By Zach Rabiroff
The first thing to understand about Christopher Priest’s run on Black Adam is this: he doesn’t like him very much, either.
On a broad societal level, there is nothing surprising about this. After all, for most of the character’s eight-decade history, Black Adam wasn’t much of a character at all — a second-tier villain of a second-tier Superman, shunted between publishing companies like an unwanted stepchild. Nevertheless, there is a polite dance that creators and artists do when they are attached to a project, especially one that has lately become the unlikely cornerstone of Warner Bros. Discovery’s quarterly earnings goals: the declarations of love for the character, the emphatic insistence that this is a passion project of which they have dreamed since the earliest days of childhood. Thus does Dwayne Johnson confidently assure us that his titular antihero can beat Superman, take on the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, and change the hierarchy of power in the DC Universe.
Put the question to Black Adam’s current comic writer, however, and the first thing he’ll tell you is exactly why the character has never worked: “I was initially hesitant about Adam because, fundamentally, I don’t think the Fawcett characters belong in the DCU,” Priest tells me. “In larger context, I’d like to see more books aimed specifically at kids. Judd Winick’s brilliant Superman/Shazam: First Thunder is a prime example of how to do this right: Superman was credibly Superman while the Shazam character remained undisturbed within his own reality and culture [as] Otto Binder and C.C. Beck intended.
“However, the Black Adam character has been solidly appropriated by the DCU and now DCEU, and the more [editor] Paul [Kaminski] and I talked about it, the more possibilities for me to shoot myself in the head presented themselves. I don’t seem to be happy as a creative person unless I am creating something that makes my publisher nervous.”
And to be sure, there were plenty of reasons for nervousness. The thorny issue at play here is one of race and nationality – never a happy combination for Big Two comic publishers. When he was first introduced in 1945, in his single and solitary Golden Age appearance in Fawcett’s Marvel Family #1, the villain born Teth-Adam was a swarthy-toned, grimacing stereotype of exoticized Ancient Egypt, complete with exaggerated eyebrows and protruding nose. When the character was revived following DC’s acquisition of Fawcett three decades later, those characteristics still held, albeit in more politely restrained form.
But as the years wore on, and the cultural acceptance of casual Orientalism began to waver, it was clear that some new tack was needed. Thus, when writer Geoff Johns was given the chance to overhaul the character in the pages of 2006’s 52 maxiseries, Black Adam’s origin was given the full reboot treatment: no longer hailing from Egypt, he was now the product of the fictitious, vaguely Middle Eastern nation of Khandaq, for which he served as something between a protector and dictatorial strongman.
It was, so to speak, a double-edged scimitar. True, Black Adam’s new M.O. spared him from the weight of association with a country that is, after all, still a going concern. But in doing so, DC severed the character from a history, culture, and ethnic identity largely absent from the pages of mainstream comics. They had, by accident more than design, effectively deracinated Black Adam, replacing an emphatically Egyptian character with a geographically fuzzy cultural chimera.
And it was precisely this quandary that Priest aimed to address. “I think one of the first things I said to Paul was, ‘Well, first of all, Egypt is in Africa,’” Priest tells me. “I wasn’t subtle. I expected to scare him off, here’s the reasons to not hire me for this. If I was going to write this character, these were the areas, this was the trouble, I intended to get into.
“I understand why DC shifted to safer ground with the imaginary Kahndaq but, in shifting, they kind of snubbed Egyptian or Egyptian Americans like my nephew’s wife. I doubt anybody will write letters complaining about changing a bastard like Black Adam from being an Egyptian, but I feel like that was a damned-if-you-do kind of situation. My compromise was to build a bridge between Egypt and Kahndaq which restored the heritage while still providing the safety we need to tell the kinds of stories we would like to. Although ‘safety’ is probably not the right word.”
From the opening pages of its first issue, it’s clear that the comic Priest is producing, alongside artist Rafa Sandoval, has every intention of facing its ethnic and cultural politics head-on. Priest’s opening salvo is a U.S. Senate hearing, at which an insouciant Theo Teth-Adam is permitted to castigate his interrogators on the exploitative hypocrisies of American Middle Eastern policy – a monologue punctuated, to be sure, with the requisite cutaways to big, swinging punches, but which nevertheless has the political density of an Aaron Sorkin script on one of his better days: “The FDI reached 25.3 billion in Egypt last year – which represents 38.6 percent of all U.S. African investments. So much invested the CBE moved to a liberalized exchange rate – as opposed to the semi-pegged float – four-ish billion in military aid – near eighty percent of Egypt’s defense budget. ‘Border protection’…from us.”
