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The Man Who Made Black Panther Cool

Christopher Priest broke Marvel's color barrier and reinvented a classic character. Why was he nearly written out of comics history?
Marvel Comics

By 1998, Marvel was in a financial tailspin and furiously tossing out new ideas. One such project was the Marvel Knights imprint, a stab at telling edgier stories about classic characters. Among them was Black Panther — a character that Knights editors Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti thought had potential. When they approached Priest about writing it, he was less than enthused.

“I was a little horrified when the words ‘Black’ and ‘Panther’ came out of Joe’s mouth,” he would later write. “I mean, Black Panther? Who reads Black Panther? Black Panther?!” But they were adamant, and Priest acquiesced — with “one basic stipulation: Black Panther could not be ‘a black book.’?” Even though he had become the best interpreter of race in the game, Priest saw something troubling happening to his career. “I stopped being a writer, or being thought of as a writer,” he tells me, “and started being thought of as a black writer.”

So, in order to make this new endeavor interesting for himself, he managed to persuade Quesada and Palmiotti to let him give a book called Black Panther a white protagonist. While watching the Friends episode “The One With the Blackout,” Priest was taken by a scene in which Matthew Perry’s Chandler Bing finds himself trapped in an ATM vestibule with a supermodel. “Respected and successful, Bing nevertheless was the horrified fish out of water,” Priest later wrote. He felt he needed a Chandler, so he created Everett K. Ross, a hopelessly overwhelmed white man who works for the U.S. government and serves as a diplomatic escort for the Panther when the monarch embarks on a trip to Brooklyn. It was a genius move that allowed a book about a stoic superhero to be hilarious.