The continuing adventures of Beau Yarbrough

Christopher Priest Plays the Race Card in a Winning Hand for “Quantum and Woody”

Friday, August 1, 1997, 0:00
Section: Geek

Few comic books deal with such heavy and complex issues as race relations. Even fewer try to tackle the issue in the pages of a superhero comic. But Christopher Priest has wrestled with the subject more than once and “Quantum and Woody,” from Acclaim Comics, is a critical hit, blending action and comedy in the “buddy movie” tradition. But the book’s fun has been moderated by a recurrent thread dealing with remembered racism.

One of only a handful of black comic book professionals working for mainstream companies, Priest, 36, saw his first comic book at age 7, an issue of “Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen,” featuring the red-headed cub reporter decked out in pirate garb. Although he now laughs at the goofy nature of the book, it was enough to get the Queens, New York, native hooked on comic books.

He got his start in comics as a student at the New York School of Media Arts vocational high school, when he landed an internship at Marvel Comics. He mostly spent his time making photocopies, but he was in the door, and that was all that mattered.

“I never stopped working there. After the internship I did freelance copyediting.” That lead to a job as an assistant editor at “Crazy,” Marvel’s “Mad” knock-off.

An idea he pitched to Marvel’s then-Editor-In-Chief Jim Shooter turned into the 1984 “Falcon” miniseries, his first break into the world of superheroes, five years after he graduated high school.

“After that I did a lot of nothin’, a lot of fill-in work,” he said, during a July visit to Comics and Cards in Woodbridge, Va. “And one day Shooter took me down the hall and forced Denny O’Niell to hire me to write ‘Power Man and Iron Fist.'”

The legendary comic book writer and editor – who helped mold the modern vision of Batman, and introduced R’as Al Ghul – was assigned to teach Priest the craft of comic book writing.

Although Priest now pooh-poohs the early issues of his run, which began with issue #111 and extended through the series’ conclusion at #125, they were a hit with the fans, and marked the first time he worked with “Quantum and Woody” penciller Mark “Doc” Bright. And it’s no coincidence that when Acclaim Editor-In-Chief Fabian Nicieza came to Priest, he wanted a series like “Power Man and Iron Fist,” with its love/hate racially mixed buddy movie feel.

“Power Man and Iron Fist” featured a black ex-con hero of the streets and a rich white hero raised by Himalayan monks, whose fractious friendship made the two “heroes for hire” a staple of Marvel’s comics in the 1970s and ’80s.

Alas, things didn’t work out for the Priest and Bright “Power Man and Iron Fist.”

“We were selling about 110,000 copies when they canceled it,” in favor of Marvel’s most notorious boo-boo, the “New Universe.”

From there, Priest went on to write “Conan the Barbarian” and “Conan the King.” Even in ancient Hyperboria, American race relations reared its head.

He was once asked to change the depiction of the Pygmies of Pictland, who were short, spear-carrying and had bones in their noses, much as Pygmies on Earth once did, “because we don’t want to offend black people, because you know how they are. And I just looked at the phone and said ‘uh, yeah, I think I do.'”

He delivered the revised script to Marvel Comics in person.

He continued to freelance for Marvel, writing both “Conan” books, as well as “Green Lantern,” “The Unknown Soldier” and some “Batman” issues for DC Comics. Then he took several years off from the industry, selling screenplays that were never produced and driving a commuter bus in New Jersey.

“As long as I’ve got that CDL [Commercial Driver’s License], I can pay the rent,” he grinned.

“I was driving the bus and I got offered this editorship at DC. And I couldn’t stop laughing, because at Marvel, DC was always this joke.”

But DC, fresh from the shakeup it’d given its line in the “Crisis on Infinite Earths” 12 issue limited series, had changed since Priest’s days at Marvel. Many of Priest’s old colleagues, including Mike Carlin and Denny O’Niell were there now, and he came aboard, working for DC’s development group. The group worked on expanding the company’s line to appeal to adults and younger children.

Soon after, Priest changed his name from Jim Owsley (for reasons he will not discuss), and “The Ray” miniseries lead to an ongoing one. He also wrote for “Justice League Task Force,” the “Total Justice” miniseries and the “JLX Unleashed” Amalgam special.

“At some point during all this I got a call from Fabian, because he wanted me to do a buddy book for Acclaim. He wanted it to be ethnically diverse, edgy.”

The series he got, of course, was “Quantum and Woody.”

A series that hearkened back to the “Power Man and Iron Fist” days meant an opportunity to work with Bright again.

“I was pretty adamant about working together with Bright,” Priest said. “We’re good friends. The dynamic of ‘Quantum and Woody’ is based on us.”

The series has been a critical hit, with everyone from Wizard magazine to fellow comic creators declaring it a top book.

“It’s tremendously gratifying, but it has not turned into sales yet,” he said. “But the book has a buzz to it, and that usually translates into sales.”

Although Priest has tweaked his editor in the pages of “Quantum and Woody” for Nicieza’s initial nervousness over the word “nigger” and a supporting character’s nickname being the same as DC Comic’s Dark Knight’s, “for the most part, they just got the hell out of my way. If anything, Fabian wants it more edgy.”

Race isn’t an issue normally discussed in comics, partly due to the almost uniformly white superheroes in the Marvel, DC and Image comics, but partly due to a nervousness about dealing with taboo concepts, like racist characters and the differences that remain between blacks and whites in America.

