I’ll be honest: I’m tired. Outside my front door is
generally exhausting the last couple months, as life tends to get. Comics have
kept me grounded. As I read I get to lay in bed or on the couch and see nothing
but the page a few inches away. A couple weeks ago, I had a stack of five books
– more than I almost ever buy in one week – and it was exceptional.
When a book like Black
Panther comes around I get happy. There is tons of praise for it, what with
Ta-Nehisi Coates writing and the character playing a critical role in the
Marvel universe shake-up that was Secret Wars. It’s not the action that gets me
though. It’s not even really the storyline. It’s the humanity behind it that
gives a jolt to every other aspect of the presentation.
I just finished listening to a podcast with the creator of
Blackish, Kenya Barris, and comedian Pete Holmes. A large portion of the
conversation was about simply getting beyond what’s black, because saying
something is “an incredible black _________” is the kind of passive micro
aggression that conveniently and quietly degrades it. Such statements denote
the work as primarily or exclusively for a black audience, which, at its core,
isn’t the purpose of any art. Anyone who has created something knows it was
never first and foremost for someone else. It’s for the creator, to lay to rest something that’s itching to be put down.
In the podcast Barris speaks to the Universal Specificity.
The Universal Specificity is something so particular that it doesn’t matter who
consumes it; anyone can relate to it.
The example he uses is kids in Iowa listening to Snoop Dogg and simply getting it, simply feeling authenticity
in their being as they heard the songs for the first time.
That’s my experience with Black Panther. It’s dense material. It’s kind of hard not to be
when the first line is inner monologue from the title character, saying, “I am
the orphan king.” Starting with a great first line is Writing 101. Anyone will
tell you it’s not just recommended but necessary. Kids learn a crutch early on
called a “hook,” but the people who continue to write – the ones who need to
lay something to rest – make it an art. Their first lines always make sense,
always set up the world you’re about to walk into.
So, sure, that density is Universally Specific to me because
I tend to get in my own head, and seeing a man in an incredible position of
power doing the same shows me great delicacy. But what’s more is how the story picks up in the
midst of conflict and slowly gets revealed to and pieced together by the
reader. There are three factions ultimately fighting for how Wakanda should be.
T’Challa, as king and Black Panther, is trying to hold together and restore the
nation’s faith. Two other organizations feel the time has come for something
new, and that there needs to be ash for the phoenix to rise. They’re ready to
burn their beautiful bird of a country to get it.
Think. Close your eyes and think. Breathe slowly. Then
answer this: how often do you realize something is happening in your life not
at the beginning, but in the middle or even after? How often do you feel like
you’re playing catch-up with yourself? How often do you know others might be
right but you can’t ignore that you feel more
That’s Black Panther.
As a reader you’re granted a phenomenal prerogative. You get to choose who you
want to win in the fight for Wakanda and not live with the consequences. You get to see each faction’s missions and actions
and how much they really align with their intentions. And once you make your
choice you want that faction to win. After all, they’re your faction. You identify with them on an inherently personal
level. But the most beautiful thing is you can’t do it without legitimately
understanding how the opposition came to be and why they believe in themselves.
You can’t do it without having some
sort of empathy.
Black Panther is a
gripping book because life is gripping. I don’t want to treat it like an
anomaly for black creators or black characters or black stories. I just want to
recognize the value of its humanity – its Universal Specificity – and, as a
result, as a story that’s imperative to read.
Black Panther #7
comes out today. Serve yourself and start reading.