Christopher Priest helped make a name for himself in comic books with his unconventional but seminal run on Black Panther under the Marvel Knights imprint, and on the twentieth anniversary of that work he's returning for one last story - but it's not starring Black Panther.
Priest returns in February 21's Black Panther Annual #1 with a 12-page story about Everett K. Ross, whom the writer has framed as the actual star of his 1998-2003 run - and who is now played on film by Martin Freeman. Priest's new story will be drawn by Mike Perkins, and if you remember Priest's Black Panther we can assure you that his new story is just as humorous.
Newsarama spoke with Priest about this return - 15 years since he signed off on Black Panther - and the larger picture of the franchise and, of course, the film.
Newsarama: Priest, your Black Panther Annual #1 story features Everett K. Ross. What's it like revisiting him?
Christopher Priest: Like dropping in on your cousin Kenny, whom you haven’t seen in a bunch of years. Past the hugs at the door, you don’t know what to say. “So... how’s it goin’?”
My Black Panther run really wasn’t about Black Panther. It was about Ross. It was about exploding myths about black superheroes, black characters and black people, targeted specifically at a white male-dominated retailer base. I wanted Ross to be the voice of the skeptical fan who, for years, kind of took this character for granted - the guy in the black suit standing in the back of the Avengers class photo. I was nervous about writing the character in the first place unless I could reimagine him as more capable and more dangerous; a guy who more than earns his seat at the table. I needed Ross to help guide the reader along that transition.
Okay, so skip ahead 20 years and now the current fanbase has no idea what I’m talking about. Most current Panther fans only know him as this technological savant and incredibly capable (if manipulative) protagonist. Few, if any, remember the years where Panther was taken completely for granted, or the Marvel Knights launch where fans all but picketed Central Park South in protest because I gave Panther an iPhone. It’s hard to remember that - a broad range of fans literally outraged that we made Panther’s costume bullet-proof and gave him a Kimoyo Card. “How daaaare you?!?!”
So, what do we do with Ross, now? How does Ross serve a series in this context where he no longer represents fan expectations? That was a tough question for me. Ultimately, I told myself, “Eh, it’s just eight pages,” and just had fun with it.
Nrama: What can you say about the story?
Priest: It was eight pages. Then it was 12.
Priest: The basic plot is a Wakandan diplomat, who was delivering proprietary Wakandan technology to the United States is found murdered, and Panther is suspected of having done it. So, the cops turn to Ross to help them with their case, and hilarity ensues.
Nrama: What do you think of Martin Freeman playing Everett K. Ross in the movies?
Priest: I’m thrilled! Freeman is hilarious. However, so far as I have seen (“The story thus far...”), the movie Ross bears little resemblance to the comic book Ross, which concerns me a little in that the film may not be making the best use of Freeman’s amazing gifts.
Humor was key to our Panther run. Rather than go blaxploitation (70’s Luke Cage, Brother Voodoo) or Liberal Guilt (the epidemic of black supporting characters strapping on the main hero’s costume - I mean, stop it. Stop it now), I believe we successfully rehabilitated the Panther in Marvel’s pantheon by back-dooring core concepts through humor. Credit for that goes to Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti. My first draft of Marvel Knights Black Panther was not funny at all. They smartly rejected the entire script and counseled me to inject liberal does of humor into very serious subject matter. Add water and stir.
Nrama: This is a small story, but could you see yourself doing more Black Panther stories down the line?
Priest: No. [Laughs] No, no, no. I sent T’Challa into outer space once. Black Panther In Outer Space. That’s jump-the-shark territory, dude. No, T’Challa belongs to a new generation of brilliant writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates. I’m a fan.
Nrama: Let’s talk about that – what’s your impressions of Coates’ Black Panther run so far?
Priest: I’ve read some of it and think it’s brilliant and uniquely his own. Glad new writers are finding their own voice with the character while, especially in Mr. Coates’ case, writing important stories and reminding us of how powerful a vehicle comic books can be for social change.
However, full disclosure, I don’t read comics. I’m like an actor who obnoxiously says he doesn’t watch his own TV show. It is extremely rare for me to read my own comics and have asked publishers to please stop sending them to me. When you write comics all day every day, the last thing you want to do to relax is read comics.
I want to be a novelist when I grow up. Shameless plug: christopherpriest.com/amazon is where you can find my novels. DC hired me to write a trio of Green Lantern prose novels and I just got hooked on it. But it’s hard to translate a career in comics into that ultra-competitive publishing forum where nobody knows who I am. I am currently engaged to write a novella for Lion Forge Comics and have plans to co-write a novel for Milestone Media with my friend Reginald Hudlin.
Meanwhile, exciting new things are breaking here at Marvel that I hope to be a part of in 2018, so stay tuned!
Nrama: Even with what you said before, any loose Black Panther ideas come to you since you last wrote him?
Priest: No. Seriously. If I was assigned that book, I’d have no idea what to do.
Nrama: [Laughs] Had to ask. Sorry about that…
Priest: Besides that, I’m so happy DC is letting me write white characters. Thank you thank you thank you thank you Dan DiDio and Jim Lee and Bob Harras and God bless us everyone!! People keep asking why I stopped writing comics. I stopped writing comics because all I was being offered were black characters. Now I’m writing Justice League. Doesn’t get any whiter than that. [Laughs] (Thanks also to Marvel, of course - although I’m not sure if the Inhumans actually count - I mean, they’re Inhuman!, and, thankfully, well beyond issues like race or sexual orientation).
It’s just really nice to be competitive again, to be a writer again, as opposed to being a “black writer,” whatever that means.
Nrama: What are your thoughts on the upcoming Black Panther movie?
Priest: The film looks utterly amazing. I was on the Wakanda location with Chadwick Boseman and Lupita Nyong’o, and the scale here is amazing. This will likely be the biggest film with a majority-black cast ever made - and it’s a superhero movie!! One (hopefully, please, please) with my name somewhere in the thousands of credits. It’s just, thus far, I’ve seen no humor in it. I have to believe there must be some, I mean, why hire Freeman, for one example. But I hope the film does not take itself so seriously or preach so hard that it alienates or divides rather than does what is essential for the film, the character, and, frankly, a politically polarized America.
We, America, have to move past the ideology - the tribalism that grips this country. As ridiculous as this sounds, I believe Black Panther, the film, could help us do that if it addresses issues of tribal polarization and, by extension, racism, xenophobia and homophobia in an entertaining, non-preachy way. I told Kevin Feige on set, “Look a’here: you have to understand this is so much more than just the next Marvel superhero movie. Not just Panther fans - All of Black America is watching you on this thing. Don’t blow it.” Somewhere, in all of that amazing, glorious eye candy, there’s got to be a joke. Martin: we’re counting on you. Oh, gosh, please be funny.