by Taylor Anderson and Michael DeLaney
This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!
Taylor: The other day I was in a tabletop game store and played a great game called “Clank!” It was so fun that I ended up buying it, but not before having to choose between the original version, set in a typical fantasy setting, and another version set in space. I went with the original because it suits the game better, but it reminded me that I’m a sucker for anything re-imagined in space. That being said, I was super excited to learn about a new Black Panther series set in outer-space and am delighted to say that after reading the first issue, it doesn’t disappoint.
Long ago a group of Wakandans left their home country and set off to colonize the stars. Eventually, their colony turned into an empire that spanned the cosmos and is now looking to conquer Earth. Without any preamble, T’Challa finds himself in the clutches of this evil empire as a slave. Well, to say he finds himself might be a bit of a misnomer, for T’Challa has no memory of who or what he is. As he learns towards the end of the issue, this is because the Imperials wipe the memory of every person they capture and enslave.
Drawing the parallels between T’Challa’s enslavement and that of black people by white colonizers is not hard to do, and that’s almost certainly on purpose. Like T’Challa, black slaves had their names, families, and homes taken from them. While they may not have forgotten these things, they might as well have, given that most were destined to never see them again. Effectively, this makes T’Challa’s turn in space a retelling of the story of black slavery and rebellion.
It makes sense that Ta-Nahisi Coates would do this. Coates is first and foremost a social and political writer who shines his focus, and considerable writing skills, on the issue of the black experience in America. His run on Black Panther is memorable, if for no other reason, than the fact that he is a “literary” figure writing for a comic series. As expected, this means Coates is using the opportunity to not only tell a ripping good yarn, but to send a message that will resonate with readers. That balance shows that art can be both moral and entertaining at the same time.
So this story of T’Challa in space is easily translated onto the experience of slaves in America. We saw this already with his name and history being erased, literally, but there are other examples of it as well. Earlier in the issue, T’Challa gets into a fight with another slave and, having not forgotten his ability to fight, mops the floor with him. However, his victory is shallow because of the words of a wise, older, slave.
He urges T’Challa to be more than what his enslavers think him to be. In other words, he needs to act the part of a king and not of a beast who would lunge at the closest victim. This old slave’s imploring is a reminder of what slaves (and minorities in the current age for that matter) have to go through — walking the fine line between fighting for your rights and playing into the behaviors their oppressors want to see to justify their actions.
It’s not only Coates’s script which addresses the issue of slavery, though. Daniel Acuña’s art is back on the Black Panther beat, and his impact on the story is immediately apparent. Throughout T’Challa’s time as a slave, he is constantly antagonized by Imperial guards, the Askari. These guards are brutish and treat all the slaves like crap, just as their appearance suggests.
While their matching looks and personalities are a boon to the issue, what’s striking is how dehumanized these guys are. Sure, they’re aliens, but the design of their costumes seems to purposefully mask any sense of humanism or individuality any of them might have. Just look at how those helmets mask their face, eyes, and head. Paired with their matching uniforms, they might as well all be the same guy.
This design by Acuña is brilliant. Throughout the issue T’Challa is shown in various situations which are intended to take away his humanity. He has his memory wiped, he name taken, and he is forced to work as part of a faceless task force. Despite all this, T’Challa refuses to give up his humanity to his enslavers. He asserts his freedom and individuality, by force if need be, whenever he can. This is in stark contrast to the guards who voluntarily give up their humanity for a paycheck. By doing this, Acuña is asserting that slaves are more human than their captors. This statement rings true the more it’s analyzed.
Michael, I loved this issue. Again, I’m a sucker for stories set in outer-space, but there’s more to this issue than just that. Coates and Acuña are using the space setting to tackle some heavy issues and aren’t just using it as a gimmick. So you know my opinion, Michael, but what’s yours? Does space = exciting for you too? Is there anything else about Acuña’s art that caught your eye?
Michael: Taylor I had been thinking about your question of “Does space = exciting for you?” — especially in reference to the character of Black Panther. Would the “in space” work just as well if it were a Marvel hero other than Black Panther in space? Probably? Of course it depends on the creative vision behind the concept. I think that Black Panther’s recent rise to popular awareness has positioned him to be the kind of character who could most easily transition to space.
Many of us — myself included — are not acutely familiar with the particulars of Wakandan lore. Ryan Coolger’s Black Panther film brought a lot of that history to the mainstream, giving us all a basic idea of understanding of that world. Given that, there might not be as much apprehension putting a “new character” in space. And the Black Panther diehards are here to see T’Challa “Wakanda Forever” forever, so they are just fine. If Marvel threw Spider-Man into space for a brand new #1 issue, we’d likely see a decent amount of outcry from overprotective readers. “BUT WEB FLUID DOESN’T WORK IN SPACE!” and so on.
Instead, we are given a “reboot” of Black Panther where there are familiar characters and government structures that have been inserted into new roles. Taylor mentioned the basics of the new world order above: The Wakandan Empire is basically Star Wars’ Galactic Empire and T’Challa has been reduced to a slave.
“The Mackandal” — the group of rebels that come and rescue T’Challa — are led by Nakia and M’Baku. Both characters were also prominently featured in the Black Panther film. Finally Daniel Acuña’s character design for the Black Panther armor the Mackandal wear is reminiscent of that of the film’s — but works a little better in a sci-fi setting. Again, I get the feeling that Coates is taking advantage of the imagery from and familiarity for the Black Panther film to ease us into more unfamiliar territory.
It’s unclear how T’Challa and Wakanda ended up in the places they are, but throughout the issue, Coates drops hints and nods to the Wakanda that we know and love. As a slave, he is nameless, but when he joins up with the Mackandal at the end of the issue, he is bestowed with the name T’Challa by Captain N’yami. Does N’yami know that this man is actually the legendary T’Challa? Was T’Challa actually “born a king and died a hero”?
Another curious runner throughout the issue are T’Challa’s dreams of his former life — something that N’yami herself is also familiar with. T’Challa’s dreams consist of a white-haired woman lying in bed with him urging him to come home. I am pretty confident that this is the X-Men’s Storm, Ororo Munroe — but I’m even more confident that this once-royal couple has been divorced for some time now. Maybe Coates is a Storm/T’Challa ‘shipper? I’d be down with that. More realistically, his ex-wife — who was at one point an integral part of his life — is still embedded in his subconscious, asking him to remember who he is.
Acuña’s talents are well-suited to the sci-fi realm, with a combination of reds and blues that remind me of the 3-D comics of yore. Though Coates’ dialogue certainly propels the narrative, a lot of the work is done by Acuña — given the fact that T’Challa is mostly silent throughout the issue.
His line work calls many things to the reader’s attentions. Acuña indicates when T’Challa or the guards are alerted to a change in their surroundings with simple white lines emanating from their heads. T’Challa’s swift kicks, punches and throws are accompanied by a blur of lines and color that heighten their motion. Heightening best describes what Acuña adds to Black Panther 1: he makes every action — great or small — feel important. Waking up from a dream is given just as much emphasis as a sweeping leg kick.
With whiffs of the film, Black Panther 1 is a little bit X-O Manowar and a little bit Star Wars with some cultural commentary to boot. It’s a bold new start for Wakanda that I think requires very little prior knowledge of prior Black Panther continuity — Coates’s run included.
The conversation doesn’t stop there. What do you wanna talk about from this issue?