The ambiguous heroism of Ta-Nehisi Coates's Black Panther

Coates draws on a rich, modern African-American mythology to turn T’Challa into the Black Panther: Marvel’s African superhero.

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What’s in a name? If your comic book is called Black Panther, quite a lot – especially if your father was once a defence captain in the Black Panther Party and your work as a journalist and essayist has stalked the ever-elusive meaning of race in America. That meaning will always evade any writer, even one as perceptive as Ta-Nehisi Coates, because the experiences of a skin tone – black, white, yellow, or brown – are so various that no single explanation will ever do.

A lyrical memoirist, Coates at his best has avoided the trap of speaking for an entire people by foregrounding his subjectivity. The Beautiful Struggle (2008) told the story of life in African-American west Baltimore in the 1980s through a personal narrative. Last year’s Between the World and Me was written as a letter to his teenage son.

In his first comic-book series, Coates trades in this sense of lived experience for a more mythic register: supernatural powers, masked avengers in figure-hugging bondage suits, the battle between good and evil. Yet, as is the norm in even mainstream comics since Frank Miller, Alan Moore and others dragged the superhero genre into the shadows three decades ago, good and evil in Black Panther are in constant negotiation. The moral compass of the series is fitted with several needles, each pointing in a different direction, and Coates gives generous attention to the perspectives of protagonist and antagonist alike.

Our ostensible hero is T’Challa, the ruler of a fictional African kingdom called Wak­anda, whose dual duties as a monarch and the fist-fighting Black Panther have somehow alienated him from his people. The first issue (there have been five so far) opens with a miners’ riot in which royal guards strike down workers at a pit, while the king grapples with revolutionaries who yell: “Death to tyrants!” British readers may find in this sequence an echo of the 1984 clashes between miners and the police. Who, exactly, is fighting for justice here?

The ambiguity is deliberate. T’Challa wins the battle and forces the crowd to disperse but he takes no pleasure in his victory. He senses the presence of a “deceiver” who has spread “hate” across his land. When we are introduced to her, however, she describes herself as a “liberator”, and it turns out that her followers are fighting not for doom and destruction but for “a better and brighter world”.

Elsewhere in Wakanda, Aneka, the captain of an elite unit of soldiers, has been sentenced to death for the murder of a corrupt chieftain. Ayo, her lover and fellow warrior, rescues her from prison and the couple go on the run, wearing hi-tech Midnight Angel bodysuits that give them superhuman strength. Although they disavow their allegiance to the king, they remain committed to their nation and pledge to “act as dead women” – to sacrifice themselves – in the cause of restoring it to glory.

As the most recent issue ends, with suicide bombings in the streets and the leak of a security consultant’s murderous advice to T’Challa, the ethical debates of the comic are live with real-world resonance. “Know that a day is coming when Wakanda will be ruled by Wakandans,” the insurgents warn the king. The irony is that this goal seems to be shared by each warring side.

Nietzsche’s Übermensch was literally a man who was “above the people” – a superman. The first proper comic-book incarnation of this archetype was dreamt up by an insomniac Jewish-American teenager called Jerry Siegel in 1934; “counting sheep” in bed one evening, he conceived of “a character like Samson, Hercules and all the strong men I have ever heard tell of rolled into one”. Siegel’s connection of his best-known creation, Superman, with myth and religion was something of a premonition: the “superhero” has become part of our cultural language in a way not unlike the giants of those earlier imaginary worlds. By giving us outsized characters and stories that we all recognise – a modern folklore that reflects and informs the dream life of the reader – these mythologies help to make a people out of individuals.

Coates, who was rigorously schooled in black nationalism by his racially “conscious” father, develops in his comic a rich, modern African-American mythology, but he seems suspicious of the tropes of the form. T’Challa is denied a superhero’s place above mankind and, Coates seems to argue, nor should he be granted such might. It’s a worthwhile point and Coates has clearly thought deeply about the great responsibility that accompanies his great power as the latest custodian of the Black Panther character (whose first appearance in 1966 preceded the emergence of the political party of the same name by several months).

Yet his wordy interrogation of such cumbersome ideas overwhelms what is still, in essence, a mainstream action comic. In the second issue, we watch our hero knocking out a rebel with a flying kick and disarming a gun-toting sentry, who fires bullets into the ground as he falls. “Heavy is the head [that rules],” the Black Panther thinks to himself. “The proverb does no justice to the weight of the nation, of its peoples, its history, its traditions . . .” So far, every single fight scene involving the title character has been accompanied by ponderous internal monologues of this sort, draining excitement from the artist Brian Stelfreeze’s dynamic visuals and Laura Martin’s efficient, digitally enhanced colouring.

Coates was presumably chosen to script the series on the strength of his writing on race and, if so, he delivers what was asked of him. In his hands, Black Panther is a layered, thoughtful work of science fiction that forgoes post-colonialist or post-slavery anxieties about Africans’ place in the world, presenting Wakanda as a paradise lost not by white subversion but by the divisions among its own people. Although T’Challa was originally a character in a Fantastic Four comic and, in the wider, US-centric world of Marvel, he later married Storm of the X-Men, it seems unlikely that a US-led intervention will solve the problems facing his war-torn nation. Agency to do both good and evil is given fully to black characters, which is significant in a Western franchise that has been resurrected in part as advance promotion for a Hollywood movie, expected in 2018.

But it’s not particularly fun to read. As a child, Coates would dream of Captain Marvel; his “default position”, he recalls in The Beautiful Struggle, “was sprawled across the bed . . . cataloguing an extensive collection” of comic books. In his teens, he “replaced one pantheon for another, Spider-Man and Goose for [the civil rights leader] Robert Williams and Huey [Newton, the co-founder of the Black Panther Party]”. Here, those two worlds collide and the latter dominates, with political philosophy usurping pure entertainment.

If Coates manages to remember why superhero stories were so important to him as a boy, he could turn the rest of this series into something quite significant.

Yo Zushi’s latest album, “It Never Entered My Mind”, is out now on Eidola Records

Black Panther by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Brian Stelfreeze is published by Marvel Comics (each digital issue £2.49/£2.99)

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. Yo Zushi’s latest album, “Unconditional Love” (TWGDOYP Records), is out now

This article appears in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge

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