It seems shocking that it took more than 30 years for Marvel’s flagship black superhero Black Panther to have a writer who was himself black.
This milestone on its own would have made Christopher Priest’s 1998-2003 run on the series notable. But what he accomplished in his five years on the series is far more than just breaking that color barrier — he transformed the character and used the book to intelligently and insightfully spar with issues of race with more nuance than had been seen in mainstream comics.
During his tenure as writer of the Black Panther, Priest not only had much to say about black people of Africa and the USA and how they relate to each other, but also examined Africa from the perspectives of white characters. Two of the white characters Priest created for his Black Panther run are especially compelling because of how they illustrate different aspects of white privilege: the series’ initial point-of-view character Everett K. Ross, and the series’ overarching antagonist, Hunter (alias the White Wolf).
White privilege was defined by Peggy McIntosh in 1988 when she wrote “I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious.” Both Ross and Hunter are characters who appear to be unaware of their privileges; Ross proves to be a dynamic character who learns and changes; Hunter, by contrast, does not learn or change.
In Christopher Priest’s Black Panther, Everett K. Ross serves as a narrator and point-of-view figure for most of the series run. Many of Ross’ narrations would open with “The story so far…” and along the way would include various humorous asides such as: “Monica Lynne was a wannabe jazz singer who was briefly engaged to the client — and got shoved out of a plane to find herself lost — wandering through the jungles surrounding Wakanda. Now she slaps leopards around.” Initially Ross’ narration formed the basis of a report he was making to his superior, Nikki Adams. For the first seventeen issues, that narration was told in a non-linear fashion, providing a kind of stream of consciousness of Ross’ thoughts, enabling Priest not only to supply exposition, but to insert jokes and insight into Ross’ thought process.
Ross was an official with the US State Department, initially assigned to greet T’Challa when the king arrived in the United States in Black Panther #1. From the outset, Ross seems to get off on the wrong foot as he brings only his Miata sports car (five-person capacity) to the airport and discovers T’Challa has brought with him several dozen Wakandan visitors. “In his own world,” Priest explained, “Ross is a shark. Extremely capable, even frightening to the court system and diplomatic corps.” But for most of the Black Panther series Ross has to function outside of his ‘world’ — thrown into dangerous adventures, forced to make sense of the world of superheroes and brushing up against an unfamiliar African culture.
Because the Black Panther had never enjoyed a particularly lengthy publication run prior to the launch of the 1998 series, Priest felt the book needed a white character to act as an audience identification figure.
He reasoned, “’Black’ comic books traditionally do not sell well, another reason I was reluctant to take on Black Panther. Comics are traditionally created by white males for white males. I figured, and I believe rightly, that for Black Panther to succeed, it needed a white male at the center, and that white male had to give voice to the audience’s misgivings or apprehensions or assumptions about this character and this book.”
“The ideal of diversity within traditional superhero comics is often at odds with the demographic of the consumer base,” noted Priest. True or not, the assumptions about readers and race seemed to be borne out every time a series starring a black lead was cancelled. The same month Black Panther #1 shipped (September, 1998), Marvel Comics published the first issue of what was supposed to be a Blade ongoing series to tie-in with the character’s major motion picture that year; the book was altered to become a 6-issue limited series and finally cancelled after only three issues were shipped, the story unfinished. Meanwhile, the Blade motion picture earned more than $70 million in the North American box office.
Priest opined: “The problem with race and popular media is, in most every ‘black’ movie or ‘black’ music CD you’ll see or hear, there is some hostility directed towards whites. Now, were I a white male, I certainly wouldn’t want to spend eight bucks to go see a film where white males are portrayed as stupid and are the butt of every joke, or where I am made to feel guilty about things I had nothing to do with, or prejudices I don’t actually have.“ Placing a white figure as a central character in the series helped combat reader perceptions about so-called ‘black’ entertainment. “To put Panther in a premise where all that exists are black people would be as wrongheaded as an average issue of Superman, which typically forgets that black people exist,” Priest observed. His Black Panther was “set in as close to the “real” world as I can manage, and that world has a plurality of cultures in it.”
To develop this plurality, Priest created Everett K. Ross, a character who describes himself as the “emperor of useless white boys.” Priest explains, “Ross, like Peter Parker, is meant to be a vehicle through which the mainstream of readers can identify with T’Challa. He is our conduit into the mind and motivations of a man who is, intrinsically, unknowable.”
