'Black Panther' movie's novelization penned by native
By THERESE APEL
Feb. 17, 2018
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Jesse Holland's dad started him reading comic books when he was 5 or 6 years old.
The Holly Springs native began with the Avengers and moved on from there to the Incredible Hulk and the Justice League, and from there into the world of fantasy where every superhero is just like every one of us.
He would get his comic books at the popular Tyson's Drug Store on Holly Springs' historic downtown square. Tyson's is known all over the South for their ice cream and milkshakes.
"It took me years before I knew Tyson's also sold milkshakes, because that wasn't what I went there looking for," he said.
Years later, Holland graduated from the University of Mississippi and took a job as a reporter for the Associated Press. Now in Bowie, Maryland, he specializes in race and ethnicity stories, but as a writer, he has an alter-ego. He's now the author who got to write the definitive novel on the Black Panther, a hero he grew up idolizing.
"I started writing my own comic books when I was smaller," he said. "When it came time to go to college, I decided I needed a major that would help me write, and the one thing you do in journalism every day is you write. I got lucky enough that after all these years of writing journalism, when I started writing books people remembered that I liked comic books."
Holland, 46, had recently finished his second history book, "The Invisibles: The Untold Story of African American Slaves in the White House" when he was contacted by an editor from Lucas Films. When she looked at his Facebook page, she saw that he was a Star Wars fan. There needs to be a book about stormtrooper Finn, who had just been introduced in the 2015 film "Star Wars: The Force Awakens." She wanted to know if Holland would write the book.
It took Holland less than a second to agree. Shortly thereafter, an editor at Marvel read "Star Wars Finn's Story" and "The Invisibles" and contacted Holland.
"I was lucky enough that Marvel came to me and asked me if I wanted to write this novel," he said. "I didn't pitch it to them. I said, 'Of course! As long as I've been reading Black Panther, I would love to do this,' so that's how I got to do it."
Holland said it's not lost on him that he's living a lot of comic book fans' wildest fantasies.
"How lucky can you get? I get to build part of the history of a character I've been reading my entire life. It's one of the things people dream about, and frankly one of the things I've dreamed about," he said. "Not only enjoying the character, but being part of the team that helps introduce this character to a new audience. I get to be the first person to take this character and really describe through words only what his world is like."
Reviews of the book point out the detail Holland uses to build the characters, and he said it was actually a much simpler process than it would seem.
"It's one of those things where you turn your fanboy mind on first, and all the things I wished I could see the Black Panther do, now I get to let him do it," he said. "For instance, how would he fare one on one in a fight with Captain America? So I get to write that scene, I get to say how that scene ends."
How does that scene end, though?
"You have to read the book to find out," he said with a laugh.
The writing had to be turned out in a fairly quick amount of time since the movie is set to come out this month and Marvel wanted the book in September 2017. But writing a novel can be a challenge when you write all day for a living.
"For me to take four more hours of my day and spend it in front of a computer, it's got to be something I'm so crazy about, and luckily Black Panther was that for me," he said.
The inspiration in many ways came from within, with some of the scenes in the book being repurposed in different ways from Holland's own life. The characters can appeal to anyone who has a family and has had to live up to his or her family's expectations.
"We might not be able to understand putting on a skintight catsuit and jump from building to building," Holland said. "Anyone that has a mother, a father, a brother and sister will be able to relate to this story. It's a story of a man trying to move forward with his family.
"We all can see parts of ourselves in these characters, whether they're black, white, detective, policeman, superhero, or doctor. The best fiction, we see ourselves in. I hope people will be able to relate not just to the action scenes, but to the emotional arcs as well," he said.
The book and the movie come at a time in history when things are polarized socially and politically, and Holland said he tried to avoid politics in the story. But given that the Black Panther's character in his book sees 2017 America from the eyes of an outsider, there's a certain amount of reflection on what's going on today.
"It's a morality tale as well," he said. "It's what do you do in this situation, what would a superhero do? What would a king do in dealing with the United States of America. Keep in mind, he's African. He can have a perspective about our country and our politics in a way that others may not."
Holland said when he turned the book in to be proofed, his editor commented on how he weaved in the current events.
"I said, 'I guess I did, didn't I?'" Holland said.
But even with society struggling for identity in so many ways, Holland said there's a realization of how important superheroes and morality tales are to modern storytelling.
"We need those stories. At this same time, we're realizing what a diversified country we are. I went to see 'Wonder Woman' at least three times. We haven't had a story that was told like that. We haven't had a strong leading female superhero like that," he said.
"And in the Black Panther, we have a strong African character who is black on screen as the lead, as the hero, not as the sidekick or the plucky scientist smart guy, and that's something we haven't seen — to have those morality tales told from a black perspective. Why people are going crazy about it is that we know at the end, the black guy is the hero."
Holland said he got to meet "Black Panther" star Chadwick Boseman shortly after he finished the book. He said his mental picture of his Black Panther looked a lot like Boseman.
"He certainly did, 100 percent," Holland said. "Authors, people ask us to sign our books for them, but I asked Chadwick Boseman to sign a book for me."
"Who is the Black Panther" is in bookstores now.