Friday, January 12, 2018

Rise of the Black Panther #1: a creative approach imagining history

There was a time when discussions of "Africa" permeated African American literary studies perhaps a lot more than today. Sure, people seem to have always discussed Countee Cullen's poem "Heritage," which contained the famous refrain, "What is Africa to me?," and in "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," Langston Hughes ruminated on those essential rivers: the Congo and the Nile. Where Africa began to really appear, though, with regularly and prominence was in the creative imaginings of black American writers during the 1960s and 1970s.

There was a resurgence of black consciousness during the late 1980s and early 1990s, facilitated largely by hip hop culture, when folks sported African medallions and channeled other aspects of the continent through lyrics, fashion, and a variety of symbols.

I was thinking about the shifts in representations of Africa in African American creative and intellectual history as I read The Rise of the Black Panther #1, written by Evan Narcisse, drawn by Paul Renaud, and colored by Stephane Paitreau. Narcisse is presenting a kind of origin story to Black Panther title written by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Narcisse's and Coates's works are both set in Wakanda, the fictional African nation that is home to Black Panther. Whereas Coates's writing constitutes a kind of present-day Black Panther, Narcisse's origin story comes off as more of a history. He's imagining a past for Wakanda, while also working within the context of the Marvel universe.  

The Rise of the Black Panther does really important work extending views of the people of this most famous fictional African nation. For one, unlike the many wonderful poems and novels on Africa, the comic book form presents visual representations that complement  words. And unlike the many arresting stand-alone images of the continent, the comic book facilitates extended written narratives with a variety of characters.

Narcisse, Renaud, and Paitreau are making the most of the mixed elements of the comic book form by presenting us with so many looks and musings of a Wakandan past. In addition to seeing T'Chaka, the father of current Black Panther, T'Challa, Narcisse presents the chief scientist of Wakanda, Queen N'Yami, who was the first wife of King T'Chaka. N'Yami is T'Challa's mother, but she dies shortly after giving birth. Still, we get a chance to consider her expertise as a scientist and one of Wakanda's key dreamers.

Narcisse does something fascinating with the setup of his narrative as well. The story is narrated from the perspectives, journal entries in fact, of Queen N'Yami and then Queen Ramonda, second wife of King T'Chaka. Their entries are addressed to T'Challa. Narcisse takes us in a unique direction by centering the perspectives of those African women, who in turn inform Black Panther about his familial and national histories. In other words, Narcisse empowers us to gain knowledge about Wakanda the way T'Challa does--through the writings of his mothers.

I'm excited to witness this creative approach to imagining a fictional and powerful African history.

Coverage on another, different run of the Black Panther
A Notebook on Comic Books

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