Ta-Nehisi Coates Brings a Steady Hand to ‘Black Panther #1’

Acclaimed writer Ta-Nehisi Coates has never written a comic book before, but this first issue of Black Panther puts to rest any fears of a vanity project gone bad.

There is violence in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ first issue of Black Panther. There’s blood, right from the start. Blood in the Panther’s hair. Blood running down his face.

The people riot. The government meets anger with anger; rocks and fists are met with lightning and fire.

In the great hall of justice there is more violence still. A petty tyrant brought violence upon the young and the weak until violence was brought to him in return. Justice and tradition — in the wizened, beautiful, and stoic form of the Queen Mother — demands more violence still.

T’Challa, himself an orphan king, knows about blood and steel. “Do what you must, T’Challa,” his step-mother tells him. “But don’t lose yourself. You are not a soldier. You are a king. And it is not enough to be the sword, you must be the intelligence behind it.”

Acclaimed writer Ta-Nehisi Coates has never written a comic book before, but this first issue of Black Panther puts to rest any fears of a vanity project gone bad. It is, of course, hard to get a true sense of where things are going from this first outing, but Coates begins with a studied approach, careful but surefooted. He’s not so much introducing his version of the first black Avenger as he is building the land of Wakanda, the marvelously futuristic African nation whose king dresses as a creature of the night and battles injustice with a power at once both technological and spiritual.

The Panther’s origins are rooted in this place, this land where rich natural resources combined with intelligence and wisdom to produce wonders untold. When introduced by Lee and Kirby during their early run on Marvel’s Fantastic Four, T’Challa and his Wakanda were unlike anything that had ever been seen in comic books before. Wakanda is no lost white city discovered by a misplaced European noble in the darkness of an African jungle. Likewise, the Black Panther is no Tarzan, no savior cast into a “savage” world. The Panther is the first African superhero, and his intelligence and power are not in contrast to his African origins, but a consequence of them.

Wakanda is an afrofuturistic wonderland. A place where Sun Ra could have reigned supreme.

Some of the absolute best Black Panther stories are set in the Panther’s homeland. Writer Don McGregor and artist Rich Buckler told what are arguably some of the greatest of these stories in the pages of Marvel’s Jungle Action comics. The title, obviously, is originally a home for the just the sort of white man in the jungle tales that the Panther so obviously overturns, and McGregor’s and Buckler’s Panther tales are often accompanied by reprinted stories from that earlier time. But their “Panther’s Rage” was groundbreaking and brilliant. Issues went by without a single white face, without pith helmeted explorers from Europe or Aryan princesses from some walled city filled with gold.

McGregor and Buckler tell stories about Wakanda. These stories are about love and politics and greed and devotion, about people, both noble and sinister, who live together in this glorious land.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ first issue of Black Panther is also a story about Wakanda. It’s the beginning of the story of a nation and its leader, of a place torn by a violence to which it is also, perhaps, addicted. A mysterious figure in green has the power to open the hearts of Wakandans to the feelings that are kept deeply buried — to agony, humiliation, sadness and rage. She’s able to see a deep and powerful truth: that the people massing in the fields and in the streets, the people railing against their government, do so not out of hatred for their king but out of shame.

Coates’, in this beginning, shows us a land of technology and wealth that is also a place of struggle and violence and shame. He shows us a land where lovers flee into the night — and into each other’s arms – and a land where violence begets violence at the demand of justice itself.

It’s all rendered powerfully by artist Brian Stelfreeze. There’s a touch of Kirby in his work, in the weight of his figures and in their movement and force, but his touch is more graceful than Kirby’s ever was, his Panther more lithe, if still strong. The colors here, by Laura Martin, sometimes steal the show — especially the red, red blood against the blackness of the Panther’s head and against the golden brown of his eyes.

Things are set in motion in Black Panther #1, set in motion and little more. We don’t know where a nation filled with shame and rage may finally go. But right from the start, Coates’ has a steady hand, steady and sure.

The Panther is at home in Wakanda once more.

RATING 8 / 10