Black Panther & The Crew became one of Marvel’s most important comics the moment the series first went to print. But given the recent public displays of hatred and terrorism here in the US from self-identified white supremacists, this week’s issue of the series is a particularly timely piece of required reading.
Much like Christopher Priest’s original Crew from 2003, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Yona Harvey’s Black Panther & The Crew has been something of a slow burn compared to most other comic books. While the series is about the titular Crew investigating the death of a black activist being held in police custody, there is also a larger story at work about the history of black heroes (both powered and normal) fighting to protect their communities from those who would see them crumble.
As T’Challa, Misty Knight, Luke Cage, Storm, and Manifold have inched closer to figuring out just how activist Ezra Miller died, Black Panther & The Crew has also spent a fair amount of time fleshing out the connections each character had to him while he was alive, and how Harlem is the thing that binds them all together.
Though most of the series is set in the present, BP&TC also features a number of flashbacks to Ezra’s days as a younger revolutionary, when he himself teamed up with other black capes to root out crime and corruption in the city. Over the years he would come to understand that the process of trying to resist and dismantle fascistic power structures sometimes leads to moments where one must take an honest look at their allies and question their motives. Together, Ezra and his crew did good work to oust organized crime as part of Harlem’s Crusade. But in time, as they came into prominence and a newfound kind of power, his teammates would come to see his morality as obstacle standing in the way.
In losing his chosen family, Ezra was forced to accept that people he thought he knew were, perhaps, not on the level with him. But at the same time, he remained keenly aware of the fact that, in spite of their ultimate betrayal, he’d been stronger as a force for justice and social change when he had a crew to back him up.
This is an idea that he would later impress upon Manifold, an Australian mutant with the ability to generate circular portals through space and time. Manifold, who’s been an Avenger, would eventually find a new home for himself in Harlem. Like Ezra, he found himself fighting against people who embody oppressive social hierarchies and finding invaluable strength in the support of his team.
In this series, Marvel’s Harlem has been converted into a literal police state with a curfew in anticipation of riots set off by Ezra’s death. Rather than enforcing the law with human police offers, mechanized soldiers are deployed throughout the borough that indiscriminately use excessive violence to keep the population in check. Black Panther & The Crew #5 is primarily about how one night, while keeping tabs on the neighborhood, Manifold witnesses a squad of Americops violently attacking two young boys who happened to be out after curfew.
In a scene that bears a painful and stunning resemblance to the real-world attacks by police on black children, the Americops viciously attack the boys until Manifold intervenes and whisks them off to safety.
Manifold himself is only able to escape the Americops when the rest of his crew shows up and blasts them out of the sky, doubling down on the idea that a person’s strength comes from their depths of their roots.
There’s an immediately recognizable call and response within Black Panther & The Crew’s asynchronous story structure, but this issue in particular brings to attention a bigger narrative concerning the Black Panther that’s worth taking note of.
When Marvel writer and proofreader Don McGregor first came onto the publisher’s Jungle Action, a series set primarily in Africa, he noted that a majority of its stories featured white heroes. McGregor was responsible for turning the series into a vehicle for the Black Panther, and in issue #19 McGregor made a bold statement by having the African hero do battle with the American Ku Klux Klan. In Panther vs. The Klan, the Black Panther journeys to Georgia to investigate the mysterious death of Angela Lynne. Angela was the sister of his then-girlfriend Monica, a black woman who was in the process of investigating a local branch of what seemed to be the Ku Klux Klan.
Over the course of the story, T’Challa fights both a group of Klan imitators and members of the actual Ku Klux Klan. The Black Panther has some connection to Angela, but more importantly, he commits to uncovering the details of her death as a matter of moral principle given the questionable circumstances.
Though there are obvious differences between the two, there is an important through-line shared between T’Challa’s run-in with the Klan in the ’70s and the Crew’s fight against the Americops today. In both clashes, we see black heroes standing up against avatars of structural oppression who terrorize black communities. A group of racist white men wearing sheets are not the same as a fleet of deadly killer robot cops, and yet they are not entirely unrelated from one another either.
Both are manifestations of institutional terror that have plagued and oppressed marginalized people. Both have been successfully rebutted through activism deeply rooted in the communities the marginalized people come from—and it’s powerful to see them being fought in comics as well.