After five years, it comes to an end: the acclaimed run of one of the most important Black minds of a generation scripting the most important Black superhero of all time.
Ta-Nehisi Coates’s last issue of Black Panther was published by Marvel Comics on Wednesday, wrapping up a job that he debuted in 2016, at a time of awakening in the industry. Gone were the days of publishers being able to pat themselves on the back for creations such as the Puerto Rican/African American Spider-Man, Miles Morales, while not having someone who looked like Morales be a part of the creative process. The rise of social media gave voice to diverse corners of comics fandom. They digitally shouted to the rooftops that people of colour should be guiding the few pop-culture superhero icons of colour. You could pretend to not hear it, but the laws of social media made it impossible for the message not to be seen.
Coates made his Black Panther run immediately distinguishable by challenging the highest point of pride to any Black Panther fan: the perfection of Wakanda. It’s a notion that is undeniably mainstream after the billion-dollar success of the “Black Panther” movie. If you say you didn’t do the Wakanda dap at a cookout in the summer of 2018 you’re lying to yourself. (It’s beyond poetic that Coates and the film’s star Chadwick Boseman were educated at Howard University in the once-and-no-longer Wakanda — Washington, DC)
A perfect Black nation unblemished by white supremacy is a G.O.A.T. status no fandom wants to leave behind. No colonisation? No slavery? No reason to ever leave? No gentrifiers asking to speak to a manager?
But Coates decided early on he wanted to see how Wakanda truly became the technologically unmatched African ideal which meant looking in the closet for skeletons.
In the previous runs of Black Panther lore written by Reggie Hudlin and Christopher Priest, Wakanda was the next level. Not to be messed with. Always 10 steps ahead of the world, while the Black Panther basked in a realness dripped in swag, backed by the Black beauty of his sworn protectors the Dora Milaje. He was the baddest man on the planet.
In ‘A Nation Under Our Feet’, the arc of the first 25 issues of Coates’s 50-issue run, the Wakandan people are done with the hype after new villains forge their emotions into an uprising. But not everyone needs to be hypnotised to see Wakanda in a non-glorious light. By portraying the Wakandan people as unsure whether they believe in what their royalty stands for anymore, Coates led the country to a hybrid of established royalty and democracy. It wouldn’t just be about what the Black Panther wanted, it would be what all of Wakanda thought was best for Wakanda.
No spoilers here, but suffice it to say: In that newfound democracy, Black Panther unearthed the true origin of Wakanda, and it was as painful to see as the birth of any nation is. Coates drew from the real-world history of how countries are forged — and decided that even in the ultimate Black nation of pop culture, when one group sets claim to a land, there is usually suffering to follow.
A world power refusing to accept its true beginnings. Sound familiar?
In the second 25 issues, ‘The Intergalactic Empire of Wakanda’, Coates took aim at the fairy-tale origins of the meteorite from space that blessed Wakanda with Vibranium and the Wakandan gods. He took the Black Panther to the deep edges of space, with the hero obsessed with wanting to know what was on the other side of the miracle that bred the only world he ever knew. What he found was a reflection of Wakanda so dark, it made his home’s origins on Earth seem like child’s play.
In between the homeland revolution and deep space odyssey, Coates also found time to establish the love between the Black Panther and his ex-wife, Storm of the X-Men (another Black Marvel icon). There is a reason they still love each other. And there is a reason there was a divorce. But when it comes to complicated Black love in comics, it’s the King and the Mutant Goddess and then there’s everyone else.
And then there was the art. Coates’s run was beautifully illustrated by Brian Stelfreeze, Daniel Acua and the many other artists who stepped up in between. Wakanda never looked more glorious, even in its dark moments of original sin.
But like Wakanda’s newfound imperfections, there are some in the real-world creative process as well. The Oscar-winning '12 Years a Slave' writer John Ridley will take over writing Black Panther. Getting Coates was a win for Marvel. No doubt. But appointing more big names from here on out would be shutting out the few Black and proud who have made a name for themselves as comic book writers, such as Vita Ayala, Evan Narcisse, David Walker and Eve Ewing. Sure, Ridley has comics experience. But when will these other stars burn bright enough to make an attempt at Wakandan glory?
Wakanda is forever, but the Black Panther writings of Coates claim no such infinity. He held Black superhero supremacy in the palm of his hand and moulded it into something we didn’t think it could be and maybe something we didn’t want it to be.
But even after he asked Black Panther fans to accept that no nation, not even Wakanda, gets everything right, we’re all still down with the king.