Six years ago, most of the world was not familiar with Wakanda. Six years ago, Ta-Nehisi Coates was deep into figuring out what it was for himself. This week, more than half a decade after starting a run that helped popularize Marvel’s first black superhero to dizzying new heights, Coates’ tenure as writer on Marvel’s Black Panther series comes to an end.
Written by Coates with art by Daniel Acuña and Brian Stelfreeze, Black Panther #25 serves as an ending to “The Intergalactic Empire of Wakanda” storyline (though due to the vicissitudes of comic book numbering, it is actually Coates’ 50th issue on the series). The multi-year arc saw T’Challa become lost in time and space, ending up an amnesiac enslaved laborer who joins a rebellion trying to overthrow an oppressive galactic offshoot of his own country. In the new issue, the marauding forces of the space empire — led by a resurrected, symbiote-bonded N’Jadaka (aka Killmonger) — clash with T’Challa and dozens of Black superheroes who’ve assembled to defend the technologically advanced country. But this issue also serves as Coates’ farewell to an experience that opened him up to the world of fiction-writing and myth-making.
Coates made his name as a journalist and commentator at The Atlantic, writing articles and essays that explored how America’s history of systemic racism continues to affect politics, housing, and other aspects of American life. Marvel reached out to him with the opportunity to write Black Panther in 2015 and those initial scripts would become the first fictional work he’d publish. (He’d been working on his novel, The Water Dancer, for years but it wouldn’t come out until 2019.) In the time that’s passed, T’Challa and the idea of Wakanda enthralled audiences around the world in a billion-dollar hit movie. How did writing his final Black Panther comic make him feel? “It made me tear up,” Coates says.
I spoke with Coates over Zoom as he was going over lettering proofs for his farewell issue to ask him to look back at the five years he’s spent in Wakanda. (Disclosure: Ta-Nehisi and I are friends and he served as a consultant on the Rise of the Black Panther series I wrote for Marvel.) In the interview that follows, he talks about what he’s learned about writing comics, what he would’ve done differently in his first issue, and whether T’Challa really wants to be a king.
[Ed. note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. It also contains spoilers for Black Panther #25, out now.]
I want to start with the hardest thing first: I know that you are aware of the criticisms that there have been of your run, at least aware of some of them. How do you process them?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: I’m very emotional about how it ended, very emotional about it ending. I think everybody wants their work to be … they want people to receive it kindly. But I have to tell you, having dealt with the response to Between the World and Me, having dealt with the response to We Were Eight Years in Power, having dealt with what I expect will be the response to Superman, there’s just no world where you get to do big things — and you’re privileged to do to the kind of things that I’ve been privileged to do — and you don’t get people who voice criticism that you don’t really agree with. That just doesn’t exist. No one gets to be universally beloved. I wrote the book. I had a great time writing the book. I learned so much writing the book.
That feeds into the next question that I wanted to ask you. What would you have done differently in issue one, knowing what you know now?
What would I have done differently? I mean, I don’t know. I can tell you what’s wrong.
Let’s go there.
There are probably too many people [in that issue], I guess. There’s probably too much going on. I’m hesitating on that, though, because if I don’t do those things [early on], then I don’t get better. I don’t learn. It’s funny, because I just got the lettering draft of the last issue, and honestly, there are probably as many, or if not more, people as there were in issue one, even though I said that. [laughs]
Is the ending that you wrote for issue #25 the ending you had in your head all along?
No, absolutely not. I didn’t even have the Intergalactic Empire arc in my head all along. No. Wait, wait, wait, that’s not true. I’m sorry. I thought you meant the absolute, absolute ending down to the last page. No, not the last page, but the ending for T’Challa I had pretty early on.
I think the way you’ve written T’Challa has been in line with his aggregate personality throughout all the different writers. He’s always been reluctant. To me, he’s always been the character who thinks, “I wish I didn’t have to do this, but I actually have to.” And sometimes other people have to tell him that. So do you feel like T’Challa was reluctant to interrogate his own relationship to institutional power throughout your run?
Definitely. And this probably goes back to your first question. I think there’s a desire for whatever reason to see a version of T’Challa that is always ahead of the opposition and is never really in any sort of danger. Man, the different thing about comic books — and legacy characters, especially — is that people really live into them. They really, really do, in a way that I didn’t understand at first. That wasn’t really my relationship to comics coming up. I mean, I had my favorite characters, but my attachment was different.
After I got the gig and went back to read older stories, I was mostly interested in T’Challa because it really felt like this was a character who had been born into royalty but really didn’t want to be royal. That wasn’t his thing. He had an adventurous spirit, he traveled, he was constantly leaving Wakanda. Going off to college, joining the Avengers, and exploring other places, even though he was born in the most advanced country in the world. This was a guy who was in many ways kind of a rolling stone, and yet duty called him back to home. That’s the preeminent conflict all through the entire run.
I think it goes deeper, too, when you consider what his childhood was probably like. The minute T’Chaka dies, he knows that duty’s going to be thrust upon him. So his childhood was one of having to prepare for that mantle from the time he was a little kid. And you know what it’s like when you tell a kid, “You have to do something” and they have no choice about it. They don’t want to do it. And some of that probably informs his adult personality. In terms of T’Challa interrogating his own relationship to power, one of the deep ironies of where you leave him is, he comes into even more power. Was that something you knew was going to be a beat for the ending?
Yeah, pretty early on I knew that. I can’t remember when, but I was pretty clear that he wasn’t going to get out.
Do you think he’s in the same emotional place with regard to his responsibilities?
No, I don’t think so. And that probably was the significance of Storm for me. In many places, Storm is helping him work through that, because I feel like she has some sense of all of the conflicts that come with having this dual identity. You’re born and, at a very early age, you’re thought to be a god to your people. You’re a mutant, and you have to be responsible for what is the flagship team for an entire nation. Storm’s always trying to balance all of that. I think I’ve said this before. I wasn’t one of the people that was a fan of that [Black Panther/Storm] relationship. But again, this goes back to a very different interaction I had with the comic books, I guess. It really didn’t matter to me that I wasn’t a fan of it.
It happened. You know what I mean? And so what I was left to deal with was, OK, so what’s here? And so I think obviously a lot of people who are fans of the relationship will probably be happy that they’ll end up together for now. Who knows what will happen? But that wasn’t the reason I did it. If I’m going to have to carry this, if he’s going to have to carry this, it really helps to have somebody who has some understanding of what that means.
Throughout Storm’s publishing history, there have been these moments where she’s like, “I wish I could just give it up. I wish I didn’t have to be—”
Very much. Yes.
“—the Earth mother, goddess, team leader.” Storm is rarely portrayed as carefree because she has all that weight on her. I’m struggling to think of one carefree moment outside of the occasional X-Men softball game. I think it’s really interesting that you took something that you didn’t like, their marriage, and found a way to make it work for you.
For me, it made sense to look at it that way.
Because of the work you’ve done outside of comics, or more specifically, the perception of the work you’ve done outside of comics, people expected a cerebral exploration of the Wakanda mythos. And you kind of joked about that when you were still on Twitter in the run-up to the first issue. But I feel like what’s really been the hallmark of your run are emotional epiphanies for the characters about themselves, about their relationship to other people, about Wakanda as an idea. Did you start out with those moments as destinations, or did they reveal themselves to you as you pursued other storytelling goals?
I knew I was interested in the nature of monarchy, because of the work that [Jonathan] Hickman had done with Wakanda in Fantastic Four, and then in Avengers and New Avengers. I knew I was curious about what happened to Bast and their gods during what was a really cataclysmic period.
So I was kind of interested in the nature of theocracy. There were hints in Hickman’s run of some sort of space program, so I was interested in that. I was interested in lineage and the exploration notion. Some of it was early, and off of previous stuff that I had just read. But a good deal of it came as I went along.
Talk to me about the new characters that you sprinkled out in your run. Changamire in particular fascinates me. In the early part of your run, he is very much in the mold of the activist scholar, political critic. Why was that important for you in the beginning?
