Writer: Christopher Priest
Artists: Dan Fraga (p), Lary Stucker (i)
Publisher: Marvel Comics
The book opens with a group of thugs being ripped into by what looks to be the Black Panther, but given this Black Panther is using a pair of guns, it quickly becomes apparent that the man under the mask isn't T'Challa. After we see this new Black Panther leaves a message behind for the arriving police officers to indicate his displeasure that that were corrupt police officers acting as bodyguards for these criminals, we see that this Black Panther has effectively kidnapped one of the thugs, and he put the fear of the Panther in this poor guy & he also managed to extract a promise of servitude from the thug. We then see the mask comes off, and we learn the new Black Panther is a police officer named Kevin Cole. We then see Kevin Cole is visited by one of T'Challa's enemies, and during the ensuing conversation we learn that Kevin stumbled across the Black Panther costume, and after discovering the suit was bulletproof & extremely lightweight, he put it to use during his rather risky job. However, when the suit allowed him to survive a gun fight that killed several of his fellow cops, Kevin decided to exact a little street justice, while posing as the Black Panther.
I realize that this is likely the mood that Christopher Priest was going for, but frankly the early going of this issue is a bit distressing as it does look like we've gone from one of the most well crafted titles out there, and traded it for on of the most confusing. Up until the arrival of a character roughly two-thirds of the way into this issue who most longtime readers should be familiar with, this issue is a bit like an imported Jackie Chan film with no subtitles. I mean one can enjoy the action scene that opens the book, but understanding the plot that follows it is tough going until we start getting the back-story on this new Black Panther. Now I realize that it's a bit odd to be complaining about a book being confusing, when the last third of the book does a pretty fair job of clearing up this confusion, but it's tough to enjoy an issue when you spent most of it actively concerned that one of the best written titles Marvel had going for it, just went off the rails. Yes, this issue makes sense if you stick with it, but be prepared to be thrown by the early going, where Christopher Priest tosses the unwary reader in the deep end, and he doesn't get around to tossing in the life preserver until I was ready to write the book off.
I finally got around to watching Denzel Washington's "Training Day" a few nights back, and after reading this issue I couldn't help but be reminded of that film, as our protagonist in this comic did remind me of Denzel Washington's rogue cop. Now the cop we get in this issue does seem to operate along the same lines, as we see him bending the rules to suit his needs, and presenting a fearsome image that one needs to have to be the top dog in a dog eat dog environment. However, our rogue cop does seem to be decidedly more heroic when the mask comes off, and when a cast member from the previous issues arrives on the scene one does have to wonder if the new guy has gotten in way over his head. Still, there are elements that do seem to suggest that he's not exactly pristine, as there's a brief hint that he does take money from criminals while he's busy condemning other cops as dirty for doing the same, though I guess stealing from criminals is less loathsome that acting as their hired guns. One thing about this new guy that has me curious though is that he seems to accept the idea that the real Black Panther is dead, as he hasn't been seen for over three months, while over in the Avengers, Geoff Johns has the Black Panther making numerous public appearances (e.g. addressing the United Nations).
The new direction also earns itself a new art team, and I must confess that Dan Fraga & Lary Stucker turn in a pretty impressive effort. The art shows in the opening pages that it can deliver an action sequence with the best of them, as the hits look downright painful, and the lead character's raw firepower is equally impressive. The credit page shot of the new Black Panther, with a smoking gun in each hand is also an attention grabbing piece of art that instantly draws one into the story. The art also does a pretty nice job of detailing the story itself, which is ever so important when Christopher Priest is the writer, as while he's one of the true talents when it comes to his writing, his material tends to be more involved & layered than most other comics, and as such he needs artists with a strong storytelling abilities. Take the scene where the mask comes off & we see it's not T'Challa, or the page where we see the new guy is visited by one of T'Challa's enemies. Both these scene are vital to the story, and as such they benefit from their clear presentation. Before I go I also have to make mention of the new cover design, as its battered looking style certainly suits the material inside perfectly.
The new direction is certainly a big departure from what we had been getting previously, as the global scale politics have been replaced by a more urban crime-noir tale. Now it's still far too early to tell one way or the other if this new direction is going to draw new fans in, without alienating the fans that liked what had been going on in these pages previously. However, based on his previous work one would hope that longtime readers would give Christopher Priest a chance to make this new direction work, and I will admit that once we started to get the back-story for this new Black Panther my initial concerns were lessened. I can see fans of crime fiction like 100 Bullets & the Punisher giving this new direction a look, and I hope that a couple months down the line I'll embrace this title once again as one of Marvel's best titles. Then again, even if the new direction does grab me, it's been one heck of a run.
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