The Black Panther: Nation Under Our Feet was first written by Ta-Nehisi Coates in August 31, 2016, and is an ongoing comic book series. Other contributors to the comic book include Brian Stelfreeze, the main illustrator, and Laura Martin, the color artist.
The comics follow the story of T’Challah, the king of Wakanda. Wakanda is a fictional country in Africa that is the most technologically advanced nation in the world. It is a country in which its ancestors weren’t taken away to be slaves, but were instead free to advance the world’s science and technology. Every king of Wakanda, in addition to mastering diplomacy and science, also takes up the mantle of The Black Panther, protector of the people. The Black Panther is blessed with enhanced agility, and master tracking skills. Together with the Black Panther and the freedom of its ancestors, Wakanda has become an example of power and beauty.
However, the nation is in a state of unrest. T’Challah, who struggles internally because he feels unworthy in the lineages of Black Panthers before him, now has to face the people who he swore to protect. While T’Challah was away with the Avengers, the city suffered terrible tragedies that they blame on their absent king. He comes back to rule after the death of his sister, Shuri, but instead of rallying around him, the citizens form a coup. Leaders of this rebellion include members of the royal guard and star philosophy students from the local university.
This conflict adds on to the strife within T’Challah, and he doesn’t know how to restore peace to the nation or to his mind. He wants to lead Wakanda’s citizens to unity, but doesn’t know himself whether a monarchy is the right choice for the nation.
The rogue citizens, naming themselves The People, work together to try and topple the monarchy, and succeed to a point by destroying cities and killing those who still support the king. However, with the help of The Avengers and his most loyal followers, T’Challah manages to bring Shuri back from the dead, and convince his subjects to stop fighting and instead find a diplomatic solution that transfers some power away from the monarch and gives it to the people.
Ever since his creation, The Black Panther continues to be a revolutionary narrative that pushes the conversation about representation in mainstream media forward. T’Challah’s story is so popular, in fact, that he is getting his own movie in the upcoming year, and is slated to be a recurring character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, along with his supporting cast. Coates is one of many to give the Black Panther a fresh face, including the renown Stan Lee and Russo Brothers, and among varying criticism, has used his experience as a political and cultural activist and journalist to weave themes of monarchy and power into The Black Panther: Nation Under Our Feet.
Historical and Cultural Context
Since his debut as the first black character to appear in mainstream comic books, the Black Panther has represented a community that has desperately been fighting for its rights within American society.
The Black Panther first appeared in Fantastic Four #52 in July 1966 during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Interestingly, the Black Panther’s name predates the founding of the Black Panther Party in October 1966, but could have been inspired by the symbol of a black panther of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization or the segregated World War II Black Panthers Tank Battalion.
The Black Panther’s role and place in mainstream media has always been changing, evolving, and reflecting on society’s view upon the African American community. For instance, back when the Black Panther first appeared, he appeared only as an incredibly minor cameo within the Fantastic Four comics with little to no background or character development. However, in the 1960s and 1970s, the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, it was customary for black characters in mainstream media to only have minor roles, if any roles at all. As a result, the Black Panther’s appearance as a capable, strong, superhero was revolutionary for the time. Interestingly, decades after the height of the Civil Rights Movement, African American representation has been still been limited to minor, secondary roles and more specifically roles as slaves.
In Ta-Nahesi Coates’s latest adaptation of the Black Panther superhero, he depicts a kingdom, Wakanda, isolated from the entire world; however, due to its abundance of a rare and powerful material, vibranium, it has become the most advanced society in the world. Wakanda is led by the current Black Panther, T’Challah, but civil unrest begins to ensue because of neglect from the monarchy. As a result, T’Challah is faced with the dilemma that torments both his mind and soul of fighting and killing the people who he was sworn to protect. Coates humanizes the Black Panther, making him relatable to more than just an African American audience. His contemporary development contrasts starkly with his initial development back in the ‘60s. These changes are significant because they show black characters in places of power that they never have been able to obtain in real life because of the oppression they have faced. The new development of the Black Panther serves as a demonstration that African Americans too are equally capable and equally human as their white counterparts.
