Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Review - Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, Book One by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Brian Stelfreeze

Short review: T'Challa struggles to retain his position of authority in Wakanda as the Shaman Tetu and his mind-controlling witch ally foment discord among the populace. Even some of the dora milaje turn against the Black Panther.

Great robbers punish
What about the robber who
Broke into my house?

Full review: Sometimes an author tries to do something truly ambitious. Sometimes their efforts pay off, and the resulting work is a brilliant and masterful piece. Sometimes they aren't able to realize their ambition and the result is vaguely disappointing, but one can appreciate the intentions behind the piece. In Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, Ta-Nehisi Coates attempts a story that is clearly quite ambitious in scope, and while it doesn't quite fire on all cylinders, the end result is an examination of power, responsibility, authority, and self-determination that is at turns fascinating, tantalizing, and intensely frustrating.

The character Black Panther was created in the 1960s, and although his powers have fluctuated somewhat over the years, his backstory, and the political apparatus that goes with it has remained mostly constant. Black Panther is the title given to the chief of the Panther Tribe in the isolated and secretive African nation of Wakanda, who also happens to be that nations' hereditary ruler and protector. The current Black Panther is T'Challa, who arose to the position after his father T'Chaka was killed by Ulysses Klaw, prompting T'Challa to undergo the trials and training needed in a quest for revenge. Wakanda itself is wealthy due to a deposit of the valuable metal vibranium, and T'Challa has used this wealth to transform the nation into a high-tech powerhouse. Much of this background more or less draws upon the traditional popular conception of Africa - a society run by tribes and chiefs, exotic and mysterious, with the "twist" being that the nation boasts advanced technology that would put many "civilized" nations to shame.

This vision of Africa was never truly accurate, and as time has passed has become increasingly anachronistic in even the small details that were close to reality. Many African nations are poor, but like any nation, prosperity is not evenly distributed and most boast large cities, with some rivaling the large metropolises of the northern hemisphere. They have universities, research labs, and all of the other elements of modern society, which makes Wakanda much less of an outlier in this regard than it might have been thought of when it was first conceived. More notably, the notion that a nation could be ruled by a hereditary monarch (albeit an ostensibly benevolent one) seems increasingly out of step with the African experience when more and more nations of the continent have shed rule by dictators and strongmen in favor of more representative governments. The Africa of Black Panther's creation was built on a collection of stereotypes and myths, and now, even those stereotypes and myths are becoming more than a bit worn at the edges.

This background is necessary to understand what it appears that Coates is attempting to do with A Nation Under Our Feet which amounts to nothing short of calling into question the very heroic nature of the Black Panther. In the opening pages of the book, T'Challa is attacked by angry workers at the nation's vibranium mine and forced to defend himself - but this scene of the super-powered protector of the nation turning against his own people does not play well with the public, causing further resentment within the populace. The strict application of Wakandan law turns Ayo and Akena, a pair of the dora milaje, against T'Challa's regime. They take their advanced weaponry with them and carve out a mini-state of their own within the borders of Wakanda. On another front, the Shaman Tetu aided by an enchantress who can shape other's minds and possibly supported (or merely manipulated) by the Nigandans has formed an army to fight against T'Challa. Against these foes, T'Challa and his stepmother Ramonda struggle to hold their nation together, and preserve the traditional society of which they are part. Unfortunately, it seems that almost every decision they make is the wrong one. It is Ramonda's inflexibility that leads to Ayo and Aneka's revolt. It is T'Challa's attempts to protect his people that serve to drive them away from him, illustrated in one of the pivotal scenes in the book when he takes on a band of Tetu's rebels near the Nigandan border. After he has defeated them, he turns to the women and children promising the men will be brought to justice and that their king will provide for them. One woman gathers her children, gestures around her and says simply "These men were providing for us".

