I don’t particularly enjoy superhero movies, and pretty much every single time I’ve ever finished watching one I’ve thought “I’ll never watch one of those again” (with the limited exceptions of that one about Wolverine dying and the Ryan Reynolds bro-comedy one (which I think has a sequel that I’ve never seen but would perhaps select if it was offered on a plane?)), but the amount of money that is spent on marketing these things – and the way in which mainstream cinemas (i.e. film palaces) are so economically tied to the success or failure of the latest superhero adventure – means it is deliberately made very hard to remember just how bad these films are when you’re not watching them. In my defence, I don’t think (unless you count James Bond as a superhero – which arguably he is) that I’ve seen more than one superhero movie in the cinema ever, and this is relevant because that one was Black Panther.
Superhero movies are the exact opposite – I think – of the kind of films that are worth seeing “on the big screen”.
With their disregard for directorial flare, for their over-reliance on CGI, with terrible writing, overacting and an incredibly off putting need to reference other superhero movies/characters followed by a grim pause for presumed applause, superhero movies tend to be the antithesis of what I look for in a cinematic experience.
They are best watched when you have the choice between a superhero movie or two episodes of The Big Bang Theory on a cheap transatlantic flight, or when you’re laying in front of a computer too hungover – but not depressed – to move.
Superhero movies are terrible examples of cinema as a form, lacking empathetic connectivity, devoid of artfulness and nuance and they reek of a failure to understand and use cinema’s traditional skills and merits.
Did you know, – for example – that in the vast majority of Marvel movies, the costumes are all CGI!? Apparently the reason for this is that CGI artists are not unionised, so therefore it cost the studios a tiny tiny tiny fraction of the cost to have all of their actors in head-to-toe-except-the-face green lycra, rather than have any irl costuming facilities and send all of that visual stuff overseas for design, rendering and application.
Like I said, I don’t like this type of film and other than a rep screening of Blade I saw at TIFF Bell Lightbox pre-pandemic, I can only think of one time when I’ve intentionally seen a superhero movie in the cinema, and that was Black Panther.
Black Panther was aggressively and directly marketed to leftie borderline-intellectuals like me with the – in hindsight sinister and patronising – marketing spiel that by watching this movie in the cinema, we would be directly signalling to major studios that Black-led films are not only commercially viable, but incredibly lucrative.
It worked, of course.
Black Panther is one of the most commercially successful movies of all time, and won three Oscars, which is crazy for a superhero movie. Then again, I don’t think the American Academy of whatever it’s called is necessarily a great arbiter of artistic merit, or of commercial viability- I think they tend to praise highly things that speak to their own mythologies about themselves.
I watched it in the cinema.
I didn’t think it was excellent – because it isn’t excellent – but I’m not too snobbish and intellectual to acknowledge that Black Panther has a very significant pop cultural resonance and significance due to its centring of Black narratives in what remains a predominantly white-dominated medium.
I think it’s interesting, I think… how… these things…
This relatively new Penguin Classics edition of early comic books containing the character of Black Panther is an interesting document exploring the beginnings of this character’s mythology.
However, although there are around 20 complete issues of comic books from the 1960s and ’70s included here, they are all Black Panther stories written by – albeit comparatively progressive – white writers, with a black artist (Billy Graham) added to the team around halfway through the run.
From having browsed the contents pages of the two other Penguin Classics Marvel collab books they put out this year, the Black Panther one is very different in that it contains far more chronologically released issues of the comic book than the other two.
So, rather than a selection of narratives spanning the course of a couple of decades – as there seems to be in the Spider-Man and Captain America (ewww that’s a horrible name for a superhero) books, Penguin Classics’ Black Panther selection introduces the character through two issues of Fantastic Four magazine, then includes 2 years worth of bi-monthly comics from almost a decade later.
In the interim, Black Panther had appeared in comic books named for/starring other characters many times, but September 1973 marked the beginning of the character being a “lead”.
So, what this book contains is an introduction to Black Panther’s backstory, after the character had already been introduced.
