Ta-Nehisi Coates Unpacks the Way Comics Have Conquered the World

X-Men and Justice League comic books.

Seventy-seven years after Superman first leapt into the American imagination, superhero stories have never been more popular (or lucrative). Comics have become a breeding ground for multibillion-dollar movie and TV franchises — including the impending blockbuster Avengers: Age of UltronThe sequel to 2012’s The Avengers and 11th film from Marvel.. But why are superheroes resonating so strongly? And are they worthy of the attention? These questions are important enough to compel Ta-Nehisi Coates to take a timeout from kicking off national conversations about race and politics, don his fanboy cape, and go in search of the answers.

This article ran in April 2015. We are reposting it with the news that Ta-Nehisi Coates will be writing a Black Panther series for Marvel.

In the past decade or so, we’ve had this huge resurgence in superhero comics and their adaptations. Why do you think that’s happened?  There were a lot of great stories being told during the ’80s, and those people who were reading them are of an age now where they can make this vision. That’s a big part of it. I was just reading about this: Marvel sold their licenses in the mid- to late ’90s, and X-MenThe first X-Men movie, directed by Bryan Singer. came out in what, 2000? So within four or five years of them selling the licenses, you have the films. That also has something to do with it. But it’s kind of by accident, right? I mean nobody thought Spider-Man was going to be what Spider-Man was or Blade was going to be what BladeA half-vampire Marvel hero, played on film by Wesley Snipes, who fights full-blooded vampires. was, and everything kind of followed from that. It was almost accidental.

But why do you think audiences have responded so positively to these adaptations? First of all, it’s just great source material. I wasn’t the biggest Captain America fan, but increasingly I see him as a great character. Winter SoldierLast year’s hit movie, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which was deeply critical of government surveillance. really got into what it meant to actually represent America. There’s a way to do that in which it’s just this sort of light-skinned guy who runs around with a flag, you know? But there’s also opportunity for intellectual conversations.

The great questions that people have been asking at least since the ’70s are: Why are comics so deeply tied to superheroes? Why are superheroes so deeply tied to comics? And, why do the medium and the genre have such an enduring marriage? Superheroes are best imagined in comic books. The union between the written word, the image, and then what your imagination has to do to connect those allows for so much. I always feel like when I see movies, I’m a little let down by the [digital] animation. I want to hear the voice in my head, you know? When I see Bruce Banner becoming the Hulk, it’s only a picture. My imagination has to do some of the work there, to impute feeling and everything. We’re talking about something that’s so surreal it’s just not possible within the world as we know it. So that requires a form that is not so literal. Animation, movies, these could be literal — Avengers movies will always disappoint me. X-Men [movies] will always disappoint me.

That reminds me of how people complain about adapting prose novels to movies. I feel sorry for people who only know comic books through movies. I really do.

To what extent have the movies hurt superhero culture? It may have ruined X-Men. I don’t know how true this is, but it’s just like all the energy has been in the Avengers world right now, in terms of Marvel, and there ain’t much going on with the X-Men.

There’s a sentiment lately that comics had rarely responded to the culture at large, but now they are. That’s totally untrue. We had drug-addiction issuesThere was an early-’70s story line in which Peter Parker’s best friend, Harry, became a drug addict. in The Amazing Spider-Man; the politics in X-MenThe X-Men, as mutants, are often used as a metaphor for other marginalized groups, such as ethnic minorities or LGBTQ people. are pretty clear.

But comics companies have started to explicitly say, “We are being more diverse and inclusive,” which is much less coded than a lot of the efforts at diversity in the past. Marvel opened the doors, right?Marvel has often been more openly diverse than DC, although it was still long dominated by straight white male creators and characters. You have StormStorm, born in Harlem and raised in Egypt and Kenya, was introduced in the mid-’70s and has remained prominent., there’s a black Iron Man in the ’80sTony Stark’s friend James Rhodes became Iron Man for a time. He appears in the Iron Man movies — played first by Terrence Howard and subsequently by Don Cheadle., the second X-Men generation — you have the Native American ThunderbirdWhen the X-Men team was relaunched in the ’70s, one of its members was the Native American Thunderbird. He died very quickly after his first appearance.. You have heroes that look all sorts of ways. When I was a kid, I knew that superheroes were not exclusively white and male. And if you have fans who grow up with that, they reach a certain age and they expect you to go to another level. Beyond that, it costs comic books way less than movies to do diverse things. They ain’t got to worry about casting somebody who is going to bring in box office.

