Black Panther Annual 1: Discussion

by Drew Baumgartner and Ryan Desaulniers

Black Panther Annual 1

This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!

Drew: Over the past two weeks, countless articles have been written about the world-building in the Black Panther film. It’s obviously something the movie does remarkably well, combining a kind of anthropological survey of African culture with a sci-fi utopia for an Afrofuturist aesthetic that is unique in the world of blockbuster movies. Moreover, that world-building was essential in ingratiating a new audience to the character and his home country, implying a rich culture that stretched far beyond what we saw on the screen. Of course, superhero comics — especially long-running ones — are often more interested in what has already been built than they are in what is new, trading on our nostalgia for familiar events and characters in a way that a single film obviously can’t. There’s certainly a case to be made for honoring the storied history of any character in that way, though the approach may be at odds with appealing to newcomers (who may have been brought in by, say, a widely popular movie), all of which puts Black Panther Annual 1 in a difficult position. Is it aimed at newcomers looking for an approachable entry into comics after seeing the movie, or is it aimed at long-time readers who are already duly familiar with the character’s history?

I’ll confess: I’m closer to that former category than to the latter. I’ve read Black Panther in Avengers titles for years now, but my only exposure to his solo series has been the current volume, under the pen of Ta-Nehisi Coates. Which means I’m totally unfamiliar with the esteemed creative teams on this annual, as well as the Black Panther stories that made them so esteemed. But this issue manages to catch me up with the tone and era of these stories without any real confusion.

Some credit there must go to editors Wil Moss and Sarah Brunstand, who frame the issue on the credits page as having three stories, one “set in the present,” one “set in an alternate past,” and one “set in an alternate future.” Combined, these designations suggest we don’t need to have any real knowledge of the character’s past, present, or future, as those things may not even be true in the stories we’re reading. This is an anthology of the kinds of stories Black Panther can appear in, driving the creators to take a more thematic approach to the character, getting at what is important to him and his world without getting caught up in chronological detail. The result is an issue that should be satisfying both to folks already in love with that range of themes and stories, and those discovering it for the first time.

The first, set in the present, manages to avoid any of that inside baseball stuff by framing it as an interrogation of Everett K. Ross, so any details about the Black Panther and his world is necessarily explained to us in terms we can understand. It also features Nakia and leans into the international espionage that made the South Korean sequence of the film so fun, giving movie fans something to latch onto, even if some of the details are different than those of the film.

Actually, writer Christopher Priest seems particularly aware of how this story might be read in dialogue with the film, lampshading the britishness of Ross’s on-screen portrayer, Martin Freeman:

Tomato

As a matter of fact, neither Freeman nor indeed “everybody else” pronounce it “tomayto,” as British people pronounce it “tomahto.” It’s a goofy nod to the movie, drawing our attention to its fictionality, even as this story offers decidedly different takes on the characters and their world. Here, Nakia is a (former) Dora Milaje, and not quite an ally to Black Panther complicating their more straightforward relationship in the film.

Don McGregor and Daniel Acuña’s “Panther’s Heart” offers a similarly interesting dialogue with the movie. McGregor’s script emphasizes the themes of death, sacredness, and even isolationism the film grapples with, focusing a great deal on the “heart-shaped herb” that plays such a significant role in the movie. Meanwhile, Acuña’s art manages to capture (and in my opinion, outpace) the grace and athleticism Black Panther displays in the film, cramming multiple Panthers into single panels to transcribe his acrobatic feats.

Black Panther leaps

The final story, Reggie Hudlin and Ken Lashley’s “Black to the Future Part II,” might be the most mythologically heavy of the issue, but its status as an alternate timeline story makes it perfectly approachable. Indeed, while the story is a follow-up to Hudlin and Lashley’s 2008 Black Panther Annual 1, set in the world of a Wakandan empire, it is again framed as a story — this time one T’Challa is telling his granddaughter — so any alterations are explained to us clearly enough. Aside from that mythology, the story is a little thin — mostly just T’Challa wishing to retreat from his life of making war — but the world is richly realized enough to appeal to fans of the world-building of the movie.

