Marvel’s numerous relaunches over the past few years have grown tiresome. Event comics might have a certain fatigue about them, but what follows can sometimes be even more uninspired. Recently, whilst the newly relaunched Dr Strange impressed me, the previous of the rest of Marvel’s new titles didn’t do much. However, over the past months, two series have been released which manage to do what most debut issues fail to do, one from two masters of the form, and another, which comes from a very surprising place.
Surprises first then with Black Panther, written by National Book Award winner Ta-Nehisi Coates, and drawn by Brian Stelfreeze. Coates’ involvement has been a massive coup for Marvel, and the debut issue of this series has had incredible sales figures. The comic store where I buy these issues told me as I was buying it that they’d had a record number of people buying the issue, most of whom weren’t comic book fans at all. It’s an interesting thing to see, as Coates is a fantastic writer outside of comics. His book, Between the World and Me, and his writing about race and politics for The Atlantic is brilliant and incisive. However, excellent prose writing (and excellent non-fiction writing) does not always equate to excellent comics. Plenty of writers have tried to move into the medium and haven’t understood how to transition their skills. One only has to look at those who have attempted and failed (Dave Eggers, Audrey Niffenegger, Brad Meltzer) to be concerned.
However, Black Panther is not one of those failures. In fact, it’s tremendous. Coates understands, and has a degree of love for the character that seems to be unparalleled. His Black Panther from page one feels like a definitive take on T’Challa. The opening narration describes him as ‘The orphan-king, who defied the blood, who defied his country’ and this attempt to reconcile all of the different facets of T’Challa’s previous history with each other is what forms the backbone of the story. It’s the kind of thing that a less confident writer wouldn’t touch, usually with a debut issue a writer will clear the board and start afresh, but Coates’ refusal to do so, and his focus on bringing together all these disparate strands of Black Panther’s world is what makes the book so successful and so interesting. Coates is asking questions here about what it takes to rule a nation, and he’s looking at historical events such as the Arab Spring as his influences.
T’Challa has always been an interesting character in the Marvel universe, and Coates script only furthers interest in him. He weaves plot threads left over from Jonathan Hickman’s excellent New Avengers run (more specifically from the Infinity event), Avengers Vs X-Men, and even delving further back into the character’s history to bring forward characters like the Dora Milage (a band of warrior women who also serve as a pool for the king to select his queen from – a rather troubling piece of backstory which Coates handles brilliantly).
This is all without even talking about Brian Stelfreeze, and if you can go on for this long without talking about his art then you know you’re on to a good thing. Stelfreeze is one of the best in mainstream comics. His vibrant, Kirby-esque images are striking, and for a debut issue packed with scenes of characters talking to one another, he never lets the action slip. This is clean, beautiful artwork.
Black Panther may well turn out to be the definitive take on this character, at a moment when (with an appearance in the latest Captain America movie, and a solo film on its way) his place in the Marvel universe has never been more important. Coates understands and has a love for the character that elevates this debut issue. This is one of those moments when you realise you’re reading a modern classic.
From a comics newcomer to two long time collaborators. Here comes a new Black Widow series from Daredevil’s Mark Waid and Chris Samnee. The aforementioned DD series was brilliant, managing that tough balancing act of writing done-in-one stories whilst also thrusting a long-form plot forwards, and Black Widow is aiming for exactly the same structure. So we start in media res, with Black Widow leaping out of the window of a SHIELD helicarrier, having stolen something. She’s an enemy of SHIELD, 40,000 feet in the air, with no parachute, and her journey to the ground is the entire issue. It’s that simple. Waid and Samnee have crafted a twenty-two page action sequence, with very little dialogue, barely any movement in plot, but like their Daredevil run (and much like Black Panther), this is not only a brilliant first issue, but a definitive take on the character. So who is Black Widow? As one character says midway through her descent in this issue, “She turns a 40,000 foot fall into a ballet.” That’s all you need to know.
So with very little story, and very little dialogue, what else is there but the art? And what an artist Chris Samnee is. His work on Daredevil is stupendous, but it’s as though with Black Widow he can finally let loose. From the balletic movement of the titular character, to the perfect choreography throughout the issue. The action never lets up, but it’s all in service of the character, and that’s from the writing all the way through to the art.
Samnee and Waid make these kinds of comics look easy, but getting a tone like this right is incredibly tough. These are two master storytellers at the absolute top of their game and let’s hope they stay there for a long time.