There is no matter more important in the United States right now than the matter of race. Between mass incarceration, permanent economic disadvantages, lack of access to health care and education, police shootings and the rise of overt racism it’s never been clearer that there are two Americas, and if you’re black, you don’t get the good one.
Comic books have had a pretty dismal track record in this regard. More than two and a half years ago I wondered why there weren’t more black writers in comics, and there isn’t one word of that piece that isn’t equally applicable now. And that’s shameful. In my career from my position of privilege I’ve seen overt and covert prejudice, with people’s talent judged purely on their skin color. Time after time. And you know, I don’t want that to be my America or my comics industry. And it shouldn’t be yours.
So this tweet was pretty cool.
Marvel’s many missteps and awkward statements on the subject of race of late may have been leading up to the genius stroke of hiring Ta-Nehisi Coates to write Black Panther, but it doesn’t give them a pass.
And yet it was very cool.
Given how even talking about race—let alone admitting you are part of the problem—makes makes white America so uncomfortable, Coates’ National Book Award nominee Between the World and Me is the necessary book to confront our assumptions, in the tradition of Jams Baldwin and Toni Morrison. Hiring the guy who wrote the book on race, a brilliant thinker and writer, is a smart move for anyone, but did anyone think the logical follow-up for him would be to write…a comic book?
In 2015 America there may be no job that is more important. Coates showed off his comic book knowledge in an April interview with Vulture’s Abraham Riesman:
The great questions that people have been asking at least since the ’70s are: Why are comics so deeply tied to superheroes? Why are superheroes so deeply tied to comics? And, why do the medium and the genre have such an enduring marriage?
Superheroes are best imagined in comic books. The union between the written word, the image, and then what your imagination has to do to connect those allows for so much. I always feel like when I see movies, I’m a little let down by the [digital] animation. I want to hear the voice in my head, you know? When I see Bruce Banner becoming the Hulk, it’s only a picture. My imagination has to do some of the work there, to impute feeling and everything. We’re talking about something that’s so surreal it’s just not possible within the world as we know it. So that requires a form that is not so literal. Animation, movies, these could be literal — Avengers movies will always disappoint me. X-Men [movies] will always disappoint me.
Given both his comic book bona fides and his knowledge of how economics impacts society, Coates answered questions about his run on Black Panther on Twitter yesterday with obvious glee. This is but a sampling:
Coates’s Black Panther isn’t going to write all the wrongs of society or even comics, but it’s a step in the right direction, and a bold step towards content that actually matters. Rob Salkowitz wrote about it at Forbes yesterday:
Breaking Down Cultural Barriers. But seeing this story only through the eyes of race and diversity misses another important cultural aspect. Ta-Nehisi
Coates is a member of vanishing breed of public intellectuals, a term that now seems as quaint and outdated as “philosopher king.” He happens to write primarily about race and politics, but he is influential because he applies his knowledge and eloquence to the serious study of public issues, and seems to make a good living at it.
Why is someone like him writing a superhero comic book? The simple answer appears to be that, like many smart folks of his generation, he has always liked them. Coates grew up in the 1980s, when the medium was maturing and even mainstream comics began engaging with real-world issues and more sophisticated formal techniques. The Times piece talks about conversations he had with Marvel editors in the spring of 2015 that led to today’s announcement, largely centering on his affection for the character and his nostalgia for the stories of his youth.
The Washington Post’s Yanan Wang also considered the territory:
In “The Case for Reparations,” a sprawling cover story published in the Atlantic last year, he details the long history of inequity between white and black Americans. But his analysis extends far beyond the Civil War, as he addresses the racial division of wealth in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Among Black Panther’s range of powers — from hunting to inventing to acrobatics — is the possession of the combined strength and knowledge of every Wakanda chieftain who has held the title of “Black Panther” before him. Likewise, Coates’s writing draws richly not only from history but also from the literary style of earlier public thinkers, most conspicuously James Baldwin.
Not everyone was happy, however, as Graphic Policy rounded-up:
Coates is a talented writer, having mostly written as a journalist for a who’s who of news outlets as well as writing two books. He hasn’t written for comics, but is a long time fan. Being unproven in the comics realm has brought criticism of the choice by Marvel, with charges of the publisher overlooking the numerous talented persons of color that have proven themselves in the medium already.
Some pointed out that this decision sends the signal that for a person of color to be hired by Marvel they need to be extraordinary in their ability and talent.
Relevant tweets in the link.
Black Panther will not be Marvel’s first significant statement on race. Axel Alonso was the editor on Captain America: Truth by the late Robert Morales and Kyle Baker, a story that brilliantly mixed the real life Tuskegee experiment with the fictional super serum experiments to tell the story of Isaiah Bradley, the first Captain America. The books is out of print and it goes for $70 on Amazon, but if you can find a copy, read it.
This also doesn’t mean the entire comics industry doesn’t need to try harder. This isn’t a matter of taking jobs away from white men, it’s a matter of giving new voices a chance, voices that have not been allowed to get that chance because of that overt and covert prejudice I talked about earlier. A diverse industry is a strong industry. As the race to replace the first African-American president devolves into a jingoistic contest to see who can be the most divisive and discriminatory, the true hope for our future lies in taking advantage of the talents of ALL people. I know that’s an idealistic viewpoint, but I can keep dreaming.
I’ll end this with a link to David Brothers latest essay on how important it is to talk about race in a measured and thoughtful way.
Diversity isn’t about us getting a look at the expense of anybody else. It’s about everybody getting a truly fair shot.
It is important to be precise. It is important to avoid carelessness. When women speak out, when people of color speak out, they’re often doing so from a place where they are not the most powerful voice in the room. We are constantly questioned—the old saw is “you have to work twice as hard for half the credit.” This is why it is important for writers to be precise, to avoid carelessness, because it is very, very easy for imprecision and carelessness to stop a conversation dead.
I’ll keep trying. We should all keep trying.