When Christopher Priest returned to Marvel Comics in 1998 it had been almost ten years since his tumultuous exit from the company. In the interim the company and the comic book industry had undergone tremendous changes. Priest returned to a Marvel Comics where Ralph Macchio and Bob Harras were virtually the only editorial workers who had remained on staff the entire time. But in writing Black Panther, Christopher Priest was arguably not working for Marvel Comics at all.
Reeling from a plethora of poor business decisions, Marvel Comics was teetering in 1998. Pursuing short-term gains by developing material for ‘speculators’ who assumed their purchases of titles such as Silver Sable #1 would eventually net them hundreds or thousands of dollars, the comics industry crumbled as speculators gradually realized their ‘investments’ were so overprinted they had become worth less than their cover price. Marvel’s attempt to control its own distribution through ownership of Heroes World Distribution proved a fiasco which set off events forcing all publishers in the industry to accept a monopoly under terms dictated by Diamond Comic Distributors.
With speculators gone, many comic dealers driven out of business, and newsstands increasingly uninterested in vending comics, the entire business of selling comics was changing. As recorded at the website Comichron, in 1995 The Amazing Spider-Man printed an average of more than 395,000 copies per issue. By 1998 the series had dipped to 219,000 and was still falling. Marvel Comics filed bankruptcy in December 1996 and a tug-of-war between Wall Street raiders left the publisher with an uncertain future.
In the midst of this, the decision to farm out the Captain America, Avengers, Iron Man and Fantastic Four titles into a separate continuity managed by ex-Image Comics co-owners Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld – using their own studios for production – was, as reported in Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story “catastrophic to morale.” Yet the experiment succeeded; sales went up on all four titles and when the year-long ‘Heroes Reborn’ experiment was done and the characters were restored to their original continuity, sales remained higher than before their departure.
Enter Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti of Event Comics. The two artists had founded Event Comics in 1994 and used it to publish their creator-owned characters Ash and Painkiller Jane. In 1998, Quesada and Palmiotti were contracted to develop four titles for Marvel Comics in what was originally reported as a six-month term. Although they moved their offices to the same building as the Marvel offices, they remained (for the time) independent of Marvel. Quesada considered this an advantage – with all the bridges Marvel had burned with creators in the last several years, there existed some creators leery of working for Marvel Comics again. Initially Quesada and Palmiotti paid their freelancers with Event Comics’ cheques. But otherwise, the new imprint was called ‘Marvel Knights’.
“We wanted to show Marvel that we could do their characters better,” Palmiotti said in Marvel Comics: The Untold Story. “It’s an arrogant thing, but it was our goal, to do the best we can and show them how it should be done.” The four initial titles would be printed on high-quality paper with vibrant color reproduction (mostly by Brian Haberlin Studios) and lettering done by Richard Starkings’ Comicraft, one of the industry leaders in lettering. But the ease with which Quesada and Palmiotti obtained these resources irked some staff, as editor Tom Brevoort told Sean Howe: “Everybody in editorial had gone through two or three consecutive years of layoffs, and a very real concern that everything would just be outsourced, and the offices would be closed down. One complaint was that it was unfair in that if you gave Marvel editorial access to those same resources, we could produce the same results. But we were often handcuffed—saddled with outdated printing systems, not up to date, whereas they could use more sophisticated processes to make their books look better.”
The four initial titles were: Daredevil by filmmaker Kevin Smith with art by Quesada and Palmiotti; The Inhumans by Paul Jenkins with artist Jae Lee; The Punisher by Christopher Golden with artist Bernie Wrightson; and The Black Panther by Christopher Priest with artist Mark Texeira.
MARVEL KNIGHTS ORDAINED
When Priest learned Joe Quesada had been trying to reach him, he grew excited. Knowing that Daredevil was a confirmed project at Marvel Knights, Priest hoped he would be offered an opportunity to write Daredevil and in anticipation had been rereading Frank Miller’s show-stopping work on the character. “I was a little horrified when the words ‘Black’ and ‘Panther’ came out of Joe’s mouth,” Priest recalled. “I mean, Black Panther? Who reads Black Panther? Black Panther?! The guy with no powers? The guy in the back of the Avengers class photo, whose main job was to point and cry out, ‘Look— A BIG, SCALY MONSTER! THOR— GO GET HIM!!’ That guy?!”
Despite his misgivings Priest put together a treatment for his first issue. The story was set entirely in Wakanda and had a tone which Priest called “very Don McGregor.” Judging from the Black Panther comics published in the previous 25 years, it was very much what a freelancer would have expected Marvel to publish – but it was not what Quesada wanted; he rejected it.
As before with Quantum & Woody, Mark Waid and Brian Augustyn had helped nominate Priest for his latest assignment. Now Waid weighed in; Priest related him saying: “It’s your opportunity to completely re-envision a character. You don’t have to do Roy Thomas or Don McGregor’s Black Panther. You can reinvent the wheel.” Quesada and Palmiotti wanted a Black Panther series located in the urban United States, not Wakanda; they wanted the non-linear story structure seen in Quantum & Woody; they also wanted Priest’s sense of humor. They pointed to the 1988 comedy film Coming to America, a fish-out-of-water story in which Eddie Murphy portrayed the prince of the fictional African nation Zamunda, having come to the United States in order to find a bride. (During Priest’s run the only issues of the series he did not write were issues #57-58 in which J. Torres penned a story called ‘Coming to America’.) They also specifically requested the Black Panther be accompanied by two beautiful female bodyguards and that one of them become an antagonist.
