Nonfiction used to be my least favorite literary genre. Then I began teaching Capote’s In Cold Blood and saw the genre from a different point of view and truly appreciated what it had to offer. Now, it seems like all I read is nonfiction--Rothfuss & Cline notwithstanding. However, one can take only so much nonfiction in literature or in life before some means of escape is desired and deemed necessary to save one’s sanity.
Such was the case for me whilst poring through The Witches: Salem, 1692 and related searches on documents related to the infamous Salem Witch Trials. While a fascinating read, I found myself too engrossed and unsettled by the parallels of then and now. As a nation, we’ve obviously not learned from the past and are erroneously repeating it with consequences likely to stretch to the seventh generation.
To turn my back on realities past and present, I flocked to comics. The print kind; the celluloid incarnations to which I’d been taking in unhealthy amounts via multiplex and Netflix alike just weren’t cutting it. At the top of my list was the latest incarnation of Black Panther by acclaimed writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. I had the impression going into it that the writing would be among the greatest possible in any universe, and I was not incorrect. But I was incorrect in thinking it would take me away from the world that was and the world that is.
Ingrained in the dialogue and narration of Black Panther #1 are obvious parallels to the world we know and live--obvious to me, anyway, as no one in my circles has taken me up on offers to peruse the comic, let alone engage in thoughtful discussion of its contents. I’ll not entertain any speculation or conjecture as to why because of the very reason that it would be speculation or conjecture. Still, given the popularity of Marvel’s screen presence, I have to say: I expected more from many of my peers. And better. But I (sort of) digress.
So I carry on in the notion that Coates is using his present station to illustrate parallels in the struggles of both the imaginary Wakandans and the very real residents of the region where Wakanda sits on the African continent, as well as those on the other side of the Atlantic. (Semi-intended pun.)
But I’m left wondering if Coates’s subtext may be easily missed, somewhat masked beneath the beautiful illustrations by Brian Stelfreeze and colorings by Laura Martin. As Samuel L. Jackson’s comic book-obsessed (spoiler alert!) villainous character Elijah laments in 2000’s Unbreakable:
I believe that comics, just at their core now... have a truth. They are depicting what someone, somewhere felt or experienced. Then of course that core got chewed up in the commercial machine and gets jazzed up, made titillating -- cartooned for the sale rack.
The intended message may get lost in translation--or worst, in the editing process. Granted, such garbling of a message may enable a comic to appeal to a broader audience, bringing in bigger bank, but at what cost?
Jackson’s character raised some very valid points a decade and a half ago in advocating for the need to take comics seriously--which made casting Jackson and his distinguished vocal talents so choice. A thing should not be judged as “childish”and unworthy of attention just because it is rendered in pictorial form.
Similarly, comics and the motion-based media comics inspire are not necessarily ideal for children. While visually appealing, the message (written and illustrated alike) can be easily lost on any lacking the mental maturity to appropriately absorb and process what is seen, what is read. Coates’s Black Panther, indeed, is visually appealing but offers so much more beneath the outer mask of marvelous illustrations. While Black Panther #1 did provide me the means of temporary escape from the realities of nonfiction, the themes and issues addressed in the comic’s roughly two dozen pages connect to a reality experienced by so many, connected to us all. May we have the wisdom to recognize it and the maturity to deal with it responsibly.