From Owsley to Priest

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Exile

The next high-profile writing assignment Owsley/Priest got after leaving the Spidey chair was Green Lantern over at DC. He picked up the GL feature in the first issue of Action Comics Weekly (#601, May 24, 1988), and his first order of business was to kill off Katma Tui, essentially giving her the fridge treatment (which I hated, naturally). Then he wrote the first issue of the Emerald Dawn limited series before abruptly quitting. As he tells it:

Resigning from [Emerald] Dawn and having been fired off Batman before I was ever offered Batman (a long story for another time), and feeling unwelcome at Marvel, I quit comics in 1988, concentrating on screenplays and novels and driving an interstate bus for Suburban Transit.

Then…

I was lured back into comics by DC’s Director of Development Mike Gold in 1990, accepting, essentially, a quota gig as it was public knowledge Mike had goaded DC into specifically trying to hire a black editor. I was the first black editor at Marvel, and now the first black editor at DC. I developed The Ray with Jack and Joe, and had other successes and not so successes, as every editor has. To my horror, I discovered DC “frowned” on editors looking for work as writers. Had I known this before I had, I would have never taken the job. An editor’s salary, in those days, was barely enough to live on. It was traditional that an editor could supplement his salary with freelance work. Without the freelance, it was impossible to make ends meet, so I had to continue driving the bus part-time while working at DC (and while spending nearly every evening and every weekend developing Milestone Media with Denys Cowan, Dwayne McDuffie, and others). Eventually this took a toll on my marriage, and I left DC in 1993 in an effort to save it.

Black Panther

More years passed with no sign of Jim Owsley in comics anywhere. Then in 1998, Black Panther got a great revamping as part of the “Marvel Knights” line, as written by a guy named Christopher Priest. Now I don’t know when, exactly, that I learned that Priest was the guy I had known as Jim Owsley, but even before I knew this, I remember reading Panther and thinking, “this Priest guy sure does remind me a lot of Jim Owsley.”

Black Panther #1 (Nov. 1998) gave us a T’Challa with a shaved head and goatee who was a total badass. Priest’s approach was to treat the Panther less as a superhero and more as a king, with geopolitical consequences for every decision he made. And Priest got off to a blazing start, creatively. Here’s a list of innovations and fresh additions he brought to the Panther mythos in just the first few issues:

  • Everett K. Ross, our p.o.v. character entering this new series. He’s a state department attaché whose job is to deal with the king of Wakanda.
  • Zuri, a grizzled Wakandan warrior and close friend to T’Challa’s departed father, T’Chaka.
  • Okoye and Nakia, the Dora Milaje (“Adored Ones”), concomitants and bodyguards, basically, of the king, T’Challa.
  • Nicole “Nikki” Adams, Ross’s boss at the State Department as well as his girlfriend. Also the one-time college girlfriend of T’Challa.
  • A new vibranium suit that absorbs/displaces kinetic force; the vibranium soles on his boots allow him to essentially run up walls.
  • Energy daggers, a cool, new form of weaponry for the Panther.
  • Achebe, a crazy, terrorist-type agitator with designs on Wakanda. He’ll later adopt the habit of carrying around a hand-puppet crafted in his own image that he names “Daki.” It appears he has some supernatural powers that were granted to him by Mephisto (presumably in exchange for his soul).
  • The Hatut Zeraze (“Dogs of War”), the Wakandan secret police, led by this white guy named Hunter, aka the White Wolf. Hunter was an orphan taken in as an infant by T’Chaka, making him an adopted brother, of sorts, to T’Challa.

For me, there are echoes of Priest’s first issue of Power Man and Iron Fist fourteen years earlier in his first issue of Panther. Not only do we begin in medias res again, but this time around Priest gets very experimental with his shifting of the timeline, bringing a very nonlinear style to the narrative, a la Quentin Tarantino. (In fact, one of these time shifts is marked by the title, “Paging Mr. Tarantino.”) Once again, it’s a very cinematic approach.

Of all the new things Priest brought to the table, Hunter/White Wolf was the character that resonated the most with me because, like me, he was adopted and thus he didn’t feel like a true member of the family. The fact that he was the only white guy in the whole country, literally, and thus not even a true Wakandan, increased his feelings of isolation and loneliness a millionfold, I would guess. Compounding matters, T’Challa washes his hands of the Hatut Zeraze upon assuming the throne, pushing Hunter further away. All this puts the two characters at odds.

