Klaw Stands Supreme, Part 2 (Black Panther #167 Comic Review)

Black Panther 167_cover

Klaw stands revealed! But to find his old foe, T’Challa requires the assistance of another super-villain:  Dr. Eliot Franklin AKA Thunderball!  And while Thunderball tracks down Klaw, T’Challa and Shuri journey into the spirit realm of the Djalia to find out how to defeat Sefako and the monsters of Wakandan myth once and for all…

BLACK PANTHER # 167
Writer:  Ta-Nehisi Coates
Artist:  Leonard Kirk
Inkers:  Marc Deering
Colorist:  Laura Martin with Matt Milla
Cover Artist:  Brian Stelfreeze & Laura Martin
Publisher:  Marvel Comics

What You Need to Know:

The Orisha—the elder gods of Wakanda—have abandoned Wakanda and no one knows where they went.  Mystic portals appear to unleash ancient monsters from Wakandan myth upon the land.  Ras the Exhorter beseeches the Wakandans to worship Sefako, who will replace the Orisha.  Black Panther and his sister Shuri defeated some of the monsters, but discover that a machine has artificially recreated the monsters…using sonic energy transformed into solid form.

Asira (formerly known as Queen Divine Justice) and the Midnight Angels have been taken captive by Ras, Zenzi, Ezekiel Stane, Sasha Hammer, Doctor Faustus and Black Panther’s oldest foe, Ulysses Klaw.  Black Panther now has to track down Klaw, rescue Asira and the Midnight Angels and beat back the monsters of ancient myth.  And for that, he’s going to need allies.

What You’ll Find Out:

Manifold teleports with Shuri to Ryker’s Island in America.  Dr. Eliot Franklin AKA Thunderball has gone back to committing crime and is now being incarcerated inside The Cellar, the wing of the prison built to contain criminals with super-powers.  T’Challa AKA Black Panther has made arrangements to have Franklin remanded into Shuri and Manifold’s custody because they need his help.  However, Shuri is curious why Franklin didn’t follow T’Challa’s orders to give up villainy, pay penance for his crimes and wait for further instructions from T’Challa.

Bowing his head, Franklin tells her that he thought he’d gotten out of a life of crime, but she’d be surprised how easy it is to fall right back into it.  Shuri then launches into a 3 page (!) lecture to Franklin.  She isn’t surprised and recounts how she led Wakanda into war intending to burn Atlantis down to ashes and “made gardening of the ashes.”  This includes 7 panels (!) of longwinded diatribe to Franklin about how wearing the costume and name of Thunderball doesn’t make him free, but makes him a slave which he doesn’t yet understand.  She interrupts his stuttered thanks to say “do not thank me; the gratitude of slaves is noxious to me” and warn him that if he falls back into crime again “we will make you into gardening.

While the flowery language Coates has Shuri use leads to a poetic analogy, the whole sequence, unfortunately, feels forced and overwrought because it’s so wordy.  The same information could’ve been conveyed in 1 or 2 pages instead of 3 and it kills momentum in the narrative flow.

Manifold teleports Shuri and Franklin to Wakanda.  We now get a full page of exposition from T’Challa recounting to Franklin how Reverbium (an artificial copy of Vibranium) was created way back in Amazing Spider-Man #648.  As this story was already retold in a previous issue, I’m puzzled why Coates felt he had to retell that backstory twice in the same arc when 2 or 3 panels of recap (instead of 6) would’ve sufficed.

This is followed by 6 more panels of recap about what has happened thus far in the story. And that is followed by 7 panels of Franklin asking why Panther needs his help since he himself is a scientist so Panther answers him by explaining why Franklin’s qualified to handle science, but Panther is required to be king.  Then he asks Franklin if he knows the first rule of being a king, Franklin says no…and honestly, Panther’s answer is neither enlightening nor interesting.  (FYI—the answer is “delegate” and Coates spreads that out over 4 panels when it all could’ve been done in 1 or 2.)

