Reginald Hudlin: Reinventing the Black Panther

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Reginald Hudlin Black Panther

Reginald Hudlin has worn a lot of hats in his time. The East St. Louis native and Harvard graduate entered the entertainment industry with "House Party," and his career has even taken him into the upper echelons of management at BET. Among his many projects, Hudlin writes comics, garnering particular acclaim for his work on Marvel's Black Panther, which has recently been adapted to animation and released to DVD.

What is the road to Hollywood like from East St. Louis? Give the rest of us some hope, how do we pull this off?

(laughs) Well, the thing about roads to Hollywood is that there's no one path -- and usually they're impossible to re-create. In my case, I went to college on the east coast -- I went to Harvard. I shot a little short film at Harvard, and that little short film ended up catching the eye of an executive, and that became "House Party."

Obviously along the way you encounted comic books. Do you recall your first exposure to comics?

My brothers were both very serious comic book collectors, to the point where they would make me wash my hands before I touched them. I remember my first comic book, which was The Monkees -- they had a license deal with Gold Key -- and my brothers were disgusted because that wasn't a "good" comic book in their eyes. But that was my "gateway drug," The Monkees.

So when did you meet Black Panther?

My brother bought those initial issues of Fantastic Four, so I was there from the very beginning. I loved it -- it was such a great concept! He was like the black Captain America: he represented the nobility and ideals of his nation, and he kicked butt! What was not to love?

I've read elsewhere you describing Black Panther as a black nationalist -- the Captain America for Africa -- which I find interesting, given that in your first Black Panther miniseries which was adapted into the animated DVD we're discussing, we see an earlier generation Black Panther wipe the floor with a fledgling Captain America, despite having no super soldier serum or other advantages other than just very intensive training. Was there another message in that scene, given the other political satire that occurs in the story?

It really was just that simple idea that when an experienced Black Panther versus a super-serumed but relatively inexperienced Cap, Black Panther wins.

The animated series was developed for BET. What kind of reception did it get with audiences?

It's a tangled tale. It started with me writing what was initially supposed to be a six-issue miniseries. Then when I turned that in to Marvel, they were so enthusiastic they allowed me to turn it into an ongoing series.

Shortly after that, I became the President of Entertainment at BET. Suddenly, two jobs I never thought I'd have I had at the same time: writing a comic book and programming an entire network!

Living the dream.

Living the dream! And I specified in my deal that I could still write Black Panther even though I was running BET.

while doing that, I was talking with my President of Animation, Denys Cowan, who's a legendary artist himself. And Denys suggested, 'Hey, wouldn't it be great if there were a Black Panther tv series?' And I said, 'Wow, that's a great idea!' After that meeting was over, I kind of left that idea where it stood. But a couple of months later, Denys came back with this three-minute reel of the Black Panther animated series.

I was like, 'Wow! This is incredible!' I took it to the folks at Marvel, and they loved it. I took it to the top folks of BET and they also loved it. So we went forward with it as a mini-series, based on those first six issues of the comic.

We went into production, and then I ended up leaving BET so I signed on as producer since I was writing the episodes, casting, supervising the voice recording -- basically doing everything. I think it may be the first time in history that I was the executive who greenlit a tv show based on his own writing and then produced the show.

So we produced the series, and we actually sold it in territories all over the world. So in some places it's already run, was scheduled to run. BET unfortunately decided to change direction in terms of the audience -- they wanted an older audience, and they didn't want to run it. So we said, 'Look, people still love this thing. Let's put it out on DVD," which is now what you have in your hands.

It did not air on the network. Which is a shame, because so many people have been looking for it. Now they get a chance to buy it directly, uncut, exactly as it was meant to be seen.

I just regret the loss of exposure to a wider audience that BET could have reached through the series.

Yeah, it's a shame. The tough thing about the animation world is that, if you look at 99% of most animated shows on tv, they're either children's animation or they are comedies about family, like The Simpsons or Family Guy. This show is a dramatic series with a lot of violence and a lot of very adult ideas like the political satire. So there's not a lot of places that are in that type of business.

I was also thinking of the readership the series could have generated through BET's target audience. I think if a lot of people -- who are aware of comics but aren't necessarily readers -- were asked to name a black superhero, they probably wouldn't get too far past Meteor Man and Blankman, which honestly aren't fair representations.

No, it is not. (laughs)

In your story, T'Challa and the nation of Wakanda are very isolationist politically. To contrast that in the Marvel universe, Magneto had his island nation of Genosha that had a very open door policy (provided you were a mutant, that is). Yet Magneto is a villain and Black Panther is obviously a hero. Is there an underlying message in Wakanda's isolationist stance? Why don't they interrelate?

