How is a character like Black Panther brought to life in 2018?
Marvel introduced the costumed alter-ego of Wakanda’s King T’Challa in 1966, and in the time since he’s been written and reshaped by a growing succession of writers. Now, in Marvel’s six-part limited series Rise of the Black Panther, writer Evan Narcisse working to tie it all together.
“Even though I’m writing a prequel, I feel like the Black Panther’s, for lack of a better word, fictional personality has changed every time a different writer has gotten on him,” Narcisse said during a recent interview.
He wants to tell a story in which the different versions of the character can all co-exist in a way that makes sense – from Don McGregor’s Black Panther of the mid-’70s all the way through Christopher Priest’s reinvention, Reginald Hudlin’s over-the-top superheroics, and, most recently Ta-Nehisi Coates’ push and pull between past and present.
“I want readers to … experience [T’Challa] as a cool character who is multivalent, who can exist in different understandings and different levels,” Narcisse said. “I want them to have some sense of the history, of the published and fictional history of the character.”
That’s the “north star” for Narcisse, whose story opens during T’Challa’s pre-king days. Over the course of six issues, he’s weaving a re-telling of Black Panther history that can serve, in part, as an introduction to new readers who might then go back and dig deeper into the history.
That’s not to say Rise of the Black Panther is a “greatest hits” collection, however. Earlier comics are lighting the path, but Narcisse has his own vision for this character. And much of that added narrative texture has been inspired, at least in part, by a number of outside sources.
Toussaint Louverture: A Revolutionary Life by Philippe Girard
Image: basic books
Toussaint Louverture was the leader of the Haitian revolution that ultimately brought an end to France’s colonial rule over the country. Narcisse, a Haitian-American, grew up hearing what he described as a “very comforting mythology” about Louverture.
Those stories changed as he got older, however. “I remember my mother telling me stories about Louverture and [his eventual successor, Jean-Jacques] Dessalines, and how there was infighting and betrayal and intrigue amongst the leaders of the Haitian revolution,” he said.
Narcisse appreciates Girard’s book for taking an unflinching approach in its portrayal of the Haitian leader. Someone who is “full of complexity and contradiction,” as he put it.
“I’m not saying that T’Challa is Toussaint Louverture in my series, but what I did want was an idea of how to treat a historical figure in a way that complicates the generally agreed-upon narrative and ideas that get passed on,” Narcisse said.
Once you cut away the starry-eyed mystique of a man whose efforts fundamentally helped to reshape the world in positive ways, what does the reality look like? That’s the idea Narcisse wanted to interrogate as it relates to T’Challa.
“It makes you consider his legacy a little bit differently,” Narcisse said of the book. “It basically made me think, OK, we hear about people in history one way, but who are they actually in practice? What are the things we didn’t know about them? That book helped me think about that a lot as it might have been in Wakanda.”
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Image: Michael Loccisano / Getty images (r) – composite by mashable
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a Nigerian author who chronicled her country’s civil war during the ’60s in Half of a Yellow Sun. It’s a work of historical fiction, charting the experiences of five different characters as their lives wind through the real world struggle.
Narcisse had read the book before he took on Rise of the Black Panther, but he picked it back up because of the way it looks at this very specific postcolonial period in Africa. In the midst of the civil war, Nigerians were struggling to come to terms with the lingering after-effects of colonial rule.
“There were divisions of class and economics that also fused with old tribal tensions that basically threatened to tear the country apart,” Narcisse explained. “I feel like you can’t think about Wakanda without thinking about colonialism.”
It’s not that he sees Nigeria as an analogue for Wakanda. But the fictional country’s inherent xenophobia is driven by those same tensions. Wakandans don’t deal with the outside world because they know what the outside world has done to Africa.
“Even though Marvel time makes things tricky in terms of aligning timelines with the real world, it is still a cautionary tale. The fate of the rest of the continent of Africa is a cautionary tale for Wakanda,” Narcisse said.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Image: Sean Gallup / getty images (R) – composite by mashable
Colson Whitehead’s 2016 novel, The Underground Railroad, is a fixture on Narcisse’s desk. But where those other two books have helped to fill out Rise of the Black Panther‘s narrative texture, Whitehead’s work is more a source of creative fuel.
“It’s a slightly science-fiction take on what the experience of chattel slavery was in the 19th century. The language in it is beautiful, but what it details is horrible,” Narcisse said.
“There’s not exactly stuff like that going on in Rise of the Black Panther. But I’m not a very poetically inflected writer like Coates is, so to try and engineer a shift in my mode of writing, sometimes I’ll sift through that too.”
Fela Kuti and Shabazz Palaces
Fela Kuti / Tendai Maraire (L) and Ishmael Butler (R) of Shabazz Palaces
Image: Paul Natkin (L) / Theo Wargo (R), both getty images – composite by mashable
Narcisse doesn’t turn to books alone for ideas. He listens, too. Two artists in particular stand out during our conversation: Fela Kuti, who pioneered the “Afrobeat” genre of music, and Shabazz Palaces, a Seattle-based hip hop duo.
“I’ve constantly been listening to Fela while writing Rise of the Black Panther,” Narcisse said. “He was a rabble-rouser, a dissident when it came to the Nigerian government. He called out their corruption and their hypocrisy.”
Much like Louverture, Fela is a complex and sometimes contradictory historical figure. But his music is what Narcisse describes as “a soundtrack of black pride.” He became popular in the aftermath of the Nigerian civil war, while Africa was still wrestling with the same postcolonial thinking explored in Half of a Yellow Sun.
“He’s trying to reclaim the idea of self-love and self-determination in an African-centered ethos, during a time when a lot of African countries thought it better to imitate the West and their former colonizers,” Narcisse said.
Shabazz Palaces has been equally helpful for getting Narcisse into what he calls “a Wakandan mind-state.” The duo features Ishmael, formerly of Digable Planets, and Tendai Maraire, a multi-instrumentalist and producer.
“Their first album in particular, Black Up, is amazing,” Narcisse said. “It just sounds like this insane Afrofuturistic song cycle that is like hood and grimy but also on some Sun Ra shit. There’s a lot of spaceship imagery, a lot of journey imagery.”
Disclosure notice: The author of this story knows Evan Narcisse socially.