T’Challa, the Black Panther, has for a long time been one of my absolute favorite comic book characters.
And with the Wakandan king having for some time now been without a monthly title, I was very excited about this series launching.
Additionally, the fact that a well regarded journalist, educator and expert in social and political issues was taking the helm of this book helped to whet my appetite further.
MacArthur Genius and National Book Award-winner Ta-Nehisi Coates, along with Brian Stelfreeze, and colorist Laura Martin have crafted a book that shows why Black Panther is one of the best and most iconic characters in the Marvel Universe.
And, as I will shortly elaborate on, the more I read it the more I find that ‘A Nation Under Our Feet’ closely parallels (probably on purpose) a very real crisis that unfolded in recent years in an African nation.
Black Panther #1 is particularly a great opening chapter. Intriguing, compelling and rich in atmosphere..
On a different note, one of the most persistently striking things about this series is its correlation to real-world events. Although various African nations or turmoils over the years could be cited, this particular story from the outset struck me as a retelling of the collapse of Libya – specifically, the ‘uprising’ against long-time Libyan figurehead Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
As someone who researched and wrote on the subject of the Libyan ‘revolution’ at length (and in fact compiled a book on the subject), the analogies struck me throughout this story.
A restless population rising up against their powerful figurehead, manipulated by cynical outside agencies into doing so, the figurehead/ruler (T’Challa/Gaddafi) struggling with how to deal with this threat to the nation, etc. Reading ‘A Nation Under Our Feet, Part 1’, the points of comparison come up so frequently throughout that I could compile a whole separate article on the subject.
But take page 6 of Black Panther #1: T’Challa tells us, ‘The hate did not spread on its own. Deceivers are loose in my kingdom’. You could find Mummar Gaddafi saying more or less the exact same thing back in 2011. On the very same page, you then see a mob of angry Wakandans seizing T’Challa, one of them crying out “Death to Tyrants!” This scene immediately echoes Gaddafi’s death in October 2011, when he was seized by the vicious mob and executed.
A couple of pages later, one of T’Challa’s attendants urges him to withdraw from the angry mob, warning “call the soldiers back – we cannot massacre our own people.” This, again, directly echoes Gaddafi issuing orders to his army generals to not open fire on the crowds, no matter how violent they became.
It would not surprise me in the least bit if Ta-Nehisi Coates – an expert in social, political and African affairs – has deliberately used the Libyan nightmare as a basis or inspiration for this storyline.
I haven’t seen Coates say this anywhere, but the similarities between the real-life Libyan horror story and this fictional Wakandan story are so strong that I would be astonished if there was no conscious mirroring going on here.
The mirroring between fictional Wakanda and real-world Gaddafi-era Libya is fairly comprehensive, for that matter. Wakanda – an African nation judged to be the most developed and successful in the entire continent and sitting on a vast natural resource (Vibranium) – is entirely analogous to Gaddafi-era Libya (an African nation judged to be the continent’s most developed, prosperous land, due in large part to its natural oil reserves).
In both fictional Wakanda and real-world Gaddafi-era Libya, important mention is made of the tribal nature of the society. There are even visual cues here in the artwork: not just the abundance of the color green (the Libyan, Gaddafi-era colors), but, for example, in a simple image of T’Challa moving across the water (page 24). In this image, the way the skyscrapers and apartment blocks line the coast is immediately reminiscent of Gaddafi-era Tripoli.
There is no escaping that Birin Zana – the ‘Golden City’ of Wakanda – does look a hell of a lot like Tripoli.
For the record – and to support my argument – I can also cite Black Panther Vol.4 #21 (during the original Civil War storyline in 2006): in that book, Storm points out that Wakanda secretly funded Nelson Mandela’s anti-Apartheid movement for years. It is a known fact that the biggest sponsor of Mandela and the ANC in the real world was Gaddafi and Libya.
But, sorry – getting back to the comic-book review.
‘A Nation Under Our Feet, Part 1’ is a superb opening chapter in this story. Almost cinematic in its qualities, it establishes the situation with effective storytelling, particularly when conveyed through T’Challa’s own inner monologues. It is expertly illustrated and realised too and, as is often the case, Wakanda as a setting provides great space for imagination and for compelling imagery.
If Black Panther #1 was striking for its real-world parallels, the cover for Black Panther #2 really, fully confirms the point.
