In praise of trying to like Ta-Nehisi Coates’ mediocre Black Panther #1
I would like to like Black Panther #1. The writer, Ta-Nehisi Coates, is an exciting choice for author: he’s never written comics before, but he’s universally known as one of America’s smartest writers on race. I also want superhero comics and movies to hire more black creators, and feature more black heroes, and I recognize Coates’ Black Panther is an important step towards those goals. If it’s successful enough, critically and commercially, it could pave the way for more of the same.
As Coates said in an interview with NPR:
“When I was a kid, Spider-Man was a star. Spider-Man was right under Malcolm X for me in terms of heroes.
I would like Black Panther to be some kid’s Spider-Man.”
So, understandably, Coates has a lot of goodwill; from me and from lots of other folks.
Isaac Butler’s take in the Guardian, for example, is headlined “A Promising, Subversive Start”. The review acknowledges that there’s too much exposition in Black Panther #1, and that the dialogue falters. But Butler makes sure to point, hopefully, at the subversive potential of a comic that questions Black Panther’s monarchical rule in his African homeland of Wakanda . It’s true that other Black Panther comics haven’t grappled with the pros and cons of monarchy — but still, the fact is that most people in America don’t think monarchy is a good thing. Is pointing that out really transgressive?
Similarly, Gregory L. Reece at Pop Matters says that Coates has a “steady hand” even while acknowledging that, “Things are set in motion in Black Panther #1, set in motion and little more.” But this is the first issue of a massively anticipated series, with real promise of attracting new readers. Is it really “steady” to leave readers saying, “well, nothing happened, maybe next issue we’ll see more”? To me, that seems like a huge misstep. This first issue is the big chance to grab people; if you don’t grab them, you’ve made a mistake.
The reviews and the discussion around the comic are, in short, shot through with special pleading.
People are determined to give the comic the benefit of the doubt, because it is by Coates and because it is important to the ongoing effort to include characters and creators in Marvel’s universe who are not the same old white guys…
Nevertheless, despite my best efforts to like the comic, I’ve been having troubles.
That exposition that Butler points to is excessive and painful; the comic feels drowned in its own convoluted backstory. The pacing isn’t steady, so much as simultaneously somnolent and fractured. The narration swings back and forth between an onslaught of underdeveloped characters, none of whom we’re given any reason to care about.
Even the cover by artist Brian Stelfreeze, is a basic, boring superhero cover. The Black Panther stands there, not doing much of anything, as his ridiculous musculature flexes and forms itself into an anatomically improbable semaphore declaring, “Hey, there. Have you noticed I am male? And muscular! Admire my muscular maleness, dude.”
This is the moment where I assume readers are perhaps expecting me to rail against the blind commentariat committed to hype over substance and politics over quality. “What has happened to objective, unbiased criticism?!” Alas, political correctness, slippery slope, erosion of quality standards, blah blah blah etc.
The truth is, though, I think it’s perfectly reasonable for readers (and reviewers) to root for Black Panther.
I’m rooting for it, for that matter.
I’m cautiously optimistic about the subplot involving two of Black Panther’s female bodyguards, who are lovers and rebels against Wakanda’s government. I’m going to buy the second in the series, and would at least cautiously recommend that others do the same — though, if I weren’t a fan of Coates’, I’d probably have bailed after the first couple pages of the first issue.
Is that biased? Well, sure. Critics aren’t robots; there is no objective, rational, algorithm-based way to approach art. Any time you open a comic, or go to a movie, or read a book, you have expectations and sympathies that shape your reaction.
I saw Spotlight recently, for example. I’m not a big fan of journalist-hero films, so I went in with a good bit of skepticism. On the other hand, I think Mark Ruffalo is a charming actor — I’m happy to see him in a movie doing stuff, more or less whatever that stuff happens to be. Is it fair to dislike journalist-hero movies? Is it just to like Mark Ruffalo? What do “just” and “fair” even mean in this context?
When you boil it all down, I bring to the film what I bring to the film.
The way in which one’s own interests and preferences are challenged by, or confirmed by, or simply sit next to, a work of art is part of how aesthetic experience works.
For that matter, art is designed to take advantage of, and speak to the fact that watchers and readers come with baggage and preconceptions. The mega-successful Avengers film was adored before it even appeared, based on the love of nostalgia properties, the love of director Joss Whedon, and the love of previous films – especially Robert Downey, Jr.’s Iron Man. Conversely, the anguished howls from some reactionary Star Wars fans at the fact the Rogue One trailer# features a woman had nothing to do with the film, or the trailer, and everything to do with the prejudices the viewers brought with them.
Those prejudices are noxious — but they’re noxious because sexism is noxious, not because approaching art with preconceptions or preferences is a sin in itself.
In fact, preconceptions are unavoidable, and even essential.
Art exists in a cultural context, and it relies on a certain level of understanding, and of emotional preconception. Spotlight expects you to know, and understand, that the Catholic church child rape scandal really happened; The Avengers expects you to have some level of interest in and enthusiasm for the superhero genre. Art is embedded in, and reliant on, a cultural context of both knowledge and affect. That’s why Pierre Bayard argues that you don’t even need to read a book to have an opinion on a book. In his tour de force How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, he points out that the total of culture is more important than any one volume.
“Rather than any particular book, it is …connections and correlations that should be the focus of the cultivated individual,” Bayard says. As a result, “all reading is a squandering of energy in the difficult and time-consuming attempt to master the whole.”
The literary, intellectual landscape in which Coates’ Black Panther stands — its place in Coates’ oeuvre, its position in the ongoing discussion about diversity in superhero narratives — is more important than the actual content of this one comic. If reviewers seem in some cases to have made up their minds about the book before they read it, that is, for Bayard, as it should be, and demonstrates their broader, more sweeping cultural knowledge and taste.
I did read Black Panther #1, which may have been a mistake. But I haven’t read #2, or #3, which, I’m confident, will improve as Coates gets the hang of comics-writing. And perhaps my opinions of these comics I haven’t seen are overdetermined (though all aesthetics are overdetermined).
Regardless, if Black Panther does leap to new heights, it will be in the same way that all art does…
Not through some absolute equation for quality, but through creators and audience imagining together.
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