Thursday, July 26, 2012

Storytelling Engines: Black Panther

(or "From the Klan to King Solomon's Frog")

First, a brief apology for the delay in this post; I've been fighting a bit of a stomach bug, hasn't left me much in the mood to write. I'll try to make up for it with a Saturday post. Now, on to the Black Panther!

As a concept, the Black Panther has his roots in a number of different traditions, both in myth and reality. Pretty much all of these traditions strengthen his storytelling engine, to the point where it's surprising he's not had his own series more often than he did (although he has amassed a quite respectable record as headliner, appearing in print frequently throughout the 70s and 80s before becoming a major seller for most of the last decade.) They bring a lot of versatility and credibility to his storytelling engine, giving writers the freedom to tell a number of different kinds of stories about we'll discuss. But what are these different traditions and concepts?

For one thing, he's the king of a "distant, exotic" (presuming that the majority of his readers are American) kingdom, with a culture drawn from a mix of African fact and pulp stories told about Africa. This can sometimes have unfortunate effects--let's face it, there's no nice way to say it, but just about any story about Wakanda is going to be treading along a narrow tightrope of racial stereotyping, because any attempt to create a fictional "typical" African kingdom is going to draw on fictional tropes regarding the continent. Those don't, generally speaking, have a good record for cultural sensitivity.

That said, Wakanda is presented as unique among African nations, in that it has a first-world level of technology despite being in a third-world region. The leveraging of vibranium to create Wakandan technology allows the country to be a fantastic and unusual place filled with wild "futuristic" story ideas, while also feeling quite "realistic" on other levels...many countries in human history have become significant all out of proportion to their size and population due to rare natural resources, and that sense of verisimilitude helps you to buy into the sonic blasters and aircars. (And to its credit, Wakanda is shown as a country that has not been forced into colonial subjugation due to that advanced technology. There's a strong, subtextual suggestion that without guns to give them an unfair advantage, the colonial powers really were inferior to the natives they enslaved and exploited.)

But by the same token, Wakanda isn't presented as a simplistic "modern country in Africa", either. The inhabitants might use Western technology, but they are shown as having their own cultural heritage that sits uneasily with American tradition...which is exploited brilliantly as a source of stories in 'Essential Black Panther Volume One'. The first two-thirds of the book revolve around a civil war started by the comically-appropriately-named Erik Killmonger, who exploits the wedge driven between the Black Panther and his people by his time with the Avengers. Again, there's something startlingly, almost uncomfortably realistic about all this...history is filled with monarchs educated abroad who clash with their own people when they attempt to "Westernize" their home country. It always helps a writer to become inspired when they can draw on the real world as a source of their ideas.

The Panther himself is always presented as sitting--perhaps somewhat uneasily at times, but usually squarely on the side of his people. He respects his Panther Totem as a source of spiritual as well as physical strength, and lives within the traditions of Wakanda in a way that generally refuses to condescend about such things. There might be elements of his homeland that T'Challa wishes to change--what leader doesn't? But ultimately, he refuses to be co-opted into the Western worldview. This is a good source of conflict, both with other heroes and with villains like Doom, and provides a writer with even more ideas.

And then, as you find out about two-thirds of the way through Volume One, there's another side to the Black Panther. Ultimately, for all that he is a king, he's also an adventurer and a superhero. He can do stories where he fights a civil war for the soul of Wakanda, or where he confronts racial prejudice in America...or he can go on a quest for King Solomon's Frogs and battle vibranium monsters. It's a lot of flexibility for a character, although admittedly an amount that probably shouldn't be exercised quite that drastically and without finishing the previous storyline. But it does contribute to making the Black Panther an enduring and popular hero.


Anonymous said...

One of the many things I enjoyed about Priest's run on the book is that he was willing to poke fun at the King Solomon's Frog era (I remember it dimly--not one of Kirby's triumphs).

John Seavey said...

It wasn't even that it was that bad; it was that it was such an unreconstructed bit of 60s Kirby action, contrasted violently with a serious exploration of racism in America that didn't even get a chance to finish up.

The best way I could describe it would be to imagine 'Roots' transforming midway through into an animated series about Kunta Kinte, an alien that fought ninja robots in the future.

KAW26 said...

The rights to Roots must never enter the hands of Michael Bay.

Isaac said...

So you would say the McGregor and the Kirby takes share enough DNA to be the same character, then?
I feel like Priest wasn't exactly poking fun at the Kirby stuff but trying to reconcile a delightful aberration with a character that had otherwise been on a darker trajectory. It's actually my favorite thing that Priest did on what is one of my very favorite runs on a superhero title.

Anonymous said...

Now that I've reread it (courtesy of the local library) yeah, it was that bad. The first few issues come off as if Kirby has no idea who the Panther is: Mr. Little has all the cool gadgets and the know-how, Panther is the big strong sidekick. No acknowledgment of his own technical genius. When he meets the one African princess, she doesn't respond at all as I'd expect to the leader of Wakanda.
Plus, Kirby doesn't seem to know what a ronin is.