Recently, I’ve been interested in the narrative point of view in various texts and the ways that authors position an audience within the narrative. On one level, some African American authors like William Melvin Kelley place audiences in the perspective of whites: “The Only Man on Liberty Street,” “The Servant Problem,” and A Different Drummer. Other authors such as Ernest J. Gaines, James Baldwin, Alice Walker, and Gwendolyn Brooks do this as well, and this is a topic I want to explore further in my research. Along with these examples, I also want to examine the ways that comic book writers position readers. I’ve written about this some with Christopher Priest’s use of Everett K. Ross to narrate his Black Panther run. Today, I want to look briefly at the ways Jack Kirby and Stan Lee position the reader in Black Panther’s first appearance in Fantastic Four #52-#53 and some of the reader responses to this initial introduction.
The narrative arc of Black Panther’s introduction is fairly straightforward. As the king of Wakanda, T’Challa provides the Fantastic Four (FF) with a ship and an invitation to his homeland. The FF respond, and when they arrive, T’Challa battles them, seeing if he can best the super team. Ultimately, he does defeat them, and after the battle, he tells the team that he lured them there to see if was ready to face his arch-enemy the Dutchman Ulysses Klaw. In #53, T’Challa tells the FF. about his origin, Klaw appears, and then they defeat Klaw.
This over-simplistic summary leaves out some important aspects of the story arc that I want to address. Thinking about the audience, we must think about the initial opening panels of issue #52 and how those panels serve as an introduction to the story. After the opening splash page that shows a larger-than-life Black Panther menacingly groping for the fleeing members of the FF, we come to the opening panel that immediately foregrounds the possible assumptions that readers may have about Africa.
The Thing (Ben Grimm) delivers the first dialogue in the issue, asking Reed Richards when he found time to construct the ship that they are flying around in. Richards informs him, “It was an unexpected gift . . . sent to me by an African chieftain, called . . . the Black Panther.” Shocked by this news, Grimm asks, “But how does some refugee from a Tarzan movie lay his hands on this kinda gizmo? ‘N why would he give it to you?”
Embedded within Grimm’s questions are two preconceived notions of Africa that readers may hold. For one, Grimm draws upon stereotyped images of Africa such as Tarzan to depict T’Challa (whom he has never met) as someone who would merely live in an “uncivilized” society populated by animals and degradation. Along with this, he questions how T’Challa actually “[laid] his hands on this kinda gizmo.” In this construction, Grimm denies T’Challa any sense of agency in the invention of the ship. The insinuation here, of course, is that someone from any country in Africa could not construct such a technologically advanced machine. Through this assumption, Grimm, and the audience, partake in the idea that as an American, and by extension white in the case of the FF, he is somehow intellectually and culturally superior to T’Challa.
Counter to Grimm’s blatant racism, Richards’ scientific curiosity causes him to appear more open minded about T’Challa and his inventions. He continually wonders how the ship maneuvers, and even when they return to the Baxter Building to meet with T’Challa’s emissary, his inquisitiveness overpowers any possible indications that he views himself as superior. When the emissary pulls out a small communication device, Richards thinks to himself, “But it’s so small . . . ! Can he actually transmit a message half-way ’round the globe . . . with that?” Richards questions the functionality of the device, not the inventor. T’Challa does not enter the thought, unlike Grimm’s comments earlier. In this manner, Richards works as a counter to the overt comments and questions of Grimm.
Learning of the FF’s acceptance of his invitation, a panel appears of T’Challa, dressed as the Black Panther, crouching and saying, “The Black Panther shall greet them . . . as they have never been greeted before.” Here, T’Challa’s pose looks menacing, as if he is a villain and not an ally. At this point, readers do not know what to expect from the trip. Will T’Challa be courteous? Or, will T’Challa prove to be an adversary? Based on the opening page and this panel, readers expect the latter.
During their fight with the Black Panther, Grimm begins to tear everything apart, and the Native American Wyatt Wingfoot (who I will discuss next post) intervenes, telling Grimm, “It’s patently obvious that a superior intellect built this electronic jungle.” Wingfoot’s statement directly counters Grimm’s earlier questions and the readers’ assumptions by stating, in a matter-of-fact manner, that “a superior intellect” has bested the supposed smartest man in the word, Richards. Instead of questioning T’Challa’s intellect or capabilities, he recognizes that T’Challa’s intellect is unsurpassed.
The issue concludes with T’Challa removing his mask and telling the FF his true intentions for calling them to Wakanda. In issue #53, T’Challa tells the FF about Klaw’s attack on Wakanda and how Klaw murdered T’Chaka. As T’Challa relates the story, Grimm interjects telling him that he knows how the story ends because “yer talkin’ to a guy who seen every Tarzan movie at least a dozen times! An I can recite ya half’a the Bomba, The Jungle Boy books by heart. So yer little bedtime story ain’t impressin’ me!” Like the opening panels of #52, Grimm relates what he knows about Africa, which all arises from popular media that presents it as an “uncivilized,” dark continent. T’Challa’s story, of course, counters this belief.
Just as T’Calla, Wingfoot, and Richards challenge the preconceived notions of the reader and serve as counters to Grimm’s assertions, so does the visual representation of Klaw’s transformation after T’Challa shoots his hand off. The panel after T’Challa shoots Klaw’s hand, we see an image of Klaw holding his hand, and Klaw’s face looks distorted and grotesque. In many ways, it looks like an ape. (We see the same type of expression and drawing later in the issue as well.) This image directly counters stereotypical images that depict Blacks as animals, specifically primates. This reversal places the colonizer, not the colonized, as the grotesque, deranged individual. In this manner, Kirby’s drawing of Klaw serves to challenge the readers’ preconceived stereotypes and perceptions.
Along with these aspects, we could, and should, talk about the ways these issues comment on colonialism. However, I do not have time to do that today. Next post, I will address some of the reader responses to these two issues. I have done this some already, but I want to look at both the negative and the position responses. Stay tuned next Tuesday for more on Black Panther.
What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @silaslapham.