Tales of Wakanda’ anthology features Memphis authors

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John Beifuss
| Memphis Commercial Appeal

Wakanda — the mythical African kingdom of advanced science and ancient tradition that is home to the Black Panther, the Marvel superhero who broke the color barrier in comic books — is, apparently, not far from Memphis.

A new short-story anthology from Marvel and Titan Books, “Black Panther: Tales of Wakanda,” suggests that the hidden kingdom of comic-book and motion-picture fame is something of a sister city to Memphis, at least for those who use imagination rather than Google maps as a guide.

Four of the book’s 18 short stories are by Memphis-based or Memphis-born authors, including one from the anthology’s editor, Jesse J. Holland, who grew up in the Orange Mound neighborhood before attending the University of Mississippi and eventually moving to Washington.

A regular on C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal” program, Holland is a longtime news reporter who moves between nonfiction and fiction: In 2017 he published both “The Invisibles: The Untold Story of African American Slaves in The White House” and “Black Panther: Who Is the Black Panther?,” a “Novel of the Marvel Universe” that was the first prose novel about T’Challa, the Wakandan royal who became the Black Panther.

The other Memphis authors who contributed to the collection are Sheree Renée Thomas (the new editor of the long-running Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction); Danian Darrell Jerry (also a member of the hip-hop collective Iron Mic Coalition); and Troy L. Wiggins (a veteran contributor to such genre magazines as Uncanny and Beneath Ceaseless Skies).

The most celebrated contributor to the book is Nikki Giovanni, 77, the poet and activist known as “The Poet of the Black Revolution” for her Black Power-inspired writings of the 1960s and ’70s.

“Can you believe they put my name next to Nikki Giovanni?” asked Thomas, referring to the book’s cover design. “I almost fainted.” 

Thomas said her story in the collection “brings the Black Panther to us.” Titled “Heart of a Panther,” the story is set in the Mississippi Delta, and features “locations Mid-Southerners would recognize if they took a road trip South.”

Set to be published in February, the book is being promoted as “A Ground-Breaking Anthology from the African Diaspora.” Representing the first time a prose collection has been dedicated to the Black Panther, the book testifies to the continued popularity of the Black superhero who was introduced to comic-book readers by author Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in a 1966 issue of “Fantastic Four” and made internationally familiar with the 2018 movie “Black Panther,” which starred Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa. (Boseman, who also appeared as the Panther in three other Marvel movies, died Aug. 28 at 43, of cancer.)

Thomas said the movie made a powerful connection with Black audiences because “when you see yourself reflected in such an amazing way on the screen, it reaffirms the joy you already have and makes you feel connected to a larger story.”

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She said the anthology’s “Memphicentrism” is due in part to Holland’s presence as editor but mainly due to the impact of “Black Panther” in Memphis. “People went to see it again and again,” she said. “Church buses of people went to go. People donated tickets so children could see it.”

She said superhero stories represents “a remarkable, creative way to acknowledge that there are invisible heroes all around us, who do extraordinary things every day, who lift us up and do good, and they don’t wear a cape. They don’t always get recognized but we see their presence reflected in the superheroes.”

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