PRIEST On BLACK PANTHER, Pt. 1: 'Everyone Kind Of Forgot Who PANTHER Was'

Black Panther
Credit: Marvel Comics

Editor's Note: With Marvel Studios' Black Panther hitting theaters this week, Newsarama has dusted off our 2015 oral history of Christopher Priest's 1998 to 2003 Black Panther comic book run. This three part series will run over the course of the next few days.

Credit: Marvel Comics

The Black Panther’s been around since the 1960s, and had many different incarnations – the intense, involved storylines of the 1970s by Don McGregor and Billy Graham, the over-the-top adventures by Jack Kirby, and the high-profile run by Reginald Hudlin and John Romita Jr.

But there was never quite a version like Christopher Priest’s.

As part of the Marvel Knights line that helped revitalize Marvel in the late 1990s, Black Panther was a book that was equal parts urban vigilante, political thriller, and a satire where the devil gave a guy a pair of pants he couldn’t quite get rid of.

Over the course of 62 issues – the last of which saw the character literally dropped as the hero of his own book – Priest and artists, including Mark Texeria and Sal Velluto, crafted the dense tale of T’Challa, King of Wakanda, whose skills as a fighter and leader were well-matched by his craftiness and manipulations. Initially exiled to America (and overseen by “Emperor of Useless White Boys” State Department rep Everett K. Ross), the Panther’s tale soon expanded to encompass the elaborate power structure in Wakanda, the tribal traditions that kept his followers near, and his own demons – and cemented the Panther as one of the most cunning, manipulative minds in the Marvel Universe.

Priest’s run has long been out of print, but that’s about to change with the release of Black Panther by Christopher Priest: The Complete Collection, Vol. 1 on August 12, which collects the first 17 issues of his run (a second volume is currently scheduled for December). Newsarama talked at-length with Priest to take an extended look back at his run in a three-part conversation. Over the course of our conversation, we got some candid insights into what it was like creating the book, and his thoughts on the character of T’Challa – past, present and future.

Newsarama: Priest – first off, how's it feel to see these stories collected and reprinted?

Christopher Priest: Actually, I don’t know; I haven’t seen the volume yet. But I’ve just been notified of a FedEx delivery so I’m assuming the volume is in it. That or, you know, a pipe bomb.

I’m happy Marvel chose to collect the series. I’d been told previously that a collected edition would never happen because the character and series had been retconned by Reginald Hudlin, and that was now the official version of Panther Marvel was promoting.

This also marks the first time my name has been part of a Marvel title, which would make my mom happy if she were still with us.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Nrama: What do you remember the most about that time in your life when you were doing Black Panther?

Priest: The constant uphill slog to woo fans of mainstream Marvel comics. Post"Marvel Knights, there was constant and unrelenting pressure to get our numbers up. It was not healthy for the creative process.

I never had editorial or creative control over the book; all of the shifts in approach and changes in narrative were suggested by Marvel, including replacing T’Challa with Vin Diesel toward the end in a desperate flailing to keep the book alive.

Marvel Executive Editor Tom Brevoort was likely the only guy to admit, at least to me, that Black Panther is whatever it is, and whatever it is is very closely tied to its writer (meaning me). Some people will like it, some won’t, but turning ourselves inside-out chasing numbers was a bad idea.

Successive writer Reginald Hudlin recognized this immediately, and, as he described to me, didn’t even bother trying to pander or worry himself about numbers.

I didn’t want to write a “black” book because black characters are a tough sell. I go into my reasons why in some detail here.

Nrama: How did the book come about?

Priest: Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti inked a deal with Marvel to launch their own imprint, called Marvel Knights. I’d heard they were taking over Daredevil, and was very excited when the phone rang. I love Daredevil and had always wanted a shot at (the character). When they said “Black Panther,” my heart kind of sank.

See, in those days, writers were expected to more or less maintain the status quo. The status quo for Panther was this colorless cypher who sort of stood in the back row for the Avengers class picture.

Joe and Jimmy, along with editor Nanci Dakesian (aka Mrs. Joe Quesada), DC Comics editor Brian Augustyn and Mark Waid all kind of talked up the project, but I was concerned about being typecast as a “black” writer, and really wasn’t thrilled about the character, even with the unique “Coming To America” spin the group had put on it.

