The stakes are high for Marvel and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates to do Black Panther well. The character appears this month in the blockbuster “Captain America: Civil War,” a prelude to the film he’ll headline in 2018. And last month, Coates released the first issue of a new Black Panther comic series.
When it was first reported last September that Coates would script a 12-issue arc of the Black Panther, some commentators suggested that he might be an “odd” fit.
The implication was that a MacArthur Genius Grant recipient and winner of the National Book Award was participating in a genre and medium beneath his talents. But they might be surprised to learn discussions of racism in superhero comics is a long – albeit often troubled – tradition. They also might not recognize the extent of Coates’ literary undertaking. He is tasked not only with appealing to comics readers but also with attracting new fans to the genre. This would be a daunting prospect, no matter the property. But the Black Panther character poses a very specific set of challenges.
A white superhero film failing has not caused studios to shy away from superhero films with white protagonists. The failure of a superhero film starring a woman or person of color, however, can set back the development of diverse superhero films for some time. Many people would probably rejoice in anything that stops the superhero franchise juggernaut. But the last few years have brought increased attention to the real struggles for women and people of color to break into the comics and film industries.
Unfortunately, when it comes to underrepresented populations, the success or failure of these texts always ends up being about more than the specific text in itself. It becomes a referendum on whether or not stories about people who are not straight, white men are valuable, and whether or not people who tell such stories should be given the resources to do so.