Apr 24, 2018

An Interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates

In December of 2015, The Comics Cube received a huge compliment from Ta-Nehisi Coates, who said that the website had been helpful for him in getting started on his first comic. Four months later, he was writing the bestselling comic book of 2016, Black Panther. With the King of Wakanda taking the world by storm with what is so far the third-biggest movie domestically of all time, and with Ta-Nehisi Coates being named the next writer of Captain America, we thought we’d reach out to see how life has led Ta-Nehisi to this point, and what we can expect from his work moving forward.

by Duy Tano

Black Panther Volume 1 in Hardcover

DUY TANO: First of all, I want to thank you so much for the compliments you gave two years ago.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Oh, no, man. I know how it is — I know it’s weird, but you know, I started with this little blog that I had, and I couldn’t really make a living being a writer. And that was a long period, I guess. You know, people love things, and they want to write about things… I don’t know, you shouldn’t forget that. You should remember that. And so even once I got to the point where I could actually make a living, the love was very much still there. So I try to remember there are people out there who make their living doing other things — I don’t know how you make your living, actually! (laughter) —but you want to support people being able to write about things that they love. That’s the point I’m trying to get to.

So when you were growing up, it’s pretty clear that you were a big comics fan. Who were your particular favorites?

You mean heroes or writers?

We’ll start with characters, then we’ll go to writers.

Spider-Man was a big one, and then the X-Men. You know, the old X-Factor from the 80s. That was big. I was a Wolverine guy. This is before Wolverine became what Wolverine became. I mean, he was just getting big, you know what I mean? Like his first series started — not miniseries, the first series — I have Wolverine #1, and it was a big deal, but it wasn’t to the point where he had to appear in every book yet. They hadn’t quite gotten it yet. So I was a huge Wolverine guy.

In terms of writers, you know it’s weird, because back then, I know now who I followed and who I liked, even though I wasn’t aware, because you have to remember, I was a young child, man. I started collecting when I was like eight, nine years old. So I didn’t have awareness of writers. Then I stopped when I was like fourteen and got in high school and got into other things. But at the time, I was a big fan of that Ron Frenz/Tom DeFalco run on Spider-Man.


Loved that. Big Roger Stern guy, from his stuff on The Avengers.

Under Siege!

Oh my God, I loved that. Under Siege was incredible. I was talking to Ed Brubaker the other day and he was giving me advice on Captain America, and he told me to read Roger Stern’s Cap, and I said, man, you gotta read Under Siege. I mean, it’s just ridiculously good. Still. It holds up, you know?

It’s great. You ever read Roger Stern and John Byrne’s Captain America?

Not yet. Not yet. How many issues is it?

It’s like eight issues long, and then they got taken off the book.

That’s what Ed was talking about. He was advising me to go read that, and I haven’t yet, but I will. And also, the first comics I bought was John Byrne’s Fantastic Four. This was one of the first books that was in my collection. I bought that and a Teen Titans issue, but for some reason I just stuck with Marvel.

Is it possible because Marvel was the “cool” brand? In grade school, I remember I was a DC guy and no one else was a DC guy, so I had to get into Marvel too to play along.

Yeah, I didn’t perceive it that way. I think, rightly or wrongly — probably wrongly — I perceived Marvel as having a level of depth. I think back to that first issue I bought, and it’s the one where the Psycho-Man has imprisoned the Fantastic Four, and he’s manipulating She-Hulk’s fear. The whole issue is about She-Hulk getting over that fear and fighting the Psycho-Man. And if you’re nine years old, ten years old, eight years old, however old I was, that’s pretty deep. That has some weight. It’s not just some bang, pow, whatever. And it’s weird, because I think I should have been primed to be a DC guy, because I watched Super Friends a lot when I was a kid, but it just didn’t translate.

Speaking of writers, is there a particular writer you emulate or are inspired by?

At the time?

At the time, and now.

