‘Superhero Comics Are Largely a Response to Trauma’

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

(Editor’s note: These questions from Atlantic readers—in bold—and replies from Ta-Nehisi were compiled from an “Ask Me Anything” he did with the TAD group on 1/12.)

As someone who’s largely a DC [Comics] reader, Black Panther is effectively my first real introduction to the character. What immediately jumped out at me was the dialogue. It feels a bit different from most comic books (in a good way!), and I look forward to seeing what happens in it down the road. Is there any other comic book you’d love to write? Or do you think Black Panther might be it for you?

I expect to be on Black Panther, or BP-related things, for a while.

How would you like to see the Black Panther series (and world) grow and change? Any inclusion of other, missing characters? What would they be?

Want it to get bigger. Much, much bigger.

When discussing writing Black Panther, you’ve talked about the need to disregard fan opinion on some level to work toward the goal of creating work that will hold up five or 10 years from now. As the stories you’re writing have progressed, has the fan reception of your work changed that outlook for you or confirmed it?

Still believe it. I don’t want artists making work that they think I want to see. I want them to pull from their heart, and if I love it, I love it. If I don’t, oh well.

Where does feminism intersect with your work? Does it at all?

Right now, it’s most prominently in my comic books. I don’t want to blow the story, but basically one of the main threads is a revolution launched against the main character. The facts of sexual plunder, a society ignoring that plunder, and the fact of resistance to it, basically runs through every issue.

And that is how it’s manifest in its least subtle ways. I think in a lot of other ways, it’s much more subtle, but there. Snuck in an Audre Lorde citation in the last issue.

I don’t expect everyone to read comic books, so if folks aren’t seeing this, it’s cool. But it is there. Here’s a good summary of the early stuff and the most obvious aspects of it.

Any specific female writers that you’re engaging with right now? (I so vividly remember the days you were reading Southern Confederate female writers.) Who are the female voices that, I dunno, really speak to you and influence the work you’re doing on the comics? I know that Roxane Gay was tapped to work on the prequels.

Yeah, I mean, because of the kind of work I’m doing write now it’s mostly in comics. Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Bitch Planet is a huge inspiration. Chelsea Cain’s Mockingbird was a book far from my own, but I adored it. Yona Harvey and I are cooking up some stuff. And obviously Roxane, who is just a force of nature.

Also, I think the new She-Hulk book looks really, really, really good.

There’s actually been some criticism of the new She-Hulk book, in that a lot of women don’t particularly want every female Marvel character to be defined by trauma and violence. Especially as you’re dealing with violence against women in BP, do you have any thoughts on that?

I always answer this sort of question by the argument that there should be more characters. I think there are some options here, though—Moongirl, Ms. Marvel, Captain Marvel, Silk, Gwenpool. There are female leads in several of the team books like Inhumans and X-Men. I think the current IvX series is basically led by two women.

In this specific case though, I’m not sure what you do. I mean, her cousin really was killed. They were close. That probably would be traumatic. Marvel brought in a woman to write the book and (I think) draw it also. I’m not sure what else they should have done here. I like the book. I think it’s quiet and subtle.

Beyond that, I’d say that superhero comics, themselves, are largely a response to trauma. Spider-Man is responding to the death of his Uncle Ben (among other deaths). The X-Men are responding to the trauma of discrimination and visions of genocide. Captain America is responding to the death of almost everyone he ever loved. Mockingbird was responding to rape in the recent series. Black Panther is responding to the trauma of the destruction of his kingdom.

And so on ...

What motivated this particular engagement with feminism in your comic books? Why there and not somewhere else? What prompted the collaboration with Roxane Gay?

I don’t know. It was the next thing I was doing. It’s not really a conscious thing, like that. Comic books have a long, fraught history with sexism. And so I felt, like, that was part of my inheritance as a comic-book writer. The debates are so much a part of the culture. And then there were some things about Black Panther, specifically, that made it the space to do it—the Dora Milajae’s position, the fact that most of the men around him were dead, the fact that in wars, rape is so often used as a weapon.

Who are your interlocutors with respect to feminism and womanism? Who are you in conversation with who will push back against the sexism in your own thinking and writing?

I don’t know. The only people who usually have input on my writing are my wife and my editor. I’m not in conversation with anyone, except the people I report on and the people I work with.

The pushback is everywhere. People review my comic books. People review every article I write—The Atlantic even publishes them. A great deal of the critique of Between the World and Me was from a feminist perspective. bell hooks pushed back, among others.

Some of that has value. Some of it does not. I try my best to separate the wheat from the chaff.