Review by Frank Plowright
With a Black Panther film in production but no Black Panther comics being published, Marvel turned to Ta-Nehisi Coates, an essayist, novelist and journalist with impeccable credentials and credibility. His opening shot occupied twelve chapters of ambitious scope remodelling Wakanda as a technological powerhouse, and providing it with regions, disputes, spiritualism and history. Coates also constantly asks questions, about the validity of an embedded monarchy, about the place of women, about the philosophy of violence and much more. He alights on a form of cultural significance and heads right in with his boots on.
Any good writer, whatever their preferred discipline, ought to be able to adapt to the needs of comics, as it’s just a matter of mastering the individual techniques, but either Coates rejected all editorial guidance or on the basis of his admirable bibliography no-one thought to offer any. Aiming for a more legitimate Black Panther and supporting cast is positive, but the result of all the good intentions is incredibly disappointing. Journalism demands points be concisely made, yet that’s not a skill Coates transfers to A Nation Under Our Feet, where every deed has to be discussed with all and sundry as it’s cemented to a philosophical justification. This is via long-winded captions and dialogue balloons that no-one thought to read out loud before printing. Some are from one character explaining something to another that they already know, but for the reader’s benefit, other balloons are pompous or earnestly trite (see sample pages). Coates gradually brings this under control, but someone should have said something long before.
A long and rambling plot distils to Wakanda not being as equal as it seemed, providing a selection of gripes and resentments ready to be exploited by a manipulative call for revolution and claims that T’Challa, their King, no longer cares for his people. Interesting considerations feature, such as why people turn to extreme organisations as the solution to their grievances, but for so long the Black Panther is just one of an ensemble cast in his own graphic novel. There is a not inconsiderable irony in one of Coates points being the importance of mythology, yet simultaneously sucking the joy from it. It’s also worth pointing out that Coates takes much of his inspiration from the writing of Don McGregor on the Black Panther in the 1970s, who similarly attempted to construct a cohesive society for Wakanda and had grievances lead to revolution.
Brian Stelfreeze and Chris Sprouse are the artists bringing Wakanda to life, with Stelfreeze impressing in combination with colourist Laura Martin for the creation of eye-catching African settings. The brightness of a hot country is emphasised, and while both Stelfreeze and Sprouse design strong pages, but Steelfreeze is more likely to include items of interest beyond the basic storytelling.
Whatever the need for bolstering the Black Panther and his world, an essential aspect of any superhero story is some excitement, yet so much of the conflict is verbal sparring. Much praise has been heaped on A Nation Under Our Feet, but for all the good intentions it’s a crushingly dull read, and if tempted by those good reviews prospective readers are advised to try the paperback Book One to see if it meets expectations before picking up this hardcover.