He's known for his writing on race and politics--so it makes sense that his latest project, a comic book series for Marvel called "Black Panther," is about the first black superhero in mainstream U.S. comics. (The series is based on a character who first appeared in July 1966, predating the formation of the Black Panther party by a few months.)
Coates recently spoke to Wired about the joys and challenges of penning new adventures for the character, who is the king of an African nation called Wakanda. Here are seven creativity lessons you can glean from his experience--and apply to your own quest for new and exciting projects.
1. Follow your heart. Wired asked Coates what sold him on writing the comic. He answered: "I mean, it was Marvel and it was a comic book. I would have written anything for them." Later in the interview, he added: "It's like being a kid again; it's like playing in the sandbox. I love it."
2. Consider a contrarian view. In the first issue of "Black Panther," there's a terrorist attack on the kingdom of Wakanda. The attack sparks a citizen uprising. That puts the character T'Challa, who rules Wakanda, in a tough position. As the latest in the long lineage of Black Panther monarchs, T'Challa is royalty in every sense of the word. Yet the terrorist attack tells him the country must change to survive. What's a monarch to do? Will he survive the potential upheaval?
In other words: In Wakanda, the boundaries get blurry about who is good and who is evil and whom the reader should be rooting for. Coates told Wired that the idea for this plot was influenced, in part, by the American Revolution and the recent wave of revolution in the Middle East. "Once these revolutions are done they might be perceived as heroic, but it doesn't always look heroic at the time," he said. "It might look downright villainous. I mean, the American revolutionaries tarred and feathered people."
3. Create a sense of tension in your storytelling. The choice of making Wakanda a monarchy may seem like a strange one in 2016. But for Coates, that choice created possibilities for tense dramatic conflicts. "The one case an absolute monarch can make is 'I keep the people safe,'" he told Wired. "What happens in a country where that's no longer true? How do the people feel about that? That's the story we're telling." Adding to the tension in Wakanda is that the citizens are brilliant--renowned for their advanced technologies. In earlier Marvel stories involving Wakanda, the nation came up with a cure for cancer.
4. Think visually, not just verbally. Coates told Wired that one of his biggest challenges was imagining what the comic illustrations would look like--and explaining it to the artist, so the artist could draw it. As a writer, he had been accustomed to verbalizing his visuals. In business settings, there are ways to get around this verbal-visual binary, when you're preparing for presentations. For example, one Boston-based creative agency plays an old drinking game, which forces them to diagram words and verbalize diagrams.
5. Remain open to major ideas from your collaborators. The artist for "Black Panther" is Brian Stelfreeze, a renowned comic book artist who has worked for both Marvel and DC. Coates told Wired that Stelfreeze helped him rethink and conceptualize T'Challa's superpowers:
We knew [T'Challa] has this Vibranium-weave suit, we knew he could absorb punches, but Brian came up with this idea of really using that notion of absorption: What if he could push [the kinetic energy] back out? That's a kind of synergy that doesn't exist when you're writing a book and doesn't exist too much when you're writing an article.
Stelfreeze also came up with the idea that all Wakandans would be born wearing high-tech bracelets. The bracelets have the power both to text and to create video projections. In addition, Stelfreeze developed a cultural system wherein Wakandans would get beads throughout their lives that differentiate them from each other, for one reason or another. "I never would have thought of that, ever," Coates told Wired.
6. Acknowledge your influences. The first issue of "Black Panther" is called "A Nation Under Our Feet." It shares that title with Steven Hahn's 2004 Pulitzer Prize-winning book about black political power. Wired asked Coates about why. He replied:
Hahn is talking about the Civil War and Reconstruction, and most people obsess with Abraham Lincoln--if you're lucky, Frederick Douglass, Robert E. Lee. [Hahn's] interested in the little movements of the people who are underneath, of the slaves whose stories haven't been told. As much as this is the story of T'Challa, you're going to see [T'Challa] grappling with the nation underneath.
As it happens, Marvel briefly changed the name of the character to Black Leopard to avoid confusing connotations with the militant party. But the name was changed back to Black Panther at the behest of both readers and the original creators, who strongly disliked the change.
7. Have fun. In answering the question about Hahn's book, Coates added that T'Challa would also be grappling with "supervillains with cool powers. Let's not forget that. It's not a dissertation."
His point was that while "Black Panther" may have some socio-culturally serious artistic influences, it is, at heart, a comic book. "This is supposed to be exhilarating, fun to read," Coates said at the end of the interview. "The politics are in the background. What's in front is people punching each other."