With the Black Panther film just months away, it’s time for the cross-promotional material to start flowing. Marvel is no dummy and sought one of the most innovative minds in comics to write a Lexus Black Panther comic: Soul of a Machine. Writer, Fabian Nicieza, (co-creator of Deadpool) talks with West Coast correspondent Joelle Monique about the process of writing a crossover and his favorite Black Panther comics.
Fabian Nicieza: Have we interacted on Twitter?
Joelle Monique: It’s very possible.
Nicieza: Are you with Black Girl Nerds?
Joelle: Yeah. Absolutely.
Nicieza: I thought there was a back and forth that you were involved in.
Joelle: I don’t run our social media, but we’re incredibly active.
Nicieza: Very cool.
Joelle: So I’m curious, Marvel comes to you with an assignment and they’re like, “You’re going to blend Lexus and Black Panther.” Is this how it happens?
Nicieza: Well, technically that’s step two.
Joelle: What’s step one?
Nicieza: Step one is the Custom Solutions Editor, Darren Sanchez, who I’ve known – we’ve been friends for 20 years. We’ve worked together on and off for years. He’ll call me, or a like-minded veteran when he knows he’s got a challenge, a difficult project, or a large project. So, the first thing that I get when I get a call is “I got a tough one and I need your help.” That’s how it really starts.
So, editors being the cowardly superstitious lots that they are, know how to couch it in a way that you automatically feel beholden to help them – because they’re your friend and they’re saying they need help and you’re the only ones who can do it.
So, I say, “Sure. What do you got?” Then, he says, “Lexus wants to work with Marvel to do a Black Panther project to help promote a state of the art car that is going to be appearing in the movie. So they want to do a big project.” And then my freelancer’s brain goes, “How big a project?”
He says like an 80-page graphic novel. And I said, “Cool.” You know that’s good because that’s almost like working on a monthly book for three quarters of a year. He tells me the parameters, he sends me the Lexus Grand Narrative Brief – which isn’t brief at all. It’s like a hundred pages. My job is to absorb that, understand it, and then create a story whose themes reflect Lexus’s interests and themes as well as Marvel and Black Panther’s interests and themes.
Joelle: So it’s a super easy task.
Nicieza: Sometimes it’s harder than others. There’s no doubt about it. In this case, it wasn’t that hard. It really wasn’t because Lexus gives you their brain pillars. You know their brain pillars are hospitality and technological advancement, brazen bravery and bold style. So, imagination, anticipation, all of these things, right? And then you look at that and you go, all right, well, Black Panther stands for that, that, that, and that. It’s no problem.
So, then they tell you about the challenge of making the perfect vehicle. Right? OK. You can look at that as marketing-speak. I’ve been lucky enough that I had a few Lexuses in the past. They’re great cars and I’m not even a car guy. They put their money where their mouth is. They try to make it as perfect a vehicle as they can. All right, so Black Panther is a scientist, and an inventor, and a king and all of these things blend together thematically pretty easily. It is people, who by their very nature, seek perfection through the creative art of crafting technology. OK. So, then, the question is: what threatens that? What’s the story that threatens that?
And I just go to my old original Marvel Universe book…I actually don’t own it anymore because now it’s all online. But, in the old days, I used to go to the old Marvel Universe handbook trade paperbacks, and I looked to see who the best options are as an opponent, or a catalyst, or an antagonist. I’m not even necessarily looking for a villain if you’re playing your cards right. Right? And to me, for this story, Machinesmith was perfect. He’s a character who’s been around for a long, long time. He’s formerly human and now he’s an artificial intelligence and his goal is always to convert humanity to technology, in order to achieve the perfection he thinks he has achieved. Bingo.
So, it becomes a story where the viewpoints of how man and machine should work together are separated by degrees, not by extremes of belief. Right? So, Machinesmith thinks all flesh should be turned into technology. Black Panther and the Takumi masters, who represent the Lexus brand, and the common students who are a part of the storyline, all are trying to see a smarter merging of man and machine.
Joelle: OK. Wow, that is getting me really hyped to read the book. I’m curious about what your relationship is like with cars. I grew up in a household where people are obsessed with cars and car shows. My dad worked for a car parts manufacturing company. I never really got into that. I was always kind of lagging behind. What is your personal relationship with cars?
Nicieza: Not a car guy at all. I always said if my car rolls uphill, I’m happy. I don’t spend enough time in cars to really…if I lived in L.A., or if I commuted to work in a car, I would be much more enthused about cars. I don’t drive that much so I don’t have to worry about it. Like I said, I’ve had Lexus cars in the past. We leased Lexuses for almost 12 years. I love them. They’re great cars to drive. They really are. I just don’t have one now. They promised me an LC500 when all of this was done and I don’t think they’re going to give it to me.