Ross was inspired in part by the character of Lewis Rothschild, portrayed by actor Michael J. Fox in the 1995 film The American President. Rothschild served as an assistant to the US President, portrayed by Michael Douglas. Although a very clever political thinker, Rothschild was also somewhat tactless, as in a scene where he screams on the telephone: “Yeah, just vote your conscience, you chicken-shit lame-ass!” prompting a co-worker to remark, “If that was an ‘undecided’, then we need to work on our people skills.“ But Everett K. Ross also brings to mind other smart-mouthed figures played by Michael J. Fox, such as Mike Flaherty on the television program Spin City from 1996-2000. Both Flaherty and Ross are short statured, quick-witted politicians who love sports. Spin City was very much a Clinton-era political program, as the program’s mayor Randall Winston (played by Barry Bostwick) was prone to gaffes and sex scandals. Indeed, a scene in Black Panther #7 where Bill Clinton, brandishing a hockey stick, chases a rollerblading Ross through the White House, feels like a slapstick scene straight out of an American sitcom.
However, rather than Spin City, Priest cited another sitcom in Ross’ genesis; at the time of Black Panther‘s launch, actor Matthew Perry was appearing on the sitcom Friends. “Perry’s character,” Priest explained, “an investment banker named Chandler Bing, was actually quite competent at his job. Respected and successful, Bing nevertheless was the horrified fish out of water when caught up in the machinery of his friends’ complex personal lives.” Priest gave Ross a similar level of competence and confidence within his own skill set — practising law. Indeed, when Ross made his first published appearance in Ka-Zar #17 as a lawyer who breezes in to guide Ka-Zar through the US justice system, he is clearly within his element — and displays none of the flustered or panicked expressions which would become common during the length of Black Panther.
Priest hoped Ross would not only help ease white readers into the series but help preserve the lead character’s inscrutable nature: “He could be the motormouth, he could give voice to the skeptical readers and validate their doubts and fears about the series. And, best of all, he could amplify the Panther’s mystery and overall enigma as his monologues would be, at best, a guess about Panther’s whereabouts and motives.”
Another Matthew Perry role also helped guide Priest — the 1997 motion picture Fools Rush In, starring Matthew Perry as Alex Whitman. In that film, Alex has a one-night stand with Isabel Fuentes (played by Salma Hayek), getting her pregnant. Alex marries Isabel, then finds himself having to learn about her Mexican American culture. While Alex’s parents are visibly very uncomfortable at their son marrying a non-white woman, Alex is depicted as making a genuine effort to mediate the differences between he and Isabel. Alex’s occasional faux pas are played for laughs; frequently Mexican characters in the film make fun of him while speaking Spanish. In one scene, Alex is introduced to a Latino man named Chuy. Alex replies lamely, “Chuy, I’m Luke Skywalker.” No one laughs; it’s very much like one of Ross’ awkward moments, such as when he flashes his government ID at a Latino gang member and declares, “Y’all be cool. Just chill. Don’t start none, won’t be none.” Within two panels, the gangster is eating Ross’ badge; within three, he’s lifting Ross into the air by his scalp.
In the character of Alex Whitman, Priest saw a formula by which Ross could be an audience identification figure for white readers, yet at the same time say and do things which would be racist. “Ross was all of us,” Michael Campochiaro agreed. “When he was awestruck at what was transpiring in the Panther’s world, so were we.” It was a subtle piece of alchemy: Ross succeeded with readers, who latched on to him as Priest had hoped, even though the character was being used to say, This man is kind of like you – and he’s a bit racist.
Priest had learned his craft from years of toiling in the offices of Marvel Comics during the time when Jim Shooter served as editor-in-chief. In his essay, “The Last Time Priest Discussed Race in Comics”, Priest related several anecdotes from the Shooter years, one from 1985 involving Shooter himself, where he sent Shooter a memo regarding some hurt feelings in the Marvel Comics office after one of Priest’s colleagues alleged Priest was “firing all the white people and replacing them with black people.” Looking back on the incident, Priest called it “the most insulting moment of my entire life”. When Shooter himself posted Priest’s memo on his blog in 2011, he introduced it to his readers writing: “this memo he sent me for no reason except to satisfy his own twisted sense of nonsense [...] it is allegedly humor.” When one of Shooter’s readers brought Priest’s essay to his attention, Shooter retorted defensively, “I don’t know what I said, but I will guarantee you absolutely that it was nothing offensive or actionable then or now. I just wouldn’t do that. Not even joking.” Repeatedly in interviews, Priest has decried a type of liberal racism – racism practised by people who believe themselves incapable of racism. Essentially, white privilege.
