In Panel Discussion, Jeremy Writebol considers how the latest comic book releases intersect with the Good News of Christ. This piece may contain spoilers.
When I was a child I reasoned as a child, thought like a child, and read comic books like a child. Now that I’ve grown, I’ve put away childish things. Comic books, however, are not always “childish things.” Marvel’s recent release of the serial comic Black Panther proves the reality of that claim. When an award-winning, intellectually sophisticated, well-reasoned, and compelling writer moves from the more highly vaunted places of literary art to the common and, dare I say, banal forms of storytelling, one of two things has happened. Either the storyteller has lost their skill and is scrapping out work just to make a living or the storyteller has mastered a medium and seeks to place other media under their foothold. The story must be told, and told in as many ways as possible. For Ta-Nehisi Coates, I suspect the latter to be true.
As an author, he’s won the National Book Award for his 2015 memoir Between the World and Me. His work for The Atlantic is some of the country’s most popular and engaging journalism. He has written well about the racial and societal injustices of our day. Now he adds “comic book writer” to his résumé, which to many might not seem like a step, intellectually, in the right direction. But that might be the very reason he’s done it. He has a story to tell and the way to influence the masses isn’t always to go up the intellectual ladder, but down it. If, by telling the story of the hero Black Panther he can influence and inspire another generation, and a segment of society that might not pick up more “sophisticated” works of literature, then he’ll have achieved his goals.He wants to see if the comic book can handle the load that we often, and only, attribute to higher forms of intellectual activity.
Even so, what we find in Black Panther may not be what we were expecting or looking for. Initially, I was confident that he would continue and develop his Between the World and Me narrative dealing with injustices, reparations, and the body. Some critics have determined that this story is just another piece of racial propaganda. Coates would have us think otherwise. As he stated in an interview with Wired, “I have a venue to express my political thought. This isn’t my chance to talk about #BlackLivesMatter in comic book form. This is not a propaganda sheet. This is supposed to be exhilarating, fun to read.”
And perhaps that’s the exercise that’s drawn Coates as a journalist and author to penning a comic book narrative. Can you have serious, adult-world conversations through a medium that most have given over to juveniles? Can the great questions, debates, and issues of the day be discussed and presented through a visual medium that is predominantly associated with simple sentences and onomatopoeia? Maybe Coates is out to just give us a summer blockbuster sort of comic — easy on the brain. Yet the tensions of Black Panther #1 reveal that Coates’s ambition is for more than just bubblegum serial comics. Coates wants to wrestle with the great questions of our society.
While Black Panther #1 is merely a set-up for the rest of the series, significant themes appear in the first pages. A kingdom that once was undefeatable is now weakened and on the verge of breaking up. Can a proud monarchy rule a technologically and intellectually superior nation? Gender roles, chauvinism, sexual identity, and the right of justice all begin a dance together. And while all the big questions exist, the personal drama of the heart and family is unraveled as well.
All of this leads me to suspect that Coates isn’t — as he said to Wired — so much out to have fun nor is he out to push a philosophical agenda. It seems to me that Coates is testing the weight of a medium. He wants to see if the comic book can handle the load that we often, and only, attribute to higher forms of intellectual activity (i.e., books). If nothing else, this is an exercise in literary load-bearing. Yet, I don’t believe this is just an experiment. Coates understands that to influence a community and another generation, one has to communicate through the media they embrace.
Between the World and Me was a powerful memoir written as a letter from Coates to his son. But Coates wasn’t just writing to his son so that he’d understand the nature and beauty of the black body. He was also writing to show the rest of us the disparity between growing up in America having white skin versus growing up in America having black skin. And being the semi-affluent, white, American male that I am who likes to read New York Times bestsellers, I read it. But how do ideas like injustice, reparations, totalitarian regimes, and racism get dealt with and communicated to the 13-year-old who isn’t reading Pulitzer-nominated books?
In 2014, Time ran an article titled “Study: The Number of Teens Reading for Fun Keeps Declining.” According to researchers:
75% of white children get read to every day, while only 66% of black children do and only 50% of Hispanic children. That disparity can translate into educational differences as well. In 2013, 46% of white fourth graders were reading proficient, while only 18% of black students [were].
If you’re going to influence an entire generation of teenage students, the majority of whom are not proficient at reading when they reach the fourth grade, how do you influence them?
If it is to be effective in reaching the next generation, then each generation of the community of Christ must answer a similar question. This is where the struggle with contextualism in the Church today has created such deep battle lines. Perhaps, in the way that Coates is testing the comic book medium, the Church should test and support various media as well to engage, retain, and advance the message of the Gospel. I’m not advocating replacing the Scriptures with a comic book, especially in our practice of worship and gathering. However, I am saying that alternative media — comics, films, and other forms of literature and the arts — should be picked up by the Church for the Gospel’s sake. Our best writers should be tasked with testing the waters of different media to tell the story to a new audience.
With this new run of Black Panther, we find an entry into influence. While the story of “A Nation Under Our Feet” is in its infancy, the capacity to exchange one medium for another and still maintain powerful influence is the alter ego that Coates wears. For at least the near future, this secret identity will grow Coates’ audience while simultaneously shaping the skill of multi-medium mastery. The question remains, though: can Ta-Nehisi Coates be both leader and hero at the same time?