Black Panther Comic Writer Evan Narcisse on Heroes and Afro-Futurism
From Austin to Wakanda
Marvel's Black Panther follows the story of T'Challa, the king of a technologically advanced African nation called Wakanda, which has hidden itself from outsiders for centuries. After 50 years as a mainstay of Marvel's superhero pantheon, this week moviegoers will finally have the wonders of Wakanda revealed in a movie that has already broken ticket pre-sale records for comic book films. Critical and financial success would appear to bear out what audiences have been demanding for years: diverse, inclusive heroes and stories told onscreen.
In the lead-up to the fim's release, Marvel Comics is publishing a brand-new miniseries called Rise of the Black Panther, recounting how and why King T'Challa (the titular Black Panther) revealed his hidden nation to the world. The miniseries is written by Evan Narcisse: A Haitian-American New York City native recently transplanted to Austin, he was previously best known for writing some of the most incisive criticism regarding race and representation in comics.
Austin Chronicle: What were the early comics you read? Was Black Panther among them, or did you find him another way?
Evan Narcisse: He wasn't in that first wave, my first blush of comics experiences. At black barbershops, you can be there for hours waiting to get your hair cut. I was there and there was this pile of comics that someone had left behind, and in them was this Frank Miller issue of Daredevil. I remember some of those scenes vividly in my head to this day.
AC: How were you introduced to Black Panther?
EN: My earliest memory of reading a story with T'Challa was an issue of Marvel Triple Action. ... I don't remember if he takes his mask off, or if anything identified the Black Panther as an actual black man. It was this guy in a really cool-looking suit. The suit is what really struck me. I still think it's one of Jack Kirby's best costume designs ever: It's really sleek, it communicates the idea of him being a catlike superhero. He struck poses that other characters didn't, and he spoke in a way that was different from other characters. Then, of course, I found out that he's from this fictional African country Wakanda, and that fascinated me. The idea that they'd been hidden all this time, and they're technologically advanced. All that stuff fired my imagination from a very early age.
AC: Christopher Priest had this legendary run as a writer on Black Panther. Were you there from day one?
EN: Yes I was. 1998. I was there from that first issue under the Marvel Knights banner. I think I'd put together that Priest was the same guy who I had loved on Power Man and Iron Fist. In my late high school and college years, the lightbulb went off in my head that I should be following creators and not characters. With Priest, I knew that I could trust his sensibilities. Now that I'm writing the character myself, one of the things that I realized is that Priest really took the character back to these foundational understandings that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby put down. The Panther was a cunning strategist. In his origin issues of Fantastic Four, it says he's been planning for years for his encounter with people from outside Wakanda. Priest brought that concept forward and turned T'Challa into a master strategist, turning the book into what I call a primary example of superhero statecraft. You got to see these big political issues in this fictional universe play out. What would it be like if one country had a superteam of heroes that went all over the world, inserting themselves into various melodramas? How would a guy from a hidden country interact with them? He would want to figure out what they were capable of.
AC: One of the things Priest did in going back to that foundation was further building out the Afro-futurism aspects of Wakanda.
EN: It's funny, there's been some conversation of late among various creators from across the black diaspora about Afro-futurism, what it should center, how it should center it. My first encounters with Afro-futurism were as an African-American kind of paradigm. It was specifically the stuff I was reading and engaging with about how we bridge the gap, how we complete the broken histories we didn't have by virtue of the Middle Passage and Jim Crow. It's a tricky thing to trace your past back centuries when you're a black person in the diaspora. Afro-futurism began as a way to imagine ways that we could do that.
Look at Kindred, Octavia Butler's novel, where the main character travels back to the time of her ancestors and imagines what those experiences were like. Butler uses metaphor to examine what it's like to have a gap in your history and what it's like to inherit an identity that has been crafted to demonize you and disenfranchise you. I think Afro-futurism comes as a response to those realities that black people have had to endure over centuries. Priest created a semi-utopia in his version of Wakanda. There was still political churn and upheaval, but it was a land full of possibilities and promises and wonders.
AC: Rise of the Black Panther is sort of like Batman: Year One, a story that goes back to the early days but is not explicitly retelling the origin of the character.
EN: It's funny, I don't really think of it as an origin story at all. Black Panther's origin story is in Fantastic Four No. 52 and No. 53, stretching part of the way into No. 54. I'm not really revisiting that. The second issue opens with T'Challa already king of Wakanda. This is a story of T'Challa growing into the role of being a king, of coming to the decision that he has to reveal Wakanda to the world.
AC: You ended up by chance at the Black Panther world premiere, which was like Wakanda came to life in the middle of Hollywood for a night. What was it like being there on the ground?
EN: It happened purely by coincidence. I was in L.A. already for work. I was supposed to leave on Friday, but then a friend of mine said, "You're coming with me as my plus one."
AC: Did you get much time to talk with Christopher Priest?
EN: The funny thing is, a lot of people don't know him on sight, so I ended up introducing him to a few people myself. I got to express my appreciation and admiration. I certainly wouldn't be here as a writer of not only Black Panther, but I wouldn't be here as a writer, period, without him. Long before I was a professional journalist and critic, I was reading his work, and his work let me know that there was space for someone like me in the arena, in that world of creators and writers and dreamers.
AC: Without spoiling anything, is there an essential part of adapting Black Panther for the screen that they succeeded at beyond your wildest dreams?
EN: They made Wakanda feel real and larger than life at the same time. It felt lived-in but also fantastic, which I was really worried about. We've got flying ships, but we've also got people on the ground. It felt like a place where ordinary lives are happening against an extraordinary backdrop.