You’ve written in the past about the identity politics of Marvel. How do you reconcile Marvel’s long-standing belief in outsider characters — people with problems, people who have identity-politics issues — with the fact that, with a handful of notable exceptions, these characters are straight and white? Comic books aren’t perfect, but listen: In the 1980s, Marvel had a black woman — not just a black woman, a woman who was born in Harlem, a woman who was African-American and whose mother was Kenyan — leading their most popular title. And then when she lost her powers, she was still kicking ass. Like she still had enough to whip Cyclops’s ass. That was something they were doing. I can’t really think of anywhere else I would’ve went at that time to see something like that. Just today I was reading that Hickman oneSuperstar comics writer Jonathan Hickman, who currently writes Avengers and New Avengers for Marvel.. And this kid, Manifold,An Aboriginal Australian who has teleportation powers., is like an Aboriginal. This is incredible! I mean this has to do with Hollywood: You don’t actually see that diversity reflected on-camera. [Comics] are not perfect, especially around gender and the women’s stuff, but you start comparing it to Hollywood, it’s not even a conversation. I mean consider it like this: There could’ve been [a Hollywood] adaptation, a true adaptation, of X-Men in which Storm was the protagonist in the way that we were reading it; that would’ve been a true rendering of what the comic book actually was. But that’s not possible, that’s not possible in Hollywood. It’s deeply sad.

You are mostly a Marvel fan, but what DC stuff have you read? None. I don’t know why I don’t read DCDC and Marvel have long been the two biggest players in comics and have their own separate fictional universes.. I don’t even have a good argument. Here’s what I’ll say: For reasons right or wrong, you’ll see the lead character for DC is Superman. So, truth, justice, and the American way. And, not even consciously, I just kind of said, Hmm, maybe not. Then you pick up X-Men, right, and you see all these weirdos and freaks, you know? And you think, Oh, man, that kind of rings true for me. When I was a kid, I didn’t even think of Peter Parker as white. It didn’t even occur to me.

That’s so interesting. Why didn’t you think of him as white? I think that’s a statement on how race is not a real thing. I acknowledge it, I think of it as living in a different world, and I can imagine a world where that was not that important; the color of his hair was just not that important. I thought of him as a dude, an outsider. But I was always aware that Superman was white, and I don’t even know why.

I interviewed Brian Michael BendisOne of the all-time great superhero writers. last year, the guy who came up with Miles MoralesAn Afro-Latino American teenager who became Spider-Man in a series called Ultimate Spider-Man. Introduced in 2011, he has become a fan favorite.. He said he regularly gets people of color who are comics fans saying to him that “Spider-Man is the one I identified the most with when I was a kid, because under the mask he could’ve been anybody.” You could be Spider-Man. It goes far beyond that, actually. It’s not a diversity program, it’s because they actually made a decent black character. [Bendis] really did it in a great way. When I was a kid, it never occurred to me that I wanted Peter Parker to be black. I didn’t even think about it.

What kinds of people are attracted to superhero comics? I’ve thought about what is the core thing that people are attracted to and I don’t even know. I can speak personally: On the crudest level, it was escapism. But there are all sorts of forms of escapism, so why this one? That’s a tough question to answer.

Take a step back there: What pushed you as a young man to want that escapism? Well, shit, I was living in West Baltimore. That was tough. My family’s home was not a democracy, and there was freedom in reading comic books. On top of that, these [characters] are people who had lives that meant something; Peter Parker had a mission, man. When I was young, I spent so much time thinking, What am I doing, what’s my meaning in the world?

