DECEMBER 27, 2016
WHEN IT COMES to the highly anticipated comics debut of Ta-Nehisi Coates on a new Black Panther series, there are two obvious methods of evaluation. The first is via the lens of an engaged reader and fan of Marvel Comics, seeing Black Panther as just the latest iteration of one thread in an expansive and often incoherent continuity stretching back over 50 years, consisting at times of dozens of simultaneous narratives, and sharing a setting and countless characters. In other words, we can approach Coates’s Black Panther with a working knowledge of Marvel narrative history up to the moment, with all the possibility and problems such knowledge represents. The second is through the eyes of a Coates reader and probable novice to comics, for whom Coates’s Black Panther serves as an introduction (or for some, a reintroduction after a long time away) to the superhero, whose adventures are given interest by the presence of a writer with fame and critical acknowledgment outside the sphere of comics. It seems almost impossible for a comic book series to succeed for both sets of readers. But Coates tries to make use of his own impressive knowledge of Marvel continuity to pursue threads found in his other writing, in an effort to produce something meaningful to both groups.
Whether new Black Panther readers will be able (or even need) to make sense of a multitude of plot threads and past events that bring the character to the moment where Coates picks him up, and whether they will accept the narrative and emotional stakes in a book emerging from the world of spandex and super-antics, are questions only those readers will be able to answer. But should they be willing, a continuity of another kind becomes apparent.
In Between the World and Me, Coates spends ample time explaining the development of his thoughtful criticism and analysis of the American experience. I write “American experience” and not “black American experience” because Coates reminds us in pieces like “The Case for Reparations” that the country as we know it is a direct result of violence on the black body and the economic and social advantages made available to the dominant culture through this violence. Coates notes that as a young student at Howard University he was eager to learn of a romanticized narrative of his heritage — one that, focused on legendary figures of an idealized Africa, reinforced his belief that “all Black people [are] kings in exile,” robbed of their cultural inheritance and noble mien. He credits his history professors for relieving him of such a simplistic perspective on a vast and complex history of imbricated and distinct peoples now belonging to the invented category of “Black.”
In his Black Panther series with artist Brian Stelfreeze, Coates seems committed to doing for his readers what his professors did for him, disabusing them of a “weaponized history.” In the slowly (sometimes too slowly) building story that first appeared in four issues of the comic book and is now collected in the first trade paperback collection of Coates’s Black Panther — the first part of a 12-issue arc entitled A Nation Under Our Feet — Coates breaks “the comforting myths of Africa, of America, and everywhere” as they exist in the Marvel Universe through a critical investigation of the title character’s African nation of Wakanda.
Whether this is a history longtime Marvel readers want to be disabused of is, of course, another question. The fictional African kingdom of Wakanda and its ruler, T’Challa, who dons the ceremonial garb of the Black Panther as part of his role, first appeared in 1966 in the pages of the popular Marvel Comic book Fantastic Four. In that issue, T’Challa invites the titular quartet to his technologically advanced nation both to prove himself their better and to enlist their aid against a villain named Klaw. Following that appearance, the Black Panther became a returning character in both Fantastic Four and The Avengers, later getting his own series in the pages of Jungle Action, in which he battled a character called Killmonger the usurper; and later still an eponymous title whose writers included the artist who created him, Jack Kirby. In more recent series, like Jonathan Hickman’s New Avengers and the crossover series, Secret Wars, that followed, the Black Panther’s involvement with other (mostly white) superheroes in efforts to save the Earth from cosmic threats reaches new heights. It is from this new level of involvement in the previously white-character-focused Marvel Universe that Coates’s series takes off, while at the same time reshifting T’Challa’s focus back to Wakanda — a predominantly black space that refuses the abjection so commonly tied to such spaces in superhero comics and western narratives more broadly.
