Numlock Sunday: Jasmine Estrada on the History of Marvel Comics: Black Panther
By Walt Hickey
Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition.
This week, I spoke to Jasmine Estrada, a producer of the new Marvel podcast The History of Marvel Comics: Black Panther.
Jasmine is an excellent podcast producer; she and I worked together at FiveThirtyEight, and her latest endeavor is a massive historical podcast talking about T’Challa, the Black Panther, and all the societal events and creative people who shaped that character into one of the flagships of the Marvel Universe.
I’m really enjoying it, and when I first chatted with Jasmine about it she told me about the research process, which I personally found awesome. She read over 500 comics of pretty much every single substantial appearance of this character, building out a complicated chronology and then adapting that into this history podcast. I love that kind of devoted effort to pop culture research, and I wanted to have her on for a Numlock Sunday to take us behind the scenes on how this kind of project comes together.
The podcast can be found at Marvel and at The History of Marvel Comics: Black Panther, and you can listen to it on SiriusXM and Apple Podcast for its initial run and then wherever you get podcasts a short time after. Jasmine can be found on Twitter and behind a few of Marvel’s other shows, including Marvel's Pull List.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
You are a producer at Marvel and you've been the producer of this brand new podcast all about the history of Black Panther. Can you tell me a little bit about what you do in general and the kind of shows that you're working on?
With the history of Black Panther, it was a lot of research. I talked to you about having to read every single Black Panther appearance, every Black Panther book and appearance, and then a lot of it too was just trying to find the stories behind the stories. That required hunting down a lot of the creators who had lent a hand in creating the Black Panther lore over the years. It started with Stan and Jack, but with them no longer with us, it required a lot of like, okay, who else can we talk to? Who was in the room? So we got a lot of creatives.
One of my favorite things was finding the people who were friends with the creatives. A good example with Alex Simmons, who is a comic book creator in his own right, but he was just in the room with Billy Graham and Don McGregor, they were writing Panther's Rage. They were just a bunch of goofballs, just in a room, just shooting the shit, Alex Simmons just happened to be there and witness history. He got to see Wakanda get built, he just got lucky. He just knew the right people and was in the room listening to their stories.
Outside of that, it was everything from interviewing these people and interviewing different creatives internally and externally from Marvel, trying to get down to the sources, as well as trying to essentially draw this linear line in the Panther's history. Yes, it's chronological, but the weird thing about comics is that they don't always tell a chronological story; sometimes they take place out of time or they take place in the past or they take place in the future. Trying to piece it all together and trying to figure out how each arc essentially influenced the next arc, was a lot of fun.
Yeah. I wanted to dive into this — the reason that I thought that you would be so great to talk to is that you read 500 appearances of this character, which sounds like just such an undertaking. And I want to know what was that like and how did you handle that?
Team books that he appeared on and that he played a major role on, unless it's somehow tied to the character lore versus just being a team-up, we didn't really cover it. We had to cover him when he was in The Avengers in the early '70s. We had to cover him when he was on the Fantastic Four, when McDuffy wrote the Fantastic Four. We covered him on The Ultimates as well as The Crew and a couple of the other teams that he was on over the years.
It was definitely a lot! The annoying part was we would read something and then find out that he was on the Fantastic Four for a short stint here, and it's just like, oh crap, we have to go back and read that now. We'd find out that he had a mini-arc in The Avengers for three issues that we need to cover. His first appearance wasn't even in his own book, it was in Fantastic Four! We had to track down these major moments.
Even in the Fantastic Four, if you look at Hickman's run on Fantastic Four between Hudlin's run and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ run, the Panther loses his superpowers. By the time that he's back in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ run, he already has the superpowers, and you don't know where he got them from, unless you have been following other books. It ends up being a two-issue arc in Jonathan Hickman's Fantastic Four run, where like Reed and T'Challa go into this Necroworld to get his powers back. It was a lot of that, where we had to piece it together where were these things moving. A lot of it was like trying to figure out the timeline, trying to figure out where all the players were at that time.
I love it because so much of this seems like it resists organization. If you really wanted to be methodical about it as a historian and as a journalist, like you really had to go into it bit by bit it seems.
