Friday, October 14, 2011

Who is the Black Panther? (2006)

Title: Black Panther: Who is the Black Panther?
Author: Reginald Hudlin & John Romita, Jr.
Publisher: Marvel Entertainment
Price: Free (Library) 

Inspired by the decolonization of Africa, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby introduced a new character into the pages of The Fantastic Four in July of 1966. The first prominent black superhero to appear in American comics, the Black Panther was really T'Challa, a costumed adventurer who ruled the fictitious African state of Wakanda. Since his introduction, Black Panther has attracted a solid fan base, but he has been most successful as a supporting character. Whether this is because comic book fans are reluctant to pick up a book that stars an African character is a subject much debated by comic creators and fans alike.

Reginald Hudlin's Who is the Black Panther? (2006) is an attempt to both streamline the character's storyline and to make him a more prominent figure in Marvel's publishing line. In the back of the collection, Marvel has provided readers with what I assume is Hudlin's pitch for the series. Here, Hudlin establishes that he wants his run to be an iconic version of the character--something that Marvel could base a film franchise upon. (In 2009, the series would serve as the basis for a cartoon on NET). No doubt, this was a smart move given Marvel's recent forays into film. In his attempt to define the character for his editors, Hudlin writes:
The Black Panther is the Black Captain America. He's the embodiment of the ideals of a people. As Americans, we feel good when we read Captain America because he reminds us of the potential of how good American can be, if, of course, we have the conviction to live by the principles the country was founded on. As a black person, the Black Panther should represent the fulfillment of the potential of the Motherland.
For the most part, Hudlin succeeds in writing the "movie version" of the character. Who is the Black Panther? has a strong narrative thrust that would play well on the big screen. Of course, Hudlin is assisted admirably by veteran comic book artist John Romita, Jr., who uses wide panels to reproduce the experience of cinema. In the first chapter of the collection, the pair effectively defines not only who the Black Panther is, but what makes the nation of Wakanda so significant. Unlike the rest of Africa, Wakanda is a technologically advanced society that has never been conquered by another nation. They have always remained free of colonial rule. Hudlin's plot hinges on whether or not that will remain the case.

At times, Hudlin and Romita are capable of subtlety. When the United States plans an invasion of Wakanda and the assassination of T'Challa, we can see a sense of conflict on the face of Secretary of State Ms. Reese (an obvious surrogate for Condoleezza Rice). She is simultaneously disgusted by a racist U. S. military culture, proud of Wakanda's accomplishments, and perhaps, willing to attack the nation simply to prove her patriotic bona fides. Similarly, Hudlin is also willing to showcase the xenophobia of the Wakandas whose technological superiority manifests itself in arrogance and disdain for the outside world.

However, more often than not Hudlin goes too far in his effort to establish T'Challa and Wakanda as real "bad@asses" (his word, not mine). Instead of simply invading Wakanda, the U. S. covertly funds a crack team of super villain mercenaries. Super villains are a natural fit for any superhero series, but Hudlin goes too far by making the villains representative of Africa's colonizers: Belgium, Britain, France, and the United States. This is heavy handed and in the case of the U. S., not entirely accurate historically . Even here, Hudlin doesn't leave well enough alone and also attempts to indict Christianity's role in colonization of Africa. Thus, Hudlin creates a Church conspiracy (shades of The Da Vinci Code) in order to indict Christianity's troubling past in Africa. In doing so, he makes the British villain, the Black Knight, the Church's sworn servant. Readers are conveniently supposed to forget that England has been a Protestant nation since the 16th century. And then, at the end, there are the zombie cyborg marines whom T'Challa scares off with a few words. Is that too much? I suppose that depends on your sensibilities.

All and all, Hudlin's Black Panther is an engaging read, but at times its politics are--if not black and white--capable of only four colors.

No comments: