A Black Nerd Reimagines The Black Panther Comic
By Lawrence Ware | @Law_Ware | with thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)
Wednesday, July 27, 2016.
I was a black nerd when being a black nerd wasn’t cool. Off the heels of Captain America: Civil War and folks like Son of Baldwin making comic books cool, everyone wants to call themselves a blerd.
I have a deep and abiding resentment toward those who’ve watched a few Marvel Cinematic Universe films and think they know something about comic books. If you don’t know what feels like to go into a bookstore and deal with the smug look of the cashier because you purchased a graphic novel or if you don’t have a deep and abiding appreciation for Green Lantern because of John Stewart, then I ain’t trying to hear you call yourself a blerd just because you’re excited about the new Black Panther movie.
Yet, whether you are a long time blerd or an activist involved in the Movement for Black Lives—there is a comic you need to have on your bookshelf.
In April of 2016, Marvel Comics began publishing a comic written by Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of Between The World and Me and correspondent for The Atlantic. They asked him to pen a new series of Black Panther comics, bringing to bear upon them his unique vision of race. What Coates is doing with this narrative is utterly brilliant, and you need to stop what you’re doing and catch up on this series for two for two reasons.
A Country Without White Supremacy
T’Challa is the king of Wakanda, a country in Africa. Wakanda is a land that is largely untouched by white supremacy, because it has a seemingly endless resources of vibranium—a metal that is both highly coveted and virtually indestructible. It is the metal out of which Captain America’s shield is made, and it provides the armor for Black Panther’s suit. Because of this resource, Wakanda is the most technologically advanced country in the world and always has the upper hand when entering trade agreements with other countries.
This allows for Coates to imagine a country that is largely untouched by white supremacy and colonialism. Wakanda is a country that is unapologetically African in custom; yet, this is presented matter-of-factly instead of with nostalgia or exoticism. This country is unbossed and unbought, and it gives Coates an opportunity to imagine a people who are untouched by the white gaze and unexploited by the violence of imperialism. Afro-centrism is more than just fighting against white supremacy (for that fight still centers the exploitation even as it fights). It is envisioning a life for black a person that does not even consider a white conceptual lens. This is one of the most Afrocentric pieces of fiction I’ve read precisely because whiteness does not factor into the narrative at all.
Redefining Gender Roles
While the world is largely without white supremacy, there are still undercurrents of gendered tensions. There is still the understanding of a man’s role versus a woman’s role; however, the women in Wakanda are not marginalized and, honestly, are among the most complex, fully realized characters in the comic. Instead of the strongest soldiers being men, as is usually the case in these kinds of stories, it is women who are the country’s strongest fighters. The Dora Milaje are the Black Panther’s personal bodyguards and the country’s most dedicated warriors.
A central tension in the narrative involves two women and lovers, formerly of the Dora Milaje, called the Midnight Angels. They have deep and legitimate political misgivings about the way the country is run, and their decision to push back against T’Challa’s decisions as monarch is both noble and troubling. There is also the mysterious Zenzi, the primary antagonist, who somehow has the ability to unleash latent emotion in whomever she chooses.
Pitting T’Challa against women in the narrative upends the traditional way these stories are told. Usually, if a woman is a protagonist, she will somehow end up romantically involved with the hero. Coates has made it clear that that will most likely not happen in here. The gender dynamics of the narrative are fascinating, and worth more than the price of the comic.
Ta-Nehisi Coates is redefining what it means to be a public intellectual. Last summer he published a memoir that placed him a category alongside the likes of James Baldwin and Richard Wright in the minds of many. This summer he deviated away from what most intellectuals would do and decided to engage a niche community by bringing his unique perspective on race and gender to the world of comics.
The new Black Panther series is the comic you’ve always wanted but never knew you needed.
Lawrence Ware is an Oklahoma State University Division of
Institutional Diversity fellow. He teaches in OSU’s philosophy department and
is the diversity coordinator for its Ethics Center. A frequent contributor to
Counterpunch and Dissent magazine, he is also a contributing editor of NewBlackMan
(in Exile) and the Democratic Left. He has been a commentator on
race and politics for HuffPost Live, NPR’s Talk of the Nation and PRI’s
Flashpoint. Follow him on Twitter.