As Priest conversed with Quesada and Palmiotti he found a line connecting what he had to accomplish to Frank Miller’s Daredevil: “We’re trying to rehabilitate a character long considered uninteresting, even by fans who have never read a single issue of any version of BP. It’s kind of like Miller trying rehabilitate DD, but our added burden, the elephant on our back, is the character’s ethnicity and the economic reality of the fact black characters do not perform well in this market.”
Priest had yet to realize how independent Marvel Knights were from the Marvel Comics he knew. Musing on what the series would have to be to satisfy Quesada and Palmiotti’s demands, Priest recalled “It would be truly sardonic and truly snarky, and Marvel hasn’t been the home of true snark since they sent Steve Gerber and his duck [Howard the Duck] packing. I was trying to chase Joe and Jimmy away, but this stuff just excited them.” Priest explained to them that his ideas could not fit within the established line of Marvel Comics heroes, “It would have to exist on the fringes of that world, with our book regularly hacking chunks out of it. This was fine with the guys, and they both encouraged me towards my darker side; the wittier and more gleeful the discourse the more they enjoyed it and the harder they fought for it.”
With Quesada and Palmiotti’s revisions, Black Panther #1 came to be in comic shop racks on September 16, 1998. Marvel Knights had heavily promoted the title alongside its three brethren, including the Marvel Knights Sketchbook which came inside polybagged copies of Wizard magazine. Artist Mark Texeira, a friend of Palmiotti’s since high school and best-known for his work on Marvel’s Ghost Rider, served as the series’ initial artist and was responsible for redesigning the Black Panther’s visuals. “I’ve managed, with the help of Joe and Jimmy, to sculpt a formidable, fearsome image of a new ‘90s Panther,” said Texeira in the sketchbook. “A kick-ass, don’t-mess-with-me, take-no-crap, smack-your-mother-down-the-stairs, punch, drag-out, crack-is-whack, baddest Panther in recent history.” Texeira had adopted a new style for Black Panther, rendering his art in black & white painted tones which were then computer-colored by Brian Haberlin. Prior to computer-coloring, such work would appear ‘muddy’ using standard coloring process.
Although Quesada & Palmiotti gave creative guidance to Black Panther, the actual editorial work of creating the entire Marvel Knights run went to managing editor Nanci Dakesian. Priest considered her so pivotal to the book’s function that he based the personality of Everett K. Ross’ boss Nikki Adams on Nanci. Texeira chose to take this inspiration literally and used Nanci as his model for the character. While Nikki Adams would meet an ill fate in the pages of Black Panther, Nanci would become Mrs. Joe Quesada during the first year of Marvel Knights.
During Quantum & Woody, Priest had developed a storytelling mode he dubbed ‘blackout sketches’ in which scenes would be broken up by a black panel featuring an intertitle in white text, such as the intertitles seen in silent cinema. Adopting this in Black Panther codified it as part of Priest’ style, appearing in virtually all of his work to follow, from Vampirella to U.S. Agent. The intertitles were used at times to create a sort of ‘chapter heading’ or to introduce a remark which would comment dryly on the events of the previous or subsequent page.
So much of Christopher Priest and Mark Texeira’s Black Panther was new; the costume was not only visually different from Jack Kirby’s design but within the stories was lined with Vibranium and outfitted with ‘energy daggers’, ‘anti-metal’ claws and carried a ‘Kimoyo’ card, what Priest termed as “a sophisticated palm pilot.” T’Challa now wore a goatee and had shaved his head (at Quesada & Palmiotti’s behest; “Of course, they probably didn’t realize the two other characters I was writing at the time, John (Steel) Irons and Trane (Xero) Walker, had nearly the exact same look. For awhile, all I was writing was bald black guys with goatees.”); T’Challa had an entire entourage with him, most notably Nakia and Okoye of the Dora Milaje; and the story was told from the perspective of Everett K. Ross in a non-linear fashion, what Priest dubbed “Pulp Fiction in a blender”. Critic Paul O’Brien quipped after reading issue #1: “possibly the first case of editors on the first issue of a high-profile launch asking for the writer to make it harder to read”.
In breaking with past portrayals of the Black Panther, Priest irked some in fandom. Owing in part to ‘Heroes Reborn’, some fans wondered if Marvel Knights titles were set in the same continuity as the other Marvel Comics super-hero books. Typical of disapproving fans was ‘Thats3’ on Usenet: “His stories are well-written, interesting, and usually have a twist, but it’s the deviation in character that turns me off.”
Critic Randy Lander expressed skepticism: “It’s truer to the character of T’Challa than the Marvel Knights version of the Punisher, but at the same time he doesn’t seem exactly right. Priest is taking the character another direction, and I’m not sure I like it yet.” Skeptics were also to be found in Marvel’s offices; Chris Claremont, then Marvel’s director of quality control, “scoffed that the book wouldn’t last six issues.” But before long Lander and Claremont would both become vocal supporters of the series.