All in all, I’m quite pleased with this annual — it stayed true to what I knew of the character, while hinting at a broader world and history that it managed to make genuinely intriguing. Ryan, I’m excited to hear your thoughts on this issue. Are you any more familiar with these chapters from Black Panther lore than I am? If so, were you pleased to revisit them? If not, were you at all intrigued by them?

Ryan D: Man, Drew, this issue certainly proved to me how little of Black Panther’s canon I know, even after covering the slew of Black Panther titles over the past few years: the flagship title, World of Wakanda, Black Panther and the Crew, and Rise of the Black Panther. Despite all of this, upon opening this issue up, I immediately have no idea who Agent Ross is or why he is significant because 1) I had yet to see the film and 2) I missed all of Priest’s run. I didn’t even know who Priest was, but found a great article detailing his career with Marvel and DC which takes a hard look at both his successes and failures.

Fortunately, the opening story,”Back in Black”, offers itself a pretty forgiving and accessible narrative structure to catch readers as clueless as I am up to speed. Ross, as a character, is a delight to read. He comes across as comically self-serving and so completely tone deaf to many of the big conventions which I associate with a Black Panther title.

War Dogs

For a man who purportedly boasts a past relationship with T’Challa and spent some significant time in the nation of Wakanda, Ross is glib when talking about the names of War Dogs and other facets of Wakandan culture, which flies in the face of Coates’s approach, who unapologetically asked new readers to understand African terms primarily via context or precedent. Ross, however, isn’t there to save the world or be an ally to Wakanda. He just wants to enjoy his new promotion and the perks of being a bureaucrat, i.e. not being chased by people with superpowers. His unabashed selfishness allows the audience to see his cultural buffoonery as comical instead of malicious, in the same way that audiences can still connect with the gang in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia despite their atrocious actions revolving around some of the most contentious contemporary issues. Overall, it made me curious to go back and read Priest’s run to see how else he used other characters to frame the intimidating and stately T’Challa.

While I hear many die-hard Panther fans talk warmly — though perhaps not as reverently as some of the series runners who came on later — about McGregor, my big takeaway from this chapter seemed to be that there is a heart-shaped plant which is both sacred and powerful. I, personally, never knew that the Panther sported any augmentation aside from the technological, which is why I’ve so often linked T’Challa in my mind to being the African Batman. The plot here reads more like a dirge or memento mori rather than a story, and I couldn’t help but feel like McGregor’s prose in the caption box, with its grandiloquent feel and romantic qualities, did not jibe with what I feel is the vocabulary of Black Panther — as ironic as that may be seeing as McGregor carried the title for such a long time back in its formative years.

When it comes to “Black to the Future 2”, though you may be right about the lack of concrete objectives in T’Challa at this point, Drew, I really enjoyed the collection of snapshots that Hudlin and Lashley shared with us. In comics, most of the magic happens between panels rather than in them, and in this chapter, most of the “narrative” happens between the images of the trophies collected by Supreme Leader King Panther:

Everybody Wants to Rule the World

While this might be an easy convention to use, I could not help myself from nerding out and playing out the battle scenarios between Black Panther and Magneto in my head, as I might with action figures as a kid. That being said, I think “Black to the Future 2” works best as a kind of coda to this annual, or would even play as an issue #0 kind of deal if a series was ever made of this Wakandan Empire scenario. My only wish is that they made mention of the planet of Bast and how that made the dominion not only global, but also galactic.

Coming out in this amazing, liminal time-frame when someone who’d never read a comic before might seek out a shop and buy a title off the rack after seeing the film, Black Panther Annual bears the heavy responsibility of possibly being the first Black Panther title someone ever reads. While I think the stories here do an admirable job and tie in well with the film, part of me wishes that a short tale from Coates was included here as well, so that anyone new could experience what the character and series have become while we celebrate from whom and where it began.

The conversation doesn’t stop there. What do you wanna talk about from this issue?

