Casey-A-Rama: Priest

PRIEST: A WRITER’S CONFESSIONS

For a creator who’s been in this business for more than twenty years, you’d never know it from Priest’s writing, which is as fresh and original as any “hot writer” of the moment.  Priest’s voice is one of my favorites in modern comicbooks.  He’s right there in the mainstream, daring his readers with challenging narratives and complex characterizations.  Even when it comes to old favorites, like Black Panther or Captain America and the Falcon, Priest makes them feel brand new.  I’ve admired his writing from afar for years (The Crew being a personal favorite of mine in 2003), and this was a chance to talk to him about not only his craft -- which is considerable -- but his unique perspective on our industry. 

JOE CASEY:  At this point in your career, would you consider yourself -- or even classify yourself -- as a cult writer?  Honestly, man, I’m just looking for some company here…!

PRIESTGeez, I hope not. I haven’t given much thought to my classification. I tend to exist outside of the mainstream and actually lose touch with the industry in the sense that I almost never consider my place in it. Jerry Seinfeld once said, on 60 Minutes, "I'm like a carpenter: I do nice, detailed work, and that's it." I tend to think of myself as a comic book writer. I hope I'm good at it. But that's something for others to judge.

CASEY:  Sounds kinda’ “cult” to me.  Now, your current Marvel series, Captain America & Falcon, really plays to your strengths (especially when Joe Bennett’s drawing it).  From Power Man/Iron Fist to Quantum & Woody and even, to some degree the Panther/Everett Ross relationship in Black Panther, you seem to do your best work on what you yourself have described as “buddy books”.  Would you even agree with that and, if so, why do you think that is…?

PRIEST:  I actually think my most personal work has been with The Ray, and some of the Spider-Man stuff I did in the 80's (notably Spider-Man vs. Wolverine). What I like about buddy books is it gives us, usually, our A story and B story and I don’t have to contrive things to cut away to. I get to play the characters off of each other.

Joe Bennett is absolutely brilliant. It's scary how much better this guy gets with each issue, and how he really "gets" me. Each page comes back looking even better than I'd imagined. As a result, I relax and am freer to trust Joe: to write scenes that rely exclusively on Joe's sensibilities and his ability to tell a story. I believe I have a non-sexual crush on him. I'm petitioning DC Comics to let me write his Hawkman series because I don’t want anybody else writing for him.

* GUEST ED. NOTE:  This interview took place mere days before it was announced that Bennett signed a two-year exclusive with DC.  Go figure.  He still rules, though.

CASEY:  Do you feel like you have to know the characters inside and out before you start writing them, or is the process of actually writing them part of getting to know them?  Either way, how do you approach writing a character like Captain America?

PRIEST:  Writing Cap was my biggest struggle. Writing Superman or Wonder Woman or Captain America -- characters that have been around for soooo long and have had everything imaginable done with them -- is an enormous challenge. And that's why I said yes when Marvel Editor Tom Brevoort offered me the gig. At the point he offered me the book, I was extremely demoralized and contemplating quitting comics altogether. But, I thought, maybe I can find something new to say with Cap.

Initially, Tom was concerned about The Falcon, that I was minimalizing him and not focusing enough on him. But I told Tom, "Look, I know The Falcon (my first published work was The Falcon #1 from way back in 1982). Don’t worry about him. It's Cap that terrifies me. Let me focus on Cap for now: trust me, by the end of Year One, the fans will be more concerned about what's going on with Falcon than they will be concerned about Cap."

I need to know absolutely everything about a character before I can write the first sentence. I need to be master of that particular universe. And, then, for a few issues, the work is kind of lame until the characters start talking to me.

Tom, pound for pound the best editor working in comics today, made it click for me when he said, essentially, the key to this book is the fact Sam -- the Falcon -- can say things to Cap that no one else would dare say. It took us a few issues to lay the proper foundation, to get to the point where Falcon could say to Cap, in issue #7, "You know, you really suck at problems you can't solve with your fists."

