the last time priest discussed race in comics
I am so very tired of talking about this. I stopped dealing much in interviews awhile back because every interviewer would, sooner or later, start talking to me about race in comics. I don't wanna talk about race in comics, unless it's about Superman racing The Flash. I want to be asked the same kinds of questions you ask Mark Waid. I am not so different from Mark Waid, except he has more money and dates prettier women. Few if any interviewers ever ask Mark Waid about the state of race relations in comics, but its a theme I revisit over and over, to the point where I will, likely, now decline to discuss the issue. It's just kind of... done for me.
Taking a cue from Jerry Seinfeld, who retired many of his most famous routines with the HBO special I'm Telling You For The last Time, I am (hopefully) writing about racism in comics for the last time, collecting several Usenet posts on the subject, recounting several war stories, and hopefully making some kind of cohesive statement that I can now simply refer people to when they feel compelled to ask my opinion about, oh, CAGE or something. Hopefully, this will save us all a lot of angst down the line.
1. and the first shall be last
I am the first African American
editor in comics.
I am also, to my knowledge, the first African-American writer in comics, though people in this biz are quick to haggle and parse that claim. I'm not sure why none of the various self- congratulatory histories of comics ever mention this. Amid all the wonderful histories that have been written, noting the pioneers of the Golden and Silver and Modern Ages, trumpeting these firsts, I am not mentioned anywhere. And, whenever I mention it myself, it is, every time, excised from the published text. I haven't figured out if the companies think I'm arrogant in making the claim, or if they're embarrassed to have been in business nearly fifty years before allowing a black man a seat in their front office.
The major problem of comics, of course, is politics. Jesus said a prophet is not without honor except in his own country. Someone else said familiarity breeds contempt. For the moment, I've decided the companies' reluctance to even discuss the subject is owed more to personality- based issues between myself and the powers that be at these places than any factual errancy on my part. There is no great shortage of reasons for people to actively dislike me, especially back in those days when I was even more obnoxious and angry than I am now (and I'm still pretty obnoxious and pretty angry). The mentality seems to be we think you're an a-hole, therefore, we will not mention you.
I am frequently an a-hole. There's no doubt about that. But pretending I wasn't there is sophomoric and stupid and, well, insulting not only to me but to African American fans and pros who are trying to see some part of themselves in your history books. Much as we'd like to pretend the industry is color blind, it never has been. Excising the significant firsts for our community—especially on some personal bias towards a guy who stepped on your toe twenty years ago—is amazingly stupid and immature. If the reason is I'm not the guy, then make the effort to figure out who the guy is. Simply ignoring it, to either spite me or save face that blacks were not in the front office for 50 years, is an ultimately self-defeating process: it makes you look very small and very petty.
Of course, this is simply not an important issue to the companies, which helps perpetuate, for a great number of African American fans and pros alike, the stigma of racism at the major comics companies. The apparent caprice in the ham-handed handling of MILESTONE MEDIA helped neither Milestone nor DC's rep in the forum of public opinion. And, while most white fans are both unaware and largely unconcerned with who was, in fact, the Jackie Robinson of modern comics, the issue strikes directly at the heart of most African American fans and pros. Pros know Keith Pollard and Billy Graham and other black pioneers who opened the doors for us in comics. But even I do not know who the first black artist was (by "artist," I mean someone landing a regular assignment). I have to think it was Keith Pollard or Ron Wilson at Marvel, or perhaps Graham on LUKE CAGE, HERO FOR HIRE. The fact that I did not know disturbs me a great deal. The fact that neither DC nor Marvel seem to know or even care disturbs me that much more.
Most people in comics are, largely, white intellectuals. Intellectuals tend to think they are beyond racism because, well, they are intellectuals. They've read lots of books and they have an elevated sense of the commonality of man. Intellectuals tend to look down their noses at guys like Archie Bunker and abhor racism. Intellectuals give to the NAACP and march on Washington and embrace the "oneness" of the human species. To many of these people, who was first didn't matter, doesn't matter, and won't matter. The fact they do not seem to know is actually some business to be celebrated: that we have moved beyond such distinctions.
But, wait, "we" haven't moved anywhere. White intellectuals are incredibly dangerous to the cause of social equality in that they deny the institutionalized nature of racism and sexism in this country.
I think the entire point of the term, "institutionalized racism," is the racism you don't see and don't intend and aren't even aware of. When I go up for projects or pitch deals, I have the added component, the extra invisible section of my proposal, that white writers don't: this business of race. If an editor pauses, for even one second, to worry about the consequences of NOT offering me or Dwayne McDuffie a book, even if the Ed thinks someone else is right for the job— that is institutionalized racism.