The series opens with a concise overview of the character and establishes Wakanda as the “most technologically advanced society on the globe,” situating itself after events like a war with Atlantis and an invasion by the nefarious Dr. Doom that killed many of Wakanda’s citizens — including T’Challa’s sister, who was ruling in his stead. The opening image is a triptych of tall panels like church windows, each depicting a manifestation of the Black Panther’s failures. Superimposed beneath these panels, the defensive posture of the stunned superhero king — who appears on all fours with a bloody head wound presumably caused by a thrown rock — lets us know that this idealized land of kings is not as stable as the legends would have us think. Moreover, in the very first scene our hero and his soldiers violently engage a group of striking Wakandan miners — actions that cast doubt on his heroism.
Both a continuation of the Marvel ur-narrative and a genre story meant to explore through fantastical fiction the limitations of and treachery inherent in political power, Black Panther is poised to achieve what few superhero comics have ever succeeded in doing: making its black protagonist’s relationship to power distinct from his race, while not erasing the assumption of white supremacy that undergirds the superhero genre. The Black Panther’s heroism until this moment has been measured by his success among the dominant cultural forces of the Marvel world, and not by how he treats his own people. This is Black Panther as dictator, not superhero.
Readers hoping for the traditional relationship between a comic book superhero and his title, moreover, might be disappointed to find the Wakandan king displaced and decentered in his own book. However, instead of playing second fiddle to white characters, as black superheroes have most often had to do, Coates’s Black Panther shares the title both with a range of black women (like his mother Ramonda and his renegade female bodyguards, the Dora Milaje) and sympathetic opponents whose resistance to the autocratic rule of the Black Panther stems from a desire for a more democratic nation. While problematic legacy characters like rival tribal chieftain Man-Ape also appear, they are soon removed from the game to make room for more nuanced black characters with more complex motivations.
Wakanda has faced threats before in the pages of Marvel Comics, but this series sees the Black Panther forced to deal with the consequences of his frequent jaunts to other nations and other worlds to participate in more typically superheroic activities. Coates and Stelfreeze seek to make the complex political struggle of the Black Panther’s own nation compelling, rather than sending him off to fight the KKK in Georgia, like Don McGregor did; to hunt a time-bending frog statue, like Jack Kirby did; or to patrol the streets of Harlem with cape and cane, as Christopher Priest had him do. In the new series, the global and pan-dimensional threats that the Black Panther has helped defeat remain invisible to his people. At the same time, they are mourning the loss of their security and of their legacy as the only state on the continent of Africa that remained unbowed to the power of colonialism. In reading this series, I kept remembering the story Coates tells of Queen Nzinga in Between the World and Me. In it, the queen of a Central African nation overcomes the humiliation of not being offered a seat when negotiating with the Dutch by ordering one of her servants to get down on all fours and serve as her chair. Much as Coates’s professor Linda Heywood asked him to consider the implications of this story about a queen’s efforts to achieve an equal footing with Europeans, we, as readers of Black Panther, begin to wonder which Wakandans end up on their knees so that their king may have adventures with the disproportionately white, American Avengers. White supremacy establishes the framework within which superhero actions matter, and the Wakandan people implicitly don’t.
Coates’s T’Challa is a man burdened by the obligations of his crown and the consequences of temporarily forsaking it. At its best, the series uses the genre flexibility of superhero comics to explore the limits of power, both political power and the power to beat the crap out of bad guys. It tackles the paradox of keeping the peace and maintaining power, when the very exercise of that power undermines the peace. It provides sympathetic antagonists with ostensibly similar goals, but different priorities and ethical frameworks. It introduces radical university professors whose theories influence violent action, and outsider corporate powers that seek to make use of Wakanda’s instability to gain access to its rich (and dangerous) resources. It gives us the voices of capable black women once charged with defending the king, but now dedicated to women-centered democratic resistance epitomized by the slogan “No One Man.” It introduces a spirit world where the ghost of Shuri, T’Challa’s dead sister, explores the “ancient memories” that define her nation in the company of a griot who seeks to arm her not with a spear, but with a drum.
