guttergeek the discontinuous review of graphic narrative

February 2007

Reginald Hudlin, John Romita, Jr., Scott Eaton,  et al, Black Panther (Marvel, 2005- ). $2.99, monthly.

by Jared Gardner

There are lots of easy reasons to scorn Black Panther, for those inclined to do so (and many, it seems, are so inclined). It is often preachy (as when, in the first issue, the NSA is horrified to discover that Wakanda doesn’t exploit its oil reserves, preferring “eco-friendly alternatives.” “Bad example!” one advisor declares, setting the tone of the U.S.’s dealings with Wakanda for the subsequent issues). It is hyperactively topical in a way that makes all narrative arts, including serial comics, look almost immediately dated and desperate. (Black Panther contributes to the relief effort in New Orleans, protecting the citizens from predatory gangs, greedy capitalists and other vampires). The book relishes in both the Big Event (witness the“Marriage of the Century” between T’Challa and Storm) and the 70’s-style Team-Up (see the newlywed’s whirlwind diplomatic tour, where Black Panther got to fight a new guest-star each month). And it is unashamedly utopian, celebrating a fantasy of Wakanda as an unconquered refuge of hope and opposition to the increasingly unopposed monolith of Corporate America. But much to my initial surprise, all these justifications for scorn—usually perfectly good justifications for me—have only served to increase my growing fondness for Reginald Hudlin’s turn on The Black Panther.

Reginald Hudlin made his name in film as the creator of the
Block Party franchise, a raucous comedy that convinced Hollywood in the 1980s that entertainment directed toward African American audiences could be profitable (very profitable, as it turned out). But the run on Black Panther more immediately continues energies and ideas explored in his first comics foray: the Birth of a Nation team-up with Aaron McGruder and Kyle Baker a few years back. I found Birth disappointing for many of the same qualities I enjoy Black Panther. Its topicality felt dated, its utopian fantasy was unconvincing, its rage felt comical while its comedy came off as merely angry. It just didn’t work for me. So I was not optimistic when I learned that Hudlin was taking on one of the favorite heroes of my younger years. Two years later, I am still reading Black Panther, and it has become a mainstay in my household—one of the few monthlies to which we all look forward.

This is not a book for those who like their action realistic and their politics dark and brooding. Here you will encounter armies of mutant assassins; zombie warriors recycled from the U.S. casualties in the Iraq war; and vampire hordes unleashed by the devastation of Katrina. And for long-time Panther fans there are the usual continuity confusions of a title now starting up for the fourth time: is this a restart or a continuity to Silver Age Panther? (In truth, it is a bit of both, and somehow it works just fine for all but the most uptight fanboys, few of whom give T’Challa a lot of thought anyway). And more recent challenges await those of us who don’t have the time or energy to track down every crossover of the multiple-title story arcs and grand universe-wide events like
House of M and Civil War. But these are minor headaches at best, more than made up for by seeing Black Panther finally featured front and center—not only in his own series (it took four volumes to finally get him a truly starring role in his own title), but increasingly in the Marvel universe itself. In the earlier House of M crossover, Panther still felt a supporting player. But now that he has emerged as the reluctant leader of the resistance in the wake of the Marvel Civil War, all eyes are looking to Wakanda.

Even more exciting, perhaps, than the celebration of the first black superhero (along with a host of African American superpowered guest stars such as Luke Cage, Falcon, and Blade) is the global vision the book insists on, one in which the U.S. is not the center of the (Marvel) universe. It is a comicbook version of the familiar experience of traveling from CNN’s America to another country, where Americans encounter the shock of seeing for the first time how the rest of the world sees the news—and sees us. There have been plenty of biting, gritty lefty comics in recent years, including the recent All-Big-Media-is-Evil series
Nightly News. But from my perspective this good old-fashioned superhero title that actively decenters white America, Big Media, and self-seriousness is perhaps the most engaging and effective political book out there. Lots of sophisticates will roll their eyes at the thought. And lots of fanboys will continue to bemoan the new series for not living up to Priest’s run in volume 3 (where I felt Panther was always a vehicle and never the star) and for Hudlin’s relative disregard for Marvel Universe continuity.

But I think Hudlin said it best early in the run when responding to an irate reader who wrote in to complain at what was for him the implausible first issue backstory of Panther having beaten Captain America in the 1940s: “Panther beat Cap, baby. Live with it.” And now that Cap and Panther are working together in the Civil War to take on the Bush administration, Iron Man, and the U.S. military industrial complex, here’s hoping we’ll have more alterative visions of the world we are inhabiting in our own all-too-present. Can’t think of anywhere I’d rather live.