NEW YORK• Created in 1966, the Black Panther, the first black superhero in mainstream comics, has never enjoyed the popularity of many of his superpowered colleagues.
That looks to change, however, thanks to a confluence of events that began with the much- anticipated release last Wednesday of the new Marvel comic-book series Black Panther.
Most comics do not generate that much buzz, but then again, most comics are not written by Ta-Nehisi Coates, a national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine and the best-selling author of Between The World And Me, which won the National Book Award last year.
One of the most celebrated authors about race in America writing about a black superhero who has pummelled Captain America and members of the Ku Klux Klan? The collective response from fans of comics and Coates alike: I'd read that.
The book arrives during the 50th anniversary of the Black Panther, who first appeared in issue No. 52 of the Fantastic Four.
Next month, the superhero will make his big-screen debut in Marvel's Captain America: Civil War, with Chadwick Boseman (the 2013 baseball drama 42; the 2014 James Brown biopic Get On Up) as the Panther. And, in 2018, Boseman will reprise his role in the feature film Black Panther, to be directed by Ryan Coogler (Creed, 2015).
The collaboration stems from a conference last year hosted by The Atlantic, where the author interviewed Marvel editor Sana Amanat in a seminar titled What If Captain America Were Muslim And Female?
Soon after, another Marvel editor, Tom Brevoort, asked Coates if there were any characters that he might like to write for them.
A lifelong fan of Spider-Man and the X-Men, Coates sent them some favourites. "Black Panther was not on my list," he said with a laugh.
But when he learnt that Marvel was looking to feature the character in his own book once again (his last one ended in 2012), Coates was immediately intrigued.
When Stan Lee and Jack Kirby dreamt up the Black Panther for Marvel, he was at the top of his game. Descended from a long line of kings, the Panther, aka T'Challa, had protected Wakanda, the fictional, technologically advanced African nation, from everyone from neighbouring tribes to alien shape-shifters.
But in recent times, Wakanda had taken it on the chin - flooded by Namor the Sub-Mariner and ravaged by a team of super- villains.
When Coates' book opens, this latest version of the Panther is still reeling from these defeats. "As we get deeper into the book, there's this question: Is T'Challa a good king?" Coates said, speaking by telephone from his home in Paris.
Throughout his history, the author noted, the Panther has spent much more time hanging out with guys such as Iron Man and Captain America than handling affairs of state. "I'm not sure he actually likes being king. This dude is showing up in New York all the time. It's like, he always had something else to do besides being king.
"And there's a bigger question," Coates continued. "Wakanda's the most advanced country in the world, with a really educated population. Why would they even accept a monarchy?"
Although race is an issue in the comic, it will not be at the forefront early on. "The book is probably much more concerned with gender than it is with race," he said.
In the first issue, Coates created a plotline about the Dora Milaje, an elite, all-female cadre of bodyguards who first appeared in 1998. They were enlisted to protect the king and serve as "wives in training". "I always thought there was something creepy about it," he said. "Women who were taken from various tribes who may become the Panther's wives? They don't actually have sex with him, they're just scantily clad and are always just sort of around him?
"It defied all logic of what I knew about men, of what a man would be like in an absolute monarchy."
His first impulse was to eliminate the Dora Milaje altogether. But instead of cutting them, he positions them as perhaps Wakanda's last, best hope for salvation.
Marvel's editor-in-chief Axel Alonso says of the comic book: "This is grand entertainment, wide-screen action. But it goes without saying that some themes that Ta-Nehisi's going to draw on will be familiar to anyone who has read his prose."
Of course, comics are not the same as essays, as Coates will be the first to tell you. The biggest rule in superhero stories? "People need to hit each other," he said.
NEW YORK TIMES