comics

Black Panther Writer Reginald Hudlin on T’Challa and the Future of Black Superheroes

Twelve years before Black Panther became one of the most anticipated superhero films of all time, Reginald Hudlin was hired to pen a comic-book series that helped pave the road to T’Challa’s big-screen success. The Hollywood veteran, who directed classic ’90s films like House Party and Boomerang, found himself in a unique position after he began writing for Marvel: In the summer of 2005, he was also hired as the president of entertainment at BET, which eventually led him to produce the first and only Black Panther animated TV series.

While Christopher Priest is widely credited for making Black Panther cool, Hudlin’s run on the comic introduced major plotlines, including the landmark marriage of Black Panther and Storm, as well as the creation of T’Challa’s half-sister Princess Shuri, portrayed by Letitia Wright in the upcoming film. Meanwhile, the Black Panther animated series, which aired its sole season in 2011, drew the likes of Djimon Hounsou, Kerry Washington, Alfre Woodard, and Jill Scott into the world of Wakanda. These days, Hudlin’s life no longer revolves around the Black Panther, but he’s still immersed in comics: Since 2015, he’s been plotting the revival of Milestone Comics, the ’90s comic-book company co-founded by Denys Cowan, Derek Dingle, and the late Dwayne McDuffie that introduced a diverse array of characters, including fan favorite Static Shock. And after directing Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman in last fall’s Marshall, the 56-year-old filmmaker is also slated to direct a Shadowman movie about the New Orleans–based hero from Valiant Comics.

Ahead of Black Panther’s release, Vulture caught up with Hudlin to talk about the origins of the animated series, his upcoming work with Milestone Media, and the future of black superheroes in film.

How did the Black Panther animated series come about?
Well, I was writing the Black Panther comic book for Marvel, and then at the same time, I was doing a deal to [become] the first-ever president of entertainment at BET. I was working with some executives and they said, “You know Reggie, we should do an animated version of your Black Panther comic book for the network.” And I was like, “Oh, that’s not a bad idea,” and kind of forgot about it. About three months later, that executive came to me and said, “Hey, we got a reel.” I was like, “Of what?” [Laughs.]

I saw the first three minutes of it, and honestly, it was incredible. Denys Cowan was my head of animation and he just did this knockout rendition of the first scene of the book. I showed it to my boss, Debra Lee, who’s the head of the network, and I said, “Well, what do you think?” And she goes, “I was wondering when we’d get to do the Black Panther animated show.”

So, we showed it to the folks at Marvel and they were like, “We’re so happy you didn’t ask us for permission to do this because we wouldn’t have believed you could do this. This is so great.” Everybody was just super excited about it. Then we did the deal to develop it as a series, and when I left the network, I said, “Okay, I will just go onboard the series as a producer full-time.” It was very once in a lifetime — I wrote the comic book as a writer, then green-lit the TV show as a head of a network, and then produced it as a producer. It’s the only way that something that unusual could have actually happened.

You wrote the marriage between Black Panther and Storm as well. What led you to bring them together?
Originally, I always wanted to write comic books because they were so important to me when I was a kid. In fact, I still have a rejection letter that I got from Marvel when I was in middle school. A couple of friends of mine, when I was at work, they said, “Look, you should actually meet with the people at Marvel.” So they called some people and ended up having a meeting with the heads of Marvel Comics and I just talked about my love of comics. I didn’t really have an agenda. At the end of the meeting, they were like, “Well, which book do you want to write?” I was like “Huh?” I was kind of thrown and so I said, “Uh, Black Panther.” And they said, “Okay, We’re gonna let you do a six-issue mini-series.” So, I left with the dream job that I didn’t even go in trying to get.

I wrote my first six issues and they said, “Wow, this is really good. If you kept writing, what would you do?” And I said, “Well, he’s an African king. And one of the first things you gotta do when you’re royalty is have a family. So he’s gotta figure out who’s gonna be his queen and marry her and start a family.” We started talking about who he should marry and Storm’s name came up and I was like, “If you would let the two biggest black superheroes in the history come together, that would be the ultimate power marriage in every sense of the term.” He’s the king of a country, she’s a princess of an African nation, she’s the leader of the mutants which is a powerful minority in itself. It just seemed like a really perfect idea.

In Marvel comics, the Watcher usually shows up to witness major turning points in history. Is that why he was at their wedding?
The Watcher was there because this is a momentous marriage. The results of this marriage would be world-changing. There’s a story I never wrote called “World War Wakanda.” Basically, the Panther has taken this isolationist stance, like, “We’re not imperialist, we’re not trying to conquer other countries.” But the people are so paranoid, once he’s married to Storm and he starts this movement of helping mutants worldwide, ultimately he has to fight everybody. He is forced to take a more aggressive military stance on a global level.

That’s interesting. I really wish you got to write that.
[Laughs.] Well, you know, there’s a Black Panther Annual coming up soon. They asked me, Don McGregor, and Christopher Priest to each write a short story. So I wrote the epilogue of the “World War Wakanda” story in that book.

I need to get that. How did you feel when they annulled the marriage six years later?
That was really, I thought, a mistake. Because there was this tension between Fox and Marvel over the properties and all that stuff, they were like, “No, no, no, we just want to separate the mutants out from the characters that we hold control over.” They were caught in the crossfire of that, but obviously, to break up such a high-profile black marriage in comics had a much bigger symbolic value and was really frustrating to a lot of fans.

With Disney’s purchase of 2oth Century Fox, do you think Black Panther and Storm might get back together in the comics? Or a movie sequel?
You know, when the rumors of that merger first started happening, there was so much of the internet telling us like, “Aha!” [Laughs.] There was a lot of excitement. We’ll see what they plan on doing, but I think it would be a beautiful thing.

