Ta-Nehisi Coates on Creating Black Superheroes


You must feel a certain level of confidence, or do you try not to reflect until the story is over?

I do think about it but I don’t think it will probably be knowable until a few more years. I don’t mean to impugn anybody that’s buying the series — I really, really appreciate it — but I think, often times, things may not always be appreciated in their time, where it turns out later that this was actually something great. And at the same time, there are probably things that are appreciated in their time that probably don’t pass the test of time.

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Credit
Ross MacDonald

How much of this is the movie? How much of this is Panther’s improved profile right now? How much of this is “Between the World and Me”? I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. What I want people to feel ultimately is that this is part of the entire oeuvre that I put together. I don’t want it to be “Ta-Nehisi just took a break and did comics.” It is not a break for me.

You always seem to be working.

I try to be prolific, but not in a bad way. I don’t want it to be that I was just turning stuff out. With the Crew, I made the decision to put them in the Panther comic relatively early, and we had talked about a series. But unless I had what I thought was a really, really compelling story, and something that was compelling to me, there didn’t feel like that was a reason to do it.

So now you have a story that justifies the spinoff?

I think I’ve hit upon a story that I feel people should read, that people are going to want to read. I think the biggest influence on this book is Ed Brubaker’s work both on Captain America and some stuff he did after he was gone. I’m just hoping — I can’t be Ed Brubaker; there’s only one Ed Brubaker — that it’ll have that influence.

The Black Panther book itself is so steeped in Wakanda, the fictional African country of his birth. Is this a nice break, given that the new book is set in Harlem?

It is, but Wakanda is part of even this story. I like being in Wakanda. I was a big Dungeons & Dragons player when I was a kid. It’s a chance to just go back and be in this world that you create. At the same time, it has these moments where it intersects with the Marvel Universe, which is pretty cool, too.

How does the political climate now affect your writing? Do you save that for — and I’m going to put quotes around this — your “real” writing, your nonfiction writing?

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Ross MacDonald

[Laughs.] It has to influence. I think that is the tradition, actually, for comic book writers. Maybe not for all of them, but certainly the ones to which I was exposed. I think about this all the time. When you take a book like Spider-Man or Daredevil and the big thing is crime fighting, I don’t think that’s distant from the time when those characters were created. During that period, we had this rising crime, and the city was seen a certain way in a way that Manhattan is not seen today.

Even the decision to create Black Panther: It was not an apolitical decision to have this black character in Africa, in this advanced nation, and have him be highly intelligent. All of these were political decisions.

Is there anything along those lines that you’re going to explore in the Crew?

We’ll definitely be exploring this issue of the police — maybe not how people would expect, but we will be.

Do you ever try to write anything that is appealing to a young reader?

That’s hard for me to answer. When I was a kid reading the books, I don’t think they were made for people my age, necessarily. I started reading Marvel when I was 9 or 10. I think the “Mutant Massacre” happened when I was 11 or 12. I don’t know if that stuff was meant for someone my age or if the writers were thinking about that. But I love that stuff. It was provocative.

How do you filter reader reaction to your comic work?

How do I put this? I think, given that I’m writing for myself, it is hard for me to do that. Fans can say whatever, but if I’m not excited by it, I’m not going to do it. I don’t know if this is good or bad, but my excitement is much more important than their excitement. [Laughs.] And I think ultimately their excitement will come from my excitement.

How has the collaboration process been with your artists, Brian Stelfreeze and Chris Sprouse, on the main book, and Butch Guice, on the Crew?

It has been excellent. Brian has been extraordinary, and Chris has been extraordinary. I’ve seen the stuff from Butch and it’s incredible. I used to look at Butch’s stuff when I was a kid. It’s just fascinating now to be working with this guy. I’m in awe. I sent him this note, just gushing.

Is your approach to writing the comic different than your approach to your nonfiction work?

I don’t think so. It still requires an incredible amount of research. I guess writing is always this way: You research and you write, you research and you write.

Is the Crew, a team first published in 2003, something you thought about from the beginning of your Black Panther run?

I wanted to bring back the original Crew, but as it happens, some of those folks were not available. I had to then think about other folks. In the process of doing that it became this thing of, you know, there ain’t no women in the original Crew. That was a different era. This is like 15 years later. I opted to do something a little different. All these people have relationships with Black Panther. That was the big qualification. I wanted Storm to be in the book. He had this previous relationship with Luke Cage, and he had a previous relationship with Manifold. And I think he and Misty worked together before, but she’s probably the least tied in to the Panther world. But she’s tied into Luke Cage, and she’s tied into Storm from way back in the day.

I remember that story.

That’s old school right there. A lot of these characters are also deeply tied to Harlem. Storm’s dad was from Harlem. Cage is from Harlem. That’s how they meet the first time. Harlem wasn’t chosen at random.

What was your inspiration for the Crew story? They were in and out of Black Panther so quickly, I’m glad they are coming back.

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Credit
Ross MacDonald

You’re right about that. And I guess I kind of knew that. Did I know that? Maybe I didn’t know that. I knew I would revisit them again. I knew Marvel was interested in a possible series and maybe I was thinking about it at the time.

I don’t think you should expect a team full of people who are — how do I put this? — die-hard Black Lives Matter people. I think you should expect to read people who are trying to figure out their relationship to Harlem, their relationship, in this arc, to the police and their relationship to the protest movement that they are seeing around them.

The last time we talked, you were thinking about Black Panther ideas during an international flight. How do you get it all done?

I don’t know. I mean, it’s the joy of my life. It’s hard to think about what else would I be doing. I live a very, very simple life. I have my family and I have my work and I have a few friends. That leaves plenty of time.

What is a typical day for you?

I get up in the morning and I usually take a swimming lesson. I’m still trying to learn how to swim, trying to get this figured out. Once, twice or three times a week, if I’m lucky, I see my French professor. And my kid is like 16, so he’s on autopilot. For the most part, the rest of the time is writing. There’s a lot of open space.

And the World of Wakanda is ticking along.

I’m really proud. That’s mostly Roxane, and I think she’s done an excellent job.

Do you think you’re going to recruit any more writers into the industry?

Stay tuned. Stay tuned.

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