Interview: Christopher Priest
Once upon a time, the future publisher of Image Comics, a savvy young web producer and the future writer of The Buy Pile at Comic Book Resources ran a comic book website together. This, of course, crashed and burned, but it offered the opportunity for some great sit downs, including this discussion with the first Black writer and editor at either DC or Marvel comics. The one, the only, Christopher Priest.
He could almost be considered the Elijah Snow of the comic book industrythe guy in the back of all the photos, the name you never noticed on some truly good (and truly scary) comics, the shadow disappearing down the stairs. Now looking back on two decades in the comics industry (he was a founding father of Milestone Comics and was among the first African-Americans to write nationally published comics at Marvel in the late '70s/early '80s), Christopher J. Priest (the artist formerly known as Jim Owsley) works quietly on Marvel's sleeper sensation Black Panther, serves a community "within walking distance of NORAD" as a non-denominational minister and contemplates how much he's willing to bother with comics after imbroglios with both DC and Marvel's office politicians, a failed marriage and a number of failed lunges at the fabled brass ring. Two things are certainhe is not British fiction writer Christopher Priest (who he has met, however) and calling him "Chris" is a sure way to end up on his Unhappy List. He graciously agreed to an interview with NPO, sharing his thoughts on race, publishing and the secret history of comic books from the comfort of his Rocky Mountain compound.
HT: Your name's something of a conundrumin 1993 you changed it from Jim Owsley to Christopher Priest, but generally won't talk about why.
PRIEST: I decline to talk about the name change, because it was done for personal, family reasons and really has nothing to do with comics. I actually considered continuing to write as "Jim Owsley," but I thought that would be disingenuous.
HT: After years of East Coast living, you find yourself in Colorado. Why the change?
PRIEST: I like the view. It really is that simple. I used to live in New York, and this is a big change from subways and taxi cabs.
HT: Many people create for different reasonsa compulsion, a need to express a certain idea, self-obsessiveness or what have you. Why do you?
PRIEST: Rent money. There is a big difference between writing and commercial writing. Comics is a commercial art form, a prostitution, to some degree, of a discipline many of us study most of our lives. Beyond that, for me, writing is catharsis. It is a search for the truth. In most anything I write, comics or otherwise, there is some small piece of what I believe to be true; some painful unfinished business of mine, worked out in metaphors of masked goats and such.
HT: You're currently serving as a non-denominational minister. How does that role fit into your life, and how does it affect your careers in music and comics?
PRIEST: Well, the music is an integral part of the ministry. I have been a minister for 26 years now. I have only, in the last two years, started calling myself "minister" and accepted the blessing and licensing of a church body. The Bible commissions all Christians as ministers and to work in ministry. I just reached a point in my life where having the credential and the ecumenical collar opened doors I needed opened. Otherwise, I'd not have bothered. I am not a huge fan of organized religion, and I kind of wince when people call me, "Minister Priest," as many people do here in town. Most people in town have no idea I write comics and have not much access to that part of my life. And, actually, I rather prefer it that way.
HT: You've been in the game for a long time, comparatively speaking. Let's talk about your career's highs and lows; things you loved to do and things you loathed.
PRIEST: I love everything I've done. I really haven't written anything I've been ashamed of. The things I've loathed, I've loathed as much for my failure as for the shortcomings of anyone else on the team. The reality, though, is comics are a collaborative art form. Once the script leaves my hands, it really is the editor's job to put out a good comic book. Sometimes you get exceptional work and real investment from the editor's desk (Tom Brevoort, Brian Augustynthe best story editor alive, Matt Idelson, Mike Carlin, Dan Raspler), and sometimes you get overlooked in the crush of things going on in the office.
Highs: Early Marvel, Spider-Man vs. Wolverine, working with M.D. "Doc" Bright on Power Man and Iron Fist, working with Larry Hama, feeling like comics was going to be the coolest job in the world. Home run comics: Scripts I worked so darned hard on that the editors really ran with and did a great, great job (The Ray Annual #1, the current Black Panther arc, beginning with the current issue #26, Mike Marts-produced Deadpool issues with the brilliant Jim Calafiore (#43-45)).
Lows: Comics that went unread (like Steel, a very good comic), political crap at Marvel, the demise of Mike Gold's Development Group, DC's R&D arm. Crash-and-burn comics: Scripts I worked so darned hard on that were not produced well (Batman: The Hill, Impulse: Bart Saves the Universe, Total Justice).
