Interview: Christopher Priest Talks 'Black Panther' and His Focus on Character

Christopher Priest has been working in comics for 40 years and writing them for more than 30. Priest began work at Marvel Comics as an intern only to become 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 ComicBook.com to discuss the release of Black Panther and comics today. In the first half of this two-part interview, Priest focuses on the impact of the film and his character-based approach to comics.

Christopher Priest Interview - 1 - Black Panther
(Photo: Marvel Entertainment)

ComicBook.com: We’re seeing a lot of pieces and conversations about the release of Black Panther and what it means for superheroes and movies and cultures. I’m curious what it means to you personally as someone who contributed so much to the character and created much of what we see in the film.

Christopher Priest: The film is a mashup of Don McGregor, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and myself. I see some of me in there, but I also see 75 percent of Don and 20 percent of Ta-Nehisi. What I did was remodel the house. It was Don’s house, and it was Stan’s house. My Black Panther was way colder: more aloof, withdrawn, and unknowable in a lot of ways. We saw him through Everett Ross’s eyes. The Black Panther in the film is much warmer and more likable, which he has to be to appeal to a wide audience.

Initially, I had concerns nobody would go see it because it’s about a black character. I was talking to Nate Moore, an executive producer on the film, during the development process, and I voiced those concerns. He just laughed and said, “They’re going to see the movie.” I didn’t know. He’s a black character, so how are you going to get white audiences to come see this movie? Nate didn’t have a concern in the world about it, and he was right.

When I saw it, I thought this movie is going to have real impact, especially for people of color. I defy any African Americans to make it through the first act of this film without tearing up when you get to Wakanda. When you see Ryan Coogler’s vision for Wakanda by extension you see his vision for what we as a people can achieve if we really pull together, stop squabbling, and get off Facebook. That’s not just black people, but all people. It’s the kind of world we could build if we just stopped the silly stuff, what Barack Obama would call the “silly season." It’s just amazing.

We had seen it in comics. I had described it in scripts. But it’s not the same until you see it on this 40-foot screen in glorious color with the music and outrageous special effects. I was awestruck and not quite prepared for the emotional impact. I’m a pretty cynical person. You can’t move me like that; you can’t The Color Purple me. All black people tear up at the end of The Color Purple. You can’t not tear up at the end of The Color Purple. With Coogler’s film, you tear up at the beginning, because it hits you like a sledgehammer and you realize we’re in for something really special. If it has even a tenth of that effect on mass audiences, then it’s a very special film.

Do you think it has an enhanced impact coming out at this moment in 2018?

I think it’s the right time for it given how polarized America has become over ideology and politics, which extends to race and creed and sexual orientation. At the roots of all that is tribalism, and this film is about tribalism and overcoming tribalism. It has a universal theme that’s applicable to what we’re sadly going through. It offers a lot of hope for what all people can be if we can just get past these artificial divisions, this artery hardening of how we relate.

Do you recognize any of that modern zeitgeist filtering into your own work as you craft new stories for Deathstroke or the Justice League?

I start to build all of my stories from character, so I don’t really come to the table with much of an opinion or agenda. I start with who this character is and what this character wants. Once I understand the character, then we have this business, which is what screenwriters would call the status quo. I have to challenge the status quo and think about this person's wants and how do I throw obstacles in their way. Right now, Justice League appears to be turning political, but it’s not so much politics as it is tribalism and dragging the Justice League into “the real world." If there was a group of people this powerful with transportation technology living on a satellite with no regulation or control in outer space, there would be investigation after investigation, and untold crazy stuff on Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook. I don’t come to Justice League, Deathstroke, or Black Panther with the mindset of wanting to do a political story. I think of what would challenge these heroes and what story haven’t we seen before with this group of people, and I take it from there.

How did you first become involved with Black Panther, and what hooked you into the pitch?

Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti, who were running the Marvel Knights imprint, were given a bunch of characters to develop. They were characters who weren’t doing very well or weren’t high on their priority list. Among them were Inhumans and Daredevil, and there was also Black Panther. They first approached Mark Waid then either Waid or Brian Augustyn suggested me, so Joe and Jimmy called me up. I thought they were going to offer me Daredevil, and it turned out they were offering me Black Panther. I was like, “Who? What? Who? What?”