Looking back on the first issue, John Jones opined: “Priest’s choice to attempt to fuse McGregor’s depth of development on the Panther’s ethnic background with the Marvel superhero mainstream could not have been an easy one to follow through on. And yet, Priest has accomplished that goal with remarkable deftness, managing to anchor the Panther believably in both worlds while also updating the Panther’s power definition to include some notable technological advances that, while not removing one whit of the Panther’s athletic hand to hand combat prowess, unmistakably delineate him as the scientific genius he is as well.”
Priest summed up: “I figure, a great many Marvel fans were simply not going to buy [Black] Panther no matter what we did. If we presented him traditionally, they’d pass. If we changed him, they’d protest our violation of tradition and pass. Our thing was to go out and find a new audience for the character, to start from scratch. We are very pleased to have found a small but loyal Panther fan base who accept and like the new take on him.”
Marvel Knights launched well, excepting The Punisher, where Golden and Wrightson attempted to fuse supernatural horror into the street-level character but were roundly dismissed by fandom. In 2000, Marvel Knights tried again, this time hiring creators Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon to considerably greater success. But while Black Panther started strong, there were issues behind-the-scenes. Despite considerable leeway, Mark Texeira had trouble getting his pages turned in. “We would have NEVER shipped on time in the early days had it not been for Alitha [Martinez],” Priest explained. “Most every car, sofa, or refrigerator Ross stows Mephisto’s heart in was drawn by Alitha. And most of the action stuff was actually laid out by JoeQ [Quesada].” Texeira drew the first four issues then took a break; he continued to plan the book’s future with Priest and at first intended to return to the series, but ultimately never did.
Texeira’s art had been a major component of the Marvel Knights promotion around the series and had likewise earned the series a great deal of praise. Despite various attempts at finding a regular artist, the series spent the rest of its premiere year reeling from one change of artist to another. Vince Evans drew issue #5, imitating the style Texeira had introduced.
Evans stayed on to provide washes for the next artist: painter Joe Jusko, an old acquaintance of Priest’s going back to his days in the Conan editorial team. After many years of painting covers, posters and trading cards, Jusko wanted to try his hand at a monthly comic book series. Unfortunately, after just three issues he too jumped from the book. Jusko’s last issue (#8) would be the first truly controversial issue in Priest’s run. He had anticipated controversy as far back as #1 when Everett K. Ross made his infamous quip about T’Challa ordering ribs at the Avengers Mansion. Priest assumed his take on racism would incite controversy, yet little imagined the uproar #8 would unleash.
MUNDANE BULLET THEORY
Issue #8, which guest-starred the Avengers, contained two extremely controversial scenes. In one scene, T’Challa reveals he had been performing an intelligence operation while serving in the Avengers, ascertaining whether they were a threat to Wakanda. At the same time, T’Challa’s ex-girlfriend Monica Lynne is forced to fire a rifle which strikes Thor in the forehead, knocking him unconscious. For the latter scene, Priest had conferred with Kurt Busiek, then the writer of The Avengers and well-known for his attention to continuity in titles such as Marvels and Untold Tales of Spider-Man. Busiek recalled “Thor’s shooting was because you [Priest] wanted to shoot an Avenger in the head, so I picked the one for whom it’d be dramatic but not fatal.” Priest therefore assumed that when Busiek confirmed Thor could be injured by a bullet he could trust his source.
All the same, Priest asked Jusko to alter the rifle to appear as a “Big Ass Kirby Gun”, but the story as printed depicted what seemed to be a normal, commercially available sniper rifle. Unknown to Priest, Kurt Busiek had for some time been in an argument on the Thor Message Board at comicboards.com, insisting on his interpretation of Thor being vulnerable to bullets despite evidence to the contrary which fans presented to him. Confronted by scans of a scene from Thor #480 in which bullets bounced off Thor’s skin, Busiek retorted: “This is one of my main problems with those who say that THOR #480 should hold sway over the earlier issues it ignores; on the one hand they say that it can’t be ignored because it’s continuity, and on the other choose to ignore part of it. For my part, I choose to believe that it’s slightly mis-drawn, and that the bullets are actually all striking his armor.”
Overall, Busiek elaborated “I think Thor being vulnerable is emotionally more powerful, and adds immeasurably to his victories, than the intellectually-more-powerful suggestion that he is too durable to be endangered by anything in the everyday world.”
By depicting Thor’s injury Priest was assumed to be in alignment with Busiek in what fans feared was an attempt to depower Thor. Thor fans who were not familiar with ‘Christopher Priest’ unfortunately did not realize he was the author of Thor #370 (as Jim Owsley), a story which had remained popular with Thor fans for a dozen years.
If the revelations about T’Challa’s motivations for joining the Avengers had any ill effects on how Priest’s work was perceived by Avengers fans, it was at least mitigated by Kurt Busiek running a guest appearance by the Black Panther in Avengers #19-22 as the Panther joined the Avengers in a battle against Ultron. Although the Black Panther was not pivotal to Ultron’s defeat, the full arsenal of technology which Priest and Texeira had introduced was on display; this helped cement that the Avengers’ Black Panther whom Priest had so often disparaged had been displaced.
