Black Panther: Man Without Purpose?

Daredevil - er, Batman - er, Black Panther: Man Without Fear is new this week... and it's getting old fast.

Andy Hunsakerby Andy Hunsaker

Black Panther: Man Without Fear #517

In Shadowland, Hell's Kitchen was dominated by a mystical cult of ninjas.  In Doomwar, Wakanda was assaulted by the Lord of Latveria.  Matt Murdock had to exorcise the demon that had possessed him to break all his rules in order to defeat the Hand.  T'Challa had to eliminate his country's defining natural resource to defeat Dr. Doom.  Both men were left to suffer the scorn and distrust of the people they were duty-bound to protect after their ordeals, and both men had to set about rediscovering who they really were and what they wanted to do with their lives.

Given that set-up, and the fact that T'Challa and Murdock were already friends, there's a certain amount of sense in having Daredevil give up the horns for a while and go on a walkabout, and having T'Challa pull on the Black Panther mask once again to hold down the fort for him in New York and try and see if he could do what so many of his costumed compatriots do and actually be a proper superhero on his own terms.  The trouble is that he's not working on his terms – they're Daredevil's terms.  As such, Black Panther: Man Without Fear might as well be a Daredevil book.  Or a Batman book, for that matter. 

Christopher Priest's definitive run on Black Panther from 1998 to 2003, which built on amazingly detailed work that Don McGregor did in the 70s fleshing out daily life in Wakanda, is one of the books that solidified my love of the medium and brought me into the hobby full time, and he managed to turn T'Challa into Marvel's Batman without sacrificing anything that made him unique and fascinating.  You're going to have comparisons between the two, regardless, as they're basically peak humans with great physical prowess and a wealth of resources who wear black pointy-eared masks, scarred by the deaths of their parents.  In Priest's take, they were also both master strategists who were very secretive and enigmatic, and who had contingency plans for nearly every kind of threat, from street to cosmic levels.  But the similarities ended there, because Bruce Wayne is a playboy billionaire and T'Challa is the king of an African nation.  He was always up to those pointy ears in dense, dark and high-level international intrigue, juggling coup attempts, regional instability, psychotic clerics, beefy economists with blood-hatreds, rival clans in gorilla suits, bitterly divided factions in his own country, his adopted brother leading secret black-ops torture & kill squads, the evil influence of the devil, a deadly-obsessive teenager and potential outbreaks of war – not to mention the occasional time-traveling frog malarkey and the scorn of the Avengers when they found out he'd only ever joined their ranks in the first place to spy on them.

 

Black Panther Vol. 2 #1

 




Black Panther Vol. 2 #1





Black Panther Vol. 3 #1, Christopher Priest & Mark Texeira

 

T'Challa was never really a superhero. He was a head of state, and so much of what he did was always in the interest of Wakandan national security – including joining the Avengers to assess their threat level.  The costume was the ceremonial raiment of the leader of the Black Panther clan, a title he had to defend from anyone who wanted to fight him for it.  This vastly different perspective is what set him apart from just about every other character you can name. 

That's why it's so disappointing to see what Marvel's decided to do with him now – that is, stripping away everything that made him unique and different and forcing him into the generic New York Street Vigilante mold, which is a job currently being done by hundreds of other Marvel characters at any given time.  With street-level stories, former Detective Comics artist Francesco Francavilla handling the look of the book and even a police contact in Detective Kurtz who looks exactly like Jim Gordon, it feels like a run-of-the-mill Batman book, and not much at all like a Black Panther book.

If you accept the questionable premise that T'Challa would abdicate all his responsibilities in Wakanda while the nation lies in ruin in due to his own actions, it's not unthinkable that T'Challa would try to find his place in New York.  He's lived there before – he was even a schoolteacher in Brooklyn for a time.  So it's not that strange that he'd take on a false identity as a diner owner to try to connect with people and understand his new surroundings (although it might've made more sense for him to reclaim his teacher identity as Luke Charles).  It's less clear why he'd dress once more as the Black Panther, since it's a title he's ceded to his sister and not just a costume. 

