Q&A with Roxane Gay on Her New Gig: Marvel Comic Book Writer

The Purdue professor is working on a script for Black Panther: World of Wakanda, which debuts in November.

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Roxane GayAs if a celebrated novel (An Untamed State) and New York Times bestselling essay collection (Bad Feminist) weren’t enough, Roxane Gay has been writing a comic book. Though the Purdue University professor is in the middle of multiple projects, including putting the finishing touches on her highly-anticipated memoir Hunger, the Marvel gig was too good to pass up. In Wakanda (the name of a fictional African country), Gay will challenge traditional scripts with a storyline that follows two female lovers. The writer and cultural critic seeks more visibility on the page for black, queer women—her magazine articles and newspaper columns often tackle issues of race, gender, politics, and inequality. As her 131,000 Twitter followers can attest, Gay’s material also explores the popular and the everyday. Earlier this year at Butler, the in-demand speaker waxed poetic about the Sweet Valley High series of young adult novels, and told the packed auditorium about her love for the UPS man. And Gay is collaborating on Wakanda with 2015 National Book Award winner Ta-Nehisi Coates, who heard her read a zombie story at a writer’s conference and recommended her to Marvel. We caught up with Gay before the school year starts to chat about her new gig.

 

How did you react when you first heard about the opportunity to join the world of comics?
I was really surprised. Ta-Nehisi Coates emailed me and told me he had a crazy idea and, well, he had a crazy idea.

Coates also wrote Marvel’s latest Black Panther series, which has been a success with critics and comics fans alike. What has it been like working with him, and what do you think of his book Between the World and Me?
It has been wonderful working with Ta-Nehisi and the guys at Marvel. Writing comics is very different, much more collaborative than writing fiction or essays, so I’m learning a lot about how to play well with others. I loved Between the World and Me. It was intelligent, moving, painful, and a necessary look at black manhood in this day and age.

Black Panther: World of Wakanda will feature queer black women, an underrepresented group in comics and elsewhere. What does writing this series mean for you, personally and professionally?
Professionally, writing World of Wakanda is an opportunity to try something new and challenging. Personally, it’s wonderful to have a chance to write about women who represent so much of who I am. Representation matters, and I love being on the front lines of making sure more black women can see themselves in comics.

Growing up, you had read Archie comics, but not the superheroes. Did you have a favorite Archie character or story line? What was your research process for the Marvel project like? 
I loved the Betty and Veronica storylines, and the complications of their friendship. My research process has been to read comics to see what’s happening in contemporary ones. I read a book about writing comics that was not super useful, but still interesting. I’m also trying to remember that they chose me for a reason—I know how to tell stories, and so I am trusting that and trying not to think I can absorb everything I need to know in a few weeks. Mostly, I am going to try to learn as I go.

You’ve mentioned on Twitter that you have film and television projects in the works, including the screenplay for the film version of your novel, An Untamed State. What’s been most interesting to you about working in Los Angeles?
I don’t really work in Los Angeles. The meetings happen there. The writing happens wherever I am. It has been interesting to see that there are a lot of thoughtful, committed people behind the scenes in movies and television. Also, things move very slowly.

You’ve written fiction, nonfiction, for film, and now comics. A story collection, Difficult Women, is coming in January, and a memoir, Hunger, will be out next June. Are there any genres or modes you haven’t written in, or would like to try? 
I don’t write poetry because I am not good at it. I don’t write music, for the same reason. There’s a lot I haven’t done, but I’m always willing to try new writing things.

For the mere mortals: What’s your superpower? And do you have a kryptonite?
My super power is endurance. My kryptonite is love.

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