I was very interested in the notion of this place being this really advanced monarchy. When we think about Wakanda being advanced, we think about weapons and tools and engineering, but we don’t think about political thought. And it occurred to me that if these people are so smart, aren’t there people here that have thought about other things and considered other things? So that was important.
Believe it or not, I tried, actually, as much as I could, not to invent characters. I was much more interested in what was already there. And so whenever I had an idea, I always tried to look and see, if there was some sort of precedent that I could invoke. And where there wasn’t or where I missed it, I ended up inventing people.
To me, that’s one of the joys of these long-lived superhero characters, is that these threads have been going on for so long that you can loop back to something and make it more meaningful, or just re-contextualize it. I think you did that with Thunderball [a Black, magically empowered member of The Wrecking Crew supervillain team]. This dude was just a C-list villain … He wasn’t even a C-list villain; he was a henchman of a C-list villain! He struck out on his own a couple of times and it was just mad embarrassing! You took this guy, and it’s like, “Okay, what else could there be to him?” And his arc winds up with him being accepted into Wakanda. Why did you care about Thunderball?
I was a fan of the Wrecking Crew! They were a big deal in the ‘80s! And it probably speaks to the imprint that Secret Wars made on me at a young age. To read that at nine years old, or however old I was, and notice, “Holy shit, there’s a Black guy in this group?! That’s weird!” At the time, it was so rare in pop culture, really. So that probably had an impact on me. And then you start reading about him, and he has a very interesting backstory. This guy’s a genius. What’s that about? Look at what they called him, the Black Bruce Banner, that was the thing. And with T’Challa’s intellect, it felt like a natural interface.
Then, the question is, “Well, how come Bruce Banner gets to be Bruce Banner?” Even if he’s carrying a monster inside of him, he still gets the benefit of the doubt in some ways that Eliot Franklin does not. Banner got to reform multiple times.
Exactly. I thought T’Challa would understand that. To me, this actually was an extension of a conversation he has with Shuri at the end of maybe issue #12, I think, which is that he’s going to have to find a way to be king that’s not like everybody that came before him. T’Challa really figures out in #23, and what Storm’s explaining at the end of #25: What does Wakanda mean to people outside of Wakanda? And what does it mean specifically to Black people outside of Wakanda? This is not my idea. This is hinted at in Hudlin’s run, but I wanted to come back to it.
Using what came before really energizes this character, maybe more than it does for other characters.
Clearly, Wakanda would mean something to those people. And what T’Challa realizes is, what if I expanded the definition of what it meant to be Wakanda? The thing you’ve got to understand is, when I picked up this run, this is a nation that people talk all this shit about ”The Golden City shall not fall!” They alluded to this, in some way or another, as far back as his earliest comics. But, the nation has fallen several times now, or a few times. Bruh, that’s out. That’s gone. And so, with T’Challa, here’s somebody in search of new resources, new places of strength, new reservoirs. And he finds that in people who put some sort of faith or some sort of belief in the idea of Wakanda.
You have that line in issue #25 where he just says, “The miracle is Wakanda.” And I think what’s implicit in that line is the miracle is not something that’s solely his own making, right? It’s a collective effort. One of the nicknames for Wakanda is the Unconquered Realm. I think, despite the times it’s been destroyed, that truism still applies because it’s the spirit of the people that remains unconquered.
That’s what he’s saying in that line, over this beautiful splash by Danny [Acuña]. He said, “Look, it’s here. It’s still here. The miracle’s already happened. Everybody’s here. Everybody’s seeing the Wakanda in them.”
One of the things that last arc does explicitly is it makes Wakanda an ancestral homeland for all these Black characters. You put everybody in there. Ironheart is in there. Miles is in there. Both of the Patriots. Tell me about how you justified the structure of all of this to yourself, in terms of ‘this is what the story needs’ but also from a meta perspective, so that they’re not just a bunch of cameos.
You spend a lot of time thinking about people’s powers. It’s like a gaming out a chess match.
