Ta-Nehisi Coates Hopes 'Black Panther' Will Be Some Kid's 'Spider-Man'

Apr 6, 2016
Originally published on April 7, 2016 2:11 pm

After he won a National Book Award, and one of the MacArthur Foundation's so-called genius grants, no one anticipated Ta-Nehisi Coates' next move.

"What's the good of getting a MacArthur genius grant if you can't go and write a comic book for Marvel?" Coates tells NPR's Audie Cornish. "I don't know. There are things that people consider to be genius, and then there are things that deep in my heart I've always believed to be genius."

That's right — a comic book. Marvel's Black Panther follows an African king named T'Challa with superhuman strength and intellect, who presides over the fictional nation of Wakanda. The first issue is out Wednesday with illustrations by artist Brian Stelfreeze.

"When I was a young person, my introduction frankly into the world of literature and the beauty of words and the beauty of language, occurred through three things," Coates says. "It occurred through the magic of hip-hop, it occurred through the magic of Dungeons and Dragons, and it occurred through the magic of Marvel comic books, so I feel back at home."

Black Panther was launched in 1966, just a few months before the Black Panther political party came on the scene. But over the years, T'Challa has pretty much played second fiddle to the likes of Daredevil and Captain America. And his storylines often revolve around divided loyalties.


Interview Highlights

On the guidance Coates received from Marvel editors

Very little actually. I think comic book writing in this sense is like all writing; you have to do it to learn it. And so, while I'm very proud of the first issue, I think it's actually the worst issue. And actually I was reading the first issue the other day, and the script actually gets stronger the further into the issue you get.

And they sent me scripts from other people, but mostly this was about me reading, rereading with a critical eye this time, a ton of comic books and figuring out why things worked, when they worked, where they worked and that sort of thing and just really trying to do it myself.

On the depiction of women's bodies in comics

In the world of online news there is a great degree of really, really good feminist critique of comic books right now, so I cannot tell you that I arrived at this naturally. It was reading the criticism, and in fact, the sort of things you're talking about, that overwrought depiction of female bodies. I read that stuff in the '80s and '90s, just took it for granted and kept going. It wasn't what I looked for in comic books, but it would not have immediately occurred to me as a problem.

And then I can remember I bought a comic book once, and I showed it to my wife and my wife instantly went to one of the heroes' bodies and said, "Why does she look like that?" What purpose would that physical body serve if that person is supposed to be fighting? Does that actually aid in combat? What's actually going on here?

And so again, I definitely talked to my editors, definitely talked to Brian [Stelfreeze] about this, and it wasn't like I had to lecture them. This is an issue that's alive in the comic book world; some people pay attention to it, some people don't. But it was very, very important to me that we escape like a depiction of women as how our desires, our lusts, construct the bodies of women as opposed to how women in the actual roles we are describing actually might look.

And so, there's a very, very big difference if you look at, say, the typical body of a woman who's an athlete, and the kind of body I think that ... you saw in comic books in the '90s and even today.

On how Black Panther's back story differs from other superheroes

The first time you see him, he's tricked the Fantastic Four and he defeats the Fantastic Four, and he's this genius, this athlete with these heightened senses and these heightened physical abilities, and he's depicted there in all his glory.

And I think what happened after that [is] there were various high points in the '60s, '70s and '80s, but a lot of low points when folks didn't quite know how to actually use him. And then there was a run in the late '90s and early 2000s by a writer of the name Christopher Priest, who was probably the first writer in our modern times to really, really take Black Panther seriously and try to put him on a level with other superheroes. Where he wasn't just a wallflower, he wasn't just sitting in the back as kind of decoration, but actually a protagonist in his own book and that was revolutionary.

But I don't think people should lose sight of what it meant to create an African, a black superhero in the 1960s. It happens within the midst of the civil rights movement, but I think if you search pop culture at that particular time for somebody like the Black Panther, you would come up really short. If you compare it to other areas of other pop culture, Marvel was probably pretty much ahead.

On the basic plot of Black Panther's story

Well, I was talking earlier and saying you have to find your way to get into the character. You have to find something to get a handle on the character, and so I spent a great deal of time researching the character trying to figure out what that was, and what occurred to me was the distinct possibility that a) maybe T'Challa does not like being a king and b) maybe Wakandans have come to believe they don't need a king.

And two things brought me to that understanding. Taking it from the perspective of the latter ... Wakanda has this mythology of having never been conquered. But in fact, there have been several comic books where in one case it does get conquered and really in other cases it really just suffers a terrible fate. It's no longer this invincible place anymore.