There is no other character in the Marvel Universe who could credibly say that to Captain America, and that relationship is the core business of CAF. It is what separates this from being Just Another Cap Book.

CASEY:  I was a huge fan of The Crew and I know damn well there are others who loved it as much as I did.  I really thought you’d taken the tools and techniques you’d developed on Black Panther to the next level.  Once you’d settled on your cast -- and sales figures notwithstanding -- did you feel like you were in the zone, writing it?  Because I gotta’ tell you, reading it, the seven issues that saw print just flow…

PRIEST:  Artist Joe Bennett, Inker Danny Miki and I were so totally in sync and so emotionally invested in the work, that I went spiraling into a very deep depression when word came down that, before issue #2 hit the stands, Marvel had decided to pull the plug. We had such great plans for that gang, and I was deeply demoralized by Marvel's handling of the book. That's where Tom found me when he offered me CAF. I wasn't even going to take his phone call -- not that I was angry at Tom, but deeply annoyed that comics publishers are perhaps forced to make such decisions based solely on numbers without much regard to the art form. Once upon a time, DC or Marvel would keep a book alive on the merits (Sandman comes to mind), because it's a great example of The Things We Do. Crew did not seem to be considered in that light, and I was absolutely unprepared for such an early demise to a book that, while not perfect, certainly had enormous potential.

CASEY:  Amen.  So what’s the favorite thing of yours that you’ve written?  The work that’s the most accurate representation of what you feel you do best…

PRIESTThe Ray Annual #1 was perhaps the best and most personal thing I've done. Oscar Jimenez did an incredible job with the script, really getting things right. The Ray spends 12 pages tying to stop a commercial airline from crashing because he thinks his girlfriend, Jenny, is on the plane. But he's too new with his powers and, though he tries everything he can think of, the plane crashes anyway. Well, it turns out Jenny missed her plane, and arrives homes safely, but the near-death experience kind of jolts her into the realization her relationship with Ray isn't going anywhere, and she dumps him. The Ray spends several pages going to funerals of the passengers who died on the plane, weeping not for the passengers but because his girl dumped him, and feeling horribly guilty not only for the loss of life, but because he can't get beyond his own pain to mourn them.

I've never written anything better or more personal than that. The plane crash was a metaphor for my divorce. It was 12 pages of me, trying everything I could think of to save my marriage, and failing anyway. I literally wept as I wrote the story because I knew what those emotional beats meant. I had to stop and walk away from it a few times.

CASEY:  What other specific outside influences have you brought to your work?  For instance, you referenced the flick, Three Kings, when referring to The Crew series.  And your sense of story structure, how you juxtapose scenes and how you cut in and out of scenes is so unique… what are your fundamental inspirations on the way you write comics?

PRIEST:  Film, mostly. I'm a nut for good film technique. The economics of film are you enter a scene as late as possible and exit as early as possible. You keep moving. I'm a huge David Mamet fan. I love the language. I love Elmore Leonard. I love David Milch, co-creator of NYPD Blue. The first 7 or so seasons of that show were just amazing. I love the power of good literature, how it explains life to us.

Beyond that, I am sad to report, a great deal of what I write is simply some allegory of my own experiences. It's me working things out, looking for truth. Trying to find something that is true and find something to say about that truth. There is an awful lot of me, or my life experience, in my work, all dressed up in spandex costumes and so forth.

Once upon a time, I was Snap Wilson. I was that guy. I carried a .387 in my school bag. I had real anger issues and I struggled to be a good person because that's who Larry Hama was and I wanted to be like Larry. But I was also picked on so much that eventually I got tired of it. Twice I've had guns aimed at me, point blank, as in shoved against my temple, in anger, where I was sure I was going to die. And one day I just decided enough was enough. There are people walking around today who really don’t know how close they came to being killed, but I literally chose to just let stuff go because I've chosen a spiritual path that insists I aspire to a higher level of humanity. But there was a point where I was tired of being the victim, so I took karate and had my strap and they just would have found you behind a dumpster somewhere.

