The Hudson Mercantile hosted the standing-room-only panel, “From Black Panther to Miles Morales: In Conversation with Ta-Nehesi Coates and Jason Reynolds” on Thursday afternoon. Coates, an author and columnist for The Atlantic whose Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet came out to acclaim last year, and Reynolds, whose novel Ghost was a National Book Award Finalist for Young People’s Literature, and whose YA novel Miles Morales: Spider-Man hit shelves in August, discussed the history and future of T’Challa, Miles Morales, superpowers, and the importance of representation in comics and media, especially now, as our society seems ever more fraught.
I’m happy to report that over the course of the talk, a high school teacher, her students, and a librarian all received raucous applause from the speakers and the crowd during the Q&A. Click through for highlights from the panel!
After serenading us with New Wave classics from Talking Head, The Smiths, and New Order, and Joy Division, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jason Reynolds took to the stage.
Reynolds asked for Coate’s comics origin story, saying “This is kind of a bug out moment, isn’t it?” before asking “How is It possible that Ta-Nehisi Coates all of a sudden was writing Black Panther?” Coates replied:
It’s weird. You have an identity where you are how people see you, and then you have a private identity. I started reading comics when I was 8. it’s from comics that I got my literary sensibility. It feels natural, obvious. I was lucky to be called by Marvel, and I probably shouldn’t say this, but I would do this for free—I kinda am doing it for free if we want to be real about it—but it’s a pleasure. Comics have such a hold on the public imagination, and it’s a pleasure to work with them.
Reynolds asked if taking up T’Challah’s story led to a sense of pressure, but Coates said that he was never as much into the “fandom aspect” of comics as a kid. “I came to a con and bought comics and went home. I didn’t want to meet Chris Claremont—I wouldn’t have come to this panel!” Because of this he feels a bit separate from the hype around stories that might otherwise be intimidating. Then he turned to Reynolds, asking, “How did you end up doing Miles Morales?” Reynolds replied, “I was never as into comics. My brother was the comic book fan, everything had to be in cardboard sleeves, and if I’d look at them it was always ‘Don’t touch my stuff!’ Y’know?” Coates, laughing, replied, “Yeah, that was me.” Reynolds continued, saying “I got the opportunity to do Spider-Man, and I was like, nah, I’m good—I love spider-Man, but we know Spider-Man, we know Peter Parker, I have nothing to add. But then they offered me Miles Morales. And it was the craziest thing. I was invited to the Disney offices. They’re very strange, interesting art on the walls. And they say, “We’re going to have a champagne toast!”
“I didn’t get any champagne!” Coates said.
Reynolds continued, quoting the executives:
‘We’ve gathered everyone together to celebrate this new venture—now tell us what do you want to do?’ And the big thing I thought of was: what would I have wanted to see when I was 15 years old? And the thing stood out to me—we all know Peter Parker’s big statement: ‘With great power must come great responsibility’, but wasn’t a statement I would have made when I was 16. In my neighborhood, if kids I grew up with had gotten that power, there’s no one that would have said, ‘Well, now I must use great responsibility!’
After the laughter died down, Reynold talked about how he tried to treat this seriously, and give Miles Morales a realistic world. “What is it to have a superpower when you’re the only one with that power? There’s a lot of survivor’s guilt in poorer communities, so what’s it like to be the “special one”—specifically in poor communities of color, where many people will have an undeserved pathology of inferiority—how do you deal with your powers if you think you don’t deserve the power? And that’s what I told them.” As the audience broke into applause, Reynolds added, “And I’m thinking, ‘They’re gonna take the champagne flute back!’”
Asked how Morales’ struggles related to his own life, Reynolds replied, “I feel extremely lucky—especially when I think of my older brother. His opportunities were snatched away. A kid who read all the comics, and believed in superpowers, who was never able to actualize his own superpowers because of circumstances of his neighborhood.”
The two men talked about rough neighborhoods, and the guilt that comes with leaving them to find a better life. Coates brought it back to his love of Peter Parker, saying, “…nothing goes right for him! And Stan Lee’s experiences are far from us, you can’t get much further from us” gestures to Reynolds and himself, “but I felt it.” “The truths are the truths,” Reynolds agreed.
The two men moved on from the heroes of Queens and Brooklyn to the ruler of Wakanda, to discuss Coates’ work on Black Panther, with Coates musing:
There’s a hunger among Black fans, to see a Black dude or a Black woman bust some ass, the way white fans can watch the Punisher or whoever. But it wasn’t Spider-Man’s or Wolverine’s power that got me, it was the conflict. The fact that this power comes with a price. When I went to Black Panther, I went away from the impulse to watch him bust ass. I was more like, yes, but what comes with the crown. If he could design his life, is this how he would do it? You may not want this kingdom, this power, but it’s not up to you. You were born with this. And in a deep, profound way if you walked away, you would be walking away from yourself.
Discussing continuity, Coates noted that “if you picked up Uncanny X-Men #205, nobody’s gonna tell you what happened in #204. Either you in or you’re not, and nobody’s holding your hand for this” while Reynolds mentioned that he got to cherry pick aspects of Miles Morales different timelines. “I decided to use the mom that does know he’s Spider-Man, and the one where his uncle is dead. It was mad stressful.”
Asked about the portrayal of Miles’ school, Reynolds said “seeing Miles Morales in his life as a 15-year-old kid, at school, home, at the barbershop, hanging out with his friends, all of these things buttress who he is as Spider-Man. And his Spidey-sense? In Brooklyn? That doesn’t count as a superpower that’s just survival.”
Coates was asked to talk about escapism in comics and superhero films, and he mused on some of the ramifications of the current love of all things caped. “There’s a power fantasy. In most superhero films, there’s a desire to believe that some sort of being with more power than us, but with a correct morality, will come down and save us and make everything OK. After coming through an election with enormous consequences, where the vote and the level of engagement declined, I can’t help but take a kind of message from that.” And elaborating on that, he shook his head and laughed about being confronted by people who wanted his comics to be apolitical. “Come on dude. Have you read the X-Men? Captain… America? Please. It’s actually funny, but you gotta laugh to keep from crying. It’s Black Panther. it’s right there in the name: BLACK. PANTHER. There has never been a truly great comics arc, ever, without some political element.”
Reynolds agreed, saying he was heartened by his experience with his Marvel editors. “I sent my draft in, like, well, here you go, and I expected it to be flagged all over. But they said, we can see what you’re trying to say, and we can see that you’re being a little timid about it, but if you’re going to do it, LET’S GO!”
When the aforementioned teacher stood up with a question about how to encourage her POC students to stay creative in the face of indifference, Coates turned to Reynolds, saying “I was not a good student.” Reynold asked the laughing crowd to “take a picture a picture of him deferring to me!” before giving his advice:
All the academy will tell you that the language that is familiar to you is not appropriate. and that’s not to say that there shouldn’t be a standard, but when I come to school with my friends’ language, my grandmother’s language, the language in my mouth—you’re going to tell me that’s improper? One thing I wish I’d been told in school is that my language is valid. I love loved loved “We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks. There’s a notebook of her from when she was 16, and she had this this list of all the things she needs to do each day, and one of the items was “speak proper English.” And I think about that, that she needed to learn the rules first, cause then there’s freedom in breaking those rules. So I’d tell them to be real with it, be not afraid, and if it feels good to you it’ll feel good to us.