WASHINGTON (AP) — One of America's most popular writers on race is now concentrating on the life of the superhero king of a mythical African country.
Ta-Nehisi Coates' lifelong love of comic books made him jump at the chance to write the Black Panther, one of the first comic books heroes of color for Marvel. While it may seem like a diversion from his serious commentary on race, Coates says it still allows him to talk about issues that he feels deeply about — through a good superhero story.
"Can this promise of rights — human rights and civil rights — be expanded equally to everybody?" he said in an interview with The Associated Press. "That is very much alive in Black Panther, even though it's not a 'race' story. The spirit of it is very much there."
A national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine, Coates' 2015 book "Between the World and Me" won the National Book Award for Nonfiction and has been on The New York Times bestseller list for 37 weeks and counting. He also was a recipient of a McArthur Foundation "genius" grant last year.
Now living in Paris, Coates is taking on a character with a long comic book history and a rising public profile. The Black Panther was introduced as a supporting character in Fantastic Four in 1966, and will be featured in Marvel's "Captain America: Civil War" movie in May. There is also a 2018 movie scheduled to be helmed by "Fruitvale Station" and "Creed" director Ryan Coogler.
The Black Panther is the alter-ego of T'Challa, the king of Wakanda, a technologically-advanced African country. In addition to being monarch, he controls the country's vibranium, a fictional metal that absorbs vibrations and forms the bedrock of the country's wealth and power. A longtime ally and one-time member of both the Avengers and the Fantastic Four, T'Challa uses his wealth, inventions, and country's resources to battle against evil from both inside and outside his country's borders while serving as the head of the government.
Coates, who is now living in Paris, said he hopes to be part of making the Black Panther more popular in American society.
"My job is to make people regard Wakanda and the Black Panther in the same way that I regarded Marvel's New York and Spider-Man when I was a kid," he said.
It may be on its way. Marvel took more than 300,000 pre-orders for Black Panther #1, officials said. According to John Jackson Miller's The Comics Chronicles, the top selling comic book in March — Batman — sold 163,406.
Coates is writing an 11-issue run, with artist Brian Stelfreeze. It will explore questions of morality and power, such as why such a technologically-advanced country would even have a monarch, and whether a good man be king. When asked if there is an allegory for current state of politics in the United States in those questions, Coates laughed.
"That is probably for people who are interpreting it to say," he said. "I can paint the story but I'll be interested in what people draw from it."
Some have questioned why Coates wrote a comic book instead of continuing to focus on real-life issues of racism and violence, especially with the issues playing such a vital role in the presidential campaign. Coates said he considers that question an attack on art.
"In every stage in history when people make art, horrible things are happening in the politics of the world. That's where a lot of the art came from," he said ... "What people are really saying is, 'Why don't you write about the things I would write about? But I don't actually have time to develop the chops to become the kind of person who can do journalism; I just want you to do what I would do.'"
Besides, Coates explained, comic books heavily influenced his writing and are an underappreciated form of literature.
"I think comic books function as a form of visual poetry, at least when they're done at a certain level," he said.
"I know what moves me," he added, "and comic books have always been part of that."
Jesse J. Holland covers race and ethnicity for The Associated Press. Contact him at email@example.com, on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/jessejholland and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/jessejholland