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:

Show None Newer Notes

(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.

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.

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.

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: