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Priest Returns to Comics (Sort Of!) with “Gunplay” Dime Novels

by  in Comic News Comment
Priest Returns to Comics (Sort Of!) with “Gunplay” Dime Novels
“Gunplay” #1 on sale in March

Having kept a low profile since 2005, Christopher Priest, the fan (and pro)-favorite writer of “Black Panther,” “The Crew” and “Quantum & Woody” returns in March with a back-up feature in Platinum Studios’ “Gunplay.” The series, which won Platinum’s Comic Book Challenge contest in 2007, is an Old West story about a man cursed to shoot dead one person each day. The main section of the book is written by Jorge Vega with art by Dominic Vivona, while Priest provides his own take on the story through a series of prose “dime novel” back-ups. CBR News spoke with Priest about “Gunplay,” and what this might mean for his continued future in comics.

Prose has played a variety of roles in comics, including origin stories and histories (as in “The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist”), parallel adventures (The Shade’s Journal in “Starman”), and the sort of meta-supplemental material seen in some of Alan Moore’s more prominent works, most recently “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier.”

Will Priest’s “Gunplay” pieces provide origin and background material, or… something else? “It’ll be “something else,” Priest told CBR News. “Dime store novels tended toward melodrama, so these will be exaggerations of the reality of the Gunplay storyline. It’s as if the author tried to sell a straight telling of the ‘Gunplay’ story and some editor said, ‘No, not big enough! Make it a demon horse! And it breathes fire!’ Jorge and I both imagine Abner, the main character (who does not ride a demon horse and who is not seven feet tall and hulking) shaking his head and rolling his eyes.

NOTE: As Priest’s prose story is serialized in just a few pages per-issue of “Gunplay,” we are previewing pages from the comic book portion by Jorge Vega and Dominic Vivona

“The dime novels begin with the current storyline and then spur to the left into their own narrative-mainly because I didn’t want to give up Jorge’s plot ideas for successive ‘Gunplay’ chapters. They tell basically the same story-a mysterious drifter dressed as a Buffalo soldier wanders the Old West with a cursed gun which forces him to take one life every day. Only, in the dime novel, he’s, well, what you’d expect for a 1970s-era Steve Englehart comic book: it’s all fairly larger than life.

“What’s interesting about Abner, in the actual comic, is that he seems quite ordinary. He doesn’t seem terribly threatening-which is actually what makes the conceit of the cursed gun work. My prose story is fairly conventional, where Abner is a huge, threatening monster who feeds on the flesh of white women and children. It may take the reader a minute to get it that the dime novel is intentionally over-the-top, mainly because the publisher thought nobody would believe the truth.”

Priest describes his joining the “Gunplay” series as move of serendipity. “I’d more or less wandered off from comics for awhile. The email account used for comics publishers wasn’t checked much at all,” the writer said. “Last fall, I was doing some reorganizing of my PCs and realized I needed to clear email sent to the comics-related address, and down came, um, 24,000 emails. Not kidding. Most were junk mail, mail list type of things, but among them were quite a few from editors and friends in the business, including some offers I missed out on.

“My last big writing project was ‘Green Lantern: Sleepers’ Book Three for iBooks/Simon & Schuster. It kind of ruined me for comics because it was immensely freeing. It was so much fun, and so much work (for so little pay), but it allowed me to discover things about myself and my writing, and to fall in love with writing again. So, I hadn’t been that anxious to write comics again. But there, in all of that email, was an offer to write more prose-the Gunplay dime novels. That was the first thing that caught my attention.”

Priest said that he was drawn to the “Gunplay” series by “the very clever gimmick of the cursed gun and Jorge Vega’s unconventional approach to the high concept made it very appealing,” and that “the art is gorgeous, as well.”

It’s been a couple of years since “Captain America and the Falcon,” Priest’s last monthly comic, and the “Gunplay” dime novels represent a return to comics, of sorts-but only of sorts. “Well, for me, ‘Gunplay’ isn’t comics-it’s prose. That was, honestly, the big draw,” Priest said. “I think, as of this writing, I’m much more anxious to work in prose, though I don’t rule out comics and have, in fact, a couple of projects that will ship late ’08 and the first quarter ’09. I’d hardly call any of that a ‘return,’ I mean, I’m no MacArthur.”