So I gave Joe the Robert DeNiro speech from Casino: “Okay, Joe, but if I do it, I have to do this my way. I mean it, no interference.” Basically, I couldn’t write this dull guy who routinely got clocked over the head and dragged behind pickup trucks. I had to write the guy Stan Lee wrote way, way back inFantastic Four #52: a guy who out-foxed and beat four of Marvel’s most powerful heroes.

Credit: Marvel Comics

If I could make Panther tough, mysterious, wily, and often at odds with his Avengers comrades, that was a character I’d find interesting. If he could embrace his monarchship the way Namor does--perhaps not as arrogant, but surely as confidently, a man of supreme power and dominion--that would interest me as well.

Lastly, I told them we needed a point of view character: someone who could validate the fears and presumptions of white superhero fans who’d surely be reluctant to buy a “black” book.

Credit: Marvel Comics

I had sometime before created this character, an attaché (i.e. diplomatic flunky/babysitter) over Ka-Zar and had modeled him roughly after Michael J. Fox and Matthew Perry. I thought somebody like that might make a great point of view character for Panther.

Marvel Knights agreed, and I signed on for the series. I turned in the first issue, and Jimmy and Joe rejected it. We were off to a great start.

They explained to me that they loved the “Pulp Fiction In Rewind” narrative approach I was using in Quantum & Woody and thought it would work really well for Black Panther. So they booted #1, which had originally been written much more traditionally, and we imposed that narrative style which was both loved and hated. Ironically, skip ahead 20 years, and the new Valiant booted issue #1 of my Q2: The Return of Quantum & Woody for much the same reason.

Nrama:  So let's look at the initial storyline of the book and the situation you were in with Marvel Knights – this was, at the time considered something of a crazy experiment. It changed things at Marvel, it set the tone for the modern superhero book and movies, but at the time, Marvel's recently declared bankruptcy and the company's future is in question. What was the environment like to produce this title?

Priest: Oh, I was mostly insulated from all of that. Joe and Jimmy preferred Black Panther take place largely within its own bubble, even as I would shoehorn the Marvel Universe in, specifically with the storyline “Enemy of The State,” where Panther admits he only joined the Avengers in order to evaluate them as a possible threat to Wakanda.

See, it made absolutely no sense to me why Panther would ever join a super-hero team; he’s not a super-hero, and the record shows he did a whole lot of nothing most of the time. Why?

Credit: Marvel Comics

After Marvel Knights handed the book back to Marvel, I was tasked, from that point until the book’s cancellation, with trying to grow the audience. It was exhausting and it inhibited most creative thinking.

We tried everything, every possible guest star, every gimmick we could think of. In retrospect, I believe Joe and Jimmy were right: we should have just done our thing and largely ignored the Marvel U. Pandering in an attempt to raise sale proved, ultimately, to be a waste of time.

This was, chiefly, Reginald Hudlin’s thinking when he launched his version of Panther. Not speaking for Reginald, but, as he explained it, he realized we’d tried every trick in the book to broaden the appeal in an attempt to woo more readers and had failed.

So Reginald didn’t see the point of doing that, and from the start simply chose to write a good book and invest himself in the work rather than constantly worry over sales figures. And you know what? His book vastly outsold mine because the investment was in doing good work and not constantly struggling to win people over.

And if I may: fan (and some staffer) speculation about there being some kind of “feud” between Reginald and myself is just stupid. We’ve been friends for more than 22 years. Denys Cowan had his version of Panther, I had mine. Reginald honored me, frankly, by smartly keeping things he thought worked and jettisoning things that didn’t. And his version outsold us all.

Ironically, some fans gave him grief over going his way just as fans (and some pros) gave me grief for going my own way. I’d never do that, and I wasn’t even aware of this myth circulating because by the time Hudlin's Panther launched, I was way, way out of comics altogether and, frankly, not paying a lot of attention to any comics-related stuff.

I seem to recall hearing about the new Black Panther and being happy (and a little surprised that Reggie had the time to write comic books), but, frankly, my head was in Christian ministry and I believe I was pastoring a church at the time and just not paying a lot of attention to comics.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Nrama:  You used a lot of the character's previous history in comics -- there's a great deal from the Don McGregor run to start, and those Kirby homages with the frogs. What Black Panther stories had the greatest impact on you before you were working on this book, and why?

Priest: I didn’t read Marvel Jungle Action when it was actively publishing. It was a stupid name for a comic series (with due respect to Archie Goodwin and Stan Lee, who were, I believe, running the joint in those days). The title was incredibly patronizing, falling just short of Jungle “Bunny.”

