Ta-Nehisi Coates Hopes 'Black Panther' Will Be Some Kid's 'Spider-Man' : Code Switch Coates has written a new series of Black Panther comics telling the story of an African prince turned superhero. "Comic book heroes are like our mythology," he says. "They're our Greek gods."

Ta-Nehisi Coates Hopes 'Black Panther' Will Be Some Kid's 'Spider-Man'

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After he won a National Book Award and one of the MacArthur Foundation's so-called genius grants, no one anticipated Ta-Nehisi Coates's next move.

TA-NEHISI COATES: What's the good of getting a MacArthur genius grant if you can't go and write a comic book for Marvel?

CORNISH: That's right, a comic book, Marvel's Black Panther. An African king named T'Challa with superhuman strength and intellect, who presides over the fictional nation of Wakanda. "Black Panther" was launched in 1966, just a few months before the Black Panther political party came on the scene. But over the years, T'Challa has much played second fiddle to the likes of Daredevil and Captain America, and his storylines often revolve around divided loyalties. I asked Coates about his take on the history of the superhero.

COATES: The first time you see him, he's tricked the Fantastic Four, and he defeats the Fantastic Four. And he's, you know, this genius, this athlete with these heightened senses and all these heightened physical abilities. And he's depicted there in all his glory. There, you know, were various high points in the '60s and '70s and in the '80s but a lot of low points where folks didn't quite know how to actually use him. And then there was a run in the late '90s and early 2000s by - a writer by the name of Christopher Priest, who was probably the first writer in our modern times to really, really take Black Panther seriously and try to put him on a level with other superheroes - you know, a protagonist in his own book. And that was revolutionary, but I don't think people should lose sight of what it meant to create an African, a black superhero in the 1960s, even as it happens within the midst of the civil rights movement. But I think if you search pop culture at that particular time for somebody like the Black Panther, you would come up really short.

CORNISH: So let's start with the art in the story. They paired you with artist Brian Stelfreeze.


CORNISH: How did writing with an artist affect your thinking about how to tell stories?

COATES: It's a completely different process. Usually when you write it's just you. And this time there was somebody - like, I would write things, and then I would see them visualized or I would get concept art, and I might alter my story because of the concept art, you know?

CORNISH: But give us an example because, you know, our writer on...


CORNISH: ...Comic books, Glen Weldon, told me that prose writers simply don't trust the art in comics to do the work because it's such a foreign concept to them.

COATES: Yeah, and people warned me about that. I don't know - you see, part of the difference between me and somebody is I'm actually not a prose writer at my roots. My first encounter with professional writing was the attempt to be a poet. That was actually where I was headed. I was going to get my MFA and everything coming out of college. I wrote poetry for many, many years, was published. It's not very good, but, you know...

CORNISH: (Laughter).

COATES: If you're looking hard enough, it's actually in the journalism. And when I, you know, write prose, editors often have to pull me out and get me to write more. So it was nothing for me to, say, write two or three sentences and get out the way.

CORNISH: And so what's the basic plot of his story as you tell it today?

COATES: You have to find your way to get something about that. You've got to find a handle on the character. And so I spent a great deal of time researching the character, trying to figure out what that was. And what occurred to me was the distinct possibility that maybe T'Challa does not like being a king. T'Challa's a real name for a Black Panther. He was always in the comic books leaving his kingdom to go do something else.

CORNISH: Right, like his sister would run it for some time.

COATES: His sister would run it for some time or, you know, his sister wouldn't run it at all and yet he'd be gone. You know, he'd be off with the Avengers in New York doing something. At one point he's a school teacher in Harlem, working at Hell's kitchen at another point.

CORNISH: (Laughter).

COATES: This is...

CORNISH: Just for fun, yeah. It's...

COATES: Just for fun, just for kicks. Let me see what the world's about. This is a very, very bizarre way for somebody who presumably likes ruling a nation to behave. (Laughter) So what's going on there?

