If sports fans draft fantasy teams of players, comic book fans likewise draft fantasy teams of creators. Favored characters may be paired with dream writers, or amazing writers might be paired with peerless illustrators.
And so it came to pass that Marvel Comics, in a fit of cultural awareness perhaps unequaled in contemporary comic book publishing, invited Ta-Nehisi Coates to write the newest series of Black Panther. Mr. Coates is an award-winning author of numerous books and articles on the intersection of race, culture and politics in contemporary America. T’Challa, the Black Panther, is the king of Wakanda, a fictional African nation that is simultaneously technologically advanced and wed to traditional cultural norms. This new project was announced last year, in the midst of an America struggling anew with questions related to race, society, violence and inequality. The announcement was greeted with great enthusiasm—and for good reason.
T’Challa has long been a fascinating character in the Marvel pantheon. He was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in an issue of the Fantastic Four in 1966 (only a few months before the founding of the Black Panther Party). At the time, he was the only black comic book hero in a mainstream publication. Since his first appearance in print, he has headlined several standalone titles, with mixed commercial success, and has always remained a major player within the Marvel universe as a member of a group of characters known as the Illuminati.
Any story involving the Black Panther has to face the serious tensions inherent in the character. He is not a freelance superhero, nor is he responsible simply to a team, like the Avengers or the X-Men. Instead, he is the monarch of Wakanda, a sovereign country, and has to deal with domestic and international politics. That country, too, is riddled with tensions. Wakanda is recovering from invasion and war and is riven with various social, political and religious factions, within the royal family, between the elites and the working classes, and between the cults aligned with traditional national beliefs. It is portrayed as highly advanced technologically, dependent upon trade in the desirable mineral vibranium, a useful plot device in the Marvel universe. Coexisting with this technologically advanced utopia is a traditional culture built upon mystic and mythic notions of the nation and its people. Indeed, the Black Panther himself is a sort of manifestation of the nation; think Captain America but with a quasi-mystical overlay.
Through a Different Lens
Much of T’Challa’s story has been developed through the lens of white American creators. In his first few stories, T’Challa was essentially a plot device to allow white heroes and characters to question their own paradigms and privileges. In the early 1970s, his first turn as a starring character was in the unfortunately titled Jungle Action. Yet over time the character evolved from a mere caricature. In the late 1990s, Christopher James Priest (often credited simply as “Priest”) wrote a series starring T’Challa. Priest introduced or reinvigorated many aspects of the Black Panther mythos. He did not invent the Black Panther but gave him an identity independent of white heroes and teams; Priest developed the idea, for example, that T’Challa joined the Avengers only in order to evaluate them as a threat to Wakanda.
In the early 2000s, Reginald Hudlin likewise took the character in new directions, exploring what it would mean to be both king and superhero. This was the point at which T’Challa married the X-Man Storm, herself from Africa and long portrayed as a regal and even quasi-divine figure. Since then, although the Black Panther has not had his own series, he has remained at the forefront of the Marvel universe, holding leading roles in recent company-wide stories like Avengers vs. X-Men (2012), Infinity (2013) and last summer’s Secret Wars. And he has taken the lead of a team solving cosmic-level problems in the recently launched series The Ultimates.
What is fascinating about Mr. Coates taking on the character is only partially the novelty of having a mainstream black comic book character written by an African-American (or the novelty of having an African-American comic book creator at all), though that is important. Rather, it is because, in hiring Mr. Coates, Marvel has reached outside the box to bring in a creator who is invested in and engaged with the questions and tensions of race and society; Mr. Coates is arguably the most well-known voice within this conversation in the United States today. The decision to hire him shows that Marvel is truly interested in telling a meaningful and engaging story about the intersection of race, culture and politics.
In his own reflections on writing Black Panther, Mr. Coates states that the comic is, in some ways, an extension of some of the broader themes he has traditionally worked with: “In my work for The Atlantic 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?” Mr. Coates offers a different way to explore the deep questions of how we live in Black Panther. While a comic book is not a seminar on race relations or critical theory, the narrative becomes a lens through which readers can engage these questions. Readers can see how characters in Wakanda live out their daily struggles and try to engage these tensions in the real world.
To see a writer of Mr. Coates’s caliber involved with a superhero comic released by a flagship publisher is an amazing sight—but one that is becoming less so. Like many media, comic books in recent years have been critiqued for their lack of diversity and for even pandering to the supposed “ideal” comic book reader—the straight, white, middle-class boy aged 15- to 25. Marvel, though, has pushed back in recent years, bringing minority and women characters and creators to the fore. Legacy characters like Spider-Man, Captain America and Thor have all seen minority and women characters take on greater roles in their stories. Female creators have successfully written for popular series like Captain Marvel or have created new ones like the very popular Kamala Khan, a Pakistani-American teenager who has become the new Ms. Marvel.
The story of Ta-Nehisi Coates and T’Challa of Wakanda becomes perhaps the most high-profile example of a publisher seeking not to take advantage of minority communities but rather to celebrate and truly represent them. Though the early reviews have been positive, it is too early to know if Mr. Coates’s run will be successful. Still, as part of developments that see popular media open to all voices and experiences of our society, and media unafraid to invite serious intellectuals to bridge the gap between theory and culture, we can already count the newest volume of The Black Panther a welcome and important contribution.