I've threatened people. And I meant it. Twice I've gone right at morons who were trying to mug me on my walk to the subway. I just turned heel and walked right to them, I mean nose-to-nose, and told them, "If you go for your pocket, I'll fucking kill you." Which tended to discourage them. A friend of mine got beat up by her ex-husband in front of her kids. I got on a plane and flew to New York and bought a baseball bat and paid him a visit. She talked me out of crippling him, but I was surely going to leave him lying there.

There's this scene in CAF #7 where The Falcon punks this guy in his own house. I lived that scene. I did that. And, to this day, I feel awful about it. Picking on a weaker guy just for sport is evil. It's the lowest form of humanity. Having been the weaker guy, a lot, in my life, I felt terrible when I became this… this asshole. What was I thinking?

CASEY:  Hey, it’s the shit you sometimes have to go through to get to the place you’re at now.  Okay, I don’t necessarily want to get you on a rant here, but this question does relate to a lot of your work.  Do you think originality -- in character depiction, in storytelling approaches, in subject matter -- is a risk in today’s market?  I mean, you’ve certainly got the skills to effectively mimic whatever’s in vogue at the moment.  Are you ever tempted to try and cash in on the latest given trend to boost your career…?

PRIEST:  I don't understand the market. I just write what they give me. Denny O'Neil taught me that. He said, back in the 60's, he brought in a job, and Julie Schwartz gave him another one. He'd say, "Thanks for the work," and he'd go home and write the best Talky Tawny story he possibly could (no, I'm not making this up, Denny actually wrote a Talky Tawny story). Then he'd bring that in and Julie would give him something else and he'd say, "Thanks for the work," and he'd go home and write the best Phantom Stranger story he could. That's who I am.

I don't really pitch anymore because I've been slamming my head against the glass ceiling for 24 years. I will never be Denny O'Neil. I will never be Mark Waid, pound for pound the best writer in comics (present company excepted, of course). I will be me, which is good and bad.

From what I can tell about the business, though, it has become hopelessly personality driven. A Joe Casey project will get looked at before a Priest project will. It's just about the numbers and that Casey has a better track record than Priest, who seems to leap from the Titanic to the Andrea Doria to the Exxon Valdez. I haven’t made good career decisions because I haven't been concerned about my career. I'm happy to be working and love the business. They offer me Black Panther, I'll write the best Black Panther I can. Captain America & the Falcon? Sure. But excuse me while I struggle with Cap for a few issues -- don’t worry about Falcon; he'll be dominating the book by the end of the year (and, he is).

I'm not sure "new" matters. Which is to say I doubt the originality of a thing has much impact on the market. Neil Gaiman could publish a book about a guy reading peanut butter jar labels and it would still sell whatever numbers Gaiman's stuff sells. My stuff sells Priest Numbers, no matter what I'm writing. The only way to break out of that would be for Marvel to put me on X-men or DC to put me on JLA. Neither company wants to do that (although Joe Quesada and Mark Powers briefly had me on the short list) because I don’t have the numbers. You can't get into the union without experience. You can't get experience without having a union card.

I'd like to think I could write X-Men as well as Chris Claremont (a personal hero and friend) or anybody else. But that's not how this biz works. Something I do has to exceed expectations in order for me to move up a rung, but retailers don’t order based on the quality of the work so much as the names attached to it, and the companies don’t promote stuff unless it already has a Big Name attached.

CASEY:  Left-field question, I admit… Would you ever want another run at being an editor?  Do you think, considering your unique history in editorial (having been the youngest editor in comics at that time), the experiences you had, both positive and negative, that you might have something to contribute to the industry in that respect…?

PRIEST:  I'd love to edit comics again, but I will not move back to New York and neither major seems willing to allow outside packagers to put comics together for them. Which is insane. Mark Waid is a brilliant editor, but they won't let Mark Waid edit comic books unless he takes an enormous pay cut and moves back to Manhattan, which is unlikely. But, yeah, if they'd let me, I'd love to do it.

