Black Panther by Christopher Priest Volume 1 (2015)
Written by Christopher Priest
Art by Mark Texeira, Joe Jusko, and Mike Manley
Prince T’Challa of Wakanda has returned to the United States after news of criminal activity at charities he runs has come to his attention. The inciting incident is the murder of a young girl who was the poster child for the charity. He hasn’t come alone though. By his side is are Zuri, a longtime friend and mighty warrior as well as the Dora Milaje, female representatives from each tribe of Wakanda that serve as T’Challa’s bodyguards (and also potential future wives). They take to the streets seeking out the perpetrators of these crimes, much to the chagrin of their U.S. government liaison Everett K. Ross. T’Challa runs into his adopted brother White Wolf as well as villains Mephisto, Kraven, and eventually the force behind a coup back in Wakanda.
I had always been aware of writer Christopher Priest on my periphery. I had enjoyed his Green Lantern work I found in back issue boxes but never really actively followed him. Last year, when I read the first Rebirth volume of Deathstroke, I found myself really clicking with his quirky, non-linear storytelling style. He’s now the regular writer on Justice League, and I notice he is taking the opportunity to tell a story you don’t necessarily find in that title. I was aware though that he is highly regarded for his seven-year run on Marvel’s Black Panther so, with the film coming out, I thought it would be an excellent opportunity to read through the first of the four collected volumes.
From scene one we are a strange, awkward place. The series chooses to tell its story from the perspective of Everett K. Ross, a liaison from the U.S. State Department. We’re mid-way through the timeline of the first arc, but Priest chooses to slingshot us back and forth as Ross recounts what went down in New York City to his superior. Ross starts by explaining that he found himself standing on the edge of hotel toilet seat trying to shoot a rat that was loose in the bathroom while Zuri was passed out asleep in the other room. Where are T’Challa and his two representatives from the Dora Milaje? On the prowl for the culprit behind the charity crimes but bumping into street-level thugs and taking them out.
The entire series is this chaotic jumble, told through the fast-talking, overconfident and self-deprecating voice of Ross. This is not always a great thing though, and I found myself getting lost a fair amount of the time about when each scene was taking place. Sometimes it is crystal clear and others it becomes painfully muddied. It’s also unclear how the entire conspiracy against T’Challa is orchestrated.
There is a definite villain, Achebe. His exact motivations and origins aren’t too spelled out. Much like The Usual Suspects’ Keyser Soze, we only hear third-hand stories about where he came from. Priest states that he intended Achebe to be an amalgamation of elements from Hannibal Lecter and Hans Gruber, calling him “the Joker to Panther’s Batman.” My problem with that is while, yes he is apparently insane, he never feels genuinely threatening like the modern Joker but goofier like the Silver Age version, though that could be what Priest was going for.
I can’t say I was as blown away by this first volume of Black Panther as I was by his more current Deathstroke work. Some moments felt like they were leading somewhere and they seem to be dropped. However, I enjoyed the slow burn on the relationship between T’Challa and his adopted brother, Hunter (White Fox) and how that story arc wrapped up. In the final issues, Panther’s arch nemesis Erik Killmonger is reintroduced, but the crux of that story seems to be the second volume, not this one. I do plan on reading the next one but do so with hopes that the clarity of the writing and especially the artwork make some vast improvements.