The script was always the same. When people found out I once worked in comics, or saw me in one of my many graphic t-shirts, or just heard me talk about anything for more than a few minutes, the question would inevitably come up.
“Who’s your favorite superhero?”
I’d answer, too excitedly, “Black Panther!”
The people who asked the innocent, “Who’s that?” didn’t really care about the B-list Avenger. They were just being polite. I knew that. I told them anyway.
There’s no greater gift to a geek than the chance to gush about the nuances of their niche interest. I would lead off by explaining Black Panther was the first black superhero. Not the first African-American superhero, that’s The Falcon, though Black Panther did invent Falcon’s wings and flying harness, but that’s beside the point. Black Panther (his real name is T’Challa) isn’t African-American, he’s an African king. The leader of the secret nation of Wakanda, a technologically advanced country about the size of New Jersey. And, yes, at this point I could already see my prisoner’s eyes going wide with “What have I done?” horror, but I still had decades of comic history to discuss, so it was really in their best interest that I just kept trudging ahead.
I would tell them about Warrior Falls, Everett K. Ross, and the Dora Milaje. I would talk about writers like Christopher Priest and Don McGregor, artists like Sal Buscema, Gil Kane and this guy Jack Kirby. I would try to convey why “The Story Thus Far…” is one of my favorite phrases in all of Western literature.
It was just as they were finishing their drink (these conversations tended to take place in bars) and escape was in their sight that my tone changed. I talked about sitting on my knees picking out my first comic books in front of the grocery store magazine display with my grandmother. I’d talk about discovering Black Panther at age four, sitting in my parent’s bed, playing a Marvel card-game knock-off of Old Maid with the titular Old Maid replaced by the evil Doctor Doom. I cried whenever the villain’s card came into my hand. This transition to the personal re-upped my listener’s social contract and required that they permit me a few more minutes of attentiveness.
Since drinking made it easier for me to talk – and to listen to – we’d over-indulge, and that’s when I’d talk about dads. T’Challa watched his dad, T’Chaka, die. T’Chaka was murdered by Ulysses Klaw, another white man trying to rob an African country of its natural resources (in this case the ultra-rare Vibranium) despite the protests of its native people. The sort of battle the warrior-kings of Wakanda had fought for centuries. The death was shocking for T’Challa, but also not. You can’t look up to your warrior-king father without knowing somewhere deep down that warrior-kings can be taken away at any moment.
It was the middle of the night. My family sat crammed into my aunt’s minivan at a stoplight that had turned red to green and back again without us moving. The phone had rung. My aunt had answered. So far, the news from the other side of the line was only being conveyed in my aunt’s sobs. She looked at my mom, “I don’t know how I’m supposed to tell you this.” My mom, always impossibly strong in impossible moments, put her hand on my aunt’s shoulder and said, “It’s okay. I know.”
My dad wasn’t a warrior-king. The battle he fought his whole life was against hemophilia and, like T’Challa, it was a fight that somewhere deep down I knew my dad could lose at any time. It was less than a year after that night I found myself in a comic book store for the first time since my pre-teen years. As I picked through the new issues of Superman, Daredevil and Spidey, there was a new Black Panther comic waiting for me.
A lot of people like superheroes, but not a lot of people use them as the outline for their life story. This juxtaposition of my real life tragedy alongside the fictional, and admittedly banal (T’Challa is far from the first or last superhero to have tragically lost a parent) one never struck me as strange.
The conversation would come to an end and the next time we saw each other at the bar my new friend and I would talk again, but never about comic books or superheroes.
It wasn’t until the trailers for Captain America: Civil War, and its introduction to the first-ever live action depiction of the king of Wakanda, began generating millions of views and forums of internet discussion my conversation script underwent an unexpected change.
“So, who’s your favorite superhero?”
“Cool, mine too.”
And then the conversation would end.
I realized I only knew how to talk to the uninitiated and didn’t have the slightest clue how to talk to someone else who called themselves a fan.
Modern fandom is…intense. The internet is filled with impassioned debate over what does or doesn’t make someone a “true fan.” As if “fan of thing” is some convoluted D&D character chart you have to fill out where you add up the amount of collectibles you own with the number of times you’ve cosplayed as certain characters combined with your trivia score and anyone with too low a level isn’t allowed to say they like the thing they like.
