On Media

Ta-Nehisi Coates stewards a story

The new Black Panther series uses genre conventions to say something true.

In 2015, Ta-Nehisi Coates won the National Book Award for Between the World and Me and took home a MacArthur “genius” grant. Toni Mor­rison dubbed him “the intellectual heir of James Baldwin.” What does a cultural critic with that kind of pedigree do next? Write comic books.

In 2016 Marvel Comics published nine new Black Panther comic books written by Coates, with more to follow. The Black Panther was the first black superhero in the Marvel universe, alter ego of T’Challa, protector and  king of Wakanda, a fictional African country that is the most technologically advanced in the world. Its violent use of power has endangered the vulnerable, and the Black Panther is struggling to control revolutionary factions. Among these factions are the lovers/warriors Ayo and Aneka, who fight under the banner, “No one man,” and Tetu, a revolutionary shaman propelled to violence by the memories of Wakanda’s violence. At the center of the story is a nation that no longer wants a king, and a king who no longer knows why a king is needed.

Like much of Coates’s work, the comic books investigate the ways in which power is seized, owned, abused, and rejected. The Black Panther comics complicate typical comic tropes. Is the woman who opens others’ eyes to their rage and shame a hero or a villain? Is the revolutionary who kills for the rights of people a freedom fighter or a terrorist?