Today, Drew and Ryan D. are discussing Black Panther 11, originally released February 22nd, 2017. As always, this article contains SPOILERS.
Drew: Comics is a medium of juxtaposition. We derive meaning from seeing two images next to one another, understanding some causal link that only exists in our minds. The magic, then, is crafting those images such that the reader can piece together the causality in a natural, intuitive way. That includes both the content of the images and the arrangement of those images on the page, which is remarkably complex. Indeed, in his seminal Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud points out that arranging panels is so complex “that even seasoned pros will sometimes blow it.” While the clarity issues in Black Panther 11 have more to do with content than layouts, I feel this sentiment is particularly apt, as the issue was drawn by not just one, but a veritable army of seasoned artists. It’s odd to argue that this artistic team failed to make this issue clear, but I’m afraid that’s really the lynchpin upon which all of this issue’s problems turn.
That is, while I’ve occasionally diagnosed some larger scale growing pains in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ approach to this series, I really can’t fault the writing in this issue. The story follows a straightforward moment-to-moment battle, and the dialogue and running narration all support that narrative elegantly. There may be moments where the dialogue could have better explained what the art is showing, but only because the art is so unclear so often in this issue.
The biggest issue for me is that we never get a true scope of the battle as its happening. It’s rare that we see more than a handful of figures in any panel, which makes it difficult to tell the difference between these battling armies and a run-of-the-mill street brawl. Even the wider shots fail to really communicate any real size to these armies — usually just a half-dozen or so soldiers running in one direction or another. Just look at this image of Tetu and Zenzi surveying the battle:
Their first volley of a half-dozen men has been bested by the three people who have come out to fight them, so they’ve deployed a second volley of a half-dozen men. It doesn’t exactly feel like a credible threat to the most defensible cities on Earth, does it?
Now, I get that drawing battalions of soldiers is no short order, but with so many artists credited on this issue, you’d think they could muster even one panel that gives us a real sense of the numbers Tetu and Zenzi are commanding. We can read that their forces have somehow breached the walls of the city, but what we see makes it look like they’re commanding just two dudes for a while.
This is moment is meant to impart a sense of dread as The People have renewed their push to overtake the city, but without any implication of the numbers to back up the dialogue, it’s hard to take the only four figures we see as a serious threat. Again, I can appreciate that lovingly rendering every soldier in this battle in every panel is too much to ask, but surely that first panel could have featured more than two soldiers, right?
While we might be able to chalk the dearth of figures in the battle scenes up to a lack of time (I have to imagine four artists on finishes wasn’t an aesthetic choice), there are other moments that seem unclear out of sheer neglect. I was particularly thrown for a loop when T’Challa and his allies fall back to the palace, an action which takes place suddenly as T’Challa is video conferencing with Changamire. We cut from T’Challa to the other side of the call, and when we cut back, T’Challa is in a totally different location, no longer fighting the guy we saw him mid-punch with two panels earlier. I get that he’s with Manifold, and sudden location changes are kind of his whole deal, but it happens so abruptly, without any hint that it is about to happen (or has already happened), that it completely pulled me out of the moment, fearing that I had missed a page or something.
I had a similar feeling as the issue concluded, revealing that Shuri’s running narration was actually her telling the story to the Dora Milaje. Revealing that the narrator was speaking to an unexpected audience is a fairly standard twist in comics, but as this issue doesn’t otherwise mention (or even seem all that pertinent to) the Dora Milaje, there’s no real impact to that reveal. That is, it would have been just as meaningful if the final page revealed that she was telling the story to the Avengers or a group of first graders. How will the Dora Milaje react to this story? There’s nothing in this issue to tell me one way or the other, so the fact that Shuri is telling them is virtually meaningless.
Man, Ryan, there were some rewarding moments in this issue, but so many of them were undermined by confusing art that this left me a bit cold. Were you able to get any more out of this issue?
