The respect Ta-Nehisi Coates has for Black Panther is abundantly clear when you read this comic. The role T’Challa played in Hickman’s Secret Wars has left Wakanda and his reign in a state of disrepute and the writer is trying to build upon those shaken foundations. It is simple to imagine a King respected and true, presiding over an adorning public, or even simpler to imagine a despot tyrant controlling the people with aggression. This is what seems to be more commonplace amongst most comics, but Wakanda is supposed to be technologically, philosophically and spiritually advanced compared to all places on Earth. It is after all protected by the mantle of a black panther deity. The location is also hidden in the continent of Africa and therefore takes its roots from an indigenous tribal culture. This is what we know because this is what has been told to us many, many times. But what does this actually mean? Can you envisage such a place? A utopia of the pinnacle of mankind it would seem, but then imagine it broken. Welcome to the creative brief for Ta-Nehisi Coates, Brian Stelfreeze and Laura Martin.
Coates writes with a royal tone from the outset as T’Challa’s character narrative is one of reflection and meditation. Initial ruminations read as such, “And we must now reckon with what we have done to our own blood”. His adoptive mother provides a voice of reason and guidance, and her character was instantly cemented when she ruled against her own elite guard, the Dora Milaje, in the very first issue. The notion of state over self sits more naturally with her than is does with Black Panther. His head is weary as he sees his sister, Shuri fail to be resuscitated, suspended in time whilst her spirit traverses the planes of Wakandian memory. The difficulty lies with creating characters of texture and personality that interact naturally in a manner that engages with the reader and the world simultaneously. There is a need to hear the King narrate his thoughts but more a need to visualise his engagement with the disquiet of his Kingdom. It is slow, it is measured but it is beautiful.
It is immediately noticeable how dark the people of Wakanda are. They are not the cliché light brown making them easier to shade but they are almost black. I greatly admire Stelfreeze and Martin’s resolve in depicting a real view of an African country. The artistry is exceptional and the emotional expression of black and dark brown colours is impressively effective. There are subtle alterations when the mask is adorned as it fades in electronically with a blue black outline. There is a genuine uniqueness and culture to Wakanda with the brightly coloured Kanzu gowns and Kofia caps, let alone the way women’s hair is styled. This traditional theme is juxtaposed with the technologically advanced armour of the secret police, Hatut Zeraze, and the Midnight Angels, a rebel faction. That is even before we encounter the high rise skyscrapers of the city and the arid flats of the villages. Stelfreeze tries to capture the essence of Wakanda and what is means to be respectful of their heritage whilst advancing the realm of science and technology.
Brian displays delicate subtlety of movement, which accompanies the theoretical discourse between mother and son. Her movements and glances are in keeping with those of T’Challa, but this is somewhat loss when depicting action sequences. They are less fluid and more snapshot based a fight scene. There is certainly a predilection to the metaphorical rather than the physical with the writing but this is also noticeable with the art too. Which certainly poses the question of how the current political demise is to be resolved, by the fist or the mind? Most superhero comics would certainly opt for the former but this comic is certainly not readying that approach. There is depth to the social structure of Wakanda in that its people are firmly represented throughout. Even the rebel faction soldiers Panther defeats have children and family relying on their protection, protection they feel cannot be provided by their King. The philosopher teacher Changamire, who renounces violence is brought to task by the Queen-mother who questions his role in the rebellion. The wayward Dora Milaje take up the very pertinent feminist stance without succumbing to the propositions of the rebel leader. It is almost strange that there is a villainous character in this comic because the virtues of every position are expressed with poise and purpose. There are no right or wrong answers but only difficult choices, and with the introduction of terrorism, T’Challa must take action.
There is an incredible amount of ambition with this book and I have great adoration for the way in which it has been handled. Given the promotion and importance levied towards this comic, it has not pandered to anyone. It has taken its time and delivered fantastic dialogue with pertinent themes. Granted it may have been slow and exposition heavy in the initial books, but this issue ties in those story threads culminating in a very dramatic way. This is quite simply not a superhero comic but a treatise on the disenfranchised monarchical society. They have suffered greatly and lost faith in their leader, and in turn have found hope in rebellion. Whilst Black Panther monologues on his own losses and sacrifices, his kingdom falls apart around him. This is a comic primarily focused on the citizens of Wakanda, and the plight of those with power above them. The revolution will not be televised, the revolution is here and it is up to the King to do what is best for his people.