In the first pages of Marvel’s Black Panther #1, penned by author and Atlantic correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates, we see a country at war. The subjects of the fictional African nation of Wakanda are in open revolt against T’Challa, their king and the Black Panther himself. “Death to tyrants!” one cries. We have yet to learn the full circumstances around the uprising, but such is their rage that, on that very first page, T’Challa has already been struck down. It’s a stunning image, rendered beautifully by artist Brian Stelfreeze. As the symbol of Wakanda itself, the Black Panther embodies the country’s power and heritage. Now, he’s embroiled in a bloody conflict with his own people.
With that explosive opening scene, this new series (along with a central role in next month’s Captain America: Civil War) sets the stage for Black Panther’s breakout moment. As the first black superhero in mainstream comics, the character has long been a paragon of black excellence in the medium. He’s the ruler of a technologically-advanced African kingdom, unsullied by colonial rule. As one of the smartest and most formidable superheroes in the Marvel Universe, T’Challa has a solid fanbase, but he has never enjoyed the same name recognition as Marvel icons like Spider-Man or the X-Men.
Black Panther is a paragon of black excellence in comics
Coates’ project, then, is to elevate the hero to a higher place in the pantheon. To do it, he and Stelfreeze are delving deep into who the Black Panther is and what he means. The resulting story promises to be less about superhero squabbles, and more about people — particularly African people — navigating something far more universal: power.
"It really isn't enough to have people punching each other and being awesome," Coates tells me. "I'm trying to tackle really basic things, even as I have all the ass-kicking awesomeness that superhero comics are known for. This story we're telling in the first year is very much about the organization of power."
Black Panther has served as an avatar for an empowered black identity since his inception. The character made his fictional debut 50 years ago in 1966’s Fantastic Four #52. Created by legendary duo Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, he was exceptional in a way that challenged conventional notions about Africa and blackness at the time. T’Challa managed to defeat Marvel’s First Family one by one in that single issue, all before revealing himself as the sovereign of a futuristic African society. He was the manifestation of Marvel’s continued willingness to champion unexpected heroes, but his debut was also timely, coinciding with the Civil Rights movement and the political atmosphere surrounding it.
But for a long time, Black Panther was relegated to being a guest star in other heroes’ stories. And when he did show up, his contributions were racialized and limited. "Oddly enough, Black Panther's almost like an analog to Tarzan," says Stelfreeze. "So you expect those types of stories, where it's like, ‘Hey, Tarzan's in the jungle doing jungle things’ or ‘Tarzan's in New York City, kind of doing his thing there.’"
It wasn’t until writer Don McGregor took T’Challa back to Wakanda in 1973’s "Panther’s Rage" that the character gained real depth and humanity. There, he grappled with a faction of Wakandans who wanted him deposed, while also dealing with the backlash caused by his romantic relationship with an outsider. It was complex, thought-provoking work. Subsequent writers like Christopher Priest, Reginald Hudlin, and Jonathan Hickman all expanded on that foundation in the decades that followed.
Coates’ own task while helming his series is to dig even deeper. The series, called "A Nation Under Our Feet," pulls its title from Steven Hahn’s Pulitzer-prize winning book of the same name. That text tackled the under-examined political power of African-Americans from the end of the Civil War on through Reconstruction and the Great Migration. "Steven Hahn is, ultimately, telling a human story — perhaps the oldest human story," says Coates. "In the case of his book the people happen to be called black. That's the specific story. But it always extracts to some larger theme. And I am engaged in that theme in this book."
Coates has reported on the black experience for years; last year, he won a National Book Award for his memoir Between the World and Me, which reflected on life in the midst of white supremacy in America. With Black Panther, he’s attempting to investigate politics and power structures as they’ve evolved in Wakanda, taking a fantastical context and bringing it down to earth.
"A Nation Under Our Feet" aims to unearth the politics of a culture comics haven’t yet fully explored. Wakanda was initially conceived as a utopian nation, but it has suffered crippling indignities in recent years. As Coates recently noted in The Atlantic, the country has been attacked by the likes of Doctor Doom and conquered by Thanos’ armies. As a political figure, the Black Panther’s duty is to keep his people safe. He failed. Coates writes:
"What, then, is the country if it is as vulnerable as all others? And what happens to a state when its absolute monarch can no longer fulfill the base requirement of any government—securing the safety of their people? I tend to think war."
"Wakanda was allowed to develop freely, specifically on its own," Stelfreeze says. "Wakanda pushed back all the invaders. So they maintained all their traditions, they maintained all their styles. [Now], some really serious things [are] going on here. We're dealing with monarchy, we're dealing with social issues, we're dealing with all sorts of things in this one story."
For Stelfreeze, Black Panther "is a comic book about Africans. Which is kind of a game changer." That presents a massive opportunity to draw from culture, history, and myth that don’t typically make their way into the medium — both textually and visually.
"I'm trying to have Wakanda represent all of Africa," he says. "[I have] a lot of Egyptian stuff in there, and a lot of influence from even Maasai warriors, Zulu warriors, and all sorts of different cultures. I want Wakanda to be almost like a melting pot for all of that."
Black Panther is an opportunity to draw from African culture
At the same time, that specific melting pot is being used to speak to a higher truth that will hopefully resonate with everyone reading the book (which is already a sales hit). Right now, Black Panther has the highest profile he’s ever had with mainstream audiences. With his first step into the Marvel Cinematic Universe just weeks away, and a solo film due out in 2018, the King of Wakanda is poised to blaze a trail for comics fans looking for new, diverse perspectives.
For Coates’ part, he’s using the materials at his disposal to tell a great story. The challenge, he says, is "givin’ em something they can feel."
"Great art generally moves from the specific to the universal," he says. "The X-Men isn't just about some narrow, mythical "mutant experience." It uses that experience to say something about the larger human experience of being a societal pariah. It's no different when you are talking about the black world. You pull from the specifics of that world, and oddly enough if you love the specific beauty of that world enough, you end up saying something profoundly human and universal."Black Panther #1 hits stores on April 6th.