I don't think comics are any more or less racist than any other corporate environment. It's just that, as a field, comics is terribly small compared to other publishing. So even five racists in comics is a huge demographic, statistically, as compared to, say, racist accountants or racist short order cooks.
Ask any white professional in comics who the racists in the business are, and you'll likely get a shrug or a denial that there are any. Ask almost any black pro in the business, and you'll get the same five names. We all know who these people are (some of whom have, bless God, moved on to other fields). Many of us have suffered directly or indirectly from these people. But mentioning the names will get you blacklisted and, likely, sued. These are people whose racist tendencies are largely ignored by white PTB's who probably don't even notice them, but these tendencies ring the alarm bells of any blacks within their orbit. It's the dirty secret of comics: the commonly accepted short list of racists every black pro knows and almost no white pros do.
2. the mascot
As an intern for Marvel in the late 70's, racist jokes were routinely, as in every day, thrown my way. By white intellectuals, By people who did not regard themselves as racist and did not regard their remarks as racist simply by virtue of the fact they were the ones making them. Marv Wolfman routinely had me making multiple xeroxes of Gene Colan's gorgeous pencils for TOMB OF DRACULA, and, after a few passes, the pencil graphite would be all over my hands. Several staffers, some who are still in the Marvel offices today, would pick my hand up and show the graphite-covered hand to the bullpen while exclaiming, "Hey— your hands are black!" (Marv never did this, by the way. In fact, Marv rarely came out of his office. I started to think he WAS, in fact, Dracula).
I turned in a story for RAMPAGING HULK that the editor loved, but he "couldn't believe I wrote it," (a direct quote), and turned it over to his assistant to, seriously, research old Hulk stories to make sure I didn't' lift the plot from somewhere. I was never paid for the story and the story never saw print.
I was the office mascot. The little black kid. The co-key operator for the Xerox machine (with John Romita, Jr., who enthusiastically relinquished the top slot to me). My how liberal we are. Jim, go grab this, "In a jig." Staffers, some still in the biz, used to come by and rub my head "for good luck." One staffer kept little jigaboo figurines on his desk: warped, offensive little gnomes in white face eating watermelon. Denys Cowan stole one off of this guy's desk and gave it to me as a Christmas present. I keep it on my desk here to remind me some of these people still work there.
Ski trips and pool parties were routinely planned in secret to avoid being forced to invite undesirables (not just me; Jim Shooter was routinely not invited to these gatherings). Nobody meant any harm, of course, but that's exactly my point. To them , this was good fun, not racism. We were all beyond racism, comfortably in the echelon with George Carlin and Richard Pryor, where we can make racist jokes without necessarily being racist.
I never made a big deal out of any of this. I wanted this job. I wanted in this business, and I was willing to eat as much crap as I had to, to have my head rubbed as many times as it took for me to get a toehold on Marvel Comics, every kid's dream job.
I should also rush to stress Stan Lee, who spent quite a bit of time tutoring me in how-ya-do-it, never, not once, not in any way, made any kind of racial jokes and never participated in anything like that with the other staffers. It just wasn't his thing, as Stan was always the man with The Big Vision, a god among us (in those days, anyway), who prided himself on being able to remember our names. Stan Lee knew my name.
3. enter the dragon
I didn't know Larry Hama when he suddenly became my boss on CRAZY Magazine in 1980, but I had been warned that he was, indeed, the best man for the job because he was thoroughly nuts. "Two-Gun" Hama, as he was called behind his back, arrived at Marvel and, like Denzel Washington in Training Day, immediately went about turning my life upside down. Hama has had the most profound and lasting influence on my life, my sense of self, and my sense of honor and morality. He is the most important father figure in my life, and I am most grateful to God for the years we struggled together in that tiny office at Marvel.
The first thing Hama did was build himself a bunker. Steel flat files cases and a drawing easel were arranged in such a way that people passing by the office could see me but not him, and had to stop and deal with me before they dealt with him. He installed red gels in the overhead light grilles, which gave our office a hellish tint and made the mood even more off-putting and less inviting to the rubes. EPIC ILLUSTRATED's Peter Ledger painted Larry's office phone bright red and molded little icons all over it, and Larry played Jefferson Starship and The Ramones as he held court with the likes of Bobby London, Mary Wilshire, Heidi MacDonald, Shari Flannigan and other top artists from NATIONAL LAMPOON and other humor magazines.
