Last week the first issue of Marvel’s new Black Panther comic broke sales records and sold 300,000 issues in the first printing. Meaning that a comic book about a black superhero sold more copies than the daily circulation of the Baltimore Sun, Washington Times or Boston Globe. Why? It probably has a lot to do with who’s writing it. This latest incarnation of Black Panther is penned by critically acclaimed writer Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Best known for his book Between the World and Me, as well as his various writings for The Atlantic, Coates has transformed America’s conversations about race, culture and politics. So how does a journalist and culture writer turn the adventures of a superhero African king into the must-read book of the year? The Root sat down to interview him and find out.
First, who is the Black Panther? Named T’Challa, he is a genius who has been part of Marvel’s Avengers team and has ruled his own African nation as a king. He’s got superhuman strength and enhanced senses and is the leader of Wakanda, an African nation that just happens to be the most powerful, technologically advanced nation on the planet. And even though he turns 50 this year (the Black Panther debuted in Fantastic Four No. 52 way back in 1966) and is the first black superhero from Marvel Comics, there’s still a lot about this superhero that comic book fans and casual readers don’t know. And that’s what Coates wants to tap into.
“At the center of that is T’Challa. What I want more than anything is to get inside his head,” Coates says. “I want to know what he was thinking. I want to cut past the mystique. And get ahold on the internal mechanisms of the character.”
Even though he’s new to writing for comics, Coates isn’t new to writing. His Atlantic piece on the case for reparations was one of the most read articles in America in 2015. His commentaries on race and American culture will be pored over by academics, hipsters and social critics for years. But when it comes to writing the Black Panther comic for Marvel, he seems less intent on writing “a great black hero” and more about giving a black character the depth and introspection that black people seldom get in any pop-culture genre.
“I’m not so interested in what he [Black Panther] represents. I want to know how he feels. And how he looks at the world,” Coates says.
As a kid collecting comics in the late 1980s and ’90s, I never liked Black Panther. I thought he was a lame token tossed to us black comic readers to fill a quota. It wasn’t until a new series in the late ’90s that I found a sincere love of the character and what he meant to comics as a whole. Coates, too, didn’t care much for the Panther when he was a kid buying comics in the ’80s, but for entirely different reasons from mine.
“He wasn’t lame,” says Coates. “There wasn’t much to grab onto. There wasn’t anything really complicated or conflicted.
“I liked Spider-Man—being able to lift 10 tons, having the proportional strength of a spider—but that didn’t necessarily make his life great. Sometimes it made it worse. And Storm—Storm lost her powers. How is she gonna manage that? But she led the X-Men for years.
“T’Challa can’t be God. Even the gods are not gods in Marvel. Even Thor isn’t all moral, always correct. You have to have some texture there. And that’s the sort of attraction I have,” Coates says.
There isn’t much drama in reading about a hero who always wins, is always right and is always two steps ahead. Coates is drawn to complex, conflicted characters and wants to bring that same sense of internal and external conflict to his run on the king of Wakanda.
Coates is a historian and a lover of comics. We swapped obscure references to particular panels, frames and storylines from the various Black Panther comic series, running from the 1970s to the 2000s. He has a passion for and commitment to the character, but also a desire to tell a great story that captures comic fans and casual readers alike. One of the themes of this series will be whether or not T’Challa, the Black Panther, even likes being a king.
“He runs around with Avengers; once, he was a schoolteacher in Harlem,” says Coates, ticking off a list of the times that the Black Panther left his nation to go gallivanting across the world on adventures and how that eventually took a toll. The comic will explore “who he is and who he wants to be,” says Coates, and how the moral legitimacy of a monarchy can push even a hero to question his role.
Coates compares T’Challa’s struggles with leadership to those of Frederick the Great of Prussia. In the summer of 1730, an 18-year-old Frederick tried to escape the burdens of monarchy by fleeing to England with his best friend and lover. Coates says, “He [Frederick] wants to go off and do whatever—because he don’t want to be king. His father catches them—and the king forced him to watch as his best friend was killed. Beheaded. And he still went on to become Frederick the Great, a great king and leader.”
Does that mean that T’Challa’s conflicts between love and duty could cost lives? Coates isn’t saying, but he admits that any death in comics has to be meaningful and not a shortcut to drama.
As our conversation vacillates between comics and history, I point out that the Black Panther, like Frederick, has often tried to escape the burdens of being king through his lovers. T’Challa was willing to give up his throne, first for Monica Lynn, an American R&B singer who saved his life; and again for Storm of the X-Men, whom some Wakandans rejected because of her mutant heritage.
“You see—isn’t that interesting? He picks someone who’ll take him away from it all,” Coates says. He teases that one or both of these women may appear during his run on the series.
When I asked what he wants people to know most about the book, he simply says, “Be patient; it’s a 12-part story. Let the story play.”
Coates says that he’s already done the first 12 issues and signed a contract just last week to continue working on the book for years. Clearly, while T’Challa is conflicted, Coates is not. He has a story to tell—not a black story, not a Marvel story—but a story of one man, one nation, and the many men and women who comprise it. A story as great as Frederick’s, and as deep as the love for a character who’s been around for 50 years but still has a lot to share about himself.
Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.