I had a long, entertaining chat with Ta-Nehisi Coates two weeks before the first issue of the new Black Panther series came out. It was so fun that I’m putting the majority of our talk here. Warning: it’s long and has spoilers
Kotaku: Tell me about the maps and why you’re pissed off about the old maps?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: They’re cool. Marvel always had this thing about diversity and not being diverse enough. They have been going through that over the past couple of years. That’s interesting because in my childhood this was the only place I could go to see black people doing heroic shit. It was comic books, right?
I was going back through the stuff from the ’70s, which was mostly before my time. I was looking at the maps there. They bear the mark of the time.
Kotaku: You have to assume benevolent intent. They may have been screwing it up but it wasn’t because they honestly wanted to.
Coates: No. They weren’t trying to do harm. At the same time you can’t put out a map where every location reference is an animal.
Coates: You can’t do that. You can’t have Panther Island, Piranha Cove, Gorilla Peak. You can’t do it buddy. You can’t do it.
Kotaku: [laughs] Yeah, when you texted me that I was like, “Is he talking about Wakanda’s location on the continent? Does he have a beef with that?” You were like, “No. Just basic nomenclature is the problem right here.”
Coates: Yeah, I’ve been messing around with this software Fractal Mapper. I was using this other one today but it was too complicated. So I’m messing with this software Fractal Mapper trying to come up with something which I’m assuming they will then send to a designer who will do something else with it.
Kotaku: This is the 2016 equivalent of the cloth map that came with D&D in old RPG games.
Coates: That is exactly what I’m trying to do.
Kotaku: That is a testament to the level to which you’re trying to take this. You’re literally on some revisionism shit.
Coates: But you know what’s crazy? This is what’s scary about it. This is what’s really, really scary about it. It doesn’t feel like work. It feels like being 12 again. I say it’s scary because people can take you for a lot of money like that. You’ll make money off it if it does well so you got to be careful but at the same time it brings me tremendous, tremendous joy to sit and try and figure out who the hell this dude is and what world he lives in.
We talked earlier on, me and [Marvel editor-in-chief] Axel Alonso, and [Black Panther] Will Moss. I think folks came to the conclusion pretty early that it was going to be a Wakanda story which was scary to me. It would have been easier to put him in Harlem or something like that. But at the same time so much had happened in Wakanda.
Kotaku: Yeah you got to address it.
Coates: So much happened to Wakanda. When I looked at it I said, “Oh my God. There’s so many open questions here.” So you got to go there.
Kotaku: You’re taking me down a million roads which I already have questions for. So let me start in the real world which is the last time I talked to Chris, he was like, “Yeah, I think he’s enjoying it because this is the one place where he doesn’t have to write about depressing-arse shit. Or at least not real-world, depressing-arse shit all the time.” That seems like a very visceral outlet for you.
Coates: Yeah, it’s definitely a good shift after doing something like Between the World and Me. After I did Between the World and Me, people looked at me in a way that was very, very uncomfortable. I don’t know. I guess it is the way people look at writers. But it was the first time I saw people looking at me other than a writer. There was almost this meta-conversation around the book.
Kotaku: You’re a pundit now. You’re a voice…
Coates: Yeah, yeah, yeah. A voice! I never really felt like that. The fact of the matter is because people don’t take comic books seriously, you actually have more freedom. I feel more freedom to go and take them seriously myself. As in, “This is something that is mine and that I’ve always loved.” I guess I’ve been looking for that place. Yes, it is a relief.
Kotaku: That’s funny because it’s been problematic for me. If we talk about the rise of black nerd culture or whatever you want to call it, I have to try and maintain a critical remove at all times and be professional. At the same time, I am writing about Luke Cage because Luke Cage set me on the path to being a writer however many years ago.
For me, I have to find this place between advocacy and tough love and critique.There are aspects of nerd culture itself which have become increasingly difficult to handle. It feels like anything has a potential to be a firecracker. You can’t be mad at people who feel that any type of way about what’s being done to characters, either. I mean, I was pissed off back in the day when they made the Punisher black! But these characters have larger lives than they used to.
I feel like the fandom has extrapolated itself so much that their power as symbols has grown far beyond what you and I experienced when we were kids.
Coates: Yeah. So much of that is the Internet too. I mean, it’s the movies, it’s the internet, it’s Netflix with their Marvel shows. With comics… in some sense without the Internet, these things were private acts. When I was a kid I went to a few sci-fi conventions and my parents would take me and that was the only time you would get to interact with people. I would see other people at the comic book store when I went out to Geppi’s Comic World or something like that. But it was only about five other people who I talked to about it. [laughs] One of them was my dad who collected comics when he was a kid.
Kotaku: Oh, I didn’t know that.
Coates: Oh yeah. My dad loved comics when he was a kid. So it was kind of in the family. It was already there. My dad takes his nieces and nephews to the black comic book convention they do in Philly. I’ve never actually gone.
He takes them up to Philly every year that. It used to be a much smaller, private thing and now it’s a much, much bigger thing. And there’s so much pushback against this idea of diversity with Marvel.
Kotaku: I’m in this weird position where people want me to have a take on some of that stuff.
Coates: Yeah, sometimes you just don’t.
Kotaku: Sometimes I don’t. I kind of felt more strongly about the Iron Fist casting than I did about Sam Wilson being Captain America. I’m good with Sam being Captain America. My concern is with Sam as a character. If he goes back to being the Falcon or some other identity, and they want to have Steve be the main guy, I’m good. But if it feels like a loss for Sam [in terms of his character development], then I have a problem. Mantles change in comics all the time.
Miles is a little closer to my heart. I wrote a piece about Miles and how he should be the new Spider-Man in the cinematic universe because we’ve done Peter Parker twice over already. Like two origin stories. I don’t need another white Peter Parker.
Coates: Another reason why they should do it is because Bendis puts so much love into that character. That shit is clearly personal to him. He likes the hell out of that boy. There is so much source material to pull from that has not been done.
Kotaku: I agree.
