From Owsley to Priest

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Yet again, one post leads to another.

While writing my “Panther’s Rage” post and anticipating the release of the Black Panther movie back in February, I came across an article during the course of some research that stunned me. While I was aware that Christopher Priest (formerly known as Jim Owsley) had been in and out of the comics game these past thirty-plus years, I had no idea that he had once been reduced to driving buses to make ends meet. This is just a criminal shame, as Priest is an extraordinarily talented writer and creator.

The discovery of that Vulture article inspired me to take a look back at Priest’s career in a blogpost. For those unfamiliar, I think you’ll find the story of the man’s life and work as compelling as any comic-book tale.

In the Beginning

As detailed by Vulture, Jim Owsley had a hard time of it growing up, as he was a “dweeb,” and “kids in his neighborhood weren’t very fond of dweebs.”

We’re not very far apart in age, so I can verify the environment back then. As I’ve detailed previously, in my particular neck of the woods, kids who liked comics were “fags.” We were regularly picked on, bullied, and belittled.

In 1978, Owsley started an internship at Marvel while still in high school and found a spot on the editorial staff a short time thereafter. Again, being just several years apart in age, I feel as though I can readily understand what much of the experience must have been like for him. One example: Frank Miller started his Daredevil run as penciller at almost exactly the same time Owsley began his internship and, like every other young fan (including me), Owsley was gobsmacked by Miller’s talents. As former editor-in-chief Jim Shooter tells it, Owsley was anxious for an introduction to be made:

The sound quality is not the best there, so for those who couldn’t make it out: the young Jim Owsley was at a company party and asked Jim Shooter if Miller would be attending. Shooter assured him he would be, at which point Owsley excitedly requested an introduction. Eventually Miller shows up, Owsley begins gesticulating wildly at Shooter, and Shooter makes the approach. “There’s somebody here who’d like to meet you,” Shooter tells Miller as he waves Owsley over, “he has the same name as me.” So Miller extends a hand to Owsley and says, “Pleased to meet you, Shit-For-Brains!”

(…See, it’s a burn on Shooter. From Miller’s perspective, Shooter’s first name is “Shit-For-Brains.” Get it? …No? Ah, nevermind.)

Anyway, the point is that Owsley was part of that next wave of creators, taking their cue from Miller and trying to create more cinematic, compelling, comic-book stories. He started out working on Crazy magazine (including a stint as managing editor), wrote the No-Prize book, and also worked with Larry Hama on the line of Conan comics (which eventually led to a three-year-run as writer of the flagship Conan title). His first writing assignment for a superhero book was the Falcon miniseries that was published in late ‘83. The first issue was pencilled by Paul Smith a couple years earlier and was originally intended to be a standalone tale to run in Marvel Fanfare; Owsley then added three more stories, drawn by Mark Bright, to turn it into a mini. This was a very solid first effort for both Owsley and Bright, and both men would follow it up with a sizable leap forward, creatively, with their next assignment together.

Power Man and Iron Fist

Power Man and Iron Fist has had an up-and-down history. In the original series, Mary Jo Duffy had the definitive run as writer—a run that lasted a little over three years, from issue #56 (Apr. 1979) to #84 (Aug. 1982). With her departure, the book slipped into a creative coma for more than two years. The writing and artwork were both fairly pedestrian during this stretch, with nothing really happening… in fact, it was like the book didn’t even matter anymore after Duffy left. Then came Owsley.

Power Man and Iron Fist was Owsley’s first regular writing gig on one of Marvel’s ongoing superhero titles. He took over as writer with issue #111 (Nov. 1984) and started off in electrifying fashion, in medias res, as the opening splash shows Luke Cage/Power Man being knocked out of a skyscraper window by a heretofore unknown, costumed figure.

It was the splashiest of splash pages, demonstrating Owsley’s flair for the dramatic. Beginning in the middle like this is also an excellent device for getting the reader hooked into your story immediately.

