Last year I was offered the opportunity to script an 11-issue series of Black Panther, for Marvel. The Black Panther—who, when he debuted in an issue of Fantastic Four, in 1966, was the first black superhero in mainstream American comics—is the alter ego of T’Challa, the king of Wakanda, a mythical and technologically advanced African country. By day, T’Challa mediates conflicts within his nation. By night, he battles Dr. Doom. The attempt to make these two identities—monarch and superhero—cohere has proved a rich vein for storytelling by such creators as Jack Kirby, Christopher Priest, and Reginald Hudlin. But when I got the call to write Black Panther, I was less concerned with character conflict than with the realization of my dreams as a 9-year-old.
Some of the best days of my life were spent poring over the back issues of The Uncanny X-Men and The Amazing Spider-Man. As a child of the crack-riddled West Baltimore of the 1980s, I found the tales of comic books to be an escape, another reality where, very often, the weak and mocked could transform their fallibility into fantastic power. That is the premise behind the wimpy Steve Rogers mutating into Captain America, behind the nerdy Bruce Banner needing only to grow angry to make his enemies take flight, behind the bespectacled Peter Parker being transfigured by a banal spider bite into something more.
But comic books provided something beyond escapism. Indeed, aside from hip-hop and Dungeons & Dragons, comics were my earliest influences. In the way that past writers had been shaped by the canon of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Wharton, I was formed by the canon of Claremont, DeFalco, and Simonson. Some of this was personal. All of the comics I loved made use of two seemingly dueling forces—fantastic grandiosity and ruthless efficiency. Comic books are absurd. At any moment, the Avengers might include a hero drawn from Norse mythology (Thor), a monstrous realization of our nuclear-age nightmares (the Hulk), a creation of science fiction (Wasp), and an allegory for the experience of minorities in human society (Beast). But the absurdities of comics are, in part, made possible by a cold-eyed approach to sentence-craft. Even when the language tips toward bombast, space is at a premium; every word has to count. This big/small approach to literature, the absurd and surreal married to the concrete and tangible, has undergirded much of my approach to writing. In my journalism here at The Atlantic, I try to ground my arguments not just in reporting but also in astute attention to every sentence. It may not always work, but I am really trying to make every one of those 18,000 words count.
These were the principles I observed and extracted as a reader of comic books. But when all the fantasy and reverie faded, and the time to actually write Black Panther came, those principles turned out to be not as primary as I’d thought. An old saw in art and in journalism holds that one should show and not tell. In comic books, the notion is doubly true. Unlike in prose or even poetry, the writer has to constantly think visually. Exposition and backstory exist, but the exigencies of comic-book storytelling demand that they be folded into the action.
Writing here at The Atlantic, I can, say, tell you that:
Daniel Patrick Moynihan, ambassador, senator, sociologist, and itinerant American intellectual, was the product of a broken home and a pathological family. He was born in 1927 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, but raised mostly in New York City. When Moynihan was 10 years old, his father, John, left the family, plunging it into poverty. Moynihan’s mother … worked as a nurse.
But for a comic book, I must get down to the brass tacks of deciding how each beat should look. Is this a narrated series of scenes, illustrated by panels of a baby being born, a father walking out of the house, a nurse leaving her children to go off to work? No, I think it would be better to dramatize everything—perhaps with a young Moynihan waving goodbye to his mother as she leaves for work and then going to his room to look longingly at a picture of his father.
Ideally, the writer offers notes in his script on how the comic book should look. This requires thinking with intention about what a character is actually doing, not merely what he is saying. This is harder than it sounds, and often I found myself vaguely gesturing at what should happen in a panel—“T’Challa looks concerned.” Or “Ramonda stands to object.” I was lucky in that I was paired with a wonderful and experienced artist, Brian Stelfreeze. Storytelling in a comic book is a partnership between the writer and the artist, as surely as a film is a partnership between the screenwriter and the director. Brian, whose art is displayed here, doesn’t just execute the art direction—he edits and remixes it. I decide the overall arc of the story, and the words used to convey that arc—but Brian ultimately decides how the story should look. The script for the second page of Black Panther #1 called for a big, splashy panel depicting a massacre. Brian drew that panel, but he also drew two other, overlapping panels that depicted T’Challa’s realization of the tragedy unfolding around him. Our partnership doesn’t end with the art, either. Brian’s concept drawings for Black Panther ultimately influenced the plot.
Despite the difference in style and practice of storytelling, my approach to comic books ultimately differs little from my approach to journalism. In both forms, I am trying to answer a question. In my work for The Atlantic I have, for some time, been asking a particular question: Can a society part with, and triumph over, the very plunder that made it possible? In Black Panther there is a simpler question: Can a good man be a king, and would an advanced society tolerate a monarch? Research is crucial in both cases. The Black Panther I offer pulls from the archives of Marvel and the character’s own long history. But it also pulls from the very real history of society—from the pre-colonial era of Africa, the peasant rebellions that wracked Europe toward the end of the Middle Ages, the American Civil War, the Arab Spring, and the rise of isis.
And this, too, is the fulfillment of the 9-year-old in me. Reading The Amazing Spider-Man comic books as a kid, I didn’t just take in the hero’s latest amazing feat; I wrestled seriously with his celebrated tagline—“With great power comes great responsibility.” Chris Claremont’s The Uncanny X‑Men wasn’t just about an ultracool band of rebels. That series sought to grapple with the role of minorities in society—both the inner power and the outward persecution that come with that status. And so it is (I hope) with Black Panther. The questions are what motivate the action. The questions, ultimately, are more necessary than the answers.