Coates: There’s a completely other direction you can go in just in terms of great storytelling. It’s there.
Kotaku: The last time I wrote about Miles I made a point of saying one of the reasons I liked him better is that Miles is really incredibly earnest. Peter Parker had that Ayn Rand and Steve Ditko creepy stuff going on. He couldn’t control his anger and he didn’t have a handle on his emotions back in the day. I know Peter Parker is your boy, but if you read some of those old Spider-Man issues, it’s like, “Whoa!”
Coates: Everybody’s trying to get back to Peter Parker as a kid. You’ve got to understand when I came to him. I actually came to him as an adult.
Kotaku: Right. That DeFalco ’80s stuff.
Coates: That’s my era. That Ron Frenz era. It’s not the kid in high school or the kid in college. He had dropped out of college and was a social misfit, living in some bum-arse apartment. That was my Peter Parker. It’s funny because they want to [get] back to the kid but you’ve got the kid, it’s Miles. That’s the kid. That’s the kid right there!
Kotaku: When they announced that Spidey book, I was like, “Come on, son.” So Miles cannot even have this to himself? He can’t even have teenage Spider-Man to himself? You gotta have another competing book?
Coates: He’s going to do fine though. He’s so well written and people read him. I don’t think you can keep him out of the movies actually.
Kotaku: I agree.
Coates: I think ultimately it’s going to be hard to keep him out of the movies.
Kotaku: Part of the reason for me not to get as upset as some other fans is because I feel like in 10 years the quality of the material will separate the wheat from the chaff, right?
Coates: Yeah. No it will.
Kotaku: I wrote about that Luke Cage story on Friday from that series in the ’90s that was not as good as the Priest stuff. I didn’t like it. But there’s a reason I remember the stuff from 1986 and I don’t remember the stuff from 1992.
Coates: I’m trying to get the book that you wrote about because what they have right now they only have on Marvel, it cuts off around issue #80, but your argument is about issue #100 where it starts getting really good. Right?
Kotaku: Oh yeah. They’re really hard to find. Before we moved on to Austin, I went on a trip. I hit up Midtown [Comic] and maybe two other shops, looking for when the Priest era started, like #100-whatever, and you can’t find them now. I’m trying to support my local comic shop, which I hardly do anymore because I’m all digital. You just can’t find them.
I hope there’s genuine interest in that material and that people snatch it up. I remember going to the back-issue bin in my local store and finding all that stuff. Look, that’s 30 years gone at this point. That was a long time. There was only so many copies in circulation.
Coates: Do they still do that? I haven’t been to a con in years. Do they still sell back issues there?
Kotaku: Yeah. But with way diminishing returns. But you will see them at some of the bigger Cons in New York and San Diego. It’s funny because, again, multiple tangents. I know it’s two in the morning there but buckle up.
Coates: I’m wide awake, Evan.
Kotaku: Who was the first comic book creator that you remember knowing who was black? I can start. For me it’s a foundational memory.
Coates: Well, that’s two questions. I didn’t find other people. The person who it was was Priest who I think was Owsley at the time. I actually didn’t find that out until much later. I wasn’t conscious of anybody. Do you know what’s interesting about comics and race is that when I was a kid and I read comics — Jesus this is going to sound crazy.
To the extent that somebody could be post-racial, that was me. I just didn’t care. It meant that there was some black people in the world but then after that I didn’t think too much. Peter Parker didn’t strike me as a white dude which is not to say that he struck me as a black dude.
Kotaku: I’m right there with you. I’m thinking the rhythm of the dialog, they were trying to make him a hip, city, 20-something dude. Something of that translated into me reading him…when he had the mask on he felt like he wasn’t a white dude.
Coates: Yeah, it was weird, it was really, really weird. There were very few people in the Marvel Universe that I perceived that way. Captain America probably because he was Captain America. [laughs] But that was about it. X-Men, I didn’t really see them. I assumed they were all white. To me they were all white. It was only years later that I saw that I was reading Priest.
Kotaku: Hey man I’m back. I’m so sorry.
Coates: I understand. I had a kid that age once upon a time.
Kotaku: Yeah. How old is Samori? Is he 15 now?
Kotaku: Oh my God. That’s so crazy. How does he feel about this? Did he catch the gene? Did it carry over?
Coates: I don’t know yet. He reads but he’s so young. My thing with him is I don’t want him to feel pushed into anything.
Kotaku: Yeah, no, same. It’s around ambiently kind of in the air.
Coates: Yeah. There are a lot of other things that are ambient. I want to make sure that he chooses for himself and doesn’t feel pressured.
Kotaku: One of the things I hear a lot is, “When are you going to get your daughter playing video games?” I’m like, “when she wants to.”
Coates: Yeah, when she wants to. When she wants to. [laughs]
Kotaku: Because I can’t force it. If I do, she will certainly not want it. Where we left off I was talking about finding out about talent. For me it was two things. Do you remember Marvel Age?
Kotaku: It was their house publicity organ that they used to put out.
Coates: I used to love that. [laughs]
Kotaku: Yeah. I think It was one of the first places where I saw Dwayne McDuffie, a drawing of him. [Note: this is actually wrong. The image comes from bios that Marvel used to run alongside release checklists.]
Coates: Oh, wow.
Kotaku: He was just an editor at the time. It was a cartoon sketch. There were other people who had caricatures of various statures. One of them I remember was from Priest. But you remember how things were back in the day. They don’t just lodge in your head.
But the first time I remember that I knew he was a black dude was as you know he was editing the Spider-Man books back in the day, and there was an editorial column called “The View from the 27th Floor.” And the person who wrote it talked about re-sequencing a Prince album.
I don’t remember which one, but he was like, “This track should really be the first one.” I was like, “Come on.” Everybody was listening to Prince back in the day, but something about it was like, “This dude is a brother.” On one hand, it’s good to know but it didn’t change my perception of the work at all. It’s not like I was terribly critical back in the day anyway.
