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One of the big stories this week in the comic book world was that Marvel Comics would be launching a new Black Panther series next spring written by Ta-Nehisi Coates with art from Brian Stelfreeze. While Coates might not be a household name in the comics world, he does bring a lot of serious credentials to the title. Coates is the author of the New York Times-bestseller Between the World and Me and a correspondent for the political and cultural magazine The Atlantic.
There are numerous reasons why Ta-Nehisi Coates writing Black Panther would be notable: he is a prominent African-American writer/intellectual writing a title about Marvel’s most prominent African character (or second-most if you’re a big Storm fan). It’s also worth noting that Stelfreeze is also black. Black Panther is also on the precipice of larger cultural notoriety because he’s set to make his movie debut in Captain America: Civil War (played by Chadwick Boseman) before getting his own solo movie, meaning Marvel wisely wants to position Black Panther for success. Does hiring Coates do that, though? What advantages and disadvantages come from bringing in writers from other industries to write comic books?
Coates is hardly an exception to the trend of bringing writers from other fields to comics. TV producer Jeff King wrote the recent Convergence mini-series for DC and he will write the spin-off Telos. The crossover of industries usually comes from movies or TV. It’s not really a new trend, either. Paul Dini and Dwayne McDuffie have done a great deal of comics and animation. Popular filmmakers like Kevin Smith and Joss Whedon have dabbled in penning comics for many years. Saturday Night Live vets Seth Meyers and Bill Hader wrote a Spider-Man comic together. Even popular, esteemed and/or award-winning novelists like Jodi Picoult (Wonder Woman), Brad Meltzer (Identity Crisis), Karen Traviss (G.I. Joe), Michael Chabon (Casanova: Acardia), and Jonathan Lethem (Omega the Unknown) have written comics.
There is a bit of a “stunt-casting” element to these hires. The publisher gets instant media coverage and buzz within the comics world for these moves. The thought is that wider knowledge of these series (from press coverage) will help sales. It’s also thought that non-comic book fans of those writers will follow him/her into the world of comics, also meaning bigger sales. Sometimes, those things do happen. Smith’s and Whedon’s comics have generally sold very well, though writers with less-established or fervent fan bases don’t seem to create as much of a sales difference.
It’s not always a slam-dunk to hire a notable writer from another industry, though. Usually, comics are not their top priority, which can lead to late scripts and late comics. Comic book writing is a medium all to itself as well, meaning that writing talent from another field does not always translate to great comics. It’s probably not surprising that script writers from TV/film usually do the best compared to novelists/other writers because there are more overlap between comics and TV/film writing compared to regular prose.
The hiring of outside writers to pen important titles can also rankle writers within the comic book industry, since they may feel that it’s unfair that they have put so much time into their craft and yet big books are given to those with little comics experience. However, these things work the other way, too, and comic book writers have occasionally crossed over into film, TV, and animation. Additionally, it’s ultimately sales that drive many publisher decisions and the writers who get handed important books are often those who sell well, not always the most “talented” writers.
However, commitment to a project is important. Hired guns can get hired by better paying companies, meaning their comics take a back seat or they leave the project altogether. This doesn’t seem to happen all that often, but it has to be a fear of a comics publisher when recruiting a big name. Coates is known to be a comic book fan. Fandom doesn’t always lead to the best books but it would seem to indicate that he has a great deal of loyalty to the Black Panther project.
I would guess that this is not a trend that will end any time soon. If anything, I think as comic book movies become bigger and geek interests become mainstream, we’ll see more writers and/or celebrities getting involved in comic books. The publishers certainly hope that this will lead to big jumps in readership, but I’m more skeptical whether that will happen on a long-term basis. It will be interesting to see how Black Panther #1 from Ta-Nehisi Coates and Brian Stelfreeze does as a case study when it comes out next year.