Ryan D: Ah, Drew, I tried to. I mean, the elevator pitch for this issue tells of its promise: the Black Panther mounts a desperate fight for the crown-jewel capitol of his country, calling upon the strength of his ancestors to defeat a fervent rebel force undermining the very fabric of his nation, written by lauded journalist whose expertise in socio-political geography is second to none. Shut up and take my money! Instead, I found Black Panther 11 to bear the weight of the previous issues’ shortcomings. Like you said, Drew, I found the scale and scope of this battle to be lost on me, as well, which is odd considering the final page of the preceding issue:
I have always celebrated comics as a medium which can give to an audience the same level of spectacle as big budget films while leaving space — using that causal process which Understanding Comics elucidates so well — for the readers imagination to work in the same manner of great novels. That being said, and with respect to the story Coates tries to tell over the past arc, I definitely needed more sense of spectacle in this concluding entry. They teased us with future-tanks from the most technologically-advanced nation in the Marvel Universe and then refused to show them for a single panel. Future-tanks, Drew!
In fairness, the creative team focuses instead on how T’Challa must reconnect with the spirits of the founding mothers and fathers of Wakanda to defeat the usurping army, while also conceding to Changamire to win back the hearts and minds of the people. However, the difference between a hero versus someone who simply possesses power is that a hero sacrifices. T’Challa, throughout this run, has been touted as a hero and not a leader, but in this issue, isn’t really forced to sacrifice anything. Yes, he may be stepping down as monarch of Wakanda after this to appease his people, but the main characters survived, the rebellion squashed, with his victory came via a deus ex sanctus, if that’s what we can call it when a bunch of spirits save a seemingly hopeless situation.
T’Challa reads to me, in this series, as impetuous, reactionary, disconnected from reality, and difficult to relate to as an audience member. I hoped, then, that this final battle would serve as a springboard for us to see some real change in T’Challa which might help him come across to me as less of a neutered version of the character. I still want to see his prowess showcased as a military and scientific genius, instead of a generic, burdened man who is highly trained in combat toting some advanced technology.
My last gripe comes from the scene which Drew posted earlier on of the enemy combatants in The People’s army being transformed into roided-out mutant men. The intention, I would guess, was to amplify the physical threat of each foot soldier to raise the stakes of this phase of battle; however, I found it to do the exact opposite. Ultimately, Coates’ tale has been an incredible allegory about the old means of governing the populace failing in current political systems, and the pains it causes to an entire nation as a country is forced to either evolve or implode. The People made for a compelling foil to T’Challa not because they were lead by compelling baddies, but because the group consisted of the very people the King tries to protect. I understand the allegorical implications of Zenzi’s mind-control powers standing for how zeal and fervor can make monsters out of the most common man, but by transforming the opposing forces facing T’Challa, the fight stops becoming an ideological one in which brother can fight brother, and in which there is no good or bad guy, only the tragedy of war.
Coates’ based much of his eleven issue run on such deeply thought-out and high-minded concepts. And while I’ve found every issue to be thought-provoking, I believe that the missteps in execution have forced the storytelling to suffer. Drew, here’s what I think: let’s look at A Nation Under Our Feet as an origin story for the character of Wakanda. Now, with lessons learned from the first chapter, hopefully this promising creative team can find the clarity which this caliber of narrative deserves.
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I’m getting more and more frustrated with this series, which is a shame because the news of Coates’s involvement in the series a year or so ago was the basically the deciding element that got me seriously reading comics, and it was the first issue of BP that got me into my local comic shop for the first time. Unfortunately, the promise of the early issues hasn’t paid off, and the story has been languishing in a holding pattern for months now as the conflict that began in #1 has really only recently erupted. I think this series would be vastly improved had Coates followed the recent Marvel M.O. of well-defined 5-6 issue arcs. This entire story could have been told in much less time and to great effect, since there would be an immediacy to it that the current version lacks. Another related thing this series has suffered from is a lack of focus: we met the Midnight Angels right off the jump, but it seems that they have played a relatively minor role so far. My memory for these things isn’t great, but we’ve seen Ayo and Aneka actually in action what, maybe 3 or 4 times over the course of the series? Perhaps the structure of the book could have worked better if we were given a solid, 6 issue Midnight Angels arc, followed by another solid 6 issue Zenzi and Tetu arc. Hell, I liked the way all these people were introduced back in #1, but then Coates seems to have put all his characters on the back burner, where they’ve all remained until now – forgetting that the reason for backburnering is to free up space to focus on something else. That’s why I think the recent issues focusing on T’challa and Manifold’s attempt to rescue Shuri and the assembling of the new Crew seemed like a breath of fresh air. Unfortunately the end result is a further delay of the payoff that we’ve frankly been waiting too long for. Ultimately I think the lack of clarity in the art you both identify springs from the fact that this book has never really been telling a clear story, mistaking its grand philosophy (which, let’s be clear, is THE draw of this book) for depth.
I think the Midnight Angels had to be part of the same story as Tetu and Zenzi, as they are two sides of the same story. The Midnight Angels were righteous rebellion, while Tetu and Zenzi were populist self destruction. The key idea was that T’Challa resolved the crisis of Wakanda pulling itself apart by allying wit the Midnight Angels and standing against Tetu and Zenzi. I feel that was an important idea. Everything went wrong at once, and T’Challa’s heroism was identifying which people were worth listening to and which weren’t. THe Midnight Angels and Changmire were worth listening to, Tetu and Zenzi weren’t.
But that doesn’t change the fact that ultimately, the story doesn’t come together. Coates has deep ideas, but depth that isn’t accessible isn’t depth. Which is why storytelling is such an important tool. I just read a fascinating article about the 100, and how the show is apparently incredibly popular among Washington DC lawyers, because of how articulately it represents the complexities of politics and forces us to think about a range of political topics, including the threat of populist nationalism. The exact sort of stuff that Coates wants us to think about. And the reason the 100 is so successful is how well it dramatises these events. Every decision and its consequences are clearly articulated, with stakes escalating as the effects of these choices reverberate.
Quite simply, Coates’ writing too often neglected it. The first issue was a fantastic starting point, but Coates’ never focused enough time on dramatising those big ideas. His characters were fantastic metaphors (I explained how Zenzi’s powers are the perfect fit for a populist uprising below), but Coates’ struggles to take those metaphors to the next stage. In a political essay, which he is extraordinary in writing, you can say ‘To understand the threat of populism, look at Tetu and Zenzi. Look at how their movement works, and how their messaging ignores the devastation that is left in their wake. ANd look how Zenzi’s powers is the perfect representation of how populist rhetoric is ultimately manipulation’.
But in a story, you don’t explore the horrors of populism by explaining why Tetu and Zenzi are bad, but by showing it. You tell a story about what their movement does, tell a story about the earth being scorched behind them and show all the problems. Give us an arc of a people who buy into their promises, only to have their world devastated when the People prove to have no ideology other than burn it down. Instead of simply having the Midnight Angels mention it as a reason for leaving their alliance.
I’m hoping, like Ryan, that now that we’ve got through this messiness, the team can go into start a new story where they apply the lessons learned to craft a narrative that is more functional, that provides the clarity that the ideas deserve.
But honestly, more and more I think the most important important thing is that Coates’ has introduced an entirely new group of people to comics. Let’s hope that more people like you, who entered their LCS for the first time because of Coates, stick around and help inject new blood into the industry, and help the continuing pressures on the comics industry to evolve in new directions. Because there is value in that, even if Coates’ stories themselves don’t impress
You’re right about the Midnight Angels and Tetu and Zenzi, they are part of the same story and separating them completely would be wrong. Let me run down the version of the story I was envisioning in my head as I wrote my comment: I think we were introduced to everyone much too early. Or, rather not that we met them too soon, but that right from the start the story is attempting to weave together four pretty major threads: the Midnight Angel plot, Tetu and Zenzi’s plot, T’Challa’s reaction to the preceding, and T’Challa’s efforts to rescue Shuri, all wrapped up in a titanic effort to build up Wakanda itself into a place that feels real and charged with history and meaning. I just think it would have been wiser to let Tetu and Zenzi’s plots linger as background menace for a while, freeing up page space to give us a better account of Coates’s wonderfully fleshed out Wakanda and letting us get to know Ayo and Aneka better. I think the thematic points you make about T’Challa’s decision ultimately to ally with the Midnight Angels could still be made perfectly well with such a structure, and if the book was divided into more tightly focused arcs we’d all have a much easier time of seeing those themes enacted instead of merely discussed, as you point out.
