Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Hokey Smoke

What's that? You say the Official Rejected Breakfast Cereal Mascot Archive has actually been updated? Alert the media!

Black Panther #1-2

I loved Christopher Priest's Black Panther, but I wasn't particularly sorry to see it go. Unfortunately, the last year of the title suffered pretty badly from the fact that it was so near cancellation - all the rather breathless attempts to bring back readers succeeded only in muddying the waters further. Besides, as much as I like Priest's work, he does have a tendency to write some of the most unneccessarily confusing comic books in existence... it had gotten more and more involved until the Byzantine plotting had reached a point of diminishing returns. Still, 62 issues is nothing to sneeze at, especially considering that Priest & Co took a character who had been something of a joke - the living definition of a "token" hero (or at least that's how he was in most of the books he showed up in, Messrs. Kirby & McGregor notwithstanding) - and made him into the black Batman he always should have been. The Black Panther went from perpetual cameo-fodder to one of the meanest, smartest and toughest hombres in the entire Marvel Universe in the space of just a few years, and considering the dearth of interesting minority characters in comics this is definitely to be applauded.

So I was excited about the new book. I don't buy too many mainstream superhero books these days, but I'll always give anything John Romita Jr. does at least a flip-through in the store (unless its a Spider-Man book, in which case I have no interest). I am pleased to announce that Reginald Hudlin's relaunch is everything a relaunch should be: everything that worked about past series, with everything that didn't work jettisoned and a whole bunch of new balls thrown up in the air all at once. Simply put, these were two of the best superhero books I've read in quite some time. Hudlin has been wise to retain all of the bits of Wakanda lore that Priest so painstakingly built the past few years, along with the Panther's essential characterization as an ominous and shadowy operator... but gone is confusing density that made the book a chore for even longtime readers such as myself in the title's last year.

Subtext in superhero comics is a hard thing to pull off. Some of the very best spandex books have always dealt with meaty subtext, but it's very easy to go overboard into the realm of unnattractive didacticism. The beauty of Priest's Panther was the way he was able to weave thematic touchstones like post-Colonial African politics, international finance and the Rwandan genocide into a very natural superhero narrative. It made as much sense for Priest's Panther to be involved in these things as it does for Captain America to be involved in the metaphorical exploration of whatever is going on in the United States. My only warning to Hudlin is not to go too far with his political commentary: it's pretty obvious where the story is going in terms of the United States' foreign policy objectives, and whereas I suspect we agree on most issues in regard to our country's current direction, the temptation to go too far into the realm of blatant caricature of our current policy undercuts the story's intent.

But be that as it may, I'm here for the duration. John Romita Jr's art remains a wonder to behold. The second issue is especially well-done, with about two-thirds of the issue devoted to rather brutal hand-to-hand combat. Drawing well-conceived and elegant action scenes is something of a lost art, but JRJR gives us a good view of every combatant, a good feel for the kinetic energy of such a dangerous battle, and a real sense for the raw physicality on display. There are many, many artists currently drawing a paycheck from the Big Two who could do a lot worse than to study what he does here, because I have a hard time thinking of anyone currently working who does it better. He's surpassed his dad in everything but name - he's somehow got his own dad's glamour in addition to Kane's grace and form and Kirby's sheer energy. (It doesn't show if he's not drawing Spider-Man, but he's also gotten pretty good at evoking Ditko's mood. Too bad most of his Spider-Man stories just aren't written very well or I'd buy those, too.)

This is an impressive book, and I look forward to seeing what the future will bring.

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