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Tuesday, February 27, 2018 

Christopher Priest explains the ghettoization of minorities inside a medium that itself was ghettoized

Priest was interviewed by ComicBook about his past career and assignments offered, and how at some point in recent history, it seemed like they'd no longer hire him to write characters who weren't also of black African descent like he is, and Marvel still appears to go by this troubling mentality:
ComicBook.com: What was it that brought you back to comics this time? Was there any specific appeal that made you want to return for Deathstroke?

Christopher Priest: They just offered it to me. I was home minding my own business. For years I would get a call every 18 months from either Marvel or DC where they would inevitably offer me a character of color, a black character or Latino character. I would politely decline and then pitch them on Potato-Man or Spud-Boy or whatever. They’d go, “Eh, we don’t really know.” We’d have this conversation, and I would thank them for calling and plan to see them in 18 months. Then 18 months later I’d get a call from Marvel or DC, and we’d do the dance all over again.

So I got a call from DC, and they wanted to talk to me about Cyborg. I gave them the standard stump speech. I don’t want to be a “black writer.” When did I become a black writer? I used to be a guy who would write Spider-Man, Deadpool, and Batman. Why am I no longer qualified to write those characters? How did I get typecast from writing Black Panther of all things, when that series was never really about Black Panther. It was about the white guy, about Ross. It was narrated through his voice, and I thought I wrote a very well-constructed white character. Why are you now pigeonholing me as a guy who can only write black characters?

I later found out that Marvel and, to a lesser extent, DC moved into a trend where they were no longer hiring writers—they were casting writers. They’re listening to chatter on Twitter insisting that only a black lesbian writer could write a black lesbian character, and that’s nonsense. A writer writes. Tom Clancy, rest his soul, could write anything. A writer writes. All of the sudden I was no longer qualified to write anybody that didn’t look like me, and I resented that. I was really polite about it and told DC thank you for calling, blah, blah, blah.

Then a day or two later I got another call from DC, and they asked me about Deathstroke. I asked if he was black, they said no, and I said, "OK, I’m listening." We started having a conversation about Deathstroke. It wasn’t just that the character wasn’t black; we were talking about a character with a lot of untapped potential for me to get inside his head and mine new ground with him. I wasn’t going to come back to comic book companies until they offered me something I could get energized about. I left comics because they stopped offering me anything but black characters. Now, ironically, both Marvel and DC and some of the independents, are talking about a whole range of things. That’s much better. Maybe they’re changing or the industry is changing.
It remains to be seen if they're going to cut out these "reserved for" type of assignments. After all, that wasn't exactly what Larry Hama, a guy of Japanese descent, wound up doing when he wrote GI Joe, which had several characters of white, black, Asian and Latino/mixed backgrounds. And he also wrote Wolverine later on, starring a white guy with claws. There are also women who've written comics toplining men, like Ann Nocenti on Daredevil, and Louise Simonson wrote Superman in the early 90s. If people of different race are only allowed books starring the same, that is, for lack of a better word, discriminatory. Similarly, if whites aren't allowed to write books starring people of different race - especially characters created by whites - that too is a serious mistake. What matters is doing research on these issues if necessary, which is entirely possible to do and can have tremendous benefits.
You’ve been able to break your own history of typecasting on recent series like Deathstroke, Justice League, and Inhumans. Do you think most other writers of color in comics are still facing that same problem?

I would imagine so. I really felt that for many years when people picked up the phone to call me the first thing they thought was "black," and my suspicions were confirmed. I resented that. I can write anything. A lot of my co-creators of color and female writers can write anything. Just give them a chance.

You have to become master of your particular universe. I wrote a novel called 1999. It’s my Astro City, a self-contained superhero universe. The main character is this police officer who’s Irish. I knew nothing about Irish people, so I spent time doing research. I wrote a novel about a black female New York City arson investigator. I know nothing about being a firefighter. I know nothing about their apparatus or tactics, but you research, you get on the phone, you track people down, and you talk to actual firefighters. You find out about all this. Once you master this universe, then you sit down and start writing about it. I think I wrote a convincing Irishmen, a convincing black woman, a convincing firefighter. I know the lingo and the equipment, and my writing has authority because of it.

