This is a piece I’ve wanted to write for a long time. I’ve tried before but could never find the right words. Ta-Nehisi Coates, Brian Stelfreeze and Laura Martin’s Black Panther was one of the titles I was most excited by as I returned to reading comics in 2015. While the Black Panther was only ever a guest star in the comics I read in my youth, Ta-Nehisi Coates is one of my favorite contemporary authors. I follow his work in The Atlantic and have read his memoir Between The World and Me several times. An author I so respect coming to a medium I’ve loved since before I could read was almost too good to be true! The results proved even better than I’d imagined. The pages of Coates, Stelfreeze, and Martin’s Black Panther held a story with an elegance unlike any I’d found in a comic book before.
I think, in retrospect, what held up my writing was a bit of intimidation. First, Black Panther is this gorgeous story anchored heavily in the history, culture, and mythology of Africa. As a white American male, I was a bit intimidated by what I would say about this comic. How do I add something to the conversation about this title, something that conveys my love of this comic and character, without ringing of redundancy or appropriation? Second, I adore Ta-Nehisi Coates as an author. His work has moved, enlightened, and challenged me across mediums. He isn’t just a comic writer I enjoy but a journalist, memoirist, and cultural critic whose work is an essential part of my regular reading. I believe he’s one of the most important voices presently writing in America. So, I was also intimidated at the thought of trying to analyze the work of an author I respect so much and have admired for so long.
The other day, as I was thinking about the latest issue of Black Panther, I realized I had turned this piece into an insurmountable obstacle with a marathon of overthinking. I just wanted to talk about a comic that’s become an indispensable part of my monthly pull list, but I had built the piece up so much in my head I couldn’t write it! Yet Black Panther deserves to be a regular conversation piece on this site! So I sat down and re-read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ entire run on Black Panther to date. I let it move me, as it always does. Then I started writing.
When I got out of my way and just reacted to the work itself, I finally found what I wanted to say!
One of the first things I noticed when I first read Black Panther #1 was something about it felt a little foreign. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I’ve read hundreds of comic books in my life (thousands maybe? who knows?) but something about Black Panther seemed to distance me from the narrative. I spent much of the first few issues trying to figure out exactly what it was. Could it be the writing style? Ta-Nehisi Coates has said he felt it took him a while to get used to writing in the comic book format. But, when I thought about it, the scripting in those early issues didn’t bother me. In fact, I liked how it felt a little different. These comics read with a narration and dialogue more akin to a novel than a comic book. I slowed my reading, needing to savor the words, to absorb the concepts, more than a usual comic. As I said above, there is an elegance here. The nature of the writing fits the sophistication of the story too. Black Panther is not a simple tale of king and kingdom or superhero and villain but a story of divisions and transformations, rulers and revolutionaries, sacrifice and the soul, politics, theology, and identity. The tone and content of the writing are the stuff of great literature and I enjoy it. The art, colors, and inking are equally beautiful, presenting these complex concepts and characters with authenticity and vibrancy. On every level this comic feels like a master class on what the genre can do. So why did it feel so different from other comics?
Then it hit me. Ta-Nehisi Coates has done all he can to make certain T’Challa, his people, and the nation of Wakanda feel authentically African. I realized that was what was throwing me off. The authentic African feel of this comic was what seemed foreign to me in those first few issues. I then saw with stark clarity how the overwhelming majority of comic book narratives, regardless of the heroes or where the stories are set, are filtered through the white European lens that dominates our culture. Reading a story free of this perspective threw me at first. In this realization I came to see just how white/European the history I’ve learned has been too.
Sure, before I had this revelation I would have affirmed the history I’ve read was primarily from a white/European vantage point. But I had no idea how completely this had shaped me unconsciously. I loved history in middle school and in high school too. I went to college with plans to become a history teacher and, while I also got a BA in Religious Studies and now teach Theology, I did get my teaching certification in Social Studies. Degree or not, nothing in any of those courses, class conversations, texts, or papers gave me any practical framework to find this vision of Wakanda anywhere near as familiar as the worlds of the Avengers or X-Men. Without fully knowing it, I have been trained to approach history in the same way I’ve come to unconsciously expect to experience my fiction – from a white, European perspective. My historical training left me unprepared for Coates’ Wakanda.
I was saddened by this revelation and what it illustrated of the institutional bias (conscious and intentional or not) of my schooling. Since I’ve began teaching, especially the Peace & Justice section of my Catholic Tradition course (which includes units on confronting racism and working for just immigration), I’ve been seeking to widen the cultural scope of authors I read. If I’m to teach my students about people all over the world, I have to acknowledge the limitations of my own vantage point as a white American male and find voices outside my perspective to authentically educate me. Only then can I share those voices with my students in the hope of helping to authentically educate them. Coates’ Black Panther underscored the limits of my own undergrad work as well as offering an appreciated reading list to continue to expand my own perspective by way of the texts seen on the shelves of (and being discussed by) characters like Changamire and T’Challa, as well as the works Coates has referenced in the letters page of the comic.
