Last October, at the tail end of a year propelled by circus-like disbelief and political egocentrism, a tweet found its way onto my timeline. “#BlackTwitter alerting friends to the new #BlackPanther trailer,” wrote user @Maria_Giesela. With it, she attached a short clip of Dallas megachurch pastor T.D. Jakes mightily booming, “Wake up! Wake up! … Wake up outta your sleep,” as a camera pans the congregation, itself an overflow of jubilation. The clip perfectly crystallized the collective mood shared by many people who’ve long waited for a superhero epic that they can identify with—the anticipation, the giddy restlessness that verged on soul-warming hysteria.
What began with Black Panther’s initial announcement, followed by the title character’s debut in Captain America: Civil War, to the online upswell that greets each new taste of news, the film has become a true pop phenomenon.
But the legend of Black Panther, of course, did not arise from the ether. T’Challa, king of Wakanda, was the first black superhero in mainstream American comics. In the Wakanda of Marvel’s forging, the East African nation thrives in isolation. Its history and culture exceed global expectation—for decades it has outpaced other world superpowers in science, education, and technological growth. The nation’s allure and complexity is heightened, too, for its placement: for a time, in literature and on television, the continent of Africa had been fetishized as a dark wasteland; a place whose only hope was The White Savior. The introduction of Wakanda into the Marvel universe arrived in 1966—during that fervent and violent spell of political and social upheaval in American history—as a rejection to racial falsehoods in pop culture.
In the last half-century, his story has endured in comic form, taking on different iterations with new writers—first and most famously by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby during the late 1960s and 1970s, followed by a beloved reboot in 1998 under the creative auspice of writer Christopher Priest (The Black Panther: Volume 3). In 2016, Pather’s rebirth came via author and essayist Ta-Nehisi Coates in one of the most anticipated comic issuings in recent memory (Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet).
With a promised 11-issue arc, which has since stretched to 23 issues, Coates’ undertaking of the series was also my reintroduction to Black Panther and his many lives. I’m what you might consider a casual admirer; though I’m conscious of the comic’s rich lore, and respect what the character has come to represent, I don’t know much about the series beyond the essentials. (For reasons only my pre-teen brain could justify, I was drawn to X-Men—the comics, the animated TV show, the Fleer Ultra trading cards, many of which I still own).
Over the course of the last week, I’ve burrowed into Coates’ treasure trove of a series, as well as its three offshoot arcs: Black Panther & The Crew; World of Wakanda (writers Roxane Gay and Rembert Browne fleshed out this limited series); and Rise of the Black Panther, the first issue of which was released in early January. Penned by Evan Narcisse, and relayed from the point of view of Ramonda, Rise tells the origin story of Black Panther—it chronicles a youthful T’Chaka as he falls in love, becomes a father, and later suffers heartbreak, a period marked by the infiltration of outside forces (Hydra; Ulysses Klaw) who seek to civilize Wakanda and mine for vibranium, the country’s most sought-after natural resource.
Rise, too, concerns itself with a kind of ardent mythmaking—what circumstances, in the wake of T’Chaka’s death, fashioned T’Challa into the hero and conflicted king before us today? It suggests that identities exist in the constant, informed as much by the before as they are the after. Collectively, the comics are a close study of what that means.
At the outset of my immersion into the mythos, my hope was that the comics would serve as a guidepost, a supplement to better help me contextualize the film, if not fully ground me in Wakandan lore. With that in mind, I stuck mostly to reading A Nation Under Our Feet and Rise of the Black Panther; though they’re technically separate series, they linearly inform T’Challa’s narrative: they mine the alchemy of becoming and the consequences of self-authorship.
Where I found the most pleasure, though, was Gay’s World Of Wakanda series, a fantastic tapestry of queer love between two members of the Dora Milaje, T’Challa’s all-female security force. It moved with a more kinetic energy, a credit to Gay’s deep attention to mining emotional turmoil as a means of reckoning with grander political dilemmas. By breaking off from T’Challa’s story and focusing on Aneka and Ayo’s twined fates, as they morph from faithful servants to dissidents, Gay breathed life into the country’s interior, filling out its architecture, making the land and its people seem more full and real, all without T’Challa at its center. In Issue 3, for example, Aneka and Ayo flee Wakanda on vacation to New York City, taking in the serenity of Central Park and magic of Manhattan nights. For a moment, it’s easy to forget all that surrounds them and see them simply as a wholehearted, woundless black love story, one that need not be defined by the pains of the past.
Surveyed in full, the portrait of T’Challa only becomes that much more complex across each series. In part, this is what Coates wanted to accomplish—to paint a leader who doesn’t have all the answers, someone who falters but trudges in the right direction in spite of the odds. I don’t yet know how Ryan Coogler’s adaptation will align with Coates’ vision, but for the casual comics fan, the current Marvel series nicely introduces readers into Wakanda without the burden of expectation. And, really, that’s all I can ask for.
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