In a lot of comics circles, “continuity” has become a dirty word. At over 60 years young, the connective tissue of a shared Marvel Universe is frequently seen as a tremendous barrier, or a blockade preventing entry and enjoyment of comics. All too often, continuity is something to be managed or avoided.
There are plenty of valid arguments for the death of reliance on continuity. Marvel superhero comics can absolutely get bogged down in the nitty gritty of the past. Harder still to vindicate, when you look at the consolidated, concise storytelling of a creator-owned Image series, or the fresh up-and-coming Black Mask Studios, the deep and unwieldy history of superheros feels like a hostile demand for time that readers simply do not have. Ask a new reader if they’d rather check out ordered volumes of Saga or thousands of Spider-Man comics (across dozens of series titles), and only the few, the proud, the web-slingers will have a hard time weighing the pros and cons.
Yet, there are those of us who fell for shared universes in the first place due to the connections and never-ending history that only exists in the medium of comics. This is perhaps why it’s so thrilling when shared universe history is leveraged to benefit a new series, as it is so effectively in Ta-Nehisi Coates, Brian Stelfreeze, and Chris Sprouse’s Black Panther.
The Coates and company run is good for a variety of reasons (narrative philoso-poetry, Wakandan government as a confrontational mirror into modern politics, the impossible status-lift of Thunderball of the Wrecking Crew), but its high esteem for continuity stands out.
There’s a (not unsubstantiated) fear when a comics “outsider” takes over a series that they’ll forsake what came before. As a writer, Coates finds the balance between telling a new Black Panther that hasn’t been told, and more importantly, one that could only exist in the context of the character’s comic book history.
Truly, “A Nation Under Our Feet” loses its footing without the past. From issue number one on, readers are confronted with images of Namor flooding the Golden City (Avengers vs. X-Men), Doctor Doom invading Wakanda (Dark Reign / Doomwar), and Thanos & The Black Order razing the nation and assassinating their Queen (New Avengers / Infinity). Indeed, the references to Wakanda’s defeats and invasions become a recurring catchphrase, to the point that characters toss off “Namor, Doom, & Thanos” like it’s a well-known single catastrophe in Wakandan history (or better still, a well-known folk rock group that I would 1,000% listen to). History doesn’t disappear; it defines the shape of things to come.
References to previous comics are one thing (nearly every comic reader has been exposed to examples of editorial asterisks calling attention to previous issues), but it’s navigating the *impact* of this history that makes “A Nation Under Our Feet” so compelling. For decades, Wakanda has remained the unconquered nation, with the Golden City of Birnin Azzaria withstanding all invasion efforts. Reginald Hudlin makes a strong point of this Wakandan history in his opening story arc with John Romita Jr, “Who Is the Black Panther” (the 2005 to 2008 Black Panther series).
From the years 2008 to 2015, though, things fall apart. The likes of Morlun, Doctor Doom, Namor (possessed of 1/5 of the Phoenix Force) and Thanos & his Black Order invade, destroy, and murder all over Wakandan lands. The people of Wakanda – a people that have felt untouchable and exceptional for decades – are suddenly forced to confront a new reality: Neither their King, gods, or heroes could save them in their time of need.
The anger and resentment present in the nation sets the stage for T’Challa’s efforts to quell and navigate internal rebellion. The context of the past gives the rebellion weight. T’Challa *did* fail his people. We know because we were there, reading as Namor drowned the palace and the Black Order turned Shuri’s bravery into a living death. Devoid of continuity the rebellion is a coup against a known hero; in the swirl of history the rebellion is a justified grievance.
CONTINUITY IN COMICS
I think these passionate odes to prologue resonate so strongly with me because it’s challenging to come to grips with the role continuity should play in comics. It is both one of the most rewarding components of shared universes, and one of the biggest blockades.
Since it’s an area of focus for my site, I run a twitter filter for combinations of “Where to Start” and “Comics,” largely to keep eyes on the conversation, but also to help where applicable. Honestly, I’ve been astounded at just how many tweets around the topic sound something like “I want to figure out where to start with the X-Men comics, but it’s too intimidating, I’m giving up.” Many days it feels like a clean 50% of potential readers stopped in their tracks before they can even begin!
The general sentiment – how the hell do I even start? – fuels comic book projects from Comic Book Herald to Jay & Miles Explain the X-Men. There’s also an entire, extended, thriving YouTube culture that recaps and explains comics history for newer fans. While I resent – with extremely unfounded prejudice – any approach that doesn’t advocate reading a gazillion comics, catching up in an expedient manner also makes infinite sense.
The challenge is how to implement ties to continuity. Many readers starting Ta-Nehisi Coates’ and creative partner’s Black Panther do not want to run back a decade or more, spending hours reading hundreds of issues. While I prefer any solution that encourages reading more comics, this is just the practical reality of time and attention.
I particularly enjoy how the third and final trade volume of “A Nation Under Our Feet” includes the essential Black Panther narrative from Hickman’s New Avengers. Yes, this “cut and paste” approach to history erases the depth of Hickman’s story, but it’s an effective teaser trailer that delivers the essentials. Arguably, by the third volume it’s even a little too late, as this history has been referenced heavily from issue one.
EFFECTIVELY BUILDING WORLDS
Additional unexpected ties to continuity grew out of Black Panther’s spin off series as well. World of Wakanda in particular explored the stunningly compelling new queer characters Aneka and Ayo, while revealing an on-the-ground view of Namor’s assault on the Golden City. Writer Roxanne Gay’s first comics work (and notable first work for an African-American woman at Marvel) is a bit too reliant on antiquated “Young Romance” thought bubbles, but the setting in Wakanda’s past serves the characters well. We get a great look into Aneka and Ayo’s romance in Wakanda, as well as insight into their indignation with the state of T’Challa’s reign.
As the world-building progresses, the references gets so into the weeds of continuity that I actually needed to pull out a search engine. For his part, Coates and the Black Panther team exhume Queen Divine Justice (aka Asira) from Christopher Priest’s time writing the title (1998 to 2003), as well as the old sorcerer who Storm visited to resurrect T’Challa during the Reginald Hudlin era writing the title.
Deeper still, Rembert Browne’s comics debut (and lone & final issue of World of Wakanda) pulls Kasper Cole from the forgotten heap of history, crafting my favorite standalone spinoff between WoW and Black Panther & The Crew. Browne goes deep on a Priest era Black Panther cut, highlighting what a damn delight this series could have been if given the (entirely reasonable) space to find its footing and substantiate the broad depth of Wakandan continuity.
If nothing else, for me, Black Panther and spinoffs make it clear that continuity is a sharpened weapon in the hands of the right creators, not an albatross to be cast aside. Roots stuck in the past are a problem, but not when you pull out the roots and craft something new.