Christopher J. Priest may just be the most underrated comic book writer of the modern age.
Priest is rarely-if-ever remembered for any of that (except, perhaps, in the case of Panther). In my experience, people remember Priest for one of three things. The first is the fact that he was black. This is, *gasp*, true, and also totally irrelevant. Priest was good at what he did, and his race had little if anything to do with it. Yes, he wrote compelling, convincing, authentic black characters and cultures. He also wrote compelling, convincing, authentic white characters and cultures. He was a good writer; it comes with the territory.
He might be the very best super-hero comic book writer alive today.
Now, obviously, that’s a subjective designation, and there are certainly a couple of other guys in the running, but Priest should be in the conversation. In order to make that point, though, we need to establish the criteria for “very best super-hero comic book writer alive today,” and since I’m the writer and you’re not (suck it, audience!), I’ll do that now. My largely arbitrary qualifications for a writer to be in the conversation are as follows:
- Versatility. Frank Miller’s fantastic, but he basically just does one thing. Ditto for Jeph Loeb before he lost his goddamn mind. There are guys who do two or three things, too (current kings of the industry Bendis and Johns are right at the top of that list), but we’re looking for somebody with a wider repertoire than either one of those very popular writers. This one cleans up a lot of would-be contenders who were undeniably great, but with a limited body of work. Walt Simonson’s Thor run was legendary, but can you remember anything he else did without Wikipedia.
- Consistency. Anybody can have a good issue, or even a good run. For example, Judd Winnick has accidentally written a good comic book once or twice over the years (and remember we’re talking superhero books here, so please spare me the whining about Barry Ween), but he’s never really put together a solid run on any one book. To pass muster on this one, a writer should have at least two or three runs of twenty plus (ideally more) consecutive issues that are, at minimum, really damned good.
- Originality. It’s not hard to re-tell good stories. Pretty much every Thor Ragnarok story is at least decent, but it’s been done to death. Ditto for stories where Superman temporarily loses his powers and acts like a hero anyways, or stories where Captain America fights for the American ideals instead of the American Government, and especially stories where Spider-Man rediscovers the importance of “Great Responsibility ™”. Nothing wrong with any of those stories (there’s a reason they’re classics), but if somebody’s in the running for “best living superhero writer”, I’d like them to be capable of coming up with fresh ideas, or at the very least original twists on classic formulas.
- Sustainability. We’ve seen a lot of writers over the years who told good stories for a few years, then disappeared. For our purposes, I’m only interested in someone who kicked prodigious and consistent amounts of ass over at least a fifteen year period.
- Quality. The obvious one, only it isn’t that obvious. There’s a metric fuckload of dudes out there who meet the previous four qualifiers, only they’ve never knocked the ball out of the park. Ed Brubaker has been consistently writing comics that range from “good” to “damned good” but I can only think of one story he’s done that I’d call fantastic (it’s the Batman/Two-Face riff he did called “Dead Reckoning”, if anyone’s wondering). Granted, I haven’t read everything he’s written, but I’ve only re-read one thing he’s written, which, for me, is much more telling.
So, allowing right off the bat that your mileage may (and very probably will) vary; those five leave us with a pretty short list. Most of the “go to” guys are already off the menu. Stan Lee didn’t do much worth noticing after the 60s, Geoff Johns (I’m personally not a fan, but most people are so let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and assume I just don’t “get” it) has been selling comics like hotcakes for the last ten years or so, but did fuck-all before that, and consensus seems to be that if his best work more or less always involves somebody with a power ring. Bendis (another one I seem to have missed the bandwagon on) makes a living on running from originality like it owes him money, although at least sometimes he bothers to cover his tracks (Sentry looks like a Superman ripoff, but he’s ACTUALLY a Triumph ripoff. Clever, Bendis), and his generally most well-regarded work (Ultimate Spider-Man) had its glory days retelling old Lee/Ditko stories. Mind you, he’s done some good work (Alias, Powers), but calling that stuff “superhero” comics is a stretch at best. Neil Gaiman loses out on consistency, as he likes to disappear from comics for years at a time, and I’m not sure he ever did anything besides Sandman that made it past twelve issues. Alan Moore loses out because you’re realllllly stretching to classify the majority of his work as “superhero” stuff (now that I think of it, ditto for Gaiman). Ennis and Ellis both have no small amount of contempt for superhero work, and basically only write it at gunpoint, and it shows (noteworthy exception: Nextwave).