Once I realized it was my academic framework for history that was putting a sort of “distance” between myself and the material in the comic, it became easier to look around that programmed bias and see the story (and the world of Wakanda) itself more clearly. Now, twenty-one issues into Ta-Nehisi Coates’ run, I no longer feel that distance as I read Black Panther. Being reminded of the lenses I’m looking at the world through, and being challenged to lift them and change them from time to time, is an important lesson and one of the gifts I’ve found in Black Panther.
Deep, existential, and unsettling looks at my unconscious learned biases aside, Black Panther is also an enthralling read. It’s a great comic book! Rendered with vividness by Brian Stelfreeze and Laura Martin, Ta-Nehisi Coates has given us the portrait of a man as divided as his country. The pain and purpose of each is evident.
From the very first page of Black Panther #1, we see Wakanda is being torn apart by voices crying out in frustration, desperate for reform. Yes, the sorceress Zenzi is enhancing the people’s feelings and helping to lead them to explosive riots across the country, but she isn’t bewitching them. She’s just calling forth the anger, fear, and aggravation felt in their hearts. To many Wakandans – including Aneka, Captain of the Dora Milaje (T’Challa’s elite, all female, Royal Guard), and her lover Ayo – T’Challa has abandoned his country in favor of being an Avenger. The message “No one man” burns across Wakanda, on the lips of revolutionaries, reformers, and raiders who seek to upend the traditional monarchy in the name of “a throne for the people,” and a say in their own government.
Just as his country is divided, so too is T’Challa. He is his people’s king and their protector. He is the ancestral Black Panther. But this Black Panther is also an Avenger, an Ultimate, and a man who has fought demons, monsters, gods, and aliens from one side of the cosmos to the other. His worldview is so different from that of his people. They see a king who abandons them; he sees a universe that needs protecting and a world filled with larger threats that will come for Wakanda if he doesn’t stop them first. In addition to all of this is T’Challa’s personal relationships. His heart is tied to his mother, Ramonda; his sister, Shuri; his ex-wife, Ororo; and his passion for science and invention. Naturally this leaves T’Challa constantly at crossroads. Like all of us, he exists at the nexus of all his relationships and responsibilities. This forces him to always choose some at the expense of others. And how does one choose?
What will Wakanda be? And who must the Black Panther be? In issue #12, T’Challa agrees that the time has come for Wakandans to have a voice in their future and agrees to establish a constitutional committee.
T’Challa – “…and so there will be a council in the coming months, representing every region of Wakanda. The purpose shall be a new constitution, and ultimately a new government, elected by Wakandans. The creed shall be – no one man.”
Shuri – “Very traditional brother.”
Ramonda – “You understand this does not remove your responsibility? You must remain king. The throne is still the glue of Wakanda, for the throne is the will of Bast herself. It will still be one man, and you are him.”
T’Challa – “One man who represents the nation, but not one who rules the people. I am a king, mother. Nothing can change this. But I will not be a tyrant. Our people are the most advanced in the world. Should not the institutions that govern them be the same?”
Ramonda – “Perhaps. What I do know is that in my time away, your conviction has returned. Along with my daughter.”
T’Challa – “Indeed. There will be plenty of time to talk with me, Mother. I leave you to Shuri now. I am sure you have much to discuss.”
Ramonda – “You do seem different, my son. For the first time in a long time…you seem free.”
Black Panther doesn’t talk down to its readers by offering simplistic solutions to complex problems however. A constitutional council does not a constitutional monarchy make, and there is still the struggle in Wakanda to decide just what shape their country and this new government will take. T’Challa too, while more at peace with his role in the world, is still a man divided. His role as king leaves him unable to be with the woman he loves and he must always balance the needs of Wakanda against those of the world and the universe as he has become the first Black Panther to seek to protect them all.
I found a surprisingly perfect description of the vision of the Black Panther Ta-Nehisi Coates has given us in, of all places, Russell Brand’s new book. Brand writes, “Heroism’s power is in redolence. It reminds us what we’ve always known but forgotten. We are all connected.” T’Challa is certainly a man of connections. He is connected to his people, his family, his country, his culture, the Avengers, the Ultimates, even the villains he fights. Part of the power of his story is in how he manages those connections as king, brother, son, Black Panther, and Avenger. This very human struggle, balancing all our obligations, is universal. But with T’Challa we see it play out on an incredibly large scale. From his inception by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1966, T’Challa has always been unique. Superheroes protect. That’s what they do. But T’Challa must balance his birthright, the very specific responsibilities he has to his people, with those he has willingly shouldered as an Avenger and an Ultimate.
