It was bound to happen. Honestly, it’s surprising it didn’t happen sooner. After the wild cineplex success of this February’s Black Panther, it was only a matter of time before Marvel decided to capitalize on the acclaim for its unsettlingly sympathetic antagonist, Erik Killmonger. The character has been tyrannizing his way through the Marvel Comics universe since his early-1970s debut at the hands of writer Don McGregor and artist Rich Buckler, but has never had his own series. That changes this December with the first issue of a five-part mini-series, appropriately titled Killmonger. It will chronicle the tale of how a Wakandan named N’Jadaka, forcibly exiled to the United States, went from being a bitter genius to a full-blown supervillain with a memorable nom de guerre. Green Arrow artist Juan Ferreyra will be on penciling duties, and the writing credit will go to Detective Comics and The Wild Storm: Michael Cray scribe Bryan Edward Hill. We caught up with Hill to talk about how the series came to be, what we might learn about Killmonger, and how going to a gun range influenced his approach to the book.
How did the project come together?
[Editor] Wil [Moss] reached out to me and asked me if had any thoughts about doing a Killmonger mini-series that was an origin of sorts of the character, and I thought that was pretty interesting. But what I told him was, I didn’t want to do something that people would expect. I didn’t want to just recap what we had heard in his mythology. I wanted to explore the choices and the failures that lead a person to dedicate their life to revenge, and how that happens. Because with Erik, I feel like it’s really a tragedy. It’s a story of a guy who was failed a lot by Wakanda in certain ways, by the people he met outside of Wakanda, by his own conscience in other ways, and I wanted to paint a portrait of that. Because to me the iconic fight between Erik Killmonger and T’Challa is tragic. It’s something that shouldn’t happen. It’s a conflict that’s borne from a tragic misunderstanding and a young man who was violently taken from his home. He grew up in exile and had only his anger to nurture him. So by the time we get to the event of the waterfall [fight between Killmonger and T’Challa in Don McGregor’s run], it doesn’t read hero and villain to me as much as, the world failed. So I wanted to explore it from that context, and I wanted to explore the thoughts and the feelings of a person exiled from his homeland, from his belief system, who’s using revenge as a guiding light. Getting into the series, you’ll see a bit of the Wakandan spiritualism and how he’s wrestling with what he knows to be true in a spiritual sense, but also he’s wrestling with what he desires in the moment, which is sanguine revenge. Hopefully readers will get to see new dimensions of the character, and the story will take them into pretty unexpected places.
I presume you went back to the original Don McGregor stories for inspiration. What did you find there?
I certainly looked at Don McGregor’s stuff. I also looked at Evan Narcisse’s recent work on Rise of the Black Panther, because Erik is in that as well. For me, really, research starts in the real world. I had to get into the mind-set of a guy like Erik, who’s been that comfortable with violence for that long. So I’ve got friends of mine who were in difficult situations that like. Some of them are criminals; some of them are not. I would just consult with them and ask them what their days felt like. Like when you just committed something horrible, when you’ve just done an act of violence, what’s it like the morning after? What’s it like the day of? When you believe in a gun and its ability to keep you safe and execute your will, what is that belief like? What’s it like to know that you’re a hunted person and to live your life? How do you forge relationships? That’s really a lot of what the research was for me. Yes, it was reading the comics, but I’m not really a fan of reading comics to write comics. I do it, but it’s only an element of my work. Because otherwise you’re just going to wind up with a reflection of previous things, and I think it’s important for readers to be able to go to the undiscovered country of these characters’ motivations. I have some familiarity with violence myself. I came from difficult circumstances in a lot of ways. I went to a gun range. The first thing I did, after I decided to go ahead and do it was, I need to use what Erik uses. I need to understand his relationship. There’s a gun range not too far from me. I went there and I just started firing off some weapons until I got comfortable with it, until I got used to the pound of the gunpowder, till I got in sync with the tool. Then you could put yourself in that space. You could see the world through someone’s eyes like that. I tend to do weird research things. I’m a weird guy. [Laughs.]
We haven’t actually even gone into the plot of the book. What can you tell me about the setup and the approach of the story?
I can say that the events of the stories for the most part begin with Erik graduating from MIT. Like all stories, it begins with him having a fork in the road in front of him. He’s a young man who could have a successful and peaceful life if he could just put away his desire for revenge. In this case he’s really focused on [villain Ulysses] Klaw and the men that took him from Wakanda, and also punishing Wakanda itself for its failures. We begin the story with him making that choice to step away from one potential future and step into another that speaks to more of his darker nature. For me, that’s what a tragedy is, really. Something isn’t tragic unless you can see a way that it could have worked out better. Like, you have to watch Hamlet and think, He could have done this without dying. It was possible. Or Othello is a better example. If he had just talked to Michael Cassio, then we could have avoided the end of that play. I think about Erik’s story the same way. I see him as a tragic figure, whether you’re talking about Othello or you’re talking about Anakin Skywalker. It’s about a fall of a person that should have been something much better than what he wound up being, and the story is about how he winds up in that place. But because we are watching him evolve and readers aren’t going to encounter an Erik from the beginning of the story that is the Killmonger that we identify with Black Panther. We have to get him to that place. We do that through a little bit of adventure in New York where some cool characters will make their way into the story that I don’t think people would normally expect in a Killmonger story, but I’m really excited to write them. We go overseas and eventually we take him back to Wakanda. Issue by issue, you are chronicling the fall of Erik Killmonger, and that’s the goal.
