On December 21, 2016, Jacqueline Craig, a black woman living in Fort Worth, Texas, called 911 to report that a white, male neighbor was choking her seven-year-old son, allegedly in retaliation for the child littering on his lawn.
When Officer William Martin arrived moments later, he began questioning Craig about what her son had done. When Craig insisted that Martin focus on the grown adult who had assaulted her child, he decided to arrest her and her teenage daughter.
The encounter, which was caught on Martin’s bodycam, was the definition of a police officer using excessive force on an innocent person (who was seeking their help, no less) that’s been seen time and time and time and time again.
To be black in America is to understand that you are at a much higher risk of being brutalized by the police regardless of whether or not you’re a criminal. That understanding has played a large role in galvanizing people to protest in recent years and it’s an idea running through the veins of a new comic book series from Ta-Nehisi Coates, Yona Harvey, and Butch Guice called Black Panther & The Crew.
In 2003, Christopher Priest, Marvel’s first black editor, conceived of the first version of The Crew: a predominantly black team of superheroes whose stories touched upon gentrification and historical, state-sanctioned violence against black bodies. The Crew introduced complicated, nuanced blackness into Marvel’s comics canon, which has been largely dominated by white narratives written by white men. And then, after a mere seven issues, The Crew was canceled before the series ever got a chance to get off the ground.
Black Panther & The Crew bears more than a passing resemblance to Priest’s original team. But where Priest’s Crew spent significant time fleshing out parts of the largely untold story of the original, black Captain America, Black Panther & The Crew has its sights set firmly on the present and conversations about police brutality and infrastructural anti-black racism.
The first issue of the new series kicks off with the police-related killing of Ezra Keith, a onetime vigilante (much like the Black Panther) who became an outspoken agitator and civil rights activist later in life. Keith’s frequent run-ins with the police made him a fixture in the local precinct, but his mysterious death while in police custody sets off a wave of emotionally-charged protests that locks the community into an uneasy holding pattern of dueling tensions.
On one side are the police and their newly-recruited squad of Americops, mechanized policemen that have a history of targeting people of color. On the other are the black residents of Harlem who are all but sure that the police are covering up Keith’s murder. Caught in the middle of the conflict is Misty Knight, herself a former detective, who traded in her badge for a bionic arm and a life as a superhero.
While Misty believes that most cops are fundamentally good people, she also understands the concerns of community leaders who feel as if the police have forgotten their oaths to protect the public. The parallels between Black Panther & The Crew’s opening act and the recent events in Charlotte and Milwaukee are striking, but Coates has been careful to point out that he isn’t necessarily plucking story ideas from recent news headlines. From a recent interview with TIME:
This is in the air. It’s not like I looked at a Black Lives Matter protest and was like, “Hey, I want to write a comic about that.” But you’re confronted with it every day. So when I sat down to think about what is this story with four black protagonists about, and you start scribbling, that rises up. The events of the day are with me.
While Coates and Harvey might not have set out to write Black Lives Matter: The Comic, it’s obvious that they’re writing from perspectives shaped, in part, by their experiences as black Americans. Black Panther & The Crew isn’t a “black story” solely meant to appeal to black fans. It’s a story written by black authors, centered around black characters, and featuring themes that reflect the lived experiences of real black people.
That distinction is important. Marvel and other publishers have been outspoken about their supposed commitment to prioritizing diversity and inclusion in their books. It’s great that there are more character of color than ever before, but many of those characters are being written by white authors who, quite frankly, aren’t well-equipped to give them authentic voices.
That’s not to say that white writers shouldn’t be allowed to write characters of color. Rather, publishers need to recognize the added benefit of bringing writers, artists, and editors of color into the mix so that the stories being told are infused with a degree of personal experience that immediately resonates with readers.
Black Panther & The Crew is what happens when you really commit to telling a good story well. This time, Marvel did it right.