I'd like to think, yes, I (and Mark, and Larry, and Louise Simonson, and so many others) have a great deal to contribute. You'd get experienced editors with some name cache, another selling point to the books, "Edited By Mark Waid." That's GOT to be worth a few thousand sales. It's insane that they don't let this happen.

CASEY:  Your average fan on the street might not realize that you are, indeed, a fanboy in your own, special way.  What are the things -- comicbooks or other -- that you really geek out on?

PRIEST:  Whoa -- I'm the farthest thing from a fanboy that I could be. Larry Hama, my boss and mentor, cured me of all that. I think we are at our best when we are professionals first and fans second. In those days, I was 17 years old and working for Larry on Crazy magazine. Al Milgrom and Jo Duffy shared an office next door. Denny was down the hall a bit. Dave Cockrum and John Romita were on staff. Len Wein and Marv Wolfman shared an office way in the back. And Stan Lee's office was exactly 40 paces down the hall from mine. And Stan knew my name (ok, maybe I geek out on Stan, but I digress).

In those days, if and when push came to shove (as it usually did), we could close the door and make comics ourselves. Jo or Denny or Marv or Len could write it or tag team it. Dave or John Sr. or Larry could draw it, Al or Johnny or Frank Giacoia (who worked down the hall) could ink it on the spot. We were pros. The pay really sucked. We loved the work, but we were not fans. We were pros.

The business is now dominated by fans. Fans are a bit less objective about the work than pros, which is both good and bad. But, see, back in the Stone Age when I started (1978), pros would just dive in, get the work done, and credit themselves as Crusty Bunkers or something. We didn't care all that much about the star system or pecking order. Now things are quite different.

I came into the biz a fan but Larry stomped that out of me. Now I am a bit more objective. I am a pro. I don’t whine on CBG or fight wars with the company online. I tend to stay quiet, living out in Colorado, doing whatever they give me to do and grateful for the work.

I have a love for the art form, but I do not keep up with continuity. Mainly because the companies stopped sending comps, and I cannot afford to buy every single comic book that comes out. Besides, keeping up with the rapidly-changing continuity is an enormous investment, considering I can't even get things read at DC or Marvel anymore. I mean, if you know, for a fact, you will never be offered Superman, why bother keeping up with Supes' continuity? And I'm not enough of a fan to buy this stuff on that basis. When fans read Superman, they're reading it for the visceral fun of reading Superman. When I read Superman, I can't help but wonder why no black man has ever been assigned to write it. So, no, I'm hardly a fanboy.

I'm a Star Trek geek. I know the combination to Kirk's safe. I get annoyed by the continuity glitches in the God-awful TNG films. I can talk Trek exhaustively all day long.

CASEY:  Hate to break it to ya’, Priest.  Stan Lee?  Star Trek?  You’re a fanboy.  Embrace it.  Hey, fans and pros don’t always have to be mutually exclusive.

Alright then, as it turns out, you and I share a deep appreciation for David Michelinie (who I also had the pleasure to interview this week).  What is it about Michelinie’s writing that does it for you?  And are there other creators in our field that you look to at all…?

PRIEST:  Oh, man, where do I start? Long before I ever met David or hired David, I was a huge Michelinie fan, most notably of course the work he did with Bobby (Layton) and JR Jr. on Iron Man, but I was deeply into Claw the Unconquered and The Unknown Soldier and many other things David did. Great structure, his books always were a very satisfying read. He had the classic Denny O'Neil substance and structure, but overlaid Stan Lee's whimsy and sense of adventure. David hugely influenced my writing style, which began with my wanting to be Denny first and foremost. But then David's work inspired me to actually have fun with it. To have fun with the language. The stronger the structure, the more fun you can have with the language, the dialogue, the unexpected turns a story can take.

