Just finished Black Panther #1 to #3. While the hatred of the book is well-known in certain circles, I don’t believe it is deserved. This is my opinion only. I do not speak for anyone who works at Marvel. I have no vested interest and admit to being a person who was dubious of Ta-Nehesi Coates of working on this title effectively.
Since I wrote this article, I have been involved in several debates on the topic, ranging from the racist overtones in how Wakanda is depicted, the existence of rape camps in the story, the idea that Coates has been allowed to further ruin the reputation of the Black Panther, after the debacle of Doom-War, the attack by Namor and later Thanos and other indignities suffered by Wakanda at the hands of various writers. There is even a debate signifying Coates is making a negative statement when he shows T’challa injecting himself with some unknown agent using a hypodermic needle.
I won’t be talking about anything that happened before Coates and Stelfreeze took over the book. I hated those stories and they were instrumental in my avoidance of anything to do with the Black Panther. I admit to not reading much with the character in it until I started reading the recent issues of the Ultimates, an Avengers story where Black Panther and a group of diverse heroes troubleshoot issues trying to preemptively solve problems rather than simply reacting to them. (A book I have enjoyed until the cross-over with Civil War II. Civil War makes everything taste crappier…An article for another day.)
Why this Black Panther is not like the others…
The first three issues of the series is rich, with complex characterizations, multiple factions, different perspectives and for the first time since I have seen the Panther, he is not perfect. I caught hell for saying this so I will explain. As far back as I can remember, the Black Panther has always been a smart guy who always seemed to be one step ahead of his opponents.
Always having the perfect plan, or lacking that, a brilliant improvisation which gets him the win. He kept his enemies in the dark about his abilities, and always managed to keep coming up with something new. Having him appear anything less than ideal has been a hard look for a character who has been written, pretty much from his origin, to always have a plan, to always be one step ahead of his enemies.
This Panther is not perfect. He is still always thinking, always in his head, but the thoughts we see are not the thoughts of a man confident of his way but one conflicted even as he solves problems, he only discovers that his solution revealed even bigger ones.
As the Damisa-Sarki, he is the spirit of the Panther, able to track not just the flesh but the soul of his prey. This is a Panther who is a bit different than we remember. He is conflicted, challenged by even by his successes. Abandoned by the powers of his past, even his ancestors appear to be unavailable to him. With his sister Shuri, trapped between Life and Death, T’challa is the most unbalanced we have ever seen him.
I can see this disturbing readers who believe T’challa should always be the Batman of the Marvel Universe, never surprised, never caught off guard, unflappable, unstoppable, mysterious. But perfect for the nature of the comic universe, written by comic writers. Ta-nehisi Coates has dared to be complicated, slower, more thoughtful, and perhaps challenging the legends of the Panther as he has been shown, to date.
Risky. It could backfire. Indeed, among many readers, it has left them cold, unwilling to follow. I am not one of those readers.
There are multiple threads being established in this run. The normally loyal Dora Milaje are revealed to be disturbed by the nature of warlords sweeping through the kingdom, the undermining of the peace, and the inability of the Black Panther to control the changes taking place. A nation in turmoil, surviving external assaults from multiple, powerful opponents, now suffers from internal disturbances which may have never come to light except for the weakening of the national infrastructures.
The Dora Milaje (pronounced “dora-meh-LAH-shay”) are the personal bodyguards of the Black Panther, recruited from every tribe of Wakanda. In addition with their protective function, they are also a pool of superior Wakandan women. An ancient tribal tradition, the Dora Milaje were assembled as potential queens for an unmarried king, maintaining the peace in Wakanda by ensuring that every tribe has the opportunity to put forward one of their daughters for the crown. Dora Milaje traditionally speak only in the Hausa dialect, and only to the king or each other. The practice of employing Dora Milaje was discontinued until recent years.
Two such loyal members driven to extremes by the nature of their service and their illicit love, break away, steal technology and become a radical power, seeking to bring justice to women and children, often forgotten during coups and warlords who abuse those unable to defend themselves.
Aneka and Ayo are two characters whose motivations are still aborning; they are trying to rationalize their actions, still trying to determine if they are even right in their actions. And yet, they are sympathetic characters, because in their acts, they are righteous, even if for the wrong reasons. Doesn’t matter to me, because I like the characters. I like their love. I like their powered armor. I like their reasons for being. I can’t wait to see more of them being written by the first Black woman to write for Marvel for 75 years, Roxane Gay in Black Panther: World of Wakanda.
