Reporter's Notebook

Conceptualizing the Black Panther
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Here’s all the blogging from Ta-Nehisi on his “Black Panther” series from Marvel, which produced this slick preview:

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Building The World Of Wakanda

A few weeks back, in advance of Black Panther #1, I did a conversation with the great Evan Narcisse over at Kotaku. When Evan called, I was in the midst of fooling around with some mapping software in hopes of putting together a geographical vision of Wakanda, the setting for my story.

I’ve always liked maps. Maps were half the fun in any Dungeons and Dragons campaign. When I was a kid I spent hours pouring over my parents’ atlas of the country. Nevertheless, the results from this outing were … less than spectacular. I fiddled around with a few programs—Campaign Cartogapher, Fractal Mapper, and then finally Photoshop. Ideally I’d continue with Campaign Cartographer, but it, along with Fractal Mapper, are PC only and I do most of my work on a mac.

That left me working in Photoshop (which I can no longer buy but have to license??) The map I made with Fractal Mapper is just risible. But here is a less risible version I made with Photoshop:

Paintbrushes by Star Raven.

This isn’t much of a map. But it has the basics down in terms of where Wakanda exists in the world and what’s around it. In my imagination, Wakanda is a small country in East Africa, just off the Western Coast of Lake Victoria. It is bordered by four other mythical countries in the Marvel canon—Mohanda to the North, Canaaan to the West, Azania to the Southwest, and Niganda to the Southeast. I can’t say too much, but Niganda exerts a subtle influence on events in Wakanda in both Season 1 and Season 2 (which I’ve started sketching out.)

I finished the first volume of Alan Moore’s  Swamp Thing earlier this week. I don’t think I’ve ever read a more compelling—or sadder—opening issue of a comic book.  This right here is all TNC-bait defined:

Swamp Thing #20. Pencils: Denis Day. Colors: Tatjana Wood.

In case this is hard to see, the words read as follows:

Frame #1

“I had to come, Arcane.”

“I had to be sure.”

Frame #2

“Oh, I know I saw your ship falling and burning. I know I saw it..Drop like a wounded sun...exploding beyond the mountains. I know you that you couldn’t have survived.”

“But I didn’t...hear the rattle in your windpipe. I didn’t see….the glaze crawl over your eyes. I didn’t see the body, Arcane...”

Frame #3

“...And I learned that if you don’t see the body...”

“...then the rotten stuff...just keeps coming back.”

For me, the best thing about writing comics is how it takes me back to everything I loved about writing poetry. The game of spacing and efficiency is so challenging and so important. Moore proves himself a master of both here—in three frames he gives you something of Swamp Thing’s compulsions and loneliness. There’s a progressive, forward energy in the first lines—“I had to come, Arcane”—that leaves us wondering what, specifically, could be so important that he had to come. And then the answer slowly dribbles out an air-ship “falling and burning” dropping “like a wounded sun...exploding beyond the mountains,” the angsty feeling, native to the marvelous world of comics, of thinking an antagonist dead but not hearing “the rattle in [their] windpipe,” not seeing “the glaze crawl over [their] eyes,” of never seeing “the body.”

Black Panther #3 drops today and I thought I’d say something about the poetry that both opens and closes the book. The poem we used is Henry  Dumas’ “Rootsong.”  I first encountered this piece during one of my many study sessions with the poet Joel Dias-Porter. This would have been somewhere around 1995 or 1996. Joel is a tremendous poet in his own right, but at that point (and perhaps even today) he was mentoring a whole crop of young writers—Terrence Hayes, Yona Harvey, Jelani Cobb—who happened to be in the DC area. Terms like “study session” and “mentor” make all of this sound more formal than it was. Usually it was a crew of us at a restaurant or a cafe discussing anything from sports to politics to poetry. At one of these sessions, Joel whipped out a collection of Dumas’ work and turned to the poem “Rootsong.” What stunned me about the poem is how it used black myth to construct a narrative of the diaspora before and after colonialism and enslavement:

Once when I was tree
flesh came and worshiped at my roots.
My ancestors slept in my outstretched
limbs and listened to flesh
praying and entreating on his knees.

There is an Edenic, utopian quality to Dumas’ depiction of precolonial Africa. “Rootsong” always struck me as romance—not so different from the kind of romance than you’d see in Marvel’s Thor. Poetry is a natural cousin to comic books. Comic book writing, like poetry, requires a ruthless efficiency with words. The art is the hero and if I may say so myself, the art in Black Panther #3—particularly in the pages using “Rootsong”—is heroic.

Dumas was killed at the age of 34 by New York city transit cop. But his legacy endures through the strivings of the poet Eugene Redmond and the great Toni Morrison. It was Redmond who posthumously edited Dumas’ poems into a book. It was Morrison, then an editor at Random House, who ultimately published them. At the time she wrote of Dumas:

In 1968, a young black man, Henry Dumas, went through a turnstile at a New York City subway station. A transit cop shot him in the chest and killed him. Circumstances surrounding his death remain unclear. Before that happened, however, he had written some of the most beautiful, moving and profound poetry and fiction that I have ever in my life read.

That Dumas wrote the words, that Morrison and Redmond made it possible to read those words, that I was exposed to those words during my tenure at the Mecca, and that those influenced my own words points to the deep and enduring power of tradition and lineage. Indeed as an atheist, tradition and lineage are the closes thing I have to any notion  of afterlife. The work outlives us, and the work exerts power long after we are gone.

I hope you feel that power in Black Panther #3.

Ladies and gentlemen, Brian Stelfreeze…

When I took on Black Panther last year, one Wakandan institution that really interested me was the Dora Milajae—the all-female troop of bodyguards to the King and potential wives. My misgivings about them and their portrayal are a matter of record. But you can’t just walk into a comic book and disregard everything you have misgivings about without really violating the soul of the book itself. You can however look at those things from another perspective.

What we really tried to do is depict the Dora Milajae—as much as possible—from their own perspective, and not from T’Challa’s. When writing and drawing them, we tried not to think so much about what T’Challa sees—or what the average male comic fan wants to see—but to imagine what the characters, themselves, would see. We really wanted them to have their own interior lives and motives, independent of T’Challa.

Costuming is so important in comics and while Brian hit early on with a cool Midnight Angel costume, we didn’t really think as much about the broader order of the Dora Milajae. But last week Brian sent in a fantastic cover sketch that forced us to start thinking harder about it. Basically the cover featured the Doras in their old school uniforms and we both wanted something that better reflected their own self-regard, their own form and function as warriors. I had no idea what this might look like. I sent some vague notes about “something that mirrors the Midnight Angels—but maybe lighter.” I wanted to be as if the Midnight Angels are wearing plate-mail, I imagine the Doras in some sort of chain-mail. If the Midnight Angels were paladins, then the Doras were our rangers.

The image above—which I think is just incredible—is Brian’s breathtaking response. There are all sorts of opportunities for weaponry and defense in these suits that we will be employing. I have to say that working with both Brian and Black Panter’s colorist, Laura Martin, has just been incredible. It’s never been the case for me, as a storyteller, that I had two people who could take a notion I had in my head, run with it, remix it, clarify it, color it and then make it their own.

It’s an amazing thing to be a part of.

Marvel

(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.