Yeah, the structure certainly needs to be changed. I think all 4 storylines needed to be introduced up front, but after that, Tetu and Zenzi could easily be have been relegated to the background, ignored and underestimated, waiting until the midpoint to truly explode into a threat. You could have intentionally blurred the line between the different types of rebellion until, at the middle, making very clear which faction is good as which is bad.
And yeah, splitting the greater arc into a series smaller arcs may have benefited Coates. All 4 storylines had to end where they did, because they are all so interconnected, but splitting this story into smaller arcs may have strengthened the storyline by giving each act a clear identity. In fact, the need for a climax to each mini arc would mean you would have obvious events to act as key thematic scenes.
The sad thing about this book is that from the most abstract level, it is amazing. This arc must have had a truly astonishing pitch, because the ideas and how they weave together is sensational. But you just keep waiting for the execution to live up to the abstract ideas. I hope COates has gone back to the drawing board and had a look at his structure for his next arc. He starts at the right places and ends at the right place, but ultimately a story is about the journey, not the destination. Coates’ really has to work on getting that journey right
I really think this series would have been served if Ayo and Aneka’s defection had happened later. I think if we had gotten to know them as royal guards (that was their job, right?) struggling with their loyalty to the throne, their defection would have meant more to them AND to T’Challa. Since we didn’t get a chance to know them before their defection, it lost most of the character meaning it might have had, turning it into a drier plot-point — one that has only simmered in the background, so it doesn’t totally feel essential in that way, either.
You could probably say what you said about Aneka and Ayo about any antagonist, Drew. It would be fantastic, in the abstract, to know all of that. But if written well enough, we should be able to understand them well enough by their actions that we don’t need additional context. That World of Wakanda is something on the side.
The problem with holding back Aneka and Ayo’s defection is that their storyline begins there. Which creates several issues. Firstly, you break the ‘in late, out early’ rule that is invaluable to storytelling. They simply won’t have a lot to do at the start except stand on the sidelines until they defect.
Secondly, and more importantly, this will mean the only antagonistat the start is the exploitative populist movement – the Midnight Angels are supposed to represent righteous rebellion. I don’t think it is a good idea to begin the story with the only threat being the Trumpian populists contorting with international terrorists. The Midnight Angels are what gave the conflict the nuance that made things complex, and makes justifying their defection harder
And honestly, I think the defection is one of the least important parts of the Midnight Angels. Their ideals are the important part. We needed to focus more on their rebellion, what they stood for and how they did so. The first issue did this wonderfully, but after that we never got to see enough of the Midnight Angels rebelling. What was missing was them being active pro/antagonists.
The story started in the right place. We just needed Aneka and Ayo to be more active characters.IInstead, they ended up being remarkably passive characters. A symbol for Coates’ themes, but not a story in its own right. Which is Coates’ problem all throughout the book
“And honestly, I think the defection is one of the least important parts of the Midnight Angels.” I really only think this is true because of how it was handled. Their defection could have illustrated their convictions if it had been pitted against an established sense of duty/loyalty. Defecting was a big turning point in the lives of those characters, but we don’t get to feel that because we didn’t get to know them before they defected. Maybe I’m misreading what their arc is, but there’s good reason the heroes’ journey typically begins at home before the call to action — showing what “normal” means to the character establishes the stakes of changing.
Their story certainly begins in medias res (though I would argue we do get to see Ayo’s initial call to action, when she fails to make the case to spare Aneka for her crimes, and makes the choice to rebel). But to me, the key part of that first issue was where they made the choice to ‘act as dead women should’ (in fact, I would argue that this is a third Call to Action. Aneka’s takes place before the story, Ayo’s takes place in the first issue, and then the first issue ends with a Call to Action for the Midnight Angels as a whole.
