November 9, 2016 was an epic day in the world of comic books.
While a ton of attention has been going to the launch of the Invincible Iron Man — which spotlights a 15-year-old black female MIT student who has built her own version of Iron Man’s armor — there is another book that has made some headlines of its own.
World of Wakanda explores the lives of the women in the realm of the current Black Panther and King of Wakanda, T’Challa. We get a glimpse into the lives of Ayo and Aneka, the young women of Wakanda’s elite task force known as the Dora Milaje. We also find out the backstory of the mysterious woman known as Zenzi.
The Black Panther spinoff is being helmed by Black Panther series writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, co-written by Marvel’s first African-American woman writer Roxane Gay (Bad Feminist, An Untamed State), and drawn by Afua Richardson and Alitha E. Martinez.
We had a chance to talk to Gay and Richardson before the launch.
TUD: How did you get involved in the World of Wakanda?
Roxane Gay: Ta-Nehisi Coates e-mailed me some months ago and told me he had a crazy idea.
Afua Richardson: I was originally commissioned by Marvel to do a variant for the Black Panther series that Brian and Ta-Nehisi are currently working on. A few months later, they asked if I would be available to work on the World of Wakanda series, and instead of being a variant, it [ended up] being THE cover for the series. I was honored.
With the efforts Marvel is making to not only diversify their characters and archetypes, they are expanding on the creative and editorial diversity as well — not just injecting someone black in there and brown-washing a character. They are making consolidated efforts to reflect reality. That reality is that heroes and villains come in all shapes, sizes, ages and colors, and their stories deserve to be told. This is historic. They’re willing to put their money where their mouth is. Plus, I love what Coates is doing with Black Panther. Heroes can be so perfect and just dropped in unrealistic situations that are un-relatable. Not in this case. Coates added an element to T’Challa that is flawed in a very realistic way. It shows the evolution of a great character. I can see a person being divided with their ability to fight and lead diametrically opposed. Plus the tie in with the Dora Milaje and their uprising in the vacuum of the Panther’s absence being caused by the the predictable actions of tyrants in the environment of chaos — I like his attention to detail. I’m not sure why they chose me in particular, but I’m glad they did.
What excited you about this project?
RG: I was thrilled to have the opportunity to write the stories of black, queer women into the Marvel universe.
AR: We hear all the time about the image of brown people in media. I am a person who will not complain about something unless I am willing to contribute to the change. I see this as an opportunity to roll up my sleeves and get to work on the reclamation of our story. Blacks have been seen too often as the bad guy, the sidekick who dies, the thug, slave, the poverty stricken, the entertainer, or the athlete. That is absolutely a part of the history of blacks in america, but it’s not the entire history.
With that being the focus of black iconography, young men and women grow up believing they are less than the incredible human being they are. They believe they are a conquered people who were stolen and defeated for 500 years. I’m sorry to say, but just because my great great grandparents were enslaved doesn’t mean they were slaves. Nor where they the only ones suffering at the hands of tyrants. They were farmers, bridge builders, nurses, poets, warriors, and strong people who endured a horrific time in the dark era of our country’s history. They never allowed it to define who they were. They are physicists, teachers, astronomers, and architects even though they were not permitted to thrive in the era they lived in. The idea of themselves was not limited to the suffering they endured. I said “yes” to this because I am participating in the altering of the perspective of self. I did not come from a weak people who had their lives stolen. I came from a group of warriors who survived. This is our superman. This is the chance to fictionally represent the most technologically advanced civilization in the world, run and maintained by African people. If dreams are the life we lead, then this is the dream fuel to propel that into reality.
Have you read comics before? Which ones?
RG: I am a fairly new comics fan but as a kid, I read the Archie comics religiously.
Despite the new emphasis on diversity in the pages, readers have often felt that characters would be better served having the voice behind them resemble the character themselves. What do you feel your experiences can bring to the stories you are going to tell in the project?
RG: Well, I am a black queer woman, but the women I am going to be writing are not me. What I bring is a skill for storytelling, an understanding of what it means to be a black woman in this world, and ambition.
You’re widely considered a feminist, but I am sure that term means different things to different people. What does it mean to you?
RG: My feminism is grounded in the belief that women should have the ability to move freely through the world, autonomy over their bodies, and the right to be treated and compensated equally. My feminism is also grounded in recognizing that not all women are considered equal, and so we need to take into account not only gender, but race and ethnicity, sexuality, ability, class, and other markers of difference when we work for the greater good of women.
Who are some of the people that have inspired you?
RG: My parents have been two of my greatest inspirations. I am also inspired by the Obamas, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Zadie Smith, Shonda Rhimes, Oprah Winfrey, Zora Neale Hurston, and the list goes on.
Who is your favorite character in the book so far? Do you see yourself in any of them?
RG: I don’t know yet, but I am leaning toward Ayo. I don’t really see myself in any of the characters. I am writing for this series. It’s fiction and I am really embracing that.
AR: ZENZI! Her story feels like my own. There were so many times in my youth I felt lost. I had energy and abilities that were not being properly focused. With all of the things I’d seen, I’d internalize my anger instead of finding ways to cathartically channel it. You’ll see that kind of evolution in her story. Plus she has these funky locs, so maybe I’m bias.
Roxane, there is said to still be intolerance of homosexual and lesbian relationships in the black community. With two of the prominent characters in the book being lesbian, how do you think that will come across being that the stories play out with Africa as its backdrop?
RG: The idea that the black community is more intolerant of homosexuality than other communities is nonsense. I don’t know how Ayo and Aneka’s sexuality will come across, but frankly, I also don’t care. People are either open-minded and humane or they aren’t.
Do you feel any pressure being the first African-American woman writer on a Marvel project?
RG: I feel a lot of pressure, but all I can do is focus on the writing and do the best I can.
Afua, this book is getting a lot of attention. Do you feel any pressure?
AR: There’s always pressure. Never enough time. I’m considering closing myself or at least growing a few more retractible arms to draw for me [laughs]. No, but seriously, I push myself to do the best I can. But as most artists will tell you, it never feels good enough. There is a carrot I’m always chasing to excel beyond what I am. If it’s a small or a large project, there is always room for improvement. This just happens to have a lot of eyes on it.
PHOTO CREDIT: Afua Richardson, Marvel Press
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