It's been an admirable effort, House of Ideas gang, but it's just not paying off.
The switchover from Black Panther: Man Without Fear to Black Panther: The Most Dangerous Man Alive! was my big hope for a new direction in this series. T'Challa doesn't really belong in the New York vigilante mold and Daredevil is back to relieve him of his Hell's Kitchen duties, so now was the time to at least change up the setting and introduce something new, even if you can't send him back to the international intrigue of Wakanda where his best stories are told. It's even a "Point One" issue – #523.1 to be exact. That's the perfect time to strike out in a fresh direction. However, I'm sad to report that this is a change without any actual change.
He's still in Hell's Kitchen. Daredevil's back in full swing, but apparently he's too busy joining the Avengers, which is just silly. We know Brian Michael Bendis pretty much wants the entire Marvel Universe to be Avengers now and he's got a soft spot for Daredevil (as he was doing some pretty good work with him back in the day), but it's not because Matt Murdock is some sullen loner that he never joined, but it was because his powers absolutely suck in a cacophonous team setting and… wait, I'm digressing. The point is, T'Challa's still stuck in a tiny New York neighborhood which certainly doesn't need two vigilantes, given the sheer amount of them operating in Manhattan alone. It's just overdone. In fact, when #523.1 opens, it's so ordinary that it feels like a rote episode of Law & Order.
I don't really blame writer David Liss for this, as I liked his work on Mystery Men and he has a decent grasp on T'Challa's voice. It's just that this whole effort smacks of an Marvel editorial mandate to "make Black Panther more normal." That kind of thing just seems like the death of big ideas. T'Challa's police contact Detective Kurtz looks exactly like Commissioner Gordon, for cryin' out loud. They couldn't telegraph what they're doing any more obviously. The kicker was that T'Challa already was like Batman, but more in the Justice League epic context where he's a brilliant tactician with endless contingency plans who was hard to get to know. Now, they're trying to make him like Batman in all the ways everybody else tries to be like Batman. In this issue, T'Challa's employee/sidekick Sofija even jokingly calls herself "Girl Wonder." It feels like Liss is struggling under this yoke.
I know I've done this song and dance before, and it's possible my take on T'Challa isn't fluid enough to accept different interpretations, but in #523.1, something that would have ordinarily delighted me (and did at first) wound up proving the point I've been making since the Liss run began. Along with a regrettably small but fiercely loyal cult of fans, I hold the Don McGregor and Christopher Priest runs on Black Panther as definitive, and Liss has made reference to the Priest run before. Here, he brings back one of Priest's original Panther villains – characters I feared would be completely lost in the shuffle forever now that Priest has quit comics. When Reginald Hudlin first took over and reduced the flamboyantly snarky Everett K. Ross to a boring government drone, I was afraid Priest's legacy would be tidily compartmentalized and easily ignored going forward. I commend Liss for making sure that won't happen.
The White Wolf, aka Hunter, is T'Challa's older adopted sibling who once ran the Hatut Zeraze, the Wakandan secret police, and engaged in abhorrent methods of securing their nation's borders – very much the 'ends justifies the means' type of thinking that has resulted in torture being legal and sanctioned by the United States in real life. Since Priest was working in the late '90s, that stuff is almost prescient. Hunter kept his methods secret from their father, T'Chaka, but T'Challa had seen them at work, and as soon as he became king, he disbanded the Hatut Zeraze and exiled his brother. However, Hunter was a patriot who kept the Hatut Zeraze together in secret, constantly crafting elaborate and highly-intricate skullduggery against T'Challa just to force the king to admit that he was absolutely necessary in maintaining the security of Wakanda and to allow him to serve proudly again.
When he showed up in #523.1, I sat bolt upright in happy surprise, elated that he now officially lives on outside Priest's tenure. Then, as the story wore on, it became clear that this book's enforced locality that narrows T'Challa's normally global worldview into this frustratingly provincial focus was going to dumb down the White Wolf in the same way. With T'Challa off the throne, you'd think Hunter would have dedicated his efforts to convincing the current queen and Black Panther Shuri of his proper place, where he stands a greater chance of success than he did with convincing T'Challa. Here, however, the Wolf is instead obsessed with destroying T'Challa and proving that he should have been the Black Panther in the first place, which never really seemed to be his aim before, as I recall. The kicker is that Hunter is defeated in a far too stupid way. He shoots Sofija three times at point blank range and yet fails to notice that his ammo has been replaced with blanks until he tries to shoot T'Challa later. You'd think an experienced killer would notice that her head didn't explode into a bloody mess.
This is what Black Panther is going to be now. High-minded political intrigue will continue to be reduced to generic street violence and lofty ideologies will degenerate into petty grudges. This isn't an objectively bad book by any means. It's an admirable effort, and if this is clicking for you, by all means keep supporting this great character. For me, however, it does a disservice to T'Challa's unique nature to keep funneling him into this mold, and there's no sign of anything different on the horizon anymore. This was the chance to change, and it's a chance untaken. So it might be time to check out.
CRAVE ONLINE RATING: 6.5/10