Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet

Ta-nehisi Coates's run on Black Panther feels like a historic moment in comics: it marks the first black superhero being written by one of the most prominent black voices in contemporary literature at a time when black bodies are explicitly a fulcrum of modern political contention. (Black bodies have always been a fulcrum of American politics, but America has rarely admitted to this fact.) It might be expected, then, that Coates's Black Panther series would speak to the precarious situation (both political and lived) of the black body within the fictional context of comic books. After all, the subtitle of Coates's series, A Nation Under Our Feet, echoes the title of Steven Hahn's account of Southern black political struggles from slavery to the black diaspora within America.

Coates's Black Panther is political, inasmuch as it speaks to how power is constructed, defined, and exercised. But this Black Panther series is as much a part of Coates's deconstructive project as his book Between the World and Me. One of the main points of Between the World and Me (aside from the precarity of the black body and the centrality of that vulnerability to America's history) is the necessity of critique. Between the World and Me is ostensibly a letter from Coates to his son, telling him that he needs to deeply question the narratives he's going to inherit about blackness and America throughout his life, but it's also a letter to every reader who picks up the book--and it tells us the same thing: don't except the validity or truth of the American Dream without really looking at it with open eyes.

Black Panther continues that deconstructive critique, but unlike Between the World and Me it isn't oriented specifically toward race in America. There are a few illustration choices in the series that recall America's current racial tensions. For example:

This alternate cover for the first issue shows the Black Panther surrounded by white policemen with guns at the ready--an understandable anxiety for the possessor of a black body in the current cultural moment of militarized police forces and "stand yoru ground" dogma--although such a scene never happens in the comic the cover adorns.

Similarly, this page shows the Black Panther going prone under what could be interpreted to be a bullet wound to the head. (It's not; it's the technological part of his costume activating.)

Instead of dealing with the myths of race and the society built upon them, the deconstructive thrust of the book is specifically applied to the superhero genre: in Coates's series, it may well be the case that the Black Panther is not the hero of his own book. On the surface, that sounds like madness; of course he's the hero of the book, it's named after him and he's in the foreground of the cover! That's how you know he's the hero, right?

As far as I can tell (and I admit that I am far from an expert on capes comics), a superhero needs four things to be defined as such: powers or abilities beyond the normal ken, a willingness to use those powers or abilities for the greater good, a weakness of some sort, and villains to fight against.

I want to talk about the first three as a group because they are the mostly tightly entwined in Coates's Black Panther. The Black Panther's abilities and his willingness to use them for good are both undermined by his major flaw. Unlike Superman and his vulnerability to Kryptonite, the Black Panther's flaw is not external; it is intimately interior--his flaw is his own internalized self-doubt. The Black Panther doubts everything essential for his own self-belief that he is the hero of the tale. He doubts his ability to protect his people and promote their welfare, he doubts that one man can make a difference and steer history and polity in the right direction, he doubts that he is a just ruler of his kingdom, he doubts his inheritance, he doubts the very shape of kingship because it seems at odds with the nation's will. He doubts that being a superhero is possible.

He has good cause for doubt himself because the villains that oppose him aren't necessarily wrong. In the handful of issues collected in A Nation Under Our Feet, we get introduced to "villains" that often seem as heroic as the title character, and are in fact differentiated from the Black Panther largely by their vastly different and incompatible political beliefs and worldviews. The two women who are renegade royal guards turned against they system they once upheld, for example, do more to protect the downtrodden of Wakanda, and are far more effective at doing so, than T'Challa is throughout the initial issues of the series. Their belief that no one man should have exclusive access to political authority must ring true for a number of readers--it echoes the vigilante mindset of adored heroes like Batman, while also recalling true democratic principles. These villains hardly seem villainous.

Tetu and Zenzi, the other group of "villains" that the Black Panther must contend with, also seem to linger in a liminal gray area that is hard to convincingly describe as villainy. As a shaman, Tetu is representative of African land itself, and its rejection of the traditional regime's various environmental and biopower transgressions; as the leader of the People, he represents popular uprising against traditions that no longer embody the human beings who must live as one with the land and each other. Zenzi is likewise cast as a potential liberator; her ability to bring the people's resentments and anger explosively to the surface is effectively a symbolic awakening of the political consciousness and radicalization of lingering dissatisfaction with their sovereign, and perhaps the idea of sovereigns as a whole. It isn't so easy to see these two characters as villains either; contrasted against the Black Panther's inclinations and actions, they might be kind of outsiders we love to see stand corruption and tyranny.

Without a clear hero and without clear villains, Black Panther is shades of gray all the way down. The intersections tear themselves apart, as crossroads always do. We have, of course, seen deconstructions of the superhero genre before. After Watchmen, we might even claim to have suffered a deluge of them. But few deconstructions of the capes-and-costumes genre have connected that deconstruction as closely to critiques of national relations of power, nor to the ways that the politics of nation are always already the politics of the individuals--from highest to lowest--from which the nation arises.