During those 4 panels, Coates has Kirk illustrate T’Challa and Shuri getting into suits of armor (?) so that Manifold can teleport them to The Djalia.  This is confusing for several reasons.  As we’ve seen in past issues, Shuri didn’t physically teleport her body to the astral plane of the Djalia; her mind or spirit traveled there while her body lay in a coma.  She also did this without help from Manifold’s teleportation powers which do not include telepathy or astral projection. When T’Challa and Shuri go to the Djalia, T’Challa’s Panther mask was on but has disappeared when he appears in the Djalia.  Put a pin in that discrepancy for a few minutes.

We now get 4 panels of Shuri and T’Challa discussing how neither of them trusts Franklin.  But “trust is not the basis of our bargain” and “that is what I am counting on.”  This includes Coates having T’Challa spout 4 sentences on how not everyone was raised with “grand possibility,” they offer such “unfortunates” “a glimmer of some unshackled world, a path untrammeled” and that “we are what they could have been, what they might still be” and that’s temptation, too, etc.

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T’Challa then insists on details about the Djalia.  We get yet another panel of exposition from Shuri on what the Djalia is.  As Coates has written entire issues of Black Panther focusing on Shuri and her journey through the Djalia learning all about it, there’s no reason to have her explain what it is again.

Shuri’s spirit guide (referred to here as “Mother”) now appears to ask T’Challa why he is there. Coates spends 11 panels (!) of Mother, Shuri and T’Challa going back-and-forth about how he’s a scientist, a hero, a seeker, she needs to stop toying with him, she already knows why he is there, blah, blah, blah.  For 2 pages, the story drags along pointlessly telling us nothing about all 3 characters that we don’t already know.

Mother then tells them the history of the ancient monsters they’ve been fighting. Referring to those creatures as “The Originators,” she tells them that Wakanda’s people arrived in Wakanda as pilgrims with good intentions, but eventually, the pilgrims went to war with the Originators.  At first, the pilgrims to Wakanda lost the initial battle.

Here a crucial story point gets murky partially due to Coates’ tendency toward poetic purple prose.  Mother says heroes rose among the pilgrims “and on faith, heroes ascended to gods.

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The explanation provided (which Black Panther and Shuri do not question nor ask for clarification) makes no sense.  Is Coates saying the gods of Wakanda, the Orisha, were just ordinary human settlers of Wakanda that were transformed into immortal beings with supernatural power because they had faith?  No cosmic rays, no gamma rays, no radioactive spiders, no magic spells—just faith?  This may justifiably qualify as the weakest and most paper-thin origin for super-powers ever written.

Now that Wakanda’s pilgrim heroes have oddly become gods by simply having faith, they defeat the Originators, use their newfound faith-based superpowers to conjure magic gateways, banish the Originators to Nether-Realms and then decide to spend all eternity standing there guarding the gateways.  These omnipotent beings who became gods just through the power of belief are the cheapest security guards of all time.

It all ends with 2 pages of Mother, Shuri and T’Challa reflecting philosophically on how no great nations can be built without oppressing innocent people, “every man is the hero of his own story,” he’s a king so his burden is to act, the past cannot be undone, there will be no reparations, yadda yadda yadda.  It ends with her telling them the war is back on and they have to seal the gates. Which we already knew.

Shuri and T’Challa wake up in their suits of armor with T’Challa’s mask gone and then put back on and Manifold nowhere in sight.

What Just Happened?

We got page after page of exposition and very little actual story.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is unquestionably one of the most talented, gifted and brilliant writers of our generation.  The problem is, he isn’t a comic book writer and his learning curve has had many ups and downs.  But this issue was a big step backward.

Let’s start with Manifold and Shuri’s mission to retrieve Thunderball from The Cellar.  Did Coates have Shuri make excellent points about power without discipline leading a person to become a slave to the consequences of their own actions?  Yes.  The trouble is, those points would be far better-suited to one of Coates’ non-fiction books rather than a superhero comic book.  There are storytelling techniques and narrative methods for working philosophical debates and ethical analysis into superhero comics, but the way Coates has done it here is counterproductive and ineffective.

