- By Joe Gross American-Statesman Staff
On Jan. 6, Evan Narcisse, the Austin-based writer of the six-issue Marvel Comics miniseries “Rise of the Black Panther,” held a signing at Dragon’s Lair Comics on Anderson Lane. The first issue of “Rise” had appeared in stores a few days earlier.
Narcisse’s day job is as a writer for website Io9, so he is a reasonably well-known and well-regarded figure in the world of online nerd-culture journalism, writing about the complicated intersection of race and Nerdy Stuff (video games, science fiction, comics) with class and wit. But “Rise” is his first published comics work. And the 45-year-old lifelong New Yorker has only lived in Austin with his partner, Julie Whang, and young daughter for about two years. When you spend a lot of your time at home writing, there isn’t a lot of time to build up the sort of personal network that can be crucial for such an event.
All of which is to say you would be completely forgiven for thinking not a lot of people would show up for a comic book signing by Evan Narcisse on a January afternoon.
You would also be completely wrong.
The line was out the door. Or would have been, had the weather been warmer. Instead, it snaked along the back of the store into the board games. It was exactly the sort of line you want to see at a comic book signing in 2018 — black, white, Asian, Latino; young and old; parents and kids.
Narcisse sat at a table, his daughter by his side handing him the next copy to sign and generally being almost comically adorable. And if you waited around for the line to get shorter, maybe to exchange a few words with the guy without the press of the crowd, well, that didn’t work. That line got long and stayed long.
Obviously, it didn’t hurt that “Black Panther,” maybe the most highly anticipated movie thus far in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, was about six weeks away from opening, and Narcisse was writing essentially a secret origin for the guy, an origin that, in the best corporate comics fashion, uses all the toys in the character’s toy box to expand on the mythos.
Still: Hundreds of comics were moved that day at Dragon’s Lair. Same with a signing at Midtown Comics in Manhattan a few days later. A massive line, and every copy of the issue Midtown ordered went out the door.
Not too shabby for a middle-age dad’s first comic.
Race and culture
“I’m conscious of race whenever I’m writing, just as I’m conscious of class, religion, human psychology, politics — everything that makes up the human experience. I don’t think I can do a good job if I’m not paying attention to what’s meaningful to people, and in American culture, there isn’t anything that informs human interaction more than the idea of race.” — the late Dwayne McDuffie, talking to Evan Narcisse for the Atlantic, 2010
It’s a few weeks after the Dragon’s Lair signing. Narcisse and I are having lunch at the Noble Sandwich on Burnet Road, and he is trying very hard to not let all of this go to his head.
“The folks at Dragon’s Lair said only three signings have had a higher head count,” Narcisse says. “Brian Bendis, Greg Rucka and George Takei.”
The first two are among the most influential and well-respected comics writers of the past 20 years; the third played Sulu on “Star Trek” and has become one of the most beloved nerd icons of our era.
“I know a lot of that is this moment we’re in with the movie,” Narcisse says. But, man, it sure feels good.
Narcisse, who had written passionately about representation in comics and video games for sites such as I09.com and Kotaku.com, came to know current “Black Panther” main series writer (and leading black intellectual of his generation) Ta-Nehisi Coates from various intersections of nerdy stuff and black culture.
“I would sometimes get comments from readers along the lines of, ‘Why do you have to bring race into it?’ and I am like, ‘Race is already in it! You are coming from this negative space where whiteness is the default and you don’t realize that because you haven’t lived outside of that,’” he says.
Coates’ editor was impressed with Narcisse’s thoughtful critiques and invited him to pitch a “Black Panther” story. Narcisse pitched something that was essentially “Black Panther: Year One,” and the rest is history.
“Rise of the Black Panther” is a culmination of things Narcisse has been writing about as a journalist for years and thinking about as a comics fan for twice as long, from the intersection of race and technology and culture to being the child of divorced Haitian immigrants in New York.
“Black Panther stands at the crossroads between tradition and modernity, and that is very meaningful to me,” Narcisse says. “He’s got this long lineage of black excellence that he has to preserve and push forward into the future. At the same time, in my story, he has to break with tradition in order to preserve it.”
It wasn’t just a fertile story base; it was a worldview Narcisse grew up with, first in Brooklyn, then on Long Island for an education at the well-known Catholic boys school Chaminade High.
