The story in Black Panther isn’t working.
If you are enjoying this story, if it’s working for you, I encourage you to leave this review and keep enjoying it. To discuss why I think the story isn’t working requires talking about issue six in full, so SPOILERS from here on out.
Black Panther #6 opens where the last issue left off, with T’Challa diving into combat against the Hatut Zeraze. The artwork by Stefano Landini and Matt Milla explodes off the page, one of the true strong points of the issue is how dynamic the action feels. Unfortunately, cool action can’t overcome significant story problems.
At one point, T’Challa grabs a soldier and asks, “Does Akili think I’m stupid enough to let you outflank me?”
The soldier then replies, “Nah. Akili knew you’d know we’d try to outflank you. But we’re just a distraction. They’re the ones you have to worry about.”
Over the hill, a horde of Hatut Zeraze soldiers come, screaming “Death to the king.” It’s a moment of humor that could work if it didn’t feel so incredibly obvious. Here is T’Challa, a character that’s long-established as a strategic and tactical genius, falling for the oldest trick in the book. The soldier should have just said, “yes.”
That’s part of the problem here. It’s been long-brewing throughout this story, but it becomes apparent in Black Panther #6 that the characters in Black Panther are stupid. Akili knows every move in T’Challa’s playbook but doesn’t have enough surveillance or contingencies in place when Storm comes flying through? Storm arrives and she and T’Challa go through a conversation about their personal relationship, meanwhile, the nation that they both ran is being overtaken by a coup? What are they doing?! Shuri is smart enough to have a secret lab off the grid and have placed a tracker in T’Challa’s food but doesn’t anticipate that Akili might have shut off communications?
Logical holes can be forgiven if the emotional stakes of the story land, but that’s also an issue here. It’s unclear what Ridley wants T’Challa’s arc to be. It seems to be that T’Challa needs to learn to trust people, but he’s also heartbroken over the loss of his friend Jhai. So he did trust someone but doesn’t have anyone else to lean on, now that they’re gone. That could work, except readers know nothing about Jhai or his friendship with T’Challa, so the emotional stakes aren’t well developed.
Furthermore, the past 50 issues of Black Panther written by Ta-Nehisi Coates saw T’Challa turn the government into a democracy and trust a group of strangers from a different galaxy to get him back home, and then called upon basically every Black superhero in the Marvel Universe to help defend Wakanda. In short, the arc T’Challa’s going through here doesn’t make sense with what the character just experienced immediately prior to these six issues.
This confusion also extends to the supporting cast, especially when it comes to Akili. It’s very unclear what the villain of this arc wants other than to run Wakanda, but why? Akili is a relatively new character, having been introduced in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ run on the book, but the organization he leads isn’t new. Its previous leader, Hunter, the adopted brother of T’Challa also had a history with coup attempts. The text of Black Panther hasn’t even mentioned Hunter, which is odd considering T’Challa and Shuri definitely knew him and Akili almost certainly did. To make matters more confusing, Hunter appears in Captain America: Symbol of Truth where it’s seemingly implied he might have something to do with the plot here. But because he has yet to be mentioned in Black Panther, there’s increasingly little room to bring him into the story or develop Akili’s motivations without being unsatisfying, both in terms of plot and emotion. As strong as the action is at the front end of the issue, I would sacrifice all of it for some clarity, especially since Landini and Milla do a good job on the quieter moments in the issue as well.
Superhero comics are also meant to serve as a sort of wish-fulfillment/power-fantasy, so sometimes a book can abandon logic and emotional stakes if it delivers on the cool. But that’s not really happening here either. T’Challa’s scientific genius seems to have been abandoned entirely, his strategic genius is gone, some of his heart-shaped-herb powers (enhanced strength, speed, agility) appear to be intact, but others (namely his enhanced senses) seem to be gone, and none of the other characters are given enough time to shine either, so the book is failing in that regard as well.
In short, Black Panther has grown into an increasingly frustrating read. There have been some interesting ideas, but the execution — whether in the characters and their dialogue, or in the pacing, or the stakes of the story — is lacking. I hope that future issues can turn it around, and I have to eat crow when the arc is said and done.
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