“Comics are run by liberals who stupidly think they are beyond racism,” Priest bluntly told an interviewer. “That is the institutionalized nature of racism in this country. The most racist people are typically those intellectuals who believe they have risen above it. It is also difficult for a Black man to discuss racism, because there is no common reference point. The moment I discuss race or racial components of the political structure in comics, there is moaning and aggravated sighs and hands thrown up because the liberals who run the joint feel wrongly accused, much along the lines of, ‘So, when did you stop beating your wife?’ Over the years, I’ve come to accept the reality that I am a Black man and they are liberal intellectuals who are not able to process much of anything I’d have to say on the subject.”
It is this type of racism which Stephen Colbert satirized for years on his television program The Colbert Report, frequently claiming to be color-blind with speeches such as this one from February 1, 2012: “Folks, anybody who knows me knows I’m not a racist. I mean, do I look Italian? In fact, I am so far from being a racist, I don’t even see race. I don’t even know what race I am. People tell me I’m white, and I believe them because I did not know it’s Black History Month.” The contradictions within Colbert’s speech are obvious, but his character remains oblivious to the implications.
Stephanie M. Wildman recognizes this form of white privilege: “Generally whites think of racism as voluntary, intentional conduct, done by horrible others. Whites spend a lot of time trying to convince ourselves and each other that we are not racist. A big step would be for whites to admit that we are racist and then to consider what to do about it.”
Priest had been coaxed into writing Black Panther for Marvel Knights by Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti, but he was sceptical as to whether he would truly be permitted to push the boundaries on discussions of race. To test the waters, in the first issue he gave Ross perhaps his most obviously racist speech. In one scene, Nikki Adams orders Ross to pick up T’Challa from the airport, emphasizing this assignment is “a major diplomatic incident.” Ross scoffs at her: “Why — because the guy is black?” Ross continues, “It’s okay, Nikki — you can say it — you won’t grow hair on your back or anything. This is the only country in the world where people look at you for stating the obvious.” When Ross tries to imagine why T’Challa is visiting the USA he muses, “He comes here all the time. Hangs out at the Avengers Mansion — orders up some ribs.” Said Priest: “That was the scene that would tell us whether Marvel was prepared to allow us to do this book. And, once [Quesada and Palmiotti] convinced the powers that be to leave us alone, it opened up a flood gate of possibilities for outrageous adventure and a gleeful evisceration of some of the most cherished tenets of the Marvel Universe.” He concluded, “I’m thrilled the line made it in, and if it makes Ross a little less than perfect, all the better.”
Particularly in the book’s first year, Ross’ fumbling around other cultures were mined for comedic effect — and not only with Africans. In one scene from Black Panther #2, Ross attempts to order Chinese food for T’Challa, Zuri, Nakia, and Okoye. Ross tries to show off by speaking to the restaurant clerk in Cantonese, but is himself shown up when T’Challa interrupts in Tagalog; the clerk is actually from the Philippines, not China (and speaks perfect English), but T’Challa tries to let Ross save face by telling the clerk in Tagalog that Ross “was making a joke at our expense.”
In one of his narrations while in Harlem, Ross muses “Oddly enough, nobody was singing, which really disturbed me. I mean, on TV, there was all this SINGING in the ghetto. I was made to believe people sang here, and that singing would often spin out into these big production numbers. I’d been lied to.” On at least a superficial level, Ross appeared to be aware of his issues, such as calling himself “America’s whitest man”.
Beyond T’Challa himself, the other cast members of Black Panther were less forgiving of Ross’ missteps. At one point during Black Panther #20, Monica Lynne grows fed up with Ross’ constant need for explanations of Erik Killmonger’s plan. “Ross — do you know anything about anything–?” she queries. “Geez, who’d you sleep with to get that job?!” Not realizing, of course, that Ross had been sleeping with his boss, Nikki Adams. A dream sequence in Black Panther #22 depicts Ross as the Robin to Black Panther’s Batman, even outfitting Ross in an embarrassing bare-legged costume modelled on the classic Robin visuals.
Beyond his belief that the Black Panther must visit the Avengers so he can enjoy a plate of ribs, Ross would frequently drop condescending remarks about the Black Panther in his early stories. In one retrospective account Ross would describe his trip to the airport in Black Panther #1 as being “On my way to pick up the World’s Dullest Superhero for a four-day tour of New York City [...] I had been assigned to escort a man I knew nothing about and had absolutely no respect for.” Indeed, Ross’ arrival at the airport in his Miata singing along to Kool and the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie” depicted Ross as being flippant not only towards to his African guests but toward his very career.