If a new issue came out, I was happy unless it was really terrible. But it’s funny how things haven’t moved enough yet to have that not be an issue. There is still a lot of buzz around the fact that David Walker and Sanford Greene are two black men doing Power Man and Iron Fist. But that in and of itself is what should be the norm. It’s not necessarily newsworthy in and of itself.
Coates: I’m hoping we’re getting there.
Kotaku: Yeah. Agreed. Back to early reading habits. I know from knowing you a little bit that, when you write about this stuff, you rocked hard with Spider-Man, and the X-Men. What were your impressions of T’Challa back in the day?
Coates: Well, he wasn’t in a book. In fact, I just saw a Fantastic Four back issue and I remembered the cover but I don’t remember what happens when he appears. He wasn’t in Secret Wars. This crossover thing that’s happening now didn’t happen as much in the past. The big ones back then were like Secret Wars, Mutant Massacre. There were a few with the Avengers. It’s amazing how the Avengers has taken off. It’s sounds crazy but it wasn’t…
Kotaku: I’m right there with you.
Coates: Yeah, it was not this way.
Kotaku: Sidebar, they used to be like the B book.
Coates: They were the B book. I liked them. But no. He wasn’t really around. I know from back issues that he had been…so much to the point that when I first found out about him I did not make the connection that he was black.
Kotaku: That is hilarious.
Coates: It just didn’t occur to me. In the period when I was collecting he just wasn’t around really.
Kotaku: He was one of those characters who had on the mask all the time. He had this weird speech pattern which could mean anything and that was it. He rarely got the kind of single-issue spotlight where we find out about his past and personal interactions with people. If he didn’t have his own book, you didn’t know shit about him.
Coates: Yeah, I didn’t really read him too heavy. I left comics for a long time and then when I came back it was like ’01, ’02, people were like, “This Christopher Priest is really good, you should check him out.” That was the first time I read a Black Panther solo book. It was relatively late.
Kotaku: I had read the Jungle Action Don McGregor stuff piecemeal haphazard, days of hidden back issues bins. Because I always loved the character. Something about those books was lyrical.
Coates: Yeah, I can see that.
Kotaku: Overwritten by today’s standards. But it was attempting something writerly. And that caught me. Priest put him on the map for a lot of people who didn’t already know about him. Not to put too much pressure on you. But you’re in the moment where there’s an expectation that you’re going to do it but also the movie. His whole profile is rising. It’s crazy.
This is the 50th anniversary of the character. A brother like me would have never thought that a second-string Avengers character would have all of this import and fanfare around him. It’s wild.
Coates: Yeah, it’s weird. I wasn’t following the Avengers for a while. This was when Hickman was first getting into New Avengers. I don’t know man you should check this out he’s basically the protagonist in this book along with Reed. I was stunned. I really was. It changed so much from when I was a kid where he was not thought about at all.
Kotaku: This was a dude who was standard-issue, genius-level scientist, super athlete. Yet, he was a monarch and that added some flavour to his particular recipe. But that was it. He was garden variety. He was interchangeable with Hank Pym, with Reed, with Tony Stark. There wasn’t anything that made him feel unique unto himself outside of some various outlier interpretations.
Coates: That’s funny because the person I remember is Luke Cage. I remember Power Man and Iron Fist but I always thought was such a cool title. “Power Man and Iron Fist.” Such a great title. [laughs] That’s what I remember now. I remember when they canceled it and they killed Danny Rand. Like, “What in the hell is this? What did they do this for?”
Kotaku: Did you read the piece that I wrote about that?
Coates: Yeah, I did actually and that sent me back to Christopher Priest talking about it and how [Iron Fist] ended up dying.
Kotaku: That hit me so hard back in the day; I have goose bumps as I’m talking to you about this. We didn’t have the Internet or fan culture as it exists today.
Coates: That was a heartbreaker.
Kotaku: It was really stunning. That book had such a rhythm by that point it was like, “What?”
Coates: I didn’t understand why they canceled it.
Kotaku: It sounds like office politics.
Coates: Because it was at like at #130 or something.
Kotaku: It was #125. I will never forget the number.
Coates: That’s not a small number.
Kotaku: Not for back then.
Coates: For that period, for back then, that’s a book that usually is going to be around for a while. I was shocked.
Kotaku: I want to say after they did the merger it was bimonthly for a long time and maybe they increased the frequency to monthly. Because that’s when you know that, “Oh we have faith in this.” It’s not every other month. For them to cancel it was one of the biggest heartbreaks of my young, young, life. People knew Cage. Cage would show up in an issue like Hulk #300, where the Hulk’s rampaging through Manhattan. Cage and the Fist try and take him down. The Black Panther wasn’t there. T’Challa wasn’t getting the call.
Coates: It’s so weird. He was not there. And then suddenly Cage disappeared for a while, too. Let me tell you man, I already credit Bendis for that Miles Morales joint. I can’t remember if you wrote about this too much in your piece. But I thought Bendis’s work on Luke Cage was really just excellent.
Coates: Especially the post-Jessica Jones shit. I thought it got a lot better. Jessica Jones is good but once they get hooked up and he’s writing this dude, he’s writing them for New Avengers. [Note: this is for a previous volume.] I’m like, “Oh this is a different character.”
Kotaku: He’s central. He’s not a dude on the side. Because at first he was a dude on the side who gives you a bit of flavour, a bit of grounded-ness. But then when Bendis made him central and the leader of the team it was like this is not a game anymore. You’re not doing this for brownie points. You actually believe in this interpretation of the character.
One of the things that’s funny to me as a long time comics fan is that you have a generation of Batman fans that know the mythos through the cartoon show. That’s their point of entry. You have the same thing with Luke Cage. You have a generation of fans who don’t know him when he was corny.
Kotaku: That makes me glad because you never got to experience the jive talking….
Coates: You jive turkey! I’ve been going over looking at his books and looking at him in Misty Knight, it’s fascinating that that shit happened. Do you know what I mean?
Kotaku: I know. I know.
