Christopher Priest is one of those names in comics which has fans waiting with baited breath to see what he does next, much like Brubaker and Snyder. Just like those two writers, he has worked for the big two, and some other independent comics publishing houses, but is now known for his work on the Deathstroke book and is currently writing the Justice League series. He recently had a chance to sit down for an interview and talk about his experience working in the comics industry:
On being pigeonholed as a “black” writer:
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.
On what brought him to work on Deathstroke:
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. 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.
On the problems most comics writers of color face:
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. 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.
On his time at Milestone:
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.
On his ideas for change in outreach to different readers:
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. 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. 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.
He is not only prolific, but his insight speaks to the disparity that rules most commerce including comics, one which the work is far more progressive than those who run the industry.