At first blush you might catch a whiff of BDSM in that “command me” stuff, but that’s not what’s really going on here. All Hunter really wants is a way back in, and his service as head of the Hatut Zeraze is the only real connection has left to Wakanda and its royal family. When he begs/demands T’Challa to command him, what he’s really asking for is to be recognized as a both a Wakandan and a part of the family.

It’s likely that there were also complicated feelings on T’Challa’s end. As Hunter is twelve years older, he actually was raised to full adulthood under T’Chaka’s eye, and thus might know T’Challa’s father better than T’Challa himself. Because of this, there might be some insecurity and jealousy on T’Challa’s side of the relationship as well, but this was never really explored.

On a deeper level, I also wonder if Hunter reflected Priest’s own experience at Marvel over a decade earlier. Hunter was the only white person in Wakanda while Priest was the only black person on the editorial staff at Marvel, so it’s possible Priest drew on this experience when writing Hunter.

“Oh Shit!”

Priest was still an iconoclast in many ways, and there were times when such instincts led him into directions that alarmed me, but this time around he ended up in places that ultimately left me happy and satisfied. One of these alarming directions was his reshuffling of the Panther’s relationship with his fellow Avengers—particularly Captain America.

As stated earlier, I’m an iconophile when it comes to my comics and find most character relationships to be sacred. When it comes to the Panther and Cap, I’ve got photographic evidence to back up my memory. Four years ago, I published a “Geek Odyssey” post with this picture:

Right underneath the comic that’s open in front of me is Marvel Double Feature #21 (March 1977), which reprinted Tales of Suspense #98 (Feb. 1968), the story where Cap first met T’Challa, a big childhood fave of mine. Modern readers will likely find the character’s relationship here simplistic and silly, but it deeply touched the young me.

These are two good, honest men that recognize said qualities in each other and, on this basis, a deep and abiding friendship is born.

Priest, however, put the relationship in jeopardy when he revealed in the eighth issue of Panther that T’Challa had originally joined the Avengers for the primary purpose of spying on them; not as a gesture born out of his friendship with Cap. It was supposed to be one of those “Oh Shit!” moments that fueled many a comics story back in the 80s and 90s, but as nearly all of those stories did, it only served to anger and offend me.

Thankfully, Priest walked this back in the thirtieth issue—in an absolutely wonderful story that revealed how Cap met the then-Panther, T’Chaka, T’Challa’s father, in the early days of World War II and got the vibranium for his shield. In the end, we got this:

Brothers. It’s what the relationship should always be, now and forevermore.

In the interim, the train just kept on rolling. Priest brings back Monica Lynne, along with Erik Killmonger (YES!), who has a new scheme as “the Michael Milken of the African continent.” Killmonger gives us an amazing economics lesson in issue #18 (May 2000), detailing in the process how his stock manipulations are designed to crash the Wakandan economy. T’Challa counters this move by dissolving the Wakandan parliament and nationalizing all foreign assets. Eventually it returns to an old-fashioned fight between the two, with Killmonger coming out on top (as always). As a consequence of this victory, Killmonger briefly becomes the new Black Panther—a reminder that the Black Panther is not just a superhero identity, but a ceremonial position in the both the political and religious traditions of Wakanda.

We also get introduced us to the sixteen-year-old Queen Divine Justice (aka Chanté Giovanni Brown), who is drafted into the Dora Milaje. Then there’s the Panther fighting some classic super-villains alongside Power Man, Iron Fist, the Falcon, and Black Goliath… in his original blue-and-yellow costume BAH GAWD! Then there’s the return of Klaw, Master of Sound; as well some superb political gamesmanship with fellow monarchs Dr. Doom, the Sub-Mariner, and Magneto.

The Two Panthers

Priest still had a flair for drama and gave us some great cliffhangers over the course of this run, but my favorite was this one, from Black Panther #35 (Oct. 2001):

Talk about tickling your ass with a feather, the next two issues offer a glimpse several decades into the future, in celebration of the Panther’s 35th anniversary, and while it was a great storyline, you’re dying for an explanation of the two Panthers. We finally get back to this in Black Panther #38 (Jan. 2002), wherein the second Panther gets thawed out and we see him drawn in a Jack Kirby style, evoking the King’s run on the original solo series he did in 1976-’77. This version of the Panther came to be known as Happy-Pants Panther (or, alternatively, “Fruity Pebbles” Panther).

