Ta-Neshi Coates’ Black Panther was supposed to be one of the all-time great comic book runs. One right up there with Christopher Priest. Unfortunately, it’s been one of the biggest disappointments in comic book history for many comic fans.
When you look at Ta-Neshi Coates’ background he looks like the kind of guy who meets the qualifications to write Black Panther on paper. A graduate of Howard University and writer of National Book Award winning books on the Black Diaspora such as Between the World and Me, he looked like the kind of guy who would present a fresh take on the Wakandan Avenger.
Unfortunately that impressive resume doesn’t make him a comic book writer.
Coates been criticized by many Black Panther fans for not “getting” the character. For too much of a focus on Wakanda and existential ideas about Blackness and not enough on T’Challa. Many readers say his Black Panther reads more like a novel than a comic book. That his stories are extremely slow paced and pretty much go absolutely nowhere.
It’s clear to me Coates doesn’t understand that writing comics is not like a novel. Comics like, movies and TV are character driven. Comic fans don’t care about flowery prose and descriptive paragraphs filled with exposition and existential ideas. Readers want to see the hero kicking ass, about to kick some ass, or on the way to kick some ass.
By design superhero comics are character driven. They’re supposed to move at a FAST pace. They’re supposed to be filled with ACTION, EXCITEMENT, and ADVENTURE. They’re supposed to be larger than life. They’re supposed to grab the reader by the first page and have them anticipating the next issue before they read the last.
In addition to Coates inability to understand how the comic book medium works, he tends to put more of a Black feminist slant on the narrative of the Black Panther and Wakanda. This narrative completely contradicts the character of T’Challa and who he is. The Black Panther is a strong Alpha male who takes the lead in protecting his people, his kingdom and its assets such as Wakandan tech and Vibranium. He is respected on a world stage by rivaling countries like Latveria and Atlantis because he is a strong leader who asserts himself as an authority figure. In between Coates’ and his Black feminist friend Roxxane Gay, the Black Panther has been turned from a king of the jungles of Wakanda into one big pussy. Coates’ Black Panther is an emasculated male watching things happen in his country instead of taking the lead to protect his people. Coates just doesn’t understand that Kings LEAD, they do not follow. Kings are ACTIVE, not passive. No one wants to read a Black Panther book where the People of Wakanda turn on their King and kick him out of his kingdom. Nor do they want to read a bunch of whiny diatribes making Wakandans into Victims.
Coates proves to me how grossly unqualified he is to write Black Panther by the ideas and concepts he presents in his stories. Black Panther is supposed to be about the King of Wakanda leading his people, protecting his people and representing his people on Marvel’s world stage in domestic and international political affairs. There should be a focus on Wakanda as a world power with stories should be focused on Wakandan Tech, Wakandan science, and of course Vibranium. Readers want to see T’Challa being a master strategist, skilled fighter, and brilliant inventor. They want to see him running an advanced African society, not read stories based on real world African countries.
Like Reginald Hudlin before him, Ta-Neshi Coates has a storied background. But a storied background doesn’t make one a comic book writer. Comics like screenwriting is a craft. And you have to know your way around the structure of the medium and its paradigm to tell a story effectively in it. By design, Coates wants to write Chinua Achibe’s Things Fall Apart, not a Black Panther comic. Like many of today’s comic writers like Goeff Johns, he’s writing a 36-issue novel, not a comic series.
The big problem with Coates’ Black Panther is that it’s too focused on reality and not enough on fantasy. It’s focused on existential ideas that appeal to Pro-Blacks and Hoteps, but not the action that gets young new readers excited about comic books. Comic fans want a new take on Klaw, Man-Ape and Black Panther’s Rogues gallery, not a focus on Wakandan rape camps and lesbian Dora Milaje guards.
Ta-Neshi Coates and Roxxane Gay’s runs on their Black Panther Books were going to be celebrated as a big step towards diversity in the comic book industry. Unfortunately both have been one big step back. Yes, Marvel’s editors need to hire more writers of color to write comics. However, they really need to make sure that the content of their work meets the standard Stan Lee established years ago and that their stories fit the characters.