Antar: The Black Knight #1
Nnedi Okorafor (Writer), Eric Battle (Artist), Jason Scott Jones (Colours), Thomas Mauer (Letters)
18 April, 2018
A young slave is beaten by cruel masters. He takes the beating, believing that hardship will only make him stronger. Where does he get this strength from? His mother, Zabiba, better known to everyone as Runner. Fleet-footed Runner delivers messages far and wide but on one such journey, she encounters slavers and is captured. She is delivered to a king where she continues to be Runner even after her son, Antar, is born.
Despite Antar being the king’s son, his lineage as a slave takes precedence in everyone’s eyes. He is constantly reminded of his position by the slaves who help raise him in his mother’s absence, by the girl he is in love with, Dorcas, and, most of all, by his father.
Antar is given the lowly job of being a camel driver and he hates it. However, unlike the slaves around him, Antar is not ready to accept his fate. Little does he know that the path to realising his destiny will be paved in blood.
Antar: The Black Knight is a fictional retelling of the legend of Middle Eastern poet and soldier, Antar bin Shedad. The creators of the series have amalgamated the myriad myths and stories surrounding Antar and combined them for this five-issue series, presenting him as an Arab-African superhero “who has relevance today. Not in the sense that he flies, or wears a costume, but as a hero who fought for his family, for honor, and protected the powerless.”
Before I talk about the story, I have to say that I am not entirely sold on the art. Eric Battle’s landscapes are gorgeous and you get a feel for the geography of the Arabian Peninsula but his characters are not well drawn. The dark edges he employs fail to add expression to the characters’ faces and definitely do not help to distinguish them from each other. There are also a few panels at the end where I completely missed a character because of the odd, jagged outlines Battle used as a silhouette.
Jason Scott Jones’s colours bring a vibrancy to the story when events take place in the daytime. When the focus shifts to night, however, there are just too many dark colours on the page for the reader to figure out what’s going on. For the most part, one can gloss over it but there were a couple of panels where I was completely lost. This is not the easiest story to follow as it is, and the confusing art does not help.
When we met Nnedi Okorafor at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in March, she told us how she prefers to drop her readers into the middle of a story without any explanation or pandering to Western audiences. She does exactly that with Antar: The Black Knight. There is no title card announcing which country this story is set in, nor what ethnicity the characters are. Readers plunge headlong into the origin story and, though it can be disorienting at first, that is exactly how it is meant to be read.
As a first issue, this book does a great job of setting up protagonist Antar’s motivations, not just his surroundings. There is also some foreshadowing about his eventual rise as the Warrior Poet, which is subtle enough to pique one’s interest without overpowering the primary plot. Again, props to Okorafor for distilling months of research into a single meaningful panel.
What I found most impressive was that, despite this being the story of a male protagonist, Okorafor does not sideline her female characters, particularly Zabiba, who acts as a focal point of the story. She is given as much development as Antar, which is great to see in a comic book such as this.
When Okorafor was in Dubai, she mentioned how Zabiba had drawn her attention, but that there was hardly any information about her for Okorafor to draw from. Okorafor had to glean many details of Zabiba’s life from various sources, and she stated that she could and would be using artistic license to fill in the blanks. Whichever method she finally used to realise her vision, nothing in this story comes across as disingenuous.
Stories like this drive home the importance of diversity behind the scenes. Zabiba’s presence in this story could have easily been left out, or reduced to a single throwaway line, especially since Antar is the well-known hero here. But, by employing the skills of an African-American female writer, Zabiba’s story gets to enjoy the limelight alongside Antar’s. I am curious to see how the rest of the series pans out and how it treats Zabiba when Antar moves closer towards realising his dreams.
As a first issue, this is a good start. The story is interesting and the characters immediately draw you in. The art is definitely a let-down but a couple of re-reads should help clear any confusion that arises. I can only hope that the remaining four issues build on the strengths of this story and continue to give female characters meaningful arcs while fleshing out the male hero.