One comment on “Black Panther Annual 1: Discussion

  1. Priest’s story was the best, by far (and Ryan, you should definitely read Priest. Not only is he the current DC’s only competent writer, he is great. The only man holding the fort while the rest of DC burns around him. I am really looking forward to digging into his Black Panther run when I get the chance. Purchased the books, and will be reading them soon). I’m not entirely sure doing a story with Nakia in it was a good idea – I don’t thing the new fans of Black Panther would be that interested in reading how Nakia in the comics universe is a cascading avalanche of sexist tropes, especially considering how the movie’s depiction of women – but the story itself is great.
    It is probably the only one that balances the attempts to reflect the character’s history with being a modern comic for new audiences, presenting everything you need to know on the page. I may not know who Nikki is yet, but the power of the shift from Ross’ seemingly farcical misadventures to the contemplative ending means I don’t need to have read Priest’s run. We get everything we need to know. The comical exterior hides the pain underneath.
    And, in a comic all about celebrating Black Panther’s history, it is the only one that is really about history, as opposed to reruns of previous stories. The big idea is that T’Challa is a character with weight on his shoulders, a long history that has defined him. Combine that with Priest’s use of political reality to give this shirt story a sense of substance by rooting T’Challa, Ross and that sense of history in a world where events matter, and you have a great little short story.

    I didn’t care for the others too much. McGregor’s was too distant from the emotional reality of the situation. I think the narration hurts it, by distancing us from T’Challa himself. As does the simple dialogue. As does the historical context – this doesn’t mean a lot to people who never heard of Monica. Acuna’s art does a lot of heavy lifting, but not enough.
    Meanwhile, Hudlin’s piece is just pure power fantasy, stripped of emotional context or anything except rampant obsession with ‘look how T’Challa is the best’. I think a big reason Black Panther as a franchise has been so successful lately is its willingness to critique Wakanda. It is essential to both Coates and Coogler’s work. Stories that celebrate the Black Panther mythos and its thematic importance, while also treating it with enough respect to treat it seriously. But Hudlin had none of this. It just ‘ANd then Black Panther killed Doom, and he stayed dead. ANd then he killed Magneto, adn he also stayed dead…’. Only the final panel had any sense of emotional resonance, but that felt like too little, too late. In fact, I’m not surprised that Hudlin’s depiction of Wakanda, the elders and T’Challa is imperialist, the exact worst fate scenario that Coogler depicted in the movie (but more on that later). Wakanda followed the path of the British Empire that plundered Africa, the exact thing that Wakanda was supposed to oppose, and it is treated as a good thing.

    _____________________________________________________________________

    Black Panther: Interestingly, this is the first time that we haven’t got a Marvel movie a week before America (we got it a day before you guys, so I still watched it before any of you had the chance).

    The easiest movie to compare Black Panther to is Wonder Woman. As the first modern superhero movie with a woman/PoC, it is natural. Both movies, as I was sitting in the theatre, with nervous anticipation. I know how I wanted the story to end. After far too long, we finally get a movie that breaks what the race/gender barrier and succeeds. And with both, I was sitting in nervous anticipation. After so long, you know how the story is supposed to end. After being neglected for so long, they finally commit to doing it properly and they not only create a good movie, they create a great movie. They also grappled with difficult challenges that had to be faced: Wonder WOman was a movie about love in a genre defined by violence, and Black Panther had to deal with the problematic nature of Wakanda’s isolationism in a global society. Hell, the troublesome first acts both movies had just exemplified the similarities. But while Wonder Woman ultimately was just good enough, an incredibly problematic movie that defined the Amazons entirely around men, with an incoherent depiction of Diana that was at times among the best the genre has ever reached, and at other times reached the genre’s lowest points , a slave to poor aesthetic choices in soundtrack, villain design and action choreography from its terrible predecessors and a theme of love that came with a giant big asterisk on it that said ‘unless we really, really bored and need to relax with some brutal murder’, Black Panther is the movie we want. Not just good, but great and proving what fools we were to neglect the opportunities available.

    In truth, the better comparison is the Last Jedi, its thematic twin. Both are about examining and critiquing narratives in order to improve them and evolve with modern demands. And both are about the importance of these narratives in inspiring us to make real, positive change. Hell, they basically share the same finale shot (the implications of Disney releasing two megasuccessful movies whose primary theme is ‘the importance of Disney narratives on culture at large’ is a complex discussion for another day).

