Last year, Ta-Nehisi Coates, a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a celebrated writer on race in the United States, published Between the World and Me, a book that is presented as a letter to his teenage son about being a black man in America.
Possibly the most famous book of last year, it received wide critical praise, ultimately winning the National Book Award and leading to Coates being awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant.
At that point, fans and critics alike speculated as to the author’s next move. Very few would have guessed that he would decide to pen a yearlong arc of Marvel’s Black Panther comic book.
The immediate response from non-comics fans was: why? Why would a writer with a platform and an important message follow up his magnum opus with a comic book?
The answer is threefold.
First, Coates’s experiences and insight are a natural fit for T’Challa, the warrior king of Wakanda. From a recent New York Times story:
One of the most celebrated authors about race in America writing about a black superhero who has pummeled Captain America and members of the Ku Klux Klan? The collective response from fans of comics and Mr. Coates alike: I’d read that.
Moreover, unlike many critics and literature snobs, he does not believe comics are less than. Coates grew up reading Stan Lee alongside James Baldwin and F. Scott Fitzgerald. He is both a fan and a student of the medium. From that same Times piece:
“The thing that people should understand about Ta-Nehisi is that he’s a comic-book superfan. He knows his stuff.”
The final, and best, reason? Because he could.
The recognition of Between the World and Me presented him with a unique opportunity. As Coates said in a recent interview with NPR:
“What’s the good of getting a MacArthur genius grant if you can’t go and write a comic book for Marvel? I don’t know. There are things that people consider to be genius, and then there are things that deep in my heart I’ve always believed to be genius.”
Coates, who had been laid off from TIME and was freelancing to make ends meet before joining The Atlantic, knows that opportunities are fleeting and many are largely based upon timing and luck. He has said he never believed he would have the chance to write a Marvel superhero story, but when that chance presented itself, he leapt at it. He didn’t worry about what it would do to his standing within the literary community or how it would affect his growing reputation. Instead of trying to create what was expected of him – which rarely leads to positive results – he seized the opportunity to do something new and unique that intrigued him.
After all, there was no guarantee that it would ever come again.
Christopher Pierznik is the author of eight books, all of which can be purchased in paperback and Kindle. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Medium, and many more. Subscribe to his monthly reading review newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.