STORY WRITTEN BY DUTCH GODSHALK
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Late last year, veteran journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates was at the height of his success, shaking the literary scene with his roiling and incisive bestseller “Between the World and Me,” when he made a seemingly abrupt career move: he started writing for Marvel Comics.
In spring 2016, “one of the most thought-provoking and perceptive writers today” would helm a run of “Black Panther” comics, Marvel announced last September, in an apparent attempt to breathe new life into its first black superhero, originally created back in 1966.
When the Coates-written “Black Panther” #1 launched earlier this year, it was an instant blockbuster, debuting at the top of the comic charts and selling more than 300,000 copies by summer. Marvel had obviously chosen wisely. But what inspired Coates, a recent MacArthur fellow who would soon win a National Book Award for “Between the World and Me,” to take on the project when he did?
At Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse in Philadelphia on Wednesday afternoon, the author spoke a bit about what motivated him to sign on for the series at such an apex moment in his career, a moment when, for example, Toni Morrison had publicly compared him to James Baldwin.
“Black Panther happened at a very interesting time,” Coates, a towering presence in a charcoal blazer, told a crowd of roughly 50 comic-book lovers. “I’ve been writing for 20 years, and that was a point in my career, for the first time in my life, (when) people — and I don’t think it’s too much to say this — people were trying to put a crown on my head, as a black writer.”
This was no exaggeration. “Between the World and Me,” an impassioned, 152-page letter to Coates’ son, was written and published in the throes of America’s fraught reckoning with systemic racism, a cultural tempest resulting from protests in Ferguson, Baltimore and New York City, and from the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement nationwide.
From the heart of that squall — the rallies and the riots, the endless acerbic network-news discourses, the now-all-too-familiar cell phone videos depicting police brutality — came Coates’ book, a memoir of sorts that gave voice to national unrest.
For its searing honesty and eloquence, the book and its author were celebrated. And, eventually, that celebration led to coronation: “‘You’re the man now, in terms of black folks and black writing,” Coates was being told, in so many words. “‘You get to say X, Y, and Z.’
“It is very hard, to this very day, to say to people, ‘I don’t want any part of that,” he told the crowd on Wednesday. “But that’s how people see you.”
Coates said he saw something similar in Black Panther’s alter-ego, T’Challa, the king of a war-torn African nation called Wakanda who doubles as a masked crime fighter. As an erudite leader-slash-superhero, T’Challa struggles under the weight of his responsibilities.
“I felt a very similar tension in T’Challa,” Coates said. “How can one have the time — even if you’re genius, especially if you’re a genius — to pursue scientific longing when you’re called to the day-to-day treachery of being a king? How do you do both? Those were the personal things that I wanted to explore” with “Black Panther.”
As a writer stepping into the “Black Panther” story, one that’s been unfolding in various comic series since the late ‘60s, Coates said he was determined to stay true to the character’s past and the conditions of T’Challa’s world.
“I think part of the challenge of writing and reading comic books is the weight of history,” he said, referring to the many years of “Black Panther” stories that have already taken place. “In that way it mirrors the very real world,” he said. “You’re born into an historical condition, and then you have to make something out of that.”
When an audience member asked if comic books could serve as political tools, Coates responded that they are “always political tools,” whether a writer intends it or not.
“It’s very difficult to create art that has no political import.”
Starting out on the current “Black Panther” run, “one of the things that I assumed about Wakanda is that it’s a human society and it’s complicated,” not unlike our own society. “Those were my assumptions, and I ran with that. And is that a political statement? Yeah, it is.
“If you live in a country, like we do, where people regularly demean and dehumanize black humanity, yes. If you live in a country where a Black Lives Matter movement needs to actually happen, yes, it’s a statement. If you live in a world where you go on social media and you see black people being choked to death, being shot at by agents of the state, then yes, that is a statement, yes it is.”
At this, the audience erupted in applause. Then Coates added, “Art has a very foundational role in making sure we see each other as human beings.”
But even though moments like these offered a sense of why Coates took on the “Black Panther” story when he did — and where his head was at during certain points of the writing process — there were also refreshing pockets of pure nerd serenity during the Oct. 26 event.
Conversation often waded waist-deep in the nitty-gritty details of the Marvel universe. How strong is Black Panther? Should a human be able to body-slam him? Should Black Panther have ever married (and divorced) Storm from the X-Men — and who even let that happen?
At one point, the MacArthur fellow got into an uproarious back-and-forth with an overexcited fan, debating the more minute details of a few “Black Panther” panels. After the argument, Coates assured the audience it was all in good fun: “I love this stuff!” While writing the comics, “I spent, like, four or five months by myself, in a room, doing just that!”
Marvel’s current “Black Panther” run, created by Ta-Nehisi Coates and artists Brian Stelfreeze and Chris Sprouse, is now on its eighth issue. It is available wherever new comic books are sold.