I texted you when issue #24 came out and I was like, “Yo, this is just a game of D&D.”
It is. It really is, literally.
You have Prodigy DM-ing the war. But also, I felt like that was very experimental structurally. Did you feel like you had the freedom to do that? Like, “OK, I’m about to go out, let me just do my shit.”
I did, but there’s a Grant Morrison issue of X-Men that I’ll always think about. New X-Men #121. It’s almost all silent, drawn by Frank Quitely, and they’re trying to figure out what Cassandra Nova’s origin is. It’s so beautifully done. And only one thing is said at the end. That was always in the back of my head, and I tried something like that with Ayo a while back, and I thought it worked really well. In these big moments, when you’ve got Danny, you got somebody you know who can really, really do it. I’m just here giving stage direction. Danny’s the actor. Let him act.
I really wanted that issue to belong to him. A lot of this stuff is just fun, man. The whole Spectrum-Storm thing [where they combine their powers], all that shit is just ‘How can I freak this? Oh, what if they come together and do X, Y, and Z? Man, that would look really cool.’ So it was fun, man. It was really, really fun.
That leads to my next question. What other moments or characters were you happiest to write?
I loved writing Bast as a child.
Making her a kid was a real fun fusion of her different aspects: unknowable, capricious, temperamental. Kids are like that, so are cats and gods.
I had a lot of fun, obviously, writing T’Challa, especially in the opening for Intergalactic Empire. That was just a ball. Obviously the cerebral stuff is really, really important to me. But, the whole sort of pulpy notion of this dude being stripped of memory being in this place and having to get out, it was just fun. That is both the hardest and the easiest stuff to do. It’s the hardest because it’s really hard in terms of setup and figuring out what’s going to happen. It’s the easiest because a lot of times you don’t have to worry about dialogue and that sort of thing, you just got to figure out what actually happens, not what’s being said. Zenzi. I really like Zenzi a lot.
I wanted to ask about her explicitly. In the beginning of your run, she seems like a subversion of a femme fatale, temptress character. But as your run goes on, she’s really I think coming to grips with her own place in the history of this country, right?
I always thought, and this just came to me in the creation [phase], that she had a kind of Loki-ish vibe to her. Not quite a villain, almost above it. She always had this sort of way of being that was above everything. “Oh, we’re going to do this? Okay, fine. Let’s go do it.” You know what I mean? Not really terribly emotionally invested, which was sort of a side effect of her powers.
A result of her backstory, too. She’s a survivor of Killmonger’s supervillain campaigns.
Exactly. When it came time to get close to the end, it just felt like it made sense that this union would happen between her and Bast, and that that would be the elevation back to godhood for Bast, who couldn’t do it alone. Because Zenzi is kind of accepted, you know what I mean? This world she came from, [Wakanda’s neighboring fictional nation,] Niganda, that she wasn’t supposed to survive after those experiments. That world is gone. And all I’ve ever thought about is vengeance. And it’s the other version of N’Jadaka, some of which is here in this version, that killed her people. And so Once this is done, what am I? What can I do? Oh, this looks fun. Let’s try this.
That’s particularly compelling to me because, again, you’ve been writing her as feline and petulant, this horrible combination of cat and a spoiled-ass kid. But I think underlying all of this is the idea that the Wakandans have arguably moved beyond worshiping Bast and the Orisha. So she can’t reclaim her full godhood without somebody believing in her, and that somebody winds up being Zenzi. Their fusion creates this new version of Bast.
One of the most moving things that you wrote is the development of Storm in this run, culminating in that moment where the Wakandans worship her. I thought it was a powerful way to honor what she’s meant to generations of fans. I know you’re an atheist. Where do you channel that idea from, since it’s not something that you personally practice?
Because I understand it. I get it. It’s in our brains, the reflex to order the world. It’s hard even for me to think about the awesomeness of the universe and think of it just as pure chaos, with no purpose or guidance. It kind of breaks something about the human brain. So I very much get the need and the understanding. That doesn’t feel so foreign to me.
