Books

The Pitfalls and Possibilities of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s ‘Black Panther’

The cover of 'Black Panther #1' (all images courtesy Marvel unless otherwise noted)
The cover of ‘Black Panther #1’ (all images courtesy Marvel unless otherwise noted)

“The facts are in: T’Challa is black. This is not a declaration. It’s an opportunity.”

—Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Wakanda and the Black Imagination

When it was announced last fall that Ta-Nehisi Coates would write an ongoing Black Panther series at Marvel, with art by Brian Stelfreeze, people beyond the confines of the comics industry got excited. Columnist at The Atlantic and winner of the National Book Award for Between the World and Me, Coates brings the eyes of mainstream publications and readers to a lesser-known superhero: T’Challa, king of the nation of Wakanda, aka the Black Panther.

Debuting in 1966 as the first black superhero in mainstream comics, T’Challa is now, 50 years later, being steered by two African American men at one of the big two publishers — with comics shops selling out of issue one on its first day. This holds quite a bit of weight in a historically white industry that’s trying to meet the demands of readers who are feverishly requesting more diversity in both their content and its creators. (See, for instance, my colleague J. A. Micheline’s vow to boycott Marvel until they’ve hired three different black writers for ongoing books and initiated three queer-led ongoing books.)

Page from 'Black Panther' (click to enlarge)
Page from ‘Black Panther’ (click to enlarge)

With all this in mind, it’s hard not to imagine the pressures that Coates and Stelfreeze were feeling while working on this book. In one of the posts from his Conceptualizing the Black Panther blog at The Atlantic, Coates admits to his worries about taking on this job and his reasons for doing so anyway:

I guess I should start by saying I’ve never done this before. I expect that there will be stumbles and screw-ups on my part. My nightmare basically involves this turning into some sort of stunt or vanity project. I did not take this on to look pretty, or add a line to my CV. I took it on for the same reason I take on new stories—to grow intellectually and artistically. In this case it’s another genre—fictional, serial story-telling—one a good distance away from journalism, memoir, and essays.

I found Coates’s blog — which offers an inside look at his process — insightful, but I read it only after reading Black Panther #1. I then reread the issue with the blog in mind and could see what Coates was trying to achieve with Stelfreeze’s collaboration. However, since we’re discussing fears and worries, it seems appropriate to voice my own: I was afraid to write anything on Black Panther #1 because I wasn’t in love with it. I’m aware of the importance of its space in the comics sphere, but the first issue is not without its flaws.

Detail of a page from 'Black Panther' (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)
Detail of a page from ‘Black Panther’ (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

Comics is a dance between words and art, and the best comics draw on the strengths of both. This first Black Panther is by no means bad, but it’s missing the synergy that brings the form to life. Coates falls into the trap of telling rather than showing, mainly with repeated discussions of the state of Wakanda: in Black Panther’s narration at the beginning, when Ayo is defending her fellow royal guard and lover Aneka at the latter’s trial, when T’Challa’s stepmother, Ramonda, talks to him. By the end, I understood very well that Wakanda had been destabilized after an invasion by the villain Thanos, and that the people’s trust in their king had been called into question, but I didn’t care about or feel invested in the characters. The art could have played a bigger role in visually depicting this shift in Wakanda, while the writing could have held back a bit on that front to focus more on the characters.

With regards to the art, Stelfreeze is clearly talented, but there are certain moments when his work really shines. One is the first page, which shows a kneeling and hurt T’Challa in front of the people who’ve cast him out. This is a commanding start that combines a captivating layout, rich use of color (credit to the colorist, Laura Martin), and Coates’s writing. It’s a page that sets the tone for what the book (and the series) hopes to achieve: a reckoning with the fact that T’Challa has failed as king.

Page from 'Black Panther #1'
Page from ‘Black Panther #1’

For the first Black Panther and me, it wasn’t love at first sight, but what we have here is the possibility of love. Coates has given us a story where women are playing active roles in the politics of Wakanda. He’s exploring the conflicts within someone whose activities as a superhero may have cost him the trust of his people — who are themselves reevaluating the need for a king in an age when democracies exist. These are compelling, current ideas, and I’m interested to see how Coates tackles and resolves them over the course of this yearlong arc. I think Stelfreeze could stand to experiment more with the layout, but most importantly, I want to watch Coates’s growth as a comic book writer. Because at the end of the day, this is a new experience for him, and he’s very conscious of it. I appreciate the research he’s put into this book and his enthusiasm as a comics fan. I’m rooting and reading for that magical moment when this team finds its groove.

Black Panther #1 is published by Marvel and available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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