Last fall, Marvel announced that Atlantic national correspondent and MacArthur Genius Ta-Nehisi Coates was penning a new comic book series featuring the Black Panther, the publisher’s first African superhero.
When the Black Panther was first introduced in 1966, he wasn’t just one of the first mainstream black superheroes, he was the symbol of Wakanda, a secretive, futuristic, African nation untouched and unbothered by the West. If the X-Men were an allegory for the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Panther embodied just what Africa’s vast natural resources and brainpower could achieve under the right circumstances.
As the Black Panther, T’Challa was both Wakanda’s most famous superhero and its king, charged with protecting the country's people and its vast stores of vibranium, the rare and valuable metal responsible for its technological advancement.
For 50 years, T'Challa's adventured abroad and saved the world with some of Marvel's most iconic teams like the Fantastic Four and the Avengers, solidifying his status as one of Marvel's most collaborative heroes. But, as Black Panther artist Brian Stelfreeze told The Verge, for a long time, the Panther was pigeonholed in Marvel's larger universe as the exotic foreigner who made guest appearances, but was rarely featured as a core member.
"Oddly enough, Black Panther's almost like an analog to Tarzan," Stelfreeze explained. "So you expect those types of stories, where it's like, ‘Hey, Tarzan's in the jungle doing jungle things’ or ‘Tarzan's in New York City, kind of doing his thing there.’"
Usually, the distance between the Black Panther and other Marvel teams was chalked up to his culture. Wakanda isn't just a technological powerhouse, it's a deeply isolationist nation wary of anyone who might seek to exploit it.
Rather than grounding him in an established flagship team to reintroduce him to new readers, though, Coates' Black Panther #1 is a narrative homecoming for T'Challa that brings him back to Wakanda in an important way.
Though Coates has assured fans that they can easily pick up Black Panther #1 (in stores now) without having kept up with the Black Panther's adventures, the story takes on a different gravity when you look at just what the king of Wakanda and his people have been through in recent years. Coates and Stelfreeze's Black Panther is a new start for its hero, but in order to really feel the weight of what's to come, these are the things you should know.
Historically, Wakanda's status as a global superpower lied in its economic wealth and the fact that it had never been successfully invaded by any of its many enemies.
That changed when the country was infiltrated by a race of shapeshifting aliens called Skrulls. Working together with the X-Men and his wife, the mutant weather goddess Storm, T'Challa was able to drive the Skrulls out of Wakanda before they could take control of his throne.
Even though he managed to protect Wakanda, the experience left T'Challa and Wakanda fundamentally changed. This was the closest they'd ever come to being overtaken by enemies and it wounded Wakanda's national identity.
After T'Challa is attacked and left in a coma he gives up his titles of both Black Panther and king to his younger sister, Shuri. During his recovery, T'Challa loses his powers and is once again faced with the idea that he can't protect his country.
He chooses to leave Wakanda for New York City where he partners with Daredevil to do some soul-searching. Shuri, as queen, pledges to bring war to whomever she learns is behind the attacks on her family and country.
When Storm and T'Challa got married in 2006, then-EIC Joe Quesada described them as Marvel's answer to Prince Charles and Princess Diana. Together, the power couple became the world's public face for both Wakanda and the mutant cause. These roles worked for them both until Wakanda found itself at odds with mutantkind.
When T'Challa returns to Wakanda, he has a prophetic vision of a devastating tidal wave while visiting the Necropolis, the mystical final resting place of the Black Panthers who came before him.
That wave is eventually caused by Namor, a long-time friend of the X-Men under the influence of a cosmic mutant entity. The tidal wave washes over Wakanda killing thousands and destroying much of the country's infrastructure.
To T'Challa, all mutants are now a threat to Wakanda's safety, forcing Storm to make a decision. While T'Challa immediately comes to the aid of his people, Storm sides with the X-Men, choosing the family that raised her over her husband.
Even though T'Challa and Namor are mortal enemies after Wakanda's desolation, the two end up joining the Illuminati, a secret group of world leaders, when it's discovered that parallel universes are literally colliding into one another.
Without T'Challa's knowledge, Shuri follows through on her threats and launches a successful assault on Atlantis, which leaves the city destroyed. When Shuri learns that T'Challa has been collaborating with Namor she exiles him from Wakanda indefinitely even though their partnership was to save the world.
In a final act of vengeance, Namor orchestrates Shuri's assassination, once again making T'Challa the rightful heir to a ruined empire.
Because these are comic books and nothing is forever, some of the important things that happen to T'Challa are fleeting. Wakanda and many of its people are brought back to life in the new Coates narrative, but Shuri and T'Challa's marriage are not. He returns to the Wakandan throne faced with a country that no longer trusts its royal family to protect it and a new danger threatening growing inside borders: a mass, mystically-induced hate.
"The hate did not rise on its own," T'Challa explains. "Deceivers are loose in my kingdom. And so the hate spreads. Now they call me Haramu-Fal— the orphan king. But I have not forgotten my name. Damisa-Sarki— the Panther."