Don’t tell me I can’t write a Chinese lesbian superhero. That’s bullshit. I can write anything. The problem is the two major companies don’t have anybody of color in upper management with the exception of Jim Lee. There are certainly no African Americans in upper management. Anytime I’m writing anything about race now, I get all of these notes back where they’re wringing their hands and not sure about anything. They’re terrified of the Twitter-verse, but half of those people aren’t even reading your comics either. They’re reading it online or heard it somewhere or pirated it, but they’re not buying your comics. They’re getting on Twitter and you’re terrified of them and guiding your publishing program based on it. Just do good stories, well-told, and you’ll see the return on it.
No wonder Twitter is otherwise a very weak form of social media. Yet they capitulate to all these crazy dummies who spend far too much time online and don't get a good education, and who practically reek of a "de-sexualized" mindset that can't appreciate beauty, let alone any of the more positive ideas the pioneers worked on back in the Golden Age. If Twitter is where they're going to get their "research" from, that's why they'd best not go on Twitter or get accounts from them at all.

Priest's right that the way you can develop a good story with complicated elements is to simply do some research, and you'd think the web would enable a ton of that today, yet 20 years of commercial internet onwards, we're still stuck with insular writers in mainstream who evidently don't do any. Comicdom won't benefit if they remain so narrow.

Priest also cited the very limited approach today's industry takes, and alludes to the political blacklisting:
You’ve worked with both of the largest direct market publishers for a long time and have had a lot of experience in American comics at different levels and positions. When you look at the future of the industry, do you feel optimistic or pessimistic?

[long pause] The industry has to change from top to bottom. The bottom end of the industry feeds into this chokehold of a distribution system. I’m not knocking Diamond or saying they’re bad guys. I’m just saying they’re the only gig in town. Anytime Marvel releases a movie there are X number of hundreds of millions of people who buy a ticket to this movie and the movie makes X hundreds of millions of dollars based upon those tickets sales. Why are we selling 35,000 copies of Banana-Man or whatever? Why are we not tapping that market in any significant way? It’s ridiculous that we are not accessing this in any significant way. That’s the bottom end.

The top end of it is that the industry is still too small. It’s still controlled by a handful of people, and if you piss one of them off, then you’re unemployed. That’s got to stop. There’s only a handful of people whose personal sensibilities determine which books get greenlit. They need to be willing to greenlight books they don’t even like. I don’t understand half of what Garth Ennis writes, but Garth has an enormous gift and huge audience.

Jim Shooter taught me a lot. One of the things he taught me was at a Christmas party. He was handing out gifts, and I said to him, “That was a really nice gift you gave to this person we both know can’t stand you.” Jim told me it’s not important that the guy likes me, it’s important that we keep him working here. It’s not about me. It’s about doing what’s right for the company and building this company. We have to get back to doing what’s right for the companies. The companies are too insular, way, way, way too male, and way, way, way too white. Until that changes, nothing gets better. They need to get into a mindset where we can stop looking at comics as a loss leader for merchandising and films because that’s how both houses are looking at comics now. When they want to start taking the publishing seriously, they’re going to have put real money into developing bottom-end distribution. That may anger Diamond and tick off retailers, but that has to happen because you can’t keep on this way. You can’t keep selling 35,000 copies of Potato-Man; you have to sell 350,000 copies of Potato-Man.

