The Power of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Black Panther

The acclaimed cultural commentator has penned a limited series of Marvel’s African superhero, and the timing couldn’t be better.

“You have no people. You are no longer my son.”

The first issue of the much-hyped, Ta-Nehisi Coates-penned Black Panther limited series landed at comic book shops this Wednesday, with fans of the titular character and fans of one of America’s most visible cultural commentators clamoring to see what Coates can do with Marvel Comics’ second most mythic African character (Storm still holds a special place in the public’s collective heart and in Marvel lore.) With the superhero set to make his motion picture debut in May alongside Captain America, Iron Man, Black Widow, and the rest of the Avengers in Captain America: Civil War, and with a Ryan Coogler-helmed Black Panther film slated for 2017, all eyes are on T’Challa right now.

“A Nation Under Our Feet” opens with Black Panther tormented by his own feelings of failure and regret, struggling with issues of identity and responsibility. Wakanda is in turmoil and support for T’Challa at a low ebb, raising the question of what happens if his people reject him. In one of the issue’s most compelling moments, T’Challa’s stepmother, Ramonda, conveys to the frustrated hero that intelligence must inform all action—and that the burden of leadership is heavy. But he’s confused and angry. The country is on the brink of civil war, and Black Panther himself may resort to desperate measures to resolve the bloodshed.

Because of Coates’ status as one of the more high-profile commentators on race in America, it’s hard not to read a lot of it as an allegory for the conflicting elements that contribute to so much of the black experience—a legacy of righteous rebellion born of oppression’s weight. And this character and story is the perfect vessel to address and examine those realities.

“I think over the past year I have enjoyed, to be frank with you, an amount of success I did not expect, I never expected to happen,” Coates told NPR when discussing his work on the book. “When that happens, people place you in certain positions you did not even necessarily ask for, and I found myself writing about that in the comic book.”

And Coates also acknowledged how the character’s angst mirrors anyone’s expected to be a leader or a spokesperson: “If they say, ‘You king of the blacks,’ you’re king of the blacks—whether you like it or not. You understand what I’m saying? Even if you in your heart never accept it and you can say it over and over and over again, people have a perception of you nonetheless.”

“But to bring that back to T’Challa, that was how I got to the character being in a position where he felt committed to do certain things, but in his heart was really not there,” Coates continued. “It just really wasn’t who he was—he was someone else. And it’s like where we began this conversation. In my heart, I’m a comic book writer, I am, and I don’t necessarily see that in conflict with the kind of essay writing I do with The Atlantic, but when people hear that they’re like, ‘What?’”

Black Panther was created in the late 1960s, when black awareness was at its most visible. He debuted in the pages of the Fantastic Four before becoming a fixture in The Avengers and in the early 1970s, landing a centralized role in the Jungle Action series. Black Panther landed his own self-titled series in the late ‘70s, but it was cancelled after just 15 issues.

Despite a 1989 mini-series, Black Panther had been relegated to the background of my mind as a young comic book fan in the late ‘80s. I knew him mostly from older issues of The Avengers and Marvel “Who’s Who” books, but he didn’t seem anywhere near as emphasized as other Marvel mainstays. As such, I grew up much more versed in the X-Men and Spider-Man than I did the King of Wakanda. But, as has been well-documented, the late ‘90s series by Christopher Priest reinvigorated the character after decades of being under-appreciated, and Reginald Hudlin’s take on the character from ten years ago fortified his origin story. Black Panther became one of the coolest characters in the modern Marvel universe—and the timing couldn’t be better.

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SOURCE: The Daily Beast – Stereo Williams