Marvel Comics is well aware that—cameo appearance by a certain squinty-eyed web slinger aside—the upcoming Captain America: Civil War will be a massive coming out party for Black Panther. But before we saw a single frame of actor Chadwick Boseman in the iconic black costume of the African king/superhero T’Challa, Marvel put in motion a headline-grabbing plan to revive a hero who has cast a big shadow in the comics world since his 1961 debut (where he happened to take out the entire Fantastic Four singlehandedly). The announcement that author, journalist, and MacArthur “Genius Grant” winner Ta-Nehisi Coates would be collaborating with artist Brian Stelfreeze on a return of the Panther in April 2016 was met with almost universal OMGs.
With the series now nearly ready to drop, Co.Create spoke with Stelfreeze about redefining the character, the learning curve of working with a novelist who is new to comics, and his own personal creative habits as we present a sneak peek at the first few pages of Black Panther #1.
The first three pages of the new series (previewed here) work to both establish Black Panther’s place in the newly revamped Marvel Universe, and reset some of the classic elements that make him who he is—both elements perfectly coalesce in the new mask Stelfreeze designed for T’Challa.
“Primarily it’s because Wakanda is the most technologically evolved nation—they are on the cutting edge as far as Marvel Comics is concerned,” Stelfreeze tells Co.Create. “So we just kind of thought, okay . . . it’s kind of weird that he’s just pulling on a ski mask, you know? So in one sense it was a way of showing off that this is more technologically advanced than what we’re used to. And it’s also my nod to [legendary Marvel artist] Jack Kirby. Kirby did a lot of the early stuff with the character, and I wanted to bring back a little bit of that.”
The fact that the cinematic Black Panther also seems to be sporting a more advanced mask is, according to Stelfreeze, purely a happy accident. “It’s kind of funny because we don’t even talk to each other, us and the movie guys. But what’s really cool is that we both went in separate directions, but ended up in the same place on several things. My design of the costume was in hopes of simplifying things, take out the adornments with the capes and all that stuff and kind of keep it with the slick bodysuit, even if there’s ubiquitous technology within the black bodysuit. And some of the stuff that I’ve seen from the movie—like him having split-toed shoes and the mask being more aggressive looking—we just kind of arrived at the same place. I thought that was really cool.”
Stelfreeze explains that he and Coates were left alone by Marvel brass to create their own vision for Black Panther and the sovereign nation of Wakanda, something Stelfreeze saw as an opportunity to create a country that, like Japan, mixed mind-blowing technology with ancient traditions. The “traditions and tribalism” look, however, had to feel distinctly African—and in order for Stelfreeze to fully realize his vision, he needed to fight one specific battle.
“The only thing I even got close to fighting for was Laura Martin, the colorist,” says Stelfreeze. “We ran a studio together for a while, and I am just a grand admirer of her work. My attitude was I’ve gotta have her on this. Because all the things I want to do, I know she is the perfect person to do it.”
Although there is no question that Coates is one of the finest writers working today, there’s a difference between writing a memoir or a novel and putting together the building blocks of a comic-book script. Stelfreeze was inspired to sign on to the project based on the strength of Coates’s initial story outline, but he still had some reservations.
“I have to admit that I was a little bit nervous at first, because he’s coming from outside of comics,” says Stelfreeze. “And not only that, he’s coming from a relatively non-collaborative media into comics. So I was a little bit nervous, like—is he going to be one of these guys who’s just like, ‘I’m the captain of the ship and you are simply my hands’? But I have to tell you, working with [Coates] has been the most collaborative venture I’ve partaken in comics. He’s really interested in the opinion of the artist. Because he’s so open, I’m influential to him and he’s been hugely influential to me.”
Stelfreeze and Coates’s working relationship is best described as, in Stelfreeze’s words, “coolness one-upmanship.” “That’s where I read his script and I go, ‘Oh my god, that’s so cool. Here’s what I’m gonna do.’ And then he’ll see what I’ve done and go, ‘That’s so cool, now here’s what I’m gonna do.’ And it’s just back and forth and back and forth.” The pair eventually got to the point where all they needed was shorthand when it came to the parts of the script where words gave over to pure action.
“[Coates] will actually just write into the script: ‘You got this, Brian. I’m just gonna stand back and watch you work’. It’s really cool.”
Since the mid-’80s, Stelfreeze has gained prominence in the comic-book community for his interior art as well as the highly detailed, painted cover art he’s created for titles out of Marvel, DC, and just about every other publisher in the industry. He’s honed his craft to the point where he can see a clear delineation between art and commerce.
“I think there’s art, and then there’s illustration. Art comes from a deeper place. You have to do whatever it takes, beat yourself with thorny branches, live a life of abuse or something like that to really draw on that,” Stelfreeze says with the laugh. “And I appreciate that! But illustration is another thing. Illustration is commercial. It’s work that we produce, and I think what you can do is you can draw from the pool of art, but most of it comes from a pool of knowledge. And I think learning illustration should be like learning engineering or learning math or science.”
Not only has this helped him as an educator—Stelfreeze teaches illustration, happily does portfolio reviews for emerging artists at cons and events, and updates a blog where he shows step-by-step examples of how a piece comes together—but it has allowed Stelfreeze to understand how he works best, which is invaluable in a collaborative medium like comics.
“Most creative people fall into one of two categories—either they’re task-oriented or they’re time-oriented,” says Stelfreeze. “When you’re a creator who’s task-oriented, then you work while the muse is in the room. And your fear that the muse might leave the room while you’re asleep keeps you working until you are done with the project. But if you’re time-oriented, then you basically go, ‘I’m going to work from this time to this time, and I have to get a certain amount of work done.’ I try and set my life up so I’m much more time-oriented than task-oriented. Because this is commercial work. I don’t consider what I do ‘art.’ It’s ‘storytelling.’”