In issue #2, T’Challa contemplates the complex nature of one specific connection, that between a king and his people:
When I Was a boy, my uncle S’Yan ruled Wakanda in my stead. And when I was of age, he stood aside as I was crowned. He did this happily. Too happily. I believed his happiness a mask for intrigue and scheme. Only with the crown upon my head did I come to understand. “Heavy is the head,” they said. The proverb does no justice to the weight of the nation, of its peoples, its history, its traditions. The day after I became king, S’Yan offered a single piece of wisdom. “Power lies not in what a king does, but in what his subjects believe he might do.”’ This was profound. For it meant that the majesty of kings lay in their mystique…not in their might. Every act of might diminished the king, for it diminished his mystique. Might exposed the king’s power and thus his limits. Might made the king human. Breakable. And so some amount of my might I have kept from the world…allowing legend and myth to fill in the gap. For what the people know not is the true power of kings. My Uncle S’Yan is dead now. Murdered by another king. I loved him. But I wish he’d told me not just of the power of kings, but of the might of the people. I wished he’d warned me they, too, had secrets. They, too, had mysteries. They, too, possess a power all their own.
This is a perfect example of the elegance, both in writing and themes, of Black Panther. No other superhero has to wrestle with this sort of tension and no other comic expresses itself in such a way. One of the most impressive things about Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Black Panther is how it manages to balance BIG issues like this – power of kings and their people, who has the right to rule, etc. – alongside the standard superhero fair of battling villains like Klaw and the Fenris Twins. It all flows together seamlessly too!
In addition to its critical acclaim and the time it’s spent atop the New York Times bestsellers list, perhaps the best indication of the power and importance of this comic is found in its letters page. (I’ve always loved the letters page of my comics, even when I was a kid.) In Black Panther I see people writing in from all over the world, expressing their gratitude and excitement for a hero, a country, a story that feels so authentically African. I see people writing in who’ve found strength and inspiration in Aneka and Ayo’s depiction. I see people saying they’re reading comics for the first time because of this book as well as people who’ve read comics for over sixty years saying they’ve never read one like this. These characters and this world are resonating the world over. I see so many examples of the joy found when someone truly sees themselves in the art they’re reading. This is a special gift.
As a white man, growing up I was able to take that gift for granted. I never had occasion to think about it since I always had it. The privilege of seeing myself in my heroes was par for the course – Spider-Man, He-Man, three fourths of the Ghostbusters, everyone around the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles who wasn’t a mutant, Captain America, Thor, Wolverine, Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Qui-Gon Jin, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Anakin Skywalker, the Fantastic Four and on and on and on and on. (Even the characters who were other colors; the Hulk, Archangel, Beast, Nightcrawler, etc., were white to begin with.) In opening the door for people of other races, cultures, genders, and sexuality to have this experience, Black Panther is as much a work of social justice as it is a classic superhero comic book. And it performs both tasks without minimizing either!
The importance of this comic at present can’t be overstated. In addition to all Black Panther holds in its pages, all it means and gives to so many people, we know Avengers: Infinity War and the fourth Avengers film will see casualties. We know (if not in those films then eventually) Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, and Chris Hemsworth will eventually step away from their place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. When Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor are gone, Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther and Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel are the obvious choices to move to the center of the Avengers and the MCU. With Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Black Panther serving as a blueprint for those stories as well as the comic fans of those films will turn to for more Black Panther, the future will be bright indeed.
To loosely paraphrase Obi-Wan Kenobi; in story, scope, and presentation, Black Panther is an elegant story for an increasingly uncivilized age. All while giving us exceptional superhero stories, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ run has helped people like me open their eyes to things they didn’t even know they weren’t seeing. And it has allowed so many people, the world over, to experience what I’ve always had growing up – the power of seeing yourself and your world reflected in the superheroes you love and the comics you read. It elevates the genre without ever relinquishing what makes great comic books great. Every month, when Black Panther comes out, I read it last of the comics I take home that week. All of the forces that make this book – the writing, art, coloring, inking, concepts, characters, storylines, etc. – come together in a way which fosters this unique elegance. As a result, I want to take my time with it. It deserves to be savored.
 Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Ta-Nehisi Coates on Writing Marvel’s Black Panther,” Atlantic Interviews video, 3:27, posted March 9, 2016, https://www.theatlantic.com/video/index/472869/ta-nehisi-coates-marvels-black-panther/.
 Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Letters Page,” Black Panther #6/8, November 2016.
 Russell Brand, Recovery: Freedom from our Addictions, (Company: City, 2017), 151.