It's funny because a lot of people were like, oh, you just went through the Wikipedia page and you just found all the major runs and appearances. The Wikipedia page, it covers a lot of the stuff, the Fandom pages cover a lot of stuff, but it’s the little nuances that if you wanted to be a completionist about it. You would have to know which writers were taking the helm on certain characters at certain times, which is ultimately what the podcast is about. We quickly realized that it was about the creators. We need to tell these stories about the creators, because they were the ones who were doing that linear plotting. They were moving their chess pieces around the board.
The title of podcast is The History of Marvel Comics: Black Panther. I just love how it is actually, a history of Marvel comics, told through the lens of the Black Panther comic. Do you want to expand on that?
The show was originally just the Black Panther's history. We wanted to tell the Black Panther's history, but we quickly realized that with a character like the Black Panther it was impossible to not to talk about what was going on outside the walls of Marvel. Marvel always tells the story outside your window, so when it comes to the Black Panther, we needed to contextualize what was going on during the creation.
The Black Panther and the Panther party all started around the same time, no connection, but still that's fascinating. And why? It was because we had the civil rights movement in the air, it was the context of what was going on. There was a time when the Black Panther's name was going to get changed to the Coal Tiger. Why? Because of the Black Panther Party; we were trying to navigate and tread carefully, and try to figure out how we could sell books.
But there are also moments like where the first solo series took place in Jungle Action, right? Which is a problematic thing on its own. Jungle Action was a book that was just reprints of all of these old books from the '40s that told jungle stories that were not appropriate to be reprinted during that time, they were fairly racist.
It took a newcomer, this would be Don McGregor, who came in as an assistant and said, "this is racist, we can't run this," and he pretty much got assigned to write the Black Panther in those books. So he made it his mission to really counter-protest this idea of the white savior hero. He was told to write Black Panther in Wakanda, so he was like, "all right, if that's the case, every character in Wakanda has to be Black because this is a country that's never been colonized." It caused a lot of tension internally with editorial. Editorial was uncomfortable with these types of decisions at the time, it was new. So we quickly found that we had to do more than just the history of Black Panther: It was the history of Marvel, and history as a country and society as a whole.
It's fascinating to just watch social mores — evolve isn’t the right word, because that makes it sound passive, and there's a ton of active work being done here by a lot of writers.
— and artists! My favorite episode that I worked on was the second one, which was Don McGregor's Black Panther or the Panther's Rage story. A lot of it is because Billy Graham came on as the second artist on it. He wasn't the first artist who was on the book, Rich Buckler was originally the artist on the book, but Rich Buckler was an A-list artist at that time. And editorial didn't want to "waste" his talents on a book that was considered like a C-list book.
And if it wasn't for the fact that Rich Buckler wanted to stay on the book, he probably wouldn't have stayed on the book. About like three or four issues in, he got replaced by Billy Graham, who often really isn't talked about a lot, but he was the first Black artist who worked on Black Panther, and he was the first Black artist at Marvel. His name often gets overlooked, but, he's worked on Luke Cage, he's worked on Power Man, he's worked on the Black Panther, and on a couple of other books as well.
This is a Black man who built Wakanda alongside Don McGregor. If you listen to the podcast, you can listen to Alex Simmons talk about how much that meant in the value that added to the book, the textures and the people that were introduced in those books. At the same time, the only reason why Billy Graham added to that book was because at that time, Black artists got assigned to Black books. Women got assigned to books that featured women. It wasn't a win necessarily, but he wasn't intentionally put there to just do his work. It was just like, he's a Black artist, we'll give him the Black book. It's a weird thing now, because you would want a Black artist on that book hopefully. But at the same time, you're getting fed only the Black book, which sucked.
There are so many things that this podcast kind of charts, but one is how you can actually watch this become a prestige book over the course of the podcast. You can watch Ta-Nehisi Coates get recruited for it. It's just such a great inside look behind the scenes as to how these things get made, and then how the perception of them changes, and how that's not entirely a passive thing, how that's oftentimes really worked very hard for, by the creators involved.
