It's 2am on March 20 in France and Ta-Nehisi Coates is not sleeping. "I'm up learning to make maps so I can make one of Wakanda, believe it or not." The award-winning writer who's steering the future of one of Marvel's most important characters is taking his job very seriously. "I've been messing around with this software called Fractal Mapper," Coates told me during a phone call two weeks ago. "I was using this other one today but it was too complicated. So I'm trying to come up with something which I'm assuming they will then send to a designer who will do something else with it."
Coates doesn't have to do this. He can write Marvel's new ongoing Black Panther series without figuring out the topography of the character's fictional African homeland of Wakanda. But the Atlantic writer and MacArthur Fellow grant recipient wants to. There are weak spots in the character's publishing history that he's taking the opportunity to correct. "I was going back through the stuff from the '70s, which was mostly before my time, and looking at the maps there," Coates elaborated. "They bear the mark of the time. 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." I laugh at this because I know exactly what he's talking about.
When we were trading messages prior to getting on the phone, he mentioned a problem with maps, and I wondered if he had a beef with Wakanda's supposed location on the African continent. But, no, it's just basic nomenclature that's the problem. "You can't have Panther Island, Piranha Cove, Gorilla Peak. You can't do it, buddy. You can't do it."
I'm glad to hear Coates is taking his mandate so seriously. The Black Panther is my favourite superhero character. More than Batman or even Luke Cage. Ta-Nehisi is someone who I got to know a few years back through mutual friend Chris Jackson, the editor on Coates' books Between the World and Me and The Beautiful Struggle. We knew lots of people in common yet never hung out regularly. I've watched his writing become more and more important from afar. So it took me by surprise when the news came months ago that Ta-Nehisi would be writing Marvel's Black Panther book.
T'Challa wasn't Coates' favourite superhero when he was growing up. That honour went to Spider-Man. "I actually came to him as an adult," Coates says, as we talked about the way the idea of a teenage Peter Parker has persisted for years. "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." And while he's become an ignore-at-your-own-peril writer with regards to how race is lived in America, Coates wasn't thinking about superhero characters in that way. On one hand, he says the Marvel comics of the past "was the only place I could go to see black people doing heroic shit".
But the escapism was the main draw. "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. There was some black people in the [Marvel] 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."
When I asked Coates what he remembered about the Black Panther from his teenage comics-reading, he responded by remembering the character's absence from Marvel's biggest series and events. "Well, he wasn't in a book. He wasn't in Secret Wars," Coates recalled. "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 sounds crazy but they were the B book. But no, he wasn't really around. I know from back issues that he had been [around as an Avenger]. When I first found out about him, I did not make the connection that he was black. It just didn't occur to me. In the period when I was collecting, he just wasn't around really."
The Bland Panther version of T'Challa settles in when he's out of the spotlight and no one in Marvel editorial carries a torch for the character. For years, the Panther was one of those characters who simply had on a mask all the time and spoke with a weird speech pattern. He rarely got the kind of single-issue spotlight where we find out about his past and personal interactions with people. He devolved into a standard-issue, genius-level scientist and super-athlete, interchangeable with Hank Pym, Reed Richards or Tony Stark. The cunning schemes of his debut stories faded away, and there wasn't anything that made him feel unique unto himself outside of some various outlier interpretations. That's where the character was when Coates was in his most dedicated phase of collecting comics.
"I didn't really read him too heavy," Coates said about the Black Panther during that time. Then came the excellent Christopher Priest series. "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." Coates admits that defining Panther run looms large over him and also counts the solo series by Reginald Hudlin and Jonathan Hickman's New Avengers as strong influences. "The whole reason you have a movie right now is because of Priest," he observed. "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 badarse but you know he is going to tell these white folks what time it is. And [other characters] 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."
Coates' run looks like it's going to continue that deconstruction. Black Panther #1 opens with the King of Wakanda facing open revolt in his country and, more chillingly, a widespread lack of faith in his leadership.
The lack of faith extends to the Dora Milaje, the royal guard of elite warrior women drawn from the various tribal regions throughout Wakanda. A Milaje named Aneka faces imprisonment for taking the law into her own hands.
Coates has the primary black women in the Black Panther's inner circle come into conflict with each other, pitting the Dora Milaje against T'Challa's stepmother Ramonda.
The Dora Milaje characters in Issue #1 are romantically involved with each other. Prior to Coates' debut, the biggest plot twist with these characters in previous storylines was when a Milaje named Nakia fell in love with T'Challa.
There was a particular concern when figuring out how to show this scene, sparked in part, Coates says, by Kelly Sue DeConnick's work on Bitch Planet. "What Kelly does in that book is she writes women," Coates said. "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. I remember writing to Brian the moment when they kissed, I told him, '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.'"
I mentioned to Coates that I always found Ramonda to be a fascinating part of the Black Panther mythos because she's an outsider. She's from South Africa and not a native of the Panther's xenophobic homeland.
This opening issue runs counter to what many people love about the Panther after the Priest run. That version of T'Challa was a master planner, but Coates is presenting a character who gets surprised by a revolt. "I don't want him to have all the answers," Coates told me. "Right now, Wolverine is dead. But, when I was a kid 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 whooped by Sabertooth. That was something you had to see. I have a hard time putting my heart into anybody with all the answers. That's just not interesting to me. It doesn't really feel human to me. I think what Priest was doing was trying to construct was a mystique. When you do a mystique, you actually want him at a remove a little bit. But I wanted to write an intimate book. 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."
Coates says that the idea of a more fallible, human king of Wakanda flows directly from previous storylines. "I am really taking seriously what people did before me," he said. "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 and 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 invaded, they could never be taken over," Coates continues. "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.' 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 by the way, by the way, as far as we know, Shuri died in battle. The Queen was killed.' I mean, come on!"
"His uncle S'Yan got killed by Doom? 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."
While Coates has been reading comics his entire life, his new gig has driven him to understand the crafts of comics-making in a deeper way. "I probably thought 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 [Black Panther], 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."
Making the transition from fan to professional has also meant learning to work with artists. "In terms of imagining the world, Brian [Stelfreeze] is stellar," he says of the veteran illustrator he's partnering with on the book. "I think in the original script, when the rebellion breaks out, I wrote 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 Wakandnas from other people who were there. I was like, 'Damn! OK.' He is a good concept person."
"I am really into colourists right now," he continued. "Like, that's my shit after I saw what Laura did. When 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."
Black Panther marks the first time that Coates' fiction writing will be seen by a mass audience. He think that people won over by articles like "The Case for Reparations" will find some of the same existential concerns in this Marvel superhero comic. "If they are at all interested in the questions I'm trying to answer in my non-fiction, they should pick this up, because I don't know that the questions have changed any," Coates said. "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 [what is] animating the story. That's what animates a lot of stories. 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."
A Black Panther who's more embattled and less unflappable runs the risk of alienating people who love this character because of previous interpretations. Coates says his take comes from a place of affection. "I just want him to be a compelling character," he told me. "My Spider-Man was a guy down on his luck and was struggling and was going through shit. These are my roots. 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."