So I think back to all the things I liked when I was a kid, so I guess I was thinking of (Chris) Claremont when I first started. My comic book collecting life has gone through phases, so there’s a very young phase, when I was in elementary or middle school —started elementary, lasted till middle. I don’t think I was eight, I think I was nine or ten. And then there was an adult phase that began when I was about twenty-five, twenty-six, and that was because I found myself in a difficult place in my life and comic books kinda helped with that. And that continued intermittently up until the point when I started collecting. And so when I got the job to write, I had to look at it differently. I had to look at it like a writer. ‘Cause you know, the form changed so much.

Black Panther #9, cover by Brian Stelfreeze and Laura Martin
So when I started Black Panther, there was one person I thought about a lot. It was (Jonathan) Hickman. Hickman’s ambition and imagination was just so vivid and huge, and even when all of the storylines didn’t connect and everything didn’t ultimately flesh out, I didn’t really care. I just liked living in his world. And that’s weird to say, but I liked being there. So I guess this is the beginning of his Avengers run, ‘cause I actually had to go back and read much of that Fantastic Four stuff. But the beginning of his Avengers run, where it’s, all sorts of crazy s*** happens. And it’s probably my favorite Avengers run. ‘Cause I think as comic book fans, a lot of the time, at least on the internet, we tend to be conservative, and we want classic renditions. And his was just so non-classic. And I loved it, so when my turn came to write, I wanted to do something ambitious and big.

Your journalistic and nonfiction writing tackles a lot about the state of current events, racial dynamics, and everything. How does that inform the way you write comics?

It’s usually the same questions. You know, I write a lot about race, right? And racism and white supremacy, but what I’m ultimately writing about is power, and this is the lens with which to see power that most interests me. But when I go over to Black Panther, it’s not about racism or white supremacy. But I’m actually still writing about power. It’s the same thing. And in Captain America, which won’t really in any direct way be about race, racism, or white supremacy either, it’s still about power. It’s still about power, you know? And that just is the most interesting thing to me. That really is probably the connection.

Your Black Panther run does cover a lot of intersectional demographics. You have black LGBTQ characters, for example, and it’s got shades of gray throughout. I was wondering what message it is you hope people take away from such a diverse group of characters and the power dynamics between them? Because quite honestly it could be said that Black Panther in your run isn’t necessarily always right.

Black Panther #12, cover by Brian Stelfreeze and Laura Martin

Yeah, and I want to read stories like that. What made those Claremont books so great is that you weren’t sure Professor X was right. Maybe Magneto really was right. There’s an issue in Jim Shooter’s much-maligned Secret Wars where they think Magneto did something. And Captain America’s going after Magneto, and Wolverine stands up for Magneto. He jumps all over Captain America. He says “You claim to defend America, but we mutants are getting pushed into the sea, and where were you?” And so that always appealed to me about Marvel. That sort of shading. Well, who’s really right here? It’s the protagonist who I’m writing about, but I don’t know that the protagonist can necessarily be objectively, clearly right.

I mean, you’ve seen this debate with the Black Panther film. It’s one of the great things Ryan (Coogler) did, right? People are actually debating, was Kilmonger right? That’s incredible. That’s how you know when you’ve done good.

I feel obliged to ask, since I work in marketing, is there a particular demographic in mind for your target audience? Is it hardcore comics fans, fans who would not necessarily step into a store but would buy it in paperback, minority readers, or just yourself, the type of comics you would’ve wanted to read when you were younger?

I think that’s the answer. It’s twelve-year-old me. (laughter)

That’s the one who’s definitely gonna enjoy it! So in Black Panther, we noticed that you basically recreated the map of Wakanda. Previous maps have existed, but where once they said things like “Deep, uncharted terrain,” you’ve given them Wakandan names and a whole history. Can you elaborate on the importance of having done this?

The modern map of Wakanda

The map that I had seen before was Don McGregor’s map. And Don was the one who really created Wakanda as a world. So I’m in his debt for that. At the same time, it had been about thirty or forty years, so I felt like maybe I could update it a little bit. I wish I had more time! It’s one of the things I’m thinking about right now. We’re going into this intergalactic empire/Wakanda space. And if I could, man, I’m trying to figure out how to design star maps and stuff like that for the galaxy. I have the notes. I got the names for the galaxies that comprise the empire. And it actually took a long time in Photoshop to try to figure out that one map. I don’t have any skills in that at all. I did that myself.

