As a post-Legacy intro issue, 'Black Panther' #166 is surprisingly impenetrable

As a post-Legacy intro issue, ‘Black Panther’ #166 is surprisingly impenetrable

By Don Alsafi. T’challa, Marvel’s Black Panther, has always had a hard time getting a foothold with readers. The character was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1966’s Fantastic Four #52 but, despite a couple of notable attempts, mostly languished in obscurity for the next three decades. His 1998 ongoing series, helmed by Christopher Priest, was the longest run a Black Panther title ever had. And yet, despite the consistently high reviews, that comic hovered on the verge of cancellation for pretty much its entire five-year run.

However, when Marvel launched its newest Black Panther comic in 2016, there were already signs that the comics world it was coming back to was one perhaps more receptive to the title. The character featured prominently in Captain America: Civil War, and – despite being one hero amongst many on the silver screen – captured the attention of moviegoers everywhere. At the same time, a growing contingent of sci-fi and fantasy fans have given voice to their desires to see stories which feature more than just the usual default of white male protagonists, and the massive sales which the comic’s launch initially pulled in were shockingly impressive.

A year and a half later, Black Panther‘s numbers have tumbled, and far more steeply than the usual standard attrition which affects most monthly titles. Fortunately, this past month’s Marvel Legacy relaunch is the perfect opportunity for the creative team to attract new readers who might not have picked up the book when it first premiered. Let’s see how they do…

Black Panther #166Black Panther #166

Written by Ta-Nehesi Coates.

Art by Leonard Kirk and Marc Deering.

Colors by Laura Martin.

Letters by VC’s Joe Sabino.

Marvel Primer Pages by Robbie Thompson, Wilfredo Torres & Dan Brown.

Timely writer, classic artist. The current Black Panther title is written by Ta-Nehisi Coates, a multiple award-winning author and journalist who has garnered significant acclaim for his books and articles of political and social commentary, with a particular focus on the lives and struggles of African-Americans. Given the dichotomy between T’challa’s role as powerful king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, and his occasional association with the American – and usually all-white – super-team The Avengers, Coates certainly felt like a bold choice to helm the hero’s new title, and one who could foreground the issues of politics and culture inherent in the character.

The artists on the current run have been Brian Stelfreeze and Chris Sprouse, but here they step aside and let Leonard Kirk take the reins. Kirk is a long-time comic book artist with a strong sense of storytelling and classic superhero design, and thus could be seen as a fitting choice to illustrate the issues kicking off the new Marvel Legacy era, considering its “iconic heroes, classic stories” focus. Part of the story in these pages is a recurring flashback, clearly indicated by colorist Laura Martin’s use of a deliberately washed-out color palette. The present-day scenes, however, are slightly hampered by the constant overuse of garish red, standing in as it does for the visual representation of the villain’s sonic-based power.

Interior panels from 'Black Panther' #166. Art by Leonard Kirk, Marc Deering, Laura Martin, and Joe Sabino/Marvel Comics

Interior panels from ‘Black Panther’ #166. Art by Leonard Kirk, Marc Deering, Laura Martin, and Joe Sabino/Marvel Comics

The Master of Sound blathers on and on. Surprisingly, the issue is an unusual combination of flashbacks and current events in the ongoing narrative, both told from the perspective of the villainous Klaw, the only text on the pages being his narrative captions. We learn of his sister, who at a young age was sentenced to a mental asylum and subjected to a damaging lobotomy, while also witnessing Klaw launch attacks on both an A.I.M. research facility and a rebellion in Wakanda’s nation enemy of Azania.

Unfortunately, all of this occurs underneath Klaw’s ongoing and hopelessly meandering monologue. It occasionally comments on the scenes in question, but more often the reader is treated to unfocused musings on such typically megalomaniacal subjects, as what it means to be “a god” and how he can contain such power (yawn). Not only are such villainous rantings the height of cliché, but this monologue serving as the only spoken text in the issue means that the visuals underneath mostly have to work as a silent comic, with the reader having to piece together context and meaning as best they can. For those who have been reading Black Panther since the beginning, this may not be a stumbling block. On the other hand, if you’re picking it up for the first time? You’re bound to be pretty lost.

With such an unusual story format, the editorial team might have made the tale within more comprehensible by a canny use of the recap page found at the beginning of the book: Give some background on Klaw, touch on who the Black Panther is and perhaps the tense political situation as it stands, and leave it at that. Regrettably, the four-paragraph summation of the story to date replicates many of the same sins found in Secret Empire #1, throwing out a whole slew of names and developments and background which then never actually come into play in the comic itself.

Interior panels from 'Black Panther' #166. Art by Leonard Kirk, Marc Deering, Laura Martin, and Joe Sabino/Marvel Comics

Interior page from ‘Black Panther’ #166. Art by Leonard Kirk, Marc Deering, Laura Martin, and Joe Sabino/Marvel Comics

Relaunch? What relaunch? The other trait which Black Panther #166 shares with Secret Empire #1 is an astonishing lack of interest in courting the attention of anyone who hasn’t already been reading the ongoing story. It’s clear that this is a one-page villain spotlight before the larger plot kicks back into gear, and great comics have certainly made use of this approach over the decades. The problem is that this is the first issue under the Marvel Legacy banner, and thus is completely unsuited to the relaunch’s intended purpose.

As mentioned above, Black Panther started out with astonishing sales numbers, but have since fallen alarmingly. (It’s currently placing behind Aquaman and Cable, to give you a rough idea of the book’s current standing.) Marvel Legacy could have been the perfect time to pull back and offer an action-packed recap of the status quo, furthering the plot for existing readers while welcoming a potential new audience looking to sample it for the first time.

This isn’t a revolutionary idea; even TV shows which tell a long-running story are canny enough to make every season premiere far more accessible to those hopefully tuning in for the first time. (In fact, last week’s Mighty Thor #700 was a thrilling example of what can be done with this approach.) But if Coates got the memo about Marvel Legacy being a jumping-on point for new readers, he seemingly chose to ignore it.

Oh yeah – and the title character? Appears exactly once, in a mob fight scene on the last page.

Interior panels from 'Black Panther' #166. Art by Leonard Kirk, Marc Deering, Laura Martin, and Joe Sabino/Marvel Comics

Interior panels from ‘Black Panther’ #166. Art by Leonard Kirk, Marc Deering, Laura Martin, and Joe Sabino/Marvel Comics

Not the place to start. Black Panther may be a great comic, if the acclaimed reviews from its first year are anything to go by. Although this was a perfect opportunity to grab new readers, this issue is a terrible introduction to either the character (who isn’t really in it) or the book. If you’re wanting to check out this title, in fact, you’re probably better off picking up the first volume of the collected edition and starting there – because if you get your first taste with this issue, it’s unlikely you’ll be back for more.

4.5 out of 10

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