Ta-Nehisi Coates on ‘Black Panther’ and Creating a Comic That Reflects the Black Experience

We spoke to the acclaimed journalist and author about how he made 'Black Panther' into a searing reflection of the world today.

by J. A. Micheline
Apr 5 2016, 4:00am

Illustration by Armando Veve

Illustration by Armando Veve

There are some combinations that make sense as soon as you hear them. The announcement that Ta-Nehisi Coates would be writing Black Panther for Marvel Comics was one. For readers of Coates's work in the Atlantic, where he is a columnist, or just on Twitter, this would have seemed like a natural, even magical progression. Comic books appear everywhere in his discourse—but that's not what makes the magic. It's who Coates is and who Black Panther is too.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is not just a self-described comics fan but the premier writer on blackness and anti-blackness in America. Meanwhile Black Panther is not just king of Wakanda, an Afrofuturist African nation, but also the first black superhero to appear in mainstream American comics. You'd be hard pressed to find a more perfect union, and retailers have been stocking the shelves in preparation.

That said, this union takes place during a turbulent time in comics and in America, when marginalized groups are pushing back with visible strength and anger, from Black Lives Matter to #OscarsSoWhite. Some may point to Marvel's efforts to represent blackness on the page, but Coates remains one of only two black writers working at Marvel Comics, and the institution has drawn fire in the last year for its handling of black issues.

Amid this backdrop of excitement, magic, and critique, I caught up with Coates over the phone to discuss his work on Black Panther, writing out of an African-American experience, his take on the controversies, and whether we might ever see T'Challa at a Black Lives Matter rally.

VICE: Your most recent book, Between the World and Me, opens in a way that is, to me, very important. It begins with the word "son." The audience is your son, a black young man. If white audiences choose to listen in, they may, but you're clear from the start: This was written without them in mind. I have to admit: I actually shied away from reading a lot of your work until that book. I knew you weren't writing explicitly for white audiences, but I still thought that your work was not "for me"—that is, given your mainstream platform, I didn't think you were saying anything that I, an angry black woman, wouldn't already know. I used to believe that challenging myself was the only way forward, but I've since learned my limits, since learned that sometimes I need affirmation. So I have a question about audience that's probably going to sound more polarizing than I mean it to be: Is this Black Panther for us? Or has it been made with whiteness in mind?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: [Laughs] That's a great question. You know, I learned something from Between the World and Me. I think it's something I already knew and probably should have taken to heart: You get to the universal by the specific.

I'm black. I'm from West Baltimore. I've lived in black communities all my life; it's the experience I know. I can't help but pull from that. It's a part of me, but I think the notion that by writing out of an African-American experience, it necessarily means no one else will want to see it—that's probably a false dichotomy. So, I would say: "Yes, it is 'for us,'" but in the course of being 'for us,' it becomes for everyone.

"We have this kiss between two women in the first issue, and I wrote to Brian: 'It shouldn't be like softcore porn. It should be tender. It should be beautiful. It should be human.' We had to talk about how it would look to the women as opposed to how it would look to us."

You can take Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God as an example. It's written firmly within the black experience, but I don't think there's anything about that book—and I think time has proven this to be true—that has prevented people who are not black from reading it, from enjoying it, from inhaling it. I was lucky enough to see Ryan Coogler's Creed a couple of weeks ago—he's going to be directing the Black Panther movie—and Creed is a movie that is firmly rooted in the African-American experience. And it's very, very clearly an American film.

So I guess I don't recognize the same dichotomy. I think we write out of our experiences if we're writing right. If we're writing from anything else, we're not really being true.

A page from 'Black Panther' #1, written by Ta-Nehisi Coates and drawn by Brian Stelfreeze. Courtesy of Marvel Comics

There's a lot of care required when depicting black bodies—ours are political and how they are used, visually, has played a role in our lives in a life-or-death capacity. Could you talk a bit more about your development process with artist Brian Stelfreeze?
Maybe I had too much confidence about this, but I wasn't too worried about the bodies of the black dudes. I felt like I was on pretty good terrain with that.

Instead, we talked a lot—between me, Brian, and our editor Will Moss—about the things that we have to do being three dudes working on this. Four, including our associate editor, Chris Robinson. (We have one woman on our creative team, colorist Laura Martin.) There's an angle dealing with, for lack of a better word, feminist issues in the book. I wanted to take great, great care with the depiction of the bodies of women because of where the storyline is going. I didn't want to have women at the center of the story, to have them partially leading it, and then have the depiction be, how shall we say, problematic.

I just wanted to make sure we were depicting folks the way they should be. Not just in images but even in my own writing. We have this kiss between two women in the first issue, and I wrote to Brian: "It shouldn't be like softcore porn. It should be tender. It should be beautiful. It should be human." There'll be a bunch of dudes reading the book from the dude gaze, like, "Oh, it's two women kissing!" and that was the really thing we had to talk about: how it would look to the women as opposed to how it would look to us.

"My politics are my politics. You probably won't see T'challa at a Black Lives Matter rally. That doesn't mean Black Lives Matter isn't important, but it's not on top."