First day on the job, Larry took me to lunch to explain the New Deal to me. Before his arrival, I had been paid twenty-five dollars a month (yes, a month) to be Paul Laiken's assistant on CRAZY. Larry was incensed that Marvel had allowed this, and immediately gave me a raise to a whopping $400 per month, which, for a nineteen year-old, was a good deal. Larry later worked to get me on staff (I was, officially, a freelancer), and soon I was making an actual salary, with benefits and so forth.
At the restaurant, as we waited for an open table, a lovely blonde and her lunch companion stepped past us, and the host appeared and began to seat them. Hama objected, politely— we were here first, and the host quickly sat us instead. Hama sat at the table, removed his mirrored aviators, and said, "Jim— never let the white man take advantage of you."
And, I guess, that's when it hit me: Larry was Japanese American. A guy many people sidled up to and spoke loudly and slowly, hoping he could understand them. Larry was a Hollywood actor, having appeared in many films. His diction was perfect, and he spoke English better than I did, and in as many dialects as he wanted to.
Larry suddenly made my world make sense. Suddenly, somebody at Marvel had my back. Staffers were much less likely to rub my head or make the black-hands jokes once Larry arrived.
The job we were sure would get us all fired
More than that, my new education freed me to make fun of myself, to not take myself so seriously. So much so, that, when we decided to produce THE BROWNSTONES, a wickedly funny sendup of The Flintstones, for CRAZY Magazine, Larry was so sure we'd all be fired he almost pulled the story. It was blatantly racist, although it did make huge points about how very white the Flintstones were, and how things would have been different had they been black.
Worried about picket lines and bomb threats, not to mention losing his job, Hama shut the door and thought long and hard about what we were doing. In the end, he decided, if he's going to be in "The Yocks Biz," then he had to take chances. There was absolutely no point in publishing a humor rag if we weren't prepared, first and foremost, to make fun of ourselves. If our very livelihoods were not at stake, each and every day, then we really didn't deserve the gig in the first place.
However, to hedge our bets a little, we decided to run a disclaimer before the piece, and even the disclaimer suddenly became the subject of arch parody as Eliot R. Brown shot a photo essay in Al Milgrom's office, featuring Crazy's obsequious proctologist/gourmet chef Dr. JiveTurkey.
We didn't get even one subscription cancellation, and no more hate mail than we got every month anyway. It seems Dr. Turkey stopped the brouhaha in its tracks, and when we later reprinted The Brownstones in an anthology, there wasn't even a peep from outside the company or within. Score one for free speech.
Larry in the bunker, circa 1987
One of my favorite Hama stories was when Ed Davis, a top illustrator and top mercenary, blew into town. We went to lunch, but Hama stopped by the bank on the way. Denys Cowan, Ed and myself took up positions in the bank, near the available exits, and just stood around looking, well, Negro. Larry had no idea what we were doing.
The bank guard got a little antsy, and went behind the counter, presumably to make a phone call, as Larry finally approached a teller, and presented his pistol permit for identification. This is something Larry always did, to amuse himself more than anything else. Larry usually carried two briefcases. Depending on which one it was, he either had a .45 or an Uzi inside (he was licensed for both).
When the teller began nervously twitching, Hama turned to tell us he'd be a few minutes longer, and saw we had taken up positions around the bank, and also saw that the bank had, suddenly, become polarized by the three black men and the Japanese man with the very long hair, pistol permit, and briefcase.
Larry smiled and said, "Stop that." Ed exploded into laughter— scary laughter (Ed was a scary guy), and we three headed outside so Larry could finish up without somebody calling the cops.
I could write a book of Larry Hama stories, most of which I can't tell until one of us is dead. I do remember being at a party at his house and chatting with a guest about Don Johnson's cool .45 he used on the TV show Miami Vice. The party guest, who turned out to be retied CIA, told me it wasn't a .45 but it was an exotic ten millimeter automatic called a Beren 10. I asked him if he was sure, and he pulled his own Beren-10 out to show me. Yup. It was the same gun.
My head got rubbed a lot less often.
4. how THEY are
When I was working as Larry Hama's
assistant on the CONAN books, we got a call from Conan Properties asking for an art change in an issue set in
Pictland. Alfredo Alcala had drawn a
bunch of pygmies running around, with bones through their noses and what have you.
5. career momentum
I was passed over for promotion four times, twice by people with two or more years less experience than me and once by someone I helped train. Every time the reason I was given was the decision maker had, "A gut feeling... I dunno, Jim, I just went with my gut on that one."
