This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on April 6, 2016.
Black Panther #1 is a comic made for people already reading Marvel Comics. It’s steeped in both the recent events and more dated history of this massive shared universe pulling from last summer’s big event Secret Wars and inventions dating back to Christopher Priest and Jack Kirby’s earlier volumes of the same title. If you’ve been keeping up with the King of Wakanda for the past 10, 20, or 30 years, then this issue might feel like the next natural step. If you’re an outsider, then it’ll be no more kind to you than this isolationist nation would be.
In some regards the general reading experience of Black Panther #1 could be compared to many of Marvel’s other big solo superhero titles like Amazing Spider-Man and Captain America: Sam Wilson. It hits the “Marvel mean”, an average of content and execution that will leave the long-time fans of this material satisfied. This debut issue has more in common with the Silver and Bronze Age predecessors of those same titles than their current editions though.
Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates composes this comic much like industry stalwarts Gerry Conway and Roger Stern in their own heyday. Their soap operatic tales of brave, but flawed superheroes would encompass dozens of issues with character arcs, major events, and sub-plots coming together in an almost spontaneous fashion, alluding the clean, designed for collection story arcs of today. This is not a criticism, but a comparison of storytelling style. Coates’ script holds a much greater resemblance to these older stories than the standards of modern day superhero comics.
Black Panther #1 misses two things that the best of those messier, naturalistic narratives held though. The first is the benefit of an ongoing narrative. Coates has assembled the many plot threads that compose the Black Panther’s story into a next chapter that attempts to pull it altogether. This story functions as though Jonathan Hickman’s New Avengers and the AvX had all been told in the same magazine and an easy editor’s note could point readers backward. However, the enormous amount of information contained on the introductory page, the few paragraphs comics readers are often inclined to skip without a second though, covers hundreds of comics and alludes to the same information as the actual pages of Black Panther #1 instead of providing context.
This coalition of stories being merged to form the history for this series are taken for granted, despite their many takes resulting in a non-cohesive whole. The comic moves from scene to scene assuming emotional and logical connections between its readership and the characters being presented. Black Panther is hardly characterized at all within the first issue. His internal monologue points to feelings of conflict and narration tells of his failings, but it is difficult to ascribe attributes to him based on his actions and behavior. If you think Black Panther is smart or willful, it is because the comic or its characters tell you this, not because of what the man actually says or does.
This problem is not quite as obvious in the supporting cast. Ramonda, Black Panther’s step-mother, is the best defined character acting from a place of authority and absolutely held ethics in both sequences she appears in. Her stern manner may leave readers unsure as to her motives, but her attitude and personality are a force to themselves on the page. Only a few sequences featuring two Dora Milaje, Black Panther’s sworn bodyguards, create a compelling sub-plot about two women in love. Yet the villain of this piece and various others seem to only run through their lines on the page, discussing action, but providing no personality without the context of previous comics.
The second missed change between classic Silver Age stylings and those found in Black Panther #1 is a lack of rhythm. While many of these classic Marvel stories were messy in nature, the best of them always featured a thesis to every issue. Sub-plots and villainous schemes could bubble in the background, but there was always a call to action that demanded its audience read this issue immediately (often found on the cover).
That propulsion is lacking here; scenes come and go with no narrative thrust. Various moments of internal strife occur ranging from Black Panther confronting rioting villagers to Ramonda sentencing a Wakandan to death. There is a theme of rebellion to these disparate occurrences, but none of them takes centerstage in Black Panther #1. Other moments, like the cliffhanger at the end of the issue, feel like an afterthought, an additional plot point to be inserted without any grace. And so the overall reading experience paces itself like a jogger, never dissatisfying or uninteresting, but failing to really move the blood or release any adrenaline either. The drama of the issue is a steady line that eschews peaks and valleys, resulting in a middling reading experience.
None of this is to say that individual sequences land without impact. An escape sequence toward the end of Black Panther #1 is absolutely thrilling. The start of the escape denotes quiet, individual moments and observation against a single explosive panel at its foot. From there it takes off tracking a single figure and its specialized weapon. Stelfreeze highlights both of these forms within the panel, showing rather than telling readers about the special abilities on display. Within the course of a single page the action will often increase and decrease in speed, alternating its focus from violence to reflection and then returning. That meter to the action makes this sequence the most compelling of the entire issue.
Brian Stelfreeze’s design, as well as his visual storytelling, are responsible for this fine moment. He has focused on two specific elements of Black Panther mythology to define his pages here and make both action and drama more captivating. Silhouettes are well placed throughout the issue. This is a natural function of Black Panther’s costume, creating a void in the center of colorful panels to draw the eye and trace a dangerous outline. The use of black silhouettes with limited color highlights can be found with other characters as well, informing readers of their literal and metaphorical stature. A conversation at the end of the issue takes place entirely in silhouette and brings an increased sense of intimacy and gentleness with it.
There is also a great deal of attention paid to Wakandan technology in these pages. Attention is paid to make the nation of Wakanda a truly unique entity with dress, architecture, weapons, and vehicles. These items are not variations of the familiar, but appear to come from their own evolutionary tree. This has the subtle effect of reminding readers of Wakanda’s isolationist politics and achievements made separate from the rest of the world. A single panel of a bird-like ship descending into a city with floating gardens creates a world that the rest of the comic capably builds on.
Black Panther’s suit and other pieces of personal technology come with a sense of movement as panels show them covering or uncovering the human body. They are thin and fast, connected as a series of geometric lines that form a cohesive whole. A brief sequence of Black Panther’s mask appearing provides a feel for how this technology functions. One particular item of note is the Midnight Angel armor. It is equal parts efficiency and art as a weapon of war. Worn by the women of the Dora Milaje, it suits their needs and form, rather than playing to the male gaze.
It is in this armor that the most successful elements of Black Panther #1 may be found. The story at its best when focused on the women who support and surround Black Panther; Ramonda and the Dora Milaje are the most clearly defined and understood characters. That story when merged with this artful bit of design comes together to create the point most worth revisiting as Black Panther continues.
Whether that is enough is difficult to say. This is a debut issue with charm and style, but it also falters in its telling. Stelfreeze’s envisionment of the world of Wakanda is captivating, while what is happening within the country’s borders often leaves much to be desired. The stories of the Dora Milaje provide interest, while Black Panther’s narrative and self border upon being tedious. The elements of a powerful story are present, yet the Silver Age influence without top-notch Silver Age style may put those elements to waste.