PRIEST on BLACK PANTHER, Pt. 3: 'Hubris & Arrogance' Would Kill BLACK PANTHER Movie

"Black Panther #30" cover by Sal Velluto
Credit: Sal Velluto (Marvel Comics)
Credit: Marvel Comics

With Black Panther currently prepping to make his big-screen debut in 2016's Captain America: Civil War, Marvel is collecting one of the character's most celebrated runs in this week's Black Panther by Christopher Priest: The Complete Collection, Vol. 1.

Earlier this week, Priest spoke with Newsarama about the his run's origins and inspiration, as well as the characters and characterization he added to the series, and now in the third part of our expansive conversation he digs into the "Enemy of the State" arcs, T'Challa being replaced by Kasper Cole, the cancellation of the series, and his thoughts on T'Challa's big screen ambitions as Chadwick Boseman.

Newsarama: Priest, let’s talk about the storyline "Enemy of the State," which many claim is a high point of the character and your run.

Credit: Mike Manley (Marvel Comics)

Christopher Priest: I wanted to demonstrate how powerful, politically and militarily, Wakanda (nee Panther) is. From the beginning, I felt, “This guy is a king. There ought to be political ramifications in here.”

Fans began calling Black Panther The West Wing of Marvel Comics. I’d never seen The West Wing and thus didn’t catch the reference. I just love intrigue and complexity. I think most superhero stories have already been done a million times. I thought some manner of political showdown would be something new and different.

I also could not reconcile a sovereign king’s desire to join a bunch of super-heroes. Panther is not, does not consider himself to be, a super-hero. It made absolutely no sense to me that he’d join the Avengers, a group he’d likely be suspicious of.

Which, then answered my own question: Panther joined the Avengers’s because he was suspicious of them and, at least, wanted to be certain of their motives.

I think we actually did this geopolitical thing much better in “Enemy of the State II”. I was on my knees begging editor Tom Brevoort to give me a shot at writing Iron Man, whose writing slot had come open. I didn’t get the Iron Man gig, but Tom graciously allowed me to borrow the character, who became all but a permanent guest star in Black Panther for the story arc.

Credit: Marvel Comics

I’d whipped up some antipathy between Iron Man and Black Panther during “Enemy of the State” that served “Enemy of the State II” well, and it also occurred to me that there’d likely be some secret coffee klatch between the super-monarchs of the Marvel U, hence Magneto, Dr. Doom, Namor the Sub-Mariner, and, I think, the Lemurian king whatsisname meeting in “Luke Charles’” classroom. It was a big talking head scene, but it scored very well with the fans.

“Enemy of the State II” was on a much larger scale, involving Wolverine and Alpha Flight when Panther annexes Canada (Ha! Loved that) and takes over Star International with a single phone call.

I’m pretty sure my disappointment with Marvel at telling me they had no plans (years ago) to collect this stuff hit hardest on “Enemy of the State II," which I considered a high point of the series.

Nrama: And let’s talk about the odd circumstances of your losing the title character to your own book and the "Vin Diesel Panther" as you called him (whom I liked!).

Priest: Kasper Cole. No, I liked Kasper and re-cast him as the White Tiger for the (gets angry every time he mentions it) series called The Crew, which Marvel cancelled before the first issue shipped. The Crew was supposed to be akin to a Marvel version of Milestone: a book developed specifically for Latino and African American markets with some effort made to move beyond the normal comics distribution chains.

Credit: Marvel Comics

But, for some reason, Marvel later opted to include The Crew in a company-wide “event” launch of several new titles. The Crew, which had simply breathtaking art by Joe Bennett, had absolutely nothing to do with that event concept, but when the new wave “event” books were poorly received in preorders, Marvel slashed and burned, cancelling several of the new titles and cancelling The Crew as well, essentially killing it in its crib.

Which was when I pretty much quit comics. The development process was so difficult, the bar set so high, the hill so steep, weeks and months of agonizing rewrites and redos and begging, pleading, only to cancel the book before it ever had a chance to earn an audience. It’s worth stressing none of this was the fault of Marvel editorial, it was a bean counter thing, but for me it was an enormous punch in the face.

Absolutely no effort was made to move beyond normal (distribution) chains; they just sort of tossed it out there in this wave/event thing my book had absolutely nothing to do with.

If Marvel ever wants to get serious about penetrating the mutli billion-dollar Latino and African American markets, they should put out a The Crew trade and, more than that, explore additional marketing channels to get it to the right audience.