Can you give me a rough outline of when you started reading and what you were reading early on? I started probably in, like, 1985 and was immediately an Amazing Spider-Man fan. I would dip into Fantastic Four. In the mid-’80s to the early ’90s, I would go to Geppi’s Comic World in Baltimore, and they had all of the new stuff, but they would have this huge collection of back issues, and I probably enjoyed the back issues more. Because exploring the backstory was the beautiful thing about comics. To make this concrete: When I started reading [Amazing Spider-Man], obviously, Gwen Stacy was already deadIn a 1973 story, the Green Goblin killed Spider-Man’s then-girlfriend Gwen Stacy by tossing her off a bridge.. And yet she was very much a live character within the books, and so going back and seeing Oh, this happened here, or Here’s how this happened, it’s like putting together a puzzle. If you read the books back then, they’d have a little asteriskComics often have annotations on their pages that explain references to events in past issues.  to say this happened in issue such-and-such, and you would put this puzzle together. I probably read until the early ’90s, when I got to high school and I stopped for about ten years.

Why did you stop? I think hip-hop began to exert a stronger pull over me. It started doing something interesting. And, as it happens, Marvel started getting really bad. I came back in the middle of J. Michael Straczynski’s run on The Amazing Spider-ManA much-hyped period from 2001 to 2007 in which Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski wrote The Amazing Spider-Man..

What receptors in your brain were getting lit up by both comics and hip-hop? They both have a fantastic element. There’s a strong argument that hip-hop dudes are either supervillains or superheroes. In fact, I wrote a piece for The New Yorker some years ago on this rapper MF Doom, who literally took his inspiration from Dr. DoomOne of the longest-running villains in comics, Dr. Doom is a megalomaniac scientist-sorcerer who has traditionally been an enemy of Marvel’s Fantastic Four. and sampled all these awkward Fantastic Four cartoons from back in the late ’60s, when Hanna-Barbera was doing them. So they share a lot of the same things. The difference, in terms of when I started to switch over, though, is that hip-hop is really obsessed with the culture of very, very young men, and at that point it felt much more direct to me.

Do you, all these years later, have a sense of why Marvel spoke to you so much? I started at a very young age, doing dumb, stupid things. I can remember when I picked up a Marvel comic book — this is so shallow — you know, in the upper-left-hand corner DC just has its logo. But Marvel has who’s in the group! Like, Fantastic FourThe Fantastic Four are Marvel’s longest-running superteam, having debuted in 1961., right? Or the X-Men. And they were rotating different people, and that was really interesting to me. They were showing off the personalities of the people in the book. Beyond that, they just spoke to my life. There was always something world-breaking about Superman. It just felt like too much. And then on the other end there was always something too played-out about Batman. Spider-Man immediately spoke to me. I think you just fully attach, and that’s it. That becomes where you are.

Has Marvel UnlimitedMarvel Comics’ Netflix-esque, subscription-based online comics library. ruined your work ethic? Not too much. There’s this notion about comic books that they are going to ruin you, but besides a brief spell of one year, when I was severely depressed, I haven’t found that. If anything, I read Marvel Unlimited like I consume any other piece of art. Very often, the good stuff, at least, I find very inspirational. I’m a writer, so I’m interested in the problems of storytelling, and I enjoy Marvel Unlimited in the same way when I was much younger I enjoyed poetry. It gives you a quick case study of the problems of storytelling, the challenges of storytellers.

Can you give me an example of something you’ve read recently where you were grappling with that? I’ve talked about this on Twitter, but in Matt FractionComics writer who has risen to stardom in the past decade.’s The Invincible Iron ManMonthly comics series following the adventures of Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man., the “Dark ReignA 2008–9 Marvel crossover event in which supervillain Norman Osborn gained near-total control of the United States and hunted down good guys.”  portion of it, there’s this great fight scene between Pepper PottsTony Stark’s female assistant/co-worker and occasional love interest. and a female villain. The comic ends, and in the next issue you see the supervillain come on, and she’s like, “I killed her with my bare hands.” And you don’t figure out until maybe an issue or two later that actually Pepper Potts dealt with the woman and had assumed her guise. It’s a typical twist that you see in movies all the time these days. He was dealing with the problem of the twist. How do you get a twist in there? The great twist is the one that you didn’t even know was there. [Fraction] pulled that off so, so well. In fact, I have to go back and read it a few times myself. Think about it, you know? That’s how I read comic books.

