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Who, Indeed?

 

Black Panther: Who Is the Black Panther?

Reginald Hudlin, John Romita Jr.

Marvel, 2006

Rating: 3.3

 

Posted: June 6, 2006

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Who Is the Black Panther? Film director Reginald Hudlin (House Party, The Ladies Man) lays it right out for us in a somewhat rambling pitch included in this collection of issues #1-6 of Marvel's new Black Panther title (released in paperback in April): "The Black Panther is the Black Captain America. He's the embodiment of the ideals of a people. ... As a black person, the Black Panther should represent the fulfillment of the potential of the Motherland."

Sounds like a good plan. And Hudlin does kick things off to a good start, doling out bits and pieces of the history of the Panther's home, the (fictional) African nation of Wakanda -- a nation run by the Black Panthers, "a warrior cult that serves as the religious, political and military head of the country." A nation rich in natural resources that, due to its superiority in the art and technology of warfare, has never been conquered by outside forces. A nation whose technology is a century ahead of the rest of the world. A nation that deals with the outside world on its own terms ... "or not at all."

So if T'Challa -- the Black Panther, the current ruler of Wakanda -- is the embodiment of the African ideal, then apparently that ideal is, simply put, to be impossible to fuck with. To be, as Hudlin repeatedly says in his pitch, "a badass" -- or, more accurately, a "bad@$$." Given the things that black Africans have had to endure over the centuries -- slavery and Apartheid at the top of the list -- that's certainly an understandable ideal.

In Who Is the Black Panther?, we get plenty of evidence that Wakandans in general, and T'Challa and particular, are the baddest people on the planet. We see them repelling would-be invaders in the fifth century A.D., the 19th century and the present. We even see a Black Panther kicking Captain America's butt in the 1940s, just to show us how "bad@$$" they are. Fine. Point made. But here's the story in a nutshell: Various people try to fuck with Wakanda. Those people are defeated.

That's it.

But, um, shouldn't he also be, you know, a hero? It's all well and good to be the biggest, baddest, toughest motherfucker in the valley. But what do you stand for? What will you fight for? Frankly, the Wakanda that Hudlin lays out for us doesn't seem like one Captain America (to use Hudlin's own barometer) would be all that excited about protecting. Forget the fact that Hudlin has America attempt to invade Wakanda (under the pretense of helping to defend it against some terroristic interlopers) for its untapped oil reserves. Here's a nation that has cured most (for all we know, maybe all) terrible diseases, including cancer, and snobbishly disdains the idea of sharing those life- and world-changing secrets with an unworthy world. What's heroic about that, exactly? If anything, it's elitist and off-putting. And a bit short-sighted, given the numbers of blacks worldwide suffering from cancer, AIDS, genocide, etc. (Why doesn't T'Challa intervene in Rwanda or Darfur? Or is he only concerned with the super-intelligent idealized Africans of fictional Wakanda?)

Yes, the Black Panther emerges as a serious "bad@$$," and one of the political powerhouses in the Marvel Universe. That's all well and good -- like many writers and comics fans, I've got my own ideas about how to elevate certain underused characters to the major-player status they've always deserved. (Joe Quesada, Axel Alonso, call me -- we'll do lunch!) And he successfully defends himself and his homeland (mostly) against a small band of mercenaries (including a revamped Klaw, now a South African assassin with a hand that can turn into high-tech weapons, who some time back managed to assassinate T'Challa's father), the Rhino and somebody wearing the costume of the Black Knight. (It's implied that these mercenaries are employed by the American government, represented mostly by a black female secretary of state named "Dondi." Any resemblance to Condi Rice is purely intentional.)

But, except on a superficial action-movie level, not much happens -- certainly nothing that might make us view the Black Panther as anything more than a guy capable of kicking much ass. Hudlin is obsessed with making the Black Panther the ultimate cool, kick-ass black male. (Certainly that's why he's supposed to be marrying Storm from the X-Men; not because it makes any sense on a character level, but because it would be cool -- and, you know, bad@$$ -- to have a powerful, good-looking royal African couple.) Sadly, though, he neglects to make T'Challa someone we should care about, as much we might want to -- I mean, hey, I like a good kick-ass icon as much as the next comics fan.

Who Is the Black Panther is great to look at -- no surprise, given that it's penciled by the great John Romita Jr. But Hudlin never satisfactorily answers the book's pressing central question. Here's hoping the second paperback collection, Bad Mutha -- just released last week -- does a better job of doing so.

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