The image shows a large statue of the Black Panther being brought down by citizens in the street. It’s an image that very clearly echoes real-world events, uprisings and coups in recent years. The backdrop also makes it look a lot like Tripoli (Libya) – though, in fact, the general idea is more referencing the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Baghdad.
The unabashed poetry that opens Black Panther #3 is so rich in symbolism and feeling that you almost forget you’re reading a comic book – accompanied, at it is, by evocative desert images and a remarkable sense of vast open space and isolation, it is a potent way to start a comic book.
What is also interesting about this series is that T’Challa – our ‘hero’ and a Marvel standard – is at times depicted with the trappings almost of an African or Arab dictator.
There isn’t any real attempt here to water him down or make him more compatible with Western-centric sensibilities. He is very much a figure who believes entirely in his divine, sacred right to rule and in the power of his position.
He is even shown having ‘Secret Police’ that work for him (the ‘Hatut Zeraze’). While at no point is he depicted as being brutal or an oppressor, it is nevertheless interesting and even somewhat refreshing that Coates doesn’t try to gloss things over or avoid the reality that Wakanda isn’t meant to be an entirely open, liberal democracy.
I also found myself wishing people like Coates could be consulted more by US State Department officials – it might’ve helped avoid the utter catastrophe that was the US-NATO intervention to overthrow the government in Libya, based on a total misreading of that situation and a total lack of understanding of how Libyan society and state was organised.
What this Black Panther series further reinforces is the reality that some countries and societies – in Africa and elsewhere – are built on very unique, delicate and specific dynamics, cultural idiosyncrasies and sensibilities, that evolve and coalesce over many centuries: and that high-minded foreign powers should always think twice before storming in and knocking over the entire edifice in a misguided attempt to ‘bring Western democracy’, as if it can work that simply.
The Libya analogy is cemented further in Black Panther #4, when we learn for certain that the unrest in the country is being manipulated by foreign hands: echoing how the CIA, French Intelligence and other external actors were revealed to be guiding the Libyan unrest in 2011.
In #5, the story gets dirtier and more grey as T’Challa seeks out the counsel of some highly dubious figures, counter-terrorism and counter-revolutionary experts, conveying the depth of his dilemma and what he is being dragged down to in order to try to save Wakanda.
In actual fact, it is a trick to fully and finally discredit him among his people – and, by this point, the real-world/Libyan similarities are so thick and fast that I don’t even bother to note all of them any further (we also have the rebels being specifically referred to as ‘terrorists’ and even a suicide-bombing occurring).
At this point in the saga, we also benefit a little from having Manifold and Storm crop up (and Tony Stark in #6), helping to connect the events in Wakanda more to the broader Marvel Universe after what has been several months of purely Wakandan narrative.
Black Panther #7 fully brings in Storm and a handful of others as T’Challa’s back-up squad of sorts, while in #8 Manifold helps T’Challa to search for his sister, Shuri, in the netherworld and bring her back.
This story in #8 is particularly evocative, layered and esoteric – though, in this, it in fact echoes elements and qualities that have been here for the entire run so far.
One of the things this series also does well is to really dig deep into a sense of Wakandan national mythology and foundation legend: it does so via multiple characters and perspectives across the course of the series.
This isn’t just a book about T’Challa, but a book about Wakanda, Wakandans and their particular culture, spirituality and beliefs. We get a lot of particularly occult or esoteric material, involving spiritual dimensions or alternate levels of consciousness, inner visions or astral-like plains, etc, and it is all generally engaging, partly because it is usually very thematically appropriate to the broader narrative.
This kind of psychic or spiritual dimension to stories doesn’t always translate so well in comic books, and Marvel does it fairly frequently: but in these particular pages, it feels much more like an organic and important facet of the story and it is so tied to the Wakandan mythology that it never feels like a narrative trick.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, who is a journalist and National Correspondent for The Atlantic, was an inspired choice of writer for this series and has done a great job creating a rich, absorbing scenario, mythology and re-framing of an iconic character.
The real-world parallels (specifically to Libya) invest it with even more resonance and meaning: but, even without this element, this would still be a fascinating, absorbing series of comics. It begins to wane a little by #8 and #9; but the opening chapters were so continuously good that this was inevitable.
Absolutely worth the time and effort.