It’s always exciting when a writer from another media platform comes in to take a ride with superheroes. Joss Whedon made waves with his Astonishing X-Men run in 2004, and TV screenwriter Allan Heinberg’s Young Avengers kickstarted the most energetic teenage heroes in the entire Marvel universe. Marvel’s latest crossover may be the most interesting of all, however. Ta-Nehisi Coates, known for both hard-hitting journalism in The Atlantic and poetic memoirs like the bestselling Between the World and Me, is now writing Black Panther, Marvel’s first and foremost black superhero. Excitement has been building for months. Now the comic’s here, and it’s great. So let’s walk through it.
First, a quick catch-up for those not already familiar with the Black Panther character: Originally introduced in the pages of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four, Black Panther (real name T’Challa) was mainstream comics’ first black superhero. From the beginning, he shattered stereotypes. Black Panther was a genius on par with Tony Stark, and a noble king of an independent, advanced nation. T’Challa rules over Wakanda, a fictional African country enriched and empowered by its unique connection to a rare metal called vibranium (the material used for Captain America’s shield). Wakanda is a wonder of both scientific advancement and mystical tradition, a combination embodied in the Panther himself. “Black Panther” is not a secret superhero disguise but a mantle held by Wakanda’s ruler, connecting T’Challa with the wisdom of his ancestors and the power of the Panther God.
Thanks to its scientific advancement and fearsome protector, Wakanda was supposed to be invulnerable. Recent Marvel crossovers like Avengers vs. X-Men and Secret Wars saw the country attacked and devastated. T’Challa’s sister Shuri, who had temporarily taken over from him as ruler, was killed. T’Challa himself joined a secret superhero Illuminati to prevent the Marvel Universe’s destruction at the hands of parallel realities, but those events took their toll. This takes us to the first page of Black Panther #1, which depicts flashbacks of T’Challa being disowned by the ghost of his father, taunted by Namor, and abandoned by his bodyguards. Here are other interesting takeaways.
New characters and powers
T’Challa is the hero here, but so far Black Panther does not lack for interesting supporting characters. The first pages introduce a mysterious villain with some kind of telepathic power; she uses mind control to inflame rioters at Wakanda’s main vibranium site. After months of suffering cataclysmic outside attacks, Black Panther’s greatest threat now comes from within Wakanda. We don’t know a lot about his new female foe at this point – does she incept her victims, or merely inflame thoughts they already had? Apparently this telepathy has its costs; she complains about lingering pain of “auras” after some Wakandans die under her control. She calls herself a “liberator” for Wakandans, but the force she’s gathering at the border certainly doesn’t seem very liberating.
Aside from T’Challa, this issue does not contain another prominent male figure. Another compelling female character is Ramonda, T’Challa’s widowed stepmother (and the mother of dearly departed Shuri). Ramonda is just as weary of recent events as everyone else seems to be – “more death, T’Challa?” she asks at one point. Yet she is fully committed to the legitimacy and power of royalty; she reminds T’Challa that he is not a soldier but a king. More importantly, she steels herself into upholding a death sentence for Aneka, one of T’Challa’s bodyguards.
Aneka and Ayo are both members of the Dora Milaje, or “adored ones,” the elite female force in charge of protecting the king. This issue finds them finally breaking these boundaries, however. Aneka receives the death sentence for killing a male chieftain who was raping his female villagers. Ayo states that she was acting “as the honor of Wakandan fathers and brothers have demanded,” but Ramonda upholds the sentence, saying the Dora Milaje need to be exemplars. And so Ayo breaks her friend out, deciding not to beholden themselves to a single man any longer. They become lovers and don awesome-looking “Midnight Angel” robot suits, leaving their old roles behind.
Playing with politics
Coates does not shy away from politics in his writing, and it appears his Black Panther will also touch on political issues in between its superhero battle sequences. The protestors at the beginning of the comic attack T’Challa while screaming “death to tyrants” and “a throne for Wakandans.” It’s unclear at this point whether this feeling was genuine or created by the mysterious telepath. T’Challa certainly seems to believe the latter, but he can also tell his people are discontent and divided from him. His failure to protect his people from recent devastation is certainly causing everyone to rethink the Wakandan system. The arc title, “A Nation Under Our Feet,” appears to suggest that Black Panther will heavily interrogate T’Challa’s relationship with his country. Hopefully his citizens’ discontent won’t be chalked up solely to telepathic control. It’s always disheartening to see works like The Dark Knight Rises or Fear the Walking Dead take legitimate political grievances and turn them into mere facades for supernatural villainy.
This story also touches on gender politics. Aneka and Ayo rebel against sexist standards of justice, while Romanda faces her own dilemma as a grieving mother who must steel herself to help rule this dangerous time. It’ll be interesting to see how both these political themes develop through the rest of the story.
Up to this point, Coates’ various works have remained distinct. His posts in The Atlantic range from quick hit blog posts to long-form investigate pieces rooted in history and reporting. His books, on the other hand, are written with a more poetic style, and focus on his personal experience. This comic is obviously different from those predecessors, in format and tone. Coates is writing the type of Marvel superhero book he grew up with, not discoursing on the role of racism in the New Deal. And yet there does seem to be some connection to his literary themes. Between the World and Me, for example, grounds racism in visceral bodily experience – “how do I live free in this black body?” Black Panther, too, is concerned with the body as both symbolic and visceral.
When T’Challa is grabbed by protestors, he rages against his telepathic foe “consuming the body of the nation, dividing me from my very blood.” Later, Aneka and Ayo’s decision to leave the Dora Milaje and become lovers takes form as a bodily transformation. They change from their classic feminine clothing, designed for the male gaze of their king (“adored ones,” remember) into genderless robot armor, to fit their new roles outside the heteronormative Wakandan tradition. It’ll be fun to keep an eye on this theme.
Coates is an avowed rap fan; he once wrote a great MF Doom profile for The New Yorker, and used rap lyrics in his promotional tweets for Black Panther #1. So perhaps it’s no surprise when Aneka and Ayo directly quote Kanye West when deciding to leave T’Challa — “no one man should have all that power” — but it’s still a fun surprise. Going forward, it’ll be fun to see what kind of Nas and Wu-Tang Clan references he can sneak into the speech bubbles.
What does this mean for the movie?
Coates isn’t the only creator working with Black Panther in the near future. After the character makes his big-screen debut in Captain America: Civil War, Ryan Coogler (Creed) is set to direct a solo feature, set for sometime in 2018. Though Coates tweeted that he isn’t involved in the movie at all, and it would be foolish to only read Black Panther in light of a movie that’s still years away, it would be cool to see the film take notes from this comic. Artist Brian Stelfreeze’s futuristic vision of Wakanda, for instance, could survive the transition to screen remarkably well. And the political issues at play would certainly help a Black Panther movie do interesting things within the superhero format, the way Netflix’s Jessica Jones series used its hero to explore issues of abuse and rape.