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Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new Black Panther comic provides a debut fit for a king

The cover to Black Panther # 1 by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Brian Stelfreeze. (Courtesy of Marvel 2016)

THIS IS a moment to celebrate. It’s finally time to read and rejoice.

Today, the Black Panther, the most important black superhero ever, returns in his own solo comic-book series. Also today, author Ta-Nehisi Coates, one of America’s great young, black minds, writes his debut issue for the Marvel character, as illustrated by veteran black artist Brian Stelfreeze.

Coates’s 11-part storyline, titled “A Nation Under Our Feet,” kicks off to coincide with the Black Panther’s forthcoming big-screen appearance. As portrayed by Chadwick Boseman, the Wakandan superhero will be slashing Vibranium metal claws at Cap’s shield next month in Marvel Studios’s “Captain America: Civil War.” And the launch of the comic is especially important because some of those moviegoers will surely feel compelled to turn to their first Black Panther book.

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And Coates, the recent MacArthur “genius” grant recipient and National Book Award winner (“Between the World and Me”), proves to be an inspired pick for this authorial mission. The Atlantic correspondent could have used his first Black Panther issue primarily to spotlight the king of Wakanda’s seeming invincibility and superior intellect. Coates could have decided to channel only the black pride embodied by this character, who is particularly important to so many comic-book fans of color.

Instead, Coates — aided by the beautiful African vibes of Stelfreeze’s artistry — gives us a hero in deep conflict. Wakanda — the fictional technological haven that the Black Panther calls home — is in turmoil. And not everyone there believes that the Black Panther is worthy of his throne.

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Atypically, the people of Wakanda are defying their king. Amid an uprising, citizens see an opportunity to take down the Black Panther and claim the kingdom as their prize.

Wakanda has so often been presented as an African paradise. But now Coates raises the question: Do the Wakandan people want a monarchy? And if so, is T’Challa (Black Panther’s open identity as a civilian) their ruler of choice?

Coates’s Black Panther just might have a civil war on his motherland.

This is a Black Panther who is frustrated and sometimes confused. He is quick to promise lethal retribution against those who seek Wakanda’s downfall. And in these dire narrative moments, Coates leans on the Black Panther’s supporting cast. In this first issue, T’Challa’s step mother, Ramonda, reminds him that a king cannot always be a soldier, and that a sword’s strike is nothing without strategy.

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In most of his panels, the Black Panther’s crown lies heavy because of Wakanda’s problems. So much so that Ramonda fears T’Challa might be overlooking homeland tragedies, which could be more interconnected than he realizes. Even members of the famed Dora Milaje — the Black Panther’s elite female warriors and bodyguards — are questioning their faith in Damisa-Sarki (Wakandan for “the panther”) as they try to determine where they belong in this changing land. That proves to be interesting side story to the king’s fighting to honor his throne.

The last page of Black Panther No. 1 reflects a clear sense of T’Challa’s desperation. There are no spoilers here, but we can say that he seems to be in uncharted territory, as he looks beyond the depths of heroism and seeks other methods to stop Wakanda’s bleeding.

The Black Panther’s path promises to be a shadowy one if he is to win the war headed his way.

Yet in at least one way, the Black Panther has already won. This beloved hero is back in his own series, and in the most promising of creative hands.

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