Interview: Christopher Priest on Being Black in Comics and the Industry's Future

Christopher Priest has been working in comics for 40 years and writing them for more than 30 [...]

Christopher Priest has been working in comics for 40 years and writing them for more than 30 years. Priest began work at Marvel Comics as an intern then editor, becoming the first African-American editor in mainstream comics. He has also produced work at DC Comics, Valiant Entertainment, and many other publishers, in addition to helping establish Milestone Media. In the '90s, Priest began a 60-issue run of Black Panther that is considered by many to be the definitive work on the character. His experience in comics has covered almost every aspect of production, both creative and technical. During that time he also worked as a musician, author, and minister. Simply put, his is a life well-lived.

Priest recently returned to comics to write Deathstroke and currently writes Justice League as well. He sat down with to discuss the release of Black Panther and comics today. In the second half of this two-part interview, Priest focuses on the experience of being a black writer in mainstream comics and the industry's future.

Christopher Priest Interview - 2 - Deathstroke
(Photo: DC Entertainment) What was it that brought you back to comics this time? Was there any specific appeal that made you want to return for Deathstroke?

Christopher Priest: They just offered it to me. I was home minding my own business. For years I would get a call every 18 months from either Marvel or DC where they would inevitably offer me a character of color, a black character or Latino character. I would politely decline and then pitch them on Potato-Man or Spud-Boy or whatever. They'd go, "Eh, we don't really know." We'd have this conversation, and I would thank them for calling and plan to see them in 18 months. Then 18 months later I'd get a call from Marvel or DC, and we'd do the dance all over again.

So I got a call from DC, and they wanted to talk to me about Cyborg. I gave them the standard stump speech. I don't want to be a "black writer." When did I become a black writer? I used to be a guy who would write Spider-Man, Deadpool, and Batman. Why am I no longer qualified to write those characters? How did I get typecast from writing Black Panther of all things, when that series was never really about Black Panther. It was about the white guy, about Ross. It was narrated through his voice, and I thought I wrote a very well-constructed white character. Why are you now pigeonholing me as a guy who can only write black characters?

I later found out that Marvel and, to a lesser extent, DC moved into a trend where they were no longer hiring writers—they were casting writers. They're listening to chatter on Twitter insisting that only a black lesbian writer could write a black lesbian character, and that's nonsense. A writer writes. Tom Clancy, rest his soul, could write anything. A writer writes. All of the sudden I was no longer qualified to write anybody that didn't look like me, and I resented that. I was really polite about it and told DC thank you for calling, blah, blah, blah.

Then a day or two later I got another call from DC, and they asked me about Deathstroke. I asked if he was black, they said no, and I said, "OK, I'm listening." We started having a conversation about Deathstroke. It wasn't just that the character wasn't black; we were talking about a character with a lot of untapped potential for me to get inside his head and mine new ground with him. I wasn't going to come back to comic book companies until they offered me something I could get energized about. I left comics because they stopped offering me anything but black characters. Now, ironically, both Marvel and DC and some of the independents, are talking about a whole range of things. That's much better. Maybe they're changing or the industry is changing.

You've been able to break your own history of typecasting on recent series like Deathstroke, Justice League, and Inhumans. Do you think most other writers of color in comics are still facing that same problem?

I would imagine so. I really felt that for many years when people picked up the phone to call me the first thing they thought was "black," and my suspicions were confirmed. I resented that. I can write anything. A lot of my co-creators of color and female writers can write anything. Just give them a chance.

You have to become master of your particular universe. I wrote a novel called 1999. It's my Astro City, a self-contained superhero universe. The main character is this police officer who's Irish. I knew nothing about Irish people, so I spent time doing research. I wrote a novel about a black female New York City arson investigator. I know nothing about being a firefighter. I know nothing about their apparatus or tactics, but you research, you get on the phone, you track people down, and you talk to actual firefighters. You find out about all this. Once you master this universe, then you sit down and start writing about it. I think I wrote a convincing Irishmen, a convincing black woman, a convincing firefighter. I know the lingo and the equipment, and my writing has authority because of it.

Don't tell me I can't write a Chinese lesbian superhero. That's bullshit. I can write anything. The problem is the two major companies don't have anybody of color in upper management with the exception of Jim Lee. There are certainly no African Americans in upper management. Anytime I'm writing anything about race now, I get all of these notes back where they're wringing their hands and not sure about anything. They're terrified of the Twitter-verse, but half of those people aren't even reading your comics either. They're reading it online or heard it somewhere or pirated it, but they're not buying your comics. They're getting on Twitter and you're terrified of them and guiding your publishing program based on it. Just do good stories, well-told, and you'll see the return on it.