Note that Owsley’s first three issues (111-113) were penciled by Greg LaRocque; issue #114 was done by the legendary Billy Graham (who also did the cover for #111); then Mark Bright came aboard with issue #115. Where things went from here was pretty well laid out by Owsley in the “1985 Preview Issue” of Amazing Heroes:

Power Man and Iron Fist is heading for a virtual renaissance in the creative department” proclaims Jim Owsley. Working with penciller Mark Bright (they combined their talents earlier on the Falcon miniseries) and inker Jerry Acerno, Owsley is planning a series of major steps [that] he hopes will jolt the book from the limbo that it’s been in for the last couple of years.

In issue #114, Luke Cage and Danny Rand were tricked into signing a contract with Consolidated Conglomerates. Inc. (CCI), a CIA-type organization. The function of the two heroes as “security specialists” sets the stage for events up to issue #125. Bright and Acerno join the series in PM/IF #115, and after that story, it’ll be a long time before Luke and Danny ever see New York again. In fact, they’ll be going practically everywhere but home, according to Owsley.

“Things you’ll never see in Power Man/Iron Fist, as long as I’m writing it… is Luke and Danny wandering into their office, and Jeryn has another crazy scheme” waiting for them, says Owsley, announcing an end to fill-ins and single-issue stories. “They will not be escorting any debutantes to the ball. They will not be hanging out on street corners doing a lot of nothing. In 1985, they won’t be setting foot in their office and probably not even New York.”

However, the shifting locations are not due to the heroes’ work for CCI. In reality, they only go out on one assignment. In issue #115, Luke and Danny are sent to an outpost in Alaska. When a paranoid man at the door detonates a nuclear device to prevent them from entering, the two “end up being trapped underneath this bunker… and no one knows they’re up there.” Owsley won’t reveal details, but that story “sets in motion… a chain reaction of events” that sends them all over the world and beyond, to K’un-Lun as well.

Owsley claims he’s learned a lot from his association with editor Denny O’Neil, and he believes PM/IF will be at its best since the days when Jo Duffy was its scripter. There’s a “very strong continuity” in the new issues. “You hate it if you miss an issue,” he says. “I’m very excited… hopefully, the fans will like it; hopefully, the audience at large will like it. It’s so different from what’s been done in the past five or six years.”

Misty Knight and Colleen Wing, whom Owsley loves, will be out of the series until issue #118 for Colleen, and #121 or #122 for Misty. When they return, Owsley says they’ll look completely different and they will “kick some serious ass.” The supporting cast is being completely dropped, in favor of a new collection of characters that Owsley’s working on. (Amazing Heroes #62, January 1, 1985, p. 97)

…Clearly, this was a young writer with vision and passion.

His Own Style

Aside from whipping up compelling plots and bringing back running continuity in the strip (the previous ten months had felt like they were all one-off, fill-in assignments), Owsley had his own film-auteur style. For example, take the nuclear device going off, as mentioned by Owsley, above. There were no credits (nor even a formal title) listed at the beginning of this story (#115), curiously enough… then we reach the end with the explosion in a full-page splash, “BU-WHOOM!” And the very last page is this:

A very dramatic ending and very much like watching the end of a movie in the theater. But beyond action-drama, Owsley-Bright could also slow things down and take things in a more intimate and personal direction—achieving a different kind of drama in the process. Just check out the opening splash to issue #122 (Mar. 1986):

But wait! That’s not all! Owsley could also go broader and be very funny. Some of his humor was very modern, fourth-wall-breaking-type stuff. Take the cover of #114 (Feb. 1985):

So there’s a lot to like here, obviously.

On the flip side though… nobody’s perfect.

Iconoclasm

Owsley/Priest was/is a bit of an iconoclast, while my tastes (at least when it comes to classic comic characters) lean far more in the direction of the iconophile. Just reading his words from the Amazing Heroes preview, it’s clear he likes to shake up the status quo—which is a great thing when a book is in the doldrums like Power Man and Iron Fist was. But we inevitably get to the question of just how much (and precisely what) needs shaking, and that’s where we part ways.

First he lays waste to K’un-L’un—literally. As in he completely destroys the ancient, mystic city in issue #118 (Jul. 1985). How the city gets destroyed involves a whole lot of rewriting of the backstory of the ancient dragon that was the source of Iron Fist’s power, Shou Lao the Undying.

