03 April 2024

Who Is the Black Panther? by Reginald Hudlin, John Romita Jr., Klaus Janson, et al.

While there have been some long gaps between Black Panther runs, that was not true once Christopher Preist's came to an end. Less than two years after Black Panther vol. 3 #62, Marvel debuted a new Black Panther title with Reginald Hudlin as writer. The opening story arc, Who Is the Black Panther?, carefully reintroduced the character and his setting, evidently aimed at a readership who had not previously read any Black Panther comics or only had a vague awareness of the character.

from Black Panther vol. 4 #1
Honestly, it is a bit jarring to read this coming off of Priest's run. While in Priest's run, Wakanda was a major, active force in international geopolitics, here the NSA doesn't even know that Wakanda is anything other than a "primitive" African nation. I get that a bit of a soft reset is often needed when comic titles start over, but it's made particularly jarring here by the fact that the person who delivers all of the exposition about Wakanda is Everett K. Ross, a character introduced by Priest! How can you carry over him but not the fact that Wakanda prominently annexed part of Canada and was involved in an international war with Atlantis and the United States? (Maybe a lot of time has passed? Everett K. Ross seems to be drawn about two decades older here!)

These aren't the only changes Hudlin introduces to the Black Panther mythos. This story retells how Ulysses Klaw killed T'Challa's father, the previous Black Panther, but now instead of it happening in Wakanda when Klaw stumbles in, here it happens at an international summit. (This is clearly the inspiration for T'Chaka's death in Captain America: Civil War.) It also seems that Queen Raimonda was around T'Challa's entire life; as McGregor told it, she would have been back in South Africa for some of the events Hudlin places her at here. T'Challa also suddenly has an uncle we've never seen before, who in fact acted as Black Panther when T'Challa was a child. Where was this guy during, say, all the trouble with Killmonger?

from Black Panther vol. 4 #6
The biggest change is probably the introduction of Shuri, Black Panther's sister. Since I knew the character from the movies, I've long been wondering when and how would she be introduced. Would she have been sent overseas for her own protection and brought back home? Would she be a long-lost half-sister that T'Challa suddenly learned about? Would she suddenly be added to the cast as if she had been there all along? The last one is the approach that Hudlin opts for. In some of the flashbacks this story shows us, Shuri is present at key moments in T'Challa's past, including when T'Challa ascended to the throne.

That said, of course the test of a retcon isn't how much the new continuity is different from the old, but how good the story is being told with it is. We don't get a lot of Shuri here, but what we do get is solid and interesting, as she tries to prove herself in a world that doesn't have a lot of space for her to do so, and I look forward to seeing what Hudlin does with her during the rest of his run. As for the rest of the changes, I am agnostic on them, and I will have to see how they continue to play out.

Okay, that was a lot on the continuity... what of the actual story? Well, it's okay. The first few issues alternate between exposition about Wakanda and the Klaw going around recruiting a team of villains to invaded Wakanda, along with the help of the neighboring country of Niganda. Ultimately, the problem is that the pacing seems off, there's about four issues of recruiting and two issues of invasion, meaning it seems a bit too simple and easy to fend off, and that many aspects of the story seeded in the first four parts ultimately don't really bear fruit. Why do we need to see all this stuff about recruiting the Black Knight when he barely does anything? Why all this stuff about the Radioactive Man's girlfriend when as soon as she gets to Wakanda she dies? (And grossly the male characters' reaction to her death is "at least we got to cop a feel!") Why spend so much time on the American military sending a force of cyborg zombies to "help" when all they do is show up and then T'Challa tells them to leave?

from Black Panther vol. 4 #3
Because of the structure of the story, we don't get a huge sense of Black Panther/T'Challa as a person; like in Priest's run, we mostly see him from the outside, if at all. However, in Priest's run, we often got a sense of his intelligence and canniness this way; that's not true here, where like in McGregor's run, Black Panther is often on the back foot up until he's not. Still, I'm not strongly judging here; this arc clearly had a purpose of introducing the setting and characters to an unfamiliar audience (and tweaking them for a familiar one), and there are thirty-five more issues of this series to come! Ongoing comics can't play too much of a long game, or the pleasures are eternally deferred (e.g., Marc Andreyko's Manhunter), but if we are in for the long run, I will grant you some slack to see how it turns out.

The art for this opening arc is by the famous John Romita Jr., and I think it is actually my first experience of his work.* I can't claim to be a fan of all of his people, especially their blocky noses, but his art has a strong dynamism and power that really carries you from the action on a panel-to-panel basis, so the more action there is, the better it works. The real artistic standout, though, is Dean White on colors. White's vibrant brights and lights, in particular, and strong contrasts really capture the energy and optimism of Wakanda in a world of darkness. I don't know if "JRJR" keeps contributing to this series, and I don't have a strong opinion either way, but I hope Dean White does.

from Black Panther vol. 4 #7
After the opening arc of Black Panther vol. 4 comes a single-issue story, part of the "House of M" crossover. I never read this crossover, but I think it involves an alternate timeline where Magneto rules the world? In this story, Black Panther and Storm rule Africa together, independent of Magneto, but Magneto begins to fear their power and tries to kill T'Challa; meanwhile, T'Challa recruits allies and makes his play. Probably if one read the rest of "House of M" one would care more, but parts of it were decently put together, though it seemed to me we saw more of Magneto and Quicksilver than we did of Black Panther. I did think Trevor Hairsine had some nice detailed pencil work that suited the tone of the story well.

Who Is the Black Panther? originally appeared in issues #1-6 of Black Panther vol. 4 (Apr.-Sept. 2005). The story was written by Reginald Hudlin, penciled by John Romita Jr., inked by Klaus Janson, colored by Dean White, lettered by Chris Eliopoulos (#1-2) and Randy Gentile (#3-6), and edited by Axel Alonso.

"Soul Power in the House of M" originally appeared in issue #7 of Black Panther vol. 4 (Oct. 2005). The story was written by Reginald Hudlin, penciled by Trevor Hairsine, inked by John Dell, colored Dean White, lettered by Randy Gentile, and edited by Axel Alonso.

* Actually, it looks like I have read exactly two DC books where he contributed a small amount of art, Detective Comics vol. 1 #1027 and Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 8 #9 (both 2020), but I have no particular memory of his contributions.


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