HT: You were a Black man in the industry at a time when that seemed impossible. Tell us about the early days at Marvel, and how you've overcome the obstacles you encountered.
PRIEST: Oh, geez. I apologize if this is briefer than the question implies. When I started as an intern in 1978, I didn't realize I was the first African-American writer and editor to work for a mainstream superhero comics publisher. I was aware of artists like Keith Pollard and Ron Wilson and Billy Graham, and in those days Denys Cowan and I were more interested in girls than the politics of comics.
Ralph Macchio was an interesting guy to work for. He was kind and friendly and had a wonderful sense of humor. In the intervening years since my exit from Marvel in 1987, our relationship has apparently cooled and only Ralf (as we call him) knows why. Whenever I see him, he is cordial and remains a snarky smart-ass. He was my first mentor in the biz. He worked for Rick Marshall in the Special Projects division of Marvel, but it was Ralf who took me more in hand than Rick, who was usually busy being Rick. I had the most fun in my career with Macchio, whose constant pranks, ironic observations and fearless, Letterman-esque biting of the hand that fed him encouraged a lot of my own innate snarkiness. I don't know what went south between then and now, and if Ralf ever returns any of my calls, maybe I'll find out.
Comics and race, man, that's a whole separate interview. I could write 15,000 words on the subject, and you'd have to edit it to something digestible. The short version is: Comics are no more or no less racist than any other business in this country. The problems in comics are exacerbated by how small the biz is, so whatever problems may exist are magnified.
Comics are run by liberals who stupidly think they are beyond racism. That is the institutionalized nature of racism in this country. The most racist people are typically those intellectuals who believe they have risen above it. It is also difficult for a Black man to discuss racism, because there is no common reference point. The moment I discuss race or racial components of the political structure in comics, there is moaning and aggravated sighs and hands thrown up because the liberals who run the joint feel wrongly accused, much along the lines of, "So, when did you stop beating your wife?"
Over the years, I've come to accept the reality that I am a Black man and they are liberal intellectuals who are not able to process much of anything I'd have to say on the subject. My name got dragged into an online article accusing DC of racist behavior, and I felt compelled to respond on the basis that what was said about me was factually incorrect. Having a dialog on race is difficult enough, but if you're going to do it, you have to have hard, undisputed fact. Conjecture, emotionalism, hyperbole and the like torpedoes the discussion, as many liberals come to the table expecting us to lapse into Jesse Jackson rhymes and heated rhetoric, rather than employ reason, compassion and intellect.
All of which sounds like I'm ducking the question. I'm not. I'm just aware of both my Black Panther deadline and your remaining 20 questions!
The last time we sat down with Christopher Priest, he talked about the difficulties of being a person of color in the comics industry and his experiences with some of the industry's top names like Marc Silvestri and Joe Quesada. NPO now presents the second part of this fascinating interview, in which Priest cracks open more forgotten X-Files from the comics industry and reveals more of his plans for what is arguably Marvel's best book, Black Panther.
HT: You wrote a 12-issue Unknown Soldier limited serieswhat did you think of Garth Ennis' four-issue Vertigo miniseries?
PRIEST: I didn't read Ennis's Soldier. I tried reading it, but realized it had nothing to do with my series, and that my series has probably been retconned out of DC history. Beyond that, I don't understand Ennis' work, which is meant as no disrespect to Ennis, just that I am not the audience for what he does.
HT: At DC, you had a chance to get to know Paul Levitz, a man who's just an enigma and a name to many. Tell us about your experiences with him.
PRIEST: Paul had an odd habit of wandering the halls at DC around 6 PM and throwing everyone out. I think he realized...No, I'm sure he did, that, ideally, comics publishers' office hours should be 2 PM to 8 PM. 9-5 is unnatural to what we do, and to our freelancers, many of whom wash up on our doorstep at 5:45 PM.
So, yeah, Paul, whom I did not know before I started at DC, would wander in, flop into my chair and be just a guy. Which really freaked me the hell out, let me tell you. The executive VP is being "just a guy," and I'm calling him, "Paul," like he couldn't destroy me with a single thought.