Ultimately the initial goal upon creation was to entertain the audience. However, through American history and its influence, like the Civil Rights Movement, The Black Panther has become more than just entertainment. He has become a symbol for the African American community and has spearheaded representation for blacks within mainstream media. The Black Panther and his kingdom, Wakanda, serve as an example of the potential and capability of that all African Americans have when they are unbound by the Afterlives of Slavery.
Themes and Style
As a regular contributor to The Atlantic, Coates wrote an article describing the process behind writing The Black Panther and about his favorite themes. Coates found Wakanda’s power struggle most fascinating while writing the comics. Specifically, he uses The Black Panther to ask the following question: “Can a good man be a king, and can society tolerate a monarch?” (Coates). The title for this story arch, Nation Under Our Feet, actually comes from a discussion between T’Challah and the man who inspired the rebellion. T’Challah comes to him for advice, so the man asks, “Who, in full knowledge, would wish to hold a country on their shoulders? Who, in full sanity, would try to hold a nation under their feet?” (Coates Issue 10). It is a question that neither of them can fully answer, but are instead forced to ponder.
With each iteration of this question, T’Challah reaches different answers. He could squash the rebels and continue the monarchy at the risk of another rebellion, but he could never succeed this way. Coates drives the reasoning home with specific stylistic elements. The images in the palace are often blocky with regal purples, golds and reds. Although the pictures seem powerful, they are also static, meaning that the elite class alone can’t make effective change.
Alternatively, T’Challah could give all power to The People, but a new dictatorship might rise among the anarchy. He considers this idea, but again, this is not the right move. The art style for the leaders of The People is distinct: the images are long and skinny, as if they stretch for change and revolution, but instead of looking up, they often look down. Even in square images, they look cold and condescending, and their pages are characterized by greens and yellows, representing their jealousy and ill will toward the king.
Consequently, a compromise among uncompromising subjects is necessary, but even that leaves infinite solutions that keep everyone dissatisfied. With all of the options before him, T’Challah wars with himself as much as he wars with The People, but allows himself to be open-minded and flexible. His humility makes him wiser, and Wakanda stronger. After the war, the last panel of this arch says, “A Beginning,” instead of “The End,” because there marks the start of a fluid government that listens and learns with time.
Thus, Coates argues that the answer is not as important as the discussion. For example, Wakanda has the most advanced technology in the world, but without open political conversation, the country is just as antiquated as any other. The social structure of a country is just as important as its outward display of power. And so the question remains: Is monarchy a form of slavery? By resolving the story arch with a peaceful end to the coup and the start of a conversation on democracy, Coates uses The Black Panther to argue that although monarchy itself isn’t slavery, repression of open thinking and resist to changes in politics definitely is. Often monarchy and repression of free speech have gone hand-in-hand in history, which is why many monarchies have toppled over the years, but because Wakanda is a utopian country in which the impossible becomes possible, Coates has presented a political ideal that we must work towards: educated discussion and compromise.
In the case of Wakanda, the power of the city comes from its roots in tradition and the honoring of its ancestors. For this country, although the monarchy has made mistakes, the history it represents keeps the culture grounded and gives Wakandan scientists and diplomats a unique wisdom. In this way, the Afterlives of Slavery theme is present in many different ways throughout these complex comics; in addition to discussing the implications of slavery, Coates approaches the effects of slavery on modern society by theorizing what the world would be like without those effects. The leaders of both sides of the Civil War use ancient Wakandan stories and proverbs to guide them throughout the story: Shuri and T’Challah remember the stories of ancient kings, while The People remember ancient poetry. In particular, citizens use the story of an African tree to guide them.
As shown, even to The People, Wakandan culture is complex and holds different meaning for everyone, which guides their decisions. To the family pictured, the poem strikes fear and joy, as displayed by their bowed heads followed by their outstretched arms. But each interpretation has a constant: Rather than being cut off from their culture and forced to rebuild in a strange new land, Africans were allowed to lets their roots grow deeper, and their branches stretch higher. No matter who wins the war, every Wakandan has deep appreciation for their connection to culture. It has led them to prosperity, and will guide them to a prosperous future.
This is why Shuri finds strength and power from learning her history, and why Wakanda’s futuristic tech, architecture and fashion have strong African influences.