Continuing on Storm, you inherited the T’Challa/Ororo relationship in a weird place. They were kind of divorced or estranged, or both, but you leave them in a place where they’re not formally together but still very much in love, it seems.
I think marriage is overrated [as an end goal for fictional relationships]. T’Challa can have a girlfriend. Ororo can have a boyfriend. It’s fine. She has a whole other life. He has a whole other life. It just seemed like the arrangement that would work best, given who they were.
And you have Ororo and Nakia have that conversation when T’Challa gets back, like, “Yeah, I know who he is, and I know who you probably are to him, and just make sure you don’t fuck with him, because I’ll find you.” One of the things I liked the most about this kind of ambiguous status quo that you’ve left them with is it feels very ‘grown folks’. ‘We know what it is. We don’t need to call it anything, and let other people figure it out.’
Can you talk about what the emotional experience of writing comics has been like for you? You, me, lots of our peers came to the superhero genre young and unsure of ourselves, and the metaphorical power of these characters helped us figure out a sense of ourselves. Now you’re on the other side of that. I think being aware of all that heightens the experience, but the highs are like nothing else, but the lows feel like you’re letting down an entire universe. What’s that part of the journey has been like for you?
It probably disturbed me more at the beginning. The longer I did it, the less it disturbed me. I started working on [Black Panther] in 2015, which is the year Between the World and Me came out. So there’s a personal journey that I went on, the comic book aside, where I had to reconcile myself to some small amount of fame. It’s not really something I love or something I do.
And so just the sheer intensity of scrutiny was new for me. I’m not talking about in Black Panther, I’m talking about in my life, period, for my work in general. So that’s happening. And it really just took a while emotionally to get to a point where I was just like, oh, this is just what it is. This is just what it is. There is no ability to have something that is high profile and not invite scrutiny. That’s just what it is.
And when I got to that point, everything was a lot clearer. Everything was a lot clearer, and probably a big part of that was leaving Twitter. Once I was off Twitter and after about two years of doing this, the feeling was that it was just me. I’m not saying you lose the desire to be well-received. Everybody wants to be well-received. You absolutely cannot write for that. You have to feel like there are moments that you really want to see, or things you really, really want to explore. And you go through the work of doing that.
Was there a story idea or a character moment that you weren’t able to fit into your run?
If it was up to me, and this just doesn’t cohere with how comics work, I would have spent 20 issues before T’Challa [recovered from amnesia and] figured out who he was, in terms of the Intergalactic part. I would have played that whole war out and had him find out much, much later. You just can’t do that, though. There’s just not enough time. I mean, you asked me something I would change. Probably if I did it again, I probably would have had him figure out who he was at issue six of that arc.
The thing about comics is when you’re doing these, I cannot stress to you, even as you outline what’s going to happen, it’s such an improvisational art form. I mean, you think you’re going to have one artist, that artist has to go do something else, you end up with another artist. You and the other person have to take time to figure out whether you vibe. It’s done so much on the fly.
When I was writing Rise, I found out one of the artists actually likes to draw machines and technology. I was like, I wish I’d known that when I was scripting his pages.
Exactly. It was a similar thing with [Kev Walker, one of the artists on “Intergalactic Empire of Wakanda”]. It became clear once we got into the water that Kev really liked making up shit. And I would’ve been like, fuck, I would’ve scripted all sorts of monsters for him to let his mind go wild. But you find that out on the job. As you’re going, you figure it out. Maybe if you worked with somebody before, you sort of know. By the time Danny comes back, I know what he does, which is everything. But you just have a better sense.
Speaking of artists, talk to me about getting Brian back to draw the last couple of pages of issue #25 to end the arc out. How did it happen? Did you ask him?
No, that was [editor Wil Moss’] idea. And I’m looking at the last two pages right now, and the whole thing of it ending back where we started is just really so cool. I don’t like characters dying. I mean, if it has to happen, it has to happen, but I don’t love it, and I think it should be done sparingly. And so I thought this version of Nakia was so cool, and I didn’t like the idea of wiping her out completely. I wanted to leave some sort of thread for if somebody wants to pick it up, to pick it up.