I don’t know the answer to that. I think the company that figures it out wins. The company that figures out how to break the chokehold or the bottleneck of distribution wins. I’ve encouraged Milestone to start drop shipping a bunch of their issues to beauty salons and barber shops around the country. It’s a distribution network that’s not part of traditional publishing, but distributes to places where people of color congregate and return every week. The complication is if we drop ship those comics, those comics need a rapid return. There needs to be an 800 number or QR code to help them purchase these comics immediately. They are not going to hunt down a comic shop that may be over the dale or down an alley. Until the industry becomes willing to change, both on the top and the bottom, every year we’re going to be trying to sell the same product to the same people when a larger audience is clearly there. Why can’t we go get them? We gotta fix it.
Absolutely. It cannot be controlled by the few, and that includes the Diamond monopoly, which Marvel may have engineered when they bought into it over 2 decades ago. And the irony is that, for a medium supposedly trying to draw in blacks and Asians, they're still very predominantly white, and worse, predominantly leftist. Which obviously has to change.

Priest went on in another interview section to discuss the Black Panther movie, and on that, he said:
ComicBook.com: We’re seeing a lot of pieces and conversations about the release of Black Panther and what it means for superheroes and movies and cultures. I’m curious what it means to you personally as someone who contributed so much to the character and created much of what we see in the film.

Christopher Priest: The film is a mashup of Don McGregor, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and myself. I see some of me in there, but I also see 75 percent of Don and 20 percent of Ta-Nehisi. What I did was remodel the house. It was Don’s house, and it was Stan’s house. My Black Panther was way colder: more aloof, withdrawn, and unknowable in a lot of ways. We saw him through Everett Ross’s eyes. The Black Panther in the film is much warmer and more likable, which he has to be to appeal to a wide audience.

Initially, I had concerns nobody would go see it because it’s about a black character. I was talking to Nate Moore, an executive producer on the film, during the development process, and I voiced those concerns. He just laughed and said, “They’re going to see the movie.” I didn’t know. He’s a black character, so how are you going to get white audiences to come see this movie? Nate didn’t have a concern in the world about it, and he was right.

When I saw it, I thought this movie is going to have real impact, especially for people of color. I defy any African Americans to make it through the first act of this film without tearing up when you get to Wakanda. When you see Ryan Coogler’s vision for Wakanda by extension you see his vision for what we as a people can achieve if we really pull together, stop squabbling, and get off Facebook. That’s not just black people, but all people. It’s the kind of world we could build if we just stopped the silly stuff, what Barack Obama would call the “silly season." It’s just amazing.
The problem is that Obama did a lot to develop the silly season during his time in office, what with all his leftist pandering, and look where it got us now - a more divided USA, and it could all take many years to mend the damage he caused.

All that aside, let's be clear: if audiences of the past could go see an Eddie Murphy movie (and I watched several, including Trading Places, Beverly Hills Cop and Coming To America), then it stands to reason they'd be fully willing to see this as well, none of it based on racial background, but on screenplay merit. That's also why Sidney Poitier made it big in several famous films back in the day.

But I think we could achieve more by getting off Twitter than Facebook, if only because, in the words of Rush Limbaugh, the former is a "cacophony of crap".

That said, if the movie contains far more of Ta-Nehisi Coates than of Priest, I find that dismaying, because IMO, Priest did better than Coates in setting up ideas for how to portray BP.
Do you think it has an enhanced impact coming out at this moment in 2018?

I think it’s the right time for it given how polarized America has become over ideology and politics, which extends to race and creed and sexual orientation. At the roots of all that is tribalism, and this film is about tribalism and overcoming tribalism. It has a universal theme that’s applicable to what we’re sadly going through. It offers a lot of hope for what all people can be if we can just get past these artificial divisions, this artery hardening of how we relate.
Trouble is, there's certain segments who don't cherish the film, all because it may not include ideas Coates came up with, like a lesbian couple. If that continues without anybody telling them to just make their own films, chances are they will capitulate.
Do you recognize any of that modern zeitgeist filtering into your own work as you craft new stories for Deathstroke or the Justice League?

