When Marvel Comics announced this week that red-hot cultural commentator Ta-Nehisi Coates would be writing its new Black Panther series, comics fans and people who are invested in progressive views on social justice both had serious freakouts. Coates is one of the most perceptive and thoughtful writers working today, and he’s also a lifelong comic book fan–a combination that should help elevate the new Black Panther title to one of the flagship books in Marvel’s line.
That’s fitting, given the company’s plans for the character–Black Panther is a big part of the cinematic future of the Marvel Universe, with an anticipated debut in next year’s Captain America: Civil War, and his own solo adventure due in 2018–but it’s also the sort of thing Marvel has done with the Black Panther for years. While the character’s publication history has been on and off–Coates’s Black Panther will be the sixth time Marvel has launched a title starring the character–over the past few decades, the company has recognized that if you’ve got a series called Black Panther and starring a superhero from an unconquered African nation, it’s probably one that you want a person of color to handle.
There hadn’t been a Black Panther title published in 10 years when Marvel tapped writer Christopher Priest to relaunch the character in 1998. Priest, an African-American writer (whose history also includes being the first black editor at either Marvel or DC), built his series around the concept of the Black Panther–as African royalty–spending his time in America, a country that’s had a difficult time knowing exactly what to do with powerful black men.
Priest’s run lasted 62 issues–an impressive stretch for a title whose two previous incarnations combined for fewer than 20 issues–before reaching a conclusion in 2003.
The end of Priest’s time on Black Panther gave way to another celebrity writer’s take on the character. In 2005, writer/director Reginald Hudlin–whose film credits include House Party, Boomerang, and more–moonlighted as the writer for Black Panther volume 4 while keeping his day job as the President of Entertainment at BET during that time.
Hudlin’s run on Black Panther was built around a number of concepts, but one of the prevalent themes was the idea of what the Black Panther would mean to the world. In Hudlin’s take on the character, heroes like the Falcon and Luke Cage idolize the Black Panther (T’Challa the character predates both, being the first mainstream black comic book character when he debuted in 1966); Prince shows up to play his wedding (to X-Men member Storm); and the cultural impact of a superhero who’s also the king of an African nation that’s never been conquered is kept front and center.
In other words, while the news that Ta-Nehisi Coates will be writing Black Panther is thrilling, it’s also not unprecedented. The character is the flagship black superhero in comics, and Marvel seems to have recognized for the better part of 20 years that, when hiring someone to write the character, it’s appropriate to leave it in the hands of a writer of color.