But ignoring all of that, I don’t think in medias res is bad for a superhero comic. Superhero comics are built on the premise of the title character (in this case, Black Panther) being a reactive force to a suddenly noticed threat. There is an actual argument you could make that superheroes are the antagonists in superhero fiction. If you use the ideas of the Hollywood Formula, it would be easy to argue that the villain is the protagonist, who has clear, tangible goals that they are trying to achieve, and the superhero is the antagonist, who acts in opposition (a great example of how being an antagonist doesn’t mean you are a bad guy, but also related to the argument that when you strip them down to their base elements, the traditional superhero is not a progressive force). And if the villain is how protagonist, how many superhero stories really give the villain a Call to Action. You could argue that a superhero story’s basic trope is the antagonist noticing the protagonist’s action, and reacting. Which is pure in medias res storytelling. In superhero comics, we rarely see the Call to Action’s of our protagonists. That isn’t the trope.
With Aneka and Ayo, the fact that they left the Dora Milaje does inform their actions – the Dora Milaje’s status as a misogynistic institution is an important sign of what they fight. But to me, their arc isn’t so much about defection as it is about their fight for their ideals. To me, it was about navigating the difficulties of wanting to give Wakanda the rebellion it deserved, without falling into the trap of Tetu and Zenzi’s villainy. The defection isn’t the important part, it is how they navigate the choices of fighting their actions. The fact that they used to be Dora Milaje is backstory, but the story truly begins with them choosing to ‘act as dead women do’. From there, it is an arc about finding the best way to rebel. It is about learning to be the best hero you can be in a situation of great complexity, where the right answers have to be found.
And that’s the problem. The story needed to spend more time dramatising the complexities of finding the best choice in a complex political situation. More time exploring what sorts of rebellion they fight and what sort of ideals that they fight for. The arc was Choose to rebel for Wakanda’s ideals –> form a rebellion against T’Challa’s state built on moral ideals –> Make alliance with convenience with Tetu and Zenzi for greater ability to effect change –> Realise that Tetu and Zenzi’s populist uprising was the same sort of evil as T’Challa’s state –> Accept alliance with Shuri’s state, built upon agreed ideals instead of convenience.
The problem is that while the first and fifth parts of that arc were executed (relatively) strongly, the second, third and fourth parts of the arc were muddled and confused. We never got enough emphasis on it, making the Midnight Angels weirdly vestigal, never getting around to meaningfully affecting the story, when they should have been the heart of the thematic and emotional through-lines. We didn’t need more information about their defection, we just needed a better story told about their rebellion
I basically agree with what you guys say. It felt small and lacking. Nothing I can really add, except for a couple of small points of rebuttal to Ryan
I’m pretty sure Zenzi’s powers aren’t mindcontrol, but simply enflaming existing emotions (if you are familiar with Brandon Sanderson’s work, she is basically a Rioter from Mistborn). One of the key ideas of the issue was that after Changmire’s speech, she lost control of a good portion of the forces because there was nothing left for her to enflame. Her powers are simply a metaphorical representation of what a populist leader, like Trump, does when they make a speech at a rally. Ultimately, her powers only work if the people she is influencing are ideologically opposed to T’Challa
Also, from what the solicits of next issue say, I think you are very wrong when you say T’Challa sacrificed nothing. T’Challa has fought to maintain the status quo, so him stepping down is important. But I think the next issue, which provides a coda/epilogue, is going to truly finish that arc and show exactly what Black Panther sacrificed. This is the action climax, but the character climax is next issue, as we learn what Black Panther sacrificed when he acknowledged the Midnight Angels’ problems and built an alliance with them. According to the solicitations, there will be something big
But yeah, the greater points that both of you stated is true. As the action climax, this should have been so much better. The basic ideas are there – Changmire’s speech and the ancestors fighting for T’Challa – but it ends up being so disappointing. Unfortunately, I think everyone is at fault. No one was bae ot raise their work to the level this issue required.