February 3, 2023
Thanks to Chad Greene, a 2023 HMU Fellow in Ideas, for today’s post.
The tradition of utopias in imaginative literature – whether in a dialogue by Plato, a comic by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, or a movie by Ryan Coogler – is an attempt to answer some of the most essential “big questions” at the heart of the humanities. What is justice? What would a just society look like?
For fans of Coogler’s 2018 movie Black Panther, it could conceivably look like the fictional African kingdom of Wakanda. Introduced by Lee and Kirby in the 1966 comics Fantastic Four #52 and #53, Wakanda is an Afrofuturist utopia of technology. As Reed Richards exclaims in Fantastic Four #53, “Though the Wakanda Tribe lives in the tradition of their forefathers, they possess modern, super-scientific wonders we can only marvel at!” (Lee and Kirby 1).
The release of its 2022 sequel Black Panther: Wakanda Forever on the streaming service Disney+ presents us with the opportunity to read great texts and ask inquiry questions – two tasks beloved by participants in the Great Conversation such as Harrison Middleton University students and tutors. The movie introduces one of Marvel Comics’ earliest superhumans into its cinematic universe, Namor the Sub-Mariner. For about sixty years’ worth of comics continuity, Namor has been portrayed as a member of the royal family of the undersea civilization of Atlantis. However, in the new movie, Namor is instead the ruler of an undersea civilization called “Talokan.”
This suggests at least three great texts we could read before we watch Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. Our only sources for the story of Atlantis are Plato’s dialogues Timaeus and Critias, composed in the fourth century BCE; and our arguably best source for information about what the Aztecs called “Tlalocan” in the Nahuatl language is Bernardino de Sahagún’s General History of the Things of New Spain, composed in the sixteenth century CE and commonly called the Florentine Codex.
While reading these great texts, we could – of course – ask any number of inquiry questions. Here are three, though, with which we could consider starting out. Does a utopia need a rival to defeat in battle, to demonstrate its superiority? Does Wakanda’s rival – and Namor’s home – need to be Atlantis? Does Tlalocan seem a suitable substitute for Atlantis?
Does a Utopia Need a Rival to Defeat in Battle, to Demonstrate Its Superiority?
If we start out reading Plato’s Timaeus, we could discover Socrates’ answer to that first inquiry question rather early in the dialogue. After recapping the most important characteristics of his ideal state – previously presented in Plato’s Republic – Socrates explains why he wants Critias to speak about what its citizens would “do and say in time of war, when they are fighting or holding parley with their enemies” (3). The reason is that “There are conflicts which all cities undergo, and I should like to hear someone tell of our own city carrying on a struggle against her neighbors, and how she went out to war in a becoming manner, and when at war showed by the greatness of her actions and the magnanimity of her words in dealing with other cities a result worthy of her training and education” (Plato 3).
Critias obliges Socrates by recounting a supposedly then-9,000-year-old tale the character claims had been told to his grandfather, also named Critias, by the Athenian statesman Solon, who had heard it from an Egyptian priest. Responding to an unprovoked attack by Atlantis, the ideal state of ancient Athens “shone forth, in the excellence of her virtue and strength, among all mankind. She was pre-eminent in courage and military skill, and was the leader of the Hellenes. And when the rest fell off from her, being compelled to stand alone, after having undergone the very extremity of danger, she defeated and triumphed over the invaders, and preserved from slavery those who were not yet subjugated, and generously liberated all the rest of us” (Plato 6). Socrates agrees that this tale will, indeed, suit the purpose of proving the superiority of his ideal state through its conflict with a rival.
Does Wakanda’s Rival – and Namor’s Home – Need to Be Atlantis?
In Marvel Comics, Wakanda and Atlantis – and their respective royal rulers the Black Panther and Namor – are rivals that have come into conflict in the past.
