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He loved ‘Black Panther’ comics as a kid – then Marvel asked him to write a novel for the movie

UPDATED: Fri., Feb. 23, 2018

Jesse Holland, a Washington, D.C.-area journalist and author, wrote the companion novel to Marvel’s “Black Panther” movie. (Toni L. Sandys / The Washington Post)
Jesse Holland, a Washington, D.C.-area journalist and author, wrote the companion novel to Marvel’s “Black Panther” movie. (Toni L. Sandys / The Washington Post)
By Deneen L. Brown Washington Post

WASHINGTON – Jesse Holland grew up devouring Marvel comic books about Black Panther King T’Challa, who ruled the mythical African kingdom of Wakanda.

So when Marvel called the 46-year-old journalist and author to write the companion novel to the studio’s blockbuster movie, “The Black Panther,” Holland was thrilled.

“It was the culmination of a lifelong dream for me,” Holland said. “I’ve always wanted a chance to help mold some of the great Marvel superheroes and to do that with the Black Panther, one of the first comic book characters I ever read, was incredible.”

Holland, who works by day as a reporter covering race and ethnicity for the Associated Press, wrote the novel, “Who is the Black Panther?” at night, in the basement of his house in Bowie, Maryland, where he lives with his wife, Carol, his 9-year-old son, Jamie, 11-year-old daughter, Rita, and their dog, Woodson Oblivious.

Holland wrote at a superhero’s pace. During the six months he worked on the book, he also commuted to Fayetteville, Arkansas, where he was the distinguished visiting professor of ethics in journalism at the University of Arkansas for one semester.

“I wrote part of it in my apartment in Fayetteville,” he said. “And part of it in my basement in Bowie. Family time is important to me. I get home at 7. From 7 to 10 is family time. So, I write from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., just me and the dog, Woody.”

The “Black Panther” characters, whom Holland knew so well, seemed to write themselves. “The characters would speak,” Holland recalled. “ ‘I’d say, ‘I’m putting you in the scene. What would you say? What would you do?’ ”

The book was released in September, just as publicity for the movie was ramping up. The book, which is an adaptation of the 2005 Black Panther graphic novel by Reginald Hudlin and John Romita Jr., sold out fast on Amazon. The paperback is due on book shelves in April.

The original Black Panther character T’Challa, a black superhero with super intelligence, super strength, super wealth and super technology, was created in 1966, at the height of the black power movement, by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.

The “Black Panther” film, directed by Ryan Coogler, had the biggest Presidents’ Day four-day opening ever, raking in at least $235 million, Box Office Mojo reported. And Holland is enjoying being part of a black cultural watershed.

He was raised outside of Holly Springs, Mississippi, on a farm where his parents raised cattle, corn, cotton and soybeans. His father also worked as a science teacher at a high school in Memphis, which was 50 miles from the farm. His mother was an English teacher and librarian in Mount Pleasant, Mississippi.

Holland’s high school graduating class had about 35 people in it. He went to the University of Mississippi in Oxford, graduating in 1994 with a BA in journalism and English. He worked as an intern at the AP in Columbia, South Carolina, before heading to Albany, New York, to cover Hillary Clinton’s first Senate campaign. He moved to D.C. in 2001.

Holland, who teaches nonfiction writing at Goucher College outside Baltimore, had already written four books, including “The Invisibles: The Untold Story of African American Slaves in the White House,” when Marvel approached him.

They’d seen his companion novel for another blockbuster movie: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” He’d written about Finn, a former First Order stormtrooper.

After “Finn’s Story” was published in 2016, an editor at Marvel called Holland. “She says, ‘We have this character, the Black Panther,’ ” Holland recalled. “There’s never been a novel about the Black Panther.”

Marvel wanted to recount the origin of the Black Panther in novel form, update the story and introduce the superhero to new readers.

“Most of the world didn’t know the character until last year,” Holland said. “If you want a succinct origin story to tell you who he is, my novel is a good place to start. You’ll see a lot of characters in the movie in the novel. We are drawing from the same wellspring.”

“Who is the Black Panther?” tells the story of the warrior king who defends the mythical African nation of Wakanda from colonialism.

Holland opened the novel with a fast-paced action scene outside the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, where the Black Panther races to protect a 10-year-old boy and his mother.

When villains threaten the Mall, the Black Panther, disguised behind a cat mask, with his sharp metal claws extended and his white eyes glowing, pounces on gunmen whose bullets bounce off the superhero.

Invaders, described as “a powerful army of super-powered mercenaries,” try to steal Wakanda’s wealth. “Even with the assembled might of Wakanda,” the book asks, “can the Black Panther prevail against such a massive invading force?”

People have been waiting a very long time to see a major black hero on the screen and on the page, Holland said.

“For years, people of color have had very few of these modern mythological heroes that look like us,” Holland said. “Now we can go to the movies and pick up books and have these major protagonists who we can see ourselves in. Our children will see these heroes and be able to say: ‘He looks like me. I can be him.’ And that is so very important.”

The success of the movie and the book, Holland said, “destroys forever the Hollywood myth that people won’t watch movies about heroes who are black, written by black people and directed by black people.”

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