Back to Kasper...

Credit: Marvel Comics

I got a call from Marvel saying, “We’ve got this great idea: we’re going to move T’Challa out and replace him with some young guy.” To them, that would somehow fix the perception problem and boost Panther’s sales. They were also going to move Sal Velluto, one of the most brilliant classical draftsmen working in the business, out and replace him with some Image-y guy.

I wasn’t thrilled by the idea but was told, frankly, if I didn’t go along, I’d be moved out as well. They’d just cancel the book and relaunch "Hipster"  Panther with a new team.

This led to Kasper and the crime novel Black And White (discussed on my website here).

The “Image-y” artist never really appeared, though we had a really terrific artist to begin with, but he quit after the first issue. The remainder of this darker, hipper, more urban (i.e. “blacker”) Black Panther was penciled by talented and well-meaning Latino artists who didn’t know who P. Diddy was; who missed many of the urban nuances of the script and who really didn’t know all that much about gangsta culture or, say, Brooklyn.

Credit: Andy Kubert (Marvel Comics)

It was an incredible debacle. I worked very hard on scripts which, per Marvel’s editorial direction, needed to be cutting-edge “street,” but, despite the artists’ best efforts, made no sense in print because they wouldn’t know the design language of urban black culture.

None of the artists could convey the BET/Gangsta Rap sensibility Marvel had requested; qualities Marvel insisted were missing from T’Challa Panther. The thinking seemed to be, if we made Black Panther more “street,” it would sell better.

Which made no sense to me. It seemed, to me, like a group of white guys sitting around a conference room going [Eddie Murphy “White Guy Voice”] Don’tcha think Panther needs to be more “street”? Tell Priest to “Street” Panther up. Y’know--get more jiggy with it. The New “Mo’ Jiggy” Panther. The Even Blacker Panther, now featuring Vin Diesel.

Which missed the point T’Challa was not African American. He was African. T'Challa doesn’t listen to hip-hop music or wear a Starter cap tilted on its side.

Against my better judgment, I gave Marvel exactly what they asked for, and then, incredibly, they assigned the art to several guys who were talented draftsmen but who were about as far removed from the streets of East New York as is galactically possible. Why not sign Jonas Kaufmann to sing Nicki Minaj tunes.

And the book got cancelled anyway.

Which led me to Captain America and the Falcon, which got cancelled, and then The Crew, which got cancelled, and then to writing novels for iBooks/Simon & Schuster, which pretty much ruined me for comics because writing prose was so much fun (and freeing), and I didn’t have to worry about the dozen other guys working on the project.

Black Panther official concept art
Black Panther official concept art
Credit: Marvel Studios

Nrama: The Black Panther’s due to get major exposure with the upcoming movie, and I was curious as to your thoughts on that film, and Chadwick Boseman’s casting as T’Challa.

Priest: I saw Get On Up  about a dozen times. I went every day. Every single day, I was standing outside when the movie theatre opened and bought my ticket. The theatre was usually empty. I live in a town that wasn’t eager or very interested in a James Brown biopic, but I couldn’t stop watching Boseman.

I’m old enough to remember seeing James Brown live. Other than Boseman being too tall and skinnier than the real thing, his performance was utterly mesmerizing--and just as likely ignored because, honestly, James Brown never crossed over the way Ray Charles did, so Get On Up worked a more narrow vein of the American public than did Jamie Foxx’s brilliant Ray.

I’m less concerned about Boseman’s acting ability than I am about Marvel’s understanding of the African American public and just how important a film this will be to us. In conversations with the Black Panther movie folk (and, it’s worth noting the exec in charge of the Panther film is African American), I was left somewhat less at ease with their general approach that Panther will be essentially just another super-hero movie.

They know how to do these things, now, and nobody does super-hero films better, but I’m worried about a certain level of hubris accompanying their approach to Panther.

Robert Downey Jr. and Chadwick Boseman
Robert Downey Jr. and Chadwick Boseman
Credit: Marvel Studios

I hope Marvel understands this: all of black America is watching you. We are hopeful, we are excited. Don’t screw this up. Talk to some actual black people; it’s not enough to “know” Panther; you’ve got to know Panther’s audience.

It is also a mistake to not intrinsically understand how strong this racism thing is and how racism will--I assure you--impact this film’s reception. The problem with most liberals--myself included--is we tend to think we’re post-racial, that we’ve got a handle on things because we’re not racists.