I told some of this in the Civil War story. The issue of Wakanda being isolationist is an ongoing issue. I think the policy was started because Wakanda was so advanced, and it was the kind of thing where they were like, 'Look, if we give in to our imperialist impulses, we would conquer Africa. we might conquer the world! And in the efforts to do so, we would violate the principles that we value the most. So perhaps it's better for us to be isolationist -- not inviting people in, but at the same time not going out taking people's stuff either.'

The DVD ends with some loose plot threads -- particularly the hint of an ominous threat within Wakanda. Is there more to come in an animated format?

I wrote the book for five years, so there's always more. But whether there are more Black Panther episodes is up to the audience. If they really embrace this series and buy it up -- it's up to the audience to vote with their dollar.

After seeing what you've done with it in the books and in the animated series, there are only four words I want to hear: "Black Panther: The Movie."

(laughs) There's been a lot of talk about that! A lot of people watching this go 'Wow! When are you making a movie?' Naturally that's not up to me, that's up to Marvel -- it's their property, they make the decision. Obviously there has been talk of a Black Panther movie for a long time. When I first came to Hollywood, Sony had the rights. I remember reading some of those drafts, and they were just terrible! They had Black Panther as a guy living in a housing project, who had no idea of his heritage. That stuff really angered me. And I told them, I said, 'Look, whether I make this movie or not, this is evil and offensive and wrong.' -- which may not have been a perfectly appropriate way, because I'm talking to a studio, but that's just how I am.

That's why I wrote the comic. Whether a movie ever gets made, whether or not I'm involved in it, this is what the Black Panther should be. And that's how people are embracing it. Hopefully that'll be the setup when it does come to the big screen.

For so long, the comics industry really didn't handle the concept of black superheroes well at all (says the white reader). First there was the wave of "Black" super-characters like Black Panther, Black Lightning, Black Goliath, Black Spider, Black Racer, Black Vulcan... except for the white women, like Black Widow, Black Canary, Black Cat, and Black Orchid. I'm not quite sure what that was all about...


In addition to that, there were some very bad issues of Luke Cage that played to stereotype. I did like what Dwayne McDuffie and Denys Cowan and friends did with the whole Milestone imprint, but that seems to have been an exception. But the point I'm meandering toward here is, do comic book creators have to put such a heavy emphasis on a black character's "blackness" to make him a draw for black readers?

This actually touches on a much bigger issue. You have this shrinking industry, right? This shrinking comic book readership, which as fans we're all very concerned about. We all want people to buy more, read more comics. At the same time, the comics that are being produced are really designed to super-serve people who are already reading comics. The fact is, there are a lot more people not reading comics than there are reading comics. When you look at the old days and there were romance comics, western comics -- a wide range of subject matter, and a much bigger readership than what we have today. I think that's what the industry overall has to figure out.

I compare comics to rock and roll. Now, hip-hop sells way more than rock and roll. So it would probably behoove the comic book creators how to reach that bigger, broader audience -- which is not just a black audience, but just an audience that wants to read something that's hip. That's what Marvel did when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had to reinvent the comic book business, they created characters like Spider-Man who were right up to where popular culture was. That kind of reinvention is what we need write now. And not just making black characters, but making characters multi-ethnic -- and writing them with authenticity -- is going to make comics appeal to a much broader readership. And not just non-white readers, but even for the white readers.

What things are we going to see your name on next?

I'm finishing up a graphic novel that has not been officially announced yet. That's going very well. And then I'm working on some creator-owned stuff right now. I'm really inspired by what Mark Millar's doing in terms of, 'Okay, for us to really make a contribution to comic book culture, sometimes you've just got to start with a blank piece of paper.' So I'm working on a couple of things now that I'm pretty excited about.

We talked about the whole expanded readership thing. One of the things I did with my website, I built a retail site called Reggie's World, because a lot of my fans have never read comics before, and when they found out about Black Panther, they were like, 'Where do I get that? Do I go to Target?' Sometimes they didn't have a local comic book shop, or didn't know where it was. So I thought, 'Let me sell comics and t-shirts and statues and stuff to these folks, and get them hooked, and then they're going to seek out their local comic book shop and get them into the comic book culture. Part of that is us doing extraordinary things to get people into the idea of comics.

I've always seen an opportunity for comics to be a stepping stone toward building literacy. I was reading before kindergarten because of the comic books I would get from my local barbershop. And we have such a problem with illiteracy in America that I can't understand why there's not a greater push, from within the comics industry and without, that recognizes that this is something that works and we should be doing more of it.

I couldn't agree more. I think that's a common story with so many comic book readers -- that was some of the first stuff we read. We read enthusiastically. We learned a lot of multisyllabic words from 'invulnerable' to 'repulsor ray' from reading comics. There's so many obvious things, whether it's music or comics, that kids love to learn with that it seems obvious that those should be common tools in education.