Reporter's Notebook

Conceptualizing the Black Panther
Show Description +

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

Show 3 Newer Notes

When The World Runs Out Of Room For Monsters

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.”

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.)

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.

(Brian Stelfreeze)

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?

I tend to think war.

(Brian Stelfreeze, Laura Martin.)

Alex Ross

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.

Ta-Nehisi just tweeted this out and it’s pretty sick:

It’s the variant cover for TNC’s forthcoming “Black Panther” series with artist Brian Stelfreeze, whose early sketches were featured in Notes. In case you missed Stelfreeze’s cover:

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: