When news got out that esteemed writer Ta-Nehisi Coates was penning the story for Black Panther's relaunch, it was significant for a number of reasons. Coates, a gifted writer who is undeniably one of the most poignant voices on race in America today, was bringing a level of prestige to the comic book hero symbolically and literally; it's not every day you see a MacArthur Grant winner writing a superhero comic book. The author was the perfect choice to revitalize the iconic character, weaving timely, real-life themes on the current social climate into Black Panther's fictional world.
In an equally inspiring move, Marvel heeded Coates' advice when it came time to grow T'Challa's comic book-verse with the spinoff World of Wakanda. This time, they tapped noted feminist author Roxane Gay to be one of the first black women to write a comic book for the publisher (Gay, along with poet Yona Harvey, will be writing stories for World of Wakanda).
Marvel's World of Wakanda will spotlight the women of the fictional African nation Wakanda. It follows the story of couple Ayo and Aneka, two former members of the Dora Milaje, the Black Panther’s female security force, as well as a second story about Zenzi, the female revolutionary who incited a riot in the first issue of the Black Panther series.
At face value this may seem somewhat random. After all, why would a -gasp- feminist killjoy be writing a spinoff for one of Marvel's major properties?! But those familar with Gay's work know she's far from the stereotypical feminist (in part because there's really no such thing). An unapologetic pop culture enthusiast, it makes perfect sense for her to try her hand at comic books: Many talented writers explore various media, especially those that take them well outside of their comfort zone. A quick read through the writer's Twitter timeline shows that Gay is all about stepping outside of her comfort zone lately (case in point: her snaps and tweets that journal her hate/love relationship with her personal trainer), and her TedTalk confirms that Gay's message -- be it on race or sexism or gangster rap lyrics -- is both accessible and entertaining. Besides, who better than a black, bisexual, feminist woman to write an authentic story about two black, bisexual, feminist women? Spoiler alert: No one.
We spoke with the Bad Feminist author about writing her first comic book, feminism, and what superpower she'd most like to have.
Let's talk about how this project came about. Ta-Nehisi Coates approached you and Yona Harvey and said what? And how long, if at all, did you have to think about whether or not this was a project you wanted to take on? Was there any discussion with him or Marvel about the creative direction this series would take and how much input and control you, Yona, or Ta-Nehisi would have?
Roxane Gay [RG]: Ta-Nehisi approached me and said he had a crazy idea--would I like to write a comic book series? I was stunned and intrigued and I had to say yes. I don't know how he approached Yona. She's working on something related but different. I knew immediately that I wanted to take this on.
We've definitely talked, along with our editors, about the creative direction and how much control I would have. In general, I've been given free rein to write the story of the Dora Milaje, so long as I consider Marvel continuity.
You're an admitted fan of pop culture. Were you previously a fan of any comic books? If so, which? Were you familiar with the character Black Panther?
RG: I am definitely a new comic fan but growing up, I read the Archie comics religiously. I could not get enough of those stories. I was definitely familiar with Black Panther and, more broadly, Wakanda as this amazingly advanced African society.
Were you ever interested in or did you ever see yourself writing a comic book?
RG: I was definitely interested in writing a graphic novel which I know is similar but somewhat different. I had been approached by a company to do a graphic novel about two years ago and so the idea of marrying story to image was already in my head.
Marvel has notably been taking some positive steps for inclusion with their properties. Sadly, there's a noticeable faction of fandom that doesn't do well with change. I'd like to talk about some of that negative pushback and get your perspective. First, the new Iron Man. The pushback there pretty much stemmed down to - and I'm paraphrasing- "why can't Marvel just make new characters for women and POC instead of making historically white, male characters women or POC". They try to make the argument that it's "insulting" to women and POC for them not to have their own original characters, which... I think we both can deduct what the real reasoning behind that thinking is. But let's for a second discuss that. Is it "insulting" for preexisting white characters to get "recycled" as female or a POC?
RG: It is absolutely not insulting for pre-existing characters to evolve into women or POC. That's just silly. These are people who are willing to enjoy the most fantastical premises in comics but are somehow unable to wrap their minds around different kinds of people participating in those premises? Come on. That kind of thinking is narrow and lazy.
That said, it would also be cool to have more original characters and that's one of the reasons I am really excited to be writing into the Black Panther universe.
What kind of advice, if you have any, would you give to someone who isn't a person of color when creating characters that are a person of color?
RG: When writing across difference, it's important to start with what we all have in common and then consider what it is like to move through the world when someone inhabits different identities. How might their outlook shift across difference? How do you bring that into a narrative without making it the sole focus of that narrative?
You mentioned in your Ted talk how you do not want to be held on any pedestal as a feminist icon. When you're hired for a project, like being one of the first WOC writing a major series for one of the biggest comic book publishers in the world, and people are using the word "historic", do you, as a woman and a feminist and a POC, start to feel any pressure about the final product or that you'd be "letting down" people who do consider you an icon?
RG: I feel a lot of pressure. It is challenging to be the first. At the same time, it is freeing to be the first. No one has ever done what I am doing, so I get to cut the path. I always worry about letting people down, particularly those who look up to me, but I trust that they see me as human and fallible while also trusting that I am going to work hard and do my very best.
Ayo and Aneka are lovers- two black, queer women - so their inclusion in a major comic book series is an important one. As a professor and someone who is so thoughtful in their approach to pop culture, can you talk about the kind of impact these characters can potentially have and why it's important for black, queer characters to be visible in a mainstream Marvel property?
RG: It is so important for Ayo and Aneka to have more of their story told. These books are going to let black, queer women, and queer women more broadly, to see something of themselves in women who are powerful, heroic, tough and tender. That's a hell of a thing. It is certainly something I would have loved during my formative years and it is something I would love to see now. It is awesome that I get to tell this kind of story. It's important for me, too. It is validation.
10 Questions* with Roxane Gay
If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
I want to fly.
Who was your hero growing up?
Who do you consider a real-life hero now?
My best friend.
Most underrated superpower?
If you could only read one book over & over til the end of time, what would you read?
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
What movie do you love that you're embarrassed to admit to?
What are the last 5 songs you played on your iTunes/Spotify/Tidal?
Hold Up by Beyoncé
Sorry by Beyoncé
Fade by Kanye West
Off-set by T.I.
Come Pick Me Up by Ryan Adams
If you could name one person (writer, musician, filmmaker, etc) whose work more people should know about, who would that be?
Filmmaker Barry Jenkins has a movie coming out called Moonlight. People should definitely get hip to his work and this movie, in particular.
What one word of advice would you give to an aspiring writer?
If you could go back in time and tell childhood you one word to prepare them for the future, what would it be?
*Vanity Fair has the Proust Questionairre, Inside the Actor's Studio has James Lipton. Since we're fans of both, we thought it'd be fun to start asking our interviewees a shorter take so we can get to know them better. However, we still need a fun name for our mini-quiz. Feel free to tweet us your suggestions @syfyfangrrls.