You read them from a construction standpoint? I consume it in the same way I would consume any other literature. In the same way I would consume Edith Wharton, Jane Austen, or Fitzgerald. Anything else that I enjoy. Because for me, after I enjoy, the question is, why? What was this person doing that I liked?

And when you learn a lesson like that, about a twist, for example, does that then have an influence on your own ­writing? Oh, hell yeah. Even in nonfiction, if you’re doing it right, you’re not just transcribing information through people. You have to think about how you’re going to shape things, who’s your protagonist — I hate to use these crass terms — but who are you going to tell your story to, when are you going to decide to tell a certain thing. For me, the most convincing arguments always have an emotional payload. The questions about when you should deliver that payload, how you should do it, where you should put it, those are all questions of structure, how you should let the story unfurl.

Because you’re somebody who publicly talks about how much you love comics, people come to you and say, “Where should I start?” What do you usually tell them? Lately, I’ve been telling people that Iron Man run during “Dark Reign.” [Iron Man] has to slowly erase his brain. That’s such a mind-fuck. It’s great for anybody. “Kraven’s Last HuntA 1987 Spider-Man story line in which longtime foe Kraven sets out to destroy Spider-Man’s life and reputation for good, then kills himself.,”  if [the reader is] old enough. These are just really good, well-told stories.

The problem for any comics reader is that there’s a near-limitless amount of material that you can dive into. It’s  daunting, even for people who have been reading for years. How do you figure out what you’re going to read next? Twitter. And before I was on Twitter I would ask people. But Twitter’s a great help. You see names pop up; like 20 people telling you, you really gotta read The Superior Foes of Spider-ManA very funny comics series, launched in 2013, that follows the exploits of B-list Spider-Man villains..

Are you a fan of some of the more canonical comics that everyone always recommends? Your Watchmen, your Dark Knight ReturnsTwo critically acclaimed DC series released in the mid-’80s, both of which nearly always show up in lists of the best superhero comics of all time.? Yeah, but the problem is I have a huge Marvel bias. So I’ve probably read one Batman comic book in my life. That’s the irony of this entire interview: I’ve ignored something like 50 percent of the greatest comic-book stories ever told.

You didn’t read DC much, but you have given a shout-out to the animated series Justice League Unlimited An animated TV series, helmed by comics writer McDuffie, that ran in the middle of the 2000s and featured DC characters Superman, Batman, and Green Lantern, among others. It was, by many accounts, the greatest use of DC characters in decades. and Dwayne McDuffie. That show was incredible. Totally underrated. I mean people talk about this era of great storytelling on TV, and Emily Nussbaum wrote this great piece about why Sex and the City never comes up in that conversation, and I think there’s a strong case for why don’t Justice League and Justice League Unlimited come up in that conversation either. It’s great TV. You could watch every episode of Batman: The Animated Series, every episode of Superman: The Animated SeriesTwo acclaimed and successful cartoon series that were televised in the ’90s., and it can hold the coherent universe together in a way that is much better than — I like The Avengers, I’m going to go see it, but [the aforementioned shows are] much better than anything you’re going to see in film.

What are you still waiting for with super­heroes? Do you, as a fan, have any unfulfilled wishes? I’m still holding out that we get a Storm who looks like Storm, and that’s no disrespect to Alexandra ShippActress recently cast to play a younger version of Storm in the upcoming Bryan Singer film X-Men: Apocalypse. She is half-black, half-Caucasian, whereas comics Storm is a very dark-skinned black woman. being cast. Don’t let anybody think I’m criticizing her, but I hope we can get things as diverse as the books, and that one day we can start grappling with how folks actually look.

*This article appears in the April 20, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.