“So… let’s just get right to it. No hesitating. No holding back. Why save anything for later? I live for this.”
And like that, we’re off in a new era of Black Panther. Academy Award-winning writer John Ridley and artist Juann Cabal’s new series starts off fast paced and rarely relents. Picking up after where the run by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Brian Stelfreeze, and Daniel Acuña left off, Ridley and Cabal find T’Challa bogged down with numerous commitments, some public — like being the current chairperson of the Avengers and a king in a nation that is testing out democracy — and some more private and less savory.
After a brief foray with the Avengers, readers see T’Challa attending a meeting of the new Wakandan Parliament. An echoing of dialogue plays throughout, with letterer Joe Sabino not tethering any of the word balloons to any particular figures in Juann Cabal’s image, helping sell the cacophony of discussions, with Ridley repeating “A commission to study the effects of…” It’s clear through both the dialogue and art that Wakanda’s foray into democracy is not going smoothly. When Akili, leader of Wakanda’s Hatut Zeraze remarks that “Democracy is a process,” T’Challa responds pointedly, “And so is digging a ditch. But debating the action is no substitute for putting shovel to earth.”
The T’Challa of Black Panther #1 feels far more assertive, and perhaps a little headstrong in comparison to the character in Coates’ run. I don’t normally like comparing takes on characters when creative teams change, but it’s a noticeable shift that readers, especially those that began with the preceding volume may find jarring. Part of this is Ridley’s use of captions, or rather a lack thereof. Outside of the opening and final pages, there are no captions that allow the readers inside of T’Challa’s head, creating a bit of mystique. You don’t quite know exactly what T’Challa is thinking in every moment, and that adds to the mystique of an espionage plot. Also involved are a pair of new characters who are immediately charming thanks to the art by Juann Cabal and color artist Federico Blee, who introduce the new faces in a wordless, romantic embrace.
Juann Cabal also provides the few moments of insight into T’Challa’s mood, from the calm yet firm way he leaves the meeting in parliament, to the emotions he goes through when he learns of an attack on one of his agents. In particular there’s a panel where T’Challa clearly zones in emotionally, like an elite boxer ala Terence Crawford or Errol Spence Jr. It’s the face fighters make when they’re ready to go for the kill. Cabal’s artwork brings T’Challa to life as a no-nonsense leader who has a few secrets of his own.
Without spoiling exactly what some of those secrets are, they reflect a seemingly conscious decision by the creators to syncretize the T’Challa of the preceding Coates/Stelfreeze era with some of the characteristics that made the T’Challa of Christopher Priest and Sal Velluto so iconic. The lack of trust T’Challa has for the outside world is on display, with him pointing out, “Dictators don’t pretend to be more than they are. Democracies pretend to be free and fair when they are not. In the course of an election, they can transform from being allies to adversaries.”
That being said, not everything in Black Panther #1 is successful. The dialogue at times feels stilted and sometimes a bit casual for the characters. Being the lead, T’Challa bears the brunt of this, but it also affects characters like Captain America. What the characters say worked for me, but how they said it didn’t always feel in character. There’s also a scene towards the end of the book that feels a bit cliché in its execution, and plays as if Ridley and Cabal are just trying to get through a plot development as quickly as possible. It’s not something that kills the book’s momentum, but it’s a weak moment in an issue that otherwise moves at a steady clip.
Overall, this is an exciting first step in next chapter of T’Challa’s story. While not quite a perfect start, John Ridley and Juann Cabal set a determined pace and center T’Challa as someone who relishes being a hero and king — perhaps a bit too much.
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