Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet Vol. 1
Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet Vol. 1 (collects Black Panther #1-4  and Fantastic Four #52 )
Credits: Ta-Nehisi Coates (writer), Brian Stelfreeze (artist), Laura Martin (color artist), VC's Joe Sabino (letterer)
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Release Date: August 31st, 2016
The newest Black Panther series premiered at an opportune time (and I'm sure it was planned this way): one month before the incredibly successful Captain America: Civil War film introduced him to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and by extension, an entire audience of non-comic readers. T'Challa, King of Wakanda, is once again sitting on the throne of the most technologically advanced nation in the world. Several calamities have been visited on the country in recent history, including flooding by Namor, a coup by Dr. Doom, and an invasion by Thanos, culminating in the death of T'Challa's sister Shuri, who at the time was acting as Queen during T'Challa's absence.
Now T'Challa has to face the unenviable task of donning the mantle of royalty and reunite and inspire a scared, restless, and angry people. A Nation Under Our Feet is not a comic book in the traditional sense. Sure, there's futuristic technology, impractical outfits, and costumed crime-fighters righting wrongs, but Black Panther encompasses a spiritual and political story that reflects a lot of what we're seeing in the modern world. Author Ta-Nehisi Coates, an African-American writer and journalist, approaches his first comic book from a completely different angle than what most comic readers would expect, and it's a refreshing take in a world constantly barraged by manic crossover events and superhero soap operas.
Coates gives us a story from three sides. First, there's T'Challa's personal quest to reunite his people and stop the bloodshed running rampant in the injured country. Alongside his advisors and step-mother Ramonda, he mus stop the terrorist group "The People" from inflicting more damage on an already ravaged nation. In the first issue, a "The People" member named Zenzi, called the "The Revealer," is able to magically overwhelm people's minds with their emotions. On T'Challa's goodwill visit to The Mound, where Wakanda's precious vibranium metal is mined, the Revealer turns the workers against him by brainwashing them with their own rage. "The People" represents the second side of this story, and we learn that Zenzi is working with the shaman Tetu, who can control vegetation to deadly effect. Tetu leads "The People" in order to tear down the monarchy and bring Wakanda back to the people. The comic paints them as misguided and dangerous, and willing to do whatever it takes to achieve their ends, but they are not unsympathetic. On the third front, the comic introduces Aneka and Ayo, the "Midnight Angels," two former members of the elite Wakandan bodyguards known as the Dora Milaje. They have broken ranks from their former lives and stolen specialized prototype gear in order to fight the against bandits, warlords, and gangs that have risen since Wakanda's fall. They have become increasingly anti-government and anti-patriarchy, and while they cross paths with the Tetu the shaman, they do not join with him. Yet. (It is worth noting, by the way, that Aneka and Ayo are an openly lesbian couple, whose backstory is covered in Black Panther: World of Wakanda.)
These three factions pull at each other for control of the country, and each represent different parts of Wakanda's nature. Wakanda is a country torn along so many lines: science versus mysticism, justice versus vigilantism, monarchy versus liberty. As each faction forces the hands of the others, it culminates in a personal tragedy for T'Challa, ending the first volume's last chapter with a stunning proclamation by our so-called "hero": "We will not be terrorized. We are terror itself."
Coates's writing is strong, poetic, and highly politicized. His pacing of the story as it weaves from character to character is masterful. This doesn't read like a normal comic book, but rather like if an epic history of nation building, shrunk to more digestible format. There's a lot to take in here: nationalism, philosophy, technology, terrorism, mysticism, etc. All of these themes are given appropriate weight, making characters appear sympathetic even when they perform terrible deeds, and even Black Panther, who spends much of the book unsure of himself and his actions, does not always make the right choices. All of this is supported by Stelfreeze's fantastic artwork alongside Martin's coloring. Their work is stunning, and the art is expressive, bold, and beautiful. This is a comic where the art demands your time and appreciation, and earns every second of it. The character design is also fantastic, especially those of the Midnight Angels (both in and out of armor) and the shaman Tetu.
Their is a steep learning curve coming into this book without knowledge of past Marvel events and how they fit into Black Panther's current universe, and it doesn't help if you're not familiar with Black Panther's backstory. The book at times tries very hard to keep you afloat in its many characters, factions, terms, and Wakandan geography, and after the fourth and last issue, you're supplied with a useful map that might have been better served in the opening chapter.
The trade paperback comes with Fantastic Four #52 from 1961, showing the first appearance of Black Panther. It's written by Stan Lee and illustrated by Jack Kirby, and is an interesting look at what comics were like during Lee and Kirby's reign. There's no doubt that the two were legends in their fields, but to be honest it's a bit campy by modern standards. It is a fun story however: Black Panther invites the Fantastic Four to Wakanda so he can thoroughly kick their asses.
Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet is a great start to a deep political saga in comic form. Additionally, it has been nominated for the 2017 Hugo Awards (alongside another Marvel title, Ms. Marvel vol. 5). I recommend checking it out, and I know I'll definitely be picking up future volumes of this as well.