Last year I was offered the opportunity to script an 11-issue series of Black Panther, for Marvel. The Black Panther—who, when he debuted in an issue of Fantastic Four, in 1966, was the first black superhero in mainstream American comics—is the alter ego of T’Challa, the king of Wakanda, a mythical and technologically advanced African country. By day, T’Challa mediates conflicts within his nation. By night, he battles Dr. Doom. The attempt to make these two identities—monarch and superhero—cohere has proved a rich vein for storytelling by such creators as Jack Kirby, Christopher Priest, and Reginald Hudlin. But when I got the call to write Black Panther, I was less concerned with character conflict than with the realization of my dreams as a 9-year-old.
Some of the best days of my life were spent poring over the back issues of The Uncanny X-Men and The Amazing Spider-Man. As a child of the crack-riddled West Baltimore of the 1980s, I found the tales of comic books to be an escape, another reality where, very often, the weak and mocked could transform their fallibility into fantastic power. That is the premise behind the wimpy Steve Rogers mutating into Captain America, behind the nerdy Bruce Banner needing only to grow angry to make his enemies take flight, behind the bespectacled Peter Parker being transfigured by a banal spider bite into something more.
But comic books provided something beyond escapism. Indeed, aside from hip-hop and Dungeons & Dragons, comics were my earliest influences. In the way that past writers had been shaped by the canon of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Wharton, I was formed by the canon of Claremont, DeFalco, and Simonson. Some of this was personal. All of the comics I loved made use of two seemingly dueling forces—fantastic grandiosity and ruthless efficiency. Comic books are absurd. At any moment, the Avengers might include a hero drawn from Norse mythology (Thor), a monstrous realization of our nuclear-age nightmares (the Hulk), a creation of science fiction (Wasp), and an allegory for the experience of minorities in human society (Beast). But the absurdities of comics are, in part, made possible by a cold-eyed approach to sentence-craft. Even when the language tips toward bombast, space is at a premium; every word has to count. This big/small approach to literature, the absurd and surreal married to the concrete and tangible, has undergirded much of my approach to writing. In my journalism here at The Atlantic, I try to ground my arguments not just in reporting but also in astute attention to every sentence. It may not always work, but I am really trying to make every one of those 18,000 words count.