Thursday Comics Hangover: The third Panther

It's been three months since the first issue of the Ta-Nehisi Coates/Brian Stelfreeze Black Panther was published. You can tell that the series has become a runaway bestseller because it's the first monthly comic that local bookstores like University Book Store and Elliott Bay Book Company are carrying as they're released, rather than waiting for the hardcover graphic novel compilations to be published.

Yesterday, the third issue of Black Panther arrived in stores. How's it going so far? I'm still happy. Coates seems to be playing up a Hamlet vibe with the Black Panther character. The King of Wakanda has been in a couple of superhero fights so far, but he mostly mopes around, feeling bad about himself and wondering what he should do to save his nation. The action to this point is purely decorative, illustrating the Black Panther's interior life through visual cues. He's wracked by indecision, but to Coates's credit, the story still feels as though it's speeding along. (Irregular comics buyers should be warned that the scene on the cover of this book does not take place in the book; that's a fairly common event in comics, but it might throw new buyers for a loop.)

The most interesting characters in this series, though, are Aneka and Ayo, the lovers who have vowed revenge on the Panther as the Midnight Angels. They've demonstrated the most emotional range of all the characters, and they seem to have devised a complex plan to take down the Black Panther. It's quite possible that Coates is more interested in them than he is in the book's supposed protagonist, which is perfectly fine. The Panther's magisterial longing for peace and acceptance is better off in the background of his own book. The supervillains, after all, often steal the show right out from under the hero because they're allowed to want more interesting goals.

Unfortunately, the monthly schedule seems to be grinding down Stelfreeze's art. The striking layouts and refreshing chiaroscuro of the earlier issues is slowly disappearing, replaced by a much more standard superhero comics illustration. (I had to check the credits page while reading the issue because I wasn't even sure Stelfreeze drew the comic.) Only occasional scenes, such as a sequence set in a Wakandan afterlife, demonstrate the kind of verve that he brought to every page in the debut issue.

The thing about monthly comics is that they're a long haul. If a creative team cannot sustain its energy all the way through a story, the story suffers. You can't take back a book's chapter once it's already been published. For now, Coates is still demonstrating the same intellectual excitement for the material that he did in issue number one. The question is whether Stelfreeze will be able to join him across the finish line.