The Essential Black Panther: Ta-Nehisi Coates

In the long history of Marvel Comics, most characters have come into contact with at least dozens, [...]

In the long history of Marvel Comics, most characters have come into contact with at least dozens, if not hundreds, of writers and artists. They are a collection of vast influences ranging from a singular issue to titanic multi-year runs. When considering the essence of a single hero (or villain) it becomes clear that some creators had a larger impact than others. In celebration of the Black Panther movie, we are looking at the essential Black Panther creators. These are the comics artisans who have left an indelible mark on T'Challa, Wakanda, and his immense supporting cast. You can see their influence both on the movie and across Marvel Comics today. Black Panther would not be the character we love without their contributions and their comics provide the best path to understanding this incredible hero.

Here we take a look at the current writer of Black Panther, a much-heralded newcomer to comics: Ta-Nehisi Coates.

The Creator

In the past decade, Ta-Nehisi Coates has emerged as one of the most influential and eloquent voices in American culture. He is a journalist and writer who has extensively examined cultural conditions and issues of race in the pages of The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Time, as well as many other institutions, and was awarded the MacArthur "Genius Grant" in 2015 for his work. Coates only recently came to write comics with the debut of the sixth volume of Black Panther in 2016. In the past two years, Coates has continued writing Black Panther as well as various spinoffs like Black Panther and The Crew, World of Wakanda, and Rise of the Black Panther. He has also helped to bring in many more new comics writers from the worlds of journalism and literature, including Roxane Gay, Yona Harvey, and Evan Narcisse.

Ta-Nehisi Coates Black Panther - What They Added
(Photo: Marvel Entertainment)

What Coates Added

In Coates' first 12-issue arc, "A Nation Under Our Feet", he introduces a slew of new characters, almost all of whom have stuck around. Wakanda faces rebellions in the North and South, both led by new characters. In the North are the Midnight Angels, rebellious Dora Milaje with superpowered suits. In the South are Zeni and Tetu, an empath and sorcerer fomenting violent rebellion. The greatest change within "A Nation Under Our Feet" is the alteration of Wakanda from a monarchy to constitutional monarchy. There are more subtle additions as well. Coates has delved into Black Panther's motives throughout the decades, redefining him as a man who wants to be a hero, but must be a king. There is an emphasis on making all past actions coherent with current ones as so much change takes place.

Perhaps the most exciting element of Coates' run is that he's still actively adding to the Black Panther mythos. His current storyline, "Avengers of the New World", is reshaping the origin of Klaw and assembling a core rogues gallery for future Panther stories. Klaw, alongside the Fenris Twins, Zenzi, and Doctor Faustus, is preparing to retake Wakanda via their modern colonial cabal. Coates is also expanding on the religious traditions of Wakanda. He has defined the country's five central gods, and is in the midst of unpacking their history and predecessors. In addition to explaining there were earlier gods, Coates has also created five humanoid races that predated modern Wakandan society and who were banished from reality by them.

Throughout both of these stories, Coates has revealed himself to be a comics fan based on his love for continuity. He is actively engaged with refining the long history of Black Panther stories within his new additions. Everything from Killmonger's initial insurrection in Jungle Action to Shuri's death in New Avengers have been shaped into the current storylines. He is engaged with the many disparate threads of story left by creators like Kirby, McGregor, and Priest, and is assembling them into a cohesive metamyth.

Ta-Nehisi Coates Black Panther - Why It Matters
(Photo: Marvel Entertainment)

Why It Matters

Coates' run has not only revitalized Black Panther, but it has treated the character with a level of respect and intelligence not seen since Christopher Priest left the title in 2003. Since Black Panther was first introduced in Fantastic Four #52, there's has been an inherent hypocrisy between the character's role and his values. Coates has addressed the issue of a modern monarchy directly and altered Wakanda's form of government rather than hand-waving the issue. More importantly, Coates addressed the complexities found in revolution, forming a new government, and admitting guilt. The problem presented was far greater than any superhero spectacle could resolve, and Coates emphasized that enjoyable spectacle could be wed to far more difficult work.

The significance of history has not been a simple matter of appreciating Marvel continuity either. There are obvious connections to Coates' interest in Wakanda's past and his non-fiction writing. The past is a constant force in his narrative, forming the basis of each new problem, whether it's a new villain or systemic flaw. There are really no obvious villains within "A Nation Under Our Feet", as Tetu's grievance is moral, even if his methods are not. Coates has struck a balance between philosophy and action, in which character's fights are given additional meaning by the debates between T'Challa, Shuri, Changamire, and others. Black Panther has risen to the role of philosopher-warrior-king, as his ruling duties are assumed by democratically elected leaders. It is a significant reminder that the history of superhero comics can be fertile soil for change and reflection.

Coates' run thus far is important both for Black Panther and superhero comics. He has shaken some of the core assumptions about what makes the Black Panther work -- transforming it into a much more philosophical comic that addresses issues of history and government. These changes could easily work their way into future films and other adaptations. The level of thought he has brought to the series also shows the potential support for superhero comics that strive for more than action and drama. Some of the individual lines in his opening arc are as smart as anything Coates has published in The Atlantic, making it clear that good writing is good writing no matter what medium it occurs in.

The Complete Black Panther by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Black Panther (vol. 6) #1-18, 166-171 (ongoing)

Black Panther Annual (vol. 6) #1

Black Panther: World of Wakanda #1-6

Black Panther and The Crew #1-6

Rise of the Black Panther #1-6

First Appearances

Zenzi: Black Panther (vol. 6) #1

Midnight Angels: Black Panther (vol. 6) #1

Changamire: Black Panther (vol. 6) #2

Tetu: Black Panther (vol. 6) #1