The two real insurgents are like most complex villains. They believe they are bringing back a Wakanda lost during the rule of the Panther Kings. Fine ideals, poised behind high-minded rhetoric, they have the sound of most religious leaders who believe they know what’s spiritually best for you, even if it seems as if there might be a better way but everyone is caught up in the moment. Given we see the very land itself speaking against everything occurring, we know they are just as wrong as anyone else seeking power.
The psychic Zenzi and her handler, the Shaman Tetu, are in their way, another force seeking to bring Wakanda down, this time from within. Their belief that they know the will of the people brings another faction to the battle, this one believes they know the Will of the People.
We learn Wakanda, the very land itself is possibly intelligent, aware and unhappy with the state of affairs, as unhappy with what has happened with the recent issues, Doom, Namor and Thanos, but displeased with Wakanda’s divergence from the truly spiritual nature of the nation itself, instead relying on Vibranium to determine the future of the people.
We see the Land having a conversation with Shuri who T’challa believes is trapped between life and death. We don’t know what this entails only that the very nation of Wakanda is displeased with what has happened within it.
This is not an ordinary run of Black Panther. It may be one of the most challenging stories I have ever read. I have heard the complaint that this series does not have enough Black Panther. As if there was a recommended amount of T’challa which should appear on every page.
Okay, I can agree with the spirit of that statement. Up to this point, for the story to fly, we need to see everyone else’s point of view to make their stories real and significant. Unlike most runs of the Black Panther, we are not the lone King, running around in the outside world having adventures. In this story, we are inside of Wakanda, giving names to places, giving ideas and background. We are world-building and you shouldn’t rush that process.
As to whether we should see more Panther, perhaps the very idea espoused by the story should be considered: “Power lies not in what a king does, but in what his subjects believe he might do. This was profound. For it meant the majesty of kings lay in their mystique…not in their might.”
This Black Panther story does not rely on the might of its primary character, but on the idea than no good story depends solely upon its protagonist, instead it revolves on a confluence of forces. I am sad to hear so few readers are willing to give this story an opportunity to finish growing to allow what might be a Black Panther for the ages. I accept I may be the only person who feels this way, but I am not afraid to be the lone voice in the wilderness.
For those of you who hate this particular version of the Black Panther and what may follow for a time, take heart: it isn’t permanent. Every time a new writer takes over this book, they appear to scrap most of whatever the previous writer has done. You will probably get your Batmanesque Black Panther back in a few years, when Ta-Nehesi is through with him.
Ta-Nehesi Coates, I admit to being a doubter, but these first three issues along with the amazing artwork and support of Brian Stelfreeze, Laura Martin and Joe Sabino is a tour de force (and I am happy to hear the sales numbers agree — Ta-Nehesi Coates’ Black Panther is this years best-selling comic).
Well done, everyone. Will be reading the next three as quickly as time will allow.
PS: If I hear one more person tell me: I need the story to pick up speed… I will be forced to remind them of this, what I deem to be the storyteller’s true credo:
Speed is for cars, not stories. Complexity is what you are looking for; depth, richness of character, with a nice smattering of well-timed, well-delivered ass-kicking to top it off. Speed is the cherry, not the sundae.
The Answer-Man was indeed asked a Question about this series:
One of the things that prompted my reading of the series thus far was a question by a young reader: What is the name of the hand-held weapon used by the Dora Milaje in their powered armor suits?
It appears to be a technological version of an ancient weapon called a knobkierie. They can be thrown with some degree of accuracy and knowing Wakandan weapon-smiths, can return to their wielder via a technological means. As to whether they are a just a club or possess other abilities, we will have to wait and see.
The real-world weapon has a couple of names I could trace, the Knobkierie or the Rungu. It is basically a stylized club that could be thrown at prey or used in hand to hand with the large knob as the striking end.
Knobkieries were an indispensable weapon of war, particularly among southern Nguni tribes such as the Zulu (as the iwisa) and the Xhosa. Knobkieries are still widely carried, especially in rural areas, while in times of peace it serves as a walking-stick. The head, or knob, is often ornately carved with faces or shapes that have symbolic meaning.
The Answer-Man’s Archives are a collection of my articles discussing superheroes and their powers in relationship to their respective universes. We deconstruct characters, memes, profiles and how superheroes relate to real world culture. You can find other Archives on Quora and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Stack Exchange or at The World According to Superheroes.
Thaddeus Howze is a writer, essayist, author and professional storyteller for mysterious beings who exist in non-Euclidean realms beyond our understanding. You can follow him on Twitter or support his writings on Patreon.