For many, Black Panther is a character that means a lot. The first Black superhero in mainstream comics, he’s a character with a long legacy, and thanks to the MCU and the work of the late Chadwick Boseman the character was discovered by millions of people who would never think to pick up a comic.
The latest Marvel prose novel from Titan Books focuses on the character just in time for the Black Panther: Wakanda Forever to hit cinemas around the world, and tries to retell the story that saw the King of Wakanda face off against his nemesis, Killmonger, for the very first time.
The original story, printed in the series Jungle Action, was first printed in the 1970s, and was written by Don McGregor, who took the King of Wakanda away from New York and the world of superheroes and back to his home nation in Africa. It’s widely considered to be one of the best, and most important early Black Panther stories, and this retelling is helmed by Sheree Renée Thomas, an author, editor and publisher who has worked on many books, including Dark Matter, a collection of stories by some of the best Black writers in sci-fi, fantasy, and horror.
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The story begins with T’Challa, the King of Wakanda, living in New York, having left his home nation in the hands of a trusted adviser whilst he pursues a career as a superhero in America. Whilst in the US he has formed a number of friendships, including one with N’Jadaka, a man whose family were exiled from Wakanda in the past, and Monica Lynne, a singer whom he’d entered a romantic relationship with. When T’Challa receives news that the regent of Wakanda is dead, he sets out to return home, bringing N’Jadaka and Monica with him.
Arriving in Wakanda, T’Challa begins to hear of a figure called Killmonger, a person seemingly worshipped by some members of the community; the same people who call T’Challa a failed king, and demand his removal from the throne. As terrorist attacks begin to take place across the nation, T’Challa must face the very real possibility that Wakanda may be dragged into a civil war, unless he can become the king his nation needs. However, things become more complex when T’Challa comes face to face with Killmonger, and discovers that it’s his friend, N’Jadaka. Not only that, but Killmonger is as strong and fast as T’Challa, has a small army at his command, and is working with a cadre of villains and evil magicians. Can T’Challa find a way to survive against the greatest threat he’s ever faced, or will this be the fall of the Black Panther?
For those that have read the original 13 issue run, this novel will be pretty familiar, as Sheree Renée Thomas recreates a lot of that story here. For those whose only exposure to these characters is the Marvel movies, it may be a bit of a shock seeing the ‘true’ origin of some of these characters; especially as the book brings in a lot of the weirdness of 70’s comics. Unfortunately, the fact that it’s recreating a year long comic run from the early 1970s is perhaps the biggest downside of this book.
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There are several times in the novel where you can really feel the fact that this was originally produced as a monthly comic. There are a lot of action moments, and it’s pretty clear that this is because comics from that time would feel the need to have something big and exciting happen in every issue. And whilst plenty of action itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it does start to become a little repetitive at times; especially when T’Challa is beating up the exact same henchmen time and time again.
The story also feels very bogged down in throwing small challenges at the hero, where he’d have to deal with something in each of the issues. As such, there are henchmen, d-list villains, and more enhanced animals for T’Challa to fight that are reasonable across the length of the book. The sudden inclusion of zombies for a few chapter in the middle perhaps feels the most egregious because it’s so out of place and feels like the biggest departure from the tone and flow of the story.
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It feels like a shame that Sheree Renée Thomas wasn’t allowed to throw out some of these moments in an attempt to streamline things more. Instead, the book feels like it’s tied to the original too much. A re-imagining that takes parts of the story, that makes it work better in this medium, and stays true to the spirit of the original would have worked much better. As it is, it feels like perhaps you’d get more out of tracking down and reading the graphic novel instead. The times where Sheree Renée Thomas does add stuff, such as the inclusion of more modern tech like cell phones, or some of the inner workings of T’Challa’s thoughts, feels like too little of a new thing to really matter, and I couldn’t help but find myself glossing over some of the paragraphs of T’Challa’s inner monologue because I just wanted to get through it as quickly as I could.
Black Panther: Panther’s Rage isn’t a bad book, and if it’s one of your first exposures to the wider history of the character it’s going to be enjoyable enough. But for those familiar with the story it does at times feel like there’s not a huge amount here that you’ve not seen before, and that modernising a story from 50 years ago without changing much of it leads to a bit of a strange experience.
Black Panther: Panther’s Rage is out now from Titan Books.