For many years in the Marvel Universe, breaking the law in New York City's Hell's Kitchen neighborhood meant dealing with the devil. Until recently, Matt Murdock kept the streets of the 'Kitchen safe as the crimson and horned costumed vigilante known as Daredevil. The events of the recent “Shadowland” storyline forced Murdock to abandon the neighborhood, but he did not leave it defenseless. He enlisted the aid of another man who knows what it's like to be forced to step away from your kingdom and your heroic alter ego; T'Challa, who was recently forced to give up both his position as king of the African nation Wakanda and the Super Heroic identity of the Black Panther.
With issue #513, in stores now, the “Daredevil” title became “Black Panther: The Man Without Fear” and T'Challa began his new quest. The issue, by award-winning historical thriller novelist David Liss and artist Francesco Francavilla, showed that in order to make a true difference, a champion of Hell's Kitchen needs to both clean up the streets and reach out to the community. CBR News spoke with Liss about his plans for the series.
T'Challa agreed to become Hell's Kitchen's protector for more than just altruistic reasons. Several months ago he was severely beaten by the Super Villain known as Doctor Doom. It was a defeat that forced him to relinquish his rulership of Wakanda and his identity as the Black Panther. He sees Hell's Kitchen as a place where he can redeem himself as a hero and prove himself as a man without all the trappings that come with being a wealthy monarch and super powered hero. He's cut himself off from his family and is determined to make his way alone. It's a decision that has many wondering if T'Challa's pride is going to interfere with his effectiveness as a street level vigilante?
“Pride is definitely a factor in the story I'm telling,” David Liss told CBR News. “As the story continues, one of the things I think you'll see is that other characters bring up the issue of how T’Challa’s pride can conflict with his responsibility, or at least appear to. Without wanting to give too much away, T’Challa is going to have to grapple with this element of his personality.”
In “Black Panther: The Man Without Fear” #513 readers saw T'Challa confront two issues that would cause problems for his new mission; his world famous notoriety as a former head of state and his lack of knowledge about Hell's Kitchen. He tackled both problems by creating a new secret identity for himself; that of Mr. Okonkwo, the manager of a local diner known as the Devil's Kitchen.
“Working in diners and working with food has a legacy within 'Daredevil.' There's also a practical aspect. I wanted to come up with a job in Hell's Kitchen where T'Challa would have contact with ordinary people, a place where he would be able to interact with them, overhear conversations, and get a sense of the rhythms of everyday life,” Liss said. “This seemed a good option to me. At the end of Frank Miller's 'Born Again' story we see Matt Murdock working in the kitchen of a diner. So some of this was a little bit of a tip of the hat, but it also just seemed really practical. Matt Murdock grew up on those streets and knew Hell's Kitchen inside and out. T'Challa, though, obviously has a lot to learn.”
Thus far in his civilian guise, T'Challa met several interesting members of the Hell's Kitchen community. Sofija is a Serbian immigrant with a dark past whom Okonkwo hired to work in his diner. He also struck up a relationship with his neighbor, Mr. Nantakarn, whose son Alec is being bullied at school. “All of the relationships that we tease out in that first issue are either directly or thematically important to the way the arc is going to play out,” Liss explained. “Especially Sofija. I have some plans for her.”
“Black Panther: The Man Without Fear” #513 also saw T'Challa becoming acquainted with Hell's Kitchen's underworld community. In his new and as of yet unnamed costumed identity, the former Black Panther took on the members of an organized crime crew lead by a super powered Romanian mobster named Vlad Dinu AKA Vlad the Impaler, a new character created by Liss and Francavilla.
“I wanted to create a kind of symmetry with T'Challa and Vlad. They're both from other countries. They're both trying to establish themselves in this neighborhood and they're both reacting to some pretty big changes that have happened in the Marvel Universe and Hell's Kitchen,” Liss stated. “I wanted a character who was evil and menacing and destructive, but also maybe a little more human and sympathetic than some other super villains. For me it was important to give T'Challa an enemy who would provide a personal, physical and moral challenge.”