Coates: As crazy and as retro and as bad as it is, it’s fascinating that that even happened.
Kotaku: It’s fascinating that they made Danny and Misty a thing.
Coates: I know. And it was like nothing. There was no conversation or interracial relationship. It was just, “Oh he loves this black girl.” That’s his girl. This black chick is his girl. That’s it. We’re not even going to talk about it.
Kotaku: Whereas in the X-Men a mutant/human relationship was like, “Oh my God. Clutch the pearls.”
Coates: Yeah! That was a thing. [laughs] But that’s why when I think about them being radical it’s like that such to the point that when Cage and Jessica Jones hooked up and Bendis would write comments about it, it struck me as off. Do you know that?
It actually struck me as off. That doesn’t mean it was off. He was trying to inhabit the real world. To some that would happen. But for some reason to write about it as it was simply true, where somebody might say that’s kind of blithe and naive, I thought that was so radical.
Kotaku: Yeah, it’s a trip. Depending on how organic I feel your approach is, it either makes sense to do that or not. For some people you have to, but they didn’t back in the day. You’ve been going through a lot of Panther back catalogue stuff and I wanted to hit you up for your thoughts on various things.
I went back and reread some of the books that Denys Cowan apparently co-wrote and drew — it was the one with Azania, which was the stand-in for South Africa with the white supremacist super team. I was like, “Back in the day that felt like oh my God — super, super radical.”
You have similar beats to stuff that’s been put out in more recent plot lines, like he falls out of favour with the Panther God in that book. He loses the faith of his people. It’s interesting how that stuff comes up over and over again. What are your thoughts on that stuff that came before.
Coates: I read McGregor, Hudlin, and Priest. This is the hard thing to research. With Kirby, some of it was hard for me to get through. I hate saying that.
Kotaku: Dude, I’m with you. I’m right there with you. I haven’t read all of the Kirby stuff because again that’s when the characters, he may as well be Ant-Man or somebody else. He’s interchangeable.
Coates: Oh, I completely missed that series. Wow.
Kotaku: It was a mini-series.
Coates: How many issues did it last? I would have been collecting then. I didn’t even know that was out.
Kotaku: It was a four-issue mini-series. It was pre-Milestone. It was probably late ’80s. It was when the conversation about apartheid was in the air. That was him wanting to talk about that. I wanted to intern back at Milestone back in the day.
I remember when I went to the office to do an interview Denys was saying that Marvel editorial wouldn’t let them call it South Africa, they had to make up a nation, a white supremacist nation as an analogue. So yeah it had to be around like ’88 maybe. You’re going to make me look it up.
Coates: Yeah, I got to track it down.
Kotaku: And Panther’s Prey was McGregor’s return…
Coates: That’s McGregor, I read that one. Do you remember who the artist was for that?
Kotaku: That was Dwayne Turner. With the painted artwork. Amazing.
Coates: The art on that is gorgeous. You’re right. It did have this beautiful, lyrically quality to it. It was tough for me because of those huge captions. [laughs]
Kotaku: He would just layer text all over the page. That’s funny because back in the day it was literally X-Acto knife and tape. If you’re the person doing layouts it’s like, “Where do I put all of this shit?”
Coates: Yeah, it’s funny. It’s not just him.
Kotaku: No it was the era.
Coates: Some of the Claremont stuff back in the day you go back and you read it and it was like, “Oh my God. Why’s he writing a novel?” Do you know what I mean? That was gorgeously drawn. I have to tell you the big influence on me was actually the Hickman stuff.
Kotaku: That is no secret to anybody who follows you on Twitter.
Coates: I know but people feel different ways on how he dealt with the character.
Kotaku: You and I have talked about this privately. I feel like you can’t have that guy be the Priest character forever.
Coates: No you can’t. Also there’s an element where people get into comic books because they want to live through the character. They want to see Wolverine do a bunch of cool shit. That will always be an element. You have to have some of that but that’s not what grabs me.
As a writer, I can’t stay there because of that. Once I saw Hickman hitting on this whole notion of what would Kings actually do, as he said, “what giants do,” it was like oh. OK. It’s not enough to just be a badass and everybody does what you say.
It’s not enough for Dora Milaje to say, “Oh we love you.” And that’s just it. Obviously he had Nakia and that sort of thing with Malice and all of that. But I’m talking about something even deeper when people actually have deep seated beefs with you. That are real beefs that people should have.
Kotaku: And not external. Internal.
Coates: Internal. Internal. Internal.
Kotaku: I’ll never forget. I think it was the first issue of The New Avengers where it was saying, “Oh Goddess save me from great men.” The beauty about Hickman’s stuff…I wrote a big retrospective about New Avengers. If you look at it backwards, like back behind you, and all that stuff is perfectly architected.
I remember when he started writing Image stuff I didn’t like some of his original properties because it felt overly designed. He comes from a graphic design background. If feels like you’re watching a machine cut out jigsaw puzzle pieces, scramble them up and put them back together again.
Coates: You mean his East West stuff?
Kotaku: Yes, but even before that. I’m talking about The Nightly News, his early Image work. Where it seemed like the concept mattered more than the characters. But then I feel like he got better handling all of that stuff. But yeah, in New Avengers that stuff really, really sang.
Coates: I think one of the things that Priest did…I’ve been thinking a lot about this, mostly about him, Hudlin, and I know Hickman isn’t a Black Panther or writer but he kind of was and kind of made a contribution to the character.
Whatever I might feel about people being kickass, Priest had the responsibility to get people to take this guy seriously. The whole reason you have a movie right now is because of Priest. He had the challenge of getting a mostly white readership to take the guy seriously. Then I feel like the next thing Hudlin was trying to do was almost like trying to write this character for black folks. I was like not only is he badass but you know he is going to tell these white folks what time it is. [laughs]
Kotaku: And Luke Cage is going to be at his bachelor party.
Coates: Yes. And they all look up to him. He’s noble. He is like the dream that we wish we had. That’s what he is. And then Hickman just kind of deconstructed all of that. This is the year before I started writing and I was like, “What’s my place? Where am I going? What am I supposed to be doing here? What is this?” That was one of the big questions I had.