When Nikki Adams first gave Ross the assignment he groused, “Nikki — the guy’s as dangerous as Batroc. I mean, think about it — he’s got no powers or anything.” Batroc the Leaper was a non-powered Captain America villain who had frequently been mocked by comic book fandom and even by Marvel themselves: during the period when Priest served as Paul Laikin’s assistant on Crazy magazine, Marvel ran a house ad (“How to Be a Wild and Crazy Guy!”) drawn by Marie Severin with Batroc promoting Crazy: “You see, I have quite a sense of humor (You don’t think a serious person would dress like zis, do you?)”
A fascinating example of Ross’s privilege comes in Black Panther #14, during the period where Ross had been forced to assume the role of Wakanda’s regent during T’Challa’s absence — much to the disgust of W’Kabi, Wakanda’s chief of security and traditional regent. Since the days of Don McGregor’s “Panther’s Rage” epic, W’Kabi had been representative of Wakanda’s xenophobic element, such as his rejection of T’Challa’s romance with Monica Lynne. As W’Kabi seeks an audience with Ross, he finds the acting regent rifling through T’Challa’s desk, where Ross discovers a document titled: “GALACTUS: Contingency Measures & Proceedings”. Bemused, Ross exclaims, “W’Kabi — this is a joke, right–? You have contingency plans in case Galactus shows up–?” Unfazed, W’Kabi replies, “Doesn’t everyone, my lord?” Ross goes on mocking the report, dismissing its contents as “In case of attack by planet-eater, break glass and pull lever–?!” He finally sums up, “If Galactus comes back, what can this little country do that — er–that–” and leaves his statement unfinished. W’Kabi finishes the thought for him: “That ‘developed’ nations can’t?” Ross quickly changes the subject.
Considering that at the time of publication the Fantastic Four had helped drive off Galactus four times, the idea of a pre-emptive plan to deal with Galactus’ return seems prudent, thus W’Kabi’s retort, “Doesn’t everyone?” makes good sense within the reality of the Marvel Universe. It’s only when Ross begins to question Wakanda’s ability to confront Galactus that his weakness is exposed: “what can this little country do?” Ross wonders, having forgotten how advanced the super science of Wakanda is and apparently unaware that the Fantastic Four’s own Reed Richards was astonished to find Wakandan technology to be ahead of his own nation. Considering the sheer cosmic power of the planet-eating Galactus, it is simply astonishing that the Fantastic Four successfully fended him off on those occasions where he menaced the Earth. Ross’ bemused incredulity at the idea Wakanda could similarly deal with the threat of Galactus demonstrated Ross did not credit the Wakandan people as the peers (much less superiors) of the United States.
Despite Ross’ mockery of the Black Panther, Priest believed “Panther sees a true nobility in Ross that goes beyond Ross’ own immaturity. He sees things about Ross that Ross does not yet see in himself.” In time, we readers begin to see how interaction with T’Challa has awakened Ross’ sensitivity. During his confrontation with President Clinton, Ross takes stock of Clinton’s policies on Wakanda, “whose king you never even invited for dinner until you found the [Congressional Black Caucus] looking to better-deal Al [Gore] in two thousand.”
After Nikki Adams’ death, Ross loses his temper with T’Challa and blames all the recent chaos in his life upon him. Bristling at the way T’Challa habitually refers to him as ‘Friend Ross’ he explodes: “There’s that word again. The one I could never figure out. The one you keep using–’friend’. When did I become your friend? When exactly? Was it when you left me alone, wearing the Devil’s Pants? Or when you took me to Hell? Or when you trapped me with that Kraven lunatic at the Waldorf? Did we cement our bond after I was bolted to the floor of a burning building? Set on fire and thrown out a window? When I was chased through the West Wing by the President in his pajamas?! Banished to Iceland? Chased by an elephant? Attacked by zombies? Launched into orbit? Was it when I lost my citizenship? Or, no, wait, maybe it was when my girlfriend was murdered! Tell me when. Show me.” Ross continues to grow angry with T’Challa. “You’re my ‘friend’, and it’s only cost me everything.” In a very ill-advised maneuver, he punches T’Challa in the face.