They pitched the Black Panther to me, and at first I was not interested in doing it. They were persistent and told me to think about it. Mark Waid called me up and told me, "It’s your opportunity to completely reenvision a character. You don’t have to do Roy Thomas or Don McGregor’s Black Panther. You can reinvent the wheel." I thought about it and had another conversation with [Quesada and Palmiotti] and said if I have a relatively free hand in redeveloping the character that would interest me. If I could make him more substantial, a little mysterious, and bring him back to what Stan [Lee] originally envisioned for him, where he was a scientist and a physicist, that would interest me.

He was originally this wonderful inventor with all these little toys. He was a formidable opponent who beat all of the Fantastic Four singlehandedly. That’s the guy. I wouldn’t mind writing that guy. They were very enthusiastic about it. They also wanted me to inject some humor into it because Black Panther had been so serious. I didn’t want to make him funny, but I didn’t mind putting funny people around him. It took off from there.

Everett K. Ross certainly fills that comedic role well in your run. When you created him in Ka-Zar, was it with the intention to use him as a substantial figure in Black Panther?

I had no inkling about Black Panther at the time. Black Panther showed up in Ka-Zar before I was going to write the Marvel Knights Black Panther series. Once we started talking about the book, I wanted a character who could represent the skepticism of the reader, because black characters have been a very hard sell for a number of reasons. People want to read a character they can identify with, and if they’re having trouble identifying with an African king, and who wouldn’t have trouble identifying with an African king, then why don’t I inject a sidekick. Ross was someone the reader could more easily identify with, and that character would easily voice the skepticism of the reader in very funny ways. Rather than me going out and inventing somebody, I had a character already lying around in Ka-Zar and just brought Ross into Black Panther.

You’ve crafted definitive runs for characters like Black Panther and Deathstroke, and it’s apparent you put a lot of thought into them as individuals. What is it about these or other fantastical heroes that helps you sink your teeth in and stick with them?

The more I read about Deathstroke and the more I saw what Marv [Wolfman] and Geoff [Johns] had done, I started to form certain conclusions about him. This is a very dysfunctional human being. He’s a guy that desperately loves and desperately wants to be loved, but he’s not capable of doing either very well. Instead of just telling his daughter he wants to spend time together, he concocts a scheme where an assassin is trying to kill her and demands she stays close to him. That’s all nonsense. He just wants to spend time with her. He’s basically House M.D. with a machine gun. He’s got this fatal flaw, and that’s a terribly interesting character to write and explore, rather than just present him as this larger-than-life villain trying to slaughter everyone in sight.

Black Panther is a guy wearing a lead overcoat which represents responsibility to his people. He’s not allowed to think much about himself or do much for himself. His main responsibility is Wakanda. It occurred to me that Marvel had been playing him as a superhero for a long time, but he’s not really a superhero. That’s a theme I adopted. This guy is a monarch; he’s following his own agenda. People were mad at me when we did this thing where he joined the Avengers to spy on them. I couldn’t figure out why he joined the Avengers, and the only thing that made any logical sense to me was to find out whether these people were a threat. Once he was comfortable they weren’t a threat, he felt OK helping them out from time to time. But his number one responsibility was Wakanda.

You got Aquaman in the Justice League. You had Namor in the Avengers. None of that ever made any sense. These people have obligations that are larger than America or whatever the Avengers and Justice League are up to. I don’t have any particular agenda or loyalty beyond the eccentricities of the character and building logically from that.

The superhero elements seem to take less importance when you approach these characters. Deathstroke is emphasized as a father and Black Panther as a monarch. Are there any certain archetypes you find yourself attracted to?

Black Panther is a guy who denies himself the privilege of being a father and a husband. I would not have done the wedding. In fact, the whole point of the flirtation between T’Challa and Storm when they were kids and as adults, the whole subtext of that, was these two people can never get married. They are desperately the best of friends and love each other in the agape, universal sense, where it could be romantic, but it’s even deeper and more meaningful than romantic love. It’s more functional if they don’t try to make it into something traditional.

That’s the thing with archetypes: You have Flash, Hawkman, Green Lantern, and they’re all essentially the same character. You could switch the word balloons around and it wouldn’t change the story much. Coming from the Silver Age, this is who these characters are, and they aren’t individualized. Now I’m desperate, and every writer is desperate, to find that unique voice about them and spin them to make these characters breathe and come to life.

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Also, with Panther, I should mention I’ve always wanted to write Batman and DC has never let me write Batman. So I was going to make him Marvel’s Batman. While not being a direct copy or parody, he would be this sort of dark avenger who was relatively infallible and always 10 steps ahead of his prey.

Read the other half of this interview in which Priest discusses race in comics and the direct market here.