“I grew up wondering if I was Haitian enough,” Narcisse says. “I’d worry my Creole wasn’t good, if I was a terrible dancer. I’d worry that the things that I held on to, were they enough to keep me connected to this legacy that I cherish? I think T’Challa (aka the Black Panther, played by Chadwick Boseman in the upcoming film) communicates some of that in this series.”
“Rise” starts with T’Challa’s father, T’Chaka, the king of Wakanda. Like Wakandan kings before him, he has gone out of his way to hide his technologically advanced nation from colonial eyes. But when the West arrives in the form of supervillains, things go south for T’Chaka, and we see T’Challa rise from prince to young king.
In classic savvy-comics-writer fashion, Narcisse took a small detail from Black Panther’s decades-old continuity and expanded on it. In older comics, we’re told that T’Challa’s mother, N’Yami, died in childbirth — he was raised largely by his stepmother, Ramonda. But Narcisse wondered about N’Yami — what was she like? What was her relationship with T’Chaka like?
“We know that T’Challa is a warrior and a strategist,” Narcisse says, “but we also know he is a scientist. Maybe he gets that from his mother. Maybe she ushered in a new technological age before he was born.
“Parents in superhero comics, their job is to die,” Narcisse adds. Think Batman’s parents, Superman’s parents on Krypton, Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben. “Their job is to inspire the hero. But you start wondering, what was (Batman’s dad) Thomas Wayne like? What were his hopes and dreams? I get to bob and weave inside the stories I like and recontextualize them.”
And Narcisse has managed, with his first comic book, to write a hero who happens to be both his favorite character and the one everyone is paying attention to right now.
“In terms of the situation, I’m coming in at the top,” he says.
Like many fans his age, Narcisse discovered comics young. “My parents would drop me off at the barbershop to get a haircut, which could sometimes take hours, sometimes because I was actually waiting for a haircut, sometimes because they would use it as a babysitter,” he says.
Some kind soul left a stack of comics, and Narcisse happened to pick up “Daredevil #165” (July 1980), written by Roger McKenzie and Frank Miller and drawn by Miller.
It blew his mind.
“Miller had all this dramatic staging, and it was written for an older audience,” Narcisse says. “It brought up this deep emotional churn — it really felt verboten.” Soon he was totally addicted, and once he moved to Long Island, trips to the comics store became a regular thing.
Narcisse became especially fond of a writer named Jim Owsley, who later took the nom de plume Christopher J. Priest.
Owsley, the first African-American full-time writer and editor at either Marvel or DC, was the writer on “Power Man and Iron Fist,” a Marvel book about an invulnerable black guy and a white martial artist. (See also the Netflix TV shows “Luke Cage,” “Iron Fist” and “The Defenders.”)
Narcisse soon figured out that the writer was black (as was the artist, a guy named M.D. Bright). He became a Priest fanatic overnight, following the writer’s career with a microscope.
Priest went on to write a character-defining run on “Black Panther” from 1998 to 2003. So Narcisse is following in his hero’s footsteps.
In 2011, Narcisse wrote an essay about “Power Man and Iron Fist #125,” the books’ final issue. “The Black Superhero Who Helped Me Navigate a White World” is a good look at what made Narcisse into Narcisse.
“I was one of like three black kids at an all-boys Catholic high school,” Narcisse tells me. “One day this CEO alum comes in to talk to us, and he mentions that old stat that 3 in 4 black men are more likely to end up in jail than college. And all the kids laughed. And I just sank into my seat. But then later, when the teachers scolded the kids who laughed — ‘Think how Evan feels!’ — I just became this object lesson. Nobody ever asked me what I thought about it.”
In #125, Power Man is accused of murdering Iron Fist. As Narcisse writes in his essay, “The cops were going to railroad him, and his resume as a hero and tenure as a staunch friend weren’t going to help him. The cops, the D.A. and the district attorney had made up their minds who and what he was, and they were going to make him stick to the script. No. Cage took another way. He punched out a wall and ran for his life.”
“I knew that’s what I would have to do,” Narcisse says. “I knew I would have to find the wherewithal to break out of this box that these stereotypes want to put me in.”