Was Marvel’s questionable decision to hire a writer untainted by the industry a smart move?
Comic book fans and media outlets were excited when they learned that Ta-Nehisi Coates would be writing Marvel’s Black Panther. Coates’s writing would be brought to life by the pencils of Brian Stelfreeze. Coates isn’t the first writer to essentially skip the line and jump into writing comics by immediately working for one of the big two. Marjorie Liu was an established novelist before she began writing X-23.
I had high hopes for this new story arc. Jonathan Hickman took T’Challa to limits not yet explored by previous writers. And at the end, we see our hero rewarded with his kingdom anew and his influence expanded. Despite having an excellent foundation, we’re left with one of the most divisive story arcs in comics.
The men vs women narrative is established from the very beginning. And that’s okay if it has a purpose. For example, the character at the center of the situation is known for not valuing the women in his life. Or the women in the setting are treated liked second class citizens. But anyone familiar with Black Panther and Wakanda prior to Coates’s run, will tell you how valued women are in the country. They are treated as equals and often superior to their male counterparts. But what Coates does is infect Wakanda with the same ills that plague many African nations. He turns T’Challa into an absent-minded king. T’Challa has often been accused of being absent, but never absent-minded. To suggest that he would allow a rape camp to operate within Wakandan borders flies in the face of everything we know about the character.
The overall story puts T’Challa in a familiar situation. Political unrest with some treachery sprinkled in for good measure. These threats are something he should be able to knock out in an afternoon. But instead, our hero just sits and broods. The first several issues are nothing but him sitting around and brooding about the situation instead of actually fixing it.
Even the cameo appearances from Cage, Storm, Knight, and Manifold amount to nothing because the threat isn’t large enough to require their assistance. There’s even a page where he takes out one of the main antagonist while blindfolded with both hands behind his back. A character who not only rules one of the strongest country’s in comics, but is pretty much in charge of the defense of the entire planet is rendered ineffectual but what most would consider “light work.” Not only that, we see one of the members of the Dora Milaje sentenced to death for doing something that her king would normally do himself without much thought. This schism between the Dora and their king is one of the main focuses of the ongoing arc and it occurred all because she killed an enemy of the state.
T’Challa questioning himself and his motives is nothing new. His ability to be introspective while still remaining in the moment is one of this best qualities of the character. His thoughts of abdicating the throne so his sister can rule while he concentrates on bigger issues isn’t a problem for most Panther fans. He’s dealing with issues that concern the very fabric of existence. So something like running a kingdom is quite trivial to him at this point. He’s only really needed for major military operations. The council has always done most of the day-to-day task. What seems like a common sense decision to the readers bogs down every issue.
Panther fans don’t mind conflict within Wakanda. But Coates takes a man of action and makes him as effective as Congress. Someone who is able to see the flaws in a Stark or Richards design with a quick glance shouldn’t be going to dictators for advice on how to control his people. And he did this just to see what would happen. When he’s not having inner monologues that drag on too long, he’s making moves that make no sense. We still don’t know the full scope of the journey that Coates is trying to take us on, but we’ve seen enough to know it doesn’t fit Black Panther. So far all we have is ten issues of well crafted dialog with nothing to show for it but a headache. With the Black Panther film one year away, Marvel and Coates have some decisions to make.