- Versatility. Well, let’s see… “Black Panther” was a tightly-knit, and very complex, long form cerebral epic that featured an Ishmael-esque supporting protagonist/narrator, out-of-sequence storytelling, social commentary, sardonic humor, and high adventure against a backdrop of political intrigue, tribal custom, and about a dozen really smart guys constantly trying to outwit and manipulate one another. Oh, and at issue fifty it changed gears and became a gritty “Training Day” style cop story with a different main character, and yet somehow remained compelling. That’s one. “The Ray” does what Kirkman’s “Invincible” always gets credit for doing (combining the relatability and humor of Spider-Man with the wish fulfillment and Earth shattering stakes of Superman) , only several years earlier and without relying on an established mythos (because,
let’s face it, if you didn’t know who Superman was, Invincible wouldn’t be half as much fun). Oh, also, it’s also got room for criticism of the “grim ‘n gritty” movement of the 90s, all sorts of clever time-travel hijinks (nearly half of the run of takes place outside of the present), a psychologically complex coming-of-age story, and a take on Vandal Savage that’s much more interesting than the conventional routes of going either “Caveman Luthor” or “dumber Ras Al Ghul”. That’s two.
- Consistency. His “Panther” run is generally considered to be the best the character’s seen, and his “Power Man & Iron Fist” remains the blueprint for how to write those two character together. His “Ray” and “Quantum and Woody” runs were both critical darlings, and “Ray” sold very well until the art team started getting shifted around. “Justice League Task Force,” despite its most marketable/mainstream character being the Martian Manhunter (who has enough trouble carrying a solo series), sold well and was only cancelled because DC had signed Morrison to do his “Big 7” JLA, and justifiably wanted to give him a clean slate (and Martian Manhunter). Basically, almost everything Priest’s done has been a critical success at worst.
- Originality. Re-read qualifier #1. Also, he co-created the Ray, Triumph (the socially inept, time-lost, and forgotten founder of the Justice League with the firepower to deck Superman and an Everest sized chip on his shoulder tempered by an obsessive desire to be a “good guy”), Josiah X (a mercenary turned Islamic street preacher who also happens to be the son of the original (black) Captain America), and of course, H.A.E.D.U.S. (Heavily Armored Espionage Deadly Uber Sheep).
Sustainability. Had good comics on shelves virtually every month from 1984-2004. Wrote the single longest run not only of “Black Panther”, but of any black leading character (normally a sales kiss of death, as most readers are, well, white) at either Marvel or DC (I believe Spawn is the only longer run, sustained largely by the much lower expectations and sales requirements of a smaller publisher).
- Quality. Of five subjective qualifiers, this is by far the most subjective. But I don’t know anyone who’s read him and didn’t like him, and he’s known for the consensus defining/best runs on both “Black Panther” and “Power Man and Iron Fist”. At a more specific level, he’s a guy who understands the fundamentals of storytelling, thinks visually, knows how to balance multiple plot threads, cares about fashioning a fleshed-out supporting cast, and has a deep love of the medium that shows through in almost every story. He takes the time to think about who a character is, how they work, and what those two things mean both at an in-story level (Panther is not, technically, a super-hero; he’s a king who happens to wear a mask and fight crime, primarily to protect the safety and interests of his country and citizens), and a meta level (Panther, the billionaire African orphan with a super genius IQ and his own first world country, is not particularly relatable to the average suburban white reader, and getting inside his head would ruin his mystique. Solution: Everett K. Ross, relatable narrator extraordinaire, and dry comic relief to boot.). He puts more thought into a single issue than some guys *cough*A.J.Lieberman*cough* put into their entire runs, and pretty much never repeats himself.
Now, according to my arbitrary five criteria, Priest is in the running. Is he better than Morrison or Busiek or Waid? Does it matter? The point isn’t that someone or other is the best ever, it’s that Priest is in the running. And yet nobody talks about him. People who started reading comics in the last few years often have never heard of him, or if they have, it’s for the wrong reasons mentioned above. Despite telling high-quality stories for twenty years at three different companies in basically almost every sub-genre of superhero fiction, Christopher Priest is routinely ignored. Why?
Maybe it’s simply that he never had that “blockbuster” sales run(s) like the “classic” heavy hitters did (of course, he was never given a top-shelf property, either.) The biggest name he got in a solo book was Deadpool, and that was a decade before Deadpool became a star. Maybe it’s because his quirky, creator-owned masterpiece (Quantum and Woody) was from such a small and dysfunctional publisher (Acclaim) that quite literally went out of business with completed issues left unshipped, so not enough people saw it for it to gain the cult following of, say, Busiek’s “Astro City”. Maybe it’s because he ticked a lot of people off at both Marvel and DC, and they buried him. Maybe it’s the (groan) race thing. Maybe I’m delusional and he isn’t actually that good. It’s probably a little bit of all the above.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. The moral of the story here is that Christopher Priest is a fantastic, underrated writer who tells wonderful superhero stories, and if you’re looking for a good read, you could do a lot worse than “Black Panther”, or “The Ray”, or “Quantum and Woody”. Regardless of how legitimate you think my criteria are, his work speaks for itself; read it, and you’ll probably enjoy the Hell out of it. Well, at least, that’s one of the morals.
The other is that the sonofabitch needs to come back to mainstream comics and start entertaining us again. Preferably by salvaging Black Panther. Maybe then he’ll start getting the reputation his work deserves.