Despite being an Eisner-nominated writer and being responsible for some of the most critically acclaimed runs on fan-favorite comic books, Christopher Priest is not only excited by the prospect of writing Justice League. He's also a little scared.
For Priest's run, which starts with this week's Justice League #34, the writer will be trying something a little different with the characters, putting them in more realistic situations and turning "inward" to examine the members of the Justice League, particularly Batman.
The writer is hoping readers will give the new approach a chance - and, he jokingly says, that they won't kill him - but he's also aware of how important these characters are to fans and the DCU, and thus the responsibility he's been given as the writer of Justice League.
Working with artist Pete Woods, Priest will start his run with Justice League #34. Last year, Priest helped relaunch Deathstroke as part of DC's "Rebirth" initiative, which won him a nomination for an Eisner.
Newsarama talked to Priest about why writing Justice League is both exciting and scary, what it's like to work with Woods on the book, and what readers can expect from his run on Justice League.
Newsarama: What's it been like to step into the world of these characters and try to do something new with them as a group? Daunting at all? Or a fun challenge?
Christopher Priest: It’s been hell.
Now, don’t get me wrong: other than Deathstroke, Justice League is the first gig I’ve had in a long time where I actually get up in the morning energized and excited. It feels like driving dad’s car, which was actually more exciting than driving my own car now. With dad’s car you feel an immense sense of responsibility and threat. He’s dad. You want to prove you’re responsible, you want dad to be proud of you. You also don’t want to get jammed up for scratching the thing.
The closest comparison I can make is renting a car and declining the phony, over-priced insurance: the girl at the counter goes into convulsions and makes you think the car is made of cardboard and my own auto insurance somehow won’t be enough to pay for a scratch if I get one on this vehicle. So, even though I am carrying policies which cover the rental car, I’m still nervous and overly-cautious when driving it.
This is what writing Justice League feels like: exhilarating and scary. I honestly don’t understand how other writers do this.
Nrama: You're well known for putting characters through tough personal challenges and introspection. Are you looking at something similar for the Justice League?
Priest: I’m doing exactly that with Justice League. It’s not even much of a choice for me. There was no other direction in which to go. Literally everything that could be done with the Justice League has been done with the Justice League. So, rather than fake it by repeating what others have done, The Epic Adventure: Attack of Every Villain We’ve Ever Seen, I turned inward, giving this book a distinctly different tone from Bryan Hitch’s Justice League or Steve Orlando’s wonderful Justice League of America.
Nrama: Anything you can tell us about which character (or characters) might be put through the wringer first?
Priest: Well, our story arc, called “The People vs. Justice League”, is basically about making a piñata out of Batman and having the team whack him to see what candy falls out. Taking a literal view of the character: there’s a price to be paid for the lifestyle Batman lives. He’s just all over the place, leading two JL teams and a bunch of Bat-people over in Detective Comics. Now, we can just do comic book magic and not pay all that much attention to the larger tapestry of Batman’s over-exposure, or we can follow out this character beat and explore what would actually happen to a human being pulled in as many directions at once. Welcome to Justice League.
Our arc is pretty much about the disintegration of Batman and, as a result, exploring why he is essential to the League.
Nrama: From the descriptions of upcoming issues, it seems like the rest of the League is getting put through some tough challenges too - a viral video and a Congressional investigation. Are you examining the group's existence as well?
Priest: What I am doing is taking the approach Geoff Johns helped me develop for Deathstroke - refocus it in a more reality-based (and thus better translatable to TV and film) approach. What if there really was a guy named Slade Wilson who killed people for a living? What impact would that lifestyle ultimately have on him? On his wife and children? Realistically, how long could someone stay in that life before it began to erode his own humanity?
While not totally new or innovative, this is less-explored territory with the Justice League, especially in our highly polarized political environment. “Justice” actually means different things to different people. All right, now drop this group of superheroes into this mess we live in. How do they define “justice?” How will they handle problems the League cannot solve with their fists, with their power rings or magic lassos?
Moreover, how will the world respond to them? The Silver Age of the average man on the DCU street cheering the heroes on is an anachronism now. If the League were real, today, they’d most likely be sued by every person they ever saved. They’d be subpoenaed by every authority in every jurisdiction imaginable; hearings upon hearings. There’d be waves of accolades followed by tsunamis of boos from social media. They’d be more feared than loved, blamed as much for not doing something as for doing anything.
This is the environment that interests me, what Stan Lee used to call, “The World Outside Our Window,” much more so than the benign idealized Silver Age world in which this group was originally formed.
Nrama: Do these issues in Justice League serve as a reflection of similar issues plaguing society as a whole?
Priest: Yes, but hopefully not in an artificial or ham-handed way. Not “A Special Issue of Justice League,” but more finding a tone with which to infuse a healthy dose of realism into the superhero archetype.
Now, wait, a lot of fans aren’t all that into realism. Escapism has its place. I used to write Conan the Barbarian for Marvel, which takes place in an environment completely removed from the real world. So there’s no telling whether or not our take on Justice League will appeal to everybody.
