Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet - Books One and Two (Marvel, 2016)
Writer: Ta-Nehisi Coates
Illustrator: Brian Stelfreeze
Colorist: Laura Martin
Letterer: Joe Sabino
One of my New Year's resolutions was to get through my huge backlog of reading material, which by necessity entails NOT adding even more books to my already-overstocked reading list. Which is why I can't say that I planned to read Ta-Nehisi Coates' newest addition to the Marvel Universe, it just kind of happened one day when I saw these sweet-looking comics on display at my local library, just sitting there... tempting me... with their topicality and sick cover-art and Ta-Nehisi's name up there on the cover like some big... tempty thing.
Besides, I'd never read a Black Panther comic before, so I figured it'd be an interesting new experience. It's background reading, so you can appreciate the movie better, I told myself. It'll count as "doing something for Black History Month" or whatever.
This being part of the Marvel Universe, the tale begins in medias res - or rather, ex post facto: Wakanda, the African nation of which T'Challa (a.k.a. the Black Panther) is king, has just endured a series of deadly calamities: a Biblical flood instigated by Namor the Sub-Mariner, an invasion by Thanos, and a coup d'état by Doctor Doom which left T'Challa's sister Shuri, the previous Black Panther, trapped between life and death. The country is in chaos, and many Wakandans feel that their king has failed to protect them, and that therefore he "is no king at all". The sorcerer Tetu and his mind-witch Zenzi feel that monarchy has served Wakanda poorly, and so they stir up anti-royal, pro-democratic sentiment among T'Challa's subjects to fuel their Nigandan-backed revolution. Meanwhile, two of the Dora Milaje (the king's all-female honor guards) have gone rogue: after Aneka murders a serial rapist in an extra-judicial killing and is sentenced to death for undermining the rule of law, her lover Ayo steals a pair of prototype exoskeletons and breaks Aneka out of prison. Dubbing themselves the Midnight Angels, the two set off on an anti-rape rampage across Wakanda's lawless hinterlands, murdering bandit-kings and sexually-abusive patriarchs without trial or mercy. T'Challa is forced to hunt down and apprehend two of his own beloved and loyal servants—women with whom he agrees on the righteousness of their cause, in theory if not in practice—in order to preserve the rule of law in his own kingdom.
One of the things I really like about A Nation Under Our Feet is that no one could really be called a "villain", at least not in the traditional, mustache-twirling sense. Sure, there are minor characters like the White Gorilla and Zeke Stane (son of the villain from the first Iron Man movie) who you just love to hate, but for the most part all of the people working against Black Panther have sympathetic goals, even if we don't agree with their methods. What American reader could hear about an attempt to overthrow a hereditary monarchy and replace it with democracy and not feel at least a little affinity for their cause? What person with a heart could hear about systematic rapists being murdered by the very women they abused without feeling at least a twinge of poetic justice? Much like Game of Thrones, the reader is never sure who to root for, because we know that victory for one side means defeat for another faction with which we sympathize.
At times, the use of Wakandan vocabulary was confusing. Words like jabari, mjinga, and jambazi are just tossed off by the cast without any explanation or easy way to look them up. At first I thought I could guess what they meant from context, but I kept coming across clues that made me think I had got it wrong. I realize that this is how people talk, without constantly explaining themselves, but a Wakandan dictionary, or a glossary at the end of the book, would have been nice.
Speaking of extras at the end of the book, both volumes feature "Process & Development" sections which include samples of character art, rough sketches of individual characters and entire pages, and excerpts from Coates' script. These bonuses are kind of interesting, but they won't really teach you anything new about how comic books get made.
Finally, each volume ends with reprints of classic Black Panther issues. Book One includes the Panther's first-ever appearance in Fantastic Four #52, a fun romp through a techno-organic jungle populated with deafeningly-bright primary colors and Jack Kirby's trippy, mechano-fantastic visuals. Book Two concludes with two issues of Panther's Rage, a 1973 adventure-tale which is extremely, at times hilariously, 80s. The main villain, Erik Killmonger (yes, that's his actual surname), is a bare-chested, spike-wearing, whip-wielding African giant who appears to dunk his entire head in a bucket of Soul-Glo every morning.
I think this is the first time the Black Panther has had both a Black writer and a Black illustrator at the same time, though I can't swear to that. Either way, Coates and Stelfreeze work well together, and I look forward to seeing more from this pairing. Coates' storytelling is excellent (A Nation Under Our Feet was nominated for a Hugo award for Best Graphic Story), but there are occasional resorts to well-worn comic book cliches (faked deaths, infodumps, deliberately misleading the reader, etc.) to heighten drama. I also found the story in Book One a little difficult to follow; I had to read it twice before I fully understood all the players and their various motivations, but Book Two flowed much better, once all the exposition was out of the way.
Overall, Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet is a rollicking adventure yarn which doubles as subtle political commentary. Under the guise of discussing the myriad troubles which beset this fictional African country, Coates surreptitiously introduces and explores topics which are near and dear to his heart, such as internalized racism, statecraft and kingship, and what it is that truly makes a country (and its king) great:
T'CHALLA: The day after I became king, [my uncle] S'Yan offered a single piece of wisdom. "Power lies not in what a king does, but in what his subjects believe he might do." This was profound. For it meant that the majesty of kings lay in their mystique... not in their might. Every act of might diminished the king, for it diminished his mystique. Might exposed the king's powers and thus his limits. Might made the king human. Breakable. [...] [W]hat the people know not is the true power of kings.
Holy act of Congress, Batman! It's almost like he isn't talking about Africa at all!