February 11, 2010 by Korshi
I grew up on X-Men, and spent last year addicted to The Justice League, so I’m a major fan of cartoon superheroes. Hence I was surprised that I hadn’t heard about of Marvel’s adaptation of their Black Panther until Arturo R. García at Racialicious posted earlier in the week wondering why it hadn’t aired in the US yet. For a bit of background, BET, or Black Entertainment Television, is an American channel whose programs are aimed at an African-American demographic, and Black Panther, dating from an era when every almost black character had to have their origins signaled in their name, is one of the first African superheroes to show up in mainstream comics, and therefore an obvious choice for them to adapt into cartoon form. Not so obvious was the choice to premier it recently here in Australia on a channel called ABC3 which I didn’t even realise existed until this week. Luckily, shadowgostra has the whole six episode miniseries on his youtube channel, so I was able to watch it; here follows my spoiler filled review.
The first thing that struck me was the animation. A lot of people have commented on how it looks like a motion comic: The animators have taken drawings by the excellent John Romita Junior and tweaked them, apparently using a program something like Flash, so that mostly static drawings come to life, talking, fighting, leaping from buildings, et cetera. At first the effect is disconcerting, especially if you were expecting something like the slick Bruce Timm produced DC cartoons, but the effect grew on me. It gives the series an extremely distinctive style, and for the most part the format doesn’t constrain the action, which is tense and fluid. Remember that many of Japanese anime’s distinctive features were developed in response to low budgets and short deadlines, and Western animation is now imitating these very idiosyncrasies.
After the animation, and the very cool theme tune (glitchy, high-octane mbube), the next thing that sticks out is how adult the whole thing is, which is possibly part of the reason why it hasn’t aired in the US. The Black Panther is the king of a fictional African nation called Wakanda, and the plot (based largely on a recent comic arc by Reginald Hudlin) centres on the machinations of the US, led by Condoleeza Rice-alike Dondi Reese, and Belgian super-mercenary Klaw, as they try to plunder Wakanda’s mineral and technological wealth. From the get-go, this involves a great deal of violence: the first minute has invaders being speared, beheaded and their heads staked in the ground. The Black Panther is a satisfyingly baddass, righteous crusader, but unlike most cartoon heroes, he doesn’t scruple to kill when necessary, and spends most of the series seeking bloody revenge against the man who killed his father.
So fine, kids are used to violence these days; what might be more awkward for parents watching it with them is the scene in which a pair of villains visit a brothel, where the girls have apparently seen Pretty Woman as they “don’t kiss”. Hmm. Then there’s the politics of the show; heavy handed attacks on former colonial powers – Britain, America, Belgium, and France – and corrupt African leaders -in the guise of President Mbutu of Wakanda’s neighbour Niganda. The villains are unprincipled racists, from the US general who calls the Wakandans “spear-throwing savages”, to the Vatican-sponsored Black Knight who declared God is helping him bring Christianity to pagan Africa, to the Russian Radioactive Man who calls the Black Panther’s sister a monkey (just before she slices him in two satisfying pieces).
Now, this is a genre show, and complaining about heavy handed writing in a superhero cartoon is like complaining about faster than light travel in sci-fi; I enjoyed the world of Black Panther, politics and all. They’ve created an ‘ideal’ Africa, one that can look down on the materialism and sordid history of the West, and fight back on its own terms, and the conceit works. But I’m significantly to the left of most Americans, and I wonder how it will go down when/if it does finally air in its home country. One of the major plot points involves the American military recycling its mounting war dead as cyborg zombies, complete with a scene of them rising from flag-draped coffins. From what I know of American patriotism I predict this will not go down well.
So if you’re a comic loving leftie you may well love it, even if your knowledge of the Black Panther is as minimal as mine. It’s a fresh look at the Marvel universe (Storm actually has an African accent for once), and after six episodes I’m still hungry for more. If you don’t like comics, or lean to the right, you probably won’t like it, but in either case you should probably rethink your life. (J/K)
I award Black Panther 7.5 retractable claws out of ten.