Some adults have outgrown buying comic books—but that’s about to change. Marvel has just announced that Ta-Nehisi Coates, a national correspondent for The Atlantic (which, like Quartz, is owned by the Atlantic Media Company) and arguably the country’s preeminent voice on racial issues in America, has signed on with the comic book house to pen a series starring reprised superhero the Black Panther.
Coates’s most recent book, Between the World and Me, struck a chord with readers when it was published this summer. Written as a letter to Coates’s 15 year-old-son, the book explores what it means to be black in America in an age in which racially incited police violence and acts of structural racism still occur daily.
Taking on a fictional series is no small commitment for Coates to make to adult as well as teenage readers, who will no doubt look to the comics with the intention of better understanding issues of race today.
Judging from recent developments in the comic book industry, there’s reason to believe the new series could actually stand up to this tall order.
The New York Times reported that Coates’s partnership with Marvel began after a “fruitful discussion” (Coates’s words) with Marvel editor Sana Amanat, who created Pakistani American character Kamala Khan. In 2014, Khan was introduced as the new alter-ego of Ms. Marvel, replacing blond-haired, blue-eyed Carol Danvers. The introduction of Khan was part of a larger effort to introduce more diverse characters into Marvel comics. For anyone who hasn’t opened a comic book in the past 10, much less five, years, Thor’s alter ego is now Dr. Jane Foster, Spider Man’s is black, hispanic Miles Morales, and the Hulk’s is Korean-American wunderkind Amadeus Cho.
DC comics is increasing its representation of diversity, too. DC re-launched its universe this summer, ditching the homogenous cast of The New 52 to bring in new readers. A female hero called Black Canary and a black hero called Cyborg both received their own series as part of this re-boot.
In July, Wired published a piece questioning the validity of this industry-wide effort to promote diversity in comics, in which the author asked “whether mainstream comics has done enough to bring minority creators themselves into the fold.”
The answer was not quite enough—not yet.
Hiring Coates as a writer seems to be a concerted effort by Marvel to rise to the occasion, though—as well as a shrewd business decision, to boot. Coates will bring a huge body of readers to Marvel for this series, which will inevitably be read as a follow up to Between the World and Me. Critics and readers found the book to be profound, beautiful and—ultimately—nihilistic, with some bemoaning the fact that Coates does not offer advice or words of inspiration for black Americans.
Which leads to the question: what is a superhero if not a role model for how we ought to be?
When the series comes out this spring, many readers will be looking to Coates for the answer.