Ta-Nehisi Coates to Write Black Panther Comic for Marvel
Ta-Nehisi Coates can be identified in many ways: as a national correspondent for The Atlantic, as an author and, as of this month, as a nominee for the National Book Award’s nonfiction prize. But Mr. Coates also has a not-so-secret identity, as evidenced by some of his Atlantic blog posts and his Twitter feed: Marvel Comics superfan.
So it seems only natural that Marvel has asked Mr. Coates to take on a new Black Panther series set to begin next spring. Writing for that comics publisher is a childhood dream that, despite the seeming incongruity, came about thanks to his day job. “The Atlantic is a pretty diverse place in terms of interest, but there are no comics nerds,” besides himself, Mr. Coates said in an interview.
His passions intersected in May, during the magazine’s New York Ideas seminar, when he interviewed Sana Amanat, a Marvel editor, about diversity and inclusion in comic books. Ms. Amanat led the creation of the new Ms. Marvel, a teenage Muslim girl living in Jersey City, based on some of her own childhood experiences.
“It was a fruitful discussion,” he recalled.
After that event, Marvel reached out, paired Mr. Coates with an editor, and discussions about the comic began. The renewed focus on Black Panther is no surprise. Created in 1966, he is the first black superhero and hails from Wakanda, a fictional African country.
“He has the baddest costume in comics and is a dude who is smarter and better than everyone,” said Axel Alonso, the editor in chief of Marvel. The character not only adds to the diversity of Marvel’s comics; he will do it for their films too: Black Panther is set to make his big-screen debut next year in “Captain America: Civil War,” followed by a solo feature in 2018.
At first glance, it may seem odd for Mr. Coates to write a mainstream superhero comic. He has been lauded for his book “Between the World and Me,” a passionate letter to his son on being black in America. But he does not see anything odd about it. “I don’t experience the stuff I write about as weighty,” he said. “I feel a strong need to express something. The writing usually lifts the weight. I expect to be doing the same thing for Marvel.”
“A Nation Under Our Feet,” the yearlong story line written by Mr. Coates and drawn by Brian Stelfreeze, is inspired by the 2003 book of the same title by Steven Hahn. It will find the hero dealing with a violent uprising in his country set off by a superhuman terrorist group called the People. “It’s going to be a story that repositions the Black Panther in the minds of readers,” Mr. Alonso said. “It really moves him forward.”
Mr. Coates’s enthusiasm for Marvel started when he was a boy. Marvel was “an intimate part of my childhood and, at this point, part of my adulthood,” he said. “It was mostly through pop culture, through hip-hop, through Dungeons & Dragons and comic books that I acquired much of my vocabulary.”
Mr. Coates, 39, began reading comics in the mid-1980s and was introduced to three minority characters: Storm, the leader of the X-Men; Monica Rambeau, who had taken on the name Captain Marvel; and James Rhodes, who was Iron Man. “They were obviously black,” he recalled, but it was not made into a big deal. Still, he said: “I’m sure it meant something to see people who looked like me in comic books. It was this beautiful place that I felt pop culture should look like.”
Diversity — in characters and creators — is a drumbeat to which the comic book industry is increasingly trying to march. Marvel recently announced the December start of “The Totally Awesome Hulk,” whose title character is Amadeus Cho, a genius Korean-American scientist who will find himself transforming into that emerald behemoth. The book is written by Greg Pak and drawn by Frank Cho, both of whom are Korean-American. (“My wife is Korean, so I scored massive points,” Mr. Alonso said.)
Over at DC, Cyborg, who is black, is starring in his own series (and a film in 2020), and Beth Ross is the first female (and teenage) commander in chief in the biting satire “Prez.” This month Image Comics released “Virgil,” a graphic novel by Steve Orlando and J. D. Faith, about a black, gay cop in the not-so-inclusive Kingston, in Jamaica. “Showing different faces under the masks is very important for everyone,” Mr. Alonso said.
But it all begins with the quality of the story, and Mr. Coates is ecstatic for the challenge. This writing assignment was not about “trying to please 12-year-old me,” he said. Another inspiration, he added, is the work of Jonathan Hickman on “Secret Wars” and “the depth he’s able to get from characters.”
“You don’t come in off the board and come in at that level,” he said of Mr. Hickman’s work. “But it helps to want it to be great. I want to make a great comic. I really, really do.”