So if a monarch can no longer ensure the security of its people, what good is he then? Why would the people not then decide to take their safety and security and the fate of their nation into their own hands? The second part of it is that T'Challa — T'Challa's a real name of the Black Panther — T'Challa's one part a king, one part a superhero, he was always in the comic books leaving his kingdom to go do something else.

His sister would run it for some time, or his sister wouldn't run it at all, and he'd be gone. He'd be off with the Avengers in New York doing something. All these were instances when he leaves; at one point he's a schoolteacher in Harlem, working in Hell's Kitchen at another point. Just for fun. Just for kicks. Let me see what the world is about. This is a very bizarre way for somebody who presumably likes ruling a nation to behave, and certainly not the typical behavior for a king.

So what's going on there? Does this guy actually enjoy what he's been charged with or is his heart really somewhere else? And these are the questions I really wanted to ask in the comics. That is the undergirding conflict, I think.

On the lack of action in the beginning of the story

I don't know, man. To be honest, that is the one thing I'm worried about with the run — I'm worried about keeping people's attention. I feel like if there's one weakness in this series, it's that the fighting is there because it has to be there. It probably is not the thing that interests me the most.

And so I wonder about that. I did the best I could with that. Fighting, I guess, was never the real reason I read comic books as a kid. The fighting was an important part, an integral part of it, I don't know I would've read it without it.

And there's more of that later, like even in the next issue there's more of him tossing people around because it has to be there, but it probably is not the thing that moved my soul.

On how Black Panther connects to Coates' writing on being black in America

I think, this is going to get very, very personal. It's a little different than that. I think over the past year I have enjoyed, to be frank with you, an amount of success I did not expect, I never expected to happen. When that happens, people place you in certain positions you did not even necessarily ask for, and I found myself writing about that in the comic book.

Typically there's this perspective among writers and black writers, there's this idea that there is one person — and maybe beyond writers — among blacks, there is always one person who everyone should go to learn about all things black.

And I have, again, with the MacArthur stuff, with the sales of Between the World and Me, I guess I feel as though people have tried to turn me into that person. And I really have done all I could to resist it, but even as I resist it, you can't, it's almost like you lose control over it. You don't actually have control of the position people want you to be in.

If they say "You king of the blacks," you're king of the blacks — whether you like it or not. You understand what I'm saying? Even if you in your heart never accept it and you can say it over and over and over again, people have a perception of you nonetheless.

But to bring that back to T'Challa, that was how I got to the character being in a position where he felt committed to do certain things, but in his heart was really not there. It just really wasn't who he was — he was someone else. And it's like where we began this conversation. In my heart, I'm a comic book writer, I am, and I don't necessarily see that in conflict in the kind of essay writing I do with The Atlantic, but when people hear that they're like, what?

On whether T'Challa is a reluctant leader

I don't know that I fully know. I guess I could mention what I suspect: I suspect he really enjoys being a superhero. I think he does. I think he really enjoys the excitement of it. I think he enjoys the challenge of it. Being a king, there's a lot of ceremony and bureaucracy. I don't know that those are the sorts of things that interest a dude who is supposed to be one of the 10 smartest people on the planet Earth.

Like when you talk about an actual genius who was in peak, a superhuman physical condition. This does not seem like the kind of person who would want to sit around in a meeting of ministers — that just doesn't seem like who he is. I think he enjoys dealing with the galactic threats that face planet Earth, and I think that's who he is.

And I'm hesitating on that because what actually happens is — and this is what happens in a work of fiction — you discover who the character is, you write, and an act of writing is an act of discovery. Before I started writing I was rereading what other people had done, but at this point I'm going back and rereading my scripts and saying, "What is in the text that I'm not seeing? What is becoming clear that I'm not seeing?"

And so you discover who the person is as you write more about the person. They become realer to you; they become more thick. So you know, maybe I'll circle back at the end of the day, and I'll realize that he really, really enjoys being king. I'm figuring it out.

On the importance of diversity in comics

Because comic book heroes are like our mythology, they're our Greek gods. And it's in our pantheon that the only people with power, the only people with weight in our pantheon are straight, white dudes — that says something about how we imagine ourselves.

Yes, it makes perfect sense. Because — let me just speak from a storytelling perspective: I think diversity is a storytelling imperative. If you're not at least grappling with diversity, then you're not depicting the world. And while the world of comic books is not literally the true world, why would there not be gay superheroes? Why not?

I feel like the people who don't do it actually are the ones that have to defend the argument. You know? Why does that not exist? Why would there not be black superheroes? Why would there not be Asian-American superheroes? If this is our mythology, why would our mythology only be straight, white males? What is actually going on there?