Nobody knows exactly how Wakanda became so powerful; Maybe it was the rich vibranium deposits, or the badass kings. One thing’s for certain: without their connection to the past, Wakandans could not move forward as they have. Without the chains of the afterlives of slavery, Africans could climb higher and push farther than ever before.
The creation and evolution of the Black Panther has undoubtedly had a positive, empowering effect on the African American community and society. However, in a medium whose primary purpose is to entertain, the question arises: how deep should these comics delve into political, philosophical, and societal problems? Because of these discussions, the reviews over Ta-Nehisi Coates’s adaption of the Black Panther have been mixed.
Among its core audience, young adults, Coates’s The Black Panther has seemed to fall short of expectations. This has mostly been due to fact that this audience is looking for straightforward entertainment. However, upon reading the first few pages of Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, the reader is thrown into the world of Wakanda with little to no background information, yet significant events are constantly bombarding the reader which causes confusion. Jacob Brogan, a journalist for Slate Magazine, best sums up the initial experience when he states,“[The Black Panther] reads sluggishly despite its frantic pace” (Brogan). Almost immediately, the reader is faced with intense ethical issues that slow the read significantly. This problem can be attributed to Coates’s inexperience in writing comic books, this being his first one, and that his writing style may be more geared toward writing more formal literature as seen in his books, The Beautiful Struggle or We Were Eight Years in Power which address racial issues that young African Americans have faced and continue to face in society today. According to Jacob Brogan “the takeaway. . .isn’t that Coates could have told a simpler story, but that he chose not to”(Brogan). Brogan and other critics believe that Coates went too broad with his references and that there is too much going on at once, resulting in a slow and difficult read.
Despite the first issue of Coates’s The Black Panther failing to resonate strongly with its target audience, many critics are hopeful for the coming of the next issue because of all the issues that Coates teased and introduced. Additionally, according to Professor Howard Rambsy II of Southern Illinois University, Coates’s The Black Panther has generated an astonishing amount of attention and discussion over African and African American culture (Rambsy II). He believes that this representation in comics can be a way to incorporate contemporary racial problems through more contemporary mediums, such as blogging, tweeting, and other online commentary (Rambsy II). The development of this new Black Panther series opens up new ways to address the problems of race and at the same time empower the African American community by introducing more African American characters, culture, and problems into the mainstream media and entertainment.
Brogan, Jacob. “Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Black Panther Comic Leans Very Hard on Superhero History. That’s a Blessing and a Curse.” Slate Magazine, 7 Apr. 2016. http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2016/04/08/ta_nehisi_coates_black_panther_reviewed_first_issue_leans_heavily_on_marvel.html
Coates, Ta-nehisi. “The Black Panther: Nation Under Our Feet.” The Black Panther, vol. 1-11, Marvel, 2016.
Coates, Ta-nehisi. “The Return of the Black Panther.” The Atlantic, 15 Mar. 2016, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/04/the-return-of-the-black-panther/471516/.
Patel, Rohan. “New Batch Of BLACK PANTHER Concept Art Provides Us With An Amazing Walkthrough Of Wakanda.” Comic Book Movie, Comic Book Movie, 13 Feb. 2017, http://www.comicbookmovie.com/black_panther/new-batch-of-black-panther-concept-art-provides-us-with-an-amazing-a148921.
Rambsy II, Howard. “The Remarkable Reception of Ta-Nehisi Coates.” African American Review 49.3 (2016): 196-204. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/631991/summary
Reese, Aaron. “The Journey to Wakanda: Afrofuturism and Black Panther.” ComicsAlliance, 30 June 2015, comicsalliance.com/afrofuturism-black-panther/.
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“Ta-Nehisi Coates on Writing Marvel’s Black Panther.” Performance by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Youtube, The Atlantic, 17 Mar. 2016, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OSTuUs-HVE8.
Coogler, Ryan, director. Marvel Studios’ Black Panther-Official Trailer. Youtube, Marvel Entertainment, 16 Oct. 2017, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xjDjIWPwcPU.
Craven, Wayne. “An Awakening.” American Art, vol. 11, no. 2, 1997, pp. 42–44. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3109248.
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