Conceptualizing the Black Panther

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Black Panther concept art (Brian Stelfreeze)

A few months ago, I was fortunate enough to be contracted to work on Marvel’s Black Panther. I didn’t want to say too much before I got started, but now, with a few scripts in, having gotten comfortable with my editors, and having been blown away by Brian Stelfreeze’s art (early sketches of which you see here), I’m feeling a little better. With that in mind, my hope is, from time to time, to update you guys on the process of making the thing.

I guess I should start by saying I’ve never done this before. I expect that there will be stumbles and screw-ups on my part. My nightmare basically involves this turning into some sort of stunt or vanity project. I did not take this on to look pretty, or add a line to my CV. I took it on for the same reason I take on new stories—to grow intellectually and artistically. In this case it’s another genre—fictional, serial story-telling—one a good distance away from journalism, memoir, and essays.

Still I find myself falling back on old principles. I’m a writer who really values organization. I value it even more when saddled with the relatively high probability of failure. In that regard, my basic approach has been as follows:

1.) Read a ton of back issues and try to think about what I find interesting (Ramonda) and what I find less interessting (M’Baku.) 2.) Get a detailed outline done of all the issues I was contracted to write. 3.) Write those scripts early in order to give Brian, and my editors, a chance to tell me what I am doing wrong. 4.) Revise the outline regularly, as events (and finished scripts) dictate a need to change. That has been the plan. Having a plan doesn’t guarantee success. But not having a plan probably guarantees failure.

The Panther in action (Brian Stelfreeze)

One thing I did not count on was the extent to which the art would shape the story. Brian’s thoughts on T’Challa, and his supporting cast, have been invaluable. You can see the fruits of collaboration in the image above. After talking back and forth we came up with some new ideas for how T’Challa’s famed Vibranium-weave suit might work—in this case, absorbing kinetic energy and allowing him to fire that energy back out in short energy bursts. “Energy bursts” almost gets it wrong—think “force-push” not “optic blast.” All the old powers are there—enhanced senses, agility, peak-human strength, etc. But this idea (and others) really came out of Brian’s thoughts—not just on the suit—but on the properties of Vibranium itself.

Writing, for me, is a lonely exercise. I pitch an idea to my editors and then I disappear for awhile. There are a few regular check-ins, but generally the next thing they see from me is a draft. Black Panther has been different. There’s a lot more collaboration and conversation. Barely three days go by in which I don’t talk to Brian or my editor, Wilson Moss.

I’ll have more to say about that process as the days go on. For now, enjoy some of Brian’s (awesome) concept art. I’ve seen some of his penciled pages already. They’re glorious. I’m trying to keep up.