Mark Waid was the guy who taught me to stop worrying so much about proper story structure. Kind of like Jack Kirby: Jack understood the proper rules of draftsmanship, which was why he could break them. Waid wrote this Impulse story where Bart (Impulse) drives a car off a cliff on page 22. I asked Mark, “How does Bart save the girl in the car?” Mark: “I have no idea.”

That translated to me as: Always Have Fun. If faced with a decision between adhering to the proper and classical story structure or, being presented with an opportunity for fun, always go for the fun. It's why people read comics in the first place. Sometimes, in the middle of a story, I stumble across something that just gets me going, and I'll follow it out for a few pages and see where it leads. Sometimes those pages end up in the trash, but just as often they're in the story, the story having now taken an unexpected turn which violates every rule I was taught in Journalism school, but it works because nobody, including the writer, saw it coming. Like a train running down rails, we just hit a spur and headed off onto another track, seeing where it took us.

CASEY:  Your website, www.digital-priest.com, is probably one of the most comprehensive creator websites I’ve ever seen.  More behind-the-scenes shit than you can shake a stick at.  The commentary is as honest as it comes.  You pull no punches, not only about the industry, but about your own work, as well.  You seem really adept at assessing both your strengths and your weaknesses.  What made you decide to put it all out there like that?  And what’s the overall response been to the comics-based content on your site?

PRIEST:  It was catharsis, mostly. And I was tired of typing the same e-mail over and over. People would ask me about, say, the Hobgoblin, and I'd type out this whole yah-yah about Ned and the Hobgoblin and all of that. And, one day, I decided to post it on my website. And, from that point on, whenever I was asked about something from my work, I'd save the e-mail and end up posting an essay on the site. It was more self-defense than anything else.

The reaction has been mixed. Some people became very angry about my version of history. But, Joe, honestly, if you own nothing else in this life, you own your own experiences. I do not lie. I know that sounds preposterous, but I do not lie. Am I capable of lying? Sure. But I have made a choice to live an honorable life and be an honorable man, which is what Hama, my Sempai, taught me. In many ways, I am very Japanese. What people mistake for arrogance or ego is just my being as honest as I am able.

So I'll get occasional e-mails from pissed-off Marvel staffers or freelancers, still angry at things Jim Owsley did 20 years ago. Dude -- get a life. I make no excuses for Jim. I've hung Jim out to dry for being a monkey and I am terribly sorry for any wrong Jim has done. But that's 20 years ago. And my site is, well, my site. It's a place for me to reflect on the good and bad and on my career as I subjectively experienced it. There's a disclaimer on the Comics Start Page that says I am making no attempt at fairness and this is certainly not journalism. It's just the ramblings of a guy who's been in the comics industry since he was a teenager (I'm 43 now). Your mileage may vary.

But, yeah, every now and then I get nasty e-mail from pros still mad because Jim fired them or threatened to fire them or Jim made Ned Leeds the Hobgoblin or what have you. Enough already.

CASEY:  In one of your website entries, you refer to the “good vs. evil mindset of people in our business.”  I think I already know, but what specifically did you mean by that?

PRIEST:  I mean that, for fans and pros alike, we kind of become what we do. I remember hiring a guy named Peter David because he gave me a brilliant Spider-Man script. It was the freshest voice I'd heard on Spidey in a long time, and the writers working on the franchise (with the exception of the brilliant Tom DeFalco), really weren't hitting it home. Peter hit it home. So I bought the script.

I came under tremendous pressure from my peers in editorial, from my bosses, to not use Peter. Had Peter done something to them? No, they barely knew who Peter was. They didn't like Peter because Peter worked for the late Carol Kalish, who headed Marvel's marketing department. It was kind of a them and us deal, and the Sales Department Was Not Us. So far as I could tell, many people in Editorial did not like Carol because Carol was smart and she was direct and she was, well, a woman. And because they didn't like Carol, I should slam the door on this brilliant Peter dude and his amazing work. They saw Carol as a Super Villain, and I was giving work to one of her henchmen (yes, the word "henchman" was tossed about at the time).