The way these comic books seem to have been released is with the impression and the idea is that absolutely everybody reading one of them is reading absolutely everything else that the publisher is putting out.
This is the same with those films, and that’s the reason why they’re so trite and frustrating if you don’t have any interest in watching 10 (or more) formally identical superhero movies in the same year. (I don’t want to – or need to – know why there’s a pause for applause after Samuel L. Jackson comes on screen or whatever.
These comic books being a lot older, though, means there are 60 fewer years of recurring characters and so on to be expected to recognise, but there is frequently a sense of disappointing looseness, of the writers and artists clearly aiming for a page count or total length to suits the size of the magazine, rather than the size of the story.
Some of the issues/chapters in this book are engaging and are fun and exciting – and in particular the sections that are set in the US rather than in the barely written Wakanda (a fictional African tech utopia), have aged less badly than the – again, relatively progressive – 1970s white man’s idea of an idealised Africa.
The introductions by Qiana J. Whitted and Ben Saunders offer a lot of information on the contexts of the character and the comics, but an essay included as an appendix – written by the lead writer across most of these stories, Don McGregor, originally as an introduction to an earlier [non-Penguin Classics] compilation of these stories – offers a much more engaging and much less rose-tinted description of the comics industry at the time.
McGregor’s essay, too, clarifies his intentionality regarding the progressive themes and topics that are implied – but not directly explored – in the text. There is, for example, hinted-at queer desire between two characters, and with the near-overt comments around race and identity, it’s good to see that these things were conscious and intentional. McGregor speaks, too, about the internal frustrations and difficulties he had in getting a heroic Black character its own magazine at a mainstream comic book publisher.
What the whole book ends up being, though, is quite a frustrating read: because Black Panther and Marvel itself as a brand remain ongoing and lucrative cultural products, there isn’t a very profound analysis of the weaknesses and hypocrisies contained within the text: there is also a failure to really justify or explore the repercussions of this character – and his fictional African homeland – being the initial creation of white men.
It comes across that the initial creation/inclusion of a recurring black superhero supporting character was 100% a marketing decision, though Don McGregor’s intentions may have genuinely been a little more exalted when he made Black Panther himself a lead.
It would been good – and culturally valuable – if this collection had taken a wider chronological sample of Black Panther comics to ensure there was more than one Black creative included here, especially as writer, as it’s not like there isn’t very forgettable material included here. There are some super dry sections, to be honest, with some of the comics being very repetitive and offering little in the way of character or narrative development.
That said, though, when things are tightened up, there are lots of emotive and exciting stories to be found, including the depiction of queer romance mentioned above, as well as a moving moment in the “final battle” between Black Panther and his arch-nemesis when their fight doesn’t end until there is an unexpected intervention from a child grieving his father who earlier perished in the crossfire between the two men.
Having never read any “classic comics” before, the quality of visual production and story construction is much better than I would have expected. I was half expecting these comics to look like shit and not really have anything going for them, but what you actually end up with is something that is often gorgeous on the page.
Bright, exciting and vibrant, with some – albeit indirect – discussions of significant and important ideas explored with – at least a semblance – of empathy and creativity.
This was a birthday present from my sister and if I had paid the £25 cover price myself, I feel like maybe I would have been a little disappointed, because the quality here is inconsistent, and better editing/selection could definitely have fixed that.
I don’t think that including so much material featuring Don McGregor’s half-baked and inconsistent idea of a fictional African country has any justification: it’s not well-written or imagined enough to be great for the reader, and it certainly doesn’t make Marvel look good either. There have to be – there are – better depictions of Wakanda than can be found in this book.
Would I read another Penguin Classics Marvel Collection? Yeah, yeah, I think I would, provided I had a job again and £25 wouldn’t feel like too much money for a book again, or if my sister (hi, if you’re reading!), buys me another one for Christmas.
It’s interesting, I suppose, to see how these cultural behemoths began and became the overwhelming things they have become.
Is it a good book, though? Not… necessarily…
The queen’s all done and buried, so I should probably do something with my life.
September 20th, 2022