    Ultimately, Black Panther’s success was not going to be about T’Challa (you could in fact he’s among the weaker elements of the movie, next to the brilliance of Shuri, Okoye, Nakia, M’Baku and Killmonger), but of Wakanda itself. And they excel. It isn’t just how it is afrofutrist, but in the subtleties. Like how Shuri’s fashion contrasts with the fashion of Wakanda at large in her modern sensibility, while still feeling specifically Wakandan and not Western. When we start talking about the probably inevitable snubbing Black Panther will get for the costuming Oscar in a year’s time, it is not just because of the obvious outfits, but the subtlety in how Shuri’s outfits contrast while no outfit ever feels anything but Wakandan. But it isn’t just the clothes. It is the rituals, the culture. Especially the way that all of it is done with minimal exposition. Wakanda feels alive.
    But more importantly than that, it is how the movie refuses to let Wakanda just be a beautiful backdrop, but to then dig deep into the cultural challenges it faces. Before release, there was that deceptive alt right meme going around callign Black Panther alt-right, and as insincere and bad faith as ti was, it did remind us there were elements to the Black Panther story that were intensely problematic (elements that Hudlin utterly embraced in this annual). Coogler, instead, shows great awareness of those exact elements and shows great interest in critiquing those elements.

    In fact, a big reason why T’Challa is so outshone by his supporting cast is that each member presents their own ideaology on the direction of Wakanda. Shuri seeks modernism. Nakia seeks international, humanitarian involvement. Okoye cares primarily for tradition. W’Kabi values isolationism and nationalism. M’Baku cares more about Wakanda’s systemic failures. T’Challa acts as the centre point, navigating these opinions to try and find which mix of positions are best. He has no values, because the movie is about him finding his values as a King. Chadwick Boseman says he sees T’Challa as the enemy, as he’s kind of right. Wakanda’s biggest problem is that T’Challa is in charge, and T’Challa is not ready. And therefore, he is what holds Wakanda back, and he must grow to make Wakanda into what it should be.And ultimately, he does. All of the Ancestral Memory scenes are amazing, but I truly love the difference between T’Challa meeting his father in the first and last one. T’Challa screaming at T’Chaka and the previous rulers of how wrong they were was powerful, adn truly mattered in a way many superhero movies struggle to meet (I do love Coogler’s willingness to make T’Chaka the bad guy, whose legacy is of mistakes and bad directions. Doesn’t let him off the hook for his failing).

    And then we have Erik Killmonger. This is going to be a complicated character to talk about. I was initially really disappointed when I heard who they cast as Killmonger. This was before we saw Marvel’s commitment to great villains in Phase Three (only Doctor Strange has had a bad one). While I was happy that great actors like Kurt Russel, Cate Blanchett and Michael Keaton were getting villain roles, this was because they were older actors with established careers. Michael B Jordan, who is a favourite young actor of mine after Coogler’s Creed, was not the sort of actor I wanted to see wasted on a villain role, when he deserves a franchise of his own. But wow, he wasn’t wasted.
    Killmonger isn’t perfect. There are complexities to the discussion around him. Apparently, Patriot (I assume Eli) was in earlier versions of this script, and I’d be interested to see what that was like, as having a heroic black revolutionary figure to contrast to Killmonger’s villainy would be interesting and fix the big problem with Killmonger – that no matter how exceptional the writing was, the closest representative to Black Lives Matters or similar African American activists is an obvious villain. If we compare Killmonger to Marvel’s other villain that engaged in themes around Western Imperialism, Ego from Guardians of the Galaxy vol 2, Ego is obviously the more uncompromised one. Ego is a perfectly written metaphor that clearly and concisely represents Western Imperialism without confusion. On the other hand, Killmonger is a much better villain than Ego (one of Marvel’s best) because Killmonger is so much more complex. Are there problems with how he is both obviously villainous and the closest representative to real life heorics? Yes. But they are more than made up by everything fact.
    Because ultimately, the movie has a great empathy for Killmonger. The Collective Memory scene he has is the movie’s strongest moment, shocking and surprising you in every way that it breaks from your expectations. THe way it uses the Oakland apartment instead of the African plains, the way we see Killmonger shift from adult to child and the focus on his real pain. It is the true heart of the movie, and to give that to the villain is a powerful choice. We are supposed to care and agree with his crusade, even if we are meant to disagree with his methods.
    And we are supposed to disagree with his methods not because of some Malcolm X/Magneto scariness, but because of the specific strategy is Imperialism. A key part of Killmonger is that we understand exactly how every part of his life has influenced and shaped his opinion, from the death of his father to his time int eh US military. And that time shaped him into a weapon of Imperialism, and he is limited by that perspective to only repeat the same evils. T’Challa’s ultimate heroism is that once he accepts Killmonger’s rightness (leading to the beautiful sunset where they get a beautifully contemplative final scene that we haven’t seen since Ultron’s death), he can break that cycle and start a new path, free from America’s corrupt cultural programming. I don’t know yet if I would call Killmonger Marvel’s best villain (that takes time), but he is certainly the deepest and most complex, a sensational character.

