Black Panther: Finding the Pure Hero
I must have been eight or nine years old when I brought an issue of Classic X-Men to my dad to verify Magneto’s origin story. The idea of a human manipulating magnetic fields made more sense to me than the Holocaust (and sort of still does). My dad leafed through the comic and confirmed the references, which included the Nuremberg Laws and Auschwitz. Pretty heavy stuff for a third grader.
This revelation garnered a faith in Marvel Comics which I hope excuses my dismay at—sometime the same year—discovering the Black Panther’s homeland of Wakanda does not exist. I was crushed. Comic book heroes are the mythology of our times, and the Panther was the deity I held most dear. Given my ability to recount painfully detailed comparisons of the relative combat merits of elves and dwarves, I think it’s safe to say my ability to suspend disbelief was healthy enough. Why was it so important for me that the Black Panther’s origin—like Magneto’s—be at least partly based in reality?
With the glaring exception of Storm (my pride at her taking leadership of the X-Men can really only be compared to what I felt during Barack Obama’s first inauguration), it was slim pickings for us black nerds who came up during the tail end of Marvel’s bronze age. Who made up the Marvel Universe’s mid-80’s black pantheon, you ask? Let’s see… We had Luke Cage aka Power Man, a Blaxplotation style Harlem ex-con best known as Iron Fist’s partner in Heroes for Hire. The more cerebral—and creepier named—Prowler, a former super-villain from the Bronx rehabilitated under Spider Man’s tutelage. The Falcon, a L.A. gang member who squared up and became Captain America’s junior partner. And James “Rhodey” Rhodes who, with his more respectable Vietnam vet backstory, still only got a shot in the tin suit when Tony Stark hit the bottle.
More than just a canon of gods and heroes, mythologies—in their depictions of justice, honor, and punishment—are windows into how a society sees itself. If the only black Marvel heroes were sidekicks and former thugs, then what did that say about the way my society saw people who look like me?
Unlike Captain America and the Falcon or even Tony Stark and Rhodey, the Black Panther partnered with super colleagues on equal ground. Similar to the Sub-Mariner, one always had the sense that the Avengers and Fantastic Four never quite knew whether to treat the Panther as a foreign dignitary, a friend, or a rival. As the Wakandan head of state—a mantle both inherited and, through a violent rite of accession, earned—the Black Panther had access to the sort of props unavailable to good-hearted vigilantes like the Prowler and Power Man. Prince T’Challa represented the first black comic book character of the Sir Galahad or Captain American mold. The Black Panther challenged the unspoken rule that a certain type of valor and nobility are exclusive to straight white dudes.
The Atlantic. This was years before Coates restructured the conversation about black masculinity in the United States with Between the World and Me; before the MacArthur Grant; before he became the highbrow media’s black-American go-to-guy.I picked up Ta-Nehisi Coates’s comic book enthused memoir—which references X-Factor in one breath and Richard Wright in the next—after stumbling upon a few of his essays in
The Beautiful Struggle chronicles the adolescence of a brother who valued the Black Panther as I did. A brother who placed Spider-Man just under Malcolm X on his scale of heroes. A brother who paid the price for his love of Dungeons and Dragons and the Marvel Universe. A brother who knew full well the ridicule and condemnation youngins risk by defying the expectations of black expression:
Street professors presided over invisible corner podiums, and the Knowledge was dispensed. Their faces were smoke and obscured by the tilt of their Kangols. They lectured from sacred texts like Basic Game, Applied Cool, Barbershop 101. Their leather-gloved hands thumbed through chapters, like “The Subtle and Misunderstood Art of Dap.” There was the geometry of cocking a baseball cap, working theories on what jokes to laugh at and exactly how loud; and entire volumes devoted to the crossover dribble. Bill inhaled the Knowledge and departed in a sheepskin cap and gown. I cut class, slept through lectures, and emerged awkward and wrong.
To say I was excited to learn that the new Black Panther would be penned by the first blerd to achieve public intellectual status would be like saying Marvin Gaye sang some R&B.
In Coates’s first issue we see T’Challa returning from another heroic jaunt abroad, this time to a shaky throne and a budding insurgency. The dialogue is stark and the action muted. We immediately understand that this will be a tale of governance, loyalty, and identity, not of T’Challa tossing bodies. The Dora Milaje—the tattooed, skin headed female warriors who comprise the elite protectors of Wakanda—appear to have a key role in this regard. Christopher Priest—in his late 90’s early 00’s run as the writer on the Black Panther—cast the women in their present round table-esque role.
Emory Douglas’s 1970’s revolutionary themed art.Unlike Priest’s run, these Dora Mijale speak to characters besides T’Challa and discuss the state of the kingdom in a manner suggesting that their political loyalties will be central to the plot. Also distinct from Priest’s version is the fact that nothing about these women’s physical characteristics or dress would make me wince if my nine-year-old daughter happened to pick up the comic. This seems as good a place as any to mention that the comic is masterfully rendered and in a few places veteran artist Brian Stelfreeze’s work even calls to mind
In the first of what is scheduled to be a twelve-issue run, Coates has positioned himself to tell an incredible tale. A story that will assure the next generation of geeks—of all colors and orientations—that while Wakanda might not exist, the archetype of a black "pure hero" does.
But then I’m guessing the next generation won’t need so much convincing.
*Images courtesy of Marvel Comics.