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Hip-Hop and Comic Books: Rich Histories Join Forces in “Black Panther”

| Thursday, September 22, 2016

hiphop_bannerLindsey Meyers

Hip-hop, perhaps more than any other musical genre, prizes nostalgia. It recalls those days in grade school when the guys would sit around the lunch-table and freestyle … or at least try to freestyle. Many common subjects of rap music are clear evolutions of childhood attitudes. Notably, the notorious self-aggrandizement that many rappers exhibit is a justifiable attempt to talk big in a world that makes you feel small. That’s why rap has incorporated, almost since its inception, a steady undercurrent of nostalgia. (Though today, it might be wrong to call it an ‘undercurrent’ with artists like Chance the Rapper and Joey Bada$$ appealing directly to youth sentiment.) Unsurprisingly, this grownup-childishness comes out aesthetically as well as thematically. The most apparent example of these surviving youthful interests is the enduring relationship between hip-hop and comic books.

It makes sense that a group of young, often socially ill-fitting, adolescents would turn to larger-than-life superheroes to feel some sense of agency in the distinctly un-empowering journey that is childhood. That’s why you have Wu-Tang Clan members Method Man and Ghostface Killah drawing straight from Marvel comics with aliases like Johnny Blaze and Tony Starks, respectively. And why you have British hip-hop legend MF Doom wearing a mask inspired by the supervillain Doctor Doom. Underground hip-hop icon El-P even had comic book artist Travis Millard design two of his own album covers.

This isn’t just a one-sided relationship, though. Eminem, in addition to having an “otherworldly” comic-book collection, starred alongside the Punisher in a single-run Marvel comic published in 2009. And each of the past two summers, Marvel Comics has released a series of album covers inspired by classic hip-hop cover-art, but featuring their heroes. Similarly, the group Run the Jewels, which includes the aforementioned El-P, was ecstatic to see Marvel unveil a few variant comic covers that were inspired by the art from their first, self-titled release.

Comics, not unlike rap music, have gone from niche fascination to mainstream phenomenon. Kanye West and Iron Man are both global superstars and larger-than-life personalities. One of the hottest artists of the past few years is a grown man calling himself Fetty Wap, and Americans shelled out more than $300 million to see a movie with a talking raccoon and a mono-clausal tree-man (“Guardians of the Galaxy”). Suffice to say it should hardly be surprising that National Book Award-winner, recipient of the MacArthur “Genius Grant” and prominent African-American thought-leader Ta-Nehisi Coates decided to take on the position of writer for the Marvel’s latest series of “Black Panther” comics, which started running last year.

Coates is, seemingly, the impact of both hip-hop music and comic books coming full circle to create a feedback loop of artistic influence. He grew up a fan of both media, and has gone so far as to say that hip hop is “the biggest influence on my aesthetic as a writer,” in an interview with Rolling Stone. Being a fan of hip-hop and Coates, as well as someone experimenting with comic books, the “Black Panther” seemed like a perfect fit for me as a reader; the concept provides a conduit for all these influences coming into direct contact. On Sept. 13, the first “Black Panther” collection came out and I finally picked it up.

Put bluntly, the book is incredible. It is easily the best comic book that I’ve read (although I’ve only read three), and has a mind-boggling amount of literary heft for a publication that probably has fewer words than this article. Coates and artist Brian Stelfreeze have done a brilliant job creating the incredibly developed African nation of Wakanda, a place that, sadly, doesn’t have many real-life examples to use for reference. Appropriately, the Coates describes his collaboration with Stelfreeze in a hip-hop context, claiming that “He’s the DJ. I’m the Rapper.” Together, they have matured the youthful struggle that flows through hip-hop. T’Challa, the titular Black Panther, is battling to maintain control over a kingdom which is at separate points falling apart and rebelling. Some call for democracy, some want him to protect the villages, some want to maintain Wakandan tradition, but all weigh down the crown on his head.

“Black Panther” embraces the vulnerability that other comics attempt to bury. For that reason it’s hard to tell whether this “Black Panther” will have the same resonance with young hip-hop heads that other superheroes have had, even with its familiar roots. It is undoubtedly brilliant … but this story may have grown out of the exact qualities that made its predecessors so influential. If it does happen to catch, I’m curious to see what sort of music Coates’ “Black Panther” inspires. After all, hip-hop is all about nostalgia — and this “Black Panther” is something startlingly new.

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