There are some potentially interesting elements in Black Panther: Man Without Fear, particularly in regards to the culture clash of vigilante methodology.  T'Challa's goal is to "prove himself," which is something he had to do repeatedly to ascend to the Wakandan throne in the first place, as well as in defending that crown and mantle against challengers.  However, guys like Luke Cage and Spider-Man are getting on his case because they think he's losing sight of the fact that getting the job done takes priority over personal issues about doing everything on his own.  There's something to explore there, but the whole 'I work alone, go away, this is my turf' thing is basically Daredevil's schtick.  Maybe the point writer David Liss is trying to make is that this is what Hell's Kitchen does to people, but the way it's being done in this series just makes T'Challa seem stubborn, selfish, prideful and borderline incompetent, none of which he really is.  Okay, maybe he's stubborn, but not the other things.  One might make the argument that he was a king, so he's not used to being second-guessed, but as any writer who took the time to delve into what Wakanda is all about would show you, King T'Challa was being second-guessed all the time, by his aides, his friends, his stepmother and especially his domestic handler Everett K. Ross (whom we all miss terribly).  

The latest issue,  #517, illustrates just how forced this whole experiment seems.  Cage confronts Panther about how "all the bodies are piling up" on his watch while T'Challa is actually in the process of apprehending the serial killer, and rather than explaining anything in a couple of words, they get brusque.  And then, in a ludicrous Three Stooges kind of moment, we get a sneaky child secretly shoving Cage into Panther's back, making T'Challa think Cage is shoving him, and thus, a stupid little fight ensues that undermines everything cool about this story ever – including a callback to the Priest run that would otherwise have made me happy.

 

Black Panther Vol. 3 #1
Black Panther Vol. 3 #1





Black Panther Vol. 3 #1


Black Panther: Man Without Fear #517




Black Panther: Man Without Fear #517


So Liss has obviously read the Priest run, but it still doesn't feel like he's writing that character.  Sure, we have to allow Liss to develop his own take, but there's still a dissonance.  King T'Challa had exiled his adopted half-brother named Hunter, aka the White Wolf, because it was discovered his methodology for running the Hatut Zeraze, a secret police force that was charged with enhancing Wakandan national security, included unconscionable acts of torture.  T'Challa would have none of that, even from his own brother.  Now, the Panther walks away from a criminal with blood all over his fists saying "In the end, he told me what I wanted to know.  Nothing else matters."  That's less a problem with Liss' story and more an issue with the entire superhero genre now that it's all over the headlines that information gained through torture is unreliable.  In comics, however, beating the crap out of a guy until he talks always works.

There's still some time to save this storyline.  Romanian supervillain and aspiring crime boss Vlad Dinu is a fairly interesting character, trying to be a somewhat kinder, gentler sort of kingpin than Fisk and avoid falling into histrionic blood-feuds with superguys only to find himself sucked into one with Panther through some more Daredevil-Meets-Three's Company style misunderstandings.  One would hope the resolution of this experiment would lead T'Challa to the conclusion that street-level vigilantism is not where he belongs, so he can hand the title back to Matt Murdock.  Even if he doesn't return to Wakanda, where his expertise is likely sorely needed, maybe he could go off and live in San Francisco, so he can be near his wife Storm with the X-Men, and form a new chapter of the West Coast Avengers.  That could be fun.

However, we've seen the future, and it is this monstrosity. 

 

American Panther

 

They haven't said anything about this thing yet, but if this is just a local guy (maybe even Kasper Cole) being inspired by the Panther's presence in New York to pick up the slack after he leaves and gets back to tending to his business, it might be tolerable.  If T'Challa, former ruler of the African nation of Wakanda – a nation against whom factions of the United States government have often conspired to find ways to exploit and sometimes even overthrow his rule out of fear or greed – puts on this obnoxious Evel Knievel-looking thing, no amount of saying 'hey, Steve Rogers is like a brother to him' or reading Craig Ferguson's book American On Purpose is going to help this make even a lick of sense.