This article was written and originally published for ChristandPopCulture.com
Cards on the table: I’m new to the comic book craze. Besides the recent blockbuster movies, I never had any real interest in comics. It wasn’t until the Black Panther feature film released, coupled with my newfound favorite writer, Ta-Nehisi Coates, writing the latest series, that I felt it was time to connect with these onscreen heroes in their original form. I always thought comics were for geeks, nerds, intellectuals, and/or kids. Maybe they are and I’m just now beginning to embrace who I really am at the cusp of being a thirty-year-old black man. But as I’ve been reading more of Black Panther, I’m convinced there’s a comic book superhero and/or villain out there for everyone.
If you’re the comic book veteran who’s cynically sighing and eye-rolling at my frenetic giddiness, so be it. I own my boyish excitement with honor. Now slide over and let me join you. If you’re the skeptic superciliously sneering, I’ll leave room for you to join the table. And if you think you’re too old for comics, you’re not. There’s never been a better time to start reading comics.
[pullquote align=right]Comic books have the ability to be informative portholes for everything ranging from pop culture, science, and history, to governmental, economic, and social structures.[/pullquote]
Reading comics takes everything there is to love about superhero movies, and challenges fans to engage those beautifully illustrated pages and characters with intimacy, intelligence, humility, and vulnerability. Amid these fascinations, Marvel’s comics are also entertaining. They are embedded within a world readers are familiar with, so getting lost in a Marvel story isn’t too far removed from reality. But that world is just far enough removed to grant us perspective, which can help with our society’s increasing anxiety. Therefore, reading Marvel comics can help us think deeply and truly about life rather than aimlessly dreaming up our own fantasies. They help refuel the necessary hope to engage our world on the sensible plain of optimism and realism.
Reading about, opposed to only seeing, superheroes in their worlds, enliven the characters we see on screen. When comic creator and writer Seth T. Hahne was asked what he believed were some benefits to reading the comics, he said, “Comics allow for (and sometimes encourage) thoughtful participation while films more often demand that thoughtfulness be performed after the fact.” He also noted that, “while employing the use of the visual that makes movies so easy to absorb, comics allow that story to unfold at exactly the pace the reader chooses.” So in the process of reading, participants aren’t rushed through a story, but can take their time understanding the self-reflective qualities that unfold while reading comics.
But when you do finally get to see those heroes on the movie screen, you engage them with an expectation based on an established relationship that was intimately developed through time and thoughtful contemplation within the comic pages. Carefully considering how these characters develop on paper brings them to life in a whole new way on screen. Similar to book and novel adaptations transformed into movies, comics can either fill our hopes and expectations or quell our excitement with disappointment, but in an entirely different way than when we only meet them for the first time in a cinema.
For example, I heard many criticisms of Agent Ross playing an important role, akin to the “white savior” complex, in the Black Panther film. But did you know the majority of the Black Panther story is narrated by Agent Ross in Christopher Priest’s run in the comic? This might explain Ross’s pivotal role in the film. Here’re some additional comic nuggets to ponder: Did you know Ramonda is actually T’Challa’s stepmother? Did you know there’s a possibility for Shuri to become Black Panther in the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Or that we might not have seen the last of Killmonger after all?
If you’ve read any of the previous Black Panther runs, you know information like this gives director Ryan Coogler much more to work with in the scope of the Black Panther story. I never knew why comic book fans geeked out at Comic-Con early trailer viewings until I learned this stuff. Understanding backstories like these develops a joyous anticipation for future movies.
Apart from the preemptive nerdy predictions about future movies, comics augment the reader’s intelligence. They have the ability to be informative portholes for everything ranging from pop culture, science, and history, to governmental, economic, and social structures. I was surprised how culturally relevant and nostalgic these comics are.
In Black Panther & the Crew, readers witness King T’Challa singing Frank Ocean’s “Nikes” while researching information about a foe. In issue 17 of Priest’s run, we see the big green guy—The Hulk—dancing in a New York club to “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang. These types of cultural relevancies connect to the real-world readers in a way that can make them feel like their lives and the things they enjoy truly matter.
But just as fluidly as Marvel’s comics can navigate pop culture, they can also communicate scientific information in a more realistic and plausible way than most of our science teachers could. For every student who asked, “How am I going to use this in real life?” T’Challa answers by showing how it could be used in his battles with Hydro-Man (Issue #14, Priest) and Tony Stark (Issues #41–#45, Priest). These enlivened versions of how chemicals, molecules, and elements interact can challenge readers to check for accuracy and learn something new in the process, while creating a deeper connection with readers who already own such knowledge.
If the sciences are a bore, the social sciences offer perhaps the most realistic engagement for comic readers. The complexities all governments—monarchies, democracies, republics, etc.—must navigate is placed in front readers to contemplate. When the U.S. government determines the Avengers need governmental oversight in the Civil War series, readers must process a series of very timely questions: Is government oversight good? Should government answer the basic questions of morality? If the government controls the movements of the Avengers, how do they successfully determine the Avengers’ jurisdiction? For what purposes should the Avengers be called upon for help? Along with a host of other ethical questions, the situations presented force fans to consider their own political positions.
Perhaps my favorite social science lesson is taught by Erik Killmonger, Black Panther’s cousin and arch nemesis. As a high school economics teacher, I was very appreciative of Killmonger’s world economics lesson about global markets (Issue #18, Priest). Killmonger explains to Monica (T’Challa’s ex-girlfriend) how he plans to disrupt the Wakandan economy and cause in-fighting among the citizens––thus putting T’Challa in a precarious position as king. He explains how global economics operate with a very crafty illustration about a kid, Billy, who finds a quarter under his sofa cushion. Killmonger explains what that quarter actually represents on a microeconomic scale, but also how what Billy does with that quarter affects global markets. From there, he discusses how corporations try hiding as much of their profits as possible by investing in stocks and thus making more money with their investments, before bringing his point around full-circle to explain why he disagrees with T’Challa’s economic stance. In the comic story, Wakanda’s economic value is based on its vibranium exports. Overall, Killmonger believes by reducing the Wakandan leader’s (Black Panther) value, he conceals Wakanda’s value (again) and will thus save Wakanda from being taken over by foreign economic entities. Without spoiling it, let’s just say Killmonger underestimates King T’Challa’s knowledge of global markets, and I’m trying to find a way to weave this issue into my own economic lesson about international trade.
Real world connections like these (and many more) make these beautifully illustrated fictional stories mirror the story God authors. Although we lack true superheroes and villains with other-worldly powers, our world is full of humans mirroring both: some attempting to do good in the world, some wreaking horrific havoc. The stories are layered, complex, challenging—just like God’s story unfolding here on earth. Comics take us out of what’s real and into a fictional universe, even if only for a bit. We get a break from all our own chaos to see others working through troubles and difficulties, surviving to fight another day. Isn’t this why we seek out stories in the first place?