Comics, Diversity, Race

Mighty Marvel Monday: Why Ta-Nehisi Coates Gives Me Hope for Comics

There’s been a few awesome announcements this week around Marvel, but all anyone is talking about is Black Panther #1 by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Brian Selfreeze, so it probably isn’t a surprise that I’m going to write about it too.

This isn’t a review of the comic so much as it is an encomium of Ta-Nehisi Coates; a brief explanation of why I am grateful for this comic, and although the story is (as one would expect) well written and engaging, and the artwork is stunning, my gratitude in truth has very little to do with the narrative itself, and more to do with the way Coates has engaged with Marvel comics in the broader sense, starting from the New York Times announcement back in September.

I’m not sure there’s ever been more anticipation about a new comic ever than Black Panther #1, and considering that Entertainment Weekly and CBR are where the majority of Marvel’s exclusives end up, the importance of Coates’ announcement being in the NYT and the thereafter partnership between Marvel and The Atlantic cannot be understated. This is new ground for Marvel, and for superhero comics generally speaking. For decades, comics has wanted this kind of legitimacy and high cultural associations.

But it’s not the legitimacy and high culture that makes Coates so important to comics right now. I’ve written before about how his transparency about the process has been enjoyable for readers. It’s the first time that I can remember seeing a writer blog about the learning process, and it’s been a smart rhetorical move as well to generate interest from non-readers of comics. For months now, through his blogging and more directly through his Twitter, he’s been encouraging people who have never picked up a comic in their life to consider doing just that.

The most effective rhetorical technique in this is Coates’ genuine enthusiasm for comics, and the past few months we’ve been treated to his nostalgia for the comics of his boyhood, but also his sincere joy at being able to write comics now. “What’s the good of getting a MacArthur genius grant if you can’t go and write a comic book for Marvel?” he muses in this NPR interview. “There are things that people consider to be genius, and then there are things that deep in my heart I’ve always believed to be genius.”

And Coates isn’t just redefining genius. In the same interview, he states:

“When I was a young person, my introduction frankly into the world of literature and the beauty of words and the beauty of language, occurred through three things. It occurred through the magic of hip-hop, it occurred through the magic of Dungeons and Dragons, and it occurred through the magic of Marvel comic books, so I feel back at home.”

With these words, Coates isn’t just showing off his nerd credentials, but historicizing himself as participating in activities that are still viewed by many as the exclusive province of white men. He’s also publically picking up the refrain of nerds from marginalized groups: we’re here, we’ve always been here. It’s long been the work of fans to interrogate the whiteness of fandom, and to reclaim such activities. The fanvid below, about one of my favorite characters in media, Burton Guster from the TV show Psych and played brilliantly by Dulé Hill, is one such interrogation. But Coates is perhaps the first time I’ve seen someone so associated with high culture use his position to argue for the elevation of nerd culture to high culture–and rightly so.

Coates has also been openly responsive to questions on Twitter by people wondering where and how they can purchase Black Panther #1. If you go to his Twitter feed, it’s filled with many, many links to the Local Comics Store locator, and RTs from comic book stores like Midtown Comics (Coates’ own LCS) which have the single issue in stock–and will also accept orders online and mail them to people without an LCS of their own. Coates’ twitter feed is a testament to the difficulty for outsiders to purchase a comic–which says something about how “outsider friendly” comics thinks they are compared to how friendly they actually are. I hope it gives Marvel (and other comics publishers) pause. I hope it leads to an understanding in the mainstream of how fundamentally flawed relying on Diamond pre-orders as their main measure of success is. What the success of Black Panther #1 proves is that continuity is not the main gatekeeper in comics. The system itself is. I hope that ten years from now we look back on this moment and this title as the beginning of a revolution.

And speaking of continuity, I’ve linked to some of Coates’ tweets before on the subject, because I’ve enjoyed them so much, but I’ve created a storify to collect them as I notice them. I’ve only gone back so far as April 4th, but I will be going back through the previous months to add them when I have time. Coates’ perspective on continuity and getting into comics is something that I strongly agree with, and have been experiencing again for the first time with my reading of the Secret Wars event now months after it happened. There is a joy in diving in in medias res, and comics, as a serial narrative, is always already in medias res. There’s something beautiful in that.

The final thing I want to talk about in terms of why Coates gives me hope for the future, is that he praises the Women in Refrigerators movement and other feminist comics criticism for fundamentally changing the way he viewed women in comics. This was something he thought about consciously, especially in terms of the Dora Milaje.

He elaborates on these tweets further in The Feminists of Wakanda and this week’s Women of Marvel podcast.

The feminist critique is in the air now. If my rendition of Black Panther wasn’t created by that critique, it breathed the same air. I can’t really kill off or depower women characters without grappling with Gail Simone. I can’t really think about how women characters are drawn anymore without thinking about the women in Bitch Planet, and how they seem drawn beyond the male gaze.

[…] The feminist critique of comics has made “not asking” a lot harder. That, in itself, is a victory. The point is not to change the thinking of the active sexist. (Highly unlikely.) The point is  to force the passive sexist to take responsibility for his own thoughts.

And this, he explains, is the role of the critic:

This is why criticism is important. The job of criticism isn’t to interrupt or encourage commercial prospects. (“Batman vs Superman smashes Box Office, despite critic complaints!”) Criticism should push our imagination and help us understand what is actually possible in art and, I’d argue, even what is moral.

All of these reasons are why Ta-Nehisi Coates gives me hope for the future of not just Marvel comics, but for all comics. When you write something on the internet it’s like speaking into the void, and it’s easy to become disillusioned that what you do doesn’t matter. It’s easy to point to the number of women who are fridged not just in comics but across all media and wonder what the point of it all is, to wonder why you even bother to point out the male gaze for the nth time. This is why.

ICYMI

Ryan Reynolds won best comedic performance for Deadpool last night. Please enjoy his acceptance speech, but especially the performance of Shoop by Salt-N-Pepa accompanied by Deadpool dancers. If there isn’t a Deadpool flashmob performance of this at the next big comics convention, I will be disappointed by Deadpools everywhere.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cPhypZU-htE