On September 22, Marvel Comics officially announced the relaunch of their “Black Panther” series, with critically-acclaimed author Ta-Nehisi Coates as the writer and Brian Stelfreeze as the artist.
Both gentlemen are Black, and that is where the story takes on a particular level of import.
Many journalists have covered this announcement, and a number of columnists have already given their spin of the impact of this development, on comics and popular culture.
For me, the story is a personal culmination of events that started to take shape in 1989.
In Marvel Comics’ “The Mighty Thor” #411 and #412, a group of teenage superheroes called the New Warriors was introduced.
The team was led by a young Black male millionaire named Dwayne Michael Turner, who operated under the superhero name “Night Thrasher.”
I immediately gravitated to the character… because he was The Black Batman.
Dwayne was young, handsome, wealthy, a leader, and Black.
He represented a fantasy, an idea that various Black men aspire to be.
His superpowers were wealth and intelligence, and both of those things are attainable in American society.
The idea of empowerment on a human level, in the archetype of The Batman, a well-known and respected character in global culture, has a particular resonance for me.
The same can be said for other Black creators, because if you look at the entire ecosystem of comic books, you will find various Black male heroes with similarities to The Batman.
“The New Warriors” went on to become a monthly comic book for Marvel and, for a while, I had my Black Batman.
When the series ended, there was a vacuum, in both Marvel and DC Comics, and for me.
I grew up with The Avengers and The Black Panther, Marvel’s King of the technologically-advanced African nation of Wakanda, and his tales penned by various writers including Don McGregor. McGregor’s run in Marvel’s “Jungle Action” series began setting the tone for the growth and transformation of the character.
It was in 1998, when writer Christopher Priest helped kick off a new volume of “Black Panther” that the character’s full potential became crystal clear for me.
Not only did he fill the hole for me as the archetype of the ultimate Black male superhero without unusual superpowers… he transcended past it.
The alignment of Christopher Priest, a Black writer, and The Black Panther, provided a richness to the Wakandan King. The stories put his formidability, intelligence, emotional maturity, and capacity for strategy on stage.
Just as Priest was impacted by the work of McGregor, his work impacted future takes on The Black Panther by writers such as filmmaker, producer, and executive Reginald Hudlin and critically-acclaimed, top-selling writer Jonathan Hickman.
The fusion of Black creator to Black character is quite unique to monthly American superhero comic books.
As of this writing, Ta-Nehisi Coates is one of two Black writers working on Black superhero titles within the two big publishing houses, Marvel and DC Comics.
That will change, but not today.
In the here and now, the alignment of Coates and The Black Panther is not only brilliant in how perfect it is, but it speaks to visibility and finance.
Coates is the author of the New York Times-bestselling title “Between the World and Me,” a heartfelt, candid, and unflinching story told to his teenage son about being a Black man in America.
His various articles in “The Atlantic,” for which he serves as a National Correspondent, have provided comprehensive and thoroughly-researched examinations of how Black people have been strategically victimized and marginalized, held back from opportunities to own land and gain equity, leading to wealth development.
The African nation of Wakanda is the fantasy. The land where Black people are at their physical and intellectual best, and have vast resources.
The one place where Black people have successfully fought off the forces of colonization.
In recent years, The Black Panther and his homeland have suffered greatly, their power and standing diminished by unusual forces and events.
The expectation among hopeful fans is that the “Black Panther” series written by Coates will help restore the King and his kingdom to their former state of glory.
The parallel is a greater expectation, one with real-world impact.
The hope that the union of Coates and The Black Panther will accelerate progress toward the end of marginalization of Black writers on monthly comic books for Marvel and DC Comics, at the very least.
That is the uncertain future.
Because Black writers were not afforded many opportunities to work on monthly titles from Marvel and DC Comics from the mid-late ’90s to the early part of this decade, the movies adapted from comic books written during that time are not benefitting Black comic book writers financially.