“The thing about it, it’s also a double-standard. As an African-American, I can talk about race all day. But as a white guy, you’d get hit over the head and called racist,” he said. That’s especially true for use of the word Priest has now replaced with “noogie.” “If it’s based on ‘White Men Can’t Jump,'” the Wesley Snipes/Woody Harrelson movie that featured two basketball hustlers taking advantage of stereotypes about racially based athletic ability, “It’s all about race.”

Although Priest jokes about racism, both in “Quantum and Woody” and in person, he goes after the subject quite strongly in the first issues of the series, with Quantum mis-remembering a childhood incident in an elementary school bathroom, after his best friend Woody has moved away without warning, without leaving word.

Quantum, then simply Eric, remembers a classmate telling him Woody moved away without saying goodbye “because you’re a nigger.”

The scene is based on an incident from the life of Priest, who has a picture of Quantum on his business card.

“The first time I heard the word ‘nigger,’ I paid a kid a quarter to tell me what it meant” in the bathroom of Priest’s mostly white elementary school for gifted students. “He said ‘it means you.'”

That scene, one of the most painful of a series of emotionally charged scenes in the first story arc of “Quantum and Woody” is the “foundation” of Quantum’s character, Priest said.

The foundation of Woody’s character will be revealed in issue nine, where the time between him leaving Eric’s school and meeting him again as an adult will be explored. Among the incidents in Woody’s past are his family’s careening into poverty, his mother becoming a drug dealer and a big surprise Priest isn’t ready to reveal.

“I think we all have at least one big defining moment in our lives” where everything changes.

The series was also notable in its first arc for its disjointed structure, with scenes told out of chronological order, similar to the film “Pulp Fiction.”

“I was on the road” and overworked, Priest said. “I would literally just sit down and write whatever came into my head.” At the time, an editor at DC was giving him trouble over sending them scripts with scenes out of order, so out of sheer orneriness, Priest submitted his “Quantum and Woody” scripts that way. To his surprise, fans liked it, and he’ll be experimenting with the style more in coming issues.

The book was also funny, certainly as compared to some of Acclaim’s darker books, like “Shadowman” and “Bloodshot.” That, too, wasn’t intentional.

“It didn’t start out as a comedic book, it started out as ‘Power Man and Iron Fist,’ but I was mad about having to do it at the last minute” due to all his other commitments, so Priest just threw in all the sarcasm and scorn he was feeling. “Now, if I’d have to position it, I’d say it’s like ‘M*A*S*H.’ It goes back and forth from comedy to tragedy seamlessly.”

The most notorious surprise the series has taken, though, at least from the standpoint of Priest and Bright, is the runaway appeal of a character meant to be a throwaway: a goat Woody threatens the life of to get the cooperation of a group of monks in issue three.

“And Fabian [Nicieza] just loved it,” commissioning a cover for the issue proclaiming “introducing the Goat!” “I’m writing three issues later, and Fabian calls me up ans said ‘you gotta put the goat it, they love him.’ And I said ‘what goat?'”

Thus the goat makes several walk-on appearances in the comic, where he has been drawn in as an afterthought by Bright, whose extreme distaste for the goat was explained on the letters page to issue six.

“Mark [Bright] hates the goat. I don’t hate the goat. I love whatever pays my rent. I am a goat whore. Fabian wants me to do a goat one-shot, but I only want to do it if it’s a drama,” Priest said, eyes twinkling. He’s making the best of it, though: The goat will be gaining teleportation powers around issue 12, after eating a “fold map” belonging to the immortal Eternal Warriors.

“The neat thing about making the goat a teleportation goat is the indignity it puts Eric through. He needs to get to Paris now and he has to go in the presence of a goat.”

The goat will also be the plot device behind the major story arc for the second year of “Quantum and Woody.” Due to problems piloting the goat – there’s a phrase rarely used – the heroes end up wandering throughout time and space in the Acclaim Comics universe, including a visit to “Turok”‘s Lost Land.

Priest is philosophical about the twists his series has seen its first six months of life.

“If you had to calculate it, you couldn’t predict the fans were going to love. The goat? There was no stupid goat in the proposal.”

The success “Quantum and Woody” has gained has been enough to spark discussions of a movie or television deal.

“Fabian’s actually negotiating movie rights now. Jim Henson Productions has approached Acclaim about a movie. I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said. “I would hope they’d ask me to be a creative consultant, but there’s no guarantee.”

The “stupid goat” will appear on a “Quantum and Woody” T-shirt coming out in December, along with Eric and Woody.

There will also be a “Quantum and Woody” trade paperback coming out, costing between $6.95 and $8.95. It will collect the first four issues, and include “additional footage. We’re trying to do the ‘director’s cut,’ showing you the stuff from between the issues.”

Speaking of “zero,” in addition to the “Steel” movie (based on the DC Comic Priest writes, and starring Shaquille O’Niell) coming out this summer and the proposed “Quantum and Woody” movie – which Priest would love to see Harrelson and Snipes in – a third Priest-penned comic, “Xero,” may be made into a film as well.

Finally, be on the lookout for action figure versions of Quantum and Woody.

“We’re currently talking about it,” Priest said. If either potential movie or television deals get beyond the talking stage “you can expect to see toy stuff ad naseum, whether or not the deals go through.”

The goat “will probably be something you send four box tops in for, as it’s the one everyone will want.”

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