Afro-futurism & the spirit of the Panther: Christopher Priest at Tucson Comic-Con

For more than four decades, comic-book writer and ordained Baptist priest Christopher Priest has witnessed the evolution of the stories of characters such as Batman, Superman, Black Panther and more. 

He said being a writer is a 24/7 job and a “mixed blessing” for him.

“Being a writer – there’s no holidays, no days off,” Priest said. “It is fairly isolating. Plus, you’re always trying to solve a problem. You’ve got Batman, trapped inside a giant teacup — the Riddler has trapped him inside the giant teacup — and you’re trying to figure out how to get Batman out of the giant teacup.”

He said there is a challenge in story continuity, especially for characters who have existed within a publisher’s canon for multiple generations of writers.

“So, they’ve had Batman for 85 years,” Priest said. “Your job is to come up with an original Batman story, something we’ve never seen before. And usually it has to coincide with some event that the company is doing. You have to be creative with a gun to your head. You’re constantly under pressure. You’re constantly under stress.”

Priest said when young people who aspire to break into the comic-book industry ask him for advice, he tends to tell them to “do something else.” Especially because he wasn’t warned about the way being a writer would affect his life.

“I warn them how it’s difficult on relationships,” Priest said. “On my honeymoon, I was in the Poconos, and everything is shaped like a heart — the bathtub was shaped like a heart — and an idea for a story occurs to me,” Priest said. “And my wife and I are talking and all of a sudden, I flipped this cocktail napkin over and start scribbling down this idea. And she just loses it and I hold up the napkin and said, ‘Look honey, see this napkin? This is rent money.’ I wish someone had warned me how hard it is on relationships and that most people don’t understand. It’s like a mixed blessing.”

A large part of Priest’s career is his contribution to the “Black Panther” canon.

“As a writer, when I was offered the Black Panther book, I didn’t want to have anything to do with it. And I had to get talked into it,” Priest said. “Black Panther had just been kind of languishing for a while, and with all due respect to the other writers, it wasn’t my cup of tea. He was getting beat up, dragged behind pickup trucks and his costume was getting ripped every issue — and they were kind of treating him like Tarzan. They we’re confusing him with Tarzan, and Black Panther is not Tarzan, you know. I had to go back to the source, back to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.”

Priest said that Black Panther in his introduction in the “Fantastic Four” comics, he was a technological genius who “outsmarted the world’s greatest superhero team, beat them single-handedly and laughed at them.”

“He laughed at them, ‘HA! HA! HA!, and I went, ‘That’s the Black Panther’,” Priest said. “But over the years, it seems the subsequent writers forgot that or didn’t process it very well. They started treating him as they did other African American heroes.”

When Priest picked up the Panther, he gave him a bulletproof costume and a Kimoyo Card, which was a “playing card that worked like an iPhone.”

“The Black Panther ‘purists’ – and I’m using air quotes,” Priest said. “They were outraged. Like ‘how dare you give him a bulletproof costume?’ They liked him as Tarzan and there was this uproar and hate mail. And there was no iPhones back then.”

During this time, the Dora Milaje were also introduced. They are known now as the all-female warrior army who work to defend Wakanda.

“We created this political substructure because if there is so much tribal conflict in the African continent, why would Wakanda be exempt from that,” Priest said. “It occurred to me that the smart thing to do would be for Panther to have a representative of each of the various tribes to be connected to him in some way. I came up with the idea of the Dora Milaje and I created them as sort of nuns, a religious order with fighting skills who are going to protect the king. And he might have feelings for one of several of them but he can’t act on them because everything might dissolve back into tribal conflict. There’s this unattainable romance and the discipline. We must be held in stasis or we risk the kingdom.”

“The great thing about the Black Panther is it created a model that we’ve never had before of what we could be,” Priest said. “He modeled this vision that our children need to see.”

Priest is currently working on several comic books. One is “Superman: Lost,” which follows Lois Lane as she “tries to help her man reenter his life after he had been lost in space. It’s inspired in some ways by the film, ‘Coming Home.'”

He is also working on “Vampirella/Dracula: Rage,” which shows a different side of Vampirella as her newborn gets stolen from the hospital and she “becomes the thing in the dark that’s coming after you.” 

He also has a series in the work called “Entropy” through Heavy Metal Magazine, another comic book series titled “Babylon” with artist David Yarden and a Marvel Comics project.