PRIEST On BLACK PANTHER, Pt. 2: 'It’s Not Arrogance, it’s Competence'

Page from "Black Panther #1"
Credit: Marvel Comics
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.

Christopher Priest didn't create Marvel's Black Panther, but he grew to become one of the most memorable creators to work on the character with his run in the late 1990s and early 2000s. And now with the Wednesday release of Black Panther by Christopher Priest: The Complete Collection, Vol.1, Newsarama conversation with Priest continues on.

Read Part one here.

In this installment, Priest discusses the artistic process of the book – and which major Marvel creator ghosted parts of the first arc – and the stories behind the Panther’s extensive supporting cast.

Newsarama: Priest, you were telling me a bit about the art for the initial arc and Mark Texeira before we officially started this interview – are you okay with repeating that here?

ChristopherPriest: Yeah, that’s fine. Joe Quesada was the layout artist under Tex’s gorgeous artwork. Joe is a simply amazing storyteller.

I've been listening to a lot of film commentaries lately and am really impressed by how nearly everyone involved with a film production is concerned about story. I mean, from the executive producers to the lowliest intern or gopher, everyone is talking about, thinking about, breathing story, character; invested in storytelling.

In comics, my experience has been mostly artists whose visual storytelling chops are either weak or they're more invested in rushing to a paycheck than in doing work they can be proud of.

Alternately, there is the ego: artists who ignore the stage direction in my scripts not because they necessarily disagree but because they want to draw lots of poster art for resale or their ego insists they make another choice because they're not about to let some writer tell them how to lay out a page.

Credit: Marvel Comics

In most cases. the storytelling suffers or becomes indecipherable. The problem is, the art continues to look very nice, but the reader can't make heads or tails out of what is going on, and I end up reading about what a lousy writer I am.

The end user usually has no way of knowing the artist failed to follow simple and clear directions and made changes for no other reason than they are either (a) egotistical or (b) lazy. But, inevitably, I am the one who gets dinged... every time.

This is a primary reason why I stopped writing comics. It is incredibly demoralizing to be raked over the coals by the editor on the script, rewriting and polishing and dealing with all the scrutiny most editors afford the script, only to have the same editors take a nap, apparently, when the art starts coming in, often not even realizing the art bears little resemblance to the script until they start having problems with the lettering balloon placement, realizing some sequences make no sense because the artist did not follow the script for whatever reason.

I remember getting attacked online for "blaming the artist," which I'm not actually doing. All I'm saying is, the script said, "Bobby ate an apple," and the art has him wrestling an alligator. I didn’t write that. The artist wrote that because, at some point, the artist decided he knows better than I do.

This does not happen in film. Everyone I've talked to or listened to is hyper-focused on making things clear and telling a story. But, with notable exceptions, my comics kept coming back as train wrecks. It was demoralizing and I just finally said the heck with it.

Credit: Marvel Comics

The early issues of Black Panther were laid out by Joe Quesada, his layouts lying beneath the gorgeous Mark Texeira art. Now, Joe was my boss, but Joe followed the script to the punctuation mark.

The opening sequence of #3, I believe, has the villainous Achebe chasing a man, and we see the chase through a sequence of tight shots, and then we waste two entire pages on a spread of the master aerial shot of the desert, with the two tiny figures racing across it.

Nine out of 10 artists I've worked with would have ignored that stage direction and would not have wanted to "waste" two pages on a plateau of sand. But Joe "got" it, and instead of indulging his ego on poster shots or changing the angle so he could get his artistic rocks off, Joe remained disciplined and trusted the script. The result was a powerful introduction to this maniac character who chased a man across a desert for selling his ex-wife a pair of shoes.

I'm not a genius and this isn't some backward ego stroke for Priest; I'm just saying that was a best example of the artists trusting the script and not fighting against it..

Best experiences includes Sal Velluto on Black Panther, who would take liberties but never for ego's sake, and the pages would always come in as good as the script or better, and Joe Bennett on The Crew and Captain America and the Falcon-- particularly the "wedding ceremony" scene between Cap and The Scarlet Witch (scans are on my website), which Bennett followed very faithfully but, wow, made it so much better; a scene taking place on multiple levels as Wanda shares her morning tea with Steve Rogers in a pseudo Japanese wedding ceremony. Brilliant.

I was trained in storytelling by Jim Shooter, Stan Lee, and Larry Hama. Doesn’t make me a genius, and there really isn’t anything fancy about the stage direction in my scripts. I honestly don’t care if an artist goes their own way; just make it as good or better, and don’t just change things out of ego.

A recent project came out looking nothing at all like my script. Important storytelling elements were compromised or ignored, losing at least a third of the story because that one-third was not in captions or dialogue, but in pictures the artist chose not to draw.

I mean, it was as if the artist began each and every single page by thinking, "Okay, I'm not sure what I'm going to do on this page, but I know I'm not going to do what the script is calling for." He changed every angle of every panel of every page and ignored my repeated pleas to please, please, please follow the script or at least tell me what's bothering you and I'll rewrite it.