I was a kid growing up on New York City streets, I had no interest in the jungle. I liked Hero for Hire, though I couldn’t imagine who thought up the ridiculous speech patterns for Luke Cage. I also thought Black Panther was boring because he had no powers and (no offense intended) Marvel seemed to demonstrate the character’s courage by having him get shot and stabbed and hit over the head. Kirby’s Panther was even more off the grid to me.

Once I began researching Panther as a comics pro (whatever that means), I tended to agree more with McGregor’s Panther than others. His obvious investment in logically thinking through the basic realties of the African continent and his fleshing-out of Wakanda are amazing and valuable assets to the Marvel Universe

His Jungle Action mega-arcs, what has been lauded as “Marvel's first graphic novel,” were a real gift, and I saw no need to retcon, ignore or otherwise do away with what he or subsequent writer Peter McGillis created. McGregor created an amazingly detailed Pantherverse with which I mostly agreed and was immensely grateful for all the tools he left in the tool box.

Denys Cowan and Dwayne Turner’s visions of Wakanda, as an ersatz African Epcot Center, opened my eyes to the unexploited possibilities; these men, both of whom are African American, together with writer Peter B. Gillis, created an African Asgard of sorts, and I just went, “Oh, my.”

Actually, now that I think about it, Denys worked on Panther, Reginald Hudlin worked on Panther, and I worked on Panther. Marvel should create a Milestone Black Panther book. I’m quite sure, if it wouldn’t blow up Milestone’s deal with DC, we’d all be eager to see what could be done with the character in a creatively uncompromised environment. We all dearly love this character.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Where paths diverge between my vision of Panther and those previous is the character of T’Challa himself. I can’t speak for Mr. McGregor (whom I do not know), but my impression was he saw Panther as the ultimate realization of human potential whose bravery was exemplified in his willingness to risk his life in the service of others.

I see T’Challa that way as well, but I defer to Stan Lee, whose bedrock for this character was he was a man who outsmarted Reed Richards and out-fought the Thing. Those key notes seemed missing from McGregor’s Panther, and to me Stan (whom I do know) is Moses; his original concepts are the stone tablets of modern comics.

Thus, it made absolutely no sense to me that Panther wouldn’t at least nominally protect himself from things like small arms fire or stabbing weapons, and that, at the very least, he’d carry an iPhone (which is what his Kimoyo card essentially is).

Credit: Marvel Comics

The fan outrage was unexpected and a little off-putting, considering how poorly supported Panther has traditionally been. It seemed to me like, “We’re not actually going to buy any Black Panther comics, but how dare you make him smarter and more technologically advanced! Bring back the plain old spandex and get rid of the gadgets!”

This seemed nonsensical and a violation of Stan’s character; Marvel fandom having grown so accustomed to what I considered to be an errant interpretation of Stan’s original concept. And these folks weren’t buying McGregor’s book or mine, so why on earth should Joe and Jimmy pay the “outrage” any mind?

I just used Stan, and only Stan, as my template--though I wanted a more laconic, more Batman-esque and mysterious character to Stan’s friendly and gregarious monarch. I didn’t think Panther would talk all that much. I thought Batman talked too much (and maybe still does, I don’t actively read comics anymore); like all that yakking he does explaining his motives in the final moments of The Dark Knight; it was a violation of his character to stand there yammering. Not Batman.

I thought Panther could and likely should have been the Batman of the Marvel U. That character archetype was missing from Marvel’s pantheon, and Panther’s origins and motives are different enough from Batman’s to prevent him from being called a Batman rip-off.

If anything, now that Batman has become Iron Batman, with all that stupid armor and tech--wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong DC--he is following T’Challa’s lead and not the other way around.

The main thing preventing Black Panther from fulfilling that Batman niche for Marvel is, frankly, Marvel. Whether knowingly or subliminally, Marvel marketing--if not Marvel editorial--sees Panther in a racial context and, thus, as a less “pure” character than, say, Drax the Destroyer or the Sub-Mariner. I don’t mean racism so much as a level of sensitivity and concern for the reader’s ability to identify with and/or respond to these issues.

For example: a line was cut from my contribution to the recent Deadpool marriage issue because Marvel was concerned black readers might be offended. I assured them black fans would not be offended by the line, but I was overruled. Which troubled me because I was an actual black person assuring them black people really aren’t as thin skinned as they (or the corporate hedgehog above Marvel editorial) may think.

