Creating mythology is a tricky thing.
Curating mythology is even trickier.
The superhero is a mythological construct unique to American society and the backbone of the American comic book industry. The superhero is the construct of immigrants; people from different cultures coming together to form a new nation where the unique attributes of each culture contribute to the greater whole.
As, arguably, the first immigrants (other than British and French) of America, African Americans were, initially, left out of the equation when constructing the superhero myth and were relegated to supporting roles. With the Black Panther’s appearance in Fantastic Four, African Americans were introduced into the mainstream consciousness of superhero myth.
The current curator of the Black Panther myth is Ta’Nehisi Coates, national correspondent for the Atlantic and recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship…
And some people have an issue with his handling of this particular mythology.
This article was cause for a bit of uproar:
Personally, I don’t mind Coates’ take on the Black Panther mythos. His are the kind of stories that I, to an extent, would write. It has been slow building and it is a depiction of Wakanda as if Wakanda were an actual African country dealing with real political issues. I would argue that Coates’ run on the series will be as impactful as runs from Don McGregor, Christopher Priest and Reginald Hudlin.
That being said, some people are just not feeling Coates’ work on the title. So much so, some feel as if he is deliberately trying to bring down the Black Panther in terms of relevance and trying to destroy Wakanda in a way Namor or Doctor Doom or Thanos never could.
Which… Is ridiculous.
I understand some of us want to see T’Challa infallible, invincible, with Wakanda being the Afrofuturistic utopia of our dreams. We want our Black Panther bitchslapping Steve Rogers for putting mayo on his sandwich instead of mustard. We want to see the Dora Milaje single-handedly taking down S.H.I.E.L.D. because it’s Tuesday. We want that escapist wish fulfillment that we are not getting in our daily lives, especially in today’s political and social climate.
The problem is, utopias don’t exist. Not even in comics.
For example, did Coates force misogyny and rape culture into the mythos of Wakanda, or did he use the construct of Wakanda as a vehicle for commentary to what is happening not only on the continent, but in the world right now? Wakanda is in Africa, which has been dealing with issues concerning rape culture and slavery recently.
Have we already forgotten Boko Haram? Are we oblivious to the slave trade happening in Libya right now? Anyone?
In Coates’ interpretation, despite its majesty, Wakanda is no different than the creation of other great nations: not only African, but globally…
Well, with the exception of aliens losing their land instead of other Africans.
And, that little wrinkle in the Black Panther myth has added to the ire that some Black Panther fans have for the writer.
In reality, Wakanda has never been simon-pure. Priest had Wakanda dealing with an uprising from within at the beginning of The Client, McGregor created Killmonger in Panther’s Rage as a revolutionary whose basis for overthrowing Wakanda was tribal and personal, etc.
T’Challa, from McGregor’s run onto Coates, has always been depicted as a man torn between duty and desire. In the mythology, he has always preferred being a hero to being a king much to the chagrin of the Panther god and the Black Panthers before him (see the 1988 mini-series by Gillis and Cowan, Who is the Black Panther Pt.2 by Cowan and Lashley, the Black Panther: Man Without Fear arc by Liss and Francavilla for examples).
Besides, it’s not like T’Challa hasn’t met, or worked with, despots before. When the first Illuminati became the Cabal following the events of the Secret Invasion storyline, Namor tried to get T’Challa in to balance the likes of Doctor Doom, Loki, the Hood and Emma Frost. In New Avengers, he was working alongside Namor after Atlantis attacked Wakanda in Avengers Vs. X-Men and after Namor sold out Wakanda again to Thanos’ forces in Infinity.
So, after Doomwar, AVX, Infinity and Secret Wars, I would imagine Wakandans would feel some type of way about T’Challa and the court after those back-to-back tragedies. In fact, that’s referenced in the first issue of Coates’ run.
In the Nation Under Our Feet story arc, rape culture is an issue in Wakanda. Aneka and Ayo, the rogue Dora Milaje now the Midnight Angels addresses it, which brings attention to the royal court. With the rebellion and subtle coup from the confusion happening, the Midnight Angels, along with his sister Shuri (who returns from the Djallla following the “Living Death” as a more powerful and unique character), Changamire, Hatut Zeraze and the Crew help T’Challa not only quell the rebellion, but also helps to institute a parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarchy in order to deal with such issues in the future.
And, the problem is? Apparently for some, Coates’ work taints the fantasy of an Africa we, as African Americans, wish existed.
But, what good is showing a better world without showing the struggle it took to create it? I mean the X-Men works as a concept because a marginalized people, mutants, fight for a better world that doesn’t currently exist… right?
One doesn’t have to like every iteration of a character or gush over every interpretation. For instance, my issue with Hudlin’s run was that I thought it was too light, too “comic book.” I felt he eschewed the complexity of Priest’s work for more of the wish-fulfillment aspects of Black nerdom. It was fun, but left me feeling a little flat.
A major strength of Priest’s run was, as a writer and former editor of comics, he understood the mechanics and quirks of the medium. He was able to marry the more complex themes of the book with the action that comic book fans are used to.
I think an issue with Coates’ run is that he is too serious a writer for some fans. In addition, outside of the bit of writing he does for Marvel, he’s not known as a writer of fiction. Scriptwriting, especially comic book scriptwriting is not his forte. For me, it’s akin to Doo-Bop (Miles Davis’ last album before he passed); a Hip Hop album by one of the all-time great jazz musicians, but didn’t spend a lot of time in the realm of the new music form he was trying to emulate.
Coates does bring depth and nuance to his run as a myth curator. He just doesn’t have the seasoning of good comic book storytelling to make his run more palatable. In other words, people don’t feel joy reading his stories. They are not fun. Because of this, people complain about the weight of social issues he brings to the mythology as if the mythology of the Black Panther wasn’t steeped in social commentary from his first appearance in 1966 onward.
Not only is Coates challenging the mythology, he’s not making it an easy go for the comic book reader. He’s writing the book as if it were a fictional novel written by an academic social essayist (which, he is). There’s not enough escapist water for the casual reader when the sociological meat is too hard to swallow. If Coates had a stronger comic book writing sensibility, I feel that his critics wouldn’t be too up in arms about the subject matter he’s brought to the mythos.
At the end of the day, the core issue is whether or not Coates can write entertaining comics. Honestly, comics are not his strong suit. They are not in his wheelhouse. He was brought onto the title because his name carries weight outside of comics…
Like Reginald Hudlin.
So, do I think Coates’ run is terrible?
Do I think his run has been great?
Do I think Coates is a superlative comic book writer?
But, do I think he has an agenda to “bring down” the Black Panther as a character?
Finally, for those of you getting your pitchforks and torches ready (not the Tiki torches because these fans aren’t butter-soft alt-right scrubs), you’re not going to see more of the “problematic” elements of Coates’ run in the upcoming Black Panther film. So, Coates’ detractors should take a deep cleansing breath. The ingredients for this particular dish will probably be 2 cups of Priest’s run for story, 1-¼ cups of McGregor for world-building, 1 cup of Hudlin for attitude with a dash of Coates for social relevance.
Again, I would have incorporated a number of elements Coates introduced in his curation of the Black Panther myth if I were approached by Marvel to write the book. The difference is that I understand the mechanics of comic book writing and would have incorporated more of the wish fulfillment of the fan base. It would have been, hopefully, as complex as the work of Christopher Priest and Don McGregor. It also would have been as fun as Reginald Hudlin’s work as well.
But, I didn’t. That’s why I created The Horsemen…
Because I am in the business of creating mythology.