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Breaking with tradition

By Roxane Gay
Writing into the Marvel canon from the outside

Two fierce women fall in love, even though, as Dora Milaje – the elite bodyguards who protect Black Panther, King of Wakanda – they are bound to Black Panther as potential wives. Not only do these women, Ayo and Aneka, fall in love, they start to question their duty to only one man. They break from tradition to follow their hearts and a deep desire for a greater purpose. This is the narrative arc of the first run of World of Wakanda, the comic series I was invited to write for Marvel.

When Ta-Nehisi Coates, who writes Black Panther for Marvel, emailed me and said he had a crazy idea, I was immediately intrigued. When he suggested that I, too, write a comic book for Marvel, I was stunned. I consider myself a versatile writer, eager to explore new genres, but even I am surprised to find myself writing a Marvel comic. I often joke that I agreed to join the project in the hope I could meet Thor, or, more accurately, Chris Hemsworth, the incredibly handsome actor who plays Thor in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The truth is, though I was overwhelmed and intimidated by the prospect of writing a comic – something entirely new and different – I was also thrilled. Comics are a genre long considered the domain of white men. Rarely are people of colour written into superhero narratives, and rarely are women of colour written into these narratives, and rarely are women of colour writing these narratives.

I wrote a five-issue arc for the first run of World of Wakanda to provide the backstory for how Ayo and Aneka break from tradition and become the Midnight Angels in Coates’s current run of Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet. I think of writing as problem-solving, as an act of exploration. There are challenges, and I use words to meet those challenges. With this arc, I had to ask myself why. Why would Ayo and Aneka, women who have dedicated their lives to service and to the leader of Wakanda, turn their backs on everything they hold dear? What would push them to breaking point?

So consumed by these questions, I forgot I had no idea how to write a comic book. Growing up, I was a voracious reader; I still am. But superhero comics were not something I read. As a kid, sure, I read Archie comics almost obsessively. I loved Riverdale and the adventures of Archie and Jughead and Betty and Veronica. Even when I set the Archie comics down, my imagination ran wild, continuing the stories I had just read, envisioning different lives for the characters. Archie comics, though, are very different from the stuff of superheroes.

When I understood that I was really, truly going to be writing for Marvel, as implausible as it felt, I started to read contemporary comics – a little bit of everything – Black Panther, The Ultimates (Marvel Comics), Wonder Woman (DC Comics), Sex Criminals (Image Comics) and Saga (Image Comics). I even read some “how to” books, as if they would assuage my fears and tell me everything I needed to know. All the reading was incredibly helpful, but nothing truly prepared me for this adventure.

In so many ways, I am an unexpected choice to write a comic. I write fiction – novels, short stories – all generally dark and concerning the lives of women. In my nonfiction, I gravitate to writing essays and cultural criticism, about the intersections of race and gender, the sociopolitical and popular culture. When I began to write Ayo and Aneka’s story, I tried not to be too intimidated as I faced the blank page. I told myself: storytelling is storytelling regardless of genre, and that did prove true.

And then I realised I was the first black woman to lead a Marvel comic. This isn’t the first time I’ve been “the first”, nor will it be the last. In many ways, this was familiar territory: breaking new ground. Still, I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders because so much was at stake. When you’re the first, you have no choice but to be excellent or you will be the first and only – an uncanny burden.

Writing is as natural to me as breathing, so I stopped thinking of this project as a Marvel comic and started thinking simply about Ayo and Aneka and their story. When I write fiction, I try to lose myself in the characters I create by forcing the real world to fall away. I thought about these two women, who were trained to be lethal killers and how, perhaps, loving each other would be far more difficult than anything they had been trained to face.

Oftentimes, when I create backstories for my characters, most of that work never makes it onto the page. With the World of Wakanda, I had the chance to make the backstory the story. Ayo and Aneka first meet when Ayo joins the Dora Milaje. Ayo is an upstart – brash and arrogant but talented. Aneka, a seasoned captain, is immediately interested in knocking Ayo down a peg. Despite their initial animosity, though, Ayo and Aneka have chemistry. Once I found that chemistry, writing their story came easily – the push and pull of their relationship, the eroticism of being so close to each other and yet so far, and the complicated joy of breaking through each other’s walls.

World of Wakanda is not just a love story. In Coates’s run, T’Challa, the current Black Panther, is a troubled man leading a troubled nation. Some members of the Dora Milaje have broken ranks, and so I also got to create the backstory of how the Dora Milaje decide to break their sworn oaths to serve Black Panther. A king is just a man, and, as a man, T’Challa makes mistakes. It is these mistakes that lead to a wave of destruction in Wakanda, and it is that destruction that forces the Dora Milaje to realise they cannot serve only one man. They are not only the protectors of Black Panther, they are women of Wakanda and equally beholden to their country’s people.

I created a love story two ways – the love Ayo and Aneka have for each other and the love the Dora Milaje have for their country. Though I am new to comics, I am well versed in writing love stories and, in many ways, it was a relief to write what I know while negotiating a medium I did not.

And there was much, indeed, I did not know. I was writing two love stories, but I was also writing into the Marvel canon. The learning curve was steep in terms of understanding the history of Black Panther, his sister Shuri and the goings on of Wakanda, as well as the existing Marvel Universe histories that inform all Marvel narratives. For every confident moment I had during the writing process, there was a moment when I was racked with doubt.

A fierce fighting unit, Dora Milaje bodyguards are well trained, whipsmart, deadly. They are from the most technologically advanced country in the world, so they have incredible weaponry and computing power at their disposal. As a storyteller, the bounties of Wakanda made the work of writing not only satisfying, but fun. There are no limits to what is possible in Wakanda and the significance of an African nation being the best the world has to offer was not lost on me. The idea of Wakanda allowed me to contribute to a far more expansive vision of blackness than the one too many people hold in this world.

There was also the subversive pleasure of writing a villain. In this arc, Folami, a member of the Dora Milaje, takes a dark turn and breaks not only from Black Panther, but the Dora Milaje as well, an action that results in grave repercussions. When it comes to the stuff of superheroes, there is no getting away from the battle between good and evil.

Now that the first arc of World of Wakanda is complete, I know I want to write more comics, and especially to continue telling the story of Ayo and Aneka, how they are both tough in their work of serving Wakanda and tender in loving each other. It has been both a pleasure and a privilege to put black queer women at the centre of the story, rather than relegating them to the margins. It has also been great to tell the story of heroes whose origin story isn’t centred in loss and suffering.

When I set out to write World of Wakanda, I wanted to write heroes who know something of happiness. We don’t see a lot of happy heroes in comics – though they possess incredible powers, superheroes generally are a miserable lot, hell-bent on living their lives alone in fits of misguided nobility.

I don’t know what will happen next in Wakanda. I don’t know if the Dora Milaje will feature in their own movie, though that is something they richly deserve. What I do know is that Marvel broke with tradition in bringing a writer like me into the fold, and by doing that, so much more is now possible for black women within the Marvel Universe, on the page, behind the page and, perhaps, someday, on the silver screen.

This essay was first commissioned by QAGOMA for Marvel: Creating the Cinematic Universe, which is showing at GOMA now until 3 September. www.qagoma.qld.gov.au

Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay is the author of the bestseller Bad Feminist and is a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times. Her most recent book is Hunger, a memoir.

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