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Christopher Priest began working at Marvel Comics in 1978 as an intern, but by the 1980s he was regularly writing books for the company, with tenures as the writer of “Power Man and Iron Fist,” “Conan the Barbarian,” and “Amazing Spider-Man.” He also worked for DC Comics, writing “Green Lantern,” “The Ray,” “Justice League Task Force” and “Steel.” But he is best remembered for his five year run on Marvel’s “Black Panther” series in the early 2000’s and for creating Quantum and Woody.
Recently, Priest was announced as the writer of DC’s new Deathstroke series, marking his return to writing an ongoing comic title after 11 years away from the industry. I sat down with Priest at Kansas City Comic Con and our conversation touched on what brought him back to comics, his plans for the series and why fans of Deathstroke might not love his interpretation of the character as being a “complete and total bastard.”
Jeremy Radick: Your focus for the last years have been outside comics, what was it about Deathstroke that brought you back to an ongoing title?
Christopher Priest: Okay, so, for the past, oh man, eight or nine years, every 18 months I’d get call from Marvel or from DC or an independent and they’d go, “Hey! You know we’re doing all negro comics! We want you to come back!” And you know they’re doing Black Goliath, Black Lightning, they’re doing Black Potato-Man. You know, I’m not really sure how it happened, but once upon a time I was a writer. I was writing “Spider-Man,” I was writing “Green Lantern,” those mainstream sort of things. And somehow over the years I went from being a writer to being a “black writer.” You know? So for the longest time I’ve been saying to anyone who would sit still and listen that I would love to do comics, but I’d like to be competitive with everybody else, and I’d like to be considered as a writer. I said, “Look, I’ll take the worst, most dog-faced character you got, the character nobody wants, and I’ll be happy to do it.” But we’d have these conversations every 18 months, and I would kind of say no, I really don’t want to do that and I would go, “Hey, how about Martian Manhunter? I would love to do Martian Manhunter, he’s green! I can do that one!” And they would go, “Well….” So they would want me to do stuff that I wasn’t really excited about, and I would want to do stuff that they weren’t necessarily excited about, and then we’d just go okay well, we’ll see you in 18 months and do this all over again. And that how it’s been going. So it wasn’t like I was refusing or I was retired, or anything like that, it was just we couldn’t, none of the companies could match up with what I wanted to do.
JR: And so Deathstroke…
CP: Deathstroke! What happened was, and I wasn’t going to tell the story, but Dan DiDio, the publisher of DC, he told the story to the press. So thank you Dan, so I’ll tell the story too (laughs)! DC called me up and offered me Cyborg. And I gave them the speech. Blah, de-blah, d-blah, everything I just said. Thank you, I thought that was that, see you in 18 months. Then the next week I got a call back from DC and they said, “Well, what do you think about Deathstroke?” And I said, “Give me a minute. Oh, you mean the bad guy from the Teen Titans?” They said yeah. “Is he black?” (laughs) Because they’ve been changing the characters so much, some of the characters are black now. They said, “No, no, no, he’s still a white guy.” And I said, “Okay, I’m listening, keep going.” I gave it some thought. I didn’t know he had his own book. I haven’t read comics in God knows how long. I thought, he’s a villain, this could be really interesting. If I could do it my way, if I could get introspective, if I could make it character-driven and get inside his head, you know, like what makes a guy like that tick. Because this guy is a complete and total bastard. Over the years, in his own book, and with all due respect to the other writers who handled him, they kind of moved him from hard right to kind of centre-right, if not centre-left. Where he’s not so much a villain, he’s kind of an anti-hero, super-soldier. My Deathstroke is a villain. He is an absolute bastard. The Rebirth issue is only three days old, only been out for so long, and I’ve gotten tons of email from people going, “You know, he’s really unlikable! We’re not happy about that.” And my retort is always the same, “He’s a villain!” Not sure which part of that really confuses you. He is a total and complete bastard, even to his own kids. And I think he’s an emotional cripple who struggles because he obviously does love his kids, and he’s fighting against his own nature because he’s a complete and total bastard. And I think for the first six issues or so, I’m really trying to hammer that home, and really trying to underscore and explain to the world, because they seem to have forgotten, [that] Deathstroke is a villain. He’s not an anti-hero, not a mercenary, not morally confused or morally challenged, he is a complete and utter bastard.
JR: So, he may be fascinating, but he’s not cool, you know what I mean? He’s not a role model or someone admirable.
CP: He really should not be a role model. For some reason he’s very popular, and a lot of readers really dig Deathstroke. I don’t know if they’re going to dig my Deathstroke, so I’ve been hiding under my desk for a while! Because they’ve kind of gotten used to this modern-day Conan the Barbarian. And I have him doing a lot of rotten things, and reaping the consequences of those bad things. Inasmuch as Deadpool, and I used to write Deadpool, so I’m not knocking Deadpool. Inasmuch as Deadpool, it’s kind of a parody and in it’s own way kind of glorifies violence. And the Deathstroke book had glorified violence for a little while. My book is not really about the violence, but about the consequences of that violence and the consequences of this guy living this lifestyle. And the personal struggles that he goes through because of it.
