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Between the World and Wakanda:

Ta-Nehisi Coates and Brian


Stelfreezes Black Panther
By Osvaldo Oyola

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 Coatess
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 Coatess 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 Coatess
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 characters 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, TChalla, 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, TChalla 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
Hickmans New Avengers and the crossover series, Secret Wars, that
followed, the Black Panthers 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 Coatess series takes off, while at
the same time reshifting TChallas 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 Wakandas citizens including
TChallas 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 Panthers 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 protagonists
relationship to power distinct from his race, while not erasing the
assumption of white supremacy that undergirds the superhero genre. The
Black Panthers 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, Coatess 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 Panthers 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 Coatess professor Linda
Heywood asked him to consider the implications of this story about a
queens 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 dont.

Coatess TChalla 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 Wakandas 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, TChallas 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, its 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. Coatess take challenges the simple
narrative of Wakandas exotic exceptionalism in the history of the Marvel
Universe, but he has not yet sufficiently established whats at stake through
either TChallas personal relationships or the common Wakandans 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 Panthers confidence and authority might have made the book more
accessible to new and old readers alike. Or perhaps, Coatess 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 Stelfreezes Black


Panther includes a reprint of the characters first appearance in Stan Lee
and Jack Kirbys Fantastic Four #52 (1966). While a thoughtful addition to
the collection, Jack Kirbys art in the issue is a reminder of the
inventiveness and energy possible in the comics medium qualities that
Stelfreezes art mostly lacks. Granted, drawing the new Black Panther in
the style of Marvels Silver Age comics might make the series seem
antiquated or primitive. But Stelfreezes over-reliance on page-wide, faux-
cinematic paneling gives the narrative a pace that plods more often than it
compels. Stelfreezes 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 Kirbys Wakandan setting seem simultaneously ancient
and futurist. Colorist Laura Martins 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
Panthers 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 seriess 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 worlds legacy, something is lost. But perhaps
this loss is not Coates and Stelfreezes 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 Kirbys story in this volume also reminds us in
some way of how far the genre has come. Coatess 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 Tartakovskys 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.

Osvaldo Oyola teaches in the New York University Expository Writing


Program and writes on pop culture, race, and gender in his blog, The
Middle Spaces.