December 10, 2011

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Black Panther The Man Without Fear Volume 1

Written by David Liss
Illustrated by Francesco Francovilla and Jefte Palo
Marvel

T'Challa, the once-proud King of Wakanda has made a desperate bid to save his country, that's cost him all he knows.  Matt Murdock, the frequently disgraced Daredevil, has gone so far he might never come back.  Their lives, so similar, intersect again as Murdock asks T'Challa to take over the guardianship of Hell's Kitchen.  Can the former ruler be another Man Without Fear?  Find out in these first issues of a new status quo for the former King.

When I first heard about this one, I was extremely confused.  I don't really follow new Marvel comics these days, reading very behind in the occasional trade.  I am so event fatigued with Marvel in particular that I have only the vaguest notions of which end is up with them.  I guess at some point they took their strongest African America male character, who under Christopher Priest was smarter than just about everyone, and stripped him of all he had.  Yes, I know that's done with white characters, too, but when you have so few black characters and can name the important ones on one hand (Luke, T'Challa, Ororo, Rhodey, and Sam), doing something like that raise red flags for me.

And let's not even get started on poor Matt Murdock, who ended up trying to run the Hand, who once killed the love of his life.  What the hell?

Anyway, although it's hard to get past the poor character decisions that lead up to this point, I found myself really enjoying David Liss's take on T'Challa's situation.  He finds a way to make it halfway believable that all this might happen, and shows that the Black Panther is a smart man who can find a way to overcome his obstacles.  At the same time, the arrogance that sometimes gets him in trouble also shows up here, as he quickly discovers that some of the tricks other vigilantes have managed over the years aren't as easy as they look.  There's chaos in the world of New York, and the sheer depravity of some of its occupants are enough to baffle even the best efforts of a King.

Just ask Wilson Fisk.

I really liked the way this story worked in terms of its structure.  Liss shows T'Challa as feeling like he can do what others cannot, but quickly learning that the world of being a hero in the urban part of the Marvel Universe is far more complicated than he imagines.  At the same time, his antagonist, the Romanian Vlad the Impaler, also intends to avoid the mistakes of his contemporaries, but soon sees that some force (fate, chance, arrogance?) compels him into the same traps that have felled many a villain in the mainstream Marvel Universe.

The plotting is just about perfect in terms of a comic book story arc.  We quickly get the lay of the land, with one page of text explaining all a new reader like me needed to know.  Once that's out of the way, Liss is free to tell his story, specific continuity be damned (Why has marvel wimp-ified Storm?  WHY?  WHY?).  He cleverly points out that so much has changed, with T'Challa the outsider and Spider-Man the Avenger designated to ensure that he doesn't get out of line.  There are elements set up at the beginning that pay dividends by the end of the story, with two plotlines working separately then together to provide a big, jolting climax.  We even get a set up that furthers the Black Panther as classic urban vigilante, as a former foe of Spider-Man is called in at the end to set up the next arc.  In between, Liss provides clever dialog, the right balance between action and build-up, and characters who work logically within their world.

In some ways, this is a classic noir story with technology that's above the usual ken of a detective tale.  A man looks for redemption among the downtrodden, and finds it harder than he expects.  Francavilla's artwork reinforces that idea, with everything dark and shadowy.  He reminds me very much of Sean Phillips, though the detailing isn't quite there.  I needed to re-read some sections to get a full idea of what was going on, which is not my preference, as it slows down the story.  Still, the basic concept fit the text, which I guess is better than the alternative.  My biggest complaint is that while Liss tries hard to make this a story about T'Challa, I feel like this could be any hero, with just a few tweaks.  That's not his fault, that's just bad Marvel editorializing to water down the character in that way.  It's good stuff, but it's not my T'Challa.  Just like how Brubaker's Cap were great comics, but not my Steve Rogers.

Naturally, because this is something I like, it's not going to continue.  From what I understand, the series was recently cancelled.  However, if you like noir stories and are okay with more superpower than usual in such a tale, pick up this and give it a try.  I think you'll like it.  Just leave your vast years of experience in the Marvel Universe at the door, if you're not keeping current.  Otherwise, you might get a headache.