An Authoritative Voice For Black Superheroes
Ta-nehisi Coates explores the politics of, and in, Black Panther.
When Marvel Comics announced in September 2015 that Ta-nehisi Coates would be writing a new Black Panther series, the timing could not have been more fortuitous. That same month, Mr. Coates, who writes regularly for The Atlantic, was awarded a John D. and Catherine T. Macarthur Foundation “genius grant,” and, two months later, a National Book Award for nonfiction for “Between the World and Me,” his letter to his son about being black in America.
The momentum for the hero was also tremendous. Issue No. 1 of Black Panther hit stores last April and went on to sell more than 300,000 copies. He then made his big-screen debut in “Captain America: Civil War,” and will have a solo film next year. In July came “Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet,” a collected edition of the first four issues of the comic. This April comes a new series, Black Panther and the Crew, a team comprising only black heroes in the Harlem neighborhood of New York, written by Mr. Coates and the poet Yona Harvey.
Mr. Coates answered questions about the success of Black Panther and what’s next. ( The interview has been edited and condensed.)
Q. Does the response to the Black Panther series surprise you? sponse a little bit, but I don’t know, man. I’m in the zone of writing, and that place is still really, really hard and really, really challenging. What I’m trying to do is to learn more. I’m reading a lot more, and reading as a fan is very, very different to reading as a creator. Maybe reading as a critic is close to it, but actually trying to figure out what people are doing and why it has certain effects on me is a very, very different way of looking at stuff. Selling is important because I want the book to continue, but when I’m done, I want people to say: “This was a classic run. This is one of the best things Marvel ever did.” You must feel a certain level of confidence, or do you try not to reflect until the story is over?
I do think about it, but I don’t think it will probably be knowable until a few more years. I don’t mean to impugn anybody that’s buying the series — I really, really appreciate it — but I think, oftentimes, things may not always be appreciated in their time, where it turns out later that this was actually something great. And at the same time, there are probably things that are appreciated in their time that probably don’t pass the test of time.
How much of this is the movie? How much of this is Panther’s improved profile right now? How much of this is “Between the World and Me”? I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. What I want people to feel ultimately is that this is part of the entire oeuvre that I put together. I don’t want it to be “Ta-nehisi just took a break and did comics.” It is not a break for me. How does the political climate now affect your writing? Do you save that for — and I’m going to put quotes around this — your “real” writing, your nonfiction writing?
[Laughs.] It has to influence. I think that is the tradition, actually, for comic book writers. Maybe not for all of them, but certainly the ones to which I was exposed. I think about this all the time. When you take a book like Spider-man or Daredevil and the big thing is crimefighting, I don’t think that’s distant from the time when those characters were created. During that period, we had this rising crime, and the city was seen a certain way, in a way that Manhattan is not seen today.
Even the decision to create Black Panther: It was not an apolitical decision to have this black character in Africa, in this advanced nation, and have him be highly intelligent. All of these were political decisions.