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The Crew was cancelled.  read excerpt
Before issue #2 had shipped, the decision had been made to pull the plug. Launched as part of a larger line promotion, THE CREW was lost among the barrage of new launches. Lacking any kind of promotion, the only thing retailers knew for sure about THE CREW was that is was, apparently, a "black" book set in "the ghetto." That was the stink attached to it, which, along with my name and the unknown artist Joe Bennett, was enough for retailers to order in pitifully small numbers.

I thought the work Joe Bennett and I were doing on THE CREW was good and getting better. With every issue, Bennett grew tremendously as an artist, and he and I just came to “get” one another and gel into an efficient and effective creative team. The first six issues of THE CREW were designed to bring the cast individually on stage and introduce their back stories and concerns while laying the foundation of the over-arch, which I’d planned for twelve issues.

Perhaps  my biggest failing,
in this new age of comics, is in still thinking long form. The sheer number and breadth and height of hurdles you have to go through to get a series green-lit these days would suggest the company would, at the very least, commit a year to the project and, therefore, a year’s story arch would seem appropriate. Not necessarily continued stories per se, but that the stories of Year One would all add up to a larger whole and fit neatly into a single volume.

I tended to treat publishing years like television seasons, figuring, wrongly, that, given the amount of meddling and second-guessing the companies do on new projects, they would have at least a one-year stake in them. Naively, I also believed the companies realized that, in a crowded market, new projects really need that first year simply to find and build an audience; that it would take that long for sampling and word of mouth to make a difference.

All of which shows how out of touch I am with the thinking in New York and how much the business has changed. The joy, the love for the characters and universes, seems to be either gone or greatly overshadowed by the business end of things. Pandering to the fans—obsessing night and day with second-guessing and giving the fans exactly what they want—is always counter-productive. We should appreciate the fans and reward the fans whenever we can, but our obligation is to the characters and to the art form. And, like pursuing a reticent girlfriend, the more you reinvent yourself to give the fans just what they want, the more jaded the fans can become, demanding ever more extreme concessions. And the more we moved towards the fans, appeasing the fans, the farther the industry wandered away from what it should have been doing all along: preserving the wonderful legacy for the next generation.

When I worked in the New York publishing offices, those offices were staffed by pros. Writers, colorists, pencillers, inkers, painters—these were the folks making the creative and business decisions. Stan Lee’s mantra, to al of us, was that our obligation was to Spider-Man moreso than to the guys who wrote or drew him. And it was vitally important to introduce Spidey and his friends to the next generation of eight year-olds so they, in turn, would discover the wonder and excitement of comics and become the fan base of tomorrow.

These days, fairly few people who can write or draw are in management positions at the major publishers. The important management positions are filled by fans and they’ve brought their fan thinking with them. The obligation to the art form itself seems lost in the shuffle somewhere with all of the deal making, and the star system has mushroomed out of control to the point where just being a comics pro isn’t even enough; now you have to come from television or film just to be taken seriously in comics.

The Name Game and Fan Chase has escalated to ridiculous extremes, with comics being precipitously cancelled before they had any real chance of finding an audience. Editors and staffers are under increasing pressure to deliver Names. A project’s chance of being approved depends almost solely on what Names are attached to it, because the market responds only to Names. And that’s because that’s the market the industry has cultivated by concentrating its efforts almost exclusively on a shrinking base of the faithful, of Those Who Remain, rather than doing the e difficult work of expanding the industry’s reach.

Delighting this or future generations of eight year-olds is probably well beyond the industry’s capabilities. Having all but ignored entry-level marketing for the past two decades, they’ve allowed successive generations of eight year-olds to pass us by. I don’t know a single eight-year old who reads comics. Not one. And, so far as I can tell, the industry has made almost no effort to convince an eight-year old to read comics.

Meanwhile, there’s this huge minority market—Latinos and African Americans—that is also virtually ignored. There is more money to be made, in the Latino community alone, than in the comics business as a whole. But, for reasons that, I suppose, seem reasonable to somebody, the industry has made almost no effort to break into the Latino market. So far as I know, there is no Spanish edition of Spider-Man here, and initiatives into the multi-billion-dollar African American market have likewise been negligible.

It’s worth mentioning that, in both of these enormous and largely untapped markets, the industry’s star system would be completely meaningless. Stop almost any black kid on the street and ask him who Mark Millar is. He doesn’t know. He doesn’t care. Now, ask him who Spider-Man is.

But nobody’s trying to sell little black kids Spider-Man Comics. The industry is trying to sell grown white men Mark Millar Comics. Which misses the point that Marvel’s legacy is not Mark Millar but Spider-Man. And producing comics for a minority market would cost considerably less because you don’t have to negotiate huge contracts with The Name. You can get back to doing what you should have been doing all along—introducing the wealth of your wonderful legacy to a new generation of readers.

For the past years, I had been doing exactly what Marvel told me to do.
Most every concern I raised was dismissed, most every idea I had, especially the marketing ideas, was ignored. Whether intentionally or not, I felt like Marvel was, frankly, doing me a favor by keeping me around. I was the aging non-starter, not A Name, and not ever going to become A Name because, in order to become A Name you have to do a book somebody might actually read. And nobody will assign you to a book like that until you become A Name.

Which was why Tom Brevoort’s concept of Captain America and The Falcon seemed so brilliant. Okay, it wasn’t the X-Men, but it wasn’t Potato Man, either. Tom put me back in touch with an established mainstream character while also doing a head feint towards my unfortunate status as Writer of Minority Characters Only. The “main” Cap book had been co-opted by Marvel Knights, and so there existed a market for a mainstream, MODOK-chasing Cap book.

When Tom called, I almost told him no. I was really burned by THE CREW business, especially given how hard Joe and I had worked on the book, and all of the pre-launch meddling from the company. I was tired, frankly, of being in The Ghetto. Somehow, over the past decades, I had stopped being a writer and had become a black writer. After the disastrous creative choices on Black Panther (to turn him into a young kid for a “hip” urban comic and then give the book to an artist who was the farthest from hip or urban one could imagine), and the capricious, pre-destined demise of THE CREW—a book Marvel could still, this day, sell truck loads of to the black and Latino community if they’d only— bangs head on monitor—try), I was pretty much done with comics.

Not being A Name, I was routinely relegated to doing third-tier (not even qualifying for second-tier) characters, exclusively minority characters who lived in the ghetto. And I was usually partnered with a team of artists more concerned with building their portfolios for better things or simply chasing a paycheck.

The last guy I’d worked with who had invested—I mean really invested—himself in the work was the wonderful Sal Velluto. Sal came to work wanting to bat 1,000 every day. He loved comics, loved what he was doing, and he and inker Bob Almond made every effort to swing for the fences every time. Every time. On CREW, I was lucky enough to be assigned with Joe Bennett, who, likewise, invested himself in the quality of the work moreso than wringing his hands over career concerns or simply chasing a paycheck.

It’s all a writer can ask for: to be part of a team that is enjoying itself, that is committed to the work. It is the best possible working situation, but it is often difficult to achieve.

I was pretty nervous about starting Captain America and The Falcon because, frankly, Captain America scared the hell out of me. Like Superman, he’s such an icon, he’s such a square-jaw, that it’s easy to make him boring. It’s easy to jus wheel in Hydra and start shooting. I was really freaked and uncomfortable, and ended up being very late getting the first issue going. How could I challenge this guy? What can I do with Cap that hasn’t been done 1,000 times before, and by writers who are beloved by fans?

I ultimately decided that changing Cap or trying to make Cap something that he wasn’t was a bad idea. Instead, what I would do is find new ways to challenge him, and surround him with people who are doing things their own way and for their own reasons, but who are kind of gently and politely keeping Cap out of the loop, as they know Cap would never approve of their methods.

I’m sure most everyone has a friend who is always causing them problems.
Some cherished, loved person you can’t quite let go of but who is, inexorably, getting themselves into trouble and/or causing problems for you. I thought it might be interesting to establish that, finally, The Falcon had come into his own as a hero and as a character. That he had formed his own opinions and methods and that he’d tend to keep both away from Cap. I thought the interesting thing about Captain America and The Falcon would be the dual story threads: it’s the same story, but they are going about solving the problem two different ways—but only Falcon realizes this, as Cap benignly goes about his mission assuming Falcon is the same dutiful sidekick he’s always partnered with.

Meanwhile , Falcon is doing things that are completely fresh and unexpected for him, and he becomes the driving and compelling force for the story arc, an arc which really would be completely about The Falcon’s fall from grace and (apparent) redemption.

Problem was, I was still thinking twelve issues. I was thinking that the readers and the company would both have enough patience with us and enough confidence in me as a writer to enjoy the ride and not demand instant gratification. I really believe readers are far less patient now than ever, and that fans love to play Cancellation Roulette and, so, tend to avoid perfectly healthy comic books the fan press have labeled as failures.

Complicating things even more was, initially, artist Bart Sears’ storytelling approach. Now, Bart is A Name, and his agreeing to work on CAF was greeted with elation, first and foremost by me. We have Bart to thank for CAF’s strong launch, as the book was (likely) entirely sold on Bart’s Name.

But many fans took an instant dislike to Bart’s style—everybody was hulking the anatomical proportions were comically extreme—and most everyone was completely lost by the first issue’s story, which was my fault. I’d designed a first issue where Cap seems to be acting out of character, intercut with apparent flashbacks to events leading up to this behavior. At the end of the issue, however, it is revealed that “Cap” is not the real Captain America, and that the flashbacks weren’t flashbacks at all but were cutaway sequences occurring within the same time frame.

That was a dicey choice on my part, but we had clear directions and time signatures inserted. A savvy reader could (and should have) realized, somewhere in the first issue, that they were looking at two different Caps.

Only, Bart chose a page layout design that utterly confused even the most basic storytelling and completely derailed this dicey misdirect. Ignoring instructions and warnings abut how important it was to keep the lines straight and clear, Bart chose to insert—for no apparent reason—poster-shot images of Captain American and the Falcon on most every page. Accommodating these required the other panels to be modified, reduced or eliminated altogether, making the pages very hard to follow. I wrote the thing and didn’t have an earthly clue what was going on.

The story and art so confused many readers that they dropped CAF on the spot, triggering a downward spiral from which the book never rebounded. Despite Sears’ very pretty pictures, the books was an unfathomable mess. Subsequent issues fared not much better, leading to a rushed and disappointing showdown at the Freedom Torch in Miami—an obvious homage to Steve Englehart and Sal Buscema's classic Silver Age battle between Cap and the Cap of the 1950's. You barely knew what was going on, let alone any parallels from that classic tale.

This was a disaster, one that completely demoralized me. Bart had only committed to four issues—another product of the new industry mindset; artists used to just love what they were doing, there wasn’t all of this deal-making and cherry-picking—and I called Tom and just begged him. If Bart wants to go, please let him go. This is simply not working. I would never give an editor an ultimatum (after all, I’m not A Name), but the subtext was the team just wasn’t working and one of us would be leaving.

By the time I learned Joe Bennett,
my beloved partner from THE CREW, was taking over the art chores, I had already written CAF #5, which was why that issue just kind of laid there. I was so demoralized by Bart’s choices that I was suffering severe writer’s block. I simply had no idea how to write for him or what to except once the script was done.

Tom emailed me penciled pages from Bennett, and, literally, I sat in my office and wept. Thank The Lord. Clear, clean, beautiful drawing. Most of all, the Anti-Cap finally looked the way he was supposed to—youthful and not at all the hulking, evil mustache twirler Bart had created. Bennett was a guy who was familiar with me and my style and we just gelled better. I wished I’d known Joe was coming on because I would have given him a much better story to start with, but a good artist can take a lame story and make it sing. That’s what Bennett does.

Unfortunately, I was still in my The Audience/Company Will Stick With Us For 12 Issues thinking. I wasn’t drawing clean enough lines between Story One and Story Two and Story Three. Fans were sick of seeing the Anti-Cap and were waiting for Red Skull and Batroc. Many people had sat out Bart’s issues and now arrived, confused as to what the hell was going on or why The Scarlet Witch was driving a New York taxicab.

My planned Year Two romance between Cap and The Scarlet Witch (who’d always had a crush on him, after all—I’m not making this up) had to be moved way up since events in The Avengers would be sending Wanda away for quite awhile. I was eager to participate in Avengers Disassembled because, frankly, we needed the sales bump. And a Cap-Wanda romance played nicely into Brian Bendis’s plans for the Avengers.

Read ExcerptMoving the arc, however, was a tactical error because it pushed our big MODOK arc back three months, and some fans began grousing that the as-promised zap bolts and Kirby dots had yet to appear in CAF. Moreover, per instructions given me for the AD crossover, Cap was supposed to relive his greatest failures (which inevitably meant Bucky and an origin recap), but Cap was not supposed to know why; we couldn’t give up that piece of the puzzle because that would be resolved in The Avengers book.

So the weird and unexplained and unresolved things happening to Cap, on the heels of the first arc which many found impenetrable, and The Falcon’s odd behavior, and absence of clear jumping-on points, simply frustrated many Cap fans. The announcement of a soon-coming CAPTAIN AMERICA #1 by Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting fairly well sealed the deal: lots of fans just gave up on CAF.

Which was when Joe Bennett started drawing HAWKMAN for DC in addition to CAF, which inevitably caused us scheduling problems which resulted in a couple of fill-ins. And the issues Joe was turning in became increasingly rushed, with details missed (like drawing The Saint where the classic MODOK should have been, and giving Captain Steve Rogers corporal’s stripes). A MODOK-generated travelogue generated the most confusion because readers couldn’t tell if Steve was actually moving about with MODOK or if these were simply images projected into Steve’s head. I provided no clean jump-on points, so new readers picking the book up were totally lost—

—and then Bennett was gone. Having signed an exclusive with DC, Joe would no longer be able to continue no CAF past issue #12. I decided to give Joe a fun send off, and got Tom to agree to extend the MODOK business an additional issue in order to wheel The Hulk in for an issue. MODOK and Hulk make a Cap Sandwich while battling across a city. This was written with glee and gusto and big splash pages and such—delivered with a Christmas bow to Bennett—

—who dropped issue #12 at the last minute. CAF #12, a comic book artist’s wet dream issue, was rushed out by a newcomer and utterly destroyed by the inker (the pencils look WAY better). Cap was skinny and devoid of character, and the artist managed the impossible: making an 18-page Hulk vs. MODOK battle boring.


By now, the vultures were circling.
I was taking a flogging online. Fans love to blame a comic book’s failure on the writer, which misses the point that a comic book, typically, streets 4-6 months after the writer has done his work. During those 4-6 months, that comic book has passed through at least half a dozen hands. Comics are a collaborative effort; blaming me, solely, for every problem with CAF is simply unfair.

Brubaker Cap was a huge hit and thank God for that. Cap fans abandoned ship in droves, while Priest fans stayed with CAF (Priest fans are not necessarily Cap fans, they just, for reasons that escape me, like what I do). Since Brubaker Cap was situated in the Marvel Universe, there really was no compelling need for a second Captain America monthly. We weren’t losing money for the company, but we weren’t making enough to justify holding onto our slot.

Tom’s solution: remove Cap from the book and re-launch it as THE FALCON. Which, actually, made a lot of sense. And, had The Falcon been a white guy, I’d likely still be writing that book. But Falcon is black, and so am I. Removing Cap from the book would send a terrible signal, a lack of confidence in my ability to handle mainstream characters. And, maybe that’s justified, considering the mess we made here with CAF. But it was a hit I just couldn’t take. I couldn’t be sent back to the ‘hood.

My foot-dragging on FALCON likely surprised Tom, who saw this as a logical solution for our CAF troubles. But, by that time, I was really burned out and just terribly depressed. I started developing a new project with Marvel, and suggested Marvel package the two (if I did Title B—which featured white heroes—that might give me enough career ballast to enable me to support doing The Falcon), which Marvel seemed agreeable to. But then I dragged and dragged and dragged and finally the window for our Falcon changeover had come and gone. The other project remains in limbo, largely by my choice.

Frankly, I needed a rest. I need to go do something else for awhile, The GREEN LANTERN novels were a terrific distraction in that they required other muscles. Like Hal in my book, I was born again. I was, for the first time in more than a decade, entrusted with an A-List character for whom I had to design a massive, time-and-space generational saga (and blow up the JLA Watchtower, which was just a giddy bonus for me). I was, at least for three novels, a writer and not a black writer.

I also did a couple of Vampirella stories, which was exceedingly weird for me. I’m not sure what of my work would make a Vampirella editor think, “Yeah, let’s get Priest!” but I had a wonderful time creating those stories and participating in a material re-focusing of the character. Unfortunately, Harris Comics’ own corporate and publishing re-shuffling moved those stories around quite a bit, so I’m not sure when they’re due out.

I retuned to CAF to write the series finale,
compressing what had been planned as a Year Two arc called The Death of Captain America into two issues. The original idea was that Falcon would inadvertently cause Cap’s death, which would in turn set off major shock waves throughout the Marvel Universe as Marvel would have to go Three Months Without Cap. The main Cap book would deal with several Cap wannabes vying for the title, while in CAF, Sam would travel back to WWII, teaming with Cap and Bucky, in a desperate effort to change history and prevent Cap’s murder. Other events would occur in Avengers and elsewhere.

Tom liked the idea, but already had The Big Story idea for 2005 and, besides, Brubaker was in the main Cap chair, and my idea would be unfair to Ed and his team. I could do the four issues in CAF, but I opted not to. I mean, if CAF happens in some parallel universe where Captain America could be dead for a quarter of the year and nobody notices, what’s the point?

So I stripped the idea down to two basic beats: Falcon inadvertently causes Cap’s apparent death, which snaps Falcon out of Bad Guy Mode. He gets a shave, goes after the Anti-Cap, and disappears (mirroring my own sabbatical). This was designed to set up the FALCON solo book, which I would likely not be doing, but whomever took it on would start with a clean slate (to my knowledge, a FALCON book never happened, and The Falcon simply showed up again in Cap with no apparent fuss over where he’s been).

I gave the two-parter my very best to make it simple, clear, and poignant, to wrap up dangling elements and give the boys a dignified send-off. To my utter relief and eternal gratitude, Tom was able to snag Dan Jurgens for the art, and Dan’s clean lines and clear storytelling worked perfectly with the script, achieving the kind of closure I was hoping for while proving, yes, I actually can write a simple, clear story.

As for what’s next? Who knows. I feel like break time’s over, but I’m really not sure what that will mean. I need to keep a day job stacking boxes at Wal-Mart or something so I’m less vulnerable to having to write for the money, which enables me to take things that perhaps pay less but have more love attached to them.

I’ve certainly broken free of The Twelve Issue Mentality, knowing now you’re lucky to get four. Long-range plotting and character depth are two casualties of the new way the business works. And, 27 years later, I find myself having to break in all over again. I’m so very tired of that, of having to prove myself, of having to reinvent what I do. So, all I can say at this writing is, We’ll See. But, also, as of this writing, I’m back from my self-imposed exile and hoping to find just the smallest bit of that magic I had with Sal and Joe, and an audience just large enough to keep us going.

Thanks everyone who supported Captain America and The Falcon. Thank you, Bart Sears, Joe Bennett and Dan Jurgens and everyone who worked so diligently with us. Thank you so much, Tom Brevoort.

Christopher J. Priest
2 January 2006

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CAPTAIN AMERICA & THE FALCON, THE SCARLET WITCH and related characters Copyright © 2006 Marvel Characters.
Text Copyright © 2007 Grace Phonogram eMedia. All Rights Reserved.