And people get all bent out of shape about this, like, "Oh, they made Thor a woman or Captain America's black." So what? Anybody that reads comic books knows that different people take up different mantles all the time — that actually is not new by the way. A lot of people say this is a new thing — no, no, no, no. That happens all the time.

There are different versions of characters, and there have been throughout history. When I picked up Iron Man and West Coast Avengers when I was a kid, Iron Man was black — it was Rhodey, it was James Willis — that's who Iron Man was. I hadn't read previous iterations. I wasn't around for that. I don't really, and I guess maybe Marvel got a ton of letters, I don't know. But this change of somebody else picking up the mantle is not a new thing.

And so I actually don't think there's a really grounded conservative argument, and by which I mean one argument grounded in tradition because the tradition of comic books is to change who wears the mantle all the time. It happens less with major superheroes, I'll grant that, but I don't actually see what's wrong. What's important is that people write great stories, and that's ultimately what's important. It does no good to make Spider-Man black or Thor a woman if the comic books are gonna suck. That does no good at all.

But I do think it really, really is important. Diversity is important not for soft, touchy-feely reasons — not to reassure people. I think a) you have an imperative to really interrogate what our imagination actually is and b) you have an imperative to depict the world as it is with some fealty and some loyalty.

On what he wants kids to get out of Black Panther

When I was a kid, Spider-Man was a star. Spider-Man was right under Malcolm X for me in terms of heroes. I would like Black Panther to be some kid's Spider-Man.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

After he won a National Book Award and one of the MacArthur Foundation's so-called genius grants, no one anticipated Ta-Nehisi Coates's next move.

TA-NEHISI COATES: What's the good of getting a MacArthur genius grant if you can't go and write a comic book for Marvel?

CORNISH: That's right, a comic book, Marvel's Black Panther. An African king named T'Challa with superhuman strength and intellect, who presides over the fictional nation of Wakanda. "Black Panther" was launched in 1966, just a few months before the Black Panther political party came on the scene. But over the years, T'Challa has much played second fiddle to the likes of Daredevil and Captain America, and his storylines often revolve around divided loyalties. I asked Coates about his take on the history of the superhero.

COATES: The first time you see him, he's tricked the Fantastic Four, and he defeats the Fantastic Four. And he's, you know, this genius, this athlete with these heightened senses and all these heightened physical abilities. And he's depicted there in all his glory. There, you know, were various high points in the '60s and '70s and in the '80s but a lot of low points where folks didn't quite know how to actually use him. And then there was a run in the late '90s and early 2000s by - a writer by the name of Christopher Priest, who was probably the first writer in our modern times to really, really take Black Panther seriously and try to put him on a level with other superheroes - you know, a protagonist in his own book. And that was revolutionary, but I don't think people should lose sight of what it meant to create an African, a black superhero in the 1960s, even as it happens within the midst of the civil rights movement. But I think if you search pop culture at that particular time for somebody like the Black Panther, you would come up really short.

CORNISH: So let's start with the art in the story. They paired you with artist Brian Stelfreeze.

COATES: Yes.

CORNISH: How did writing with an artist affect your thinking about how to tell stories?

COATES: It's a completely different process. Usually when you write it's just you. And this time there was somebody - like, I would write things, and then I would see them visualized or I would get concept art, and I might alter my story because of the concept art, you know?

CORNISH: But give us an example because, you know, our writer on...

COATES: Sure.

CORNISH: ...Comic books, Glen Weldon, told me that prose writers simply don't trust the art in comics to do the work because it's such a foreign concept to them.

COATES: Yeah, and people warned me about that. I don't know - you see, part of the difference between me and somebody is I'm actually not a prose writer at my roots. My first encounter with professional writing was the attempt to be a poet. That was actually where I was headed. I was going to get my MFA and everything coming out of college. I wrote poetry for many, many years, was published. It's not very good, but, you know...

CORNISH: (Laughter).

COATES: If you're looking hard enough, it's actually in the journalism. And when I, you know, write prose, editors often have to pull me out and get me to write more. So it was nothing for me to, say, write two or three sentences and get out the way.

CORNISH: And so what's the basic plot of his story as you tell it today?

COATES: You have to find your way to get something about that. You've got to find a handle on the character. And so I spent a great deal of time researching the character, trying to figure out what that was. And what occurred to me was the distinct possibility that maybe T'Challa does not like being a king. T'Challa's a real name for a Black Panther. He was always in the comic books leaving his kingdom to go do something else.

CORNISH: Right, like his sister would run it for some time.