And it reminded me why I stopped writing comics altogether, the often contentious relationship between collaborators. At least, when I'm writing novels, it's just me and my editor. I mean, the typesetter doesn't change my plot because he sees things differently.

Back to the film commentaries...

Every actor, every grip, every editor--talking about story, story, story: how to convey the story, how to make it clear. Hollywood is, of course, loaded with egos, but it's amazing to see how, despite the egos, those collaborators pull together and focus on telling a story rather than butt heads and sabotage what is extremely hard work and investment just because their ego apparently demands it.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Nrama: With your initial arc of Black Panther, you isolated the Panther from Wakanda. What was the main reason for this?

Priest: To get him to the states and keep him in play. Otherwise, he’d have returned to Wakanda too quickly, and I did not want the series set in an exotic Neverland; I wanted it to be set in what Stan called “the world outside our window.”

Nrama: I want to talk about the development of the supporting characters. To start, let's talk about Everett K. Ross, Emperor of Useless White Boys. How did this character come about? Also, what do you make of some reactions people had, and how some felt the Black Panther book was more "relatable" with a white, American guy narrating it? (Yes, that's an "Ugh" I'm making).

Priest: Actually, that was the main purpose for including Ross, who was originally a character in Ka-Zar. Comic books are all about selling fantasies. All people--white, black, whatever--are tribal in the sense that we relate to that which is familiar to us.

“Black” comic books traditionally do not sell well, another reason I was reluctant to take on Black Panther. Comics are traditionally created by white males for white males. I figured, and I believe rightly, that for Black Panther to succeed, it needed a white male at the center, and that white male had to give voice to the audience’s misgivings or apprehensions or assumptions about this character and this book.

Ross needed to be un-PC to the point of being borderline racist. I am surprised, still, that Joe and Jimmy Palmiotti and Nanci Dakesian allowed some of his lines to get through, like his belief that he’d hear lots of black people singing in the streets of Brooklyn. “I was lied to....” or that, arriving at his hotel, Panther would just “order up some ribs.”

I don’t think Ross was racist at all. I just think that his stream of conscious narrative is a window into things I imagine many whites say or at least think when no blacks are around; myths about black culture and behavior.

I was also introducing a paradigm shift to the way Panther was to be portrayed; somebody had to give voice to the expectation of a dull and colorless character who always got his butt kicked or who was overshadowed by Thor and Iron Man suddenly knocking out Mephisto with one punch. I mean, he runs into the room, Ross says, “Should we call the Avengers?!” Panther says, “Why?” and just decks the guy.

To me, that’s Black Panther. It’s not arrogance, it’s competence.

There needed to be a character in the story who would react to that; who would comment that this is not at all the Panther Marvel fans had come to expect.

Nrama: And let's also talk about Ross' pants.

Priest: It was just a bit of business that we milked for comedy-- Ross having his pants stolen by thugs and Mephisto giving him magical pants he couldn’t take off. I mean, I just made that up as we went, we didn’t invest a lot in it.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Nrama:  And there's Zuri and the Dora Milage.

Priest: These three were my main contribution to the Panther legend. It made sense to have some wise elder accompany him--even though Zuri’s presence was largely comic relief and ceremonial. The “brides in training,” his bodyguards the Dora Milaje, grew out of Don McGregor’s brilliant concepts of tribal castes within Wakanda, which made perfect sense.

How does Wakanda avoid the kind of splintering and tribal warfare that riddles the continent? He keeps a representative from the two major tribes in a kind of G-rated harem. So long as he doesn’t, ahem, close the deal with either of them, Wakanda’s tribal factions remain in a state of détente.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Should he choose one over the other, that could lead to tribal strife (hence the business with Man-Ape / Queen Divine Justice and the chain of events set off by Mephisto’s illusion, where T’Challa ends up making out with Nakia--named for my niece--in the back of the limo, and Nakia subsequently going nuts and becoming the villainous Malice).

Credit: Marvel Comics

Nrama:  And what about Queen Divine Justice (and her relationship with Vibraxis from Fantastic Force, aka NFL)?

Priest: [laughs] “NFL!” I can’t even remember why she called him that.

Nrama: It was short for “Nappy ‘Fro Lad.”

Priest: LOL! Ok, sometimes Marvel does need to stop me! Queen Divine Justice was, blatantly, Robin to Panther’s Batman. In retrospect, I’m not sure she added much to the mix, but was part of our never-ending attempts to build Black Panther’s numbers.

She was the latest iteration of my niece, Candace, with whom I fell in love when she was about eighteen months old. Candace has appeared as numerous characters, most especially Natasha Irons, John Henry Irons’ niece in Steel.

The real Candace was about the single most annoying teenager I’d ever known, but she could get me to do virtually anything she wanted. Now all grown up with a PhD, I’m so very proud of her, still madly in love with her, and, yes, she’s still annoying.