How do you reconcile with the idea that somebody is going to touch T’Challa after you?
I’m totally good with that. You don’t own shit. I’m good with people having their own interpretation in terms of Ororo and T’Challa, and whatever happens there. I was always very much aware of the X-Office and what they were doing over there. And they were very generous in allowing me to do what I was doing over here. I’ll miss them but these characters don’t belong to me.
I feel like we have to talk about the movie and the way it changed the way people interface with this character now. Did that change your process at all?
No. I wish that there was better integration, in terms of … the people who were very excited about the movie. I wish they had tried to turn, say, 2% of them into comic book readers.
Rise of the Black Panther is partially an introductory text to bring in people who would be hyped off the movie. I tried to make it stand on its own inside the comics continuity but I couldn’t ignore the reality that this movie was coming out. But I think what you’re talking about is the actual logistical mechanisms of getting those books in the hands of moviegoers.
I’m not even so much talking about the writing, I’m talking about the marketing. I wish that more had been done on that level. Can I say something else, too?
Go for it.
I’m not talking about myself here, because I feel like I’m somebody who is fortunate in the sense that I’ve been able to make a living in all kinds of other ways. But there are people who make their living off of comic books. And I wish that Marvel found better ways to compensate the creators who helped make Black Panther Black Panther. I wish that they found better ways to compensate the folks who made Captain America Captain America.
I’m talking very specifically here, I wish they found ways to compensate the author of the greatest Winter Soldier stories that you’re ever going to read. I don’t love that there’s a Falcon and Winter Soldier show on TV and I’m hearing from Ed [Brubaker] that he can’t even get in contact with … I just don’t love that. I don’t love that. Look, I had a great time. I had a tremendous, tremendous time writing for Marvel. I am indebted to Marvel.
I love my editors, Wil, Tom, Alana, Sara, Martin.. Chris. I had great people working with me. The corporate side of this, though … the corporate side of this is not pretty. It’s not pretty at all. How you treat people who create the basis for this, I don’t love it.
Even if you go in clear-headed, eyes open, most creators know this is work-for-hire. Does that mean the system can’t be improved? And that’s the question, I think.
And so you can start from a position of not ‘what my contract says’, but ‘what is right’, how I would want to be treated. And again, not to go off, but I know specifically with Ed … I mean, look, the three Captain America films are, to me, like … They are probably, short of Black Panther, my favorite Marvel films. Frankly, when we start talking about sci-fi, genre movies, and all of that, one of my favorite trilogies. I mean, it’s just really great, consistent quality. But I also know what’s at the root of that.
And I know reading Ed’s take how good he was for Bucky and how much just pathos, and sadness, and … Look, I just talked about how I don’t like killing characters. I’m sorry I’m going on this rant. I know we’re supposed to be talking about Black Panther.
No, do it. It’s all good.
The Death of Captain America is just one of the greatest stories I’ve ever read. I’m talking about the volumes. It is fucking incredible, ridiculously good. When I was going on Captain America, I thought about that. I was like, if I could get anywhere near this, I might have done something. I didn’t. I didn’t, by the way. But to have that, and to have him bleed into that book, to have Steve Epting bleed into that book the way he did, to see folks making billions over top of billions, and for my man to say he can’t get a phone call returned. I don’t know what the relationship will be like in the future, but as a creator, you think about that. You think about how people treat other people. You think about how corporations treat other people. And I just don’t love it, dude.
Before you went on this tangent, I was going to ask, some of the ways we understand superheroes are as wish fulfillment, power fantasies. Did you have a wish you were trying to explore through T’Challa or this work in general, superhero work?
I mean, the powers are always cool, but to me that’s not what makes a compelling character. The most powerful character is not the most coolest character. That’s definitely not how it works. And so for me, no. But, as I’m talking to you, I’m realizing, having gone through the bout I was going through with celebrity, with fame, being in a place that I didn’t really ask to be in, and having some amount of power that I probably didn’t ask to have, and then yet having to not really being able to walk away from it, I probably was channeling some of that.