Priest’s ongoing storyline now bled into issues #9-12, an arc titled ‘Enemy of the State’ which would wind up most of the plots in the series up to that point. By now the series had developed into a political thriller, but it had hit a snag: Quesada and Palmiotti wanted a change of tone for the series. Referring to the animated television series Batman: The Animated Series, the duo asked Priest to knowingly adopt a style evocative of Batman. To that end, they brought in artist Mike Manley to mimic the style Bruce Timm had used on that animated program. “We disagreed at the timing of it because I was already two issues into the very serious Enemy of the State arc, and the new art style was at odds with that story,” Priest explained on Usenet. Manley only drew issues #9-10 in the end, neither of which had been written for his style. ‘Enemy of the State’ concluded in #11-12 with Priest’s Quantum & Woody collaborator Mark Bright as artist.
Issue #12 was also the end of Marvel Knights’ involvement in the series. “Marvel was prepared to renew the Knights contract with [Black] Panther inclusive,” Priest stated on Usenet. “But [Black] Panther does not need Joe and Jimmy’s full attention. The book can continue as it is under other editors, freeing us all up to launch new stuff under the Knights banner. It made sense, it was a good choice.” Beginning with issue #13 the series would move back to the offices of Marvel Comics proper with Priest himself the only creative person retained from the Marvel Knights run.
VELLUTO & ALMOND
Indeed, Priest said he did not realize he was still the writer of Black Panther until the new editor Ruben Diaz told him his script was late. “Late for what?” Priest inquired, learning then that the series had not been cancelled. In fact, Priest credited the reprieve to Marvel’s editor-in-chief Bob Harras and former detractor Chris Claremont, who had lobbied for the book’s continuation. Diaz had previously been a DC Comics editor and had edited Priest on Justice League Task Force, Extreme Justice, The Ray, and Steel, but during the ‘Heroes Reborn’ experiment had begun editing for Marvel Comics as well.
Art duties on the series fell to another of Priest’s Justice League Task Force cohorts: Sal Velluto. “I have gained a lot of appreciation and respect for his talent,” Velluto told PopImage about Priest. “I believe he has a great gift for characterization and viewpoint, which is not very common among comic book writers. Priest has received a lot of critical acclaim, but, in my opinion, he deserves to be noticed on a larger scale, by readers and publishers alike.” Priest admired Velluto’s artistic interpretation of the hero: “Sal found a very urbane stoicism that worked quite well when we wanted to go for comedic effect,” Priest explained. Velluto helped inspire a running joke (begun in issue #14) where T’Challa answered rhetorical questions or exclamations such as “Are you a hijacker?” with the deadpan response: “No. I am king of a small African nation.”
Inking Velluto was Bob Almond, who had previously worked with Velluto on Acclaim’s Bloodshot. Almond gradually became a spokesman for the art of inking while toiling on Black Panther, receiving an uncommon amount of attention for an aspect of comic book creation which is seldom so honored. “I’ve experienced a synergy in this team that I’ve yet to experience before where everyone is on the same page to achieve the best we can as a team unit,” Almond told Comicboards. “Never before was respect given to my thoughts and suggestions by other creators on past projects. Sal and Priest are respectful enough to listen to my requests and thoughts and, on *most* occasions, even utilize them.”
When Almond realized Billy Graham (renowned for his work on Don McGregor’s Black Panther stories in Jungle Action) had passed away in 1997 he cajoled first Velluto and then Priest to honour Graham in the pages of their title. The result was Black Panther #17, featuring a cover Velluto and Almond drew in homage to the cover of Jungle Action #8. The issue featured a variety of Marvel’s 1970s black super-heroes battling a variety of 1970s super villains. It was Almond who noted that the crime boss Morgan had been crippled in Mike Baron’s Punisher, resulting in Morgan riding on a hover-chair, and likewise when Almond saw Velluto had penciled the Luke Cage villain Cockroach Hamilton wielding a conventional shotgun, he redrew the weapon into the villain’s familiar custom shotgun, ‘Josh’.
It was quite an international effort bringing the African monarch to life: Priest (born in USA), Velluto (born in Italy) and Almond (born in South Korea) would become the most consistent creative team in this version of the Panther (Priest and Velluto created 30 issues together, Almond inked 29 of them). And yet, the trio would never meet in the same place until 2018, when all three attended the world premiere of Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther motion picture in Los Angeles. “Bob?! I thought you were a kid!” exclaimed Priest on meeting Almond, who was only six years younger than him.
The art of Velluto and Almond would be reflected in the 2018 film. Perhaps the cover of Black Panther #43 depicting T’Challa resting on a tree branch inspired a similar scene in the film. The movie’s ‘special thanks’ included credits for Priest, Texeira, Quesada, Velluto and Almond. Almond’s credit is significant, for although many Marvel Comics creators have received ‘special thanks’ in Marvel films, inkers had not previously been awarded this honour. This acknowledgment demonstrated how Almond’s efforts had gone above and beyond what people in the comics industry expected from an inker.