The writers getting some nice checks and greater visibility for their projects due to the ascension and prosperity of The Marvel Cinematic Universe… none of them are Black.
Since Marvel and DC Comics are owned by corporations, there are financial considerations when creative teams are chosen for comic book projects, especially on characters who are, or will be, translated into film and television.
The publishers can justify the exclusion of Black writers through data showing their inability to command a certain level of sales.
Just as in the real world, this criteria is not universally applied, because there are a number of non-POC creators whose sales capacity is limited, but they manage to receive a handful of monthly titles to write.
There is, of course, a morality lying with the people in positions of power at Marvel and DC Comics. An understanding of which way the wind is blowing in terms of the demand for diversity in comic books.
Regardless, that ethos will be challenged by the need for profit.
Profit must be justified.
Gut instinct and integrity cannot be quantified.
Above and beyond his amazing ability to write, to make readers open their minds and challenge their own perceptions, Ta-Nehisi Coates has proven that he can, as they say, “put asses in the seats.”
A certain level of sales for Coates on “Black Panther” can be projected, and a certain measure of success can be measured.
Diversity breeds diversity, and success breeds the inspiration to create more successes.
The diversity and success of Marvel Comics’ “Ms. Marvel” series, about the young Pakistani-American female superhero, is directly connected to the upcoming “Black Panther” series written by Coates, as various interviews with him have revealed.
The road to accelerating change begins with courage, but it’s paved and reinforced by profit and visibility.
Hope will not be enough for the new “Black Panther” series to act as a catalyst for increased diversity and a fair number of writing opportunities for Black writers within and outside of the two major comic book publishers.
Our efforts will be needed.
Just as “Ms. Marvel” received that boost, the mixture of critical acclaim and sales growth, “Black Panther” will need the same.
Sales attrition leads to a considerable descent in sales from the first issue to the second issue of any comic book.
With that, I’m going to change my purchasing pattern.
I will be purchasing one issue of “Black Panther” #1.
I will also be purchasing two copies of all subsequent issues of the Coates run.
If we can show the bean counters that talented Black writers on any monthly superhero title, Black character(s) or otherwise, means a profit, then we eliminate the final excuse.
Without that excuse, the reasoning for any further marginalization will be obvious, and another problem to address.
We should not project our hopes into men like Ta-Nehisi Coates and David Walker.
We should not become complacent, and accept the new “Black Panther” as the beacon shining a path to the growth of real, substantial diversity in this business.
We should not stop demanding diversity, because of one comic book that trended highly throughout social media.
We should remain awake.
See things for what they are.
Figure out all of the areas of impact.
Make the contributions where needed.
Diversity and success lead to more diversity and success.
The creation of the new “Black Panther” series is the victory of every consumer who used their buying power and their voice to push diversity forward.
We helped accomplish this.
Let’s do it again.
Joseph Phillip Illidge is a public speaker on the subjects of race, comics and the corporate politics of diversity. In addition to his coverage by CNN Money, the BBC and Publishers Weekly, Joseph has been a speaker at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Digital Book World’s forum, Digitize Your Career: Marketing and Editing 2.0, Skidmore College, Purdue University, on the panel “Diversity in Comics: Race, Ethnicity, Gender and Sexual Orientation in American Comic Books” and at the Soho Gallery for Digital Art in New York City.
Joseph is the Head Writer for Verge Entertainment, a production company co-founded with Shawn Martinbrough, artist for the graphic novel series “Thief of Thieves” by “The Walking Dead” creator Robert Kirkman and video game developer Milo Stone. Verge has developed an extensive library of intellectual properties for live-action and animated television and film, video games, graphic novels and web-based entertainment.
His graphic novel project, “The Ren,” about the romance between a young musician from the South and a Harlem-born dancer in 1925, set against the backdrop of a crime war, will be published by First Second Books, a division of Macmillan.
Joseph’s newest comic book project is the upcoming Scout Comics miniseries “Solarman,” a revamp of a teenage superhero originally written by Stan Lee.
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