When Ta-Nehisi Coates' new Black Panther comics hit shelves last year, they proved to be more of a challenge than a treat. That's no wonder, actually: If you ask a writer who specializes in picking apart the knotty mesh of African-American experience (Coates won the National Book Award for 2015's Between the World and Me) to pen your comic book, you have to expect the result to be somewhat daunting.
The new Black Panther incarnation certainly is that. This second volume of Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet — which takes its title from a Pulitzer Prize-winning book about African-American political history — is just as dense with crisscrossed narratives, tangled motivations and previously established plotlines as the first volume was. Which is appropriate, considering the Panther's place in the history of comics: Created in 1966, he was mainstream comics' first black superhero, an avatar of racial progress. And racial progress has never been simple. (It can be bestselling, though, as Coates demonstrated when Vol. 1 became one of 2016's top comics.)
Coates, who won a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant in 2015, clearly sees his project here as similar to — and overlapping with — his work writing about race in America. "I understand the need, particularly among black fans, to see T'Challa ... restored to a certain place," he told io9's Evan Narcisse last year. "This is like in my bones. I feel a deep responsibility to history."
The inescapability of history is just one of Coates' real-world themes in this book. He's also got a hearty distaste for the rule of one over many — even when the One is the Black Panther, a.k.a. T'Challa, rightful king of the mythical African nation of Wakanda. This volume finds the mysterious prophet Zenzi and the warrior Tetu — leaders of the insurgent group known tellingly as "The People" — still at odds with T'Challa. He's still a slippery, morally ambiguous protagonist, using force to thwart democratic rebellion and seeking advice from a devils' council of counterterrorism experts, even as he frets, Hamlet-like, about his destiny. One of the strongmen sums T'Challa up with surprising acumen:
"Your problem is schizophrenia," he says. "You lack the will to follow your own mores. Return to your true nature, and your country will be as peaceful as any of ours."
What is that nature? The strongman and his fellows believe it's essentially imperial, but T'Challa's true heart actually seems to be both greater and less than that of a monarch. As Zenzi puts it, T'Challa "does not want to be a king. He wants to be a hero." (No wonder he's spent so much time, as one character says, "gallivanting with Avengers" over the years.)
This volume sees the addition of some — but only some — much-needed levity along with equally galvanizing super-team buttkicking. But the problems that marred episodes 1-4 are still in evidence. Coates, a philosopher at the core, too often allows his characters to get lost in their thoughts, and the action on the page sometimes takes a backseat to their run-on rumination — which is a shame, considering the quality of Black Panther's artists. Chris Sprouse, Karl Story and Laura Martin beautifully conjure the Wakandan world. The textures are satiny, the action scenes inventive and the characters richly delineated.
While T'Challa pursues his labyrinthine quest, his sister Shuri is spirit-walking on a plane of Wakandan collective memory. Here she encounters the myths of long-ago Wakanda, and here Coates' storytelling is particularly satisfying: He tells of Ife, enslaved and deprived of her power of flight; Oronde, the boy who raced a cheetah; and Sologon, the queen who led warriors and told her son, "Spirit of iron makes skin of stone."
Coates has a knack for aphorisms. Another one that resonates is the sage Changamire's accusation to the rebels: "You kill what you cannot control, break what you cannot bend." Wise words like these suggest the rebels and T'Challa may eventually find some path to reconciliation. It's hard to see a way, but presumably the author of Between the World and Me can envision one. However violent and conflicted Wakanda's current story, Coates still says "there is no fist wide enough to hide the sky."