T’Challa’s answer to Ross is illuminating in what it reveals about how deeply T’Challa understands Ross. “You… child… I’ve tolerated your cynicism. I’ve tolerated your jokes. Your lack of faith. My father taught me the wisdom of allowing men their own path. Thus, even in your ignorance — I could see the soul and excuse the flesh. It is true your path has been beset by many challenges, Ross. But the fact remains — it is your path. You set foot on it. You made every turn. Just as I have…” After admitting some of his own personal failings, T’Challa sums up his confidence in Ross quite neatly: “My father taught me to always be two steps ahead of my enemies — and three ahead of my friends. In other words — trust no one. But, I trusted you — and all you’ve done is wonder why. I made you ruler of my kingdom. Placed the fate of all Wakanda — my mother, my loved ones — my father’s legacy — in your hands. And still you doubt me. Why am I you friend? It is because she chose you. She could have loved only the noblest of souls. Therefore, to answer your question — when did we become friends–? At the airport.” Stunned, Ross realizes that due to his superhuman senses, T’Challa knew from the moment they first met at the airport (during Black Panther #1) that Ross was in a relationship with Nikki Adams, T’Challa’s college sweetheart. Ross thought T’Challa had never mentioned his prior relationship with Nikki because he didn’t respect him; instead, it was out of kindness to Ross, lest Ross lose face.
By the time of Black Panther #30, Ross’ character development had reached his apex. With T’Challa tried by the US Senate over having seemingly murdered Klaw, Ross defended his friend and we once again see Ross as a competent lawyer, a side of his character seldom glimpsed since his first appearance. Ross verbally summed up T’Challa and how he had come to understand him: “If you look beyond the mask — you will find a man of great compassion and great nobility. Heroism, to be sure, but much more than that — he’s us. The man I could be. The man I should be.” Ross began the series believing the Black Panther to be an inferior superhero; now he fully understood T’Challa represented a sovereign power who had been gracious enough to help the United States. “All you need to do is tell him to go home,” Ross told the US Senate. “If you order him to leave and never return to our shores, he will obey. And then God help us all.”
Looking back on his time with T’Challa, Ross concluded, “You start to realize that, with every turn of the page, this guy is just another, well… page. He’s the never-ending story, the infinite gulf between man and superman where greatness lives. […] I guess that’s what kings — what HEROES — are made of. That indefinable microscopic genetic sequence that separates Robert DeNiro from Richard Simmons. It’s a greatness that is well beyond our ability to even grasp. It’s what makes him the king of one of the finest nations in the world, and me the mope who almost missed the opportunity to know him.”
Initially, critics were not certain what to make of Ross’ role within the series. Online reviewer Chris Carle opined “this book could benefit from dropping the Ross character altogether.” Reviewer Randy Lander’s first reaction was to state, “I find him obnoxious and not that entertaining, the stereotypical freebird lawyer. If it were a movie, I’d expect him to be played by Tom Cruise. And I hate Tom Cruise,” but in time Lander would appreciate Ross. Critic Paul O’Brien summed up Ross writing: “Ross works as a comic relief figure without turning him into a total idiot (which he isn’t, as opposed to a total prat, which he is).”
Retrospectives on the series were mostly kind to Ross. John Jones wrote: “I think it’s worth noting that the thematic glue holding together Priest’s whole creative conceit is that of a smart mouthed, obnoxious, somewhat nebbishy little white guy named Ross who has been assigned by the U.S. State Department as the American liaison to Wakanda, and who has become more or less the reader’s surrogate character as he gets yanked along willy-nilly on virtually all of the Panther’s adventures.”
Jeff McLaughlin credited Ross as he “establishes the casually racist attitudes held by many Americans toward Africa and her people.” He continued, “Ross’s casual racism serves to illuminate the ways in which both popular and official culture work together in the West to misinform readers and audiences about African and African American communities, and their place in the world. Priest, however, presents Ross as a likable character, and maintains him as the series’ narrator, an everyman who vindicates his initial racist ignorance by growing through his contact with the Black Panther.”
Ross did not strike a chord for all audiences: Adilifu Nama described him as bringing “smug lightheartedness” to the series: “He told jokes that made him the punch line, signaling to the reader with his wisecracks that he was more self-conscious than self-deprecating”. He added, “The Ross figure provides the reader with the choice of identifying with either the white figure or the black superhero, or both of them, but never exclusively with the black protagonist.” Noah Berlatsky complained Ross was ultimately a “sop” to fans, “giving them an identifiable white point of insertion to interpret Panther’s amazing, mysterious blackness.” “Everett K. Ross’s cultural awakening is something that gets everybody jumpy,” Priest commented.
“Ross is the anchor,” Priest maintained. “Without Ross we’d spin off into esoterica, and the book would be a nicely written, high-minded exercise in futility. A labor of love that nobody’d read because it’d be too far away from the world outside your window.”
To be continued in Part 2: Hunter, the White Wolf