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Designing The Verge’s exclusive interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates

Marvel Comics has been part of American culture since 1938, providing superheroes to look up to and entertainment during some of the country’s darkest times, such as the Great Depression and WWII. Now what was once a niche interest is mainstream, with Marvel Entertainment pulling in record-breaking numbers and acclaim for their movies, TV shows, and commitment to showcasing diverse characters and storylines.

The Verge is Vox Media’s destination for everything future-focused, examining technology and culture through the lens of wonder and inclusivity. The Verge’s Kwame Opam had the opportunity to interview Ta-Nehisi Coates, journalist and cultural critic, about his recent stint as writer for Marvel’s revamped Black Panther. The Storytelling Studio then collaborated with The Verge team to try to create an immersive dialogue experience.

Experiment with new formats

On the Studio, we begin our projects by sitting with our journalist partners and talking through the story to define what the story is, who the audience is, and what our goals are. This leads to brainstorming, wireframing, and user testing with designated points of communication so we aren’t working in silos.

We ultimately decided to try a slide-based experience that would enable the writer to lead the audience through the story. Although we had many sources of inspiration for the format, it was the first time we built something like this on our team. This format allowed us to intentionally lead the audience through various clips of audio, comic book imagery, and Kwame’s words.

Define the visuals

We often explore multiple directions for both the story format and the visual direction. For this piece, we presented two options to the group.

Inspired by the late 60s, when the original Black Panther comic came out, the first direction drew from punk graphics, such as the quick, loose style of SoCal artist Raymond Pettibon, and paper cut-outs, similar to Saul Bass movie posters, and fine artist Kara Walker’s work. Black Nationalist ephemera was something that Coates mentioned in his interview and was also used as inspiration. Bright, punchy colors were a stalwart of 60s graphic design, and I thought that would play well with the grittiness of black and white ink drawings.

Late 60s grunge moodboard
Late 60s grunge moodboard featuring: Saul Bass; Kara Walker, ‘Burn’, 1998; Heymeca; Gian Giang; Rebecca Chew; Osawa Yudai; Raymond Pettibon, I Thought Cali Would be Different, 1989; Teleframa Magazine
Collage by Brittany Holloway-Brown

The second direction played with the physicality of the form of comic books. This direction was about turning the 2-D sheets of paper into a more sculptural 3-D form by using layering and multiples. The negative space could also be activated with custom illustrations as well; it could be a simple flourish or something more detailed like graffiti lettering as Black Panther has often been tied to hip-hop.

Paper stacks moodboard
Paper stacks moodboard featuring: Neil Watson; Obana DaisukeKamome Books; Alain Vonck; Jiminie Ha; Deutsche & Japaner; Paola Pansini; Rosanna Webster; The Milanese; Desiree De Leon
Collage by Brittany Holloway-Brown

When the Studio and The Verge met up to decide on a visual direction to move forward with, there was a very healthy discussion about the merits for both. The Verge’s new branding and their “Realer-than-Real” approach to photography lent itself well to the Paper direction, as it leaned heavily on still life photography and the physical object of a comic book.

However, Chris Plante, one of the lead editors on the piece, made the case that many publications just use the visuals they are given when talking about comic books, because they assume that’s all you need. The 60s direction, he said, made it seem like we ‘took our subject seriously’ and accounted for the era and the environment in which Black Panther was created as well as Coates’ personal references.

Stan Lee, one of the original creators of Black Panther
Illustration by Brittany Holloway-Brown
Ta-Nehisi Coates
Illustration by Brittany Holloway-Brown

Gather reference material

When doing research, especially for portraiture, it’s important to pull 3–5 references. It’s not always possible to have the subject in front of you, so having different lighting scenarios, angles and poses help to understand the subject better. You might find a quirk that you want to emphasize or play with.

Lean into your style

Illustration by Brittany Holloway-Brown

Texture and grittiness were important to the look and feel of the final illustrations. They needed to stand in contrast to the bright red we used for some of the slide backgrounds. Ink and graphite are some of my favorite media as they show the hand of the artist, as well as the texture of the surface they are used on. Having a hand-drawn feel, even slightly, was important. I love when you can get texture to disrupt how slick the Internet is.

It was also important that I drew some of the assets in my own style. We all agreed that having comic book pulls were important to highlight certain plot points in the book, but we wanted the story to have its own distinct look and feel.

You can see the full story here.