That’s cool!

Yeah, that’s me! And then they went and had their office do the finishing touches and everything. But to figure out things like a star map, that’s the kind of thing I want to work on. Because I want people to feel like they’re immersed in a world, like you’re part of it, like this is a real ongoing thing.

Yeah, the only people right now who I believe are doing that are you and Jason Aaron on Thor.

Yeah, but it’s good. It gives comic book fans a sense of the world being real.

I gotta ask this, because I’m a big Thor fan. But you’re using a lot of gods right now. Is there any chance of a crossover in the near future?

Me and Jason talked about that! Actually, we talked about it with Avengers, because there’s obviously some commonality with Panther and Cap being Avengers. But maybe we should, I don’t know! I love Jason!

That’s great! I hope it works out.

Not a bad suggestion.

So what was it like knowing you were working on Black Panther, you’re the guy bringing it to life every month on the printed page and on digital… and all of a sudden this movie hits. And it’s this huge thing. What was that like for you? How much did it mean to you, for this character to be introduced to this wide new audience?

I would just describe it like this: I was on a plane, coming back from LA, and this stewardess gave me the Wakandan salute. You know, it’s this black woman with dreads, and she just gave me the Wakandan salute. I mean…

Did you tell her you write Black Panther?

She knew! That’s why she gave me that salute. It’s been surreal. I feel like I got an essay about what it was like. It’s been intense. It’s been really, really intense.

And it’s not stopping.

It’s not stopping! It’s not stopping. The best part though for me is how much it has upped the game for what kind of comic books I need to be creating. I gotta do better. I really feel like that. And it’s good to feel like that. It’s good to feel like I really, really got to do better. I mean, this script that I’m working on now, right? It’s like this space battle between these starfighters in the empire. I’ve never done anything like that. And I have to try to do that, to challenge myself to do that.

Ryan’s a great artist, so I haven’t just benefited from the film, but from his friendship. And so I was telling him about how the film has upped the standard of the comic book, and how I wanted to be, just a better writer of fight scenes. And he said to me, why don’t you just write twelve straight issues of just fight scenes? Write as much as possible. And that was just such a tremendous suggestion. To have somebody around you like that, to say something like that. It’s been huge, man.

Is there any directive from Marvel to make the comic characters more in line with the movie versions? I am, of course, thinking of Shuri.

No, not Shuri. I think you might see some spinoffs and limited series that take advantage of that. For the people wanting to see Okoye or wanting to see Shuri. No, on the contrary, there’s an issue out now. It did two things. There’s Okoye making her first appearance, at least in my run, and there’s the actual Wakandan salute from the movie. But that’s me and Leonard (Kirk). You know what I mean? That’s not Marvel saying, hey, Okoye’s really hot right now, you should really put Okoye in the book. It was, man, I saw Okoye in the film and I thought, oh my God, she’s incredible. Like to me she’s the best thing about it. In terms of characters she’s my favorite character in that film.

She’s my girlfriend’s favorite too. I just wanted to say that because she’s in the room right now.

Woo! She’s got the spear, she’s leaping off the balcony, and her dress is flaring. It’s beautiful. It’s really, really beautiful. So I felt more inspired by the film to write stuff and to be a certain way than I felt pressure from Marvel to do it.

That’s great, because I think some creators might feel annoyed when they change too much from the comics.

Nah, Ryan’s gotta do his thing, and it gives me inspiration, you know what I mean?

Moving on to Captain America, what does the idea of writing him mean to you, both as a writer and an African-American person? Because I think you’re the first non-white guy to be writing him as an ongoing, right?

Yeah, I think Christopher Priest did Captain America and the Falcon. So I think there’s some debate about what you consider to be first and what’s official, and all of that. I’m not so concerned about that. I think for me the big honor is… like I read Ed’s Winter Soldier arc years ago. When I was still on Twitter, I could not stop talking about that thing. It was revelatory to me. Not just the Winter Soldier arc, but the Death of Captain America. In a time when people kill off characters for shock value all the time – like I don’t think I’ve killed off anybody in Black Panther yet. And one of the reasons I haven’t is just that it’s done for so much shock value that I haven’t really done it. To actually kill somebody and make a story, a real story out of it, that’s one of my favorite comic book stories, period. That and Winter Soldier put together, those back-to-back arcs, it’s inspiring to be able to take up that character after that. I don’t know, it’s huge.