Yet initial reactions to the Velluto/Almond art were unfavorable. “Apparently, the series is now set in Vegas,” critic Don MacPherson quipped of issue #13. “Gaudy, inappropriate color rules the day, and it marred a good reread of the material for me.” Almond later explained to Comicboards:
“When Sal first discussed the [Black] Panther title with Ruben he was under the impression that the color quality would be much akin to a Vertigo title and thus experimented to coincide with the colors and content. This style was more angular, grittier, sketchier or more kinetic, and consisted of non-functional curved lines in objects that affectionately were labeled as ‘squigglies’ on-line by readers. Sal and I were disappointed, to say the least, when we first saw our first issue printed. Sal spoke to Ruben, Ruben said he’d work on it but the process was just not nor ever in synch with our work so by issue 17 we changed back to our more traditional look. The quality of color dropped quite a bit once the Marvel Knights banner was dropped by issue 13 and even with the later addition of colorist Steve Oliff to the team Sal and I were most often left disappointed for months.”
Even as the early negative reactions spread on Usenet, Priest stood by his new art team: “Sal and Bob are, hands down, the best thing to happen to this book. I am thrilled, squiggles be damned.”
Indeed, the move away from Marvel Knights had lowered the title’s cost from $3.50 USD per issue to $2.50 – but the paper quality had also been lowered from the slick Marvel Knights paper to the rougher newsprint standard.
When Jack Kirby had first introduced T’Challa in the Fantastic Four he had included a small cape in the character design. The cape seldom appeared outside of the character’s initial appearances, but as part of his effort to recapture what he felt Kirby had originated Priest had made Texeira include the cape as part of his Black Panther. Quesada and Palmiotti encouraged artists to draw the cape longer as part of their conscious effort to liken the character into Marvel’s Batman, but Priest now left the matter up to Velluto. “[Every time] I leave a note in the script that says, ‘Sal: cape on or off– your call,’ he takes the cape off. Methinks Sal is not a Cape Guy,” Priest told Comicboards. Velluto and Almond would continue in-jokes about Batman (notably a dream sequence in Black Panther #22 with references to Batman, Robin, Catwoman, Joker and the Batmobile, and in designing a future version of Ross to resemble Commissioner Gordon in Black Panther #36-37), but the tone quickly moved away from Quesada & Palmiotti’s intent.
After more than a year’s absence, Priest and Bright had resumed Quantum & Woody with publisher Acclaim. The duo concocted a parody of Priest’s Black Panther in Quantum & Woody #20, in which ‘Marble Cavaliers’ published a comic book titled ‘Dark Kitty’ featuring characters suspiciously similar to the Black Panther, the Hulk, and Everett K. Ross. Bright drew the issue in imitation of Velluto and Almond’s art in Black Panther #15, which came out in the same month. Unfortunately, “we’d jumped to the Hulk scene so the Hulk issue would ship the same month,” Priest lamented; he wouldn’t resume the Hulk story until issue #17 and was beginning to feel the non-linear storytelling Quesada & Palmiotti had encouraged was failing.
Black Panther #17 – the tribute to Billy Graham – was a landmark issue for the series. It marked the end of the series’ non-linear storytelling and welcomed new editor Tom Brevoort. Then the editor of Kurt Busiek’s Avengers and Thunderbolts and later to become an executive editor at Marvel Comics, Priest credited Brevoort for encouraging consistency in the series: “Tom suggested the book should exist in whatever comfort zone the book exists in, that we shouldn’t move away from the Marvel Universe but we shouldn’t wreck what’s unique about Panther in some misguided attempt to fit in with Kurt’s Avengers.”
In the midst of his Killmonger story arc Priest used Tony Stark in a guest appearance during issue #19 to see if the creative team on Iron Man would be interested in a crossover; although Joe Quesada had just become the ongoing writer of Iron Man, no crossover emerged. Instead, Priest set up a crossover with Deadpool, which he had begun writing under editor Ruben Diaz’s direction. Following the Deadpool crossover in issue #23, Priest tied into Kurt Busiek’s Maximum Security crossover in issue #25, then brought the X-Men’s Storm into the series for issue #26. Despite Brevoort’s advice that the series exist in its own ‘comfort zone’, flagging sales kept Priest looking for a burst of adrenaline. Brevoort addressed concerned fans in the title’s letters page: “the best we can say is keep reading and spread the word – now is the time.” (Black Panther #20)
At the same time, Bob Harras had been fired from his position as editor-in-chief; Joe Quesada then ascended to the post of editor-in-chief thanks to his work on Marvel Knights and for the successful launch of the ‘Ultimate Marvel’ titles (Ultimate Spider-Man & Ultimate X-Men). Arguably, with Quesada now setting the tone for the entirety of Marvel Comics there was no need for Marvel Knights, yet the label persisted. Daredevil remained under its banner until 2007, by which time the imprint had lost its luster. As one of Marvel Knights’ prodigal sons, Black Panther would continue to find a home for the next three years.
As Quesada was settling in, Priest moved ahead with ‘Sturm und Drang’, a four-part story with an epilogue which would take the series to issue #30, but it was far from clear whether there would be an issue #31. Chris Claremont went so far as to herald Storm’s guest appearance in Uncanny X-Men #387 in a sequence he composed in imitation of Priest’s own style. But the real game changer came in the pages of Entertainment Weekly: “Christopher Priest has turned the saga—his true identity: the African prince T’Challa—into a swashbuckling political thriller.” This favorable write-up was quickly quoted in the solicitation text for issue #25, then placed across the top of issue #28’s cover. Black Panther had again earned a reprieve.
