On Friday at New York Comic Con, Marvel held a panel observing the 50th Anniversary of Black Panther. Created in 1966 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, Black Panther debuted in the pages of Fantastic Four #52. Lee and Kirby were at the height of their collaboration at this moment, having just wrapped a string of stories introducing iconic figures such as the Inhumans, Galactus and Silver Surfer. The issue prior (#51) told the classic tale “This Man . . . This Monster!” Given this high level of quality, it is hardly surprising that they would not miss a beat when premiering The Big Two’s first black superhero. Two years later, Roy Thomas added the Panther to the ranks of The Avengers just in time for T’Challa to share Earth’s Mightiest Heroes’ initial encounters with Ultron and The Vision.
Despite their canonical status, the NYCC panel was mostly silent on these earliest Black Panther stories. Instead, they cited the work of writer Don McGregor as the foundational Black Panther tales. In the early 70s, Marvel launched Jungle Action as a low-profile series reprinting old adventure stories from the 1950s. However, much had changed in America since the 50s and McGregor found much of these stories racially offensive. (A cursory glance at the initial covers suggests that these narratives revolved around a generic Tarzan type rescuing a fearful white woman from all sorts of rampaging jungle beasts). Eventually editorial grew tired of McGregor’s complaining and assigned him the task of writing new scripts for the series. As McGregor explained, “jungle books didn’t sell, so what did they have to lose? They could simply cancel the series and say ‘hey we tried.’” Then in the tradition of Frank Miller, Jim Starlin and other creators reviving moribund properties, McGregor refashioned Jungle Action into something iconic.
It’s that time of year where all the new comics haven’t come out yet and we can believe the book’s in our head will be the books we get. Some of them won’t meet expectations, some will exceed them. Regardless, these are the new comics series of 2016 that we can’t wait to read.
by Ta-Nehishi Coates, Brian Stelfreeze & Laura Martin
There were a lot of high profile comics debuting this week and most of them followed what’s become a loose formula for first issues of new series from the larger publishers. The Fix, Poe Dameron, Empress; all new comics by veterans of the medium that do a great job of throwing readers into the action and letting the story reveal the series details and establish the personalities of the character’s. There was another debut this week from a well respected writer creating his first comic in Ta-Nehishi Coates with Black Panther and that book read like nothing else in comparison. Measured and lyrical, Coates Black Panther with artist Brian Stelfreeze and colorist Laura Martin moved and felt completely singular as only these creators could do.
Coates writing on Black Panther’s debut issue is a slow burn based around setting up the new status quo and introducing readers to the main players. Where as modern comics tend to favor a more informal style of speech, Coates writes in flowing dialogue similar to Claremont’s, but with a sharp modernism that never feels tedious. For what Coates writing may lack in the familiarity to the medium, he brings in his own stylistic flourishes in the pace and structure. It’s not overly complicated, but it is dense and the issue benefits from multiple readings. True to his roots as an essayist, the writing in Black Panther #1 is wordy and the story is slowly building upon itself. There are shade’s of Jonathan Hickman in the plotting, but like with the Claremont comparison, it’s in a way that feels familiar to Coates as a writer. In that sense, Coates manages to avoid some of the awkwardness that befall established writers just entering the medium. Like his best work in the Atlantic, it’s thoughtful and opaque, but still a smooth read in the natural flow of it’s narrative.While his writing is clearly different from what you get in most mainstream comics, it never feels like anything but writing for a comic in the best way possible.
As with the writing, Stelfreeze & Martin take a similar approach in the visual narrative with stylistic subtlety in the books art. Stelfreeze is a master of design and it’s on full display in Black Panther. The scope of his actor’s and their enviroment is precise yet still imaginative and with Laura Martin’s color contrast, Wakanda and it’s inhabitants feel like a living breathing symbiotic entity. Stelfreeze & Martin are veteran’s of the form and they do a masterful job of pacing the story in a way that’s sharp and effecting. While a well written comic no doubt, Black Panther #1 is an issue where the artwork can tell the story in itself. As the narrative through line of the national unrest unfolds in future issues, it could make how they reflect that discourse and chaos all the more interesting from the precision they displayed in the first issue.
Black Panther #1 is comics in a different dialect. What it lacks in bombast it makes up for in it’s studied substance and intrigue. Coates succeeds in his debut comic by imprinting his own sensibilities as a writer onto the medium while letting Stelfreeze & Martin realize a vision of Wakanda, Black Panther and modern comics unlike any other.