Kotaku: Going back to pre-Priest and post-Priest, I remember he wrote about it somewhere, probably on his old site, how he was going through stuff where he was picking up the character and that McGregor storyline, Panther’s Prey, I don’t know if you remember, there was that little kid who was smoking crack. And he was like, “This doesn’t happen in my Wakanda.”
I love that. How do you resolve that? Either you ignore it or you fold it in. The thing I’m getting from you is you’re trying to make as much of that work as possible. Maybe thematically not in that actual factual history of the country.
This is getting to the meat of the stuff where I’m talking about what you’re doing. Again, I’ve only read issue #1. You are destroying everything about what every black nerd loves about Wakanda. It’s not this perfect gleaming pan African paradise anymore.
It’s not the Mecca, to quote you. But at the same time it’s almost overdue for that. There have been little hints of fracture in other writers’ storylines. But you are onto some “burn this shit down.”
Coates: I am really taking seriously what people did before me. If Achebe did rule that country for a period of time. If Killmonger actually did kill the King, if Morlun did cut a swath through that country and kill M’Baku and a bunch of other people, if Doom did plot with the Desturi and overthrow the government.
If [Doom] damn near did kill T’Challa himself, if Shuri and him did have this break and Dora Milaje did turn their back on him, if Namor did perpetrate this holocaust, what would that country look like after all of that? This was the place that said they could never be taken invaded, they could never be taken over.
Well, that’s no longer true. Who are you? I didn’t even come in thinking I’m going to take this apart. When I started doing the research I was like, “Oh, y’all been taking some hits.”
Kotaku: It’s a temptation that I’m going to give into. But it reads as a commentary on the insidious evils of exceptionalism. Like, “Look, this is a problem in what you believe about yourself. There is a believability gap between what is actually happening. Your average Wakandan probably thinks they’re still the shit. But you’re rebuilding the third dig site off the Vibranium mound, so something happened there that you can’t ignore.
Coates: That’s how I felt coming into the comic book. I thought it would be dishonest to just start up again and say hey the king is the king and everything’s great and everybody’s all right. Oh and I left off, oh and by the way, by the way, as far as we know, Shuri died in battle. The Queen was killed. I mean come on!
Kotaku: But everything’s great. Yeah. Exactly.
Coates: Yeah, but everything’s great. It felt really dishonest to come in there…his uncle S’Yan got killed by Doom? Then you come in here and it’s like, “Oh no, it’s all good.” It’s all good again. Everything’s OK.” I just felt like you couldn’t do that. W’Kabi’s dead? Azzuri’s dead?
All these guys are gone and I felt like that is trauma. It’s clear there’s been some trauma here. I felt I had to write from that perspective. If I had come in at a different time maybe I would have felt differently but I felt like oh no, no, no, no. There’s no way that this can hold…this can’t stand.
Kotaku: You also have the opportunity to show that Wakanda isn’t a monoculture. A lot of times in the past, there’s been storylines where there have been seeds of discord sown in the country. But, for the most part, it’s a place where the Avengers of other heroes show up, they’re wowed by the technology, and they get what the need for T’Challa and then they bounce and you don’t get a sense of the lay of the land. And now you have a chance to show that.
Coates: No. That’s not going to happen here. There are guest appearances from other people and other groups and that sort of thing but not in a way that people would expect. The usual thing that happens is that T’Challa has some trouble at home. It’s bad for a little while. He solves it. And everybody worships him. I’m not saying what’s going to happen but whatever drama you see happening in every issue that will have consequence. It will not be all made up and everything will go away. Every single issue where stuff happens, when bad things happen or good things happen, they will have consequence. And I’m trying to write that way. I’m really trying to write with intention and consequence.
Kotaku: Part of me was wondering how do you reconcile your vision of T’Challa with Priest’s? On one hand, it’s not that different. But, on the other hand, Priest was presenting us a master planner and now you’re presenting a character who gets surprised by a revolt.
Coates: It literally opens with revolt. When I was a kid… right now, Wolverine is dead. But he used to be seen as a sort-of-immortal, always-wins character, can’t be killed. That was always a part of him. But man he would take some hits, he would get his arse whopped by Sabertooth. That was something you had to see.
Priest would have T’Challa get his arse whopped by Killmonger and that sort of thing. I don’t want him to have all the answers. That’s just not interesting to me. I have a hard time writing that. I have a hard time putting my heart into anybody with all the answers.
It don’t really feel human to me. I I don’t have to write from the perspective of getting people to take T’Challa seriously. That’s not my challenge. People already do take him seriously.
People are clearly looking to see something written on this dude. I have the luxury of doing other things. One thing I will say — I think this came out of the challenge of having a white audience pick up the book — it was also hard for me in that book in places to get to T’Challa the character because I felt like I was pushing through five pages of Everett K. Ross like every issue.
Kotaku: We’ve talked about this privately. I was going to ask you that question. But yeah.
Coates: It was tough for me to get to, “OK, who is he though? Who was this dude?” And I think what Priest was doing, a) you got this white audience, and I think on top of that, what he was trying to construct was a mystique. When you do a mystique the functions of this cat are not as important. You actually want him out of a move a little bit.
Kotaku: It has to be opaque and inaccessible.
Coates: Yeah, but I wanted to write an intimate book. I’m going to push that more in the coming seasons because I don’t think I quite got there as close as I wanted. I didn’t get to his heart in the first season.
Kotaku: One beat on Everett K. Ross I wanted to hit: it’s interesting to me how that’s still a thing. Not necessarily about comics. I’m talking about Don Cheadle has to have Ewan McGregor be a white Rolling Stone reporter in his Miles Davis movie.
Coates: Yeah, yeah, give it to me raw. Let me just see the dude. I came to see the dude.