CORNISH: And I have to say, in the early pages not a lot of fighting here, not a lot of action (laughter).

COATES: No, that's...

CORNISH: And was that a choice?

COATES: I don't know, man. I mean, to be honest with you, that is the one thing I'm worried about with the run. I've been thinking about it. Am I going to be able to keep people's attention? I feel like if there's one weakness in this series it is that the fighting is there because it has to be there. I did the best I could with that. Fighting was not I guess the real reason I read comic books when I was a kid. I mean, the fighting was an important part and an integral part of it. I don't know that I would've read it without it.

CORNISH: Right...

COATES: But...

CORNISH: ...And we should say for people there is violence. There is fighting.

COATES: There is. There is.

CORNISH: But Black Panther himself is not exactly (laughter)...

COATES: Right.

CORNISH: ...Tossing bodies left and right.


CORNISH: This is a character who's very much talking about leading his nation...

COATES: Right.

CORNISH: ...And diplomatic mistakes and (laughter)...

COATES: Right.

CORNISH: ...Things like that.

COATES: And there's more of that later. I mean, like, even in the next issue, there's more of that - him tossing people around, I mean, you know, because it has to be there. But it probably is not the thing that moved my soul, you know?

CORNISH: One of his defining characteristics, other than his superhuman strength, is that his loyalty is in question. You talk about him kind of leaving his kingdom periodically, and he goes off as a character in the past. He's worked with the Fantastic Four and Avengers and Daredevil. But they never quite know if he's on their side. And what do you make of that? Like, how does that connect to some of the writing you've done about being black in America?

COATES: Wow. I think - this is going to get very, very personal. I think over the past year, I have enjoyed - to be frank with you - an amount of success that I did not expect - I never expected to happen. When that happens - what I mean to say is that people place you in certain positions that you did not even necessarily ask for. And I found myself writing about that (laughter) in the comic book...


COATES: ...You know?

CORNISH: ...Reluctant king.

COATES: Yeah. Well, you know what it's more like? You know what it's more like? Typically, you know, there's this perspective I think among writers, you know, and among black thinkers that there is always one person who everyone should go to to know about all things black. And I have - you know, again, with the MacArthur stuff, with the - you know, the sales of "Between The World And Me," like, I guess I feel as though people have tried to turn me into that person. And I have really done all I could to resist it. But even as you resist it, it's almost like you lose control over it, do you know what I mean? You don't actually have control of the position people want you to be in. If they say you're king of the blacks, you're kind of the blacks, whether you like it or not. Do you understand what I'm saying? Even if you in your heart never accept it - you can say it over and over and over and over again, but people have a perception of you, you know, nonetheless...

CORNISH: Right...

COATES: ...You know what I mean?

CORNISH: ...So all these kind of - the media requests and, like, anything that happens in the news...

COATES: Right, although I love talking to you, Audie.


COATES: But yeah, to bring that back to T'Challa, that was how I got the character being in a position where he felt committed to do certain things but in his heart was really not there, you know, was - really wasn't who he was. He was someone else. I mean, in my heart, I'm a comic book writer. I am. I am. And I don't really, you know, see that necessarily in conflict with the kind of, you know, essay writing I do with The Atlantic. But when people hear that, they're like what? What are you doing, you know?

CORNISH: You talked about growing up reading comics as a kid. What are you hoping that a kid in this day and age gets out of your Black Panther?

COATES: You know what I want? I want - when I was a kid, Spiderman was a star. Spiderman was, like (laughter) right under Malcolm X for me (laughter) in terms of, like, my heroes. I would like Black Panther to be some kid's Spiderman.


CORNISH: Well, Ta-Nehisi Coates, thank you so much for speaking with us and sharing this story.

COATES: Thank you, Audie.


CORNISH: Ta-Nehisi Coates, he's writer of the new Black Panther comic series drawn by artist Brian Stelfreeze. The first issue is out now.


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