Black Panther: World of Wakanda #1-5
Roxane Gay, Ta-Nehisi Coates (Writers), Alitha Martinez, Afua Richardson (Artists), Rachelle Rosenberg (Colorist), VC’s Joe Sabino (Letterer)
While Roxane Gay’s name holds a certain shiny promise, it was not her alone that drew me to Black Panther’s World of Wakanda. I was initially drawn to this series because of my dissatisfaction with Black Panther and my deep desire to read the Midnight Angels’ story. In fact, when discussing Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Black Panther with a friend, I told him, “I’d rather read a story about only the Midnight Angels.” Only a few months later, my wish was fulfilled when Marvel released World of Wakanda written by one of my favorite feminist authors and critics, Roxane Gay.
The Midnight Angels, Aneka and Ayo, are introduced in Black Panther #1 as two fugitives who leave the Dora Milaje—the group of women warriors who devote themselves to serving and protecting Black Panther and Wakanda’s royal family. Ayo helps Aneka escape a death sentence for enacting justice upon a village chieftain who uses his power to imprison and sexually abuse women and girls, and two become the Midnight Angels in order to love each other freely and defend those who fall through the cracks of Black Panther’s protection and Wakanda’s social net.
World of Wakanda occurs just before (#1-4) and during (#5) the events of Black Panther #1. The comic features women, predominately queer women and women of color, both in its pages and behind them in its creative team. The series follows Aneka, a captain in the Dora Milaje, and Ayo, a new initiate, as they navigate their romantic feelings for each other, defend Wakanda from various attacks, and ultimately decide to leave the Dora Milaje and go rogue. The story centers the experience of two queer black women warriors who fiercely love their country and each other, fight for those Wakanda has forgotten, particularly women and the poor, and challenge the traditional structures of the Dora Milaje, such as the expectation that the women willingly offer themselves as potential wives to Black Panther. I love and respect this series for the way it portrays a believable, non-fetishized, moving lesbian romance alongside action-packed scenes in which a community of women are the real warriors and protectors of Wakanda, not a single male hero.
Gay’s writing smoothly falls into the rhythm of the serialized comic and avoids some of the lengthy exposition that plagues the early Black Panther issues as Ta-Nehisi Coates experiments with and adapts to the medium. Dialogue, rather than description, propels the narrative forward for the most part, and well-timed thought bubbles add depth and complexity to the characters, illuminating subtle nuances, hidden meanings, and unspeakable desires. Gay creates romantic anticipation early on through Aneka and Ayo’s flirty banter and competitive quarrels. Their tension finds beautiful release through humor, like the line, “Stop with this nonsense of marrying T’Challa! I see how you look at me. You would sooner marry a shoe than a man,” in #4. Gay sustains interest and uncertainty throughout the series as the two grapple with larger questions of challenging tradition, navigating the pressures of work and a relationship, and outing themselves to their superiors and peers. The central point of dispute between Aneka and Ayo, Aneka’s sense that she is betraying her duty to make herself romantically available to T’Challa and her desire to hide her and Ayo’s relationship, becomes tedious at times as it is returned to again and again from the moment the two become involved. Overall, Gay complexly and artfully stitches together the narrative through quick-witted humor and touching moments of sincere intimacy.
Alitha E. Martinez’s art beautifully zooms in and out, guiding the reader’s gaze, highlighting subtle shifts in mood and drawing attention to moments that might otherwise go overlooked. Her portrayal of Ayo and Aneka’s first kiss in #2 highlights the erotic energy of the moment through an intimate close-up. She refuses to fall into exploitative sensationalism and the traps of fetishism or scopophilia, as sometimes happens with the portrayal of female sexuality, particularly that of queer women and women of color, in comics and media. The characters refuse the reader their gaze in these moments; they only have eyes for each other, which creates a distance that allows the reader to look on without necessarily becoming an active participant in the erotic moment. Martinez’s use of asymmetrical page and images that burst from the panels immediately caught my attention and interest. The comic largely refuses the traditional comics grid, and Martinez’s dynamic use of panels and angels creates montage-like pages that can quickly portray information and create momentum and anticipation.
In addition to being a pleasurable read, both visually and verbally, World of Wakanda is important to comics and is important to me because of its representation of queer love that challenges compulsory heterosexuality and fierce black women warriors who refuse to follow blindly those in power (i.e. Black Panther) who are willing to risk the most vulnerable in the nation for the sake of “the greater good.” It is an incredible mistake and loss that Marvel hired a new creative team, ditched Aneka and Ayo’s storyline in issue #6, and cancelled the series after the sixth issue. The series was followed by Black Panther and Crew written by Coates and the poet Yona Harvey, who collaborated on a mini-comic on the childhood and early life of Zenzi in the back of World of Wakanda #1. This important, brilliant series was also cancelled be Marvel after six issues. Despite its brief run, World of Wakanda is compellingly written, beautifully illustrated, and altogether needed, missing, and missed in comics.