By Ta-Nehisi Coates, Butch Guice, Scott Hanna & Dan Brown
Marvel has a long history of using superheroes as a means for discussing political topics. Steve Gerber repeatedly used four-color tropes to tackle issues as divisive as the culture wars (Howard the Duck), racial tensions (The Defenders) and the breakdown of social discourse (Foolkiller). Gerber, though, was far from the only Bullpen member engaged in such exercises. Don McGregor’s iconic run of Black Panther stories in Jungle Action broke new ground in its depiction of Africans in comic books. At the tail end of the run, McGregor brought Ta-Challa to America where he fought the Klu Klux Klan (a decision that even in the post-Civil Rights landscape of the 1970s sat uneasily with some Marvel editors). The run was never a best seller; indeed, it was abruptly canceled mid-storyline. However, it made a strong impression on those who read it, especially the next generation of African-American creators. Christopher Priest drew on it for background to his own acclaimed Black Panther title, making the material his own by swapping out the 70s earnestness for 90s satire. Towards the end of his run, Priest penned a related (short lived) series featuring the characters James Rhodes, Josiah X and White Tiger. On Wednesday Marvel revived that property as a tie-in to the current Black Panther on-going written by Ta-Nehisi Coates. The strong debut issue is worthy continuation of Marvel’s tradition of social relevance.
Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates opens the story with a flashback to 1950s Bronx. Criminal boss Tommy Manfredi is scheming to corner the illegal trades throughout Manhattan and to this end, has hired Ezra Keith, aka the Lynx, and his team The Crusade. The Crusade are an all superpowers team when such individuals were still a rarity in the Marvel Universe and thus hoods were still of a mind that a few automatic firearms could neutralize any threat to their turf. The Crusade handily disapproves this notion. The rub is that the Crusade have been working their own angle, cleaning the streets for the safety of everyday citizens, not for another syndicate to roll into the area. The prologue contains a lot of exposition, yet, Coates handles it smoothly. The segment never feels like an info dump; indeed it has the opposite effect. The reader is immediately engaged in the narrative. Coates’ prose skillfully establishes both the atmosphere and the characters moving within it. This is particularly important as Ezra Keith’s legacy is a significant one.
In the present day, Ezra’s activities with the Crusade are not public knowledge, though, he is very much a public figure. The core of Ezra’s mission was always a dedication to protecting Harlem. He may have ceased operating as the Lynx, but he never lost his conviction for social engagement. Some would say that he became overzealous in his practice of it. Misty Knight knew Ezra from her days on the force where he had a reputation as “a cop-hater who liked to get himself arrested.” As the years went by little changed. Social injustice inspired new rounds of protests and there was Ezra, ever on the front lines. Now though, Ezra has become the focus of the protests. Two days into his most recent incarceration, Ezra was found dead in his jail cell. Just to make matters worse, Ezra was the fourth person to die in custody that summer. The city is restless as both protesters and police are walking a razor’s edge for maintaining order. Imposed curfews and hovering police robots are not helping the situation.
This scenario is immediately familiar as one that has played out way too often in American cities recently. Coates is stirring up a lot of volatile issues: neighborhoods’ distrust of the police; officers’ sense of persecution; the militarization of policing. One of the strengths of the issue is how well Coates manages to balance these various perspectives. Coates’ choice of Misty as the issue’s narrator is a telling one, as Misty, being a woman of color, has built a career on striding these social fault lines. She was a cop once and understands how, for good and ill, the NYPD operates. She knows how to speak with her former colleagues, appealing to a shared sense of professionalism. She can also recognize the suggestions of a cover-up while knowing better than to jump to any conclusions. Perhaps there is nothing more sinister at play than sloppy casework? So far the story lacks any obvious villain, such as some Serpent Society rabble-rouser promulgating explicit racism. Yet, the further Misty digs, the more uneasy her mind grows. Her spirited, yet calm, determination proves to be the perfect choice for anchoring the book’s initial chapter.
Art for The Crew is provided by Butch Guice. His pencils emphasizes the naturalism of the story, rooting the contemporary scenes in the familiar ambiance of 21st Century New York. Even in scenes of characters talking, the reader readily senses the emotional tension of the moment. This sense of the everyday is reinforced by colorist Dan Brown’s muted palette. At the same time, Guice handles the action sequences with a dynamic flair. This combination of spectacle, suspense and the recognizable serves Guice as well here as it did during his contributions to Ed Brubaker’s Captain American run.
In a way, The Crew #1 is a teaser for what is still to come. By the end of the issue, only two of the advertised five team members are in play and neither of them is the title character. In addition, Coates will be trading writing duties every other issue with Yona Harvey (who has been co-writing the other Black Panther spin-off title, World of Wakanda). For the moment, though, it is enough to say that Coates and his artistic collaborators have delivered an excellent debut issue which continues Marvel’s tradition of telling superhero tales that are both exciting and socially engaged.