Black people have a sense of humor. Deadpool, the character, busts on everybody. It was a violation of his character for him to start pulling his punches just because he was talking to a black person.

Marvel and DC should stop being afraid of letters, afraid of email. The incident struck me as a little silly, that Marvel wasn’t so worried about their black fans as they were perhaps worried about offending the sensibilities of their white fans and/or of ‘Pool coming across as racist.

It wasn’t a racist line. It was, however, the funniest line in the story and they cut it, despite having an actual black person assure them. If they actually understood humor (or black people), they could have run one of those old Stan Lee asterisk captions; *We were assured, by an actual black person, that this line was okay --Ed.

This is what I mean by a creatively compromised environment. This wouldn’t happen at, say, Milestone. They’d say either the line was funny or it wasn’t, Either ‘Pool was in character or out of character, and that would be the only criteria they would use. Larry Hama, my mentor, taught me that humor involves risk. There was rarely an issue of Crazy Magazine we published without being convinced we would be fired for it. Everybody, of every ethnicity, was fair game.

In terms of character, Panther shares a great deal with Sub-Mariner--who himself is not white but appears white and therefore can navigate the Marvel zeitgeist more easily than can Panther. Panther is a king. Kings are different kinds of folk, and frankly, I hadn’t seen a proper response from the U.S. government in previous versions of Panther. He wasn’t greeted like a king or, frankly, monitored as we would any head of state wandering around Brooklyn.

This was the attitude Everett K. Ross brought with him when he drove to LaGuardia in his Mazda Miata to pick up the king of a sovereign nation. For me, Ross embodied decades of, no offense, disrespect not of Panther but of Stan Lee. Stan’s Panther was a mysterious monarch of a hidden kingdom but was someone so respected the FF flew all the way to Africa--with great apprehension and nervousness--to meet.

It seems, after Fantastic Four #52 and #53, everybody kind of forgot who Panther was and treated him like Joe Blow. King T’Challa is not Joe Blow.

So I vented my irritation at how Marvel had so marginalized this character (which I interpreted as Marvel editorial approaching the character from a standpoint of race) through the over-the-top stupidity of his new State Department handler: he saw Panther the way Panther had ultimately come to be seen by Marvel: Just Some Guy who was routinely overshadowed by heroes in which they were more invested. Confounding the low expectations for the character was, to me, Job One, and Ross was the tip of that sword.

Credit: Marvel Comics

If we could all take race out of our minds where it applies to Black Panther, there’s no reason why Panther could not or should not be Marvel’s highest-grossing franchise. He isn’t because neither Marvel nor comic book fans can neutralize the role race plays in terms of connecting with an audience, most especially with a character that literally has the word “black” in his name.

I did not, however, want to disavow anything that had gone before. I know what that feels like, to have somebody come along and suddenly nothing you did ever happened. I think part of the fun of being a comics fan is seeing how writers solve problems within the rules and within the history of the universe.

Credit: Marvel Comics

These days, the fad seems to be every writer gets to shake up the Etch-O-Sketch and pretend no other stories had ever been written about the character, and both majors seem overly eager these days to blow up their continuity every time sales dip.

I went too far in the other direction, hoping to salvage every previous appearance of Panther, including Jack Kirby’s campy version, which we refer to as “Happy Pants Panther.” Don McGregor’s version wasn’t entirely my cuppa, but Don did a lot of heavy lifting in terms of making Wakanda real and fleshing out Panther’s supporting cast.

I saw absolutely no need to just retcon everything, though that option was presented to me. Don’s supporting cast worked quite well, and the brilliant and respectful literalism with which he approached the series was certainly closer to my point of view than the generic Kitty Man who hung out with the Avengers--no offense intended to Roy Thomas or anyone else; I just thought there hadn’t been enough investment made in the character.

Nrama:  For that matter, what was most appealing to you about the character, and what do you feel was often misunderstood about him?

Priest: I’ve got to be honest: the character never appealed to me until Joe and Jimmy (and Mark and Brian) began to engage me. I was ready to pass. I was arriving at a point in my life--where I am now--where I no longer take gigs just for the rent money; it’s got to be something I’d actually like to do, and something I believe in.

In Part Two of our conversation, Priest reveals an unexpected artistic contribution to the initial Black Panther story arc, and talks about the Panther’s supporting cast.

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