Comics and Ta-Nehisi Coates

A comic book illustration: shows the Black Panther standing strong and alone in front of a futuristic city-scape.

by Eric B.

I grew up reading comics. In hindsight, it was one of the things I can recall being really into, certainly more than books or sports. I loved the stories, the characters, and the artwork. In the 1980s, the stories became a bit more interesting and complex, giving the characters more depth than in previous periods. My love was bolstered by the fact Steve Geppi, on his way to becoming comic distribution magnate and part-owner of the Baltimore Orioles, owned and operated several comic shops around Baltimore. I won’t reminisce here, but the one I frequented with my brother was a pretty amazing place, created by a guy who quit his job at the post office to own a comic shop. (In other words, he had passion.) 

At any rate, I still occasionally read some comic and graphic novels, my book discussion group has read and discussed a few of the best, and I still enjoy going to my local comic shop to browse (less frequently lately, obviously). The medium has a come a long way, with the work of some talented writers and artists. More importantly, the graphic medium is much more diverse and inclusive these days. HCLS has a great graphic novel collection. Sometimes I look through and find things I’ve not heard of or a book adapted into a graphic novel that I was not aware of previously.

Ta-Nehisi Coates and I are the same age, and he’s from the west side of Baltimore, around where the city meets the county. I, too, hail from west side of Baltimore, spent my first few years just on the county side, and spent a lot of time in those areas. The differences in our respective experiences could probably make for more than a blog post, but nevertheless I’m always happy to see local people do well. (I guess we all like that sort of thing so we can imagine some sort of shared experience.) Commonalities notwithstanding, I’m a fan of Coates’ thoughtful work and was moved by his piece on reparations. He has authored several excellent books of fiction and nonfiction on race, and perhaps you have heard about his “twitter battle” with Dr. Cornel West. 

At any rate, and certainly not to take away from any of these accomplishments, I recalled reading that he was a comics kid. I was elated to read that this intellectual had realized his childhood dream of writing for Marvel Comics, Black Panther in particular. I can only imagine I’d feel the same and felt incredibly happy for him! My first guy was Aquaman, I was blonde and liked the ocean. Next was Spider-man, the flawed character who struggled with pretty much everything in his personal life. That said, I had characters with whom I could relate, which is important, and I was very happy to read Coates had his, too. 

You may have seen the Black Panther character in the Marvel films, but Coates built on the source material created by people of color he had admired as a young person. He writes comics narratives about power, opposing points of view, the African continent, and nature. Coates also recognizes that comics and graphic novels are a collaborative work, and he acknowledges how the great art of Brian Stelfreeze brings a graphic story to life. Coates subsequently moved on to Captain America and wrote about his good reasons for wanting to do so. He mentioned that some may see Cap as the embodiment of nationalism or the character from the films, but he’s much more nuanced and conflicted than that.

I have to feel a sort of kindred spirit with someone that can recognize this in Captain America and comics in general. So, if you have not, read his articles in The Atlantic (available via RBdigital), read his books, and don’t be afraid to read his graphic novels, which are collected as trade paperbacks and available via HCLS

Eric is a DIY Instructor and Research Specialist at HCLS Elkridge Branch. He enjoys reading, films, music, doing nearly anything outside, and people.

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