COATES: His sister would run it for some time or, you know, his sister wouldn't run it at all and yet he'd be gone. You know, he'd be off with the Avengers in New York doing something. At one point he's a school teacher in Harlem, working at Hell's kitchen at another point.

CORNISH: (Laughter).

COATES: This is...

CORNISH: Just for fun, yeah. It's...

COATES: Just for fun, just for kicks. Let me see what the world's about. This is a very, very bizarre way for somebody who presumably likes ruling a nation to behave. (Laughter) So what's going on there?

CORNISH: And I have to say, in the early pages not a lot of fighting here, not a lot of action (laughter).

COATES: No, that's...

CORNISH: And was that a choice?

COATES: I don't know, man. I mean, to be honest with you, that is the one thing I'm worried about with the run. I've been thinking about it. Am I going to be able to keep people's attention? I feel like if there's one weakness in this series it is that the fighting is there because it has to be there. I did the best I could with that. Fighting was not I guess the real reason I read comic books when I was a kid. I mean, the fighting was an important part and an integral part of it. I don't know that I would've read it without it.

CORNISH: Right...

COATES: But...

CORNISH: ...And we should say for people there is violence. There is fighting.

COATES: There is. There is.

CORNISH: But Black Panther himself is not exactly (laughter)...

COATES: Right.

CORNISH: ...Tossing bodies left and right.

COATES: No...

CORNISH: This is a character who's very much talking about leading his nation...

COATES: Right.

CORNISH: ...And diplomatic mistakes and (laughter)...

COATES: Right.

CORNISH: ...Things like that.

COATES: And there's more of that later. I mean, like, even in the next issue, there's more of that - him tossing people around, I mean, you know, because it has to be there. But it probably is not the thing that moved my soul, you know?

CORNISH: One of his defining characteristics, other than his superhuman strength, is that his loyalty is in question. You talk about him kind of leaving his kingdom periodically, and he goes off as a character in the past. He's worked with the Fantastic Four and Avengers and Daredevil. But they never quite know if he's on their side. And what do you make of that? Like, how does that connect to some of the writing you've done about being black in America?

COATES: Wow. I think - this is going to get very, very personal. I think over the past year, I have enjoyed - to be frank with you - an amount of success that I did not expect - I never expected to happen. When that happens - what I mean to say is that people place you in certain positions that you did not even necessarily ask for. And I found myself writing about that (laughter) in the comic book...

CORNISH: A...

COATES: ...You know?

CORNISH: ...Reluctant king.

COATES: Yeah. Well, you know what it's more like? You know what it's more like? Typically, you know, there's this perspective I think among writers, you know, and among black thinkers that there is always one person who everyone should go to to know about all things black. And I have - you know, again, with the MacArthur stuff, with the - you know, the sales of "Between The World And Me," like, I guess I feel as though people have tried to turn me into that person. And I have really done all I could to resist it. But even as you resist it, it's almost like you lose control over it, do you know what I mean? You don't actually have control of the position people want you to be in. If they say you're king of the blacks, you're kind of the blacks, whether you like it or not. Do you understand what I'm saying? Even if you in your heart never accept it - you can say it over and over and over and over again, but people have a perception of you, you know, nonetheless...

CORNISH: Right...

COATES: ...You know what I mean?

CORNISH: ...So all these kind of - the media requests and, like, anything that happens in the news...

COATES: Right, although I love talking to you, Audie.

(LAUGHTER)

COATES: But yeah, to bring that back to T'Challa, that was how I got the character being in a position where he felt committed to do certain things but in his heart was really not there, you know, was - really wasn't who he was. He was someone else. I mean, in my heart, I'm a comic book writer. I am. I am. And I don't really, you know, see that necessarily in conflict with the kind of, you know, essay writing I do with The Atlantic. But when people hear that, they're like what? What are you doing, you know?

CORNISH: You talked about growing up reading comics as a kid. What are you hoping that a kid in this day and age gets out of your Black Panther?

COATES: You know what I want? I want - when I was a kid, Spiderman was a star. Spiderman was, like (laughter) right under Malcolm X for me (laughter) in terms of, like, my heroes. I would like Black Panther to be some kid's Spiderman.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE SUPREMES SONG, "YOU KEEP ME HANGIN' ON")

CORNISH: Well, Ta-Nehisi Coates, thank you so much for speaking with us and sharing this story.

COATES: Thank you, Audie.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE SUPREMES SONG, "YOU KEEP ME HANGIN' ON")

CORNISH: Ta-Nehisi Coates, he's writer of the new Black Panther comic series drawn by artist Brian Stelfreeze. The first issue is out now.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE SUPREMES SONG, "YOU KEEP ME HANGIN' ON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.