Christopher Priest is Pretty Great

faked by Thursday, August 4th, 2005

Comic-related content ahead…

So I’ve been spending the last several days loading files onto my new magic music machine. But it hasn’t all been wasted time staring at the monitor. For one thing, I’ve been prepping for my classes, which start disturbingly soon. The first novel we’re reading in my grad class is the 1859 Southern cross-dressing adventure romp The Hidden Hand, in which characters say things like this when they’re exasperated:

“What are you talking about, you infatuated tatterdemalion!”

And I’ve been reading a few comics, and I’ve come to the decision that, in a hundred years, when college students go to their Late Twentieth-Century Literature class—for logical reasons, the “twentieth century” will, practically speaking, cover literature written and published up through 2011, when the Earth’s magnetic poles shift and Ohio suddenly finds itself a state of decadent coastal elites rather than grizzled Midwestern heartlanders—they’ll be reading the comic-book work of Christopher Priest.

I’ve been re-reading Priest’s (so far) defining work—his 60-issue run on Marvel Comics’ Black Panther. And it’s great—the sort of great that, if the title character were Batman or Spider-Man, would have been trumpeted, or perhaps even coroneted, in really annoying 30-second segments on CNN and MSNBC. Part of the genius of Priest’s run on BP is forehead-slapping simplicity of his approach. He didn’t radically reinvent the character, a la Frank Miller’s Daredevil, or cut off his hand or change his powers or decide he’d been a clone all along and the real Black Panther was somewhere in Europe on a train with Julie Delpy. Instead, he just took the basic premise of the character seriously—something that few writers before him had done. Priest realized that, skin-tight costume and predilection for punching people aside, the Panther is only a super-hero incidentally. In fact, he’s the king of a small African country—Wakanda—which, thanks to its vast natural resources and the smart leadership of his forefathers, is also one of the most technologically advanced nations in the world.

Functionally, then, BP wasn’t a super-hero comic at all; it was, instead, a comic about political and diplomatic intrigue, about the Third World’s complicated relationship to the West, about espionage and counter-espionage, about the corrupting properties of power and the corrosive properties of isolation and solitude. The Panther is a guy whose real peers in the Marvel Universe aren’t Spider-Man and the Thing, but, rather, Magneto, Doctor Doom, and Namor —other autocratic monarchs whose relations with “mainstream” civilization are, at best, silently hostile, and who have all been, at one point or another, villains. Indeed, Priest really probed this similarity near the end of his run—the line between villain and hero was beginning to look blurry for T’Challa, or, if not blurry, then invisible and irrelevant, secondary to his duties as king.

For my money, the high point of the series came with issues 41-45, an epic Iron Man/Black Panther throwdown called “Enemy of the State II.” In the hands of just about any other writer you could name, this would have been the typical superhero fight-then-team-up—you know, Wolverine and, I dunno, Quasar, see each other breaking into the same military installation, so each assumes the other is working for the bad guys, and oh lord I’m bored of writing about it already. But “EotS 2” was fascinating precisely because Priest realized that the inevitable fisticuffs is only one level on which a conflict between these men would play out—two brilliant inventors, two CEOs, two lords of very different kinds of kingdoms. It’s the sort of battle in which one player’s opening move is to annex part of Canada, and then his opponent steals his company in a high-stakes poker game, and then another crashes the international market for gravelberries by sending a fleet of dump trucks to an impoverished nation that hasn’t been able to get its gravelberries to market… and yeah, fisticuffs. Also Wolverine, Alpha Flight, and I haven’t even mentioned Queen Divine Justice yet.

Priest kept all these differently shaped and weighted balls in the air so skillfully that it’s easy to miss how hard it is to write this kind of story. Comic book writers are always having to write someone who is the “most” something—the world’s greatest genius, the world’s best fighter, whatever. It’s part of Captain America’s character that he “always finds a way” to overcome whatever gets thrown at him, and this is supposed to be inspiring, but the thing is, the writer has to come up with convincing ways for him to do that overcoming. Devoted Captain America readers will gnash their teeth lightly when recalling a Dan Jurgens-penned issue in which Cap throws his shield faster than a flying rocket, and also manages to make it curve around the front of the rocket to free the Falcon, who was, of course, strapped to the warhead. If you’ve never been strapped to a warhead, then you’re probably not a superhero. Um. That’s just lazy. And dumb. With the Panther, Priest had to write a character who was constantly three steps ahead of everyone else—at least—and so his plotting had to be meticulous, and it usually was.

The other thing is, this series was consistently hi-larious. Priest smartly didn’t make T’Challa, whose whole gig is being inscrutable, after all, the viewpoint character for the reader. Instead, that honor went to Everett K. Ross, state department liaison, whose perpetual bafflement at the goings-on about him and persistent inability to tell a story in chronological order made for some of the funniest moments in the series. And, in the very first story, he accidentally sells his soul to the devil for a pair of new pants. He’s a lot like Dave Foley in NewsRadio, in fact: trying to keep his head down and do a good job, but constantly being thwarted by the fact that the reality of everyone around him seems to be vibrating at a slightly different frequency. And Jimmy James is wearing tights. And oh yeah, speaking of the funny: the Hulk makes an appearance.

And I haven’t even gotten to the part yet about how Priest is the smartest writer on race issues in comics today. Or about his Edwin Drood, his Last TycoonThe Crew, a great series cut short after only seven issues, but seven of the smartest, funniest, most exciting issues around. Well, not cut short by his death, though, so maybe that comparison doesn’t work so well. Anyway, The Crew was a kind of ad hoc super-group made up of four guys who didn’t like each other, but who kept getting pulled together because they had similar goals in mind; a kind of street-level version of the Defenders, perhaps. In addition to Jim Rhodes (the former Iron Man II), and a couple of characters from BP —the White Tiger and Junta—there was Josiah X, a Muslim minister and political activist who also was the son of the first—black—Captain America. It’s the only mainstream comic I can imagine reading in which a conversation like this even has a shot at appearing:

Crew6-1Resized2

Crew62Resized

So all I’m saying is, if you know what’s good for you, you’ll click on over to the bookseller of your choice and purchase the only TPBs available of Priest’s BP run: The Client (Priest’s first arc) and Enemy of the State (part one).

6 Responses to “Christopher Priest is Pretty Great”

  1. gorjus says:

    Yeah!! At your behest, Prof., I checked out both the Panther and The Crew. I, too, adored the “Enemy of the State” issues, and the chess game between the African monarch and the American capitlistic icon. For once, the idea that the Panther was a king—of a nation with a different history and culture—was truly addressed. (And of course I loved the Future/Past Krazy Kirby Panther).

    I have to briefly touch on the term “Third World,” which I think is a bit outdated. Might we use “developing nation,” please?

  2. Well, I considered using “developing nation,” but W’Kabi or someone makes fun of Tony Stark for calling Wakanda a “dn” when it’s actually much more developed than parts of the West…so I reached back to “Third World,” which sort of conjures up the West’s more general paranoia about Otherness. Trapped by language!

  3. Contessa says:

    Boys who read comics are kool.

  4. jp! says:

    unfortunately Gorj and I shop at the same comic shop and there’s only 1 part of enemy of the state to buy now (i got part 2).

  5. Then let eBay be your guide. The world depends on it.

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