But that was Paul. Paul would buy you pizza. Paul would listen to ideas, no matter how stupid. Paul would readily, and easily, admit his own limitations. I've met very few bosses who could say, "You're better at that than I am," or, "That's not what I do. I do this thingI don't understand that stuff" or "I wasn't a very good editor," which he's said repeatedly, and which no one actually believes is true.
Paul liked to toss ideas around. Long before Milestone, he initiated discussions about there being culturally targeted comics. He'd talk abut his life and listenreally listen, not just pretend to listenabout mine.
Once, I was leaving for the day and stopped by Brian's office to shoo him out of the office (it was almost six, and I knew Paul would be on his way). I went into my best Levitz impersonationwhich, if I must say so, was really spot-on and had most everyone in stitchesuntil everyone stopped laughing: Paul was standing behind me. I figured I needed to clean out my desk, but Paul took it in stride, had a laugh with it, then shooed us out of the office, "Go home. It's only comics."
HT: Your writing on your website makes numerous mentions of certain professional friendships... Denny O'Neil, Larry Hama and "Doc" Bright in particular. Why do you think those relationships have endured for so long?
PRIEST: Oh, geezfriendships just endure. Denny and Larry were early mentors who invested in me. Doc and I just became a team after The Falcon, and we understand each other innately, which makes working together seamless and effortless. That these relationships grew out of comics is, I think, incidental. They are among the most cherished relationships in my life.
HT: Milestone is back. Can we expect to see you back with it? Dwayne McDuffie is of the opinion you're not interestedis it scheduling, or something else?
PRIEST: I'm not interested in anything. I got annoyed with Mike Marts (hi, Mike!) for announcing I'd been (deservedly) booted off of Deadpool prematurely, because it denied us an opportunity to promote JimmyPool and whatever I'm doing next. Well, it's months later, and I'm only now getting around to Next.
I like writing Black Panther. But, I had a lot of things I didn't like come out last year, and I'm still smarting from that, from investing myself in the work and having the work ruined by either an inexperienced or inattentive editor and artists who were more vested in being artists than in being on a team or having respect for my investment in the work.
So, I've been cleaning my house and doing design work for The Urban League and taking some time to consider what I want to do next. I have no ax to grind against Milestone, I have no idea what Dwayne meant. Dwayne and I talk fairly often. I rule nothing out. I just haven't decided what, if anything, I want to do beyond Panther.
For an eyeblink, I was on a list somewhere to replace Claremont on X-Men. That would have interested me; not the money or even the stature, but the challenge of making some sense out of that franchise. I don't know where I was on the list, but just knowing, for once in my life, I was in fact on the list makes me smile and want to kiss Mark Powers, whom I do not know. Oh, and asked-and-answered: No, Joe did not force Mark to use me (obviously). I wouldn't want the gig that way. I would have liked to see what a Priest X-Men might have been. At the very least, it would have been funnysomething the book has never been accused of. Losing to Grant (again, as I did on JLA I was up for that, too), doesn't bug me so much. If you have to lose to somebody, at least lose to somebody great. I'm looking forward to seeing where he runs with it.
HT: Tell us about the "Sturm Und Drang" storyline, what people can look forward to in Black Panther: Year Three, and some of the ups and downs in the series so far.
PRIEST: Well, the standard hype for the arc can be found on Marvel's site and my own. I wanted to do a big arc here that would land around issue #25, but because of a lot of problems in Year Two, we got pushed back to starting with #26. In issues #8-12, we did this complex "Enemy Of The State" thing, which was another one of those mixed blessings for me. It was a story I worked my butt off on: A complex, dark, political drama that, hopefully, brought something new to the Marvel Universe and looked at the MU in a new way.
Then the Marvel Knights crew opted to change directions with Panther, changing it to a hoo-hah book and giving it a Batman Adventures-style animated look. But "Enemy..." had already been written. So, here was this deep, complex, dark story, drawn like Batman Adventures (and brilliantly so, by the wonderful Mike Manley). I was crushed and took the choice really hard, warning the MK crew, "You are killing this book." It was a calamitously poor choice, and the numbers reflected that almost immediately. In mid-arc, we went with Doc Bright (whom we should have/could have recruited long before), but the damage was already done: "Enemy..." was terribly uneven.
I'd written issues #9 and 10 for Mark Texeira, but got Mike Manley. Once I realized Mike would be doing the funny style on the book, and that funny was what my editors wanted, I wrote the remaining chapters, issues #11 and 12, in a "funny" style, specifically for Mike Manley. Who then disappeared, to be replaced by Doc, who, as is his wont, immediately called and asked me, "What the hell is this?!?"
