The writer for some of comics’ most beloved characters told his story of the journey it took to get there.
The Center for Poets and Writers at Oklahoma State University in Tulsa organized an interview with Christopher Priest, a comic book writer, at the McKeon Center for Creativity. The interview was recorded as part of “Words on Air,” a web series intended to bring discussions about literature and writing to Oklahoma.
Christopher Priest is best known for his work on the “Black Panther” comics, but he has also written at DC and Marvel for series like “Spider-Man,” “Batman” and “Wonder Woman.” He has been writing comic books for almost 40 years and made history as the first black writer and editor at both DC and Marvel, the largest comic book companies in the world.
Although his favorite subject in school was math, Priest wrote his first novel at 10 years old. He had begged his mother for a typewriter and annoyed her by constantly using it. He recalled getting in trouble for typing too much, to which he responded, “I’m not typing, I’m writing!” Even though he admits that his first novel, about Batman, was horrible, Priest has been writing every day since he got that typewriter all those years ago.
Priest stumbled into the comic book world when he was looking for internships at law firms. He had interviews at five law firms and on a whim added one at Marvel comics. Although Priest wanted to be a lawyer, he skipped all of the interviews except the one at Marvel and was chosen as an intern there.
After interning for a year, Marvel hired Priest as a freelance writer. Instead of going to college, Priest was making $65,000 year and living in downtown Bronx at 18 years old. Later, Priest was promoted through the ranks at Marvel to become an editor and full-time writer. Before this, the comic book industry was almost exclusively run by and marketed to white people.
When writing, Priest always tries to bring something new to characters that people already know so well. “I get tired of reading the same comic over and over again,” he complained. Instead, he challenges himself to come up with new and interesting ways to use characters to “say something a little bit different.” This is what motivated him to start exploring darker themes in the “Black Panther” comics that permeate the film as well.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, the new writer for the comics, articulated this shift. Rather than writing Black Panther simply like another hero, Coates believes Priest “thought that Black Panther was a king.”
Jack Kirby and Stan Lee created the Black Panther character in the ‘60s. One of the writers before Priest, Donald McGregor, created the the infrastructure of the tribal systems. Priest, however, created a character that was much more intense, serious and “cool” than audiences had seen before. Priest worked with the creative directors of the film to make decisions about costuming and aesthetics of Wakanda and its people.
While in a meeting about the film, Priest expressed concern that it would not be popular because the characters were too polarizing for audiences. He remembers telling them, “I’d really hate for this to be the first Marvel film that fails because it’s a black character.”
The executives laughed and ensured him that the people would love it. They were right; “Black Panther” broke records when it hit box offices, making $631 million in domestic ticket sales. This was the highest-grossing and highest-budget film in history with a predominantly black cast.
Priest praises the filmmakers for adapting his ideas in the comic to appeal to a massive audience. He believes that the film is about more than race; rather, it is the “‘Lion King’ of superhero movies” because it focuses on universal concepts like family values, respect and finding common ground that everyone can relate to. By doing this, the film was able to allow people to relate to and empathize with problems that are relevant and can be applied outside of the film itself.
When Priest was writing “Black Panther,” the problem of relatability was something that he struggled with. He found that “a black character was a very hard sell and we had to overcome that.” This is why he chose to focus his writing on Everett K. Ross, played by Martin Freeman in the film, and his cultural awakening. By allowing the audience to relate to a white character and share his experiences, Priest could control their understanding of the Black Panther and “explode myths about the black community” by doing so.
In spite of finding massive success in comic writing, Priest took a break after feeling that he had fallen into a hole in the industry. He found that he was almost exclusively asked to write about characters of color and felt that he was no longer a universal writer, but rather “just a black writer” to the executives. This gave him the impression that he was not being taken seriously because he couldn’t work on the big name series like “Batman,” which has always been his favorite.
However, Priest is currently working on new projects. After finishing some writing on “Spider-Man,” Priest started working on a newer character, Deathstroke, with DC. “Deathstroke” is being considered for a solo film in the future. He does hope to have the opportunity to return to some of his favorites. Looking to the camera, Priest laughed, saying, “If you’re listening, DC, I’m still available to write ‘Batman.’”