Christopher Priest is having something of a moment, even if not enough people know it. And Priest seems to like it that way.
Priest, who broke the color barrier at Marvel Comics in 1978 when he became the company’s first African-American editor and writer, helped create many of Black Panther’s most arresting and interesting concepts, visuals and storylines. He’s also written a number of other projects, from Conan to Deadpool to Superman to his own creator-owned Quantum and Woody title. And his trip to Denver Comic Con? Just across town.
In advance of his rare public appearance this weekend, we chatted with Priest via email to get his thoughts on Black Panther and the state of race and comics in 2018. But to get a look at Priest himself, you’ll have to find him at Denver Comic Con, because he requested that we use photos of his work instead. “I just wanna go to Walmart in peace,” he said.
Shop on, Christopher Priest. Shop on.
Westword: Black Panther is clearly the breakout hit of the year for Marvel, and your work on the title back in the late ’90s is rightly credited with being the genesis for it. What do you think about the movie and how it's been received?
Christopher Priest: Director Ryan Coogler, screenwriter Joe Robert Cole, executive producer Nate Moore, Atlantic magazine columnist Ta-Nehisi Coates and fellow comics writer Don McGregor and I were all sitting in a Los Angeles green room looking at each other with shell-shocked expressions. Nobody thought the film would do as well as it did, myself least of all.
In fact, during the early development phase, I expressed my concern to Nate: “How will you get white audiences to come see this film?” I was worried a film about a relatively obscure secondary Marvel hero would be a tough sell to a mainstream crowd. Nate laughed and said, “People will come to this movie. You’ll see.”
And I did. And that’s why Nate has a huge office with air conditioning and I practically work out of my car.
What inspired all the innovation you brought to the Black Panther mythoi back in the day? You invented a ton of what we think of as canon now, from Everett Ross to much of Wakanda. Where did all that come from?
Well, the foundation for Black Panther is owed to two writers: Stan Lee, of course, who created the character — at some professional risk to himself, I should add, it being the early ’60s. The Black Panther was a remarkably progressive innovation that really was not a terribly commercial idea given the turbulent social climate of the day.
The vast majority of the Panther mythos was later developed by legendary writer Don McGregor. Working for some paltry page rate — maybe thirty bucks a page or something like that — Don created reams of dossiers developing the hidden nation of Wakanda and populating it with colorful and well-developed characters.
I was approached to redevelop the character, taking the metaphorical hand-off from Don’s groundbreaking work and updating the character and themes for the ’90s. I like to say I painted the house, but it was the house Stan and Don built.
My contribution might be best compared to Christopher Nolan’s reimagining of the Batman film franchise. He obviously didn’t create Batman, but the version of Batman that’s setting the world on fire is directly attributable to Nolan having taken the risk of taking Batman seriously. That was actually a pretty big risk, and Batman Begins — whose first act is based loosely on my Batman comics work from the ’80s — incurred no small amount of criticism for not being “kid-friendly.” But Nolan seemed to understand intrinsically that the more seriously Hollywood takes these comic-book heroes, the more money they make. It’s a simple formula, really. Green Hornet domestic total gross: $98 million. Black Panther domestic (as of June 5, 2018): $700 million.
Race and how American culture deals with it (or fails to do so) has played a part in much of your work over the years; how do you see the state of race as depicted in comic books (and comic culture, including the films) today?
I’m pretty upset about it and worried about where the country is headed. Obama-era conservative political strategy created an atmosphere for intolerance which, in turn, made our current president — a catastrophic disaster of moral and ethical failure — possible. I mean, we’ve become so acclimated to intolerance — all that yammering on social media — that it’s like we’ve forgotten what mature, rational discourse sounds like.
And now we have something just as insidious: a virulent pushback from progressives that not only gets people fired, but their entire existence wiped out. Which is not to defend moral or ethical failure, but in our earnest desire to become a better nation, we may be forgetting how to be a kinder one. Forgiveness is part of that equation. I didn’t think Roseanne’s joke was funny, but canceling her show was a gross overreaction. I mean, what do we learn from that? What lesson do our kids learn? Nobody can take a joke — even a bad one — anymore, and, frankly, I believe Ms. Barr did more damage to herself all by herself, without ABC making her an alt-right martyr. Yes, racism and sexism are bad, but so is what seems to be shaping up as a kind of liberal McCarthyism where I am terrified — absolutely — to even be giving this interview because I never know what little thing, what bad joke, I may toss off that will not only get me fired, but have me erased from human memory.