Pages from “Gunplay” #1

As to a more large-scale return to comics, Priest isn’t saying no, though he’s not optimistic, either. “Never say never, but I doubt I’ll ever be working full-time in comics again,” the writer said. “First, I doubt there’s all that much demand for me-comics are extremely personality-driven, and around the time I bowed out-burnt out, to be more accurate-the deal seemed to be that only guys with TV deals were being actively courted, which made not much sense to me and seemed fairly insulting. With all due respect to the TV writers, comic books are a profession. We’re professionals who worked hard to develop our craft, and many of us are being swept aside because Joe WordProcessor sold a pilot to The CW.

“I’d go to comics shops and just get angry, and I didn’t like feeling that way. Meanwhile, things I felt passionate about-like ‘The Crew‘ -weren’t fully appreciated by the higher-ups. ‘Crew’ was developed specifically to penetrate the black and Latino market, but no apparent effort was made to do that. The book was put out to the direct market along with a flood of other material, where it (and many other books) just died, cancelled before issue #1 shipped. Considering the near-year of hell we were put through getting that book on its feet, its cancellation just hurt. I felt like Marvel didn’t even try-this was a book that absolutely could have pried open some doors to a market easily ten times bigger than the direct market.

“‘Captin America and the Falcon’ was a godsend in that, at least Marvel had confidence in me to write a major character. It had been years since I’d been allowed to write even a second-tier character. Usually, when my phone rings it’s like, ‘Hey, you wanna write Black Gladiator!?’ After the first year, however, Cap was moved back into the Marvel U (from Marvel Knights), but we weren’t given the slot, and our book suddenly became redundant. Marvel opted to move Cap out and make it ‘The Falcon,’ and, for me, that was a vote of no confidence. I mean, I understood the logic, and I was pleased that Marvel liked my bad-boy take on Falc, but I felt like I was being ordered back to the ghetto.

“I was tired. I was worn out by ‘Crew,’ and disappointed by the evolution with ‘CAF.’ Over at DC, I was being offered all the black characters I wanted to write, but the door to ‘Batman’ remained shut. So I counted on my fingers and said it’s time to do something else. The Green Lantern novel was glorious. It was therapeutic. It absolutely ruined me in a way. I remember calling Paul Kupperberg and saying, ‘Look, Paul, if thus-and-so happens in this book, Superman is bound to stick his nose in it,’ and Paul said, ‘So? Write him in.’ In novels, the usual office politics don’t apply: you’re not bound by what’s going on down the hall this week or this month, and the name game-that personality crap-is nonexistent. I was able to write stories and not worry about all of that. And I just fell in love with it.”

Page from “Gunplay” #1

Priest has taken up a number of ongoing projects since leaving the comics scene. “I am a church pastor. Ministry will always be my first love, and that pursuit has taken up a great deal of my time,” the writer explained. “I’m also the editor of PraiseNet.Org, an online ministry supporting African American churches. I’ve worked on a screenplay for an independent film I can’t talk about because I don’t know where that deal is at, and I am currently prepping ‘Zion,’ for Joe The Agent to shop around (”

Though Priest says there will be no grand return to comics, fans needn’t despair. “I’m rested and actively looking around,” the writer said. “This sounds like so much nonsense, but there’s two projects going on that I can’t talk about because things haven’t been signed, but I expect to be able to mention them soon. Both Marvel and DC have graciously asked me what I’d like to do. I’d like to do Batman. Beyond that, I don’t know, I have to think about it and get back to them. I suspect that, at some point soon, I’ll have a mini or something ongoing set up, but not much more than that. I’m shopping ‘Zion,’ I’m polishing ‘Dual,’ a second novel, I’m involved with my ministry, and I’m not walking into comics shops getting ticked off, which is a good thing.”

Now discuss this story in CBR’s Indie Comics forum.

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