When word broke last year that Black Panther would be joining Captain America and Iron Man as part of Marvel's growing cinematic universe, I challenged myself to read 100 issues of Black Panther - so, you know, I wouldn't feel left out. That I felt no reason to continue after I finished this first collection of five should tell you a lot.
T’Challa isn't the most personable of Marvel heroes. Writer Christopher Priest - credited with reinventing the character - envisions him as calm and stoic, benevolent and cunning in his leadership of the fictional country of Wakanda, quite intelligent and decked out with gadgets like vibranium claws. These aren’t necessarily bad qualities, but not long after the “aha!” moment when they are first unleashed the novelty is gone. Then he's just another tricked-out guy who battles evil - and with his own kingdom to boot!
The narrative device is well-conceived though. Everett K. Ross, a U.S. government employee, has the unfortunate job of playing babysitter to Black Panther during his stay in New York City. Ross is the audience surrogate, his internal monologue serving as our eyes and ears into this world. He also becomes a source of comedic relief, managing to lose his pants for a few issues and bantering with Panther’s trusted guard Zuri at a Chinese restaurant.
I’m not what you'd call an avid comic book reader, but the political undertones in these early issues of Priest’s run were surprisingly complex. To sum up, The Black Panther is called away to American soil because a children’s charity named The Tomorrow Fund - backed by the Wakandan consulate - has turned into a money laundering scam for drug cartels. To make matters worse, the poster child of the charity, a young girl, has been found murdered. T’Challa is tasked with finding the killer and weeding out the corruption, not realizing other forces are at play.
It's a good premise for a superhero story, and it suits Priest's interpretation of the Panther. And yet I must confess that I find T’Challa a bit boring. Like Captain America, he's a straight shooter with an unwavering moral compass, so dropping him in Hell’s Kitchen of all places seems like a brilliant idea - a virtuous do-gooder and one of the most notoriously crime-ridden neighborhoods in the city seems like a powder keg waiting to blow. But despite sharing the streets with Daredevil himself, and a plot that becomes more politically incendiary with each page, these first issues had a lot of problems.
Pacing is a big issue. We see Black Panther thrashing street-level gangsters in one scene, and then a few pages later we’re in a flashback to the King having a very quiet conversation with his mother. It's a very refreshing, relatable and human side of the character, but I'm unclear what contrasting it with the relentless crime fighter achieves. These jumps between Wakanda and the US occur constantly and make it difficult to really grasp the fruits of the narrative. It's as if the storytelling is getting in its own way, preventing itself from establishing a comfortable rhythm. There was also a dream sequence in which T'Challa wakes up in the back of his limo doing something he ultimately regretted. But it's not until after the fact that we realize it was a dream, and either way that section adds little to either character or story.
After the fifth issue, T’Challa brings his investigation of the murder to a close. And as quickly as that story finished, another began. It’s a weak conclusion that lacks closure; there's no sense of payoff, or even change. Perhaps it was the way Priest rendered the characters, or maybe it was the pacing; either way, the narrative fails to live up to its premise. There was just too much going on, and nothing felt right in the end. And since that was the end of issue five - and this collection - I decided I need go no further.