Kotaku: There’s enough there to hold my attention. But again, I’m biased. I’m a big jazz head. Whatever. I just want the whole history. But it is a thorn in an otherwise potentially beautiful rose. It’s like all right, you need to place a non black person close to the center of what is a black story so that somebody feels like it’s more marketable. Just when you feel you’ve left those days behind it’s kind of a…
Coates: We’re kind of getting there, Evan! You know. My man Al Ewing when he was doing Mighty Avengers, he was damn near writing a black book. He basically was writing a black book. And he’s kind of writing one now with The Ultimates.
And even with the new Power Man and Iron Fist, it’s remarkable to me because Danny is actually playing the kind of goofy role that black dudes usually play. Do you know what I mean?
Kotaku: When I wrote up the first issue I was like, “Yeah, they switched roles.”
Coates: They really did.
Kotaku: Before Luke was the one liable to pop off at any minute on some, “Don’t mess with me shit.” Now that’s Danny. That’s hilarious.
Coates: And Cage is the straight man. It’s funny!
Kotaku: Yep. He’s a family man. He’s like, “OK, cool tempers, cool heads.” Yeah, it’s really, really funny. OK, I’m going straight-up nerd shit on this one. The Midnight Angels armour. I saw those wings and I go, “Those look just like the wings that T’Challa gave Sam for the old-school Falcon costume.” Is stuff like that in your head?
Coates: That’s Stelfreeze. That’s Stelfreeze. The Midnight Angels is not mine, it’s either Hudlin’s or Mayberry’s concept and I pulled that from them.
I don’t think they had armour though. It was supposed to be — and ended up not being this — four villains in the book and one of them was going to wear armour and another one of them was going to be a scientist or an engineer for the person and that person got cut. That didn’t quite make it in the book. Maybe next season. So I was left with this armour and I told Stelfreeze what I wanted and he did the damn thing.
Kotaku: We have to sidebar for a minute because again when I heard he was doing interiors for this book I was like, “Wow. They’re about it.” Because he’s been a cover specialist for much of his career. And rightfully so because he’s an amazing cover artist.
He draws interiors really, really, well. Seeing some of his tweets, I wanted to ask you about that, about the history of the weaponry and metallurgy, Wakanda metallurgy. How much of that is collaborative and how much is that coming from him?
Coates: It’s incredibly collaborative. He was tweeting tonight and he was so into the character, the way that Wakandans really talk. [laughs] And that’s how he is on email. I came up with the plot, the basic plot I got that. But that’s not a story. This happened, this happened, this happened, is not really a story.
And to a large extent even sometimes I will see his stuff and I will say, “Oh, maybe this happened.” He said we might want to do something with the fact that Vibranium absorbs energy. I was actually thinking of Sebastian Shaw from the X-Men books. I said, “What if he could push it back out? What if he could actually use this in different ways or different people could use it?” Both him and Will were like, “That’s it! That’s it!”
Had Brian not even talked about the whole Vibranium absorption qualities thing. That’s collaborative. Him saying, you know what, I think in the original script, when the rebellion breaks out, I wrote, if I didn’t write it in the script it was in my beat sheet, that when I was writing it that they had guns. He said, “No they don’t use guns. This is something different.”
We have guns later in the arc but that is used to differentiate the Wakandas from other people who were there. I was like, “Damn! OK.” He is a good concept person. For the basics of actually making this stuff look beautiful and original, yeah, he got that. But in terms of imagining the world, Brian is stellar.
Kotaku: That leads me into one of the questions I wanted to ask you about craft. When you tweet about comics now you’ve clearly gone all in. There’s a lot of enthusiasm for what you’re able to do now. How has going from fan to pro deepened your understanding of the craft? What preconception did you have that got totally blown up once you started doing it.
Coates: I didn’t know what a letterer did. Like why do you need a colorist? [laughs] Like I am really into colorists right now, like that’s my shit because after I saw what Laura did. We got the inks back from Brian, it’s like, “Oh my God, this is gorgeous. We should just run it as black and white. It’s beautiful.” But then what I saw what Laura did I was like, “Goddamn!” You can really see it. The cat — I can’t remember his name — I know him because I was talking to Will about him, he does the colours for The Wicked and the Divine. If you give me a second, I’ll probably figure out who it is. But that dude, Jesus does he bring that book to life.
Kotaku: Yeah. It’s amazing.
Coates: Matt Wilson, that’s the colorist’s name. It’s incredible man. It’s such a gorgeous looking palette that he’s using. That sort of thing I didn’t understand that. I didn’t get it. I probably thought…well I knew this wasn’t true before I went in. I probably thought basically that the writer wrote some shit down and the artist just went and drew it. That’s the sort of thing you think when you don’t know anything.
By the time I started writing, I knew it wasn’t that simple. But I didn’t know the amount of collaborative activity which is not something I really have in writing right now. Most of the time it’s just me by myself. So that aspect of it has been just tremendous.
Kotaku: Let’s talk about your reading habits. You are one of the people — no offence but it cracks me up — who are Marvel hardcore.
Coates: I know. Too much. I feel bad about it.
Kotaku: We’ve talked about comics off and on over the years and you never talk about DC at all.
Coates: I don’t. I don’t.
Kotaku: That’s hilarious to me. I’m kind of agnostic at this point but growing up I was a DC head. The history, the legacy of the characters. You have like Jay Garrick who was there in the ’40s and did they reinvent the Flash as Barry Allen in the ’60s and then you get Wally West. The mantle gets passed on. The thing about DC that I loved was the history. The idea that you get to watch these characters evolve over time and sometimes pass the baton. It’s the exact thing that I think made a lot of people and a lot of black readers feel like they were corny. Really? This man Superman has been around for 50-60 years, corny boy scout who does not feel connected to the black experience in any way shape or form.
Coates: That’s my weakness. I know that I’m losing on that. Like I’m missing things. There are things that I would know that I would be a better writer if I read more DC. I’m going to have to at some point. I’m going to have to deal with Frank Miller. I just am.
Kotaku: You and I were going back on Twitter about Born Again, but I’m like, “Has this dude read Batman: Year One? Because it’s the same team. It’s Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli.
