As a superhero, you never forget the first time you put on your costume. And certainly T’Challa was cognizant of that moment in Ronald L. Smith’s novel, Black Panther: The Young Prince.
“T’Challa stood in front of the mirror, the Panther suit in his hands,” wrote Smith. “He felt as if the suit wanted to be worn. His fingers tingled as he touched the fabric. His heartbeat sped up, and his chest rose and fell with each breath he took. He slipped into the suit for the first time. He felt powerful. Royal.”
Putting on the suit marked the beginning of T’Challa’s hero’s journey. He was only a 12-year-old kid at the time, but he clearly saw his future on the horizon. He knew that he would eventually grow up to be King of Wakanda and assume the ceremonial title of Black Panther. Unbeknownst to him, a stint with the Avengers, a marriage to Ororo Munroe, and a blockbuster movie franchise were also in his future.
There would be growing pains too. And that’s what’s at the heart of this middle-grade Black Panther book. T’Challa and his best friend M’Baku were attending a Chicago middle school, and their inner city experience in the U.S. would change their relationship forever (btw: don’t ask why the Wakanda pre-teens were going to school in Chicago. It’s a contrived plot point not worth talking about).
The boys had grown up together and enjoyed getting into all sorts of harmless mischief. But honestly we don’t know why they were friends. Instead of being a loyal sidekick and boon companion, M’Baku was a nudnik whose teasing, fake sincerity, and mockery often belittled the young prince. Deep down, M’Baku thought T’Challa was a spoiled brat who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth.
Things only got worse in Chicago. M’Baku quickly made friends with the jocks and bullies at school, while T’Challa sat at the nerd table playing chess during lunch period. The two had very different temperaments and social agendas.
To the surprise of no one, M’Baku eventually gets in deep shit trouble with a bunch of teenage boneheads and a scary African vampire. It was up to the young panther prince to save his frenemy from getting sucked into an interdimensional portal. “I’d say your first mission was a success,” said Nick Fury to T’Challa at the end of the novel.
The Black Panther’s debut was indeed a success, but the friendship between M’Baku and T’Challa was over forever. M’Baku would grow up to become a supervillain named Man-Ape, and T’Challa would (of course) ascend to the Wakanda throne and embrace his royal legacy. Once friends, now rivals, the two Wakanda warriors would clash for the rest of their lives.
[Black Panther: The Young Prince / By Ronald L. Smith / First Printing: January 2018 / ISBN: 9781484787649]