— Ta-Nehisi Coates (@tanehisicoates) September 22, 2015
Having made a name for himself as an avenger of civil rights, it’s perhaps fitting that Ta-Nehisi Coates will soon spin the tale of Marvel’s Black Panther.
A national correspondent for the Atlantic and the best-selling author of “Between the World and Me,” Coates is slated to write a new Black Panther series beginning this spring, Marvel announced Tuesday.
The comics publisher’s editor-in-chief, Axel Alonso, said in a statement that Coates will tell the story of “the world we have created, and the world we want to live in,” the AP reports.
The year-long story line is called “A Nation Under Our Feet,” after the Pulitzer Prize-winning book about black political struggles in the rural South. With a narrative centered around revolution, terrorism and heroism, the series will embody the intersection of several of Coates’s preoccupations, including a comic-books fandom that he has nursed since he was a child.
“It was mostly through pop culture, through hip-hop, through Dungeons & Dragons and comic books that I acquired much of my vocabulary,” Coates told the New York Times, calling Marvel “an intimate part of my childhood.” He has previously opined on his geekdom on the FanBrosShow, a podcast devoted to nerd culture.
In a historical moment where the nation’s attention is drawn to latent racial tensions, the time is ripe for a return by Black Panther, the first black superhero to appear in mainstream comics.
Black Panther debuted in a volume of “Fantastic Four” in July 1966, actually preceding the founding of the Black Panther Party that same year. But in many ways, he shouldered the gauntlet raised by the radical black nationalist group: the Black Panther (whose given name is T’Challa) hails from the fictional African nation of Wakanda, to which he returns during the height of a revolution.
The son of a onetime Black Panther member, Coates is familiar with political unrest, at least when it comes to literary subject matter.
In “The Case for Reparations,” a sprawling cover story published in the Atlantic last year, he details the long history of inequity between white and black Americans. But his analysis extends far beyond the Civil War, as he addresses the racial division of wealth in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Among Black Panther’s range of powers — from hunting to inventing to acrobatics — is the possession of the combined strength and knowledge of every Wakanda chieftain who has held the title of “Black Panther” before him. Likewise, Coates’s writing draws richly not only from history but also from the literary style of earlier public thinkers, most conspicuously James Baldwin.
On more than one occasion, Coates has lent his writing to the cause of comic books themselves — and to the exposure they’ve given minority characters when few other outlets were interested.
“One reason why I still enjoy books, including comic books, is that there’s still more room for transgressive diversity [than in movies],” Coates wrote this February. “Outside of hip-hop, it was in comics that I most often found the aesthetics and wisdom of my world reflected.”
Even if racial issues were seldom raised, the existence of characters like Storm of X-Men was significant, Coates told the New York Times. “It meant something to see people who looked like me in comic books. It was this beautiful place that I felt pop culture should look like.”
Three decades after Coates first immersed himself in the world of Monica Rambeau (Captain Marvel) and James Rhodes (Iron Man), the comics world is increasingly starting to spotlight not only characters that look like him, but also others who have been largely absent from superhero casts.
Muslim character Kamala Khan made waves last year as the protagonist of “Ms. Marvel.” Earlier this summer, DC Comics debuted “Midnighter,” the first mainstream comic series starring an openly gay man. And prior to the release of Coates’s “Black Panther,” Marvel Comics will introduce a Korean-American scientist named Amadeus Cho as the the title character of “The Totally Awesome Hulk” this December.
Notably, these works were produced by people within the demographic groups they represented, with the above comics created or written by a Muslim woman, a gay man and two Korean Americans, respectively.
“Black Panther” will be drawn by Brian Stelfreeze, an African American.
But Laura Hudson argued in WIRED this July that such public strides aside, much more still stands to be accomplished where minority representation behind the comics scenes is concerned. She cites as one egregious example the Boom! Studios comic “Strange Fruit,” which drew criticism with its portrayal of racism in the American South by two white men.
Asian American comics creator Gene Luen Yang told WIRED, “[Publishers] really have to ask carefully, is this the right person to take on this project?”
If the Internet’s excitement about the Black Panther announcement is any indication, Marvel’s choice is a good one:
— Zithri Ahmed Saleem (@ZithriSaleem) September 23, 2015
In Coates’s case, though, it would be unsurprising if racial identity turns out to be just the tip of the iceberg of what he shares with his superhero.
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