Coates: Born Again is incredible. Oh my God.
Kotaku: It’s something I’ve been having a lot of soul searching with. But with Frank Miller’s legacy, to do it when he was on for that 10-whatever-year period, that’s deeply foundational material for me. Today I’m glad he’s creating still. I’m glad he’s healthy and still putting out work. Is it as good as his stuff in his heyday? I don’t think so.
Yeah, he’s said some nasty political things and he seems philosophically to espouse views that are tough to swallow.” But I can’t leave Born Again behind. I’m sorry.
Coates: I don’t think you should, either. Listen, if black people decided that they were not going to read anybody whoever espoused some degree of racism we would be in trouble.
We would not consume any art from anyone whoever said something racist we would be in a lot of trouble. Much of the Western canon would be off limits to us. Saying you love Born Again isn’t the same as saying I love Frank Miller the person and I agree with his political views. All it’s saying is this dude wrote a great comic. That seems undeniable.
Kotaku: To me, mechanically, it is a high-level work. You can tell he is writing for a particular artist and a particular style at that point.
Coates: I saw Jessica Jones before I read Born Again.
Kotaku: Really? Interesting.
Coates: Yeah. I was really disappointed in Nuke after I knew what he had done to this character.
Kotaku: I am coming from the exact opposite experience where I read Born Again years ago and they said Officer Simpson, and I didn’t think a thing of it. I was like, “Oh yeah, Simpson. Ordinary name.”
They even tease you even more like, “Oh, I did special forces.” Whatever. [laughs] It wasn’t until he says, “Give me a red.” I was like, “It’s Nuke! And it was sitting there in front of me the whole time.” It’s funny because I had just started watching Daredevil season two last night and I’m two episodes in.
Coates: I hear it’s great.
Kotaku: It’s interesting because I’m interacting with so many different people now that some of my coworkers are just starting to get into this stuff. One of them was like, “Yeah, watching Daredevil after watching Jessica Jones just seems boring.” I’m like, “I can see where you’re coming from but the tonalities in what they are trying to achieve are very different.”
And for me this is a continuation and interpretation of Matt Murdock that I feel is really interesting whereas borderline self-destructive and he’s telling everybody, “I’m doing this for the right reason.” Really? Are you?
Coates: Yeah. I can’t wait to get into it. I thought Jessica Jones was remarkable.
Kotaku: It’s amazing.
Coates: I thought that was a leap forward as far as a televised narrative.
Kotaku: I agree 100 per cent.
Coates: I thought they did really, really well with the limitations of what you can do on TV. When I finished that season and walked away I was like sad.
Kotaku: Me too. I’m like, “How long am I going to have to wait for more of this?”
Coates: Yeah. I was depressed for like a week about that shit.
Kotaku: It’s like, “OK, it’s going to be at least a year even with this crazy Netflix schedule and that’s too long. For me it’s interesting in how are they going to make all of this stuff fit together? Like tonally and thematically.
Coates: Well they have got to do The Defenders. How are they going to do that?
Kotaku: Right. It’s going to be super interesting. If I had my druthers T’Challa would be the center of a West Wing style show with superhero shit on the side. All I want is some of that to be in the movie.
Coates: I talked to Ryan a little bit and I think he’s going to do something grand. I really do. I have high expectations. I just know his talent and where he’s going.
Kotaku: That’s very heartening to hear.
Coates: I think you’ll be very happy. I think everybody will be very happy. I think they picked the perfect guy to do this.
Kotaku: Yeah, Chadwick is amazing. Again, 42 wasn’t great but it was little bit what I like to call the vanilla nobility, the cinematic interpretation of black people where it’s like, “Yep, look how noble we are. Nothing fazes us.” Something about that renders us less than human I think because you don’t give the full scope of human emotion. But I’m like, “Look, he did that thing. He had the kind of stoic, simmering thing. I don’t know if you remember this movie, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. It was a buddy movie with Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer. I forget who the director was. But when I saw that movie I was like, “Oh wait. He can do this.”
The movie came out a few months or a year before or so before they announced his casting as Tony Stark. When I saw that news, I was like, “I don’t know.” But then I saw that movie and I was like, “He can do this. He can be Tony Stark.” And I feel like Chadwick, his previous performances have been gotten me thinking “OK, he can do this.”
Coates: Yeah, I think he can.
Kotaku: Who do you feel people need to be checking for in terms of comics creators? The funny thing about you is your rekindling the love affair with the medium and you’re approaching it with fresh eyes.
Coates: The Vision is the best comic book going right now as far as I’m concerned.
Kotaku: Tom King. I put you on to homeboy, didn’t I?
Coates: No! You did through Omega Men but I just got into that series.
Kotaku: Because you’re like, “Ugh a DC book.”
Coates: Yeah, no-no, but I did. Because you wrote about Omega Men, I’ve just started with it. I’m actually having a little hard time. I feel a little lost but I’m only on issue #2. So I’m thinking I’m going to find my way.
But that cat, I mean, I was actually talking to Will Moss, my editor at Marvel, he said that’s completely Tom’s idea. That book, to actually come out with that idea, I looked at the cover and was like, “The Vision, what the hell?” From page one you’re like, “Oh no, he’s doing something else. This is something different.”
Kotaku: You’re an old head like me. I have to wonder if he’s doing a sly commentary on The Vision and Scarlet Witch series from the 1980s. They had kids. They were only babies. But they were trying to live like normal people. That was part of the hook of the book. And they were married. I was like, “This is what it will look like when superheroes get domesticated.”
Coates: That’s probably what it is. I think they got it mixed in with a little bit of Pleasantville or something like that.
Kotaku: The stuff that is amazing to me is that he foreshadows all of this stuff. He foreshadows what happens to Grim Reaper from page two and it still has all the impact.
Coates: That’s what I mean. This dude is writing with intent. When I teach I often tell the kids like, the reader should feel like like the write is taking them on a tour like through a jungle but the writer knows where everything is. The writer knows where every tree is, every root is, every branch. What the sun looks like at this particular point in the afternoon.
