Ta-Nehisi Coates' 'Black Panther' a Smart Take on Classic Hero

By Abby Olcese 4-07-2016
Black Panther / Marvel

The announcement that The Atlantic correspondent and Between the World and Me author Ta-Nehisi Coates was writing a Black Panther comic for Marvel felt like the kind of matchup that only happens in dreams. Created in 1966, Black Panther was comics’ first mainstream black superhero. Coates is not only a groundbreaking writer on issues of race in America, but also happens to be an avowed Marvel fan. Since last September, comics readers familiar with Coates’ work have been waiting for the finished product with bated breath.

The first installment of Coates’ run on Black Panther, titled A Nation Under Our Feet, hit comic stores this week, and it looks like we’re in for a suitably dramatic mix of politics, character, and plot.

T’Challa, ruler of the African nation of Wakanda, is facing a crisis of identity, pulled between his loyalty to his people while also working with the Avengers as Black Panther to save the world. At the same time, Wakanda — the Marvel Universe’s most technologically advanced society — is recovering from a series of devastating attacks at the hands of Marvel super-villain Doctor Doom, attacks during which T’Challa was absent, and his sister, ruling in his stead, was killed. The country’s ancient tradition of absolute monarchy has failed its people, and there are growing forces demanding change.

A Nation Under Our Feet takes its title from Steven Hahn’s 2004 book on African-American political struggles during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Just as Hahn’s book is concerned more with smaller grassroots movements than larger historical icons, so is Coates’ take on Black Panther focused as much on the struggles of the unhappy Wakandans, as it is on T’Challa’s own issues.

In the early pages of the comic, T’Challa, as Black Panther, attempts to put down a riot at a Wakandan mine, where he believes the workers are being possessed by the malevolent will of someone else. They are — but only to an extent. We later learn that Zenzi, the woman responsible for inciting the riot, was simply tapping into the pain and rage that already existed within the workers.

In another sequence, a member of T’Challa’s royal guard rescues her lover, a fellow guard condemned by the government for an act of vigilante justice. After the prison break, the two women agree that they’re tired of sacrificing their lives for a man ordained leader by their culture, but who they consider no longer fit to rule.

T’Challa, the revolutionaries and his fed-up guards all want the same thing: justice. They all love their country and their people, but simply believe in very different approaches to maintaining its best interests.

As readers, we’re predisposed to side with T’Challa (he’s the star, after all), but Coates gives equal attention and validity to all sides of the problem. So far, there’s no clear villain, just a lot of people with opposing views.

Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet boasts a promising setup, with the potential for equal parts action and philosophy. It may tend less toward epic battle and more toward reconciliation, but that’s a refreshing approach, one that feels appropriate both for the comic, its author, and readers (comic fans and social justice warriors alike) looking for a smart take on a classic hero.

Abby Olcese is a freelance film critic and writer based in Kansas. You can find her on Twitter @indieabby88.

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