Being the comic-book geek that a lot of my Marvel Cinematic Universe fan friends know, I often get asked questions along these lines: “Okay, so the new film? Is there something I should read?”
For Black Panther, the answer has been easy: Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Hugo-nominated Black Panther: A Nation under Our Feet. Other comic-book aficionados may disagree, but when I watched the trailer for the upcoming Panther film, I was visually triggered for Brian Stelfreeze’s art. The costumes have a certain resonance, of course, but even something simple as a landscape scene reminded me of this graphic-novel series.
The collected first volume of A Nation under Our Feet came out in September 2016. At the time, I had very mixed reactions to it. It’s an incredibly groundbreaking series, given that it is both written and illustrated by African Americans.
But at the time, my take-away was “needs more explosions.”
As I mentioned in my review of the newer Black Panther comic by Nnedi Okorafor, Ta-Nehisi Coates is a New York Times best-selling author . . . of nonfiction. And I’m sorry to say, but you could tell this is first foray into fiction. Even if this weren’t the kind of storytelling that depends on heavy visuals—which it is—the plot of Coates’s Panther is extremely ponderous and complex, as is the dialogue. It’s a rookie mistake that I warn many writing students to avoid: don’t make every character speak the same way, and, oh yeah, I get that you want to add gravity with your meaningful pronouncements, but they lose impact if they come with every sentence. Save the “thou shalts” for the big moments; they’ll have more oomph.
Wrested from its clunky storytelling, however, the core idea of this series is fascinating. Basically, the concept is this: how do you have a life and keep your daily, basic shit together when you’re a freaking superhero? T’Challa’s/Black Panther’s problems are amplified because he’s not just trying to get through high school, like your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. T’Challa is the king of Wakanda, the most technologically advanced nation in the world. Turns out, when you’re spending your time swanning off with the Avengers, you leave your nation vulnerable to attack. Also, apparently, when you’re not paying attention, factions and warlords (maybe—that part was a little hard for me to track) spring up everywhere, and a lot of them, let’s say, have a bad track record regarding human-rights violations, particularly when it comes to women.
Plus, T’Challa prides himself in being very, very just. His government is determined that everyone is going to get the same treatment under the law. Truth, justice, and the Wakandan way is great and everything, but when you follow that kind of superstrict code you sometimes find yourself ordering the execution of a feminist vigilante who is trying to stop women and girls from being raped and abused because, you know, murdering those bastards is still murder.
Luckily, girlfriend won’t stand for that.
And I mean that literally. Turns out the feminist killer of rapists is a lesbian, and her girlfriend busts her out of prison to save her from execution and start a two-woman campaign (with cool, high-tech, Iron Man–like suits) that underscores the ways in which T’Challa has failed his people. Everywhere they go, with every raping warlord they topple, the pair leaves behind a message: No One Man.
The message resonates because, yeah, why a king when Wakanda is otherwise so advanced? To say Aneka and Ayo were my favorite part of this graphic novel would be an understatement. Plus, Stelfreeze’s stylized art is gorgeous.
But there’s not enough of them, and there’s too much of other confusing supervillains and subplots involving a dead/not-dead sister to T’Challa.
In short: this thing needed more explosions. But in general? It’s worth reading, or at least skimming, if you’re interested in reading up on a little Black Panther before the movie comes out on February 16. Currently, probably in anticipation of the movie, Marvel has the Kindle download available for free, and the series is also included in the publisher’s Black Panther sale on comiXology.