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February 17, 2016

Filed under: culture»pop»comics

Excelsior?

Marvel Comics has a digital subscription service called "Marvel Unlimited" that's basically Netflix for their comics: access to most of their archives online for ten bucks a month or so. I decided to give it a shot after Ta-Nehisi Coates kept singing its praises. I buy a few trades a year, but don't always keep them on my shelf, and I figured this was a good chance to go trolling through a few classics that aren't collected in print anymore.

Is it worth it? Well, usually. It turns out that Marvel's back catalog is hardly immune to Sturgeon's Law: most of it is crap. It doesn't help that it's almost all superhero-flavored, which is fine in small doses but starts to feel a little ridiculous when you're exposed to literally thousands of titles and they've all got capes: really, this is all you have? Sure, it's Marvel and that's what they do, but knowing that there's a broad range of other stories being told in this medium makes their genre limitations feel all the more jarring.

Marvel's other bad habit, which only seems to have gotten worse as far as I can tell, is the "special events" that make it impossible to just read through a single storyline. For example, trying to read through the new X-Men titles is an exercise in frustration, since they keep being interrupted or pre-empted by crossover stories from other books. As a way to sell comics to a hardcore faithful, it probably works pretty well. But as a relative newcomer, it's disorienting and irritating, as though a medical drama came crashing into your favorite sitcoms at random intervals.

As a result, it's not surprising that my favorite series to read so far have been either standalone humor titles or oddball takes on the genre. Dan Slott's 2004 run on She-Hulk (often referred to as "Single Green Female") is more legal workplace drama than anything else, and while it sometimes got too clever with the meta-humor, it delivers a nice, funny, self-contained story arc. Ditto for The Superior Foes of Spider-Man, which ran for 17 issues and follows a set of petty, incompetent super-thieves who get in way over their heads. X-Men: Legacy is another short storyline focusing on Charles Xavier's son, David, who has some legitimate disagreements with his "peaceful" father's violent vigilante organization. With its frequent trips into psychic psychedelia, it makes a great case for the infinite effects budget that comics so rarely exploit.

On the other side of the coin, I went trolling through Walt Simonson's tenure on Thor, which ran back in the 1980's and often gets mentioned as a stellar example of classic comics writing. It's pretty good! But it's also a decidedly-weird artifact: while there's overlap with the rest of the Marvel universe from time to time, most of the story is a kind of bonkers faux-Norse legend, with characters taking oaths of honor, pursuing doomed love, and striking off on various quests. The most impressive thing, from a modern perspective, is how many storylines it manages to juggle per issue. There's A, B, C, and sometimes even a D plot, all playing out in 30 page chunks.

But by far my favorite discovery has been the original reason I signed up: Priest's late-90's Black Panther, which is a really fascinating, thought-provoking bit of work. While parts of the art and dialog have not aged gracefully, a lot of it continues to feel very current, both in terms of topic matter and storytelling.

As early as possible, and throughout the rest of the book, Priest emphasizes that T'Challa (the titular Panther) is not just a vigilante out to fight crime, like other superheroes. He's the king of a country — a legitimate state power with an entirely different set of priorities and concerns. To drive that point home, Priest frames the narrative as a series of progress reports from the US liason to T'Challa, Everett Ross, a move that turns out to be an elegant narrative hat trick:

  • Being a white State Department functionary, Ross can explain the political element of the books and serve as an audience surrogate for the largely-white readership.
  • He's useful as comic relief, which is good, since the story arcs themselves revolve around political coups and international sovereignty, and can get a little byzantine.
  • He's a terrible narrator, which starts a running gag where each issue starts disastrously in media res and then unshuffles itself as Ross is forced to double back and explain the situation.

It's a comic book, so of course there are goofy action scenes, and much like the current crop of comic-inspired movies, these rarely rise above "vaguely interesting." But when I think back to the most memorable pages, it's mostly quieter or more subversive scenes. Most of the real plot happens in dialog: negotiations between the Panther and other governments, discussions of succession and history, sarcastic asides that mock the standard superhero schtick. Along the way, Priest is happy to extend a scene for either pathos or awkward humor, to undercut his own pretension, or let characters react to The Black Panther's quietly revolutionary core — an African nation that's portrayed as a technological superpower of its own. As Coates says, when talking about his own plans to write for the character:

It's obviously not the case, but T'Challa — the Black Panther and mythical ruler of Wakanda — has always struck as the product of the black nationalist dream, a walking revocation of white supremacist myth. T'Challa isn't just a superhero in the physical sense, he is one of the smartest people in the world, ruling the most advanced civilization on the planet. Wakanda's status as ever-independent seems to eerily parallel Ethiopia's history as well as its place in the broader black imagination. Maybe it's only me, but I can't read Jason Aaron's superb "See Wakanda And Die" and not think of Adowa.

Comic book creators, like all story-tellers, get great mileage out of myth and history. But given the society we live in, some people's myths are privileged over others. Some of that is changing, no doubt. In the more recent incarnations of T'Challa you can see Christopher Priest invoking the language of the Hausa or Reginald Hudlin employing the legacy of colonialism. These were shrewd artistic decisions, rooted in the fact that anyone writing Black Panther enjoys an immediate, if paradoxical, advantage: the black diaspora is terra incognita for much of the world. What does the broader world really know of Adowa? Of Nanny and Cudjoe? Of the Maji-Maji rebellion? Of Legba and Oshun? Of Shine? Of High John The Conqueror? T'Challa's writers have always enjoyed access to a rich and under-utilized pool of allusion and invocation.

It's a proudly Afrocentric (and Afrofuturist) book, way ahead of its time, and put out by a major comics publisher. I imagine there are a lot of people for whom these throwaway, cheaply-printed comics were profound experiences when they were young. It's hard to imagine how much of that material can translate through to the eventual movie version, even when directed by a thoughtful and talented filmmaker like Ryan Coogler. But kids who go looking for the originals after they see it in theaters are in for a real surprise.

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