in Opinion | 01 JUN 16
Featured in
Issue 180

Ta-Nehisi Coates Re-imagines the Black Panther Comics

While the imaginative and aesthetic foundations of the original Black Panther remain, Coates has created a superhero and storyline for a new century

in Opinion | 01 JUN 16

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Black Panther, 2016. Courtesy: Marvel Comics

Two years after winning a MacArthur Foundation ‘Genius Grant’, and one year after publishing his highly lauded and genre-expanding critique Between the World and Me (Spiegel & Grau, 2015), journalist and editor Ta-Nehisi Coates has turned to the comic-book form with Black Panther (Marvel Comics, 2016). Between the World and Me and ‘The Case for Reparations’, his 2014 essay for Atlantic Monthly, both of which examined the experience of being black in America, helped to spark new conversations around race and racism, as well as forms of redress, in the country’s past and present societies. Coates penned the new, multi-issue Black Panther series, ‘A Nation Under Our Feet’, in collaboration with artist Brian Stelfreeze and colourist Laura Martin, re-animating a figure originally created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1966 at the height of the US civil rights movement. Though Black Panther was the first major black superhero in mainstream US comics, Lee and Kirby, without intending to, created a character that would embody one of the chief symbols of militancy and self-determination for Black America, as the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense and the Black Power and Arts movements came into being. (In part to distinguish their Black Panther character from the revolutionary political movement, Lee and Kirby temporarily renamed him Black Leopard in 1972.)

The original Black Panther was T’Challa, ceremonial chief of the Panther tribe and king of the collective tribes in the fictional and technologically advanced African nation of Wakanda. Orphaned after his mother sacrificed her life to save him and his father was killed fighting to protect Wakanda, T’Challa defended his people against rapacious capitalist predators such as Ulysses Klaw, who attempted to control the country’s unmatched store of the rare, vibration-muffling element vibranium. T’Challa did so utilizing a range of powers, many linked to his big-cat avatar: superhuman sensory gifts involving smell, hearing, sight and touch; otherworldly strength, speed, reflexes and stamina; and magical healing powers, which he recharged through his connections to the Panther god. As well as physical prowess and brawn, the original Black Panther possessed brain power, earning a PhD from Oxford and conducting scientific research. As his comic-book appearances increased and he proved his mettle within Wakanda, he eventually ventured from his native country to New York to fight criminals alongside Marvel’s Avengers crew, and, controversially in the 1970s, against the Ku Klux Klan. His popularity among comic-book fans never waned, but the character, for a variety of reasons, never made it into the wider popular culture or onto movie screens, although this will soon be rectified with a new film now in production starring Chadwick Boseman in the title role.

The first issue of the new series opens with Black Panther returning home to find his kingdom in social and political disarray. His sister, Shuri, who had taken over for him, has died defending the country. In his absence, Wakanda, which had never previously been conquered, has experienced a devastating flood, a coup and an invasion. As a result, the vibranium miners refuse to work, mocking T’Challa for being the ‘Orphan-King’, and follow instead the dictates of a shadowy group called The People. This leads him to seek the counsel of his step-mother, whose rigidity in dealing with the actions of one of his guards, Aneka, provokes further dissension and tragedy. Coates presents this tale in language as concise as poetry. Stelfreeze’s cinematic imagery perfectly amplifies the text’s gem-like precision.

Coates’s Black Panther ponders his royal status and the ways that power can be both used and abused for personal aggrandizement and pleasure. 

While the imaginative and aesthetic foundations of the original Black Panther comic remain, Coates and his collaborators have created a superhero and storyline for a new century. Building upon the achievements of many prior writers and artists, they demonstrate an attentiveness to themes – social and political conflict, gender and sexuality, the ethics of leadership – that never would have arisen within the framework of the original comics. One can see the influence not only of figures such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. but also of hip-hop impresario Kanye West and the first African-American president of the US, Barack Obama. Coates’s Black Panther ponders his royal status and the ways that power can be both used and abused for personal aggrandizement and pleasure. His relationship might even be instructive for contemporary rulers across the world wrestling with restive populations. As Coates has penned the narrative arc, this king cannot simply assume that a hereditary title, elite status and an appealing profile will ensure the support of his people, particularly the workers.

Black Panther’s powers have also been enhanced, without turning him into a caricature or transforming him into another superhero written as fodder for a Hollywood script. This Black Panther’s ‘soul tracking’ power – refined and deployed via metaphysical as well as digital technologies in Coates’s version – reverberates in narrative terms as well as cultural ones. Even the decision to rethink the relationship between the king and his corp of all-female bodyguards, the Dora Milaje, is forward-looking. Whereas the women constituting Black Panther’s protective cadre might once have been readily and unquestionably viewable through a sexist mid-century lens, Coates and his collaborators have drafted an approach that puts default heteronormativity squarely in the crosshairs, with the imprisoned Aneka and her fellow guard and rescuer, Ayo, sharing a loving kiss as well as a warrior’s bond. Wakanda itself is less a cartoon than a profound, techno-utopian hologram.

Coates’s Black Panther still wears his black cat suit and is no less muscular than Lee and Kirby’s original, but the emphasis appears to be less on physical prowess than on a masculinity that incorporates the possibility of failure in the pursuit of rule. The characters and the interior and exterior spaces all show a recognition of the technological shifts that are underway in the contemporary world. Coates has also imagined a more fully African Wakanda than the original, which Stelfreeze notes has led him to draw from cultures all over the continent in depicting the country and its inhabitants. Here, the words and images harmonize, and this holistic effect allows for such a smooth visual flow between and across pages that the story is almost discernable from the pictures alone. Coates and his collaborators have created a comic that is also a work of art.

Given the current parlous state of racial politics in the US, coinciding with the end of the historically symbolic Obama presidency, the new Black Panther series reads as especially timely. Coates, Martin and Stelfreeze have produced a book featuring a superhero who, in many ways, is also deeply and distinctly human. He thinks, sometimes at considerable length, before he acts; he is flawed but places his people, humanity and the wider world at the centre of his perspective; and he deals with challenges, personal and otherwise, as a (magical) realist. This comic book is as much about American society’s past – drawing its title from Steven Hahn’s award-winning 2004 social history of African-American life – and present, as it is about its characters and their (and our) futures. Coates shows that even a well-travelled pioneer, if revitalized, can still enthrall and teach more than a few new lessons about power and social unrest in the process.

John Keene is a writer based in Jersey City, USA. His most recent book, Counternarratives (2015), is published by New Directions.