Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new Black Panther series brings T’Challa, the king of Wakanda, back to his home country in the wake of a devastating attack.
The Wakandan people, still reeling from their homeland’s near destruction, have lost faith in their king and are beginning to question the legitimacy of the royal family.
Coates has spoken candidly about how his run of Black Panther isn’t just a comic book featuring good guys punching bad guys, but an exploration of how power flows through a society. The Panther himself does much of that unpacking himself. But the idea really comes to the fore in the subplot about his bodyguards, the Dora Milaje.
In the original Black Panther comic books, the Dora Milaje were an elite, all-female squad of highly skilled warriors sworn to protect their king.
Tradition held that women were picked from villages throughout Wakanda in order to strengthen national unity and build political ties between various families. Not only were the Dora Milaje fantastic warriors, they were all also potential wives for the Black Panther.
In an interview with J.A. Micheline for Vice, Coates explained that in a modern context, some of the ideas behind Dora Milaje might read as problematic.
“To be frank with you, though, something about their origin sort of bothered me when I thought about the real world,” he said. “Given what I know of men in the real world and what I know of men throughout history, that’s a situation that’s ripe for abuse.”
In Black Panther #1, the Dora Milaje are still present, but in the Panther’s brief absence, they’ve changed. While T’Challa was gone, it’s explained that some of the Dora Milaje stepped forward to protect the kingdom when their ruler could not. One of the women, Aneka, took matters into her own hands when the law would not.
For following Wakandan tradition and her sworn duty to kill those who would put others in danger, Aneka’s put in prison. It’s here that Black Panther #1 livs up to its promise of exploring Wakanda’s shifting power structure.
Rather than leaving Aneka to wallow in prison for a justifiable crime, one of her fellow Dora Milaje, Ayo comes to free her. After making their escape, Ayo explains that she’s ready to leave their lives as servants behind because a part of her has died.
“Sometimes people are willing to let go of parts of themselves or their desire to have certain rights if you can give them security,” Coates said of his decision to make Aneka and Ayo lovers. “But all this chaos has happened in Wakanda, despite the fact that this is the place they said would never be conquered, Wakanda doesn’t even seem to have security that they were promised. The king has failed to give them that.”
In a single issuee, Black Panther both introduces the first queer, African couple to mainstream comic books and sets up a template for how the sexist, troubling backstories of long-standing female characters can be flawlessly course-corrected.