Which is what makes liberals perhaps some of the most pernicious racists of all, because we are in denial of it. Make a good movie, and people will come see it. Well, Get On Up was an extremely entertaining film with an amazing, practically one-man performance by Chadwick Boseman. But I was sitting in the theatre alone.

Memo to Marvel: Hubris and arrogance re: Panther will kill you. This is not like any other movie you’ve ever done. If done correctly, this can not only be a great super-hero movie, but it could be an important film.

I’m not on the inside, so I can just pray they’re not just trying to make a good movie but that they are trying to develop some sensitivity to the unique challenges their marketing will face. If they are tone deaf to those issues, it won’t matter how good the film is; there will remain a thread of resistance on the part of general audiences to seeing any film with a black actor at the center.

Credit: Sal Velluto (Marvel Comics)

Nrama: Back to your run on the comic book series, any plans for the character you didn't get to do that you might like to share?

Priest: No. I put Black Panther in outer space. I think we jumped the shark with that one. The only thing I suppose I’d like to do is work on the character in a less creatively compromised environment.

I think, despite their best efforts, both DC and Marvel are simply not capable of delivering African American-themed products that pass the smell test within the African American community. I believe they both want to, I believe they’re making strides and trying like hell.

I’ve been working on a screenplay called Isatai’s Ghost for nearly 20 years. I doubt I’ll ever finish it. It’s a perfectly fine story, set at the turn of the century, but it involves Native American culture, Wounded Knee, and the virtual genocide of indigenous tribes set against a revenge motif.

The problem: my screenplay is too phony. I need to raise money to go meet people, live with people, really understand this culture and genre from the inside out. What I have so far is a result-oriented screenplay that may be entertaining on its face but does not breathe authentic air.

That, to me, represents the overwhelming majority of (specifically) African American themes and characters coming out of DC and Marvel, including the flat performances of the Falcon and War Machine in the film universe. These are entertaining performances on their face, but are emotionally hollow and lack meaningful impact.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Black characters in comics have traditionally been result-oriented products; writers sitting down, cracking their knuckles, “I’m going to write a black guy wrongly sentenced to prison who gains super-powers and breaks out.”

But, how well do these writers understand any of that? How many black friends do they have and how often do they hang out with them? How many times have they themselves been pulled over by cops for absolutely no reason?

I think Isatai’s Ghost has a pretty decent plotline, but the screenplay is stillborn and possibly insulting to Native Americans, so it sits in a drawer until I’m more confident I know what I’m talking about.

To the best of my knowledge, neither DC nor Marvel has actual black people in executive positions. They’re just out there kind of guessing, focus-grouping, asking people, “What do you think of this...?” “Will black fans like that?”

The difference between that and, say, a shop like Milestone, is Milestone will not have the speed bump of being either racially over-sensitive or culturally distant from the pulse of the exploding urban minority market.

A Milestone editor will know who Sean Combs is and what his latest nickname is (I think he’s just plain Diddy at this writing); will know is the fashion trends, the cultural trends. There’ll be less guessing. Not because the Milestone editor is black (he may not be), but because this is what that shop does; this is the market that shop operates in.

If the major publishers were serious about the multi-billion dollar Latino and African American markets, they’d hire some actual black people or, at least, come to terms with the nuances of creating product that will have actual credibility with the market they intend to penetrate.

So far as I can see, these are things they simply will not do, nor will they outsource it to a shop that actually does. Instead, these folks--good people, not demonizing anybody--sit around a table and guess. It’s an incredibly dysfunctional and counterintuitive approach to publishing.

Film critics loathe Tyler Perry. But Tyler Perry films have no empty seats in the theatre. He understands not only his genre but his market, and the return on his films is higher than even some of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters.

I’d be intrigued to develop the Falcon or Black Panther or Jack Kirby’s Black Racer or whomever out of a shop that better understood the genre and the market. None of which makes either Marvel or DC bad places to work. I’m just saying, among the many reasons black characters don’t sell as well as white characters is a fundamentally misaligned approach to both the genre and the market.

Nrama: Anything else you'd like to talk about that we haven't discussed yet?

Priest: Oh, man, I’ve talked way too much already. But maybe a shameless plug for 1999, my new 4-book eNovella series debuting on the Kindle in October and on all platforms sometime in first quarter of 2016. More info re: that coming soon on my website: http://christopherpriest.com

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