I actually read very few comics because I write comics all day and tend to look elsewhere for my recreational reading. But I don’t like a lot of what I see in comics in terms of race. To their credit, publishers are eager and even aggressive about promoting diversity, but not a lot of it is done well. If the whole point of a gay character is his gayness, that’s wrong. The character should be a human being first, and few LGBT or multi-ethnic characters are written that way. Their color or sexual orientation is written on their sleeve or on their cape.
I write Jericho, a bisexual superhero. His sexuality plays a role in his character arc, obviously, but it’s not the point of who he is. The point of who he is, is he is Deathstroke’s son, with the huge bag of conflicts that come along with being the son of a supervillain. Now, I don’t know if I am writing Jericho competently, but I’m doing my best to make him a fully realized character first.
The larger problem, which is a little comical, is my routinely being overruled and having my work changed by publishers concerned that something in my work might offend black people. This is the worst part of liberalism — white liberals telling me what might offend black people. It’s incredibly offensive. I mean, I know they mean well, but, hello.
Liberals often make the worst kinds of racists, because they believe their education or enlightenment somehow makes them post-racial or above racism. None of us are.
Quantum and Woody was a hit (and on a personal note, one of my favorite books) in the late ’90s. I've heard stories that the two main characters (Eric and the titular Woody) are actually comedic takes on Eriq LaSalle (then a star from television's E.R.) and Woody Harrelson (who also played a Woody on Cheers). Is that just the comic-nerd rumor mill, or was there some truth to it? And when are we going to see those two return, either in comics or in a film or TV adaptation?
Close: Woody was based on Woody Harrelson’s character from the film White Men Can’t Jump. Eric would have been based on the Wesley Snipes character, but I needed Eric to be a bit more straitlaced, so, yes, Eriq LaSalle’s character from E.R. was a great model.
The rumor mill holds that there is a Quantum & Woody TV pilot in the works, reportedly directed by the Russo brothers (Avengers: Infinity War). I actually forgot to ask them when I was on the AIW set in Atlanta, so, yeah, I certainly hope so.
You got your start at Marvel as an assistant editor (and later a writer) on the Conan book. ... As a fan of the Cimmerian, what was it like to work with editor Larry Hama and the team in bringing Robert E. Howard's most famous barbarian to four-color life?
Ironically, as I write this (June 7), it’s Larry’s birthday. I loved working with Larry. For years we shared a shoebox of an office at the old 575 Madison Avenue building. We worked on Crazy magazine together when I was a teenager (I was hired at Marvel as an intern at age seventeen) and moved on to Conan once Crazy was canceled. Conan was a seminal learning experience for me, my first long run on a book. I got to work with industry legend John Buscema, who never, not once, missed an issue (extremely rare these days). I was pretty unhappy when Crazy folded and not thrilled to move to Conan, but Larry taught me how to let go and how to learn to love what you’re assigned to do. I certainly grew to love Conan, and, toward the end of my run, actually became a halfway-decent Conan writer (just before I was fired!).
In the mid-’90s, you legally changed your name from Jim Owsley (under which your early Marvel work had been published) to Christopher Priest. Any light you can shed on the switch? Do you see your career before the name change as distinct in some way from your work after?
No, not really. I changed my last name for personal reasons that had nothing to do with comics. I think, had I realized the name change would, even now, 25 years later, be such a point of professional interest, I probably would still have changed it but kept writing under “Owsley.” I mean, it’s like, “Why did you name your dog Wilbur?” It has nothing to do with my job, but I am routinely asked about it, mocked by trolls, and harassed by the British science-fiction author of the same name, when it was a personal decision that is, no offense, nobody’s business. I don’t mean that in an angry or mean way.
Like many great comic-book origin stories, yours started in Queens — but now you call Denver home. When did you move to the Mile High, and what brought you here? What keeps you here now?
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I don’t know. I grew up in the city and hoped, my whole childhood and young adult life, to escape from it. I came out here on vacation to visit one of my co-workers — my letterer, Willie Schubert. I saw those mountains and fell in love. It’s a really simple story, actually.
What are your plans for Denver Comic Con? What are you most looking forward to at the convention, and what do you have in store for the fans?
Oh, I don’t know. I’ve never done a local show before, mainly for reasons of privacy. But I was asked about it and thought I’d give it a go. We’ll see. I really don’t buy into all the hoopla — I’m just another guy on the subway, nothing special. All the light on me makes me uncomfortable, and I’m scared ABC might cancel my show.