I start to build all of my stories from character, so I don’t really come to the table with much of an opinion or agenda. I start with who this character is and what this character wants. Once I understand the character, then we have this business, which is what screenwriters would call the status quo. I have to challenge the status quo and think about this person's wants and how do I throw obstacles in their way. Right now, Justice League appears to be turning political, but it’s not so much politics as it is tribalism and dragging the Justice League into “the real world." If there was a group of people this powerful with transportation technology living on a satellite with no regulation or control in outer space, there would be investigation after investigation, and untold crazy stuff on Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook. I don’t come to Justice League, Deathstroke, or Black Panther with the mindset of wanting to do a political story. I think of what would challenge these heroes and what story haven’t we seen before with this group of people, and I take it from there.
On this, I want to say it's regrettable he had to shoehorn the Islamic Green Lantern into the story, which dampens the impact of what would look on the surface like a worthy metaphor for the war on terrorism.
How did you first become involved with Black Panther, and what hooked you into the pitch?

Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti, who were running the Marvel Knights imprint, were given a bunch of characters to develop. They were characters who weren’t doing very well or weren’t high on their priority list. Among them were Inhumans and Daredevil, and there was also Black Panther. They first approached Mark Waid then either Waid or Brian Augustyn suggested me, so Joe and Jimmy called me up. I thought they were going to offer me Daredevil, and it turned out they were offering me Black Panther. I was like, “Who? What? Who? What?”

They pitched the Black Panther to me, and at first I was not interested in doing it. They were persistent and told me to think about it. Mark Waid called me up and told me, "It’s your opportunity to completely reenvision a character. You don’t have to do Roy Thomas or Don McGregor’s Black Panther. You can reinvent the wheel." I thought about it and had another conversation with [Quesada and Palmiotti] and said if I have a relatively free hand in redeveloping the character that would interest me. If I could make him more substantial, a little mysterious, and bring him back to what Stan [Lee] originally envisioned for him, where he was a scientist and a physicist, that would interest me.

He was originally this wonderful inventor with all these little toys. He was a formidable opponent who beat all of the Fantastic Four singlehandedly. That’s the guy. I wouldn’t mind writing that guy. They were very enthusiastic about it. They also wanted me to inject some humor into it because Black Panther had been so serious. I didn’t want to make him funny, but I didn’t mind putting funny people around him. It took off from there.
Now isn't that ironic - the people who talked Priest into scripting a BP series are the very ones who subsequently brought down Marvel - Quesada, and Waid, if not Palmiotti. As a result, Priest's is one of the last books they've published to date that could be readable enough, because the Marvel Knights line quickly collapsed when Captain America was victimized full force by the ensuing Chomskyism post-2001.

There's one more part I want to comment on:
You’ve crafted definitive runs for characters like Black Panther and Deathstroke, and it’s apparent you put a lot of thought into them as individuals. What is it about these or other fantastical heroes that helps you sink your teeth in and stick with them?

The more I read about Deathstroke and the more I saw what Marv [Wolfman] and Geoff [Johns] had done, I started to form certain conclusions about him. This is a very dysfunctional human being. He’s a guy that desperately loves and desperately wants to be loved, but he’s not capable of doing either very well. Instead of just telling his daughter he wants to spend time together, he concocts a scheme where an assassin is trying to kill her and demands she stays close to him. That’s all nonsense. He just wants to spend time with her. He’s basically House M.D. with a machine gun. He’s got this fatal flaw, and that’s a terribly interesting character to write and explore, rather than just present him as this larger-than-life villain trying to slaughter everyone in sight.
If he drew any ideas from Johns, that's where I must decidedly voice disappointment, because I'd long written Johns off as one of the worst omens to happen to DC, and what I read of his work on Teen Titans was so limp, I don't see what makes that a great place to draw inspiration from. Wolfman did a far better job on Slade Wilson, but then, he was the character's creator.

All that aside, Priest does make some good points about what's gone wrong with comicdom, and the best way to break the monopolies is to ensure the companies won't operate according to partisan politics. If he's a rational liberal who knows why it pays to avoid alienating conservatives, I'll certainly have to give him some credit for that.

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