For any fans upset at the change of Atlantis to Talokan in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, though, it seems important to point out that Namor’s undersea civilization was not called Atlantis until twenty-four years after the character’s creation. When the amphibious antihero was introduced by writer/illustrator Bill Everett way back in Marvel Comics #1 in 1939, he hailed from what was described as simply an “ancient home deep in the waters at the South Pole” (33). In that first appearance, Namor is encouraged by his mother to start a “war of revenge” against “Earth-men” for having “nearly exterminated our entire race” (Everett 33). Namor was reintroduced a couple decades later by writer Lee and illustrator Kirby in the Fantastic Four, making multiple appearances as a fierce rival of those superheroes before his homeland was first explicitly called Atlantis in Fantastic Four Annual #1 in 1963. In that issue, Lee and Kirby set up Atlantis as the home of a separate species, Homo mermanus, that – in the tradition of Plato – is meant to serve as a rival for our own species, Homo sapiens. As he would when encountering the Wakandan civilization three years later, the leader of the Fantastic Four, Reed Richards, exclaims his newfound respect for – really, fear of – Atlantean technology in Fantastic Four Annual #1: “I never dreamed Namor’s undersea people were so technologically advanced! This could mean the greatest danger that the human race has ever faced! It could be the end of Homo sapiens’ domination of Earth!” (13). (There was a lot of exclaiming in the Golden Age and the Silver Age of American comics.)
So, though Namor’s home does not need to be explicitly called Atlantis to be true to its traditional role in the comics, the undersea kingdom – and its king – do need to serve as rivals coming into conflict with a competing civilization.
Is Tlalocan – er, “Talokan” – a Suitable Substitute for Atlantis?
When we think about an answer to this third inquiry question, it is important to acknowledge one crucial difference between Atlantis and Tlalocan before we consider a couple significant similarities.
In both Timaeus and Critias, it is clearly communicated that Atlantis is an earthly land of plenty – albeit one founded by the Greek god Poseidon. In at least one section in the sixth volume of the Florentine Codex, it is stated that the Aztecs considered Tlalocan to be an “earthly paradise” (de Sahagún 35). However, throughout the twelve volumes, it is more often identified as one of the heavens of the Aztec conception of the afterlife. Specifically, the third volume explains it was the heaven for those who had been drowned, had been struck by lightning, or had suffered from sicknesses associated with water (de Sahagún 47). This seems a distinction we might want to keep in mind when deciding if Tlalocan is a suitable substitute for Atlantis.
The two legendary lands do share significant similarities, though. Both are wealthy lands of plenty that are referred to as submerged – at least, in the case of Atlantis, by the end of its conflict with its rival. After Critias summarizes the tale of ancient Athens’ triumph for Socrates in Timaeus, he provides a much more detailed description of Atlantis in the second dialogue Critias. There, he explains that the rulers of Atlantis “had such an amount of wealth as was never before possessed by kings and potentates, and is not likely ever to be again” and that the “sacred island which then beheld the light of the sun, brought forth fair and wondrous and in infinite abundance” all types of foods (Plato 6). In Timaeus, Critias recounts that after this wealthy land of plenty was defeated in battle, “there occurred violent earthquakes and floods; and in a single day and night of misfortune all your warlike men in a body sank into the earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner disappeared in the depths of the sea” (Plato 6). In the third volume of the Florentine Codex, Tlalocan is similarly described. “[I]n Tlalocan there was great wealth, there was great riches. Never did one suffer. Never did the ears of green maize, the gourds, the squash blossoms, the heads of amaranth, the green chilis, the tomatoes, the green beans, the cempoalxochitl, fail” (de Sahagún 47). Later, in the sixth volume, we are explicitly told that those who enter Tlalocan “are submerged there” (de Sahagún 115).
While we can start to think about those similarities and that difference now, we won’t truly be able to answer this inquiry question until we watch Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. Between now and then, though, there is still time left for HMU students and tutors to read these great texts and to ask inquiry questions of their own.
de Sahagún, Bernardino. General History of the Things of New Spain: Florentine Codex. Translated by Arthur Anderson and Charles Dibble. School of American Research / University of Utah, 1950-1982.
Everett, Bill. “The Sub-Mariner.” Marvel Masterworks: Golden Age Marvel Comics Volume 1,edited by Cory Sedlmeier, Marvel, 2011, pp. 27-38.
Lee, Stan, and Jack Kirby. “Sub-Mariner Versus the Human Race.” Fantastic Four Annual, vol. 1, no. 1 (1963).
Lee, Stan, and Jack Kirby. “The Way It Began.” Fantastic Four, vol. 1, no. 53 (Aug. 1966).
Plato. Critias. Translated by Benjamin Jowett. The Internet Classics Archive, http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/critias.html. Accessed 25 October 2022.
Plato. Timaeus. Translated by Benjamin Jowett. The Internet Classics Archive, http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/timaeus.html. Accessed 25 October 2022.
To leave a comment, click on the title of this blog and scroll down.