In my preview of Black Panther for the April issue, I talked some about what it was like collaborating with a great artist like Brian Stelfreeze. When I was kid, I paid very little attention to the names behind the art. I had this odd notion that the writer dictated what happened and the artist robotically followed it. As an adult fan, I came to understand how wrong that was. But it wasn’t until collaborating with Brian that I could really really see the error.
I’m hesitant to make a general declaration about all writer-artists teams. From what I can tell the process differs from team to team. In my case the best way I can explain our process is this: I am the screenwriter and Brian is the director. To get some sense of how this might work, I figured it’d might help to compare a page from the script and a page illustrated by Brian.
Here is my direction from the script:
Here is what Brian actually did:
The basic gist of the scene is here. But it’s much better dramatized. The usage of the spear, for instance, to bring T’Challa’s men back to attention is a big and important addition. The constant question with comic script writing is “How does it look?” I always offer an answer to that question because I think it’s easier to brainstorm from something bad, then from nothing at all. Still, sometimes the answer just isn’t very good. It takes a great artist not just to realize that T’Challa “waving and telling his forces to fall back” is insufficient, but to actually come up with something better.
There will be more notes later this week on Issue #1 of Black Panther, on working with Brian, and comics in general. Stay tuned.
Above we have a sketch of T’Challa dabbin’ on dem folks courtesy of Brian Stelfreeze. Obviously, I can’t really take much credit for this sketch. Brian has this great ability, not just to interpret script direction, but to actually add on and make something new and beautiful.
With that said I’d like to talk some about T’Challa’s major challenge in this first season of Black Panther. (Here’s hoping there will be more.) When I accepted the task of writing the new Black Panther comic, I was faced with an obvious question—Who is this guy? There was the obvious and the known—T’Challa is the ruler of the mythical African nation of Wakanda. But to write, I needed to develop a grounded theory of T’Challa’s great loves, small annoyances and everything in between. The grounding came from past depictions of T’Challa by writers like Don McGregor, Christopher Priest, Reginald Hudlin and Jonathan Hickman.
I also had to create some sort of working theory about Wakanda, and to the extent to which I came to one it is this: Wakanda is a contradiction. It is the most advanced nation on Earth, existing under one of the most primitive forms of governance on Earth. In the present telling, Wakanda’s technological superiority goes back centuries. Presumably it’s population is extremely well educated, and yet that population willingly accedes to rule by blood. T’Challa descends from an unbroken line of kings, all who’ve taken up the mantle of the Black Panther. But if you’ve ever studied monarchy, it becomes immediately apparent that the aptitude, or even the desire, to govern isn’t genetic.
Leaving aside the problems of reconciling absolute monarchy with ultra-modernism, there are the actual events in Wakanda which have happened under previous writers. In recent years Wakandans have endured a coup courtesy of the villainous Achebe, another courtesy Dr. Doom, the murder of two of T’Challa top lieutenants, a cataclysmic flood courtesy of Prince Namor, the subsequent dissolution of a royal marriage, and finally decimation and conquest at the hands of Thanos’ Black Order. Wakanda had always prided itself on having never been conquered. This is no longer true. What, then, is the country if it is as vulnerable as all others? And what happens to a state when its absolute monarch can no longer fulfill the base requirement of any government—securing the safety of their people?
It’s obviously not the case, but T’Challa—the Black Panther and mythical ruler of Wakanda—has always struck as the product of the black nationalist dream, a walking revocation of white supremacist myth. T’Challa isn’t just a superhero in the physical sense, he is one of the smartest people in the world, ruling the most advanced civilization on the planet. Wakanda’s status as ever-independent seems to eerily parallel Ethiopia’s history as well as its place in the broader black imagination. Maybe it’s only me, but I can’t read Jason Aaron’s superb “See Wakanda And Die” and not think of Adowa.
Comic book creators, like all story-tellers, get great mileage out of myth and history. But given the society we live in, some people’s myths are privileged over others. Some of that is changing, no doubt. In the more recent incarnations of T’Challa you can see Christopher Priest invoking the language of the Hausa or Reginald Hudlin employing the legacy of colonialism. These were shrewd artistic decisions, rooted in the fact that anyone writing Black Panther enjoys an immediate, if paradoxical, advantage: the black diaspora is terra incognita for much of the world. What does the broader world really know of Adowa? Of Nanny and Cudjoe? Of the Maji-Maji rebellion? Of Legba and Oshun? Of Shine? Of High John The Conqueror? T’Challa’s writers have always enjoyed access to a rich and under-utilized pool of allusion and invocation.
I would not have always considered this an advantage. When I first started writing, I was anxious that I would be pigeon-holed into the “race-beat.” Eventually I realized that the “race beat” was actually the “humanity beat,” and that questions about “racism” are really questions about the exercise of power. Perhaps more importantly I realized that “race” was an essential thread of American society, and questions about race were questions about the very nature of the Western world. I wasn’t pigeon-holed, I’d fallen into a gold-mine. America is the most powerful country in the world. You simply can’t understand how it got that way without understanding “race.”
