FIGHT THE POWER
Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Black Panther: A Powerful Symbol for the Black Lives Matter Generation
The acclaimed cultural commentator has penned a limited series of Marvel’s African superhero, and the timing couldn’t be better.
“You have no people. You are no longer my son.”
The first issue of the much-hyped, Ta-Nehisi Coates-penned Black Panther limited series landed at comic book shops this Wednesday, with fans of the titular character and fans of one of America’s most visible cultural commentators clamoring to see what Coates can do with Marvel Comics’ second most mythic African character (Storm still holds a special place in the public’s collective heart and in Marvel lore.) With the superhero set to make his motion picture debut in May alongside Captain America, Iron Man, Black Widow, and the rest of the Avengers in Captain America: Civil War, and with a Ryan Coogler-helmed Black Panther film slated for 2017, all eyes are on T’Challa right now.
“A Nation Under Our Feet” opens with Black Panther tormented by his own feelings of failure and regret, struggling with issues of identity and responsibility. Wakanda is in turmoil and support for T’Challa at low ebb, raising the question of what happens if his people reject him. In one of the issue’s most compelling moments, T’Challa’s stepmother, Ramonda, conveys to the frustrated hero that intelligence must inform all action—and that the burden of leadership is heavy. But he’s confused and angry. The country is on the brink of civil war, and Black Panther himself may resort to desperate measures to resolve the bloodshed.Because of Coates’s status as one of the more high-profile commentators on race in America, it’s hard not to read a lot of it as an allegory for the conflicting elements that contribute to so much of the black experience—a legacy of righteous rebellion born of oppression’s weight. And this character and story is the perfect vessel to address and examine those realities.
“I think over the past year I have enjoyed, to be frank with you, an amount of success I did not expect, I never expected to happen,” Coates told NPR when discussing his work on the book. “When that happens, people place you in certain positions you did not even necessarily ask for, and I found myself writing about that in the comic book.”
And Coates also acknowledged how the character’s angst mirrors anyone’s expected to be a leader or a spokesperson: “If they say, ‘You king of the blacks,’ you’re king of the blacks—whether you like it or not. You understand what I’m saying? Even if you in your heart never accept it and you can say it over and over and over again, people have a perception of you nonetheless.”
“But to bring that back to T’Challa, that was how I got to the character being in a position where he felt committed to do certain things, but in his heart was really not there,” Coates continued. “It just really wasn’t who he was—he was someone else. And it’s like where we began this conversation. In my heart, I’m a comic book writer, I am, and I don’t necessarily see that in conflict in the kind of essay writing I do with The Atlantic, but when people hear that they’re like, ‘What?’”
Black Panther was created in the late 1960s, when black awareness was at its most visible. He debuted in the pages of the Fantastic Four before becoming a fixture in The Avengers and in the early 1970s, landing a centralized role in the Jungle Action series. Black Panther landed his own self-titled series in the late ’70s, but it was cancelled after just 15 issues.
Despite a 1989 mini-series, Black Panther had been relegated to the background of my mind as a young comic book fan in the late ’80s. I knew him mostly from older issues of The Avengers and Marvel “Who’s Who” books, but he didn’t seem anywhere near as emphasized as other Marvel mainstays. As such, I grew up much more versed in the X-Men and Spider-Man than I did the King of Wakanda. But, as has been well-documented, the late ’90s series by Christopher Priest reinvigorated the character after decades of being underappreciated, and Reginald Hudlin’s take on the character from 10 years ago fortified his origin story. Black Panther became one of the coolest characters in the modern Marvel universe—and the timing couldn’t be better.
“You are not a soldier. You are a king.”
Marvel superheroes have become more high-profile than ever over the past 10-15 years via acclaimed and popular movies and television shows. Even people who have never set foot in a comic book store can now offer some casual commentary on characters like Wolverine, Daredevil, and Thor, but for the most part, black characters have only been afforded a peripheral spotlight. It’s easy to forget that the comic book film renaissance of the 2000s largely started with 1998’s Blade—a film about a somewhat secondary Marvel character that starred Wesley Snipes and grossed $131 million worldwide. After the X-Men and Spider-Man film series’ launched, and following the emergence of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, most black superheroes featured have been relatively ancillary.
That’s why fans were understandably excited when it was announced that Black Panther would be making an appearance in Captain America: Civil War and subsequently, would take center stage in his own 2018 feature film. We’ve seen Storm, Nick Fury, Falcon, and War Machine onscreen fighting bad guys—but Black Panther will be the first Marvel hero to land a starring gig since Blade almost 20 years ago. An African hero of royal lineage who watches over a technologically and culturally advanced nation makes for an intriguing movie character, and one that fans have been clamoring for.
This current fascination with the character of Black Panther coincides with a surge in black stories being told in the most visible spaces. Two of the biggest television events of 2016 thus far have been The People v. O.J. Simpson and WGN’s Underground. Albums like Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly became critical darlings over the past year and superstars from Beyoncé to John Legend are all making sure their voices are heard in regards to black identity and the current state of race relations in America. Black Panther-as-imagined-by-Ta-Nehisi Coates is right on time.
“How long must I be divided from my own people? From my country? From my own blood?”
Coates may be inexperienced as a comic book writer, but him being tapped to pen this series, Brian Stelfreeze doing the artwork, and Ryan Coogler being named director of the upcoming Black Panther film is significant because of the timing and because it’s important for this character, especially at this moment, to be guided by black experience and perspective. Regardless of Black Panther being the invention of two white men in Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, black people are playing a major role in bringing him to mass audiences in 2016-18. The character’s most acclaimed iterations came through the lens of black writers in Priest and Hudlin, and the voice always matters.
I haven’t really considered myself a comic book fan since around 1994. I haven’t been the guy getting into debates in shops and on social media about various crossovers and miniseries events. I don’t know much retconned history since the early 1990s and I’m not one to nitpick the movies for not toeing the line in terms of accuracy to source material (although Kitty Pryde’s time-displacing abilities in X-Men: Days of Future Past just make no sense at all.) But even with all of that considered, I’ve been beyond excited for Black Panther. And Black Panther #1 is a great first step in the pop culture re-emergence of T’Challa. It’s fun to see Coates putting his spin on Wakanda, the Dora Milaje (his cadre of female protectors), and the hero’s persona and folklore. The cynical could suggest that centering Black Panther now is merely Marvel’s way of pandering to current socio-political trends, but this is a good time to emphasize Black Panther as an important and compelling character. Comic book fans have known it for years. Time for the rest of us to catch up.