You were once going to take the role of editor-in-chief at Milestone. Does that sort of leadership role, either as an editor or someone supervising a line of comics, still interest you?

Well, yes and no. I think the conditions would have to be right. Having to relocate gets complicated in terms of finances and so forth. Joe Illidge is the editor-in-chief of Lion Forge [Ed. note: Illidge's official title is Senior Editor] and is based out of New York, but Lion Forge is in St. Louis. That's a great situation, and something I would strongly consider. A lot of these places want you to be on site, and I would have to go there.

With Milestone there were some differences between the partners when we were developing the Milestone brand. Initially, that was going to be my role; I was going to be in the Dwayne McDuffie role. Dwayne was going to be focused on writing, and I'd be the guy in the office. At the last minute the compromise we came to is that I would be the in-house liaison at DC Comics and Dwayne stepped into that role, kind of reluctantly. He did it because he was the only guy really qualified. He knew all of these characters, he co-created all of these characters, and he was the smartest guy in any room he happened to be standing in. Dwayne was a great guy. He did not have the kind of ambition where he wanted his name above the title. He didn't seek the sort of political "I am the boss" stature. He stepped into it because that's what it needed to be.

I stepped away from Milestone because I thought it was more important that Milestone exist than I be a part of it. For me to stay there and be in a contentious relationship with some of the partners, I had the sense that could undermine the whole deal if DC got a whiff of it. I didn't want to be the cause of that, so I stepped away because it was too important that this thing move forward. Ironically, Dwayne did the opposite where he moved closer because he needed to fill the vacuum.

You've worked with both of the largest direct market publishers for a long time and have had a lot of experience in American comics at different levels and positions. When you look at the future of the industry, do you feel optimistic or pessimistic?

[long pause] The industry has to change from top to bottom. The bottom end of the industry feeds into this chokehold of a distribution system. I'm not knocking Diamond or saying they're bad guys. I'm just saying they're the only gig in town. Anytime Marvel releases a movie there are X number of hundreds of millions of people who buy a ticket to this movie and the movie makes X hundreds of millions of dollars based upon those tickets sales. Why are we selling 35,000 copies of Banana-Man or whatever? Why are we not tapping that market in any significant way? It's ridiculous that we are not accessing this in any significant way. That's the bottom end.

The top end of it is that the industry is still too small. It's still controlled by a handful of people, and if you piss one of them off, then you're unemployed. That's got to stop. There's only a handful of people whose personal sensibilities determine which books get greenlit. They need to be willing to greenlight books they don't even like. I don't understand half of what Garth Ennis writes, but Garth has an enormous gift and huge audience.

Jim Shooter taught me a lot. One of the things he taught me was at a Christmas party. He was handing out gifts, and I said to him, "That was a really nice gift you gave to this person we both know can't stand you." Jim told me it's not important that the guy likes me, it's important that we keep him working here. It's not about me. It's about doing what's right for the company and building this company. We have to get back to doing what's right for the companies. The companies are too insular, way, way, way too male, and way, way, way too white. Until that changes, nothing gets better. They need to get into a mindset where we can stop looking at comics as a loss leader for merchandising and films because that's how both houses are looking at comics now. When they want to start taking the publishing seriously, they're going to have put real money into developing bottom-end distribution. That may anger Diamond and tick off retailers, but that has to happen because you can't keep on this way. You can't keep selling 35,000 copies of Potato-Man; you have to sell 350,000 copies of Potato-Man.

I don't know the answer to that. I think the company that figures it out wins. The company that figures out how to break the chokehold or the bottleneck of distribution wins. I've encouraged Milestone to start drop shipping a bunch of their issues to beauty salons and barber shops around the country. It's a distribution network that's not part of traditional publishing, but distributes to places where people of color congregate and return every week. The complication is if we drop ship those comics, those comics need a rapid return. There needs to be an 800 number or QR code to help them purchase these comics immediately. They are not going to hunt down a comic shop that may be over the dale or down an alley. Until the industry becomes willing to change, both on the top and the bottom, every year we're going to be trying to sell the same product to the same people when a larger audience is clearly there. Why can't we go get them? We gotta fix it.

Read the other half of this interview in which Priest discusses the Black Panther film and character-focused writing in superhero comics here.