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Shuri: The Search for Black Panther

This graphic novel is a fascinating marriage of mainstream appeal and postcolonial-type concerns. Set in the Marvel universe, it follows the Black Panther’s younger sister, Shuri: scientist extraordinaire and uncompromising young woman. Written by Nnedi Okorafor (find a review of her wonderful novel Lagoon here), and illustrated by Leonardo Romero & Jordie Bellaire, Shuri is visually captivating and a real page-turner.

The story is set for the most part in the fictional Wakanda, with some pivotal moments taking place in Mali and outer space. The Black Panther has set off on a cosmic mission in a spaceship built by Shuri, but there have been no communications from him since he slipped through a wormhole. In his absence, Shuri must keep Wakanda together and find a way to bring him home. There are several exciting incidents along her way to doing this, including secret political summits and battles with aliens and mutants.

This graphic novel puts into practice, in a pop culture genre with broad mainstream appeal (it’s the Marvel universe after all) some of the characteristics of the Africanfuturism Okorafor has previously described. This entails drawing on alternative African epistemologies in the making of the imagined technologies it represents. Shuri is a talented scientist, and she communes with the ancestors. She sends her brother into space in a spaceship she has built, while her own extraterrestrial forays are enabled by astral projection that draws its power from traditional spirits. A pan-African alliance that appears in the story calls itself the “Egungun”, after the Yoruba term for collective ancestral spirits, and the narrative reminds that once, Timbuktu was the academic hub of the world.

In these and other ways, the graphic novel puts the African continent front and centre, not just using it for an exotic setting, but weaving African world-making into its own fictional world-making, while creating counter-imaginaries to the purported ‘backwardness’ colonial narratives ascribed to the continent. Is it odd that all of this happens in a story that also (spoiler alert) features Iron Man? Yes, a bit – but it’s also interesting to think about the possible effects of these ideas circulating in media with the mass reach of a Marvel publication.

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