But for all that, this volume is severely flawed. First, there are really too many moving parts for its length, as Coates tries to cram in a lot more wrinkles into the story than it can comfortably hold. There are three main factions, each with their own storyline; four if you count the Nigandans as their own faction; five if you count the philosopher Changamire as one as well. In addition, there is a side diversion in which the comatose Shuri ventures into the realm of memory. The result is a disjointed, often confusing narrative in which none of the actors are ever fully developed, and there isn't really much to do but watch as Coates moves them about like wooden chess pieces. The story seems like it has tremendous potential in its conception, but that the potential simply isn't realized in the execution. The character of Changamire exemplifies this to a certain extent: He is a dissident who advocates for a more representative version of government, comparing the rulers of the country to a "big thief" who serves to stop the "little thieves", asking how the weak should marshal justice against the powerful. But this is never really followed-up upon, and in fact, none of the factions vying for power give any reason for choosing their side in the struggle more compelling than "I'll be a better strongman than my rivals". If T'Challa is just a ruling strongman who is only differentiated from his political rivals by the fact that he is "legitimate" and they are not, is he truly heroic, or even good?

The book is simply crammed full of so much intrigue and activity that there isn't really room to explore the notions that it seems Coates really wants to get at - specifically the anachronistic nature of having a hereditary king rule over a modern nation. Even the unrest among the populace seems forced - the unnamed with that Tetu has enlisted to his side is credited with fomenting discord among the Wakandan people, using her mystical powers to cause them to rise up against T'Challa. The reader is left wondering if the discord is because the Wakandans are actually dissatisfied, or just because super-villain magic made them so, and as a result, the book loses a lot of the power it could have had. If there was not a super-villain using mind-magic to foment discord, would the populace of Wakanda be satisfied with being ruled by a hereditary king, or do they have legitimate political grievances that T'Challa should address? Given that this is a super-hero story, one does have to make some concessions to the genre, and a witch who can manipulate minds is perfectly in keeping with that, but in this case this element detracts from the story. On the flip side, the actual super-heroic elements are pretty sparse in this volume - T'Challa has a few scenes in which he tangles with some soldiers, and Ayo and Akena apparently take on and defeat the gorilla warrior Mandla, but their fight takes place almost entirely off-stage. The end result is a story that skimps on the philosophy and character development on the one hand, and gives a short shrift to the super-heroic punching on the other, yielding a whole that is disappointing on all fronts.

The volume also includes a reprint of the original Fantastic Four story in which the character of T'Challa was first introduced. In the story, T'Challa entices the quartet with the gift of an advanced aircraft, which they immediately hop into for a joyride. This turns out to be a trap, as the vehicle jets them to Wakanda where the Black Panther has decided to take them all on, defeating the foursome one after the other. A not-unpredictable twist turns the tables and the Fantastic Four rally, use a little teamwork, and get the upper hand before T'Challa reveals his true identity and offers to explain himself, at which point the story ends. Written by Stan Lee and illustrated by Jack Kirby, the story is bold, bright, glorious, and incredibly goofy in the way that only comics from the 1960s really can be. There isn't anything deep and meaningful in it beyond "teamwork is good" and "don't overlook ordinary people", but it is a quick and fun little romp.

In the end, book one of A Nation Under Our Feet just misses the mark. That's not really as big a criticism as one might think, as it aimed quite high, and when it comes down to it, I'd usually rather see a work aim high and miss than a work opt for a more comfortable story and hit the mark. The problem with this volume is that there is simply too much story to fit inside the amount of space that Coates had to work with. The end result is a story that just doesn't have enough time to develop the characters, the politics, or the plot that the book relies upon, and the very tropes of the super-hero genre get in the way of the story at times. The resulting product is an effort that is noble in intent, and generally pretty good, but just doesn't quite live up to the promise it held.

Subsequent volume in the series: Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, Book Two by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Chris Sprouse

2017 Hugo Finalists

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  1. Great review! I read this one also earlier this year and really enjoyed the artwork of it, though I do agree with your assessment of too much packed in to give it all a thorough showing. I was interested after having listened to Coates Between the World and Me, so I when I saw a Black Panther comic that he had written, I had to check it out!

    1. @Shaunesay Eslanai: I have recently acquired Book 2 in the series, and I will be reading it in the near future. I am hoping that the second volume is better than the first.