And beneath that political conversation about “race,” swirling around it, sometimes directly related, and sometimes tangentially related, are the incredible myths and world-views of black people and the black diaspora at large.To the extent that this society has not been able to engage with those myths, with that world-view, it has not only lied to itself, but it has also robbed itself of some beautiful art. Racism isn’t just morally wrong, it makes for poor story-telling.
Incidentally, so does didacticism. T’Challa won’t be yelling, “Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!” There will be no policy papers on the slave trade, nor any overly-earnest, sepia-tinged “Black History Month” style of story-telling. The culture and politics can’t be on top; they have to baked in. So yeah, you might see some Walter Rodney in the royal library, or a sample from Robert Hayden. Or you might get a variant cover that pulls from our present moment. But there’s no need to over do it. The facts are in: T’Challa is black. This is not a declaration. It’s an opportunity.
“Ta-Nehisi, Brian, colorist Laura Martin, letterer Joe Sabino, assistant editor Chris Robinson, and I have been working on this series for months already, so we’re happy to have a launch date as we’re all anxious to start getting this book out in front of people,” series editor Wil Moss told Marvel.com. “We may be biased, but we think it's something pretty special!”
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.
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.
The CDC has finally said what scientists have been screaming for months: The coronavirus is overwhelmingly spread through the air, not via surfaces.
Last week, the CDC acknowledged what many of us have been saying for almost nine months about cleaning surfaces to prevent transmission by touch of the coronavirus: It’s pure hygiene theater.
“Based on available epidemiological data and studies of environmental transmission factors,” the CDC concluded, “surface transmission is not the main route by which SARS-CoV-2 spreads, and the risk is considered to be low.” In other words: You can put away the bleach, cancel your recurring Amazon subscription for disinfectant wipes, and stop punishing every square inch of classroom floor, restaurant table, and train seat with high-tech antimicrobial blasts. COVID-19 is airborne: It spreads through tiny aerosolized droplets that linger in the air in unventilated spaces. Touching stuff just doesn’t carry much risk, and more people should say so, very loudly.
Just months after leaving office, the former president has all but disappeared.
The president was insistent as he left office: “We’re not going anywhere.” It had been a turbulent end of the presidency—impeachment, appalling pardons, and a lengthy dispute over the outcome of the presidential election—but he knew that he had a devoted following, and he had every intention to remain a force in politics. And not just him: His family was eager to cash in on his electoral success, too. Usually a former president laid low for a while after leaving office. He wasn’t going to do that. He’d remain a political force, and the dominant figure in his party.
But the plan didn’t go well. The president sat at his new home—he had decamped from his longtime home state—guzzling Diet Cokes and calling friends to rage about how unfairly he’d been treated and complain about overzealous prosecutors. “You get tired of listening to it,” one friend confessed.
Being so close (and yet so far) is a stress all its own.
On February 25, I got my first shot of the Pfizer vaccine bright and early, picked up a breakfast burrito on the walk home, and spent the rest of the day sitting in my desk chair, doing what can only be described as vibing. I felt a little bit stoned, like I had taken a low-grade edible instead of being shot up with cutting-edge technology that would help end a year-long global disaster. This acute, mildly high feeling—“brain fog,” a known side effect of the vaccines—lasted about two days. As potential side effects go, it was rad.
More durable, though, was the strange feeling that began when I made my appointment. In the hours after scheduling my shot, I blew a deadline and was late to meet up with friends for a very cold outdoor hang. I was overcome with relief, everything felt slightly unreal, and the time-dependent obligations of my life faded to the periphery of my consciousness. In the two months since, the delirium has settled into something duller, less frantic—the keys are in the ignition, but my mind simply will not turn over.
Concerns about blood clots with Johnson & Johnson underscore just how lucky Americans are to have the Pfizer and Moderna shots.
A year ago, when the United States decided to go big on vaccines, it bet on nearly every horse, investing in a spectrum of technologies. The safest bets, in a way, repurposed the technology behind existing vaccines, such as protein-based ones for tetanus or hepatitis B. The medium bets were on vaccines made by Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca, which use adenovirus vectors, a technology that had been tested before but not deployed on a large scale. The long shots were based on the use of mRNA, the newest and most unproven technology.
The protein-based vaccines have moved too slowly to matter so far. J&J’s and AstraZeneca’s vaccines are effective at preventing COVID-19—but a small number of recipients have developed a rare type of blood clot that appears to be linked to the adenovirus technology and may ultimately limit those shots’ use. Meanwhile, with more than 180 million doses administered in the U.S, the mRNA vaccines have proved astonishingly effective and extremely safe. The unusual blood clots have not appeared with Pfizer’s or Moderna’s mRNA technology. A year later, the risky bet definitely looks like a good one.
It’s late afternoon, late pandemic, and I’m watching a new nature documentary in bed, after taking the daintiest of hits from a weed pen. The show is called A Perfect Planet, and it is narrated by Sir David Attenborough.
