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Why it’s so great that Ta-Nehisi Coates is writing Black Panther

I have a strange relationship with comic books. Not love-hate, more like fascinated-hate. I enjoy many adaptations of comic book storylines like movies and cartoons like Spider-Man 2 and Justice League Unlimited. I like a lot of comic book characters like Black Manta and Gorilla Grodd. I like singular graphic novels like Watchmen. And I get a perverse kick out of reading summaries of certain bizarre storylines years after the fact like the Hulk impregnating his cousin or Captain America becoming a werewolf. But I rarely make the leap to reading (superhero) comics themselves. They’re just too dense. It’s more a problem with me than with the medium, but given declining comic sales even as the movies make billions of dollars, I suspect I’m not alone.  

This week, issue three of Black Panther hits shelves, and I plan on buying it day one, just like I did the previous two entries. What’s the difference? Well, Black Panther is another character I care about, but just because I think Darkseid is dope doesn’t mean I’m caught up on the New 52/Rebirth/whatever the next dumb DC thing is. No, I’m reading Black Panther because it’s written by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and if you don’t already know who that is, let me explain why that’s so cool.

Before Black Panther, Ta-Nehisi Coates wasn’t a comic book writer. He’s a journalist and literary non-fiction writer. He’s a national correspondent for The Atlantic and author of books The Beautiful Struggle and Between the World and Me. That last one earned him a National Book Award last year. That same year he also earned the $625,000 MacArthur Genius Grant. So, why would a writer as celebrated and seemingly serious as Coates pick a comic book as his next project? Even if it’s a comic book as cool as Black Panther? When read you Coates’ work, it all makes sense.

Some have hailed Coates as the best writer in America writing about race in America. One of his landmark stories for the Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations” uses extensive reporting to demonstrate the tangible, persistence, detrimental effects systemic racism like redlining has had on African-Americans. Between the World and Me is a broader self-reflection on how living a life in oppression impacts the body and soul. He laments that he can already see his son’s loss of innocence in response to high-profile police killings of unarmed Black men. As an unarmed Black man myself, this stuff hits home. Full disclosure, I read Between the World and Me on my flight to E3 a few weeks ago, and it caused me to have a nightmare about being shot by the police. Real fun way to kick off a video game expo! But in all serious, Coates’s writing is sobering, essential takes on incredibly important political, cultural, and societal issues.

Meanwhile, Black Panther is a pretty political comic. After all, his name conjures images of militant Black freedom fighters, a group he predates by just a few months in 1966. Black Panther, or T’Challa, is a genius king master fighter superhero who’s biggest flaw is occasionally being a jerk who divorces Storm. He leads Wakanda, an African country proud of its tribal traditions while developing the most advanced technology in world and has never been conquered. It’s like a comic book power fantasy blown up to a national scale. For more on the politics of Black Panther, you can check out this piece by Evan Narcisse.   

All this to say the new Black Panther run — written by Coates, illustrated by Brian Stelfreeze and colored by Laura Martin — is a really promising mix of creators and material. The story arc, “A Nation Under Our Feet,” follows T’Challa’s attempts to quell a populist uprising in Wakanda. The plot is named after a Pulitzer Prize-winning book on shifting Black power after the Civil War, in case you thought Coates would dumb down his intellectual interests for the cape crowd. However, it surprised me how much the first two issues at least were totally building off of previous, wacky events in the Marvel universe. It’s one thing to show a country in turmoil, it’s another thing to have the cause of that turmoil be back-to-back invasions by Thanos, Dr. Doom, and Namor. Coates also appears to be tackling that famous comic book trope of resurrecting a dead character, in this case (spoiler alert!) T’Challa’s sister, Shuri.

I really like this book. I like how Coates handles different social strata in Wakanda, from the king to regular folks to people in the middle like the royal female bodyguards the Dora Milaje. I like that the insurgent group is simply called The People. I like how Stelfreeze’s sleek, dark art visualizes Wakanda’s minimal, tribal, and highly sophisticated technology, and I think hiring Coates to write this book was an immensely savvy, progressive move by Marvel. They’re even commissioning original Black Panther hip-hop songs.

But I don’t feel comfortable saying this run of Black Panther is great for two reasons. It’s not finished, and  I don’t feel I have enough understanding of comics books as a whole to judge them against each other. Again, I don’t read comic books. Talking to a comic book aficionado co-worker about “A Nation Under Our Feet,” he was disappointed to see the comic repeat themes and storylines previous Black Panther writers had already done to death. Those themes include Wakandan political strife and T’Challa’s fears of unworthiness. But I didn’t read those comics. These stories are new to me and I enjoy them. Plus, if these characters are meant to last for decades, isn’t some repetition unavoidable? It least this was better than Boondocks producer/villain Reginald Hudlin’s Black Panther motion comic.

Writers from other categories, like Coates, don’t always crossover into comics very well. Shea Hennum explains this phenomenon in more detail, but it’s easy to see how it could go wrong. A big shot author slaps his or her name on a comic book and doesn’t take the work seriously. Who cares? It’s superhero garbage for kids! Comic fans would be right to see that as condescending. It’s like a movie star slumming it on a TV show.

But I don’t think that applies to Coates. First off, based on his nerdy Twitter feed, he knows the material. He’s written on The Atlantic about his approach on the project. Plus, I think he’s aware enough to know his name carries certain academic expectations. If new readers drawn to Black Panther because of Coates’s name, like me, were disappointed by the results, it would make everyone look bad. I don’t know how Coates’s Black Panther run will rank compared to its predecessors, but if it’s getting new people to read a cool new comic then it’s already a success.

Ta-Nehisi Coates writing Black Panther comics is just one of several awesome things happening for T’Challa these days. Black Panther was a breakout star in Captain America: Civil War, and he’s getting a solo movie in 2018. To me, getting Ryan Coogler to direct that movie is about as exciting as getting Coates to write the comic. Fruitvale Station and Creed were both outstanding. Plus, between Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong’o, and Michael B. Jordan, the cast is absolutely stacked. In the meantime, I’ll be reading these comics books every month (or whenever they come out after delays). It’s so weird. How do you people do this?

That’s not what I meant by “you people.”

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