“Black Panther: The Man Without Fear” #514 hits stores January 12th and continues the tale of T'Challa establishing himself both in the community and as Vlad the Impaler nemesis. “The best Daredevil stories, and the ones that stuck with me, were those in which Matt Murdock faced difficult decisions about what was right and what was wrong, so I'm trying to operate within that tradition. I'm trying to respect the tradition of the 'Man Without Fear' brand, but I also think those are the most interesting stories to tell,” Liss said. “Often a hard thing to do in comics is to tell a story in which there is real ambiguity in how things are going to go. When the Avengers fight a bad guy it may be uncertain how they will defeat him, but we feel pretty good about the fact that the Avengers are going to win and the bad guy is going to lose. I wanted to put together a story in which it's not going to be certain how things are going to play out. Matt Murdock often found himself in positions where he might win in one way but lose in two others. That's one of the things that made 'Daredevil' such a great book, and it is a tradition I hope we can continue here.”
The end of “Shadowland” left longtime Daredevil enemies the Kingpin and the Hand in positions of power. Liss' plans for “Black Panther” don't currently involve those characters, but other but other familiar Marvel Universe faces will be popping up in future issues. Luke Cage guest stars in #514-517 and Spider-Man pops up in #516. “My sense of the relationship between T'Challa and Luke Cage is that they're not exactly friends. They know each other, but they're never going to go out for a beer together. My read of the interactions I've seen between the two characters is that Luke Cage is more inclined to be friendly than T'Challa. I don't want to get into the specifics, but when Luke Cage does show up things are going to be tense. It's not going to be friendly,” Liss hinted. “There will be more big players in the Marvel Universe stopping by this title including both good guys and some pretty nasty bad guys.”
In addition to the upcoming superhero and pulp elements, Liss' plans for the title also call for a continued focus on the community of Hell's Kitchen. He's currently examining the impact that crime plays on the neighborhood and future stories focus on the impact of institutions like media and politics. “There's obviously a lot to say about all kinds of interesting things when you bring in a character like T'Challa. There's issues of politics, national sovereignty, as well as a host of interesting ideological factors that could come into play. With this first arc though, I thought the most important thing was establishing the status quo of the Black Panther as the guardian of Hell's Kitchen,” the writer remarked. “This first arc is going to be a crime drama. We're dealing with an isolated vigilante with no super powers and this seems to me to be the right story to tell for a character with this kind of skill set. Also, in its own way, this is an origin story because it's about how he's learning to adjust not to his powers, but the lack of them, and to figure out what his role is in the community. There's definitely pulp elements; we want that. You don't bring somebody like Francesco in unless you're doing something pulpy. There's noir elements. There are crime narrative elements. There are Black Panther ass kicking elements. We hope that all comes together nicely.”
Liss is very grateful to be working with Francesco Francavilla on “Black Panther: The Man Without Fear” and has been consistently wowed by both the artist's pencils and coloring work. “ I think the art he does in general is amazing, and I think the way he's tailoring it to the story we're doing now works incredibly well. Also it's an interesting experience. I'm relatively new to comics and my sense is that it's relatively unusual to be working with an artist who does it all, the way he does,” Liss said. “I've never heard of a penciler doing his own coloring. I don't know how rare it is, but I assume it's extremely rare. It's a great experience working with somebody who's in complete control of the visuals and can really shape them exactly the way he wants them to look.”
While he may still be a newcomer to comics, Liss is quickly becoming comfortable with and excited by the work he's doing on “Black Panther: The Man Without Fear.” The writer hopes he's crafting a series that can be enjoyed by longtime Black Panther fans as well as new readers. “I think what we're doing more or less speaks for itself,” said Liss. “Black Panther is a character with a lot of history. It's my sense that compared to some of the other big name Marvel characters he has a small, but extremely dedicated following. What we want to do with him in this series is now clear and I hope people are enjoying it.”