CASEY:  Oh, lordy

PREIST:  It was the most inexplicably stupid thing I'd ever experienced, that such choices could be so personality-driven, rather than evaluate Peter's work on its merits.

Many people, at least in those days, brought the Hero-versus-Villain mindset into the office. Management was the villains, the bosses (say, over Shooter's head) were Magneto and Darkseid. Marketing was more like Loki and Sersi and those trickster types.

Specifically, I was talking about how the industry villain-ized Jim Shooter. Here's an excerpt from my site:

“Jim Shooter was not a villain. People like to paint him as a villain, but that speaks more to the "good versus evil" mindset of people in our business. Jim wanted to be one of the guys. We wouldn't let him. If there's any place where he could have been accused of being naive, it was here, in the realm of office politics. For instance, I had a really crappy office chair, so Jim said, "Go pick out a new one." Well, I picked out a really nice faux-leather executive chair that drove many staffers absolutely nuts. Who does this guy think he is with his fancy chair?!? Jim should have told me, "Jim— if I buy you a new chair, the books will suffer because people will be more angry about the chair and how you got it than they will be concerned about editing comic books."

What most staffers didn't realize was, rather than grouse about it, they could have asked Dad for their own damned chair. It wasn't so much that I was his protégé or his favorite son, it was that I knew him maybe a little more and, ultimately, a little less than others did. But many staffers actively disliked Jim, not for any specific thing he'd done, but because he approved my new chair. They disliked him because he was tall., They disliked him because he went from assistant editor to chief editor. They disliked him because he fired Alan Dulles and Henry Cabel (Jim moved a lot of sacred cows out). But, most of all, they disliked him because that was the thing to do in those days, dislike the EIC. Jim wanted to change that. He naively figured improving our work situation, making more money for everybody, would earn him our trust and our respect (and, yes, we all got raises and bonuses and, gasp, royalties— true profit sharing on the books we edited, unprecedented before that time). Jim figured those gains would offset the animus he inured simply by being the boss. In the history of the world, no one has ever been more wrong.”

It amazed me that people Jim had made a lot of money for treated him so poorly and talked about him like a dog. Jim Shooter was far from perfect, but Jim Owsley was even farther. In fact, I started calling myself "Jim" to emulate Shooter, who hired me while I was still in high school (theretofore my friends had all called me, "Chris." I hate being called "Chris" by people I don’t know; it's a family name).

Regardless of the ups and downs of my relationship with Jim Shooter, I will never, ever forget the things he taught me, or that he gave me my break in comics, or that he fought hard to raise the standard of excellence in comics and the income for people working in the industry. Jim Shooter is a genius, and invalidating all of his accomplishments and achievements, shunning him and marginalizing his invaluable contributions to this business, is cringingly sophomoric and immature. It's fanboy mentality.

The truth is, in life, good and evil isn’t that easy. Chris Claremont wrote this great scene with Magneto early in his X-Men run, where, for the moment, I was feeling sorry for Magneto. And I stopped and thought, "I'm feeling sorry for Magneto?!" And I realized villains could have actual depth. Jim Shooter is not a villain. He is a brilliant man. And these people holding grudges and denigrating him are, for the most part, crippled by immaturity in that they have an unbalanced view of the man and his accomplishments. We are, many of us, making a living in this business today because of Jim Shooter. We are making more money today because of Jim Shooter and Paul Levitz. Whatever other issues you have against these guys, you should never forget that. I'll never forget the guy who gave me my start on this job.

Big thanks to Priest for taking time out to do this interview, and for indulging me on some admittedly wonky questions.  If you’re not reading Captain America and the Falcon, monthly from Marvel, what the hell are you waiting for?!  It’s a great action comicbook series with slick, stylish art from Joe Bennett and the scariest M.O.D.O.K. scenes I’ve ever read…!

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