I could ask if they prefer Jungle Action Black Panther, or Jack Kirby’s solo-series. Or, if they think T’Challa’s greatest villain is Klaw, Killmonger or Reginald Hudlin. Or, if they even know that these questions aren’t subjective but have concrete right and wrong answers. Then they might admit they’ve only read a couple Ta Nehisi Coates/Brian Stelfreeze issues, or that their total knowledge of the character is one shot from a movie trailer where a leaping Panther takes down a man on a motorcycle like a lion bringing down a gazelle. Then I’m just a gatekeeper asshole talking down to new fans.
Conversely, I could try making suggestions. Telling them about my favorite artists, adventures, and Everett K. Ross jokes. But then they may fire back that they own every comic book appearance T’Challa has ever made and still have their VHS tape recording of that one time Black Panther guest-starred on the Fantastic Four’s Saturday morning cartoon in the 90s. Then I’m the asshole who acts like they’re the only person to know about this fifty-year old, mainstream comic staple.
Toxic fan-culture is born, like so many hateful things, from a corrupted idea of love. You find something that means so much to you that gives you so much comfort, courage, understanding, laughter and you want the rest of the world to experience it too, but you want them to experience it exactly the same way, to recreate the alchemy of your passion. The insistence that people must “prove” their affection for random pieces of pop-culture has ruined everything from online videogames to Star Wars to limited-edition Szechuan sauce. I don’t want to ruin the thing I love the same way.
So I’d say nothing. If someone innocently asks about my favorite superhero I’d talk at them for hours knowing they don’t really care, but the second someone says they share my interest and doesn’t immediately follow-up with questions about creators, storylines or character portrayals I have nothing to say but, “Cool.” Then change the subject and hope they have some good TV recs.
If you find yourself talking to me at a bar, you now know what strategy to employ.
It wasn’t until the new trailers came out, the ones for the first ever Black Panther feature film, that the conversation changed again.
“Who’s your favorite superhero?”
The space between their eyebrows starts to squish then rise.
Their pause is an offering. They’re gifting me the opportunity to change my mind. To say, “J/K! It’s really Captain America,” or Green Lantern, or Volstagg the Voluminous, or any of the hundreds of white boys available.
The modern superhero was born in Action Comics #1 when the world was introduced to the red and blue exploits of Superman. For almost thirty years, millions of kids grew up reading about hundreds of different costumed heroes and not once was there a black face behind the colorful mask. Not until 1966, when Fantastic Four #52 introduced readers to the Wakandan hero and his hidden African kingdom for the first time.
As much as I love T’Challa, I can’t imagine what finally seeing a face that looked like theirs must have meant to the African-American kids reading comics at the time. I can’t imagine it, because I’ve never had to experience it. Almost all the heroes looked like me to one extent or another. Accepting that T’Challa didn’t wasn’t hard. It’s easy to allow an exception when the world keeps assuring you you’re the rule. The image of a noble, strong, genius black man could never impact me the way it did, and still does, to a whole community that not only weren’t typically portrayed that way, but weren’t allowed to be portrayed that way.
Similarly, I love Wakanda. From the Jabari Lands in the north to the southern border with Azania, from the Great Mound to the Golden City. I love Wakanda the way I love Neverland, Hogsmeade and Mordor. It’s a fun, fantasy backdrop. A place I can study in maps and groan at discrepancies. Wakanda’s not just a fictional fairyland, though. It’s an alternate history. It’s a glimpse of a different Africa. An Africa that never fell to European colonialists, that was never touched by slavery, apartheid or the senseless massacres so much of the continent has suffered. An economically viable Africa, an intellectually envied Africa, an Africa that the West must put on their best suit and respect.
