Brian Stelfreeze Breathes Life Into the 'Black Panther'

Brian Stelfreeze talks working with Ta-Nehisi Coates on Marvel's new 'Black Panther' series.

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Complex Original

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This week, Marvel Comics officially kicks off a new era for the Black Panther ahead of the upcoming Captain America: Civil War film (which will give us the Black Panther's Marvel Cinematic Universe debut before 2018's Ryan Coogler-directed Black Panther) with a new comic book series that's penned by Ta-Nehisi Coates and drawn by Brian Stelfreeze. The Black Panther has been in the Marvel Comics universe since the late 1960s, and was the first black superhero in American comics. T'Challa (a.k.a. the Black Panther) is the King of Wakanda, an African nation rich in the mineral known as vibranium, the material that Captain America's indestructible shield is made out of. This makes Wakanda a place that outsiders want to bleed dry, which in turn forces the Black Panther to need to constantly protect his nation from the ills of the world.

In the first issue of the new Black Panther (which hits stores on April 6), Coates and Stelfreeze kick off the "A Nation Under Our Feet" storyline, which places the Black Panther back in his homeland of Wakanda during a time where the people are in unrest, questioning how effective of a leader T'Challa actually is. Coates and Stelfreeze depict Wakanda in disarray during a time when it should be thriving, and they're looking to answer questions about not only how it got there, but how it can bounce back from inner turmoil and destruction. It's a story of great importance, and is set to be one of the more momentous series in Marvel's current history, primarily because it properly shines the light on the problems within Wakanda (and the Black Panther's response) like never before.

Coates has already givensome insight on what it was like making this comic book, and he's been emphatic about the role Stelfreeze has played in its inception. With credits as a writer, penciller, artist, and more in the comic book realm, including stints at DC Comics, painting over fifty covers for Shadow of the Bat, as well as working on the Domino miniseries for Marvel, Stelfreeze is the perfect companion to the newcomer Coates.​ So, in the spirit of hearing both sides (word to Desus), we caught up with Stelfreeze to talk about the new series, diving into the collaboration with Coates, how he identifies with the Black Panther, and the current social issues that the series touches on.

How did you get the gig drawing this series?
[After the Jay Z Black Album/Black Panther cover], Wilson Moss contacted me saying, “Hey, I want to talk to you about a project,” but he was being uncharacteristically mysterious about it. I managed to get him to tell me about the plot and thought, “Wow. This is really cool.” I agreed to do it. Then they dropped the name of the writer on me and I was like, “Okay, We are on another planet now.”

You've previously mentioned that you and Ta-Nehisi are trying to redefine the Black Panther. Can you talk about what you mean in that aspect?
Both Ta-Nehisi and I love the character. You can’t be a black guy that grew up in the '70s and not like the character. But I think much like a lot of comic book characters, there wasn’t a lot of thought put into him. It came from a time of blaxploitation, so the character was cool, but not very deep. What we are doing is trying to is bring some depth.​

What was it like working with Ta-Nehisi, a self-professed comic book fan who hasn’t really worked in this medium before? Were there any difficulties?
Dude. I never trust when anyone says, “I’m a comic book fan from way back,” [because] then you actually look at the comic book work that they do and it’s like, “That’s terrible.” But my first conversation with Ta-Nehisi was just like, “Oh. OK. This guy knows more about Black Panther than I do.”

Writing comics and drawing comics is a really very specific art form. It’s a lot easier to get it wrong than it is to get it right. I was a little bit nervous about the person who comes from a medium where you do all the work yourself. Comics really require extreme collaboration: you set things up, then the next guy has to come along and then the next guy has to come along. But the thing that surprised me most about him is how much he encourages the collaborative process. That was evident in our first conversation. We were instant buddies and were throwing things back and forth and challenging each other.

Was it easy for you to slide in and inject things into the idea he had for the story?
The cool thing about it, after reading his rough plot outline, I was just like, “OK, cool.” That gave me a feeling of where we were going. Then I started designing the characters and, particularly with Black Panther, I had some views on what vibranium brings to his suit. I designed some things, did some tech drawings, and then he looked at that and went, “Oh man. That’s cool. I’m going to use that over here.” It was really fun to see his plot inspiring me to design things a certain way, and then see the designs cause him to move the plot in a different direction.

I've been able to check out the first issue, and see how Black Panther's trying to fix Wakanda for the future. How important it is to make that story the first big arc in the new, redefined Black Panther
The sad thing about being an avid comic book fan is that you just accept things. You go, “Well yeah, it’s just that way.” Ta-Nehisi is questioning things. Why are things this way? I never really thought about the fact that most of the times I saw Black Panther, he was in New York or in some American city doing something cool with the Avengers. I mean, he’s the Prince of Wakanda, but we rarely saw him in Wakanda.

What Ta-Nehisi did was be like, “Hey, this is the most technologically advanced nation in the Marvel world, but they have one of the most primitive forms of government in the entire world. What’s the deal with that?” The moment you hear that you are like, “Yeah, that is kind of weird.” You start to think, “And a lot of times he’s not there governing the people. What’s up with that?” It makes your mind spin. The story is about that. It’s about that grand flaw that we as comic book readers have just accepted for 50 years.

It’s good to see some comic book series, I don’t want to say "rip from the headlines," but basing a lot of their storylines on things that are actually happening. You can see it in the process. 
To me, those are the best comics. Those comics are the Greek gods. That’s what’s storytelling is supposed to do. It’s actually supposed to help us deal with something that we question already. I think, for the most part, comics have devolved into fantasy for the sake of fantasy. But we have this platform where we can deal with things, but in a way that doesn’t immediately make it seem like we are standing on a soap box.

I spoke with [Marvel Comics Editor in Chief] Axel [Alonso]a couple of weeks ago about Civil War II. He mentioned how you guys probably wouldn’t be making the early parts of Civil War II. It made me wonder, how far along are you guys in regards to not just this story arc but future ones?
Right now we are really trying to get the first arc completely secure as it’s coming out. Then we're going to have the second and the third arc. But we know exactly where this thing is going. That’s the cool thing about it: knowing where it's going puts me in a position where I can start laying down visuals in the early parts of it for that second and third arc.

Almost 15 years ago, you mentioned wanting to work on more characters that felt personal to you. Do you see yourself in this ideation of Black Panther?
Yeah, I think you can’t really help it. The nice thing about it is that he’s connected to an old culture and he’s also connected to this future-driven culture. I think, to a certain extent, every black guy and girl in America is attached to that. We feel that same pull where it’s just like, “OK. I’m being pulled by the old world, but I’m also being pulled by the new world.” The challenges that Black Panther faces, are the challenges that we all face.

For those of you who want to learn even more about Brian Stelfreeze, Boom Studios is dropping The Signature Art of Brian Stelfreeze on September 13. Word is that it's the "definitive art collection" of his work, featuring never-before-seen sketches, classic pieces, pages, covers that span Stelfreeze's career, and commentary from many of his collaborators (including Scott Peterson, Doug Wagner, Khary Randolph, and Cully Hamner). Pre-order today.

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