JR: Would you say that writing an ongoing, you’re back on one for the first time in a while, is it like a riding a bike or are there muscles that you have to train again?
CP: Oh, yeah, there’s definitely muscles that you have to train to get back into it. It’s been a little easy so far because the editor, Alex Antone, and I had developed a storyline that lasted about eight or nine issues. And then we presented it to the higher-ups and they said, “Oh, no, no, no! We like the storyline, it’s a good storyline, but we don’t want to lead with that storyline. We need to lead with who Deathstroke is and re-establishing his character, and all that stuff.” So we went back, and we worked with Geoff Johns, and developed storyline number two, which is seeing print now. So, because we had already had these other eight issues, we’re adapting that stuff into the new storyline, but as a result we ended up having ten or twelve stories that are in various stages of development. So it’s been pretty easy, me knowing what’s going on for the first dozen issues or so. And they’ve been coming out pretty regularly, in terms of my end. The art is a different story, because artists, they always use every possible day in the calendar. We have two separate art teams, and they alternate with each other.
JR: Because the book will be a twice-monthly, right?
CP: It’s twice-monthly, which is a real challenge to put out. But so far it’s been really easy. Now once we move past issue 12 or so, then we’re doing a big crossover with the Titans book. And we’re doing a JJ Abrams-ing of “The Judas Contract.” The original storyline that launched Deathstroke and is like the definitive Teen Titans storyline from Marv (Wolfman) and George Perez. So, we’re kind of building a firewall around that story to say, “Yes, this absolutely happened.” We are not dismissing that or ret-conning that, but as JJ Abrams did with “Star Trek,” we are now telling our own alternate version of it because of the speed force, and was Wally there or was Wally not there, and where was Starfire, and was Terra really underage when Deathstroke slept with her? And all that other stuff. So Alex and Dan Abnett, the writer of “Titans,” they are working out all those details. In order for the Deathstroke book to function, I need to tell the definitive, at least post-Rebirth, version of Deathstroke’s origin. Which involves the at the time Teen Titans, so I need to know who was in, who was out, and all that other stuff. So that’ll be the first half of the year, we’re just rebuilding Deathstroke’s cast and establishing Deathstroke, so that’s 1-11. Issue 12 will begin the second arc where it’s retelling that classic story and basically retelling the Titans origin over in “Titans,” and retelling the Deathstroke origin over in Deathstroke. Dan and I are kind of collaborating on it.
JR: Sounds great. Deathstroke’s family is central to his character and his origin. But that’s become pretty convoluted in terms of continuity. How do you untangle the family, but keep the power of those relationships, while introducing it all to a new reader?
CP: We cheat. I’m a guy, you know, who knows how painful it is to have the next writer come along and say what you did never happened. I hate to do that. Luckily, because of how Geoff Johns set up the whole Rebirth thing, I don’t want to give any secrets away, but Doctor Manhattan, it’s all his fault! (laughs) We have this plot device that enables the reader to decide, maybe for the first time in history, the reader gets to decide what’s in and what’s out. But, for our purposes, we are telling our own sort of composite history. A lot of Deathstoke’s family history was thought up over a lot of years. Like the stuff with Grant, the older son. And then they thought we’ll do this business with Jericho, then they came up with Rose and then Rose had a bunch of history on her own, and so forth and so on. So we are saying all that stuff exists, but what I’ve done is just compressed the timeline so some of that is happening at the same time. At the time that Joseph’s throat gets slashed, Deathstroke is out of the country rescuing Rose and her mother from Cambodia. Originally those events happened years apart but if we told the story the way it was told in the original comics, all I’d be doing for the first two years of my book is explaining all of that stuff. But basically we’re trying to keep all of the major highlights of the history. Some of it we’re kind of ignoring, but most of it, the key parts, not only are we saying they’re existing but we’re re-telling the story. For the first six months or a year or so, Deathstroke has a current day story and you will see these flashbacks to roughly ten years ago where we’re retelling the story with his boys and then in issue 2 he meets Rose in Cambodia and in issue 3 Rose makes her debut as a grown up in this series and so on. Unfortunately some of it is a hand wave to how many times have they killed off these characters. So some of it is, we’re not saying it didn’t happen, but we’re really not talking about it. I’m trying to write Deathstroke as if there had never been a Deathstroke comic before. So if you’ve never read Deathstroke, you know nothing about Deathstroke, you don’t even like Deathstroke, sample the Rebirth, sample the #1. Because Geoff and I kind of talked about it, and we wanted to set this series up as if it were a motion picot or a television series. Rather than have Geoff and the TV people come in and adapt it to that, why don’t we just set it up as if it was a TV show in the first place and make it as translatable to the screen as possible.
JR: Last question; are you having fun being back on an ongoing with DC?
CP: So far, yeah, but that’s just because we did all this advance work. If I know what the story is, all I’ve got to do is type. I can be a typist. So that’s easy to do. I’m running out of those issues! (laughs) And now Dan and I have to start working on the Titans thing, that’s going to be actual work. So, ask me again in a few months!
Deathstroke – Rebirth #1 is available now at your local comic shop or digitally.