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Read the foreword by Nnedi Okorafor Black Panther under:
My journey to writing the big black cat started with a fat orange cat.
Comics have always attracted me. Even before the word, it was the black line that drew me (pun intended). It started when I was about seven years old in the early 80’s with . . . Garfield. My father was an enthusiastic one Chicago Sun Times Newspaper readers, and every day he sat at the dining table and read them. As I hung out with him, I noticed that there was a comic page every day. The family circus, hello and lois, Bloomsbury, Calvin and Hobbes, mummy, Ziggy– there were so many that I enjoyed. And, oh boy, there were pages of comics on Sunday, and they were in colour! I loved these little stories told in pictures. But I became most obsessed with Garfield.
It was more than the hijinks and jokes. There was something about those dark lines, how they snaked and swirled to create images, and how those images merged with the “drawings” of letters that were words, communicating thoughts and ideas with the images. Even before I wrote stories in prose, I marveled at the dance of symbolic representations of sound and image.
Still, I didn’t get into comics until much later in life. When I was a kid, I used to visit the local comic book stores. I was interested and so, yes, I would go in there. I had seen boys at school with comics and their colorful covers with titles in electric looking fonts. The excitement of these boys and their flimsy books intrigued me. And since I was very little, I had always dreamed of flying. Heroes in cloaks with super powers were definitely in my realm of wonder.
However, when I push open the comic store door, the bell at the top of the door rings and then something problematic happens. I’d like to compare it to the moment Luke and Obi-Wan enter the bar, or the record-breaking western moment when the stranger enters the saloon. The comic book store was always full of white boys; The person behind the counter was always white. None of that bothered me; I grew up in a white neighborhood. What bothered me was her reaction to me. The stare and stare.
I walked in slowly, trying not to meet anyone’s eyes. But the silent examination and the feeling that I had invaded a place where I was not welcome would be so strong that I would leave soon after. Also, I wasn’t familiar with comics as they sat on the shelves, so I didn’t even know what I was looking for. Not to mention the fact that when I looked at all the covers I didn’t see anyone black or female or outside of a male gaze.
It was the late 80’s. I was then between eight and twelve years old, the child of Nigerian immigrants, an athlete who played tennis and excelled greatly. I navigated through a lot of blatant racism, prejudice and xenophobia. I knew when to avoid a void, even if I didn’t fully understand its depth. Comic book stores remained an unfriendly place on multiple levels for many years. I can’t stress this enough: being white and male was such a privilege if you loved or wanted to love comics.
My discovery of superheroes didn’t come until I was nineteen and paralyzed by complications from spinal surgery while doctors were trying to correct my acute scoliosis. That’s a lot crammed into one sentence, I know. I wrote a whole book about it Broken Places & Space. I was a semi-pro tennis player and track and field athlete with severe scoliosis that was getting worse every year. I was eventually told that I could either have spinal surgery to fix it, or become crippled at twenty-five and have a much shorter life due to compressed organs. When I had the surgery, I was among the anomalous 1 percent of patients who mysteriously responded to surgery with paralysis. So in nine hours I went from being a super athlete to being paralyzed from the waist down. I had lost my super powers.
It was months before I felt my legs again (and the doctors didn’t know if I would until it started to happen). After a month in hospital and another several weeks of rigorous physical therapy, I got out of my wheelchair and started using a walker. Eventually I graduated to half a walker, then a cane, and finally just my own two legs. But that summer, when I was still using the walker, I spent a lot of time in front of the TV. And that’s when I discovered the X-Men. I especially liked Storm, who could fly. But the one that intrigued me the most was Wolverine because he was so angry and had a skeleton that was unbreakable. As a 20-year-old who had just lost her superpowers and was now trying to figure out who the hell she was, I was empowered by that discovery. It was the first time I understood why so many loved superheroes. The first superhero comic I read was wolverine.
I continued to consume comics through graphic novels, including Persepolis, A contract with God, Boneand two more iconic feline tales in The Rabbi’s Cat and We3. I read these while doing my second MA and then my PhD. I came to other superheroes through Grant Morrison beastman and vixen and Alan Moores Guardian. And then years later, when I was a professor at the University of Buffalo, I found out about a country in Marvel’s Africa called Wakanda and I said, “Hmmm, interesting.” I thank Ta-Nehisi Coates for introducing me to King T’Challa presented. Yes, yes, I was late, but we can’t always be on time.
Write Black Panther: Long Live the King (2017-018) was a wonderful experience. I first got into it by getting a corner of my eye on King T’Challa and the country of Wakanda. I am Igbo (a Nigerian ethnic group) and there is a common saying among the Igbo: “Igbo enwe eze‘, meaning, ‘The Igbo have no king.’ A series of democratic societies made up of small independent communities, Igbos have historically had no centralized government or kings.
I grew up hearing that phrase, and besides being an American, any kind of monarchy gets my side eye of disapproval… even a mythical one. Then it became clear to me in writing Black Panther, I could influence him and his country. I was able to start a conversation directly and be heard. It was like visiting a country for the first time, not as a tourist but as a diplomat. I couldn’t be passive during my visit and that made my visit even more interesting. I had to listen to, get to know and speak to T’Challa and the people and the land of Wakanda.
Black Panther and Wakanda occupy a powerful place in the Marvel Universe. I’ve always viewed Wakanda as a true return of African Americans (the direct descendants of enslaved Africans during the transatlantic slave trade) to the African continent. Because you can never go back to the past, you look to the future, and that’s where the reconciliation was made. . . at least the beginning of one. There is a sense of home and belonging Black Panther this is solemn. One can claim Wakanda as a space and make an African connection.
One of the reasons I agreed to write T’Challa, Shuri, the Dora Milaje and Wakanda was because I wanted to develop that bridge further. I focused on bringing T’Challa to the common people of Wakanda, and later, when I wrote Shuri as Black Panther, I took her to the rest of Africa. Comics are indeed powerful. King T’Challa, Black Panther’s cloak, and the land of Wakanda have all evolved so much over the decades. I’m looking forward to what’s next.
Nigerian writer Ben Okri once wrote in his book birds of the sky, “Africa’s happiness lies in its longing for the future and its dreams of a golden age.” I think this is true both on the continent and in the black diaspora beyond. Wakanda forever.