticeable because the other characters are given so much more dimension than she is. As of right now, she’s yet another villain staging a coup against the kingdom, so hopefully later issues can build her up.
Wakanda is as much a character as anyone else in this debut, in large part due to Brian Stelfreeze’s beautiful design work. From futuristic aircraft to the architecture to the clothing, Stelfreeze has given a distinct culture to the fictional nation, and in doing so, Stelfreeze has created a definitive look for Wakanda. There’s a geography to Stelfreeze’s take on the nation, and he makes it explicit that there is more to the country than a single city-state.
This attention to detail doesn’t stop at the design work either, as Stelfreeze makes sure that every expression and every hint of body language aids the overall story. When Black Panther gives chase to Zenzi, he moves in a low stance, evoking the animal for which he is named. When he converses with his mother, Ramonda, he does so with a stern respect. Anchoring all of this is Stelfreeze’s use of shadow, especially with respect to facial work. Whereas some artists might solely use distinctive features like scars or hair color to create distinct characters, Stelfreeze allows the shadows to help define the faces in a naturalistic manner.
Stelfreeze’s art is made all the more wondrous by the colors of Laura Martin. Martin’s palette is vibrant, but still maintains a sense of realism, allowing for some spectacular moments. A particular highlight is a scene between two lovers resting beside a fire. The couple is silhouetted against the orange blaze, symbolizing both their isolation and the depths of their devotion to one another.
Black Panther #1 is a stellar debut that delivers an intriguing premise, backed by interesting characters and beautiful artwork. The cumulative effect of Coates’ writing and the art by Stelfreeze and Martin is what makes the book shine. There’s an energetic flow that feels less like three individuals collaborating and more like a singular vision coming to the forefront. It is a testament to the creators that Black Panther #1 is able to impress in spite of heightened expectations.