I brought Vibraxas in as means to resurrect the villainous Klaw. I wanted to hold off using Klaw as long as Marvel would allow, mainly because whenever anybody got their hands on Panther, they immediately went to Klaw (whose origin is tied in to Panther’s). From my distance from it, it appears the movie folk are doing this do--go directly to Klaw--which has its plusses and minuses.

By the time I felt safe to deal with Klaw, I wanted some interesting misdirect with which to reveal and reintroduce him, hence Vibraxas. Hooking him up with Queenie was kind of an afterthought, and Panther sort of mentors him a little in Black Panther #23, one of my favorite issues (with some amazing character work by Sal Velluto and Bob Almond).

All along I’d planned some deeper and difficult tribal connection for this kid, the subtext being we--all African Americans--have a rich heritage far too many of us know nothing about. Chante Giovanni Brown thought “QDJ” was just a nickname, a one-off of Queen Latifah.

She didn’t realize she was, literally, a queen (of the Jabari tribe, named for my dear friend and monster R&B producer Bari Taylor). Many of us don’t know our own heritage, where we came from, who we are descended from. Queenie represented that journey of discovery, and she was also there to draw out Panther’s humanity.

Credit: Marvel Comics

A brilliant stroke, thank you Sal Velluto, was his depiction of Ororo Munroe (Storm) as a child--drawing her to look exactly like Queenie. It was a nice touch and added value to the Panther-Queenie relationship. He’s known Ororo all his life; QDJ reminds him of his great passion.

Oh, and wandering off-subject again: No offense to my good friend Reginald Hudlin, but the whole point of the T’Challa-Storm relationship, as I saw it, was they would never actually get together. It was an ages-long unconsummated love.

The worst thing a writer can do with a relationship like that is move toward the logical end because it ends everything that was interesting about the relationship. It buys you an event book and maybe a sales bump, but ends up causing more harm than good in terms of long-term characterization. When Jeannie married Major Nelson in I Dream of Jeannie, the series had nowhere to go.

Other than his mother, Ramonda, Storm is the only human being on the planet Panther cannot B.S. She sees right through him, knows him far too intimately.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Nrama: And what about the White Wolf?

Priest: Oh, that’s easy: Kevin Spacey. His Southern Gentleman from Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Now much more obvious as the sinister, scene-chewing politico from House of Cards.

The White Wolf was (also obviously) the Black Panther’s “Reverse Flash.” It seemed an obvious opportunity. My approach to Panther was always to have him defined by those around him (as opposed to Panther talking about himself).

Nrama: Can you talk your depiction of Erik Killmonger?

Priest: I really liked Don McGregor’s basic character design, but I wanted to explore a Wakandan native who’d been corrupted by western values. I believe T’Challa could speak English with a flawless American accent if he wanted to; I mean, if Hugh Laurie can do it, I’m sure Panther could. But he chooses to speak in (what I presume) is a lyrical and partially archaic speech pattern.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Erik doesn’t mind being called “Erik.” He eats at McDonald’s. He wants Wakanda open for commerce and trade and is ready to open Wakanda-Disney. He is Black Panther without those pesky ethics. But he does, however, know all the tribal rules and knows how to use Parliamentary technicalities against the monarch.

Again, kudos to Sal and Bob for the brilliant full-issue battle between the two.

Nrama: And when did you find yourself realizing Black Panther was going to go on for a while?

When Marvel Editor Ruben Diaz called and yelled at me to get the script in for #13. I had assumed the book was cancelled. I’d actually gone off to do something else when I got the call. I don’t specifically recall why I thought the book had been cancelled, but I did. The fact there actually was an #13 actually impressed me, that Marvel really was trying to make a go of this.

It was one of their best reviewed and yet lowest selling books. Ironically, the run has gained in popularity after its demise, kind of like the original Star Trek TV show. It is favorably remembered and highly regarded, having won fans long after the fact.

I believe Reginald Hudlin’s run is in large measure responsible for this, because he brought along a much bigger audience, many of whom later went back and read the old stuff as well.

And then there are mainstream fans who either weren’t into comics at the time or who were skeptical about Panther--not (just) because he’s black, but because he’d been--no offense to any other writer--dull; the guy standing in the back row of the Avengers group photo. It’d be like giving Despero, from Justice League Task Force, his own book.

Only in a kind retrospect did the series grow more fans than it did when we were an active run.

I’ve actually had a recent discussion with Marvel about the possibility of returning to Panther in some fashion. Never say never, but I believe Marvel has graciously allowed me an incredible opportunity to say virtually everything I wanted to say about Panther. I’d hate to return to the character and the new stuff not hold up, and I’d hate to end up competing with myself.

I would, however, eagerly participate in a Milestone-branded Black Panther, but I’m sure that’s unlikely to happen.

There’s a host of exciting new writers who’ve energized comics over the past decade. It really is their turn to take us places and amaze us, and I’d love to see what ideas they have for this character and premise.

In the final part of our interview, Priest talks his “Enemy of the State” stories, the “other” Panther Kasper Cole, and his thoughts on the upcoming Black Panther movie.

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