How did the idea of Princess Shuri come about?
It just seemed for me that, again, when you’re royalty, you’re not just gonna have one kid. You gotta have an heir and a spare, right? I thought a girl would be great because I wanted everyone who read the book to be empowered. I wanted girls who read the book to feel as empowered as boys. So, I wanted her to be smart and tough and brave and everything you think of as a Black Panther, so that eventually she would be a Black Panther as well. Basically, I wanted a Halloween costume for my son and my daughter.

That’s a good reason. You’ve relaunched Milestone as well, which has a bunch of diverse characters. How’s that coming along?
It’s coming along great. We’re revamping the classic characters, we’re developing new characters, and we’re putting together an amazing team of writers and artists. I mean, the original Milestone lineup were some of the leading writers of people of color working in the comic-book business. We’re trying to remain true to that same spirit and bring in men and women and blacks and Latinos and Asians and white folk — just put together an all-star team. It’s truly going to be a major event.

I read that you’re also developing a live-action Static Shock series. Is that still in the works?
We’ve been talking about that, but as the books have been developing, we’re taking a much broader approach. There’s a lot of ideas that were exciting to people as movies and as TV shows, so you have to think about these things. What kind of coherent universe, which characters do you want to launch under which platforms? We’re not speaking in terms of one-off. We’re thinking in terms of a much bigger picture.

You’re working on Shadowman too, right?
Yeah, we’re working on the script for that movie. We’ve got some fantastic ideas. I’m really excited about that.

Is there anything you can share about it?
Not yet. We’re still early in the process. But I’ve been working with Adam Simon, who’s the writer, and we just sit at dinner and it’s like, “Wow, wow!” If you excite yourself then you figure, “Well, if Iron Man delivered bodies who likes the stuff I like, they will probably like it too.”

That makes sense. Do you think Black Panther will open the door for other black superheroes to get movies?
I think there’s no doubt. When I was at the premiere, I brought my son and I saw so many of my friends there with their sons. Whether it was Sterling Brown, John Singleton, you know, I just thought, “Oh God, that’s gonna happen all over the world. People are going to bring their families.” They’re gonna have this transformative feeling. They’re gonna go, “Well, why is it just one?” The same way, you know, with the success with Wonder Woman. It’s like, “Yes, female superhero, that’s an obvious idea and let’s have a lot more.” I think the same absolutely is going to happen with Black Panther. It’s really a natural extension. There are so many superhero characters. If you don’t diversify, then the market kind of eats itself.

What did you think of Black Panther?
Oh, it’s great. It’s a movie that’s ultimately about morality. And I think what really makes a person a hero is your moral stance.

What do you think about the state of black films in general? You’ve directed classics like House Party, Boomerang, and most recently Marshall. Do you think we’re doing better in bringing forward diverse films?
Yeah, I feel very bullish on the state of black cinema. I think that these things move in a 20-year cycles. When you go back to the blaxploitation movement in the ’70s, that’s a big boom, then there was a collapse in that market. But even in the collapse, you had Eddie Murphy, you had Prince making movies in the ’80s. Then in the ’90s, you had Spike Lee and myself and John Singleton and that whole movement, which was really different from what you saw in the ’70s. Then, after ten years of success, you have again a collapse. Now you have this new movement and the movies are bigger and better and more successful than ever before. History moves in lazy circles, right? But I look at the big picture of it and I go, “This is great.”

Have you read any of the newer Black Panther runs?
Honestly, I have these stacks of comics. The number one thing I do to relax myself is read comics, but this last year, I produced a movie, Burning Sands, I directed a movie, Marshall, I shot a TV series, Showtime at the Apollo, which debuts in March for Fox, and as you know, the Milestone project. And some secret stuff I can’t tell you yet. [Laughs.] So, I literally haven’t had time to read my beloved comic books. I leave my office at night and I look at that stack wistfully. I deserve some comic-book time, but I don’t know when that will be. I hope so soon.

What does it mean for a black creator to write Black Panther?
Black Panther was created by two brilliant Jewish guys, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and they created a perfect character. So I don’t think there’s a racial requirement to write the character well. But obviously, when I wrote it I knew the importance of the character for me. I wanted to write the stories I always wanted to see but never saw. I always thought, “Well, surely the black heroes get together and talk.” [Laughs.] What would Luke Cage and T’Challa say to each other? No one had ever done that, so I was dying to do that. I was dying to explore big and small things that were obvious to me. You know, one of my favorite story arcs was in response to Hurricane Katrina. The Black Panther, Cage, Blade, and a whole host of black heroes come together to help save a black city. It was just fun to do because I said, “Well, why doesn’t this happen?” Six white superheroes get together all the time and it’s not a racial issue. They just happen to be six white people. So why can’t six black people come together and save people just as well?

Is there anything you can share about what you’re working on with Milestone Media?
It’s really under wraps right now. But what we want to do is not simply pick up where they stopped 20-something years ago. How do we push the envelope way, way out? You know, how do we make people as shocked and surprised and slightly uncomfortable as they were when those books debuted the first time?

What else do you have planned for the year?
Well, Showtime at the Apollo debuting on Fox prime time with Steve Harvey. That’s actually gonna be a really great show. When I bring home episodes and watch them with my wife and my kids, we all have a great time. We’re laughing, we’re cheering, and there’s a need for family entertainment. Then there’ll be a secret project that will be launching later on this year, and the Milestone books. That’s a lot. [Laughs.] Maybe somewhere I’ll fit a nap in.

And a comic book.
And a comic! Yeah! These are not unreasonable goals.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Black Panther’s Reg Hudlin on the Future of Black Heroes