The editors at Marvel Comics know a hot property when they see one. When Black Panther debuted earlier this year, the first issue sold more than 300,000 copies—a massive hit in an industry where topping 100,000 in sales is cause for celebration. Written by vaunted essayist and cultural critic Ta-Nehisi Coates, with art by veterans Brian Stelfreeze and Chris Sprouse, the first Black Panther arc tells the story of a superhuman terrorist group that sparks a violent uprising in Wakanda, the fictional African nation ruled by T’Challa, the Black Panther.
Now Marvel has released a spinoff series, Black Panther: World of Wakanda, about the Dora Milaje, the female warrior-guards who protect the Wakandan royal family. Coates had the idea to bring in black women writers to tell the Dora Milaje’s story. His first choice was Roxane Gay, author of Bad Feminist, An Untamed State, and two forthcoming books, Difficult Women and Hunger.
Coates recalled Gay’s public reading of a zombie story a few years ago and thought she would be perfect for the job. "Comics was not really something on my radar," Gay told Polygon. "I had kicked around the idea of a graphic novel of one of my short stories with a publisher, but I never imagined myself writing comics. Ta-Nehisi Coates e-mailed me and told me he had a crazy idea, and I said I love crazy ideas. And before long, I was contracted with Marvel to write World of Wakanda."
Gay is teamed with artist Alitha E. Martinez to tell the story of Ayo and Aneka, the two queer female characters at the heart of the series. "I hope people see that anyone can be heroic and have a story worth telling. I’m not trying to be overly didactic," Gay says. "I just hope that the more people read diversely, the more it becomes the norm instead of something that is newsworthy."
Backup stories by poet Yona Harvey (paired with Coates) and artist Afua Richardson will explore other underexplored aspects of Wakandan society.
Not along after Marvel’s announcement at San Diego Comic Con this summer, fans realized that Gay—a Purdue University English professor who divides her time between Indiana and Los Angeles—is the first black woman to write for Marvel. Even the editors weren’t immediately aware of this important and long overdue milestone. "It is a lot of pressure," Gay says, "but I have been the first many times in my life and, sadly, this probably won’t be my last first. I just try to make it so that I am never the last."
Despite a bevy of experiences writing fiction, nonfiction, and even screenplays, Gay is a complete newcomer to comics. It’s worth remembering that her mentor, Coates—listed as a "consultant" in World of Wakanda’s first issue—is still a rookie in the comics world, as well. Gay didn’t grow up reading many comics except for Archie, she says, but she doesn’t have much interest in those characters today. "I would love to write the new Ironheart, or anything involving Storm or Luke Cage or Jessica Jones."
Given her unfamiliarity with the medium, how much editorial oversight is Marvel employing for World of Wakanda? "I’ve been pretty much left to my own devices, but Ta-Nehisi is writing the current run of Black Panther and came up with this idea of spinning off Ayo and Aneka," Gay says. "He’s a great resource as I learn the lay of the land in Wakanda, and seeing what he is doing with the current arc of Black Panther provides a lot of creative inspiration."
The endeavor, even for a writer of Gay’s talent, is not without difficulty. One challenging part is working within established Marvel Universe continuity. "There’s so much I don’t know that I have to catch up on in terms of making my storyline work. The storytelling itself doesn’t necessarily come easy, but is the most effortless part of the process," Gay says. "I feel very connected to Aneka and Ayo and the journey they are on."
Another key difference in writing for comics, she says, "is thinking in terms of scene and figuring out how to get my characters from one moment to the next. There is so much more that needs to be shown in comics." To that point, readers might notice a few related anachronisms in this first issue, including the use of thought balloons—which has fallen out of fashion in the last fifteen years—and no narrative captions.
But a more interesting observation is that no men appear in scene for most of the first issue—only a few small panels show the "Atlantean scum" the Dora Milaje fight—until (spoiler alert!) Namor appears on the last page. Was that a conscious decision on Gay’s part, especially to keep T’Challa out of this debut issue?
"I didn’t even realize," she says. "Sometimes things just work out nicely."
Andrew Scott is a freelance writer. He lives in Indianapolis.