Six Ta-Nehisi Coates Articles to Read Before his Black Panther Run Drops
“I want this to be the best Black Panther run that they’ve done. I want this to be one of the best runs Marvel’s ever done. And I want to elevate the stature of the character.” — Ta-Nehisi Coates on his expectations of Black Panther.
On April 6th a new Black Panther series comes out. The creative team behind it features artist Brian Stelfreeze and writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. I personally have never read a comic starring Black Panther but I know I will be adding it to my limited pull-list, if only to see how a writer as accomplished as Coates puts his spin on the first American mainstream black superhero.
Why should you care if a new series is published that coincides with the cinematic debut of a new character? Blunt answer: Coates is not your average writer. His work at The Atlantic intersects social issues, politics, and culture. His writing does not shy away from the blemishes of history. Instead, he burrows into it. He interrogates his ideas and poses question after question. However, he is not looking for answers. Coates wants to stir action. Coates’ is sharp, poignant, and heavy. The last one is a doozy, the amount of history packed into an article will stir emotions and cause mental fatigue. Sound too high brow for your average comic book reader? Maybe, but if you are willing to grapple with ideas such as representation, privilege, and war you must read Coates’ work before picking up his Black Panther. To spare an ambitious/procrastinating reader, here are six articles that you should read before the first issue of Black Panther drops. These six articles stay away from Coates’ political articles and focus on his creative process and his personal relationship with comic books as a medium.
The first challenge Coates confronts writing Black Panther was to identify what the character is about. For those who do not know, Black Panther is T’Challa, the king of the fictional nation of Wakanda, the most advanced nation of Earth in the Marvel Universe. Coates runs through a cliff notes version of T’Challa and Wakanda’s recent history and asks where does the story go from here? He poses what happens when the unconquerable nation becomes conquered and how does it recover? How does this new truth change the dynamic between a ruler and the people? Coates comes to one conclusion: war.
As a comic book fan, Coates reflects on how the comics he read as a child have influenced him today. He also breaks down the difference between writing an 18000 word article for The Atlantic and an issue of Black Panther. In this comparison he even tells us the questions he is trying answer in both forms.
For The Atlantic: Can a society part with, and triumph over, the very plunder that made it possible?
For Black Panther: Can a good man be a king, and would an advanced society tolerate a monarch?
Both questions require extensive research. In the case of Black Panther, not only does Coates acknowledge he must dive into the history of T’Challa and the stories which have come before, he needs to look at the real world history that was happening when those stories were published. Coates does not shy away from the fact that while comics are grandiose and larger than life they work because they are written in a grounded real life tone.
As excited as Coates’ 9 year old self would be about writing a comic book he does not forget how that same boy contemplated the underlying messages in comics. What does Spider-Man’s tagline mean and what are the consequences of it? How does X-Men present the role of minorities in society? Coates hopes that Black Panther will raise more questions.
“Writing is an act of courage.”
In a four minute interview Coates touches on the importance of pressure on breaking through and finding strength during your breaking points. He dispels any notion that writing is a mystical experience and opts to call it a repeated practice. The key to writing for him? Perseverance.
In this short article Coates explains his struggle with learning a new language or as he explains it, “I felt, as I always feel, like I was stumbling around in the dark. I still feel like that. But I also feel like I am getting better at stumbling.”
Coates views feeling as important as any objective analysis. The feeling of hope and hopelessness is crucial because both feed into a person’s willingness to continue or to quit. He does not believe learning a new language is hard, what is hard is to ignore the feeling that you cannot improve. However, nothing feels better when you do improve. Everything else is The Struggle.
“Even our fairy tales are rarely fairy tales.”
What is the difference between hope and enlightenment? Does enlightenment depend on hope and does hope block intelligence? Coates believes that any type of art that uses hope or despair or any human emotion as a starting point is uninteresting. What he does find interesting is when art uses human emotion to say something greater.
“But when I was eight, the fact that Storm could exist — as she was, and in a way that I knew the rest of society did not accept — meant something.”
Comics are not perfect. They produce great stories. They do stupid and out of touch things. They cancel books if they do not sell and will revamp their entire universe to get more readers. However, their stories are not dependent on multi-million dollar funding like say a Hollywood blockbuster. This allows them to take more risks and use the medium to represent a vast range of characters. Some stories are not meant to be told in any other medium but it will happen as the comic book movie industry grows. Hopefully by then what we see on the screen will match what we have in our comic book collections.