The Black Panther movie featured a Killmonger with a largely reimagined backstory and motivation. But were there any aspects of the way that the character was written in the film and performed by Michael B. Jordan that left an impact on you?
Yeah, certainly. What Jordan and [writer-director Ryan] Coogler did was motivate him in a way that’s relatable. He’s really like an aggressive evolution of militancy, and there is certainly a political motivation to his actions: the justification of extremity in the face of adversity, which is a question that you wrestle with. When you think about the world of my grandmother and I think about the world of my mother, I can understand how one would come to the conclusion that that’s the only way through, is war, and that’s what has to be done. The aspects of Erik being a soldier in his own cause that I took away from the film were certainly important to the narrative. For me, Jordan’s performance is remarkable because even in his philosophy you can see that he’s still wounded. He’s a person justifying himself with his anger. And anger is always fear in disguise. Any time you see anger, you’re really looking at fear. Erik, in the movie, to me, was a character who was very afraid. He was afraid of not belonging to anything, of being a man with no nation, who’s afraid of not being able to live up to the Wakandan standard, of being the bastard son of Wakanda. The feelings of inadequacy led him into this unending desire for violent proof that he wasn’t that, that he wasn’t the bastard, that he deserved the right. Those emotions certainly play a part in that way. In a lot of ways those are universal emotions. We’ve all felt that way at some point in our lives. We just didn’t dedicate our entire life to nurturing it while trying to destroy our feelings simultaneously. So everything plays a part. It’s an amalgam of forces, I think, what I’m doing, but it’s also through my perspective. It’s all me interpreting those things and trying to tell a story that makes the most sense to me, that is the most true to who I am as a writer.
Did you find yourself being seduced by Killmonger’s logic while you were researching and writing the story?
Not particularly, because I’m well past my angry young man phase.
I can identify with it, for sure. I can recognize the moments in which I would have subscribed to those thoughts and ideas. But I’m beyond that now. I have a little maturity and perspective and experience that’s taught me that if you walk down a path of violence and anger and rage, then that will be the world you create around yourself, and you cannot burn as a candle very long in that world. I do want it to feel true, though, to people, and I want people to identify with that character and maybe those feelings so that, as he’s wrestling with them, they’re wrestling with them, as well. In a lot of ways, people like Erik are people that if they could have just met one kind person that could have understood them, then the story would be different. But we don’t all have Uncle Ben. We all don’t have those influences. Sometimes characters with potential and power and brilliance and rage, they don’t have someone to put a hand on their shoulder and tell them, “With great power comes great responsibility.” They don’t have a hand on their shoulder at all. I think Erik is one of those characters in the Marvel universe that probably fell through the cracks, unfortunately.
Tell me about working with Juan Ferreyra.
Oh, he’s brilliant. He’s really inventive about how he’s approaching the storytelling on the page, which I admire. Because for me, I read a lot of Marvel Comics growing up, but I was really a fan of the graphic novels, the pieces that were unique and very personal to the creators, works like Batman: The Dark Knight Returns or Arkham Asylum, even [Frank] Miller’s run on Daredevil or his Wolverine work, that kind of stuff. Those are the books that I read that set off little explosions in my mind and my heart. You had those moments when you’re reading a comic, at least I did when I was growing up, where you’re reading a comic book and you’re having such a powerful experience that you look up around you because you’re certain that other people can hear what’s going on inside of you while you’re reading this book, because you’re being transported to a whole other place, like lines of prose find themselves in your memory. Juan’s work reminds me of that work, the way that he renders emotion, the way that he does his panel layouts. He’s expressive. There’s so much intent in creating this textured world and his artwork. It’s really a joy to see him interpret the script. And that’s really what he’s doing. That’s the process that I like: I write a script, and then an artist interprets that script and tells that story visually. I don’t like to dictate to an artist like, “It has to be this. I need to see this from this angle,” and all of that. I love it when I’m working with an artist who also wants to think about interesting ways to do things and create art that sometimes makes my words superfluous, so I’ll go back and I’m like, You know what? I don’t need this line now because look at that image. We have a great relationship. I really enjoy working with him. What I would like to let readers know is they should expect the unexpected with this. If they think that they know who Erik Killmonger is, they will be surprised by the aspects of this story. There’s everything here. There’s a little bit of a love story that we get into that I’m really excited about. I can say that much. There are aspects of this character that I think will reframe a lot of people’s experience with the Black Panther universe, which is my hope.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.