I can write the Big Monster, the Alien Attack, or the Treacherous Supervillain, but I’m not doing that here because that would be me doing what everybody else does with Justice League and competing with those other voices. With virtually all other thematic exits blocked, here’s the fire staircase most readily available to me: deconstructive realism.
I was (and still am) a huge fan of Denny O’Neil, the man who, along with Jim Shooter, taught me how to write comics. Denny, who often paired with legendary photorealist artist Neal Adams, always brought a refreshing Steve Bochco (Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue) sensibility to whatever he was doing. I was terribly excited to read Denny’s Superman. Seriously: I literally sat outside my local candy store waiting for the truck to pull up. I knew what day that truck came, and I was so excited for that next installment. I’d be there waiting. As I suspected and, later - when I actually got to know him - confirmed, Denny really didn’t want to write Superman. That was editor Julie Schwartz’s idea. But Denny wrote a groundbreaking Superman, a run that challenged everything we thought we knew about the character.
Full disclosure: I’m actually treating Superman more iconically. Mainly because the voltage of the Big Three - Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman - tends to overpower most any other characters standing next to them. Maybe one day I’ll be invited to write a Superman series, one in which I can get invested in a deep dive. To attempt that in Justice League would tilt the horizon too much; the book would become Superman & His Amazing Friends, which DC has not asked me for.
However I do attempt to kick the shins of the long-in-the-tooth franchise. Pete Woods’ and my Justice League is like no other Justice League book ever published. Now, I’m not bragging. What I mean is it is a very specific animal. I’m not saying it’s actually any good - that’s for the readers to decide. But I can say you’ve never read a JL like this. Which, for me at least, is terrifying.
I got amazing hate mail for my Marvel Knights Black Panther, which seems funny 20 years later where that run has found an audience and retailers can’t keep the early volumes in stock. But, at the time, my take on Panther was so different (“How dare you give Panther an iPhone?!?”), we were just openly reviled. This Justice League is not nearly as big a turn in the road as that, but it is a new and unique voice. If history repeats itself, I (specifically) will be reviled and the book will be a huge hit in about 20 years.
Nrama: Along the same lines as the rest of the "realism" you've talk about, you've got a villain coming up that appears to warn of the dangers of fame.
Priest: Yes. We’re introducing a new character - I’m slow to call him a “villain” so much as he is an antagonist. His name is, literally, the Fan, and he is, literally, the Justice League’s biggest fan. The League saved his life when he was a youth, and he’s trained his entire life to follow in their footsteps. But he also feels like, in some areas, he knows better than they do, so he ends up “helping” them by killing their enemies and, in some cases, blocking their way.
Nrama: Are you planning to change the team make-up at all? Expanding the team? Or messing with the line-up at all as you come on board?
Priest: No. Beyond our arc, there are big plans for the League which I obviously can’t discuss yet. In the near term, we are dealing with the eight core members, examining the stress points between these personalities and applying pressure. In that sense, our Justice League is a lot like a workplace drama, telling stories which could only happen when this unique assembly of personalities are together.
Nrama: Let's talk about what it's been like to get to know these characters. Have any of the team members surprised you?
Priest: Oh, they’ve all surprised me. The DCU has changed over and over since I last wrote many of these characters, so I’m having to learn everybody now. Superman and Batman are fathers, Aquaman’s a king then he’s not, Barry Allen is now kind of a wise cracker (read Flash’s dialogue with Mark Waid’s voice; I’m using Waid as my model for Barry). I’ve never written Cyborg but have discussed him with David Walker, Kevin Grievioux and others.
Simon and Jessica are completely new to me so I’m still forming opinions about them. In the old days, a writer could take six issue to have a honeymoon with a new character and develop their voice. In our extremely competitive sales environment, that’s just not possible; I have to nail it in issue one.
Nrama: You mentioned working with Pete on the title. What's it been like working with him? Can you describe what he brings to the book?
Priest: Pete brings a completely new an unique artistic voice to the Justice League. A terrific draftsman, Pete works in a highly stylized, high-energy approach where he is master of his artistic domain - penciller, inker and colorist. Wearing all three hats gives Pete the opportunity to layer on different styles and textures, creating a distinctive and progressive look that breaks the mold of traditional superhero comics house styles.
He is also an amazing storyteller with a keen eye for plot detail. Pete is heavily invested in storytelling, which is not to say the story is more important than the art, but that the art is the story: it’s all visual storytelling. Rather than compete with me or showcase his talent at the expense of clarity, Pete sticks to the mission: Tell The Story, and he does it better than almost any artist I’ve ever worked with. His work is so clean, the storytelling so visually pristine, that it really doesn’t even need words to tell what is happening (but, don’t worry, I promise I’ll clutter up the pages with my usual blather).
I’m very excited about having Pete aboard and hope the readers dig his stuff as much as I do.
Nrama: Anything else you want to tell fans about your run on Justice League?
Priest: Yes. Please don’t kill me.