Culture

If You Thought ‘Black Panther’ Was Radical, Wait Until You See The Comics

The film is based on decades of revolutionary, boundary-pushing storytelling by black writers and artists. Their work deserves your attention.

Just this morning, Marvel’s Black Panther smashed another box office record. Its achievements now include bagging the fifth biggest US opening weekend of all time, the second biggest four-day total of all time, and the biggest Monday in history. Globally, the film has made more than $400 million so far.

It’s also the highest-rated superhero film on Rotten Tomatoes, with a near-perfect 96 percent ‘Fresh’ rating. And as the film continues to coast to new and ever more record-breaking heights, it’s beginning to be lauded as one of the most radical action films ever to do so. To achieve this success with an almost entirely black (and largely female) cast is unprecedented. To do it with a superhero film that includes a fairly complex critique of colonialism and contemporary race relations is extraordinary.

This film deserves its success. But amidst all the praise being heaped on it, the source of that success is at risk of being buried. Films adapted from comic books rarely see the source material venerated in the same way that films adapted from critically acclaimed novels do, perhaps because comic books are rarely viewed as a legitimate art form except by ardent nerds. But in the case of Black Panther especially, the comic books that preceded the film are of critical importance.

See, this film is not a radical adaptation of the comic books. Rather, it’s an extraordinarily faithful adaptation of deeply radical source material, which was shattering boundaries long before the on-screen blockbuster was a twinkle in Hollywood’s eye. Black Panther stands on the shoulders of decades of revolutionary, boundary-pushing storytelling, largely by black writers and artists. Their work deserves your attention.

Black Panther: A Radical(ly Condensed) History

Even if you’ve never touched a comic book in your life, you’ve probably heard an anecdote or two about the Black Panther comics. Coverage of the film has tended to mention, in passing, that the character name Black Panther predates the 1966 formation of the revolutionary Black Panther Party by a matter of months, making the overlap “a strange coincidence”, in the words of Marvel’s Stan Lee, rather than the often-assumed homage.

While Stan Lee and partner Jack Kirby created the character, though, a different group of writers and artists are credited with making T’Challa the beloved — and proudly political — icon he ultimately came to be.

Black Panther‘s first solo comic series began in 1972, in direct response to what writer Don McGregor saw as the “racist material” that was Marvel’s Jungle Action: an ongoing series featuring miscellaneous white heroes exploring “Africa” and having adventures in vague jungle settings.

McGregor thought it was more appropriate that a black hero star in this supposedly African series, so he adopted Black Panther. He thought Black Panther should have a black enemy, so he invented Erik Killmonger, thus laying the groundwork for the film of 2018. Working with a team of artists that included Billy Graham, one of the first black artists to work in comics, McGregor launched Panther’s Rage, which is not just the first solo Black Panther series, but has actually been called Marvel’s first graphic novel.

After McGregor, many different people have tried their hand at writing Black Panther, but it’s a handful of black writers who are credited with making T’Challa truly great. From 1998-2003, Christopher Priest (who was, in fact, the first black writer to have a full time job at Marvel) wrote what are widely considered to be the defining Black Panther stories; he gave the series its characteristic balance of humour and action and its overt political edge, fleshed out T’Challa and Wakanda in detail for the first time, and created the Dora Milaje — the all-female Wakandan special forces.

He also spent his career enduring and challenging the white boys’ club that was the comics industry for a very long time.  He’d send around provocative memos like the “Marvel White Supremacy Memo”. During a stint at DC, he had a picture of Malcolm X holding a gun sitting proudly above his desk. His comics routinely featured pointed digs at white supremacy and racist regimes. A memorable page of a Deathstroke issue features a character telling someone else that “these are black people, Matthew. The Marines aren’t coming” to save them.