    That doesn’t mean that Black Panther is flawless. It has problems. The first thing that my friends and I noticed was that it was too short. I would have loved more time spent with the ‘T’Challa’s dead’ segment, especially with respect to M’Baku’s role in it. And more time could have improved many other parts. There have been discussions around a first 4 hour cut, but I think that is the Assembly Cut, and every Assembly Cut is 4 hours. And Assembly Cuts are not watchable. And yet, it is odd that an Assembly Cut would be fully scored, no matter how far ahead of schedule the composer is. Still, if an extanded edition came out to make it of a similar length to, say, Last Jedi, I think it would be an improvement. If, at the same time, they improved the CG, I’d also be happy – Black Panther has some of the worst compositing I have ever seen in a big budget blockbuster. Most of the CG is great, but the finale has some shockingly bad parts.

    But the bigger problem is the white people. Klaue creates a very messy first act. THe basic idea works, but he is inserted very clumsily and makes introduction to characters like W’Kabi awkward. But the bigger problem is how confusing the first act is, as it tries to tell a far too complciated plan with respect to Killmonger and Klaue than was really necessary. While Killmonger in the museum was truly fantastic thematically, I wonder what would of happened if they held Killmonger back. Introduce him executing Klaue, instead of creating the too convoluted act they had. It would have given clarity to his intentions, instead of making us confused until he arrives in Wakanda for the second act. Which is a shame, as Andy Serkis is a hell of a lot of fun as Klaue, and it is cool to see him in the flesh for once.
    Martin Freeman as Everett Ross is a bigger issue. There is something funny about the fact that he is a meaningless hanger on that as one key point of exposition to provide but is basically a token white guy who could easily be cut, the fate of far too many black characters in genre stories. On the other hand, you still have a character who should be cut. While the thematically important exposition Ross has about Killmonger’s CIA past is essential, I wish they either put more effort into him or, preferably, cut him and introduce him next movie. Black Panther did not need a pointless white hanger on, and they didn’t do enough to justify why they needed a token white guy in this cast.

    But ultimately, it is pretty great. I might not necessarily rank it as Marvel’s best, but it is certainly up there. But best doesn’t really matter, honestly. Because the first thing I said when the credits rolled was ‘The only reason this movie didn’t kill Marvel is that Marvel made it’. I said the best comparison to this movie was the Last Jedi, and it is for good reason. Because both of those movies feel like the future. Feel like the next generation of the blockbuster landscape. Not just because of their diversity, though they should certainly be celebrated both for their diversity and for how diversity is so essential to the themes of the films themselves. But for the focus on dynamic settings, on stories about heroes that affect and change the world and what it means that these characters are doing so.Stories that want to shock and surprise us, and challenge us to think outside conventional structures. Stories about cultures and worlds.
    I could keep tlaking abotu Black Panther, as I have so much more I want to say. I’ve run out of bad stuff to say, but so, so much good stuff I want to say, especially around the supporting cast. But honestly, the most important thing is that Last Jedi adn Black Panther feel like a true shift in the blockbuster landscape. Movies that are not jsut great, but so original and so gamechanging that their influence will be seen everywhere. Not every movie this gamechanging changes things in a good way. Transformers was a bad movie that shifted things in a bad way, and Avengers was a great movie that shifted things in a bad way. But I honestly think the things that make Last Jedi and Black Panther revolutionary, the elements that make this feel like a real shift in the blockbuster landscape are going to be truly great boons going forward. A blockbuster landscape that focuses on dynamic settigns the the global impact of our actions, for example, can only be a good thing.

    Can’t think of a better praise for an Afrofuturist movie than that. Black Panther is a better future

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