Where the mountains are. Everything. And when I read that dude, I’m like, “Oh, you’re taking me somewhere. And you know where you’re going. I don’t have to know.” That’s actually quite a relief in terms of some of the stress and suspense. Because it’s like, “Well I know I’ll find out when I’m supposed to find out.”
Kotaku: Also, so many times in episodic serialized fiction, you get that sense that the jig is up and the people don’t know what they’re doing. Like, “Oh, you didn’t have this all planned out beforehand. You’re making it up as you go along and you lost the plot.”
Coates: And now I know that that actually happens in comics by the way. [laughs] That is a thing that happens. That is an actual thing that happens. The writer didn’t know how it ends. But I don’t think you should write that way. [laughs] There are books that don’t sell too well that I’m reading a lot. Josh Williamson’s Illuminati book, that team of super-villains, but I’m actually reading that. Nick Spencer.
Kotaku: Yeah, I love Nick Spencer’s stuff a lot.
Coates: His Ant-Man book is really, really good. The Wicked and Divine, which I think is just fascinating shit.
Kotaku: I wrote a piece about this. The thing about The Wicked and The Divine that I like is I feel like it is a treatise on fan culture. Like what it means to be a fan.
Coates: That’s totally what it is. And the fact that you make people gods and the gods are disposable. They disappear in two years. That’s totally what it is. Bitch Planet is right there with it.
Kotaku: Yeah, I love that book too. The gender commentary and all that stuff is front-loaded. But the thing I love about it is it’s so grindhouse, like a women’s prison movie.
Coates: I know. It is.
Kotaku: It’s got this really nasty pulp sensibility running through it. That is, “Who are these people are being screwed up to each other.”
Coates: But I’ll say this about Kelly first of all. What Kelly does in that book is she writes women. She’ll have women buck naked in that book and they’re clearly not drawn for me. Like the woman is not there to be seen by me. And I can tell her how she did it.
We did this thing with Aneka and Ayo in the book. I remember writing to Brian the moment when they kissed, I told him, I said listen, it can’t be like porno for us. We got to try and do it for them. It can’t be showing off for us. We really got to do this.
Kotaku: It was achieved. It was kind of understated and organic. Again, if we can talk about what came before. It’s super interesting to me that we have Dora Milaje characters who are romantically involved with each other because again the big plot twist with them was one fell in love with the king.
And part of the thing that struck me reading the first issue was the way you were approaching black women in these female characters because you’ve been tweeting about Ramonda, Ramonda, Ramonda, and I honestly thought you were going somewhere else.
Don’t spoil anything for me but I thought her allegiance was going to be questionable because the thing about Ramonda that is so fascinating to me in the Black Panther mythos is she’s an outsider. She’s from South Africa. She’s not a native of Wakanda.
So that moment in issue #1 where she basically renders a death sentence for Anika was stunning to me because it’s like, “Oh I see you don’t have the empathy of the person who was once rejected by this society. You have the zealotry of the person who has gone native.
Coates: The other thing to remember about that scene, although it’s not stated, but it’s within the texture of the book, she has that power because they have been so decimated. His inner circle has been…he lost his uncle, he lost his two boys. Going through all of the cataclysms that they have suffered. By the time, you get through this book they are back on it.
So she has to take on some duties she would not normally take on. She is delivering justice. And they say this, in a time of emergency. This is the last thing we need right now for ya’ll to being going rouge like this. How just do you think it was? We cannot afford this.
We’ve got to set an example. Y’all supposed to set an example. You’re the Dora Milaje. If I let you go off, then everybody goes off. And what you said about being an outsider, it only reinforces that more.
Kotaku: I know how precious this thing, that generation of people who built is, like I found sanctuary here, whatever. And I need to protect it.
Coates: Exactly. That’s it.
Kotaku: Why do you think non-comics readers, people who are only familiar with your nonfiction work, should pick this up?
Coates: Well, if they are at all interested in the questions I was trying to answer in my nonfiction they should pick this up because I don’t know that the questions have changed any. It’s refracted through a different lens but I’m deeply concerned about the capacity of human government.
And as didactic as that sounds, that’s obviously not the story but that’s animating the story. That’s what animates a lot of stories. You know a theme in comic books is often a very, very real world technical issue that is actually animating the story. It’s no different here. I think what T’Challa is dealing with over the next few issues is no different than some of the things that we would see and that we have seen in a while. I don’t know. I think that.
I think Brian is a beautiful artist. I think it’s going to be a hell of a thing to look at. I think this is going to be a gorgeous looking book. What I really, really appreciate about colouring books too is that space of being able to do some incredible shit that we can’t actually quite do or film yet.
There will be moments like that all through the book. I hope I did a really good job of having T’Challa interrogate himself over the next 11 to 12 issues. I hope he becomes a deeply compelling character. I think people are going to absolutely love Ayo and Aneka. I think that is going to be a lot of fun for people. I think that is going to be entertaining. And I think it will be all right.
Kotaku: But again, you also run the risk of alienating a lot of people who love this character because of previous interpretations.
Coates: Yeah, you’re talking about in terms of the angle I chose because of the way I’m going at it?
Coates: [pauses] Yeah, maybe.
Kotaku: [laughs] But you can’t be too concerned about that? I imagine.
Coates: No, you can’t. I just think if you want him to be a serious character…I’m not saying I got it right. But listen, my favourite Storm in the X-Men is Storm without her powers. That Storm was an incredibly complicated character. Maybe at her lowest point she was still a badass.
Kotaku: She took Scott out.
Coates: Right. She took Scott out. I think you can’t be perfect. I just want him to be a compelling character. These are my roots. My Spiderman was a guy down on his luck and was struggling and was going through shit. My T’Challa would come up out of that place. It’s hard for me to construct something that is not that. I can’t just have him going from being awesome to being awesome to being awesome to being awesome. That’s just not my experience.