Many initiatives were undertaken to expand and encourage Black Panther’s fandom under both Brevoort and his successor Mike Marts. In issue #23 a scene depicted T’Challa’s trophy room and the letters page issued a challenge for fans to identify every item on display. The winner, Samuel Tate, not only identified every item correctly but suggested a book as the journal of T’Challa’s grandfather Chanda (seen in Fantastic Four Unlimited #1), impressing the editors! The letters page from #27-41 contained a feature called ‘Wakandan Embassy’ in which the editors highlighted letters from fans who related stories about how what they were doing to promote the book. Issue #30 – which was almost the finale – instead contained a subscription offer, indicating the outlook was not entirely grim, while issues #1-6 were collected as a trade paperback, Black Panther: The Client. And issue #36 was a 100-page special, a format Brevoort had dubbed the ‘Monster’. Along with a special story set in T’Challa’s future the book reprinted the Black Panther’s debut from Fantastic Four, Don McGregor & Rich Buckler’s Jungle Action #8 and a gallery of art by Sal Velluto with a narrative written by Priest.
A transformative (and extremely controversial) figure aiding Joe Quesada’s changes to Marvel Comics was the company’s president, Bill Jemas. Unlike previous presidents, Jemas was eager to promote himself as a creative force within the business, not only delivering creative decisions for the publishing line but writing his own comic books as well. As an outsider to the business of comics he interrogated every assumption. “We are going to stop writing comics about comics and start telling stories about our world in 2001 and beyond,” Jemas insisted.
Paul O’Brien summed him up thusly: “Who better to be out there as a figurehead for the business? Well, at first glance, almost anyone. Throwing conventional PR strategy to the winds, Jemas seems to have embarked on a mission to personally insult everyone in the industry. He publicly dismisses retailer complaints as a sign of stupidity. He tells his own readers that they spend most of their time in the basement masturbating. He makes absurdly inflammatory comments about his fellow publishers. While traditionally publishers want to be liked, Jemas is striving daily to make you want to punch him.”
While Priest’s old comrades Peter David and Mark Waid sparred publicly with Jemas, Black Panther adapted itself to the president’s whims. Noting that while traditional hand-drawn lettering had required text to be written in all-caps, Jemas wanted to take advantage of the industry’s computer lettering and sharper printing quality – and so, lettering in all Marvel Comics publications adopted letter case style, including Black Panther as of issue #42. After Jemas was ousted from the company, lettering would gradually revert to the creators’ own preferences, leaving the period where all comics used letter case style a visible marker of Jemas’ presence.
Jemas also pushed for Marvel Comics to leave the Comics Code Authority. The Code symbol had been a part of comics since 1954 when publishers adopted it for fear that without their own censorship body the US government might impose its own restrictions upon them. When the Comics Code Authority rejected an issue of Peter Milligan & Mike Allred’s X-Force in 2001, it prompted Marvel to pull out of the Comics Code altogether, instead adopting their own grading system to indicate which comics were appropriate for younger or mature audiences. DC Comics continued to use the Comics Code until 2011; when they dropped their support, the Comics Code quickly sputtered out of existence. Black Panther #33 was the series’ final issue to sport the Comics Code stamp. From issues #36-62, the covers sported ‘PG’, infringing somewhat on the Code and Rating Administration system of the Motion Picture Association.
One idea Bill Jemas spearheaded was that Marvel Comics should have a black Captain America and he attempted to push this idea to the creators of the ‘Ultimate’ universe; although Joe Quesada later produced concept art for a black Captain America, he initially rejected Jemas’ idea alongside Brian Michael Bendis, Mark Millar, Jeph Loeb, and Joe Kelly. Although the ‘Ultimate’ Captain America would remain a white Steve Rogers, the concept would eventually find print in 2003 as Truth: Red, White & Black. Priest was courted to write the 7-issue series but ultimately it was written by Robert Morales with artist Kyle Baker, and introduced Isaiah Bradley, a black man who participated in an effort to create super-soldiers following Steve Rogers’ own origin story. Jemas would eventually be forced out of Marvel Comics in 2003 when his behavior came under scrutiny at the top of the company.
Events outside the world of comics also had an impact on the series. Black Panther #36 went on sale one day after the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Marvel Comics quickly rushed out a magazine-sized book titled Heroes, proceeds of its sale going to the Twin Tower Fund to provide financial aid to the families of first responders who died during the terrorist attack. Such was the outpouring of grief after the attack that even Alan Moore – who had famously refused to work for Marvel Comics since the 1980s – composed a prose piece for the publication. Sal Velluto and Bob Almond drew a striking picture (colored by Chris Dickey) depicting a child’s room decorated with Marvel super-hero posters and action figures (plus a copy of Black Panther #26). A little boy dressed as a firefighter and a little girl dressed as a police officer look up from their game as they see smoke rising from the site of Ground Zero at the destruction of the Twin Towers. Velluto gifted the original art to Joe Quesada’s wife Nanci, who in turn donated the art to the family of a fallen firefighter. Heroes reportedly raised $1 million for families of first responders. Black Panther #39 placed the 9/11 memorial icon on its front cover, an initiative which the entire publishing group adopted; it remained there for almost a year through issue #48.
