Writer Christopher Priest who had a 60-issue run on Black Panther in the ’90s and is currently writing Deathstroke and Justice League for DC Comics pointed out a number of major problems affecting the comic book industry in an interview with ComicBook.com.
And he didn’t waste any time pointing out those problems. Priest describes a recent conversation he had with DC Comics about him writing a possible Cyborg series.
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?
That’s when Christopher Priest answers his own question. His answer cuts right to one of the major problems in current mainstream comics.
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.
You read that right. Marvel and to a lesser extent DC were typecasting their writers so only certain demographics could write certain stories. The most explicit example of this happened when Marvel put openly racist Gabby Rivera on America. The latest sales data indicates that book only shipped 7,388 issues. What’s interesting is you are really seeing a push for this type of behavior in movies. Most recently, Joss Whedon left DC’s Batgirl film. While Whedon said he didn’t have a story, The Hollywood Reporter believed he was being pushed out in favor of a female director.
But Christopher Priest wasn’t done. He revealed why he left comics and believed there might be some changes happening.
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.
Priest would then go on to explain he’s perfectly capable of writing any kind of character.
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.
But then Christopher Priest would go on to completely embarrass the two major comics company and describe them as “terrified of the Twitter-verse.”
“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.”
This is exactly what many actual fans have been saying for a number of years. These Twitter-verse bullies forced DC Comics to pull a variant cover for Batgirl because it homaged The Killing Joke storyline. They also forced Marvel to pull a Spider-Woman cover because they didn’t like the way Spider-Woman was crouched! The recent rise in popularity of YouTuber Diversity & Comics has really brought the issue to the forefront. His criticism has been harsh, but he’s also not afraid to promote excellent stories by creators he might personally disagree with.
Finally, Christopher Priest declared the comics “industry has to change from top to bottom.” He asked the question many have been asking about why DC Comics and Marvel Comics are not tapping into this enormous audience that is watching the movies.
“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.”
He would then go onto criticize the internal politics at DC and Marvel.
“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.”
He would then offer a solution that he learned from Jim Shooter. DC and Marvel need to get back to doing what’s right for the companies.
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.
However, Christopher Priest would then add both Marvel and DC are “way, way, way too male, and way, way, way too white. Until that changes, nothing gets better.” That’s really interesting from the guy who just stated that he can write any character he wants. Why wouldn’t white males be able to manage the company? Why would you focus on race and gender if you are looking out for what’s right for the companies? Wouldn’t you just want the best person for the job no matter what they looked like? Wouldn’t you want the person who can figure out how to “put real money into developing bottom-end distribution … [so] you can sell 350,00 copies of Potato-Man.”
Priest makes a lot of good points and does a good job at pointing out some of the problems of the comic book industry. However, some of the solutions he offers directly conflict with the problems he points out as a creator.
Christopher Priest teams up with artist Carlo Pagulayan for Deathstroke #30 which launches a brand new story arc where Deathstroke takes on Batman!