Like I said in my blog post, just the notion that people think this sort of dude is like Joe Blow nationalisme, you know what I mean? And he’s not. He’s not even that in the movies, if you watch the movies closely. Half the time, he’s fighting against the government, be that taken over by Hydra, be that folks trying to have a registration act, so I don’t know. I’m excited.

I’m very excited for you. Congratulations on that gig.

Thank you.

Captain America #1 cover, out in July, by Alex Ross

Do you find it difficult to follow in the wake of current events with Captain America? Because I think the Hydra storyline is still fresh in people’s minds. I know Mark Waid is trying to get rid of that, but just looking at the internet it looks like a lot of people are still focused on the Hydra Cap thing. Any pressure on getting away from that?

No, no, see, I love continuity. So for me, the fact that Cap was banished to this other universe and there was somebody else using his name, who led Hydra against these heroes and now he has to come back and be Cap, and he has to use that same name, that same face, that same uniform, and to not just regain the trust of his country, but his trust in himself? This is grit for me! This is good storytelling stuff for me. This is the little bits that you make gravy out of from the bottom of the pan.

So no, listen, man, this is a dude whose girlfriend — the love of his life — was sleeping with a clone of his for like a year! What kind of issues must they have? No, forget the issues they must have, what kind of issues does she have herself? You know what I’m saying? This is good stuff! This is really really great stuff.

So much of writing is not in the idea, but in the telling. So I don’t know, I don’t fear that at all.

I’ve noticed that people still call Captain America: The Winter Soldier the best Marvel Cinematic Universe movie, and I think a lot of it is in the telling, like that twist really takes you by surprise.

Yeah it does. You’re exactly right. So many people like that twist. I would actually argue – and Black Panther will threaten this if it gets a trilogy – but to me, just in terms of competence in storytelling, the Captain America movies are probably my favorite.

It’s the best, top to bottom, isn’t it?

Top to bottom, one, two, three. It has an amazing level of consistency. It’s certainly my favorite superhero one, but I put it right up there with Star Wars. Star Wars is more epic, more sprawling, but I think just in terms of even quality of movies? One, two, three is pretty damn good for Captain America.

Yeah, I think the first movie is really underrated.

Oh, that first movie is hellaciously underrated. I watched it recently. It’s a really solid movie, a really, really solid movie. Perfect casting. Chris Evans, he’s got him. The first one is really underrated.

Chris Evans has got him in a way I don’t think anyone else has got their characters.

I would even say Downey on Stark. Downey on Stark is really good, but Chris Evans, he’s got him. He’s got him.

I live in the Philippines, so I definitely have to ask this for my Filipino readers. What’s it like working with Leinil Yu?

Oh man, Leinil is incredible. He’s incredible. I wish you guys could see some of his stuff. You’ll see it soon enough. I was telling him yesterday – he sent some pencils in. This is a pretty heavy storyline we’re trying to tell, and there’s this emotional weight and power that he brings. It’s beyond anything that I’ve worked with, I’ll just say that.

And you’ve worked with some very good artists.

Yeah, (Brian) Stelfreeze is incredible, he’s absolutely incredible. And I don’t want to be in the habit of comparing people, but weight is what I think of. Gravitas, almost, that he brings to these things.

Can you give us a short preview as to what things we can expect from your Captain America run? Which villains are gonna show up, which themes are you gonna tackle?

Well, I think the first arc is all about trust. Does Cap trust himself? Do people around him trust him? And does America trust him? What is America? What is he actually captain of? What is he returning to? That’s what I’ll say, ‘cause I gotta be careful.

And are there plans of a Captain America/Black Panther crossover at some point?

Um…we’ll see.

Thank you very much for the time.

No problem.

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