A perfect example of this is Coates having Shuri make an awkward analogy about burning Atlantis to ashes during the war she declared on them as queen of Wakanda and the ashes made for gardening.  I’m not a botanist, but my experience with gardening in the Midwest always used manure for fertilizing gardens, not ashes.  Ending that scene with Shuri threatening to turn Thunderball into gardening was unfunny and landed with a thud.

Coates then gives readers recounts and recaps of old comic book stories explaining the history of Reverbium and how it connects to Klaw which he already did to far stronger effect in previous issues of Black Panther.  Coates is an intelligent man and a great writer whom I admire and respect, but for the life of me, I can’t understand why he wrote those pages.  All of them were pointless repeats that detract from the story instead of enhancing it.

Then there is Shuri and T’Challa’s first conversation in the Djalia discussing Thunderball’s mistakes in life; how they were more fortunate than him and he might’ve been a different and better person who could’ve followed in their footsteps if he’d gotten the chance.

Those are lofty words and there is some compassion mixed in with T’Challa’s trademark arrogance.  The problem is it stalled the story as Coates has yet another character launch into high-minded rhetoric right when what readers need is for the story to keep moving forward instead of stopping for multiple panels of speechifying on philosophy, ethics, and reflection on human behavior.  All that dialogue is very well-written, but regrettably, it would be far better suited to Coates’ writing outside comics.

A little bit of that (a panel or 2 here and there in each issue) goes a very long way in a comic book.  But spending page after page on that kills the momentum of the plot.  When Coates does this, he’s having the characters tell us what the story is about instead of showing us.  Comics are a visual medium and erudite speeches should be lightly sprinkled throughout the book instead of eating up entire pages.

That brings us to the head-scratching secret origin for The Orisha.  Is Coates telling readers that the elder gods of Wakanda were just ordinary human beings who became gods because they believed in themselves?  Or was it because their people believed in them?  That might be a nice metaphor—saying we become empowered because either people believe in us or because we believe in ourselves—but in terms of plausible suspension of disbelief, it is hogwash.

Maybe this is Coates hiding part of the story and we’ll find out more about later issues.  But even giving him that benefit of the doubt, the explanation provided by Mother sounds even dumber when Coates has neither T’Challa nor Shuri ask logical questions about the absurdity they’ve just been told.

The basic plot underlying this script is mythic and has the potential to be epic.  But Coates keeps forcing heavy-handed dialogue and wordy descriptions out of the mouths of his cast coupled with the baffling tendency to repeat exposition from prior issues over and over.  These techniques and tropes pad the story and drag things out which hurts the grand scope and tone of myth and legend that Coates attempts to achieve with his Black Panther run.  The exposition needs to be cut back as much as possible. Brevity is missing.  Many of his analogies and metaphors are wooden and overused.  They would have a much more emotional impact if they were used infrequently instead of constantly.

Leonard Kirk, Marc Deering, Laura Martin and Matt Milla, though, stepped up their game in this issue.  We get multiple pages of tight pencils, slick inking, and rich coloring.  The characters look terrific and some of the visual storytelling would have had a greater impact with fewer word balloons and captions.  The art really carried this book over the finish line and elevated Coates’ script at its weakest moments.

Rating:  7 / 10

Final Thought: This issue of Black Panther was awash in needless exposition, excessive recaps, strained metaphors, and cumbersome analogies stretched too thin.  Ta-Nehisi Coates has brought a strong, authentic and persuasive voice to all of his characters.  But his tendency to overuse lyrical language and have his cast wax philosophical for pages on-end robs his scripts of raw power and kills the momentum.  Instead of elevating his superhero story, it feels like padding.

The underlying plot is compelling. It’s his exposition and dialogue that’s hurting his well-intentioned epic.  That’s what makes this issue just your average, dull and run-of-the-mill comic book.  It’s saved, though, by the sharp, polished artwork from Kirk, Deering, Martin, and Milla.

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