So I’m not a car head. I didn’t approach it that way. I approach the story as scientists and engineers who were seeking to navigate that minefield of what happens when you lose your humanity to technology and how to prevent that from happening.The car is a byproduct of the story’s needs to defeat Machinesmith, you know?
The creation, the generation of the car in the story has a story-driven purpose. It’s not a commercial driven purpose. It’s about this particular vehicle and the way they’re going to build it is, “Look it’s going to be needed to stop Machinesmith.” That’s it. You know? If it had been a tricycle company coming to us it would have been a tricycle that they put together. It wouldn’t have changed the actual story.
Joelle: So you’ve been adding to the Marvel canon in a ginormous way for a really long time.
Nicieza: 742 years.
Joelle: So does this still strike you? Like, man, I’m adding to the cannon. I think it’s just so huge.
Nicieza: No, no. Honestly, no, because I’ve been doing it for over thirty years.
Joelle: That’s fair.
Nicieza: But, that being said, getting a chance to work on a character that I haven’t worked on before, like Black Panther, I don’t think I’ve ever written him before. I didn’t have him in the Warriors and I didn’t have him in Thunderbolts, which were my two most mainstream Marvel Universe books.
He never appeared in the X-books back in the day because we were segregated and weren’t allowed to mix them with the Marvel Universe according to our editor. So, it was a character I never had a chance to write.
I’ve been following Black Panther since 1968 when I saw him in the Avengers, Then I got his origin story. His introduction was reprinted in Marvel’s Greatest Comics, which was reprinting Fantastic 4 just a couple of years later and I got it. I’ve been reading this character since I was a little kid. I got everything that he appeared in. I got his original series by Don McGregor and Rich Buckler and Billy Graham. I bought it off the newsstand the day it came out.
I got all of the Christopher Priest, Sal Velluto, Jorge Lucas run of that book. I’ve always loved the characters so getting a chance to write them was fun.
Joelle: For people maybe just now approaching Black Panther, I know a ton of our fans are getting hyped for the movie everyday…
Nicieza: They should! It looks phenomenal.
Joelle: It looks amazing. I watched the trailer fifteen times the morning it came out. Where would you recommend these folks start reading Black Panther comics?
Nicieza: I’m a huge, huge fan of starting at the beginning because it informs your understanding of how a character started, but more importantly how they evolved. Right? So, Marvel has done a really good job of having all of this material out in print. I really would recommend his original introduction in Fantastic 4.
Take into account what it meant to introduce an African-American character as a superhero for the first time in comics and to make him a king of a nation. Right?! I was 7 or 8 years old and that struck me. It made me realize regardless of the color of a character’s skin how important this character was.
You know, if you go back and look at it from that standpoint then you can read Don McGregor’s “Jungle Action” run and understand how he tried to make very strong political statements about race in this country, through the use of a Black Panther both as a king and as a man. He did both in his run. He took him from Wakanda to America. Black Panther in America is regarded in different ways than Black Panther is in Wakanda. That was a really interesting way to approach it and I was a teenager when I read those.
The current stuff is really, really good strong stuff. But, to my mind, the best Black Panther I read was Christopher Priest; his entire series with Sal and Ludo. I thought that Christopher Priest did what no one else had done with our character before. He synthesized all aspects of the character into a very cohesive, very coherent, and very strong presentation. I loved Priest’s Black Panther run.
Joelle: That’s an incredibly enticing pitch.
Nicieza: If you haven’t read that book, you should read that book.
Joelle: I will read that book.
Nicieza: Priest is a challenging writer.
Joelle: Oh yeah?
Nicieza: He tells a narrative in a disjointed fashion. So you’ll flash forward, you’ll flash back. You need to pay attention and you need to remember what happened before because then pieces start coming together. Oh crap, that’s phenomenal. He thinks on a level I’ll say above, he thinks on a level above most of us. Above the average comic book writer. He really does. The way he the way he can fracture his narrative and still tell a very interesting story in a non-linear fashion. You heard it from the man himself.
Joelle: Go read Priest’s Black Panther before the movie comes out and check the new 80-page graphic novel Black Panther: Soul of a Machine by Fabian Nicieza. The first four chapters are available now. Thanks for talking to Black Girl Nerds.
Nicieza: Thanks for having me.
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Joelle Monique is the co-creator and writer of the webcomic Harsh Mellow, a podcaster with Black Girl Nerds, a proud Hufflepuff, and a member of the water tribe. She resides in Los Angeles but her heart resides in Chicago.