But it would still be a while before we’d get a proper explanation as to who (or what) he actually was. I think most readers saw this as an explanation for the unorthodox treatment the Panther got under Kirby—that Kirby’s Panther was this “other” Panther, not the “real” thing. Only problem with this view is that Kirby’s Panther didn’t act like this guy (an overly jolly, laughing maniac) at all. So was Priest making fun of Kirby here? At first, the answer was unclear. It didn’t exactly help matters when Priest brought back a couple of old supporting characters from the Kirby era, Abner Little and Princess Zanda.

The image of Princess Zanda working the drive-thru at KFC (excuse me, that’s KCF) is indeed a funny one, but is it also a shot at Kirby? At the time, it seemed the answer (to me, at least) was yes. But stay tuned.

Black Panther #38 (Jan. 2002) features the return of a most unlikely character: Chiantang, now referred to as the Black Dragon, who has not been seen since Priest introduced him in the old Power Man and Iron Fist series back in the mid-80s. The dragon manipulates Iron Fist into fighting the Panther, a battle that will have dire consequences down the line.

The there’s a five-parter beginning in issue #41 (Apr. 2002) that will see a bloodless coup of North America and a huge showdown between the Panther and Iron Man. Watching T’Challa and Tony Stark try to out-maneuver one another comes off even more gloriously than you can imagine.

In Black Panther #48 (Oct. 2002) we finally get the scoop on Happy-Pants Panther: He’s from ten years in the future, and upon his arrival in the present day, medical tests revealed he had a brain aneurysm that would kill him. Upon learning this, T’Challa broke off his engagement to Monica Lynne—which explains his seemingly callous treatment of her, previously, and restores the sanctity of that relationship to long-time readers like me. Happy Pants also proved himself to be as noble and selfless as any portrayal of the Panther we’ve ever seen, clearly signaling that his portrayal was meant to honor, not dishonor, Kirby.

All this serves to tie up just about every dangling plot thread of Priest’s run on the Panther. The only question left is how will the Panther cure himself of the aneurysm and avoid the fate of his future self. Amazingly enough, the question never gets answered and, as far as I know, remains thus.

Priest would go on to write another year of Panther stories, only he shifted the spotlight from T’Challa to a new character named Kasper Cole. The series took its final bow with issue #62 (Sept. 2003).

This was just a superb run of stories. Is it the definitive Black Panther run? Well, there have been a couple of great writers after Priest (Reginald Hudlin, Ta-Nehisi Coates), but his only true competition is Don McGregor with his stint on Jungle Action. Which one you prefer is a sort of apples-or-oranges question. (Or perhaps more aptly, a Superman-or-Batman question.) McGregor’s Panther faces mortal jeopardy far more often, while Priest’s Panther is much more powerful and, with the vibranium suit on, fairly invulnerable. Each run is definitive in its own way.

Conclusion

Priest is doing rather well now, writing Justice League and Deathstroke for DC, but you can’t help but wonder how a writer this talented could be marginalized for so long. Well, Priest has another old essay on his blog that digs into this question. The bottom line is that, like most other professions, it takes more than talent (however great) to succeed in comics—somebody has to give you a fair chance. This requires cultivating relationships (i.e., schmoozing and possibly kissing ass where required). And you also have to be lucky enough to have the right assignment fall into your lap at the right time. If you don’t know the right people and you’re not that lucky, well…

Guys like me can only stare at that glass ceiling. Guys like me can’t even get proposals like Zero Hour read. Attached to any proposal someone in my ranking turns in is an invisible note that says, “Marginal Loser Guy,” and the words on the paper are interpreted in that context; editors likely to be much more critical and looking for every fault, as opposed to Star Talent where the assumption is the work is good. Blockbuster good. Steven Spielberg good.

…It’s a trap. It’s one that’s near impossible to get out of once you’re in, once you’re branded. In the current market, making a hit out of a turkey book is not unlike the immaculate conception, and career-wise, all prophecies become ephemerally self-fulfilling. Notable exceptions to this theory are Mark Waid and Kurt Busiek, both of whom have successfully fought their way out of the comics ghetto and established themselves as stars. Either writer will tell you it wasn’t easy, and they had to overcome a great deal of resistance and office politics to get where they are today.

I don’t believe I have any issues of his old Conan run, but I’m going to try and track them down. I have a feeling the stories will prove to be a pretty good read.

 

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