So, fearing Panther might be going away, I wanted another shot at The Big Story. So, "Sturm...," my political thriller about a confrontation between Wakanda and Atlantis, began to take shape. I love comics, I think comics can be fun and simple and a nice, light read. But I also think (and Alan Moore and Frank Miller have proved this) that comics can be so much more. That we can take the same characters, the same universe, and look at it much harder. "Sturm Und Drang: A Story of Love and War" is the hard look. It's a novel, one I hope and pray I'll someday have in a TPB on my bookshelf. And, this time, we're not switching artists in mid-stream.
Oh, it doesn't hurt to have uber-editor Tom Brevoort on the team. I think the story is both bigger (Tom calls and says, "We really should have Magneto in here," seven words no editor has ever said to me) and better ("This part doesn't workget Captain America out of the room.") because of him. I think it's fair to say I have a non-sexual crush on Tom, and made him a write-in candidate for president.
HT: Online, you've talked about the trouble you've had fitting into the editorial picture at both Marvel and DC. On your site you said, "This trail of miserable, unreadable, horrible comics must, in my estimation, contribute to the overall sense that I'm just not an A-List guy. And I can hardly fault anyone for thinking that." Is Black Panther proving you're an A-list guy? Do you want to be an A-list guy?
PRIEST: Being an A-List guy is only a good deal because it presents you with more opportunities. No, I am not an A-List Guy. An A-List Guy is determined more by sales than quality. Books some editors actively dislike sell through the roof, and the creative team benefits as a result.
I'm not sure that I have trouble fitting into Marvel's creative picture. I think Panther is an easy book for the general Marvel U to ignore because Panther has no obvious fit with what everyone else is doing. For that matter, if Iron Man became Iron Woman, that would be, at best, a footnote in many Marvel comics.
The economic storyline was a mistake because it relied, to some degree, on its reflection throughout the MU, and we received minimal support. The same goes for the Iron-Man-Acquires-Wakandan-Design-Group storyline, which did not play in Avengers or Iron Man, so why the heck did we do that?
Just because I think a bit of business is funIron Man becoming a major player and possible plumber of Wakandan design specsdoesn't mean anyone else will agree, and I can hardly fault anyone for not wanting to catch every Frisbee we toss out. But the end result is I am much less likely to toss the Frisbee in the future. Over the course of Year Two we have guest-starred everybody but Forbush Man, but received fairly little reciprocal notice in any of the mainstream MU books, which contributes to the general perception that Panther exists in its own niche worlda perception former editor Ruben Diaz worked hard to dispel.
The fact is, most every black or female character that's ever made it to 30 issues has existed, pretty much, in his own niche world. They fight Cottonmouth and Cockroach, and there may be some reluctance among the major players to even notice what we're doing, much less play along. In "Sturm Und Drang...," we bring the entire globe beyond the brink of war. Let's see if anybody notices. Luckily, I've learned my lesson: Nothing in "Sturm..." requires much reflection in other MU books, though it seems incredible that the goings-on here would not even be noticed.
HT: Super-match upswho comes out as the winner?
- a) Wonder Woman vs. She-Hulk
- b) Black Panther vs. Batman
- c) Queen Divine Justice vs. Rocket
- d) Steel vs. Iron Man
- e) Maxwell Lord vs. Everett K. Ross
- f) Woody (from Quantum & Woody) vs. Rick Jones
(a) Wonder Woman. Hard to quantify: She'll find a way.
(b) Batman. Because Panther would allow it to further Panther's actual plan.
(c) Rocket. QDJ is not as invested in the whole hero bit, and definitely would not want to ice someone who is the mother of a proud, Afrosiatic brother man.
(d) Iron Man is infinitely more powerful than Steel, but you wouldn't know that because most people writing Steel these days don't know anything about Steel. He's become Generic Armor Guy. Steel has nothing to do with Iron Man and is not in the same league. Steel is more like The Black Knight or somebody like that.
(e) Ross, in a walk. In a fistfight, Lord. Ross is not a fighter by any stretch, but Lord was an Evilbadguy briefly.
(f) Woody is infinitely more interesting a character than Jones, whom no one has ever know what to do with (possible exception: PAD).