Back when Iron Fist got started in Marvel Premiere (beginning with issue #15, May 1974), they kept things relatively neat. Young Danny Rand was traveling with his family to uncover the lost, mystic city of K’un-L’un when his father was murdered and his mother died protecting him. He trains in the city to become a martial arts master and gains the power of the Iron Fist by slaying the mighty dragon, Shou Lao. Simple enough, right?

Owsley changes it so that Shou Lao was never a real dragon, but a mortal man that had been transformed into a dragon through the magic of another dragon—one named Chiantang. (See? This is already getting confusing.) He does this as punishment for said mortal dishonoring his niece, the daughter of his brother, the great Dragon King. (Why not just make Chiantang the Dragon King and have the girl be his daughter? Why make it even more confusing with this extra degree of separation?) In addition to cursing this mortal to become an imprisoned dragon, he also destroys K’un-L’un. Master Khan, the deity/overlord of the land is none too pleased with this, but for some reason allows it to happen without retribution. K’un-L’un eventually recovers and rebuilds. All of this takes place centuries in the past.

Then, when Danny kills Shou Lao in our era, Chiantang becomes enraged, as he didn’t want Shou to be freed from his suffering. So off he goes to wreck the city again, only this time Master Khan decides to stop him and imprison him. (Why stop him now and not the first time? Who knows? Just Khan’s whim, apparently.) Later, Chiantang’s niece assumes human form (all these dragons have the power to change into humans) and sets him free, only to be mistakenly killed by Chiantang. Now Chiantang is really pissed and wrecks the city a second time. At this point Khan can’t stop him because his powers have been diminished.

Got all that? Yeah, it’s a bit of mess. Btw, where was the actual Dragon King during all this? Shouldn’t he have a taken a direct hand in matters at some point? In any case, I don’t like it because it’s an overly complicated mess; and the idea that Iron Fist did not get his power from a dragon, but from a regular mortal slob that was magically transformed into a dragon feels dumb (and, for me, it diminishes Iron Fist’s origin story). The whole thing is unfortunate because the larger plot has got some good stuff; I believe some of it, at least, was taken directly from historical mythology/folklore (either Chinese or Korean, if I recall correctly).

The other thing Owsley did that I disliked was break up Danny and Misty. Being the ‘shipper that I am when it comes to classic-comics couples, I’m sure none of my regular readers are surprised by my disapproval of this.

But outside of these two creative choices, I loved the run—it’s the best treatment the series had outside of Duffy. Why wasn’t it more popular? Well, had Marvel really gotten behind it and pushed it, I firmly believe it could have been a winner. But they didn’t do that. In fact, according to Owsley/Priest, they did the opposite. As recounted on his blog:

Power Man and Iron Fist had been kind of treading water since the very successful run by writer Jo Duffy and artist Kerry Gammill. MD “Doc” Bright and I worked closely with editor Denny O’Neil to create our own direction on the book, and re-energized the title with the fans. However, somewhere down the hall, it was decided that what we were doing wasn’t any good, despite the positive reviews and average sales over 100,000 copies (in those days, 250,000 copies— the Captain America standard— was the baseline. We were considered a marginal title). We were cut from monthly status to bi-monthly, which we all agreed was a deliberate attempt to tank the book (bi-monthly publication nearly always depresses sales). Our sales slipped but did not plummet, and we went on to do the best we could under the crippling production schedule, until, finally, we were cancelled as part of a line-wide sweep to make room for the disastrous “New Universe” line of books. Editor O’Neil was so furious at the deliberate destruction of Power/Fist, he ordered Iron Fist’s death in the concluding issue, #125.

For the record, the book went bimonthly with issue #118 (Jul. 1985), and would end its run with issue #125 (Sept. 1986). Oh, and I almost forgot the part about killing off Iron Fist—this angered me at the time too, but since it was reversed within a couple years, I barely think of it now. And besides, as pointed out above, the decision to kill the character was one made in anger by the editor, O’Neil, not Owsley.

Meanwhile, for nearly the entire time he was writing Power/Fist, Owsley had another job keeping him pretty busy.

NEXT: Spider-Editor

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