I am looking at the red eye of a flamingo, a molten lake surrounding a tiny black pupil. Now I am looking at drone footage of a massive colony of flamingos, the classic sweeping overhead shot, what my brother calls “POV God.” Behind the images, a string orchestra sets the mood, giving the coral-pink birds an otherworldly theme in E minor.
Nature documentaries have never been more popular, in part because they offer easy escapism during a rough time, and in part because marijuana has been legalized in much of the United States. The combination is hard to resist, as my experience with A Perfect Planet proves. The stoned attention span perfectly matches the length of each vignette, in which Attenborough’s soothing, avuncular voice guides you through a simple story about animal life. In between, you are treated to epic, empty landscapes and intense close-ups of the rich colors and textures of the nonhuman world, which pop off like fireworks in your wide-open mind. The effect is awe-inspiring but also surprisingly chill. And there are no troublesome humans on-screen to kill the vibe.
On a summer afternoon nearly four years ago, Maryam Muhammet thought her family’s long journey to freedom was almost complete. The Uyghur woman had arrived in Istanbul from Egypt weeks prior with her two sons, a toddler and an infant, after fleeing the Chinese region of Xinjiang. Her husband had not yet joined the family in Turkey. The couple had heard from others in their community that Egyptian immigration officials—ostensibly acting at the behest of the Chinese government—were hassling Uyghur men as they left, so they decided he would come later, on his own.
That afternoon, he sent Muhammet a WhatsApp message to say he was en route to the port and would travel by ship to Turkey. Soon, they would be together. But the tone of his updates quickly changed. He had encountered problems, and officials were taking him away. He loved her, he wrote. His last message came through at 6:06 p.m. “I will not lose faith in God,” he texted. He never made it to Istanbul.
The average caregiver is a 49-year-old woman, and the demands of caregiving seem likely to increase.
Updated at 5:57 p.m. ET on January 14, 2020.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, I stood with my 13-year-old son in a long line stretching over the West Side Highway, cars careening below us. He was waiting to take an entrance exam for a specialized high school, a sacred moment, and yet I kept glancing at my phone to check the time. I had to meet my mother to tour an apartment because my childhood home in the East Village had burned down the week prior—a month after my father was diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer. My parents, who are in their 70s, were too overwhelmed to handle the logistics of finding a sublet on their own. On that day, and just about every day these past few months, I had to choose between caring for one family member or another. With so many crises under way, caring for myself hasn’t really been on the table.
For people like me, who have social anxiety, videoconferencing can be easier than in-person interactions.
If there’s a villain of the pandemic, other than COVID-19, it’s probably Zoom. The videochatting platform is making people tired, it’s making people awkward, and it’s making people sick of their own faces. Zoom is such a shoddy substitute for real life that, according to one survey, nearly one in five workers has illicitly met up in person with colleagues to discuss work. And in another poll, a third of women said they were “talked over, interrupted or ignored more frequently” in virtual meetings than in person.
Zoom haters: I hear you, and I validate your experiences. But Zoom is actually great! Don’t get me wrong. I love reporting in person—in fact, I’ve missed it dearly. But I find working in an office, public speaking, going to big parties, and attending important meetings in person enormously stressful. I prefer Zoom for all of these things, and I’m going to miss it when it’s gone. So will many other socially anxious people.
In early March 2020, Rick Phillips, 63, and his wife, Sheryl Phillips, quietly cloistered themselves in their Indianapolis home. They swore off markets, movie theaters, the gym, and, hardest of all, visits with their three young grandchildren. This April, three weeks after receiving her second shot of Pfizer’s vaccine, Sheryl broke her social fast and walked into a grocery store for the first time since last spring. Rick has yet to join her. He received his shots on the same days his wife received hers. By official standards, he, too, can count himself as fully vaccinated. But he feels that he cannot act as though he is. “I personally remain scared to death,” he told me.
Rick has rheumatoid arthritis, which once rendered him “barely able to walk across the room,” he said. He now treats the condition with an intensely immunosuppressive drug that strips his body of the ability to churn out disease-fighting antibodies. Rick credits the treatment with changing his life. But it might also keep him from developing lasting defenses against COVID-19.
The joys of money are nothing without other people.
“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness.
Arthur C. Brooks will discuss the science of happiness live at 11 a.m. ET on May 20. Register for In Pursuit of Happiness here.
In 2010, two Nobel laureates in economics published a paper that created a tidal wave of interest both inside and outside academia. With careful data analysis, the researchers showed that people believe the quality of their lives will increase as they earn more, and their feelings do improve with additional money at low income levels. But the well-being they experience flattens out at around $75,000 in annual income (about $92,000 in today’s dollars). The news materially affected people’s lives—especially the part about happiness rising up to about $75,000: In the most high-profile example, the CEO of a Seattle-based credit-card-payment company raised his employees’ minimum salary to $70,000 (and lowered his own salary to that level) after reading the paper.