It's fascinating. I've always been a comic book fan, and I've understood how people tend to get work in the industry. The thing that I was very fascinated about, as a person of color, as a queer person, is I strive for trying to open the door for others like me, because I don't see many of me in the same rooms that I'm in all the time. I want to bring those folks in. And sometimes I don't see some of these publishing companies reach out to those communities, and they blame the communities for not being able to reach out to them. They're like, "oh, we don't need to go out of our way. They'll find us. They should find us."
No, you should reach out to those communities because there are all these barriers of entry for people like me. To hear stories, where we went out to talk to John Ridley, where we went out to talk to Ta-Nehisi Coates when we were bringing in creatives, I thought was just great. Ta-Nehisi Coates hadn't written a comic in his life previous to Black Panther. That's fascinating. And then not only just say, "make a book," say "let's teach you how this is done, let's put these resources in the hands of people who may not have access to them."
It's great, especially if you're a fan who likes the behind the scenes stuff. Did you have a favorite story that was revealed to you in the course of reporting this podcast out with the team?
The second episode with Don McGregor was probably my favorite, and hearing the stories between Alex Simmons and Don McGregor, the stories that they just had while they were working on this book together with Billy Graham, just being a fly on the wall. I had so much tape that I couldn't use because it had nothing to do with the Black Panther, but it was just fun to hear these three guys just shooting the shit, having fun. The other one that I really enjoyed working on was episode four, which features Reginald Hudlin, who's a hero of mine. It took us a long time to track him down to be able to talk to him, so being able to talk to him was a real accomplishment.
It was fun because I grew up in the south suburbs of Chicago, I grew up in the era of the early 2000's hip hop, R&B scene. That was my jam. I used to work at a roller rink, and to see how he integrated that culture at that time to who the Black Panther was is really cool to me. We often say that Priest made T'Chlla cool, but I feel like Reggie really grounded him in the story; he talked out how he's modeled off of that swagger that Diddy carries or that Jay-Z carries.
While I was working on that episode — I tend to listen to music while I'm writing — I had a whole Reginald Hudlin Black Panther playlist, just full of those types of songs, hip hop from the early 2000's from that era when this book was coming out. I thought I nailed it, I was like, this is the sound of this Black Panther. Towards the end of our interview, I asked Hudlin, “what did you listen to?” And he was like, "oh, I have a playlist," so he shared it with me and I just, I wanted to compare, I wanted to see if I got it.
I was completely off! What he had on the playlist was completely different, but it was still interesting to see what and why he had certain things in there. He had stuff that was newer, he had stuff that was older than that era, which just makes sense, because that's what hip hop is, hip hop builds off of legacy, and it was just cool. It was like a new look into like, who he was trying to shape in his series. It was pretty cool though.
That's awesome. The podcast is called The History of Marvel: Black Panther. Where can folks find it? What else are you working on? Where can folks find you?
The History of Marvel Comics: Black Panther is available on Sirius XM and Apple first, and then about a week later, you can get all the other episodes for free everywhere else, but you'll have to pay for the Sirius XM or the Apple.
Then where can folks find you beyond this?
I produce a couple of other shows. I produce Marvel's Pull List, which is a weekly podcast that covers all the new Marvel comics released, as well as we talk to the creators of a lot of these, these stories and just do a reading club. Sometimes it's a behind the scenes look on some of these books; we have a great episode with Tom Brevoort talking about Civil War and what went into that. Sometimes we're talking about King in Black with Donny Cates and Ryan Stegman when the first issue came out.
Then there are a couple other podcasts out there that I work on, like Marvel/Method, which is hosted by Method Man: He's talking to a couple of other celebrities as we surprise them with some of their favorite comic creators. We have Walt Simonson on that show, we have Chris Claremont on that show, Larry Hama, we have all these great creatives. It's so funny to see these celebrities completely get starstruck by comic creators. It's wild. Because you think they're celebrities, they're not going to get starstruck, but then Walt Simonson comes in and people are speechless all of a sudden.
Amazing. Yeah that's exactly how it would go. I love Pull List. That's such a great show that you put on there and it's been great hearing you featured more recently.
If you have anything you’d like to see in this Sunday special, shoot me an email. Comment below! Thanks for reading, and thanks so much for supporting Numlock.