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Sunday, April 24, 2011

Black Panther The Unfulfilled, Brain-Damaged Badass: Guest Post By Omar Karindu

(The latter is taken with permission from Omar Karindu, who wrote this during one of our PM exchanges at Alvaro's. Since it is both a great essay and ties well into the blog's overall themes, I asked if I could share his work.)

I've probably said this before in one of our exchanges, but the mentality at the IM board can also be found at the Black Panther and (especially) Superman boards. There are also a few Batman fans around the world who behave the same way; some of them even seem to end up writing at DC. Certain kinds of characters seem to come from a place of privilege -- framed initially as physically or mentally "unbeatable," with high-status jobs or massive wealth -- and that attracts a type of fan who wants an unreflective power fantasy. This is especially unfortunate for Superman, given the wonderful way his early adventures positioned him as a genuine hero of the underprivileged with a very progressive agenda for the times.* The superhero at its inception is a utopian fantasy, even if we need to deconstruct that fantasy in order to get real meaning and social value from it.**

Our discussion at the IMMB also made me turn back to to Priest's Panther run, partly because the board's reaction to T'Challa briefly outwitting Stark smacked of not only what we've been discussing, but a host of unfortunate implications tied to American forms of white privilege. Looking at it now, I wonder if Priest's run deserves even higher estimation than I gave it at the time it was first published: prior to issue #50, when Executive Meddling derailed the title, it's actually a striking example of the deconstruction you mention -- T'Challa behaves like the omnicompetent, stoic, and secretive superhero type who is always ahead of the curve.

It doesn't bring him easy victories and a life of luxury. Instead, he pays dearly for it; when he decides to behave like an ubermensch, beyond the morality and concerns of his friends and allies, he doesn't get the easy forgiveness Bruce Wayne endlessly receives. Instead, he suffers serious, lasting physical consequences and, more importantly, loses his moral compass entirely and ends up butchering a teenaged girl in what amounts to a political misunderstanding. One of the running themes is that T'Challa fears this --at one point, Storm tells him his ill-considered reliance on stoicism threatens to turn him into another Magneto -- and by the end of he essentially has turned into a well-intentioned extremist/knight templar like Magneto because of his desire to control everyone else for their own good, and his refusal to show what he considers human weakness. The run as a whole is a sort of sideways commentary on the Batman-as-living-god take on "characters of privilege.****

Running that arc with the Panther does have some of its own Unfortunate Implications, of course. It may have worked better when Charlie Huston did it with Moon Knight. But Hudlin tended to make the character into little more than a race-lifted imitation of the fannish vision for white privilege characters I mentioned above, and I really don't think that's a solution any more than, say, the resort to forms of anticolonial violence that mirror colonial uses of violence has ever been a solution to colonialism.


* I may never forgive Whitney Ellsworth for his refusal to let Lois figure out the secret and react appropriately, maturely, and even heroically as Joe Siegel intended. 60 years later, that somewhat more egalitarian premise for their relationship been proven to work quite well.

** Boring, condescending lecture I give freshmen on utopia, please skip : not a road map to utopia, since super-powers don't really exist and simple force doesn't really work, but rather a fantasy image with which one can codify and express the values that we, in our world where eutopia is outopia, should aspire to more pragmatically. The vision of utopia is unattainable, but it also provides license to benign and progressive aspirations, license I think is necessary. Western culture's loss of the utopia as a genre -- almost none have been written since the early modern period -- is not necessarily a good thing. Utopian visions do need to be interrogated fiercely, however; part of their value is also that they invite such critiques, that utopian narratives require dystopian responses, which in turn require reconstructive utopianisms. in other words, dialectic. (Freshman lecture is now over.)

*** I can't remember if you'd already cited it, but if not you should add Priest's Panther to your list of characters who defy neurotypical norms; the character ends up with a brain aneurysm late in the run as part of the title's deconstruction of superhero tropes. In this case, it's a realistic consequence of the standard "underdog" superhero fight where Our Hero rallies from a savage beating and wins in the end.

***** David Foster Wallace did this so much better than anyone else. I miss him.

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