Thursday, June 23, 2005

Black Panther: The Death of T'Chaka

The story of how T'Chaka, the father of T'Challa and the previous king of Wakanda, died was first told in Fantastic Four #53. T'Challa relayed the story to the visting superheroes (with the Thing responding unusually insensitively; "I can recite ya half'a the 'Bomba the Jungle Boy' books by heart! So yer little bedtime story ain't impressin' me!').

As originally told, Ulysses Klaw was a greedy scientist who came to Wakanda to take its vibranium. He intended to use the element, which only existed in Wakanda, to power his sound technology and become wealthy. King T'Chaka confronted him and told him to leave the country, but Klaw ordered his men to shoot the king and his soldiers. T'Challa then ran to see what had happened, and found his father dead. So he stole one of Klaw's sound-blasters in order to avenge his father. He found Klaw's men ransacking and torching his village. He fired the sound-blaster at them twice, destroying Klaw's hand and successfully running away the invaders.

When Christopher Priest retold this origin in Black Panther #5, he fleshed it out a bit (better dialogue with fewer exclamation points, for instance), and made one significant retcon. Instead of Klaw's men gunning down T'Chaka and his Wakandan troops, Klaw himself used the vibranium-powered sound-blaster to annihilate them.

Now Reginald Hudlin has given given this story a serious overhaul, as described in April's Black Panther #3. Klaw is now a "high-level Belgian assassin," whose great-grandfather was killed during a failed Belgian invasion of Wakanda in the 19th century. Since his ancestor was killed by a Black Panther, he seeks revenge. He decides to make his strike when T'Chaka accepts an invitation to participate in the Bilderberg Conference in Europe. Klaw hides himself under the floorboards of T'Chaka's room days in advance, and then at the opportune time, erupts through the floor and uses an assault rifle to gun down T'Chaka and one of his sons. Before he can kill everyone in the room, T'Challa recovers a gun and shoots Klaw in the arm. Klaw then escapes out the window.

Pretty radically different, no? And I'm not alone in disliking the change. It's not merely because I dislike change, either. I quite like the alteration that Priest made, for two primary reasons. First, it makes the Wakandans look less foolish. A great king and his army being felled by some goons with guns is not the stuff of legends. An apocalyptic weapon, powered by their own treasured natural resource, isn't nearly as demeaning. Second, it makes for a stronger parallel when T'Challa defeats Klaw by using the same weapon that was used to murder his father. Thus, the small change not only remedied a flaw in the original origin, but it added to the drama of it.

I see neither of those benefits in Hudlin's revamped origin story. Some have argued that security at the exclusive conference (or Wakandan security, at least) shouldn't have failed to notice a man hiding under the floor. I suppose that may be true, but it's within my suspension of disbelief, and that's not what really bothers me about the changes. Rather, it's all of the symbolism that is sacrificed.

Previously, T'Chaka died a leader, in the course of protecting his nation from invaders. Klaw was there to ransack his kingdom of its most valuable natural resource, and kill any Wakandans who got in his way. So T'Chaka, being the king and protector of Wakanda, took to the front lines in defense of his nation and its people. And he died for his courage.

Now, T'Chaka died as a mark. He didn't fall in the course of fighting invaders in his homeland, but instead while entering a hotel room on a different continent. He didn't die for his bravery; he was ambushed unexpectedly. And while he still didn't go easily, he wasn't fighting as a king for his nation; his interests were confined to the people in the room. In short, all of the noble and kingly aspects of T'Chaka's self-sacrifice have been stripped away.

Similarly, it used to be the case that T'Challa made a similar choice to put himself at risk. As a young teen, he could've retreated to safety and let the trained soldiers do the fighting. But after seeing his father dead, his people murdered, and his kingdom assaulted, he put himself in harm's way so as to fulfill his duties as the king of Wakanda. He succeeded, and saved Wakanda in the process.

But now, T'Challa made no such choice. He was in the hotel room when Klaw opened fire, and was a target himself. He did not place himself in harm's way for the sake of his country; he found himself trapped and facing inevitable harm, and reacted largely in self-defense. He saved the remaining people in the hotel room, including his pregnant mother, but that pales in comparison to a young king saving a nation. The new version simply doesn't give T'Challa the same heroic self-sacrifice that he exhibited before. A hotel room shooting is fine for a boy who loses his father, but it's lacking for the story of a prince who ascends to the throne of an exotic kingdom.

Those are the big reasons why I dislike the retconned origin, but there are some smaller reasons too. I preferred it when Klaw's motivation was vibranium, and not revenge. Seeking retaliation for an ancestor's war death gives the Black Panthers and Klaws something of a 'Hatfield-McCoy' relationship, which I just personally think is a kinda lame reason for a king to die.

Omar Karindu also pointed out that the changed circumstances carry a potentially disturbing message for T'Challa. Under the old origin, it was partly the threat of invaders and Wakanda's inability to adequately defend itself that drove T'Challa to look toward the outside world. As king, he opened up new diplomatic channels and initiated trade so as to better his nation from within, and thus protect it from future threats.

But as told by Hudlin, Wakanda was completely untouchable up until T'Chaka chose to leave his nation's borders. And then within hours of arriving in Europe, the king of Wakanda was assassinated. What does this tell young T'Challa? After all, if his father had merely continued to shun the outside world, he would never have been at risk. T'Challa is not encouraged to reach out to the rest of the world; the lesson he's been taught is that Wakanda was better off when they kept to themselves.

And that's about it on Hudlin's treatment of T'Chaka's death. It lessens T'Chaka's nobility and T'Challa's heroism, it turns the reason for T'Chaka's death into a joke, and it teaches T'Challa the exact opposite lesson in leadership. Not what I would call an improvement.


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