When acclaimed writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, who helms the Black Panther series, approached New York Times best-selling author Roxane Gay and Kate Tufts Discovery Award-winning poet Yona Harvey to take on the task of creating the World of Wakanda spin-off series, the two women did not hesitate.
“I immediately blurted out, “yes,” Harvey admitted, when asked if she hesitated when approached by Coates. Tasked with writing the the 10-page story of Zenzi, the female revolutionary and villain in the Black Panther series, Harvey was intriguied by the challenge of crafting the character. “‘Villain’ is such a tricky word,” she added. Gay didn’t hesitate either, although she was surprised. “Ta-Nehisi told me he had a crazy idea and he did not oversell. I immediately said yes because I love a challenge.”
The two women are the first black female team to take on a series for the comic giant. World of Wakanda spotlights the women of Wakanda and follows characters Ayo and Aneka, two lovers and former members of the Black Panther’s all-female guard known as the Dora Milaje. Gay and Harvey were given tons of room to create the world they wanted, with continuity being the only requirement.
“Marvel was very generous with creative control–all of the Marvel Universe was available to me,” Harvey said. “But Marvel made it clear that I had to be true to the story as Ta-Nehisi had written it previously–I should be true to the Marvel Universe and to Zenzi’s storyline.”
Still, there were a few challenges in creating the comic. Both writers are new to comic book writing and while storytelling wasn’t a big issue, there were differences in how they approached the project. “Storytelling is storytelling, so it’s not that different, save for working within the comic format of panels,” said Gay. “The biggest difference for me was thinking more explicitly in terms of scene.” Harvey’s challenge was the formal outline. “I felt so resistant to the outline. In poetry, I experiment and draft and then shape the story through the placement of the poems. Total opposite of writing comics.”
With the freedom to create something new and exciting for Marvel, Gay and Harvey tackled their characters and the world around them head on. With Zenzi, Harvey looked at the things that shaped and influenced the character’s decisions, sometimes communicating with Coates via phone, email, or text. “Ta-Nehisi gets credit for really challenging me to think like Zenzi would think, to think about her motives,” she said. “At one point, we had this joke, like, ‘Zenzi knows’ as in Zenzi knows things several beats before others. So it was fun to think about how her knowing shapes the decisions she makes. I just kept thinking about all the instances when women have to tap their feet as things are ‘mansplained’ to them.”
Aside from Black Panther, Gay turned to USA’s spy thriller, La Femme Nikita and fearless Scandal favorite Olivia Pope, for inspiration. With Ayo and Aneka, Gay also brings a love story about two queer women of color to the Marvel universe, something she plans to continue. “I am sure there will be other LGBTQ characters as the series continues. We shall see. I am introducing other members of the Dora Milaje. Another key character is Folami, but you’ll have to read the series to learn more about her.”
The Marvel universe is vast and full of characters and worlds that both women would like to take on. Black Widow, Storm, the Hulk, and Ironheart are characters Gay and Harvey would be interested in writing for and Gay adds that the third issue of the World of Wakanda series may also see Ayo and Aneka taking a little trip.
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And, while the women are stellar writers, there are still powers they wish they had. “I want to fly,” said Gay. “My superpower would be invisibility,” added Harvey. Asked if there’s one superhero they find overrated, Gay admitted that Batman needs to get it together, but Harvey remain tight-lipped.
“I’m gonna keep that under wraps and maintain friendships with my comic book buddies here in Pittsburgh.”