It's completely possible I was the worst AE known to man. But, in the forum of gut decisions, with all other things being equal, the unspoken thing that is never even voiced aloud is this business of race. Nobody's evil, nobody's sitting around twirling their mustache and deliberately trying to keep the darkies out. But the most insidious thing about the institutionalized nature of race in this country is the fact that educated white liberals don't believe it exists. And, to my experience, that particular demographic, those people who think they're above racism or beyond racism, often end up being the most racist of all.
6. white supremacy update memo, 1984
Finally promoted to editor in 1984, one week the freelancer checks were late. Several freelancers congregated in the tiny office I shared with my assistant, inker Keith Williams (who is also African American). Denys Cowan, a close friend, had parked his gear in there, as had Ron Wilson. I think Denys was making some phone calls while he waited, and Dwayne Turner, pipsqueak intern now monster artist, dropped by to say hello to Denys. Kyle Baker dropped off some TRANSFORMERS pages, while M.D. "Doc" Bright popped in to say hi while showing off new pages of the latest IRON MAN issue. Mark Beachum and his incredible gal pal Kelli arrived, amused at the crowd in the office, and squeezed in to drop off his pages for the ASM Annual. Finally, Michael Davis, James Fry, J.R. Jr. and Bob Layton wandered by. We had the stereo on. It turned into a little party— a little check-wait party.
By the time the Marvel staffer came by my office and saw it jammed with black people, it was too difficult to see Layton as he was farther back in the room chatting Denys up about HERCULES or something. But, the next morning, my boss appeared in my doorway and, embarrassed as hell, said others had raised a concern that I was, "firing all the white people and replacing them with black people." He felt the claim had no merit, but still, when several people he trusted had come to his office saying I was having, "a meeting" with and attempting to "organize" the black creators at Marvel, he felt it his responsibility to look into it.
Twenty years later, it is still the most insulting moment of my entire life. My first impulse was to turn off my light, grab my bag, and walk out of Marvel forever. Clearly, these people were too stupid to live. Instead, I quietly assured my boss that I was not, "firing all of the white people and replacing them with black people."
Relieved, the EIC left. I threw some things into my briefcase and prepared to walk out. Instead, I wrote him a detailed memo,
subject: WHITE SUPREMACY UPDATE, identifying every black artist I was using, what I was using them for, what the duration of the assignment was, and so forth, just so the next time someone comes into the EIC's office alarmed about a "meeting" in my office, the EIC would have something to show. I also included Bob Layton on that list,
"...but he (Layton) was so light-skinned he fooled me, and, besides,
he knew all the words to the EWF songs."
I told my boss, not a day went by when I didn't see several white guys congregating in editors' offices there at Marvel, and I never felt "compelled" to "look into" it. My boss apologized, he was deeply embarrassed. He deserved to be. It was an incredibly stupid thing to do, but Marvel was a veritable House of Stupid Things Done in those days. And these were liberal intellectuals.
7. the marvel famine relief project
The most heated racial episode in my career occurred during Marvel's production of their charity book for Ethiopian famine victims. Promoted as work from "the top writers and artists in the industry— the very best of the very best," profits from this effort were going to be donated to help the poor starving Africans. It was a truly noble effort, one the entire industry rallied behind (at least until DC decided to do their own book, thus dividing the talent pool along company lines).
Denys Cowan dropped by and mentioned, amused, that he'd seen the list of talent working on the famine relief project. There wasn't a single African American creator invited to participate. This actually amused me tremendously, and I went over the list myself to make sure, but, yup, no blacks had been thought of as, "the very best of the very best," and none were invited to work on this book.
Tickled, I picked up the phone and called Larry Hama, telling him no blacks were on the list. Larry was hugely amused, and suggested we do our own charity relief book for the poor white trash of Appalachia. He and I howled with laughter, and then shook off the dumbness of it all and got on with our lives.
Only, a white staffer had overheard part of the conversation (I assume the notion of my "recruiting" Hama to do my "own alternate charity book"), and some warped interpretation of my conversation with Hama got reported down the hall to the X-MEN office (where the book was being developed). The editors became incensed and loudly demanded my head on a plate for, essentially, inciting the black talent to stop working for Marvel. I mean, this thing got blown to huge proportions, so much so that, by the end of the day, it was largely accepted as fact that I was organizing a walkout of black talent, and the EIC kind of put me and the X-Men editor in a room to negotiate a deal.
I just couldn't stop laughing. I mean, it was all so stupid. These were stupid people. It was extremely stupid to do an African relief charity project and not invite any damned Africans to work on it. It was even sillier for these stupid people to invent some massive protest out of a silly joke in a 30-second phone call with Larry Hama.
