Monday, August 29, 2005

Wakandan paradise

Black Panther #1 - 2

The problem with the Black Panther is that he's a tyrant. T'Challa, a Lee - Kirby character, is monarch of the African state of Wakanda and a regular hero in the Marvel Universe. Like all monarchs, he has a distinct preference for doing whatever he wants with his Kingdom, and not having the slightest intention of letting the people of Wakanda decide their own fate. Absolute monarchs (not these days a typical form of government in Africa, composed mainly of republics) tend to rule with a combination of cant, flummery and suppression. While his personal attributes are favourable, he is at heart no different to Victor Von Doom, sometime dictator of Latveria. Yet while Doom is rightly reviled, a succession of writers have allowed T'Challa to continue to be a hero.

The greatest Black Panther writer was Don McGregor, who turned Wakanda into a battleground. T'Challa's prolonged absence, caused by sojourns with the Avengers fighting space monsters or whatever, caused disaffection, which led in turn to civil war. McGregor, drawing on contemporary (1970's) African experience, made Wakanda a revolutionary state, with a weakened T'Challa facing defeat at the hands of an insurrectionist, the appallingly named "Erik Killmonger", who I prefer to call "N'Jadaka". Panther's Rage, which ran in Jungle Action, was essentially a reactionary (though excellent) story, in that the rebels were painted so badly that it was difficult to see why anyone would follow them. McGregor, in emphasising T'Challa's impotence and anger, was the writer who best got inside his head. Wakanda, rich in minerals and modernising rapidly, had much in common with some of the African states of its day.

By Christopher Priest's time, Wakanda was a much richer and much less divided country. While I enjoyed Priest's run, I think in making a bungling white American, Everett K Ross, the fulcrum of the series, Priest failed to make much effort to explain T'Challa's mind, and none to explore the contradiction of T'Challa being a good man, and yet a tyrant.

If T'Challa was truly so laudable, he would recognise that his position is reprehensible, make Wakanda a democracy and assume a role as a purely ceremonial monarch. In the absence of this, you are entitled to wonder what would happen to a pro-democracy Wakandan with a printing press. Would T'Challa's police be turning up at their door?

If they are not going to give up the kingship, then writers have to find a mechanism to explain and excuse T'Challa's behaviour. The most common one, used by apologists for dodgy regimes everywhere, is to say that cultural differences mean that the Wakandans are happy with their system, revere their monarch and wouldn't want democracy if it was offered. Personally, I think the ability to get rid of your rulers is a fundamental human right.

Failing the cultural differences excuse, we are really down to the divine right of monarchs, which says that monarchs are special people set aside from the common herd who rule because they are superior. The mechanism by which this superiority is first acquired and then passed down through the line is not usually explained, principally because it's so much horseshit. Comic book writers often show a remarkable affinity for this idea (witness Chris Claremont's obsession with the expansionist, tyrannical Shi'ar imperium). The further from America, the more likely we are to see absolute monarchy being portrayed favourably.

Which brings us to the latest incarnation of the Black Panther, written by Reggie Hudlin. Hudlin's Wakanda is one of a society at least a match for the west, and in some ways superior. He retcons out the old Wakanda in favour of one which has lived in splendid isolation for centuries. Apparently not appreciating that setting up your borders with the mediaeval version of minefields and submachine guns is an act of violence against your neighbours, Hudlin demonstrates the Wakandans' lack of desire to interact with the outside world by slaughtering a small party of warriors, allowing one to take back knowledge of the Wakandans to his people. Installing fear, in other words.

He then has some racist would-be Victorian conquerors being butchered by superior Wakanda firepower, before cutting to the present day White House, where a named military advisor calls the Wakandans "jungle bunnies" in front of Condoleeza Rice. Hudlin finishes off the first issue with an episode (one I don't recognise, but my knowledge of these things is far from complete) from World War Two where T'Challa's father, T'Chaka, defeats Captain America in hand-to-hand combat.

In issue two, Hudlin explains his version of Wakandan politics:

The Black Panther is the ruler of Wakanda. It's a spiritually-based warrior cult, sort of like being pope, president and head of joint chiefs of staff all at once. The Panther is a hereditary title, but you still have to earn it. Thje series of tests that a Panther must pass are so arduous that only candidates who've had special training from childhood can qualify. But just so everyone gets a chance, once a year, there's a day when any Wakandan can challenge the King for the throne. So as royal lineages go, it's a lot more of a meritocracy than, say, England

Where do I start with this lot? First off, the United Kingdom (not "England" - do your research properly, Reggie) is a parliamentary democracy. Our monarchy is little more than ceremonial these days, and, in the massively unlikely event that they tried to increase their powers, they would be promptly removed by our elected representatives. Not like being pope, president and head of joint chiefs of staff at all. And can anyone explain why this job description doesn't amount to temporal and spiritual dictator?