Priest had grown up in New York but now lived in Colorado, so the events of 9/11 were removed from his immediate environment. Looking back he felt isolated not only from New York, but his own country: “For me, and for many of my friends, most of that was a spectator sport. Heartwarming, like a Jimmy Stewart movie, but Blacks weren’t starring in Jimmy Stewart films, Jimmy Stewart films were, for me, a window into another world, another America. That’s the America that came together after the attacks: Ronald Reagan’s America, Jimmy Stewart’s America. A place that welcomed blacks, Latinos, Native Americans and Asians only conditionally into the periphery of their great parade.”
In Black Panther #41-45, Priest crafted ‘Enemy of the State II’, a sequel to the arc from issues #9-12 which also wrapped up the attempted Iron Man crossover from issue #19. Priest had just missed being nominated as the new Iron Man scribe (which went to Mike Grell) but was permitted to use Iron Man for the storyline alongside Wolverine, whose own title was then being edited by Black Panther’s Mike Marts. This period also occasioned the release of Black Panther: Enemy of the State, a trade paperback collecting issues #7-12. Unfortunately it was the last time Priest’s Black Panther would receive a trade paperback collection until 2015.
BLACK AND WHITE
By the time ‘Enemy of the State II’ had been released, changes were afoot for the series. “Editors Michael Marts, [assistant editor] Mike Raicht and I commenced marathon sessions trying to re-create the wheel, looking at a variety of directions (including a really cool one where T’Challa became a villain and another, Raicht’s idea, where Queen Divine Justice became The Black Panther),” Priest related. The idea of launching a new title set in the ‘Ultimate’ continuity was raised. Ultimately, Priest’s ‘urban crime’ direction in which a new character would adopt the Black Panther’s costume was approved.
Fans were dismayed to learn Sal Velluto and Bob Almond would not be part of Black Panther’s new direction. “The new direction was my call,” Priest explained. “The changes in creative staff were not. Marvel clearly wanted a new look and new direction, and for awhile it looked like the book might proceed without all three of us.” Bob Almond composed an eloquent farewell for the letters page of issue #49, thanking each of his collaborators on Black Panther as well as naming many of the fans at Comicboards and Usenet who had helped promote the series. “I can truly say that in my brief decade in this business that this indeed was my best experience on a project to date, perhaps ever.”
T’Challa’s tenure as lead character of Black Panther came to an end with ‘The Death of the Black Panther’ in issues #48-49, Velluto and Almond’s grand farewell to the series. Their final cover depicted the Black Panther sailing in a boat down a river against a gorgeous sunset. The story concerned a brain aneurysm which T’Challa had been grappling with in the previous year finally resulting in him abandoning his costumed identity and his throne.
The new lead character was introduced in a seven-chapter storyline titled ‘Black and White’. Kevin ‘Kasper’ Cole was introduced as a New York police officer, the son of a black man and a white woman, his light skin complexion resulting in a nickname which referenced Casper the Friendly Ghost. Kasper finds a damaged Black Panther costume (from issue #16) and begins impersonating the hero so that he can play vigilante while under suspension. T’Challa eventually returns as he becomes one of several entities trying to influence Kasper’s actions. “My essential premise for the new direction in Panther became, in essence, a dark satire of Spider-Man, structured around the nuclear family concept of The Hero Who Could Be You,” Priest wrote. “Panther would not have quite the whimsical satirical tone of Steel, but rather will be a very dark and very violent urban drama along the lines of Denzel Washington’s Academy Award-nominated performance in the film Training Day.” Priest lobbied for the title to be changed from Black Panther to Panther. Marvel said ‘no’.
The new direction began in Black Panther #50 with the launch of ‘Black and White’. Andy Kubert had become the series’ new cover artist. Oscar Jimenez designed the new lead character (basing him on actor Vin Diesel) but, per Bob Almond, “When Oscar only produced one page over several weeks Dan [Fraga] and Larry [Stucker] were then hired.” As in its Marvel Knights heyday, the series struggled with holding a regular artist; Fraga produced only one issue then retired from comics for some 13 years! Argentine artist Jorge Lucas became the new artist, producing four issues. “Regrettably, there were some language and cultural barriers between Jorge and I,” Priest admitted. Next came Jim Calafiore with inker Mark McKenna, together finishing the last two chapters of ‘Black and White’. Following a two-issue fill-in written by J. Torres with artist Rick Bodenheim (issues #57-58), Patrick Zircher and Jim Calafiore split the last four issues between them (both inked by Norm Rapmund).
At the same time Kasper became the lead of Black Panther, Kurt Busiek had left The Avengers and writer Geoff Johns took his place. Johns wanted to bring the Black Panther back to the Avengers and discussed his plans with Priest, wishing to utilize the personality which Priest had established. Priest had hopes that this would help expand Black Panther’s audience, but these plans were made before the start of ‘Black and White’. By the time T’Challa rejoined the Avengers, he was no longer the lead of his own series. ‘Black and White’ ultimately acknowledged this change by its final chapter, meaning the Marvel Universe now had two characters using the Black Panther identity at the same time.