If all of this sounds promising, it’s because it is, and collected together these issues manage to ameliorate the frustrating sense of narrative decompression common to many serialized comics these days. Yet the economy of language necessary for the comics form, which Coates elsewhere compares to poetry, leaves this collection feeling unfocused and fragmentary. Its ostensible hero flails, frequently one step behind the enemies of the state, even as we wonder if being such an enemy means one is necessarily an enemy of the nation. Coates’s take challenges the simple narrative of Wakanda’s exotic exceptionalism in the history of the Marvel Universe, but he has not yet sufficiently established what’s at stake through either T’Challa’s personal relationships or the common Wakandan’s point of view. This is not to say that Black Panther would be more successful if it followed the well-worn superhero comic framework of reframing and reimagining the superhero origin. But a sense of what is at risk and what is lost before the inevitable unraveling and (one imagines) reestablishment of Black Panther’s confidence and authority might have made the book more accessible to new and old readers alike. Or perhaps, Coates’s plan is not that kind of denouement, but rather simply allowing Wakanda to exist in its complexity and internal diversity in a way that challenges the historically narrow portrayal of black spaces in superhero comics. Nevertheless, as a beginning, this autoclastic intention feels premature.
Speaking of beginnings, the first volume of Coates and Stelfreeze’s Black Panther includes a reprint of the character’s first appearance in Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four #52 (1966). While a thoughtful addition to the collection, Jack Kirby’s art in the issue is a reminder of the inventiveness and energy possible in the comics medium — qualities that Stelfreeze’s art mostly lacks. Granted, drawing the new Black Panther in the style of Marvel’s Silver Age comics might make the series seem antiquated or primitive. But Stelfreeze’s over-reliance on page-wide, faux-cinematic paneling gives the narrative a pace that plods more often than it compels. Stelfreeze’s figures admirably circumvent the reliance on stereotype and lack of distinction in rendering black characters, but the art is mostly missing the seamless integration of awe-inspiring machines and jungle that make Kirby’s Wakandan setting seem simultaneously ancient and futurist. Colorist Laura Martin’s dark palette, moreover, emphasizes a grim sense of inevitable doom. The Kirby-created vision of Wakanda is one where, in the words of Ramzi Fawaz in his brilliant reading of Black Panther’s first appearance, “[Wakandan] advancement is not only by virtue of their technical genius but because of their ability to reconcile tribal traditions with modern technoculture.” This technoculture is especially impressive because it contradicts the legacy of colonialism and the cultural degradation to which it contributed.
In this respect, the series’s art mirrors the way in which its turn toward the complexities of real world power rob it of the ability to imagine and model alternative forms of world-making. In returning Wakanda to the “terrible humanity” that is the whole world’s legacy, something is lost. But perhaps this loss is not Coates and Stelfreeze’s fault, so much as it is the necessary consequence of the double-bind of the black superhero. In seeking to modernize this character, Black Panther sacrifices the imaginative joys of the genre in order to avoid erasure of historical and political reality, even as the violence at the heart of the genre reinforces the basest notions of what people are capable of.
The inclusion of Lee and Kirby’s story in this volume also reminds us in some way of how far the genre has come. Coates’s perspective is far from the Western gaze that repeatedly expressed shock at Wakandan culture in that first story, as when Ben Grimm/the Thing remarks upon seeing an advanced Wakandan jet, “how does some refugee from a Tarzan movie lay his hands on this kinda gizmo?” Even today Marvel struggles with representations of characters of color — most recently, for instance, in Genndy Tartakovsky’s CAGE! series, with its disgustingly outdated caricatures of blackness. Only more of the voices and visionary work of black creators can achieve the kind of diversity constitutive of a people who have too often been portrayed as monolithic in the superhero genre and beyond.
Coates is inexperienced as a writer of comic books, and as such, book one of Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet can be talky and boring, diffuse and awkwardly paced. But he also challenges the superhero genre to think in complex ways about nation-states, democracy, individual power, and autocrats. I imagine that at its best, Black Panther is a sign of what Coates will be capable of in the superhero genre and the comic book medium, given time and — perhaps — a bit more faith in their visionary dimensions.