This "yearly combat" device is so unlikely and foolish that you would hope Hudlin is repeating an earlier plot, and hasn't made it up himself. So the monarch not only has to be the toughest person in the kingdom, they have to defeat every challenger consecutively in the same day. Could even Muhammad Ali have taken, say, George Foreman, Joe Frazier and Larry Holmes one after the other? If any monarch was insane enough to implement such a scheme, the monarchy would change hands each year, with the new monarch to be one of the ones who had left their challenge till the end of the day. The only way the Wakandan monarchy could hope to survive such an ordeal is to use massive amounts of performance enhancing drugs to the point where the combat is just a sham anyway. And is muscle power such a good determinant of rulership ability, anyway? Wouldn't this have left Mike Tyson in charge of the USA? It also seems to be a good way of ensuring that no woman could become ruler of Wakanda.

So there you have Hudlin's Wakanda - xenophobic, misogynistic, despotic and violent. Believe it or not, Hudlin's trying to make Wakanda sound like an attractive place.

What strikes me most about Hudlin's Wakanda is that it's not African. While McGregor placed Wakanda firmly in the revolutionary climate of the post-colonial 1970's, Hudlin's Wakanda, shown on a map to be in the Great Lakes Region (scene of an ugly decade-long conflict where avarice, war, civil war and genocide have merged together), floats serenely apart from its neighbours, buoyed on so much wealth that it doesn't even pump its own oil. No state remotely like Wakanda exists, or ever has existed. So what is Wakanda?

The answer lies in the politics of the African-American population of the United States of America. Wakanda as presented is a black superpower. While skin colour is of little importance in African countries (like,say, Rwanda) with negligible white populations, it is of extreme importance in America. There is a line of African-American political thought going back at least to Malcolm X which expresses a desire for solidarity and advancement which can be realised by the growth in power of African states. Wakanda symbolises what the African-American community should aspire to. This, the internal politics of the USA, is how to see the two incidents of brutal white racism depicted in the first issue. Now personally, I don't mind racists shown for what they are in comic books, but when two of them turn up in one issue, you've got to suspect an ulterior motive by the writer. Hudlin is showing is that the white, western world was racist and anti-Wakandan a hundred years ago, and continues to be so.

This has led to accusations of (anti-white) racism again Hudlin, and you can go and join in the whole bun-fight at Hudlin's website. Myself, I don't think that these events amount to anything like racism, and, anyway, once you use that word everything just deteriorates into a slanging match. But they are partisan and deliberately designed to be contentious. And I question the White House racism scene. I don't know much about George Bush's cabinet (nor, particularly, do I want to know), but I find it difficult to believe that such blatant racism should occur. If it is based on a real incident, then Hudlin is fully justified in writing about it. If he's just making it up, then this is little more than a reprehensible slur.

What Hudlin is doing, I think, is myth-making. He is attempting to make Wakanda a symbol of power, and his primary audience is emphatically African-American, not African. There is nothing new in this. Captain America is a symbol which can view either as patriotic or nationalistic, depending on your passport. Iron Man was a Commie-killing arms dealer. Cloak and Dagger were a symbol of eighties-style racial harmony.

This type of use of political symbolism is, if not uniquely American, then certainly typically American. Americans appear to find nothing unusual in characters such as Captain America or USAgent who literally wrap themselves in the flag. In Britain this overt use of the flag would be met with deep unease - while the Union Jack has had a revival the past few years, there is a long-running association of the flag with extreme right-wing politics. For all that he wears the Union Jack, Captain Britain couldn't be more American if he had a baseball cap and a Bronx accent. In his desire to use political symbolism, Hudlin is showing how American he is.

So, if we are looking at it metaphorically, then Hudlin's portrayal of the Panther (symbolising, by proxy, black America) defeating Captain America, implicitly here the representation of white America, then we can see why some people got upset. It doesn't bother me in the slightest - Captain America's symbolic American importance has often been used by writers in giving him victories, and an unexpected slapping is long overdue.

If Hudlin can bring in a new African-American audience of comic book buyers, then that is all to the good. But it all feels like an unstructured lecture by a shouty anti-racism campaigner. The problem with these issues isn't in what Hudlin's trying to do, it's that it's not being done very well.


Anonymous Tom Smith said...

Round of applause, that was an excellent review.

1:37 pm  
Blogger Captain Qwert Jr said...

It's a little deeper than that, and also a little shallower. It's part of the liberal impulse toward building a better society and dissatisfaction with our self-interest-based government. You can see this in Wonder Woman too.

Alos take into account that comic writers, as I've observed in my long time comic-reading experience, are not very bright poltically speaking.

4:24 am  
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