Whatever kind of comic book people were expecting from Ta-Nehisi Coates, it wasn’t this. But that’s to imply anyone knew what to expect.
Hitting the shelves Wednesday, the first issue of Marvel’s newly resuscitated “Black Panther” superhero comic to be written by the journalist and best-selling author is almost more notable for what’s not in it. White people, for one thing. Americans, for another. Notable male characters aside from the hero, and even he seems barely there at times. The standard POW-THWAK-OOF of superstuds in combat.
“Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, Part 1” is a brooding, idiosyncratic comic book — probably the better for it — and it lands like an elegant counterpunch in a landscape dominated by Marvel/DC franchise wars and neurotic costumed power brawls. While the comic is separate from Black Panther’s appearance in the upcoming “Captain America: Civil War,” and a spinoff “Black Panther” movie (due in 2018) directed by Ryan Coogler (“Creed”) and starring Chadwick Boseman (“42,” “Get on Up”), all of these projects — along with TV shows like Netflix’s “Jessica Jones” — indicate that our culture’s monolithic superhero obsession is developing interesting cracks.
The character of Black Panther — King T’Challa of the fictional African kingdom of Wakanda when he’s out of uniform — was introduced in “Fantastic Four” #52 in July 1966 as a collaborative effort of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. (Coincidentally, the name predated the political party by several months. Marvel briefly redubbed the character Black Leopard before thinking better of it.)
The character got his own storyline in the mid-1970s, and every decade since has seen its own “Black Panther” series. This isn’t the first time Marvel has reached beyond the bullpen for creative input, either; filmmaker Reginald Hudlin (“House Party”) wrote the comics in 2009 and again in 2011, when Black Panther took over the “Daredevil” imprint for an extended stay.
But bringing in Coates is of a different order entirely. Simply put, he is among the most cogent, unyielding writers on race in this country, whether he’s making the case for reparations for slavery in the pages of The Atlantic or parsing for his growing son what it means to be black, American, and male in the pages of “Between the World and Me,” his 2015 National Book Award winner. As could be said of his acknowledged intellectual forebear, James Baldwin, if you’re not reading Coates — black or white — you’re not really part of the conversation. And a necessary conversation it remains, now more than ever.
So when Marvel offered Coates a chance to write a monthly “Black Panther” storyline, it was natural to assume he’d be smuggling similar concerns into the multicolored panels of the comic book medium. That assumption ignores two things. First, that the writer is a fervid comics geek. “As a child of the crack-riddled West Baltimore of the 1980s,” Coates writes in the latest issue of The Atlantic, “I found the tales of comic books to be an escape, another reality where, very often, the weak and mocked could transform their fallibility into fantastic power.”
Second, he has apparently decided that it’s much more interesting to build a black narrative-fantasy world where racial strife isn’t an issue.
Which isn’t to say that the first issue of “Black Panther” lacks drama. On the contrary, the opening panels drop us into the tense aftermath of a miners’ uprising, with the superhero/king unable to restore order. Drawn with fluid, muscular flair by artist Brian Stelfreeze, the new “Black Panther” opens with a fleeting scene of violence. It indulges in a handful of creatively drawn pitched battles — not to mention one passionate Amazon kiss — before the end of the first issue. But if Coates’s charming note on the issue’s letters page admits that what he loves to see in comics is “great art, great characters, beautiful dialogue, and people punching other people,” “A Nation Under Our Feet” seems notably lacking in the last item.
Instead, Coates appears to be exploring traditional literary territory under a novel guise. As the author explains in the new Atlantic article, “In my work for [the magazine], I have, for some time, been asking a particular question: Can a society part with, and triumph over, the very plunder that made it possible? In ‘Black Panther’ there is a simpler question: Can a good man be a king, and would an advanced society tolerate a monarch?”
Elsewhere Coates notes that his version of “Black Panther” “pulls from the archives of Marvel and the character’s own long history. But it also pulls from the very real history of society — from the pre-colonial era of Africa, the peasant rebellions that wracked Europe toward the end of the Middle Ages, the American Civil War, the Arab Spring, and the rise of ISIS.”
So King T’Challa is King Lear, and Wakanda is maybe Libya. The opening slaughter of the miners is modeled, as Coates freely admits, on the Boston Massacre of 1770. More than anything, the new “Black Panther” is a meditation on power, its uses and abuses. There’s a lot going on here, and none of it has to do — so far — with the writer’s day job of laying bare the bones and legacy of this country’s primal crime. (One of them, anyway, the other being the destruction of America’s native population.)
This is a concentrated version of what our popular culture can do at its best (i.e., when it’s not narcotizing us into oblivion), which is to mulch our disasters and dilemmas into modern myths, the better to grapple with and possibly even understand them. It’s a never-ending story, and Ta-Nehisi Coates is simultaneously retelling it and learning as he goes. Just like the rest of us.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.