After Priest, another legendary black writer (and filmmaker), Reginald Hudlin, took the reins. He wanted to see a Black Panther that was more political, and more emphatically black. His original pitch for the series described a Black Panther modelled on a truly formidable combination of Spike Lee, P. Diddy, Malcolm X, Miles Davis and Muhammad Ali. These men, he argued, had in common “the knowledge that being a black man in white America is an inherent act of rebellion”. He wanted T’Challa to embody their rebellion, and also their power. One of the first pages of his series shows Black Panther absolutely kicking Captain America’s ass, just in case anyone was in doubt about who would win in a fight.

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At the end of this page, T’Challa walks away with a concussed Captain America slung over his shoulder.

Hudlin first created Shuri, T’Challa’s sister and another star of the current film. On top of creating the character, he also wrote the iconic issues where she steps in to become Black Panther while T’Challa is injured. Both she and Storm (of X-Men fame) star as leading characters in his series, and make Wakanda synonymous with black female power.

The Comics Are Far More Radical Than The Films

Shuri becoming Black Panther is just the start of the comics surpassing the films in groundbreaking storytelling. The film is unabashedly radical, for sure: its central conflict is about the aftermath of colonialism, and the degree of responsibility an uncolonised superpower has to prevent and respond to the violence done to those without the luxury of opting out of being colonised.

But if you left the cinema wondering why such a technologically advanced superpower is still run by a patrilineal monarchy, or whether all those powerful, competent Wakandan women tire of being led by a bloke, these are questions the comics are willing to ask.

Take for example the recent series written by award-winning writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, which opens with two queer Dora Milaje stealing high-tech prototype armour suits and going rogue after the Black Panther refuses to endorse their execution of a sexual predator. The pair use the stolen armour to travel Wakanda killing rapists and liberating communities of women failed by the men of the country, while the Black Panther grapples with the boundaries between grief and responsibility, and the question of whether a ruler whose people have lost faith in him can continue to rule.

It goes without saying that these stories powerfully parallel and interrogate contemporary political issues. The story of the rogue Dora Milaje in particular is a powerful allegory for the #MeToo movement taken to fascinating extremes: queer women of colour, quite literally stealing the master’s tools so as to dismantle the master’s house.

These stories are right on the front lines of radical discourse in society today, and they’ve paid the price for being there: the story of the Dora Milaje was spun off into a series called World of Wakanda, written by Roxane Gay and poet Yona Harvey — the first two black women to write a Marvel series — yet that series was cancelled after only six issues. Neither Gay nor Harvey was invited to the film’s premiere, and there are reports that hints of the queer Dora Milaje they envisioned were actually actively cut from the film.

In short, these comics are boldly going where the films are still reluctant to go. They deserve credit and our attention; they deserve our outrage when they’re snubbed.

We Should Use The Comics To Hold The Films To Account

The example of the queer scenes cut from the film raises an important point: engaging with the comics isn’t just about appreciating Black Panther’s history. Rather, the comics are the key to Black Panther’s future — we can, and should, use the radical source material to hold its adaptations to account.

The Black Panther films are, after all, just beginning. While a sequel has yet to be formally announced, the debut’s critical success all but ensures one, and that sequel faces important choices about whether it continues to push boundaries, or whether it languishes in what has proven to be a safely provocative zone.

Knowing that the source material chose the more radical path sets a high bar for the future films, and it’s one we should absolutely demand they meet. If we don’t get to see Shuri take the lead at some point in this series; if we don’t get to see complex negotiations of T’Challa’s failings; if we don’t get to see two ass-kicking lesbian Dora Milaje liberating communities of women from oppressive men, we deserve answers as to why.

The comics open a tantalising series of doors, and sketch possibilities for film that would truly shatter boundaries, not just records. The work of opening those doors was done by a group of incredible black writers who transformed both the series and their industry. We owe it to them to pay attention.

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If you’d like to start reading the Black Panther comics, here and here are some suggestions on where to begin. If you’d like to read about the history of the comics and their creators in more detail, this is an excellent history. This feature on Christopher Priest’s contribution to the series is also well worth your time.

Feature image featuring Marvel comic covers by Jimmy Palmiotti and Brian Stelfreeze.