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BOOK REVIEW: Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, Vol. 1 by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet Vol. 1 (Black Panther (2016-))Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet Vol. 1 (Black Panther by Ta-Nehisi Coates
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book contains the first arc of a three arc story written by Ta-Nehisi Coates, a 2015 National Book Award winner. The volume contains “Black Panther” (2016), #1-4, and—as a bonus—“Fantastic Four” (1961) #52, which is the edition in which the Black Panther was introduced.

The premise is that Wakanda is on the brink of coming apart at the seams, and there are nefarious forces afoot trying to spur a revolution. A mysterious woman, Zenzi, uses mind control unleash people’s rage. This results in an episode of violence that is the inciting incident for the story. But Zenzi isn’t working alone; she has a powerful ally named Tetu, who can control elements of nature.

Some background maybe useful for those unfamiliar with this character and / or who haven’t seen “Captain America: Civil War”–the movie in which Black Panther / T’Challa was introduced to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU.) First, Wakanda is a fictional African nation. It’s quintessentially African with respect to culture, but it’s the most technologically advanced nation in the world. It achieved this first-world modernity and wealthy in large part because it possesses most of the world’s vibranium—a much desired, but fictional, metal. Vibranium can absorb huge amounts of energy and only become stronger. The metal is most famously known for being the material from which Captain America’s shield was made, but it crops up in Marvel stories quite frequently.

Second, the superhero Black Panther is the protector of Wakanda (though in some books—not this one—he does get drawn into global affairs) and is the alter ego of the Wakandan king, T’Challa. This duality is particularly relevant in this story line. On the one hand, the Black Panther must battle Zenzi and Tetu who are working together to bring the nation down. On the other hand, as King, T’Challa is forced to recognize his responsibility for the health of the nation, and he must be a good leader and not just a good fighter. There are the makings of an inner battle that must be fought concurrently with the battle against the enemies of the state. At the end of Volume #4, T’Challa is forced to face this through the words of a trusted maternal advisor.

In addition to the main plot in which the hero fights to keep the nation from collapsing, there are a couple of subplots. One involves an ex-member of the royal guard (i.e. the all-female Dora Milaje) using stolen technology to rescue her lover, another ex-member of Dora Milaje who was sentenced to death for killing a corrupt tribal leader. The two go on a spree of rescuing Wakandans. Another subplot involves T-Challa’s sister being trapped in a limbo between life and death called the Djalia—the plane of memory.

A word on the “Fantastic Four” comic book included: In it, T’Challa woos Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic) into bringing the Four to Wakana by way of the gift of a flying car—a technology that seemed only slightly more feasible in 1961 than it does today. (Yes, I wrote that the way I meant it. In those days anything seemed possible. But after decades without a household jet-pack, we’ve become a more technologically pessimistic people… or is it just me?) Once in Wakana, the Black Panther battles the Fantastic Four, using not only his athletic prowess but also a series of technologies tailor-made against their powers. This makes it seem like the Black Panther was introduced as a villain, but he’s hunting them for the challenge rather than out of ill-will.

As would be expected from an award-winning author, this arc is well-written and sets up a fascinating story. As this is a comic book, I should also talk about the artwork, which was done by Brian Stelfreeze. However, I don’t know what to say beyond that I liked it well enough. I’m not particularly competent to speak on the subject–other than to say that it was generally easy to tell what was going on in the frames, and the action seemed to be well conveyed. I can’t speak at all to coloring as I read the Kindle edition in black & white (Not that I’d have anything interesting to say on the subject.)

I’d recommend this comic. There’s plenty of butt-kicking, but there’s also a thought-provoking tale of political intrigue.

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