Book Review

Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet (Book One) by Ta-Nehisi Coates & Brian Stelfreeze

A collection that would be exciting if there was more of it...

Black Panther is a long-running Marvel comic books series, which – in its latest incarnation – is written by Ta-Nehisi Coates, the acclaimed author of Between the World And Me. Tbh, I haven’t read that, however what I also haven’t read – for ages – is a comic book, a graphic novel, and being in a bit of a funk atm, I decided to treat myself to a read of something theoretically fun, but potentially very exciting – a comic book written by a literary writer of the moment. Why not, I thought? Let’s dive in.

I enjoyed Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet (Book One), but I didn’t love it. I really enjoyed its use of African mythology and design, its incorporation of recognisable mythologies and – even as only an occasional reader of comic books – I found there to be something refreshing in its almost 100% non-white cast. However, I felt the whole way through this book – which contains four issues of the comic – constantly on the back foot due to the fact that I’d never read a Black Panther comic book before. And by the end I was nearly there, I nearly understood who was who and what each person signified and stood for… But then, after only four chapters and just when things were getting interesting… the book ends.

Black Panther is the story of an eponymous superhero whose real name is T’Challa. He is the king of Wakanda, a (fictional, obviously) African country that is the most technologically advanced place in the entire world. The character first appeared in 1961 (pre-dating the formation of the Black Panthers by a few years), and was Marvel’s first black superhero. He is super rich, super powerful and has super technology, however – in the four comics collected here – his country is undergoing serious unrest due to the presence of a mysterious woman who is able to bring repressed emotions out wherever she goes. As riots erupt and two of T’Challa’s elite royal guard run away and begin trying to form a more liberal republic on the borders of the country, things are truly starting to kick off and become exciting and then… the book ends.

This book contains the introduction to a story, a story that may well become in its totality an engaging text that raises important issues, but this book contains only the set up. The only reason for publishing this collection – with so few issues in it – is cynicism. When I’ve read book collections of graphic novels before (The Walking DeadPreacher), the writers/publishers seemed to make sure that these collections had some kind of resolution towards the end… The comics themselves followed narrative arcs in such a way to allow the repackaging and sales of the comics as books. This time, however, Marvel have not effectively done that. Coates and Brian Stelfreeze (the artist) have evoked and created a richly imagined world and scenario, but then just as things begin to accelerate, speed up… the books ends.

This format of reading is deeply unsatisfactory – can you imagine reading a novel in thrice-annual instalments over several years? Comic book fans do do it, though, as otherwise the publisher wouldn’t be putting this out. For me, the book was deeply unsatisfactory due to its sudden ending, and it genuinely feels quite false trying to write any kind of response to this book when it so clearly isn’t a finished text. This is 100 pages of – what I imagine – will probably turn out to be a 1,000 page (or longer!) graphic novel, written over the course of a few years. Coates has also been writing spin-offs – including one with Roxanne Gay – so he’s clearly engaging with the character and the world, and though my casual, occasional, interest in comics makes me quite excited about the idea of reading fresh, literary, superhero fare, I just don’t think I can get on board with this format. Four issues of a comic isn’t a book, isn’t a complete narrative, isn’t a whole.

I liked it, reading a fun comic book was a peaceful relief, but just as if I’d read the first bit of a book then put it down just as a I really started to enjoy it, I was unsatisfied. Maybe once it’s published in a full collection with a middle and an end as well as a beginning, I’ll come back. But – for now – reading anything like this is too frustrating…

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