You’ve had T’Challa look at himself, and at the country, too. Where do you think Wakanda’s sense of its own national psyche sits right now? They’ve endured yet another invasion, yet another cataclysm. You show the rebuilding at the end of #25, but what are they telling themselves about themselves now?
I think that’s the significance of T’Challa’s speech in #23, to understand that we’re more than the walls we build. That we mean something to the world. We’re a beacon of something to the wider world, a place of renewal, Dr. Elliott Franklin coming here. We have scenes at the end of the issue with all of these heroes who came and fought finding their place. Sam and Misty having coffee. We have Riri and Miles in the city where they’re just looking around, trying to figure shit out. It’s a kind of retreat for these folks, a place where they can feel understood. I mean, that seems like there’s something bigger there now. Beyond I’ll kick your ass, you know what I mean?
We didn’t talk about this when I was writing Rise and you were writing the main book, but it feels like those ideas are linked. In Rise, T’Challa’s challenge is, OK, I need to open this country up because I know where isolationism is going to lead us and where it’s led us. It led to the death of my father. Where you leave things, it feels like this is a further flowering of that idea where, OK, if we open ourselves up to the world, the world gives back to us. Because there’s a version of that story where this invasion happens from space and those other superheroes aren’t there. The country doesn’t stand anymore. They only survive that trial by virtue of broadening the idea of who gets to be here. Which leads me to my other question. Talk to me about the community you’ve been able to find amongst other comics creators.
That’s been one of the best parts, really getting to know Ed, and being actually able to ask advice.
Who are some of the people you feel like you’ve benefited from your friendships or just them being open to you?
Oh, Kelly Sue DeConnick, incredible. Ed, absolutely incredible. Kieron [Gillen], Jamie [McKelvie]. I have to say, I get the most random and yet meaningful notes from Christopher Priest, and it’s the coolest thing in the world. He’ll see something from time to time, or he’ll see me somewhere and he’ll send a note. I’ve told him this, but dog, I’m eight, nine years old, 10, 11, I don’t know, however old, when he publishes Spider-Man Vs. Wolverine. I don’t know that Christopher or James Owsley [Priest’s former name], I don’t know that this is a Black person.
He’s doing his editing of Spider-Man at a period where it’s very influential to me. Now, I know it was a shit show in that office. But this is a Black writer who helped shape my notion of imagination. And I remember reading Spider-Man vs. Wolverine being like, wow, this is the weirdest superhero story I’ve ever read. What the fuck is going on here?
But you need to read that at a young age. Those are the things. You give those things to your kid and they’re sponges at that point, and they’re trying to figure out the world. You know what I mean? It’s like detonating a bomb, and their imagination expands. And so I told him this, you know what I mean, to get these notes from him, I mean, it’s tremendous. And I hope it touched him, you know what I mean, to tell him that. Christopher had written Captain America. I think he had written a Captain America and the Falcon series.
Yeah, he did.
When I got Captain America, he said, “Listen, man, look, I’m going to be honest with you.” I love this dude. He says, “I’m going to be honest with you. You’re in a bad spot, because comics is an art, and if they were doing you right, they would’ve gave you something a lot more low profile, get it figured out, and then you get Captain America later.” I think I had been all Black Panther for like two years. He said, “But that ain’t you.” He said, “That ain’t you. You’re in a tough bind here, to be a Black writer learning this as you’re doing it. I just want you to understand the challenge.” Not in a hating way.
So I appreciate that. It really meant the world to me. I’ve seen Reginald [Hudlin] a couple times. Obviously at the premiere for Ryan’s joint [the Black Panther movie], which was tremendous. Then again at, I think I can say this now, at a relatively private ceremony for [Chadwick Boseman]. To see Reggie there, and for Reggie to talk about how everybody adds to the legacy of Panther, that was beautiful. It was me, him, and Coogler, and he was talking about that. It’s been really, really, really beautiful. I can’t say enough about the community of creatives and just how good and fair they’ve been.
