Published on April 21st, 2016 | by Geraldine Malone0
Ta-Nehisi Coates and Black Panther
Journalist and Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates is added to the list of literary figures who’ve tackled comic book characters with his new vision for Black Panther.
Black Panther has always been ahead of the curve, and with the new reincarnation from the pen of Ta-Nehisi Coates, that curb is exciting, relevant, and profound.
There’s been a lot of excitement within the comic community, as well as the larger literary community since it was announced that Coates would be writing the new story for Black Panther, the genius, noble king, with the real name T’Challa. As a journalist Coates has been on my radar as a regular writer for The Atlantic and a contributor to New York Times Magazine, Washington Post, and Time, among others. As an author, his recent book Between the World and Me won the 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction and he received the Genius Grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. He has become one of the most prolific and well known voices contributing to the conversation around African American culture, political struggles, and over-incarceration.
Clearly, I’m a bit of a fangirl but it wasn’t assured that his literary and journalism achievements meant Coates’ writing would translate to the pages of a comic. Luckily, he is also a fan and avid reader of comics, so he wasn’t coming in without his own knowledge of the medium.
With Coates’ name on the title there was a lot of interest from people, myself included, who hadn’t been avid Black Panther readers in the past. So, I did some research before opening the first page to find out about T’Challa. T’Challa first showed up in Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four and was mainstream comics’ first black superhero.
He held an important role in comics and larger society by shattering black stereotypes. He was a genius (we are talking Tony Stark smart) and a king. He ruled over the advanced nation of Wakanda, a fictional African country with a lot of vibranium, which most people know as the material used for Captain America’s shield. It’s also important to recognize that Black Panther isn’t the super secret alter ego for T’Challa, it’s actually like a crown or a sigil held by Wakanda’s ruler — it connects them with their ancestors and is symbolism of that line.
In Coates’ Black Panther #1, drawn by Brian Stelfreeze and coloured by Laura Martin, we enter Wakanda in a time of crisis. The nation was believed to be unconquerable but after a biblical flood, coup by Doctor Doom, and an invasion by Thanos, the kingdom has been humbled. T’Challa, having returned from fighting with The Avengers, has reclaimed his role as king, but the people are restless.
It’s an interesting setup with a lot of potential. The first pages introduce interesting and new characters including a mysterious woman using telepathic powers to disrupt workers at the Wakanda mine. Then there is Aneka and Ayo, members of the Dora Milaje, the elite female royal guard, who must chose to follow the old rule of the king or stand up for the injustice they see in the communities. In their choice, they make the profound statement that, “No one man should have that much power,” which drives the internal struggle of many characters including T’Challa. It’s also a Kanye West quote, and there’s likely a lot more hip hop references to be dropped into the series as it continues (I’m hoping for Nas and MF Doom).
What makes this comic great, besides the amazing art and colouring (Black Panther looks badass), is that the underlying messages of politics, gender politics, power, and patriarchy. In only the first comic the reader sees workers revolt against what they see as tyranny of the royal rule. We see Wakanda has lost faith in their leader after he failed to be there in time of crisis. And we see women refusing to bend the knee for another man in power. We also see a leader struggle between the demands of a historical identity and modern pressures for assimilation.
This hero is special because underneath the suit he is a king, below the crown he is a man, and surrounding him are the intersectional pressures that attach themselves to each one of those titles. The questions that the arc titled, “a Nation Under Our Feet,” have already brought up are things which are relevant in our daily lives, political structures, and even global relations. That is a lot to put on a comic book, but luckily it seems that Black Panther is the character who can handle it.