The X-Men Ed was not amused, and refused to believe me when I said I had no intention of bad-mouthing the project. I was invited to participate, but I just chuckled and said, "No affirmative action, please." And this just set the Ed off into a screaming match that could be heard everywhere in the office, "What is WRONG with you? Why do you have to make a RACIAL ISSUE OUT OF EVERYTHING?!?!?!"
It just got out of control, and the episode (along with my paying my assistant to stay home on MLK's birthday once it was ratified as a national holiday but Marvel refused to recognize it, other than the numbingly patronizing "We got us our own holiday" speech by Luke Cage in the VISION & SCARLET WITCH Miniseries) fairly cemented my pariah status at Marvel. Without saying a word and without actually doing anything, I was routinely assumed to be some radical activist who saw everything as a race issue.
I felt trapped in a world of loons. It was totally no-win, and I tended to simply withdraw from the office more and more, from people who, in my view, had now invented a justification to do what they'd been doing all along: fencing themselves off from me.
After I left staff, there were issues of THOR that featured a guy named Aloysius P. Jamesley, who was blatantly and litigiously me. A mean-spirited Tuckerization that, even I have to admit, was really funny in an insider kind of way. Fans might not find Jamesly that funny, but it was a wicked rip at me, and largely deserved, so I didn't make a big deal about it.
8. why superman never had a black writer
The institutionalized nature of race must play some role in the fact— the fact— that minority writers have never been assigned the reigns of most of the major, established characters. That in 2002, in 63 years, no black man or Asian woman has ever been assigned regular scripting on SUPERMAN, is a fact that's difficult to escape and difficult to not draw conclusions from. But should DC go looking for a black writer just so they can say, "We've assigned a black writer?" Geez, I hope not. So they're kinda screwed on this deal, no matter what they do.
I think it's a bit ridiculous to suggest the PTB at either major publisher would have a policy to exclude minorities from their major characters. I believe, statistically, there have been fairly few minority writers who were qualified for the gig, and of those few, even less who wanted the job.
Could I write Superman? Sure. Would I take the book? No. I'd be all wrong for it. Now, if DC wants to bring back STEEL, yeah, I'd wanna talk about that. But I've never been in line for the Superman gig, frankly, because I never wanted it.
If we had 20 black writers working in mainstream comics, and none of them were qualified for or interested in SUPERMAN,
then, yeah, that might look more deliberate on the company's part. But we don't have 20. We have
maybe 3, and 1 whose phone calls aren't often returned. And two who are considered uppidity by some folks in the biz.
As for Superman: I have no interest in playing for the
Colorado Avalanche, therefore I don't play for the Avalanche, therefore no young black kids see blacks on TV playing for the Avalanche therefore it doesn't take hold in the mindset of young black America that playing for the Avalanche is a desired goal.
If aspiring black writers never see a black writer writing SUPERMAN, it may
never occur to them to even want to. SUPERMAN and WONDER WOMAN are about as
far afield of the urban black experience as it gets (and, yes, I've written
I really believe if there was an experienced, qualified minority writer interested in SUPERMAN, available and competing on the same level as a Joe Kelly or a Stuart Immomen or whomever, with Joe and/or Stuart's NUMBERS (these days it's all about numbers), I believe he or she'd have a shot. But you don't just waltz into DC or Marvel and start at the top. Kelly and Immomen didn't get top books their first day on the job. And the competition is fierce.
9. where i am
I tend to think I am where I should be. I've worked steadily in this business for 23 years now, a claim not everyone, not even some formerly powerful, fan fave giant talents, can make. It's a complete blessing, one I'm eternally grateful for, to make my living doing something I love. The "star" stuff was never a concern, and I've never once knocked on anybody's door trying to get X-Turtles or what have you. I took most of my cues from Denny O'Neil who told me, "Do nice, detailed work,
be on time, stay out of trouble, do what they give you," and Larry Hama who taught me, "You learn to love what you do." And I have.
I suppose all I ask is for the simple dignity of not being denied who I am: the first black guy with a desk in comics. The first at Marvel (1978), and the first at DC (1990). Whether you personally like me or not, whether you personally feel it is an important distinction or not, is irrelevant. It is an insult to your African American fans and your African American talent to not acknowledge African American pioneers in this business.
I don't want a medal. I don't need a parade. I'd just like you folks, if you're listening, to stop denying me. God knows I've had my head rubbed enough to earn the recognition.
Either way, thanks to the miracle of modern technology, I am now, officially, through having this conversation for the rest of my life.
Christopher J. Priest
Priest's adventures in the comics trade continue in:
Adventures In The Funnybook Game
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