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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