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[Literature Review] Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Black Panther Comics

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Black Panther comics tell us the stories of the african superhero Black Panther, also known as T’Challa, the king of Wakanda. One outstanding feature of the comic series is how comparatively little text it uses to narrate the story. Needless to say, Black Panther demonstrates a very visual way of telling stories due to how effective the images are for story-telling. I will offer an analytic breakdown of how Black Panther tells a coherent narrative using, at times, more images than text.

First, let’s talk about the images themselves. The stories in comics are told by using comic panels, with each panel containing an image to show the reader what is happening. According to Scott McCloud: “Master comics artist Will Eisner uses the term sequential art when describing comics”.(McCloud, 5) Will Eisner calling comics “sequential art” is very noteworthy here. Comic panels are essentially images arranged in a sequential order, and reading from one panel to another indicates a passage of time, and the content of the images inform the readers what is happening as the story progresses. Black Panther did an outstanding job in utilizing this feature of using the content of sequential images to tell the stories to readers.

So let’s talk about the content of images used in Black Panther. Throughout reading, I’ve noticed the images put emphasis on three things: the environment, the action, and the character.

The character is the most straightforward one. The images illustrate the outward appearances, so we have a method of identification, which will be useful in keeping track of who the characters are as the story progresses.

The environment is essentially the surroundings of the characters, and a setting of which preceding events will take place. This could be in a prison cell, foreshadowing a rescue; or a jungle, setting the stage for a fight between two characters; or Necropolis, the city of the dead, where we might possibly get backstories of deceased characters. Note that environment in this sense does not have to be within a physical location, but it can also be used to illustrate the inside of the mind of a character. For example, in the very beginning of the first issue, we see T’Challa with 3 panels in the back, each in a different location, with a different character saying something discouraging, such as “you have no people”, “you been cast out” and “you have lost your way”. Clearly these are visions inside T’Challa’s mind, used to portray that T’Challa is struggling to be the king of Wakanda, and something might be wrong with the country. By illustrating, in detail, what the characters’ surroundings are like, Ta-Nehisi Coates creates this immersive experience where we have a full understanding of the environment of which the characters are in, be it physical, or psychological.

As for action, this is the part where the importance of the images’ content really starts to shine. As stated before, comics are sequential art, and comic panels tell us what happens as time goes on. This feature allows artists to illustrate motion, and consequently the action and behaviour of characters, so that the readers can literally see, in detail, what the characters are doing. Interestingly, images that serve the purpose do not even need any text at all, as the images does all the story-telling in a visual way. An example of this is Ayo and the Midnight Angels rescuing Aneka in issue 1. This event took 19 panels to illustrate, but there were barely any lines said by any of the characters. This demonstrates how comics can do such a good job in telling us stories in a very visual way. The feature of illustrating movement by using motionless images is important in a superhero comic like Black Panther, where a lot of fighting occurs, because of conflict and combat being very important elements of the story. Hence Ta-Nehisi needs an effective method to show us the fights. Luckily for him, detailed comic panels are exactly the things he needs.

Clearly, images in comic panels are very useful in providing the readers with information to know and understand what is occurring throughout the story. In fact, because comics are so visual, reading comics is a similar experience to watching a video, or a movie. However, now that we’re finished with the images, let’s take a look at the text.

The text in Black Panther comics are either dialogues, monologues, internal thoughts, or, occasionally, stating the location in the beginning of a scene, such as “The Great Mound” in page 2, issue 1. One noteworthy thing is that aside from the words that tell you the name of the location in the start of a scene, every single word in the comics is said by a character in the story, either out loud, or internally, and there is no omnipresent narrator. This means that we cannot know something that none of the characters in the story know, which means the characters are our only source of knowledge. This allows us to have an interest in understanding the characters better throughout their words and thoughts in order to understand the story better. Character speech can also serve as exposition to help us know what is happening. For example, in issue #1, throughout the conversation between Ramonda and a Dora Milaje, we learn that Shuri, T’Challa’s sister, is missing, and Ramonda intends to execute Aneko, despite fully knowing Aneko’s loyalty, yet Ramonda strictly insists on acting based on the law. What’s most noteworthy is that the text can be entirely unrelated to the images that the text boxes are in. One example is in issue #2, where T’Challa fights soldiers in the Nigandan border region. However, in those panels that illustrate fighting, there are text boxes that write about T’Challa’s past stories, mostly when he was throned as the king, which have seemingly nothing to do with him fighting soldiers. So, it is impressive how Ta-Nehisi can tell two separate stories at the same time. Of course, if we removed all the images and only read the texts, we would have a much harder time understanding the story, if that even is possible, so text may not be the primary method of telling stories in Black Panther, because it doesn’t need to be. It serves as a supplementary device to assist the images in Black Panther. There isn’t a lot of text, because not much of it is needed. In fact, too much text is actually a bad idea, as it forces the reader to put too much attention to reading instead of viewing the images, so too many words actually serve as a distraction, as the images already suffice as the primary story-telling device.

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One feature that Ta-Nehisi Coates uses in Black Panther is the changing of perspectives. Despite the comic series being titled “Black Panther”, the story is not all about T’Challa, but is in fact also about many other characters. Changing perspectives allow us to view the story through multiple angles and viewpoints. For example, in the great mound, when T’Challa was facing the rioters, there is a panel that shows the rioters facing the fourth wall with an angry look on their faces, and their eyes being completely green, as if they were possessed or controlled of some sort by Zenzi, since T’Challa suspected her to be the one who turned the rioters against him. However, later on, there is a scene with only Zenzi and Tetu, and Zenzi tells Tetu that “I revealed to them, in all their agony, all their deeper, truer selves.” (Coates, 14) This means that the rioters harboured the hate and rage inside them, and Zenzi merely brought those feelings to the surface. This was confirmed in Issue 2, T’Challa said “I was wrong. My enemy is not a beguiler. But a revealer. She brings out of us all of the awful feelings that we have hidden away.”(Coates, 18) This change of perspective from different characters allows us to see more of the full picture, and allows us to gain more knowledge about events and characters.

And that explains how Ta-Nehisi can use more images than text to effectively tell the stories in Black Panther. The detailed emphasis on the important parts of the content in comic panels, the supplementary text, and the changing emphasis offer the reader much information for understanding the stories told.

© 2021 James Guo

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