For someone with an advanced degree in literature, I spend a disproportionate amount of time and money on comic books and movies derived from them, so much that I’ve considered starting another blog titled “I Only Watch Movies About Superheroes.” But every once in a while, a project comes out that makes me feel a little less guilty about this indulgence.
Next month, Marvel Comics will publish the first in an eleven-part series scripted by Ta-Nehisi Coates. (New York Times columnist, senior editor at The Atlantic, won The National Book Award — yeah, that Ta-Nehisi Coates.) The series will feature the Black Panther, a character with an uneven history at Marvel. First appearing in the early years of Marvel’s Silver Age fifty years ago, the Panther has been a member of the Fantastic Four, Avengers, and other lesser-known superhero teams, and is often a central character in Marvel’s seemingly annual (and typically tiresome) cross-title/mashup/battle-royal events. Yet while he’s a solid member of the Marvel Universe, the Panther has had limited success as a solo character; every few years, an artistic team will launch a new Black Panther series, which will garner critical praise but limited sales before ending a few years later. Given this history, the decision to limit the new series to 11 issues (an intriguingly odd number) seems prudent.
But let’s be honest, I didn’t call my comic book shop today (yes, I “have” a comic book shop) to reserve my copy of Black Panther #1 because I’m a T’Challa fan. I simply can’t remember someone like Coates — an author this accomplished, an intellectual this powerful — writing a comic book. (Only person who comes close is Neil Gaiman, but that’s an entirely different story, as Gaiman was writing comics before expanding his literary scope.) And at first I was cynical, as I’m always suspicious of intellectual attempts to appropriate comic book culture; read just about any philosophical study of Batman, and you’ll see what I mean. Then I read Coates’ Atlantic article about the series, and discovered his interest in comics is rooted in a sincere appreciation from his youth:
In the way that past writers had been shaped by the canon of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Wharton, I was formed by the canon of Claremont, DeFalco, and Simonson.
If you were trying to establish your geek cred with this quote, consider yourself successful, my friend.
While there’s no guarantee of success, I’m intrigued by this particular combination of writer and character, given the intersection of their biographies. The first black superhero in a mainstream comic, Black Panther’s name was temporarily changed in the early 1970s to the Black Leopard, entirely in order to remove any association with the Black Panther Party (Marvel Comics gives voices to minority viewpoints, but has always stopped well short of revolution); Coates’ father, meanwhile, was an actual BPP member for a while, and considering the author’s interests I fully expect the series will explore post-colonialism in Africa as well as race relations in the US. I really have no idea what to expect — this series could suck, or it could supplement my monthly fix of “Howard the Duck” and whatever the Luna Brothers are producing. But if nothing else, I appreciate the chance both Marvel and Ta-Nehisi Coates are taking with this project.