In the first issue, women and queerness are central to the narrative that's unfolding. This is a relief, since so often they are left out of the equation on every front, but especially because Marvel's stance on queer representation was recently called into question. Could you say a little about that choice?
I remember having a conversation with Axel. Axel is a fan of the Dora Milaje—Black Panther's all-female bodyguards—and I wasn't a fan initially. But, the more I read, the more I liked. To be frank with you, though, something about their origin sort of bothered me when I thought about the real world. The Dora Milaje are raised to be the bodyguards for Black Panther, for the king of Wakanda, but depending on whose rendition you're looking at, they're also raised to potentially become his wife. And when you write stories, you try to pull from real life, right? You think, OK, let's bring that as close to reality as we can. Even recognizing that it's a comic book, what would that look like? What would it mean? Given what I know of men in the real world and what I know of men throughout history, that's a situation that's ripe for abuse. So it occurred to me that some of the Dora Milaje might have issues with that.

Sometimes people are willing to let go of parts of themselves or their desire to have certain rights if you can give them security. But all this chaos has happened in Wakanda, despite the fact that this is the place they said would never be conquered, Wakanda doesn't even seem to have security that they were promised. The king has failed to give them that.

So you might have two people who love each other but can never be public about their relationship, who say, "Well, OK, I'm willing to take that loss for my country." But what happens when they don't even have a country anymore?

So, really, I thought about it from the storytelling perspective. Of course, politics are in the background and I'm not saying politics are alienated from that. But I wasn't thinking, Let's make a statement here, you know? I was trying to imagine the society as fully as I could possibly imagine it.

That's the thing about representation, right? By accurately reflecting the world we live in, you end up doing it anyway.
Yeah, you can't escape it. One of the great arguments in favor of diversity and diverse representation is that when you're not doing it, you actually aren't reflecting the world. Representation actually has a storytelling impact. It's not just a matter of social justice—it's actually a matter of good storytelling.

A page from 'Black Panther' #1, written by Ta-Nehisi Coates and drawn by Brian Stelfreeze. Courtesy of Marvel Comics

So, I wanted to talk about your work with Marvel here because they've gotten some flack in the last year for their track record with black creators, their appropriative use of hip-hop in their variant covers, and their general dismissal of black critique. How did these controversies impact your decision to work with them?
It didn't, really. I mean, I love the hip-hop covers! I'm telling you this sitting in the Marvel offices, but this is me speaking right here.

You gotta understandand in fact, I actually wrote about this before I was contracted by MarvelI was born in the 1970s and came up in the 1980s. Marvel was one of the few places you could see black heroes. They weren't really on TV or in the movies, but they were there in Marvel's comics and weirdly (or perhaps there's some synergy there) in hip-hop.

Marvel was where I saw Rhodey. Marvel was where I saw Storm. Marvel was where I saw Luke Cageeven with his problematic depiction at the time. Marvel was where I saw Misty Knight. And that's just black folks. That's not even speaking to anybody else's experiences.

You can go back and forth on how those folks were depicted and have critiques of that, but they also didn't exist anywhere else. That wasn't a conversation that could be had, say, about primetime television. It couldn't even get to the level of "how are these folks being depicted?" because they just weren't there. For me, in terms of diversity, Marvel was one of the high points.

As a kid, I had comic books and hip-hop. And anybody who knows anything about hip-hop knows that hip-hop for years has borrowed from comic booksand specifically, by and large, from Marvel. Anybody that's ever listened to an MF Doom record knows he's sampling and pulling from Marvel cartoons. And that's to say nothing of Wu Tang, with Ghostface Killah calling himself Tony Stark and Iron Man and all of that.

I understand why people might be upset about seeing a corporation use that to sell their stuff, but, to me, it felt like the most natural thing. It didn't feel bizarre or strange. It felt really, really appropriate. But, of course, behind that is a question of "Well, Marvel's doing this but what does their writing staff look like? What does their art staff look like?"

I'm part of another organization, the Atlantic, in a much deeper way and I have to tell you: We all struggle with it. We all struggle and if I was to compare who's writing and drawing at Marvel with who's writing and editing at the Atlantic, I don't know that we would have looked any better. That doesn't make it OK. But it's an across-the-board struggle, I think.

"Representation actually has a storytelling impact. It's not just a matter of social justice—it's actually a matter of good storytelling."

I'm curious, given your journalistic and critical background, what it's been like taking the theory of your work and putting it into narrative practice with the additional duty to entertain.
In journalism, the storytelling is always there. There's always a narrative. There's always a story, but, of course, the political point you're trying to make is much more prominent. But when you're writing fiction, your politics are in the back of your head. It's not like I'm going out of my way to show X, Y, and Z—discussion is baked into the writing. First and foremost, I want to write an exciting, deeply engrossing book. My politics are my politics and, you know, for example, you probably won't see T'Challa at a Black Lives Matter rally. That doesn't mean Black Lives Matter isn't important, but it's not on top. I'm trying to tell a good story. That has to be the most important thing.

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Black Panther is out in stores April 6.