The Words that Build Wakanda: Following Ta-Nehisi Coates’ BLACK PANTHER
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One of my favorite things about a well-crafted comic is its unique composition. Text and image combine and converse with each other to create a complete work. In his seminal book Understanding Comics, the comics creator/theorist Scott McCloud says “…in comics at its best, words and pictures are like partners in a dance and each one takes turns leading.” The dance McCloud describes is an intricate one, one whose steps vary from comic to comic and creator to creator. Tracking the evolution of a comics creator’s skill and style within the medium is one of comics’ subtler pleasures. And it’s part of what has made following acclaimed journalist and writer Ta-Nehisi Coates’ tenure as the writer of Black Panther such a treat.
Coates, in addition to being an insightful, beautiful writer, is a longtime comics fan. His Black Panther run, which began in April 2016, has been informed by comics past and present (everything from Kraven’s Last Hunt to Bitch Planet) as much as his own writing experience and storytelling goals. As Black Panther has continued, so too has Coates developed and refined his comic writing. In an interview included in the first issue, Brian Stelfreeze, the primary artist of Black Panther’s first year, said, “Most established comic writers have a fixed style or methodology, so what you get on page one of the first issue is about the same for the last page of the series. Ta-Nehisi is still evolving as a comic book writer. It’s really cool to see him not only learn the language of visual storytelling but also create new ways of doing it.”
That first issue in particular reads and feels like one of the X-Men or Spider-Man comics Coates read growing up, or an issue of the Ed Brubaker-written Captain America, which Coates has cited as an influence on his own comics work. The audience is introduced to King T’Challa/Black Panther, his country Wakanda, and the dire straits both find themselves in through T’Challa’s internal monologue. He and his soldiers are facing a riot by disaffected miners whose anger has been twisted into mystically blind hatred by Zenzi, a mysterious sorceress. The crisis fuels T’Challa’s internal guilt and anxiety over his recent failures as the King of Wakanda. And beyond these, T’Challa grieves for the apparent death of his sister Shuri, once a fellow Black Panther. He might yet have a way to bring her back. But everything he’s tried thus far has ended in failure.
T’Challa’s ruminations become the issue’s core, so much so that when the story cuts to other characters, it’s abrupt. They’re interesting, dimensional characters – Ramonda, the Queen Mother of Wakanda; Ayo and Aneka, lovers and royal bodyguards who’ve abandoned the throne that betrayed them; Zenzi and the nature shaman Tetu, her fellow conspirator. But their segments of the issue are structured awkwardly, and their lack of monologue makes them more opaque than T’Challa. This works for Zenzi and Tetu, whose ultimate plan to depose T’Challa is clear, but whose methods and ethics remain hidden. But for Ramonda, Ayo and Aneka, the lack of monologue is a hindrance. Their segments of the book take place from their perspective, and Coates’ decision to not get into their heads during their moments at the head of the ensemble is frustrating.
Furthermore, T’Challa’s narration is well crafted and distinct, but the segments focusing on it get in the way of Stelfreeze’s art, throwing the book’s balance off. T’Challa spends as much time describing what’s happening as he does thinking about how it relates to his issues, a disappointing redundancy. Compare the sequence where Ayo breaks Aneka out of prison and reveals the prototype Midnight Angel armor she stole to make the breakout possible. Coates builds their dialogue on their joy at being reunited, their anger at T’Challa and the Wakandan throne’s failures, and Aneka’s bemusement that Ayo stole both of the Midnight Angel prototypes. Stelfreeze moves from the bright, direct action of the breakout to silhouettes against a campfire by a tree, only their tattoos and the white streak in Ayo’s hair distinct until they don their armor. Words and images come together to create an astonishing moment of comics.
The first issue of Black Panther feels structurally awkward and a bit unbalanced, but the same cannot be said of subsequent issues. As Stelfreeze says, Coates’ writing has not been static. He has continually refined and pushed his style, strengthening his weaknesses and playing to his strengths. T’Challa’s monologues have become more focused on his state of mind rather than the immediate moment, and the device has been expanded to the ensemble. Everyone from Tetu to Shuri gets a chance to share their innermost thoughts with the reader, and Coates has continually streamlined these monologues, bringing them into closer concert with his collaborators’ art.
In a wonderfully appropriate move for a story about Wakanda transitioning from absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy, Coates moves his narrative focus out from T’Challa to the whole of Black Panther’s ensemble, democratizing his storytelling. His jumps between characters and factions become smoother – in a late issue he moves from the Midnight Angels speaking to Tetu and Zenzi through video chat to the duo’s post-chat conversation and back to the Angels and their Dora Milage council’s debate over how to respond. It’s elegant storytelling, and it makes great use of the way comics can splinter and toy with time.
And as Coates has pushed his writing further and become more comfortable with comics as a medium, he’s done some really wonderfully superhero stuff alongside his exploration of an unconquered African nation and the fraught path of kingship. When T’Challa has been captured, the black American superhero team The Crew arrive at precisely the right moment to turn the tide. How do T’Challa and his teleporting ally Manifold (an Aboriginal Australian) attempt to reach Shuri in Wakanda’s collective unconscious? They convert two of T’Challa’s giant panther mechs into trans-dimensional teleporters. What is his arch-foe Ulysses Klaw’s master plan? To reconstitute his long-lost sister’s shattered mind by using the rare Wakandan metal Vibranium and his own sonic powers to rebuild her as a being made out of solid sound, much like he is.
Under Coates’ pen, these moments of superheroic wonder fit perfectly alongside a story about history’s ability to conceal atrocities and missed chances for reform and the question of whether “a good king” is even something possible. Combined with Coates’ continual refinement and exploration of the comic as a narrative form, this makes his Black Panther one of this moment’s essential superhero comics.