In 1966, something truly extraordinary graced the pages of Marvel Comics: The Black Panther, King T’Challa of Wakanda. It was the first time a superhero of African descent appeared in mainstream American comics. More than 50 years later, Marvel Studios’ Black Panther film is blowing the doors off the box office, changing the Hollywood game. After the huge success of the film, moviegoers who are energized about the world of Wakanda will be looking for media to consume about its hero T’Challa and his supporting characters. Prince George’s County author Jesse J. Holland will provide that with his origin novel, Black Panther: Who Is The Black Panther?, released in fall of 2017 and to be released in paperback this April—and he’s pretty jazzed about it.
City Paper spoke with the 46-year-old ahead of his National Press Club appearance to talk about being a black comic book fan, writing his Black Panther book, and how he anticipates both the film and his book will be felt for generations to come.
WCP: So, your Black Panther origin story book could now serve as a go-to for fans of the film. How do you feel about that?
Jesse J. Holland: It’s just great to be a small part of what’s turning out to be a seminal moment in American entertainment history, and frankly, American history. To know that for some people, my interpretation of T’Challa and Wakanda is going to be what they know about this character is incredible. Especially considering that it’s a character that I’ve been reading my entire life. I’ve been reading comic books since I was 5 years old. It’s just, wow.
WCP: How did you come to write the book?
JJH: I started out writing nonfiction history books. I wrote Black Men Built the Capitol back in 2007. Then I started working on The Invisibles: The Untold Story of African-American Slavery in the White House around 2009. It came out in January 2016, if I’m not mistaken. So, an editor at Lucasfilm read The Invisibles and she loved it. She sent me a Facebook message while I was speaking at a journalism conference at LSU. She wanted to know if I had ever written fiction because they had this character in Star Wars: The Force Awakens called Finn. They wanted someone to write a young adult novel explaining the history of Finn and re-telling the movie from his point of view. I hadn’t written fiction since college, actually. But there was no way I was going to tell them that. I just said ‘Sure, I would love to do this!’ I end up writing Star Wars: The Force Awakens: Finn’s Story. That came out in September 2016, I believe. Then, an editor at Marvel read Finn’s Story and The Invisibles, and once again, contacted me through Facebook. He said in 2018, they’d have this movie out about the Black Panther. They wanted a novel explaining who the Black Panther is, based on the origin that was written by Reginald Hudlin. They wanted people to know who the Black Panther is without having to read 40 years worth of comic books. He said, ‘We’ve never written a novel based on this character, but we know you know how to do it because you’ve written Finn and The Invisibles. Would you be interested?’ I was like ‘I’ve been reading this character since I was 5, of course I want to take this on.’
WCP: Seems like each of your books has led to the next one.
JJH: Exactly. It’s all about doing what you love. I love writing history, but I also love comic books and sci-fi. I’m not shy about letting people know that. This has been a passion of mine for my entire life. It helps not to be ashamed of who you are. By not trying to hide it, I have these opportunities put in front of me. In the past, people made fun of us for reading these comic books. We were just ahead of our time.
WCP: What drew you to Black Panther as a kid?
JJH: Just the idea of the Black Panther was something I loved. A lot of the black superheroes I loved growing up were always sidekicks or shared the spotlight. But it was always just the Black Panther, he stood alone. We’re a nation of stories and comic book characters are our modern mythology. To have a character like the Black Panther who looks like us, that our children can say ‘I want to be him,’ to have these characters that children of color can aspire to is so important. I can dress up like Batman, but I can be the Black Panther.
WCP: What was your approach to writing Black Panther?
JJH: Marvel offered to send me a bunch of comic books to research for Black Panther. I told them they could keep them because I had them all in my basement. Which I did. They gave me license to do what I needed to do to make it into a compelling narrative, to update it to where the world is today. So, I actually start the story here in Washington, D.C. Because, if you’re the king of Wakanda in the United States, where are you going to go? You’re going to go to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. I start the story there. Marvel was really good about letting me create a narrative that made sense to me, while sticking to the classic Reginald Hudlin origin. My writing process is closing myself off in my basement. And I’m a night owl, so usually between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. is when I get the bulk of my work done. I sat there, outlined, and let the words flow. If the words aren’t pretty, I rewrite them later.
WCP: In writing such a significant character, what did you want to get across to readers?
JJH: I’m telling people that if you’ve seen the movie, you’ll recognize every character in the novel. If you haven’t seen the movie and you read the novel, it’s not going to spoil the movie for you, but you’ll have a greater understanding of who all these characters are on screen and what their classic comic book origins are. I just wanted to make sure I told a good story. The Black Panther is so important to so many different people, so I wanted to be sure that whatever the final product was, it would be worthy of the first black mainstream superhero. It’s a big responsibility when you’re handed a character like that and told you’re allowed to put your own imprint on them. You can’t just throw something out there and hope it’s OK. You’ve got to do your research. I did a lot of research on different countries in Africa, the clothing, the language. I went back a reread some of those great Black Panther comics to make sure I had the characterization correct. You’ve got to get Nakia right, you’ve got to get Okoye right, you’ve got to get Shuri and Ramonda right. Hopefully, when people read it, they’ll recognize these characters.
WCP: Your historical novels, like your fiction, are centered on black stories, particularly in D.C. How did they come together?
JJH: The majority of my work comes from the National Archives, the Library of Congress, the White House Historical Association, and the presidential plantations. Luckily, by the time I started working on The Invisibles, people were willing and ready to talk about slavery in the White House and in the presidential plantations. If you go back to 2002, if you had asked people at Mount Vernon about the slaves who had lived there, they would have no idea and they wouldn’t want to talk about it. But by the time I started working on it, there had been a change where people were willing to acknowledge the existence of these slaves and were willing to help and spend their own money on figuring out who they were and what their contributions were.
WCP: What does it mean to you to have written all these books, both fiction and nonfiction, about black lives?
JJH: It’s an incredible story of being able to live out your dreams. I can’t say I knew I was always on the path to do this. But I can say I always wanted to be true to myself. Who knows what’s next after this?
Jesse J. Holland will speak at the National Press Club at 6:30 p.m. 529 14th St. NW. $5–$10.