When Stan Lee and Jack Kirby first introduced the idea of a technologically advanced African nation, they knew they were subverting stereotypes (the Fantastic Four, the Avengers, even Captain America go on and on marveling at technology in the middle of the jungle in every early Black Panther appearance). The idea of an African hero wasn’t new. In fact, it was already an old idea when Superman debuted, but most African heroes, like The Phantom or Tarzan, were white. Lost lords raised in the wild jungle and using their fists to keep everyone civilized. Stan and Jack’s creation was more radical than just a black superhero, but a complete rewrite of the conventional Western narrative: “What if the guy fighting for justice, progress and civility in the jungle was actually an African!”
It’s still a powerful idea. Just look at any of the hundreds of think pieces on the subject since the Black Panther movie trailers started racking up eyeballs. It’s also an idea I can admire, but never feel. These are the greater accomplishments of my favorite hero, but they can never be the things that endear him to me. It would be hubristic, if not offensive, to even pretend that I totally get what the idea of an African nation untainted by all the other “gifts” of colonialism means to the descendants of the very people forever changed by those acts. It’s doubtful Stan and Jack themselves fully appreciated how beautiful an idea they created.
Does knowing this make it wrong for me to keep representing myself as a Black Panther fan? I have no idea. I just know this character is important to me, even if for less important reasons.
Like, I love his costume. Simple, powerful, mysterious and basic enough for a four-year old to try to replicate over and over with blue and black crayons. I love his name. I love the way he’s constantly three-steps ahead of his enemies, his allies and the audience. I love how he lost his father as a teen and became a man thanks to strong women. I love how that loss is always with him, but never defines him. I love how quick he is to punish those foolish enough to underestimate him (and it’s shocking how everyone from Doctor Doom to Tony Stark manages to underestimate him). These things are superficial, though. What I really love about Black Panther is his earnestness.
T’Challa wants to be a great king like his father, a great Avenger for the world. He wants to be a great scientist, a supportive romantic partner, the best brother, the best son and the best friend. The real bitch of it all is T’Challa has the skill, determination and discipline to be any of those things…just not all of them. T’Challa is a stage magician trying to spin too many plates and feeling personally wounded each time one falls. He keeps this earnestness, this disappointment in his own fallibility hidden behind the “world’s greatest poker face.” That’s what’s always resonated with me. That’s what makes him heroic.
Will I see any of these characteristics in the upcoming movie? I have no idea. Great superheroes, like all great characters, are malleable and can be interpreted in different ways by different creators looking to achieve different ends. I don’t know what we’ll see or how it may affect my relationship with Wakanda and its king, but I know my conversation script will need to be rewritten again.
It won’t present a framework for me to hang my life story on, but it’s a change I should’ve made years ago.
“Who’s your favorite superhero?”
“Black Panther! Who’s yours?”
* * *
After the movie comes out a lot of blogs, vlogs, and comic sites are going to start putting out their “Essential” or “Where to start” lists for reading Black Panther comics. A lot of these lists will include “Who is the Black Panther” by Reginald Hudlin and John Romita Jr. DO NOT READ “WHO IS THE BLACK PANTHER” BY REGINALD HUDLIN AND JOHN ROMITA JR. In fact, don’t trust anyone that tells you to read “Who is the Black Panther.” “Who is the Black Panther” is a story that starts with a 5th century African Warrior screaming to the sky “KISS MY BUTT, WAKANDA!” and then gets worse.
Start with Priest’s Marvel Knights or McGregor’s Jungle Action Black Panther series. Hell, start with Fantastic Four #52, it’s impressive how formed the character and his jungle home are in that first appearance.
Coates’s run is worth reading for the Brian Stelfreeze art, but Coates’s pacing is unfocused and frustrating. Like, T’Challa’s sister, Shuri, comes back from the dead with a whole mess of new superpowers and everyone reacts with a resounding, “Sup?”
Ooh! But The Rise of Black Panther mini-series by Evan Narcisse and Paul Renaud is off to a good start retelling T’Challa’s origin, so you could start there.
There’s also this… Oh, I’m sorry. Did you have someplace to be? Because I could do this all day.
P.J. Kryfko has published a dozen pieces of short fiction, written/produced two short films, and was featured in the Harvey and Eisner Award nominated comic anthology, Outlaw Territory (Image Comics, 2013). AintitCoolNews.com calls his work “atypical and original.” His Mom calls him “Handsome.” You can find him on Twitter @pjkryfko.