Although the series ended with issue #62 (released in stores on July 23, 2003), “Black Panther is not cancelled,” Priest insisted across the web. “It’s becoming The Crew.” The Crew launched immediately after Black Panther, written by Priest with art by Brazilian artist Joe Bennett and inked by Danny Miki. Former Black Panther editor Tom Brevoort took editorial reins for The Crew. After publicly expressing disappointment with the art after Velluto and Almond’s departure from Black Panther, Priest had different words for Joe Bennett, gushing: “The investment, the emotional connection to the material is evident from the very first panel of the very first page. Even insignificant panels fairly exude texture, detail and emotion…”
Kasper Cole (now dubbed ‘White Tiger’) was the series lead with former Iron Man lead James Rhodes, Junta (a character introduced in the first ‘Enemy of the State’) and Josiah X (the son of Isaiah Bradley of Truth: Red, White & Black). Priest based his plot around the 1999 film Three Kings by director David O. Russell; just as that film concerned three soldiers on a treasure hunt for Iraqi gold, The Crew’s protagonists were each involved in the pursuit of the 66 Bridges’ gang’s money train.
Priest wanted this series to reach a different audience than the typical visitors to comic book shops. Believing his series had great appeal to black and Latino audiences (Junta was Latino) Priest tried to convince Marvel to issue the series in both English and Spanish. He tried to think outside the box for marketing the series: “I had spoken to a number of people anxious to see this book and to explore ways to co-op it; perhaps an in-pack with XXL or Vibe,” Priest revealed. “I put together a CD of original rap and hip-hop from local artists. There’s tons of the stuff, free, [these] guys were excited about being part of a Marvel Comic. Thousands of barber shops across the country are where minority kids go every other week: why isn’t there a comics rack in there? Why has both DC and Marvel marketing completely ignored the minority market for seventy-five years? Because they’re stupid. It’s not even racism, it’s stupidity.”
Instead of the ideas Priest proposed, The Crew was announced as part of ‘Tsunami’. Tsunami was a loosely defined branding for several Marvel Comics which were designed for collected editions in a smaller manga-sized format. Some of the Tsunami titles had genuine appeal to readers of manga, notably the line’s breakout hit Runaways. But the Tsunami brand itself never took off in the way Marvel Knights had; in fact, the Tsunami icon never appeared on The Crew’s covers, it was only touted in Marvel’s press release announcing the title. Priest did not even mention Tsunami by name in his eulogy for the series: “They sent it to Diamond as part of a flood of poorly-planned new launches, most of which were summarily cancelled.”
The Crew ended after only seven issues. By this time Marvel Comics were Priest’s only employers in comics, as he no longer worked at DC and Acclaim/Valiant had gone under yet again. Brevoort brought Priest over to Captain America and the Falcon, a series which ran alongside the Marvel Knights version of Captain America with a stronger sense of continuity to The Avengers title. The series lasted 14 issues, most of them drawn by Joe Bennett. When the series was cancelled along with the Marvel Knights title to make way for Ed Brubaker’s Captain America, Brevoort offered Priest a solo title for the Falcon. Leery of his only assignment being a series with a black lead, Priest asked to pitch a second title with a white lead. When his pitch was rejected, Priest refused to write Falcon and retired from comics, focusing his energies on prose writing, music, and his church ministry.
THE BLACK PANTHER NOW
T’Challa continued as a cast member of The Avengers, but in 2005 he returned to Marvel Knights with a new solo series written by filmmaker Reginald Hudlin – the same Reginald Hudlin whom Priest had collaborated with on an unproduced Luke Cage movie. Hudlin remained with the series through to 2009, during which time he had T’Challa and Storm married, a relationship founded almost entirely on Priest’s story. Noting that he had requested the characters be married but been refused, Priest joked, “Oh, I get it. It’s because he’s black.” He was less enthused at how Hudlin’s initial issues threw out all pre-existing continuity of the character, unlike his own Marvel Knights launch: “…the only thing that kind of bugs me is in the industry now … when someone comes along and says what you did never happened. Hudlin made the character commercially viable ’cause he sold a lot more Black Panther comic book than I ever did, but it really bugged me that continuity-wise… we’re going to act like that stuff never happened.” Following the initial 6-issue run, Hudlin’s later issues tied the series back into continuity.
After an occasional dabbling in returning to comics, Priest finally re-teamed with Mark Bright for the new Valiant’s 2014 mini-series Q2: The Return of Quantum and Woody. Although it was a stormy affair behind-the-scenes (chronicled in Priest’s self-published book Klang!), soon after he was contacted by DC Comics editor Marie Javins to write Deathstroke. “’He’s that guy from ‘Teen Titans,’ the guy with the sword, right?’” Priest recalled the conversation. “’Yeah, that’s him.’ ‘OK, alright. Is he Black?’ She said no. I said, ‘OK, keep talking.’” Since then Priest’s work has appeared at Dynamite Entertainment (Vampirella, Sacred Six), Lion Forge (Astonisher), Marvel Comics (U.S. Agent), and as of this writing has upcoming work with Heavy Metal.
In 2018, Ryan Coogler’s immensely successful Black Panther movie made the character more popular than ever while writer Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2016 comic book series launched with 253,000+ copies sold. The renewed interest in the character included a four-volume set of Christopher Priest’s entire 62-issue series, while Priest wrote a new story for the 2018 Black Panther Annual anthology and a 1-page story for the 2019 Marvel Comics #1000, a book of 1-page stories each connected to a different year (Priest composed the story for 1966, the year of the Black Panther’s debut).
The Black Panther character has become immensely richer through Christopher Priest’s contributions and this series of essays will continue to explore Priest’s innovations.