Intellectuals, Screenwriters and Wrestlers, Oh My: A Brief History of Marvel's Celebrity Writers

Even before Ta-Nehisi Coates signed on for 'Black Panther,' Marvel had a knack of luring new writers to the comic book medium
Jack Kirby/Marvel Entertainment

While news that Ta-Nehisi Coates will be writing Marvel's new Black Panther comic book series next spring might have come as a surprise, it's not entirely unprecedented. Marvel actually has a surprising résumé of stunt-casting celebrities in its comic books — not only as creators, but also as characters as well.

At the same time as Coates' Black Panther launches, for example, Marvel will also be publishing Drax, a solo title featuring the Guardians of the Galaxy character co-written by pro wrestler CM Punk. (This will actually be Punk's second Marvel project; he wrote a story in last year's Thor annual.) Similarly, Nicole Perlman, one of the co-screenwriters on the first Guardians movie, is currently working on a solo series for that movie's Gamora.

Screenwriting is a favorite industry for Marvel to turn to when looking for new talent. Both Damon Lindelof and Joss Whedon have written high-profile projects for Marvel (Ultimate Wolverine vs. Hulk and Astonishing X-Men, respectively; Whedon also wrote a short run on Runaways, replacing series creator and Lost and Under the Dome writer Brian K. Vaughan in the process). Also in the writer/director/comic book scribe camp: Kevin Smith and Jon Favreau, although the latter's Iron Man: Viva Las Vegas stalled after two issues published, months apart.

It's not only the big screen that Marvel will pull from; from television, Agent Carter's Tara Butters and Michele Fazekas, The Daily Show's Elliot Kalan and Late Night's Seth Meyers have also written comic books for the publisher.

Coates, meanwhile, might be a hiring coup, but it's not the first time Marvel has courted the intelligentsia of America. In 2005, in the wake of critical acclaim for his novel The Fortress of Solitude, Jonathan Lethem was hired to write a series rebooting obscure 1970s hero Omega the Unknown; the series eventually appeared in 2007, co-written with Karl Rusnak. During the same period, Marvel was also bringing in a number of crime novelists to the company, including Duane Swierczynski, Charlie Huston, David Liss and Jonathan Maberry.

(In a strange literary circumstance, Marvel got in touch with Lethem through Michael Chabon, who almost, but not quite, wrote Fantastic Four for the company; he eventually ended up in comics nonetheless, first with Dark Horse's adaptation of his Escapist character, and now with Matt Fraction's Casanova series for Image Comics.)

Although the majority of these hires are relatively recent, Marvel has long attempted to gain critical respectability through partnerships with appropriately respected figures; both Stephen King and George R.R. Martin have written for the publisher — the latter writing part of the charity anthology Heroes for Hope and contributing to the comic book adaptation of his superhero shared universe series Wild Cards — while Harlan Ellison has contributed to the ongoing Avengers, Hulk and Daredevil series throughout the 1970s and '80s.

Perhaps the strangest story about Marvel's attempt to bring in non-comic book writers is the one who got away — kind of. In the 1970s, Marvel attempted to bring Tom Wolfe into the company to work on what was described as a comic book about "a fictitious bunch of 'Radical Chic' social leaders who align themselves with a militant (nonblack) group which turns out to be bent on world domination." While Wolfe turned the company down, the back-and-forth did create enough goodwill between parties that the writer allowed Marvel to use his likeness in a handful of Marvel comics, including 1971's The Incredible Hulk No. 142, which claimed to be "inspired" by Wolfe's essay "Radical Chic":

Of course, that leads to the subject of Marvel's love of celebrity cameos, which include The Beatles, KISS and an entire Avengers issue devoted to David Letterman … but that's another article altogether. We can but hope, however, that Marvel's new relationship with Coates means that he might make an appearance in an upcoming Avengers issue — or perhaps a cameo in Netflix's Luke Cage series.

Black Panther launches in 2016.

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