I think one of the things that’s really meaningful about—
Oh, and Eve [Ewing], of course, who came in after me. Of course, Eve. Greg Pak, too. Greg, who’s my favorite Incredible Hulk writer.
I think one thing that’s meaningful about this modern era of Black Panther comics is that so many people got to participate, from quote unquote outside of comics. Rembert [Browne] writes an issue of World of Wakanda. There’s Roxane Gay’s run. Nnedi Okorafor’s work on Shuri and other Wakanda stories. It’s especially meaningful when you think about how few Black women have participated in mainstream superhero comics in general.
On that note, I want to talk about the Black women in the text specifically. It was always one of those things that was implicit about T’Challa as a character, where he’s not who he is without Black women in his life, but you made that explicit in the text. Can you talk about that thematic through-line?
Part of it was necessity. So many people were dead when I came on. M’Baku, who’s an antagonist, was gone. Zuri was dead. Wakabi was dead.
Look, I’m going to press you on this. The way you use Ramonda, for example, talk to me about your conception of that character and what she meant for your run.
I mean, she was the only adult person who had seen another king who was in his life. She could really be a bearer of wisdom, an ambassador, or a diplomat, the person that can go to the Originators on his behalf and say, “Listen, this is what we can do,” and make peace. It was important to me that the women of Wakanda not just be standing around.
And then you have Ayo and Aneka, two members of the Dora Milaje, essentially spark a major change in Wakandan politics.
I have to say, it’s wild to see Ayo just out in the world. Like, oh shit, that’s Ayo. That’s somebody that was in my notebook.
Speaking of things that are wild, you are now participating in the legacy of one of the most powerful superhero characters. What can you say about Superman and what the journey has been like for you thus far?
Nothing I can say would be helpful here. Absolutely nothing. Nothing I can say will do anything to improve how this film is ultimately received. I got a big thing: I want people to have their own experience with the art, and I don’t want to step on it. I don’t want them to hear me. I don’t want them to see me. As much as possible, I really don’t want them to see me. I want them to see what we ultimately produce. And so what I’m trying to do is … I’m not even being coy here.
We live in an era where people, because you have social media and can share so much, the instinct when you’re creating is to let fans in on the process. To let them see where you’re going. And I might could do that after. That might be an aftermath thing I would do, but I do worry about doing injustice to the art.
I just worry that you are, however unintentionally, seeding ideas in people’s head. Now, look, there’s a point where you have trailers and things where I’m going to have to talk about it, but if it were up to me, I wouldn’t say anything ever until it’d been out and seen and consumed and all of that. I don’t want to get in the way. I want Superman to have his chance.
I really want him to live. I want him to be greeted. I don’t want me and whatever baggage the narrative of me has to overshadow that. I’ve said things in the past when I was working on things, and I guess this is still true. When I got on Captain America, I wrote about taking on Captain America, and the thing I wrote was, “It’s an opportunity for me to speak, it’s an opportunity for Cap to speak, and it’s an opportunity for me to figure out what this experience is like.” And it’s the same thing here. As much as possible I really would like to recede and hopefully make something that folks feel is worthy.
You mentioned Cap. Have the real world events of the past year shaped anything in your Captain America run or the Black Panther finale?
No. It’s crazy. You have to remember, stuff was paused because of the pandemic. A lot of this work was already done.
This past year has been a wild circumstance to be doing any kind of creative work, especially when you’re on a book like Captain America, who always feels like he needs to speak to the real world.
He is inherently political from jump. There’s never a point where he’s not speaking to the real world. And you do take some amount of inspiration from what’s going on around you. I think Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and everyone else advanced the Steve Rogers myth in the moment they had him coming out of the ice, in the ‘60s. It made him timeless. It’s probably one of the most brilliant tropes I’ve ever seen. Because it’s ultimately a commentary on the Greatest Generation, and the idea of the Greatest Generation literally being the “Greatest Generation.” This guy’s an embodiment of the Greatest Generation faced with a postmodern world. It is such an incredible setup, and he’s constantly disappointed. Because who can live up to that? Who can live up to that?