There are two things worth remarking on about this scene, and neither of them have to do with Priest’s admittedly free use of internet research (“The Lord bless Wikipedia,” he jokes). The first is that Priest has, with a few broad strokes of dialogue, effectively re-ethnicized Kahndaq by situating it squarely in the political reality of our own Middle East. And the second, which is maybe even more remarkable, is that DC Comics is letting him get away with it. And Priest, for his part, is as surprised as the rest of us.
“A major draw for me to take the book on,” he says, “was to deal more realistically with the complications presented by this Namor-like arrogant S.O.B. being a de-facto head of a Middle Eastern sovereign nation. I won’t act like that’s not a concept wrapped in C4, I won’t pretend Kahndaq is Belgium. To their credit, no one at DC has asked me to. Issue one page one Theo Teth-Adam is giving the U.S. Senate shit about how they approach Middle East policy. I expected DC to have a cow about it. They didn’t.”
Part of the way Priest is finessing the delicate work of giving this character a national, ethnic, and, yes, racial identity without setting off the tripwires of angry fandom is by making his story less about politics than about mythology. If there has been an overarching theme of this book in its first five issues, it has been Black Adam’s discovery of a hitherto unknown pantheon of deities to which his power is subject: the Mesopotamian gods collectively known as the Akkad. It’s a clever move that frees Priest and his antiheroic lead from any subordinate role to an existing DC character or mythology. Which makes it all the more ironic that the Akkad were a pinch-hitting substitute for a classic DC pantheon to begin with.
“I wanted to create a kind of Asgard [from Marvel Comics’ Thor] for Black Adam, and have the gods become a thorn in his side,” Priest tells me. “But the Egyptian gods have appeared in various forms and I felt it would be too heavy a lift to definitively wipe out all of that established stuff. To be honest, I wanted to use the Kirby New Gods but my Deathstroke experience taught me that editors tend to be extremely protective of their franchises and I doubt we’d be granted the level of agency I would seek.
“So the Akkad are our own private set of New Gods. Ta-daa! I asked Rafa to ‘Kirby it up’ with the Akkad, a decidedly nonwhite pantheon of super-annoying meddlers, and Rafa just went berserk. Its so awesome, I am so blessed to be working with this guy.”
That narrative necessity gave Priest an opportunity for an inventive twist: the Akkad aren’t just the gods of Black Adam, they may have very literally sprung from him as well; deriving their bellicose and faintly malevolent character from the evil inherent in Theo Teth-Adam himself. It’s the sort of tossed-off detail that makes an attentive reader’s eyebrows perk up, and it seemed (at least to my own arched brow) like a subtle, four-color commentary on the nature of religion: the gods might create us in their image, but we create them in ours just the same. And it’s clear that this is the sort of thing to which Priest has given some serious thought.
“Rick Warren once said, ‘Everyone’s betting their life on something. I’m betting my life that what Jesus said was true,’ and so am I and lots of others,” Priest tells me. “But I also have a different point of view. Was there a literal Adam? An actual Moses who led his people to freedom? I get asked that a lot by people looking for some reason to believe. My response tends to be, “What difference does it make, in terms of what lessons that story is intended to teach us?” You don’t have to embrace the Ascension in order to appreciate Jesus’s kingdom philosophy. You don’t necessarily have to believe in a specific religion in order to make yourself a better or more tolerant person.
“Did I have an actual religious experience or did my conscious or subconscious manufacture an experience because I needed to have it? What difference does it make? It’s a chicken-or-egg question far smarter people than I have wrestled with throughout time.”
Still, if the Akkad are villains by dint of Black Adam’s villainy, it raises the obvious question of whether Adam himself is the kind of character worth rooting for. And for Priest, the answer is an emphatic no – which is what makes him interesting in the first place. “I don’t like Black Adam,” Priest says. “Neither should you or your kids. Black Adam murdered a bunch of innocents, most notoriously in Bialya, and corrupted poor sweet Mary Marvel of all people. I don’t have to like him to write him well. I probably write him better because I’m not trying to like him or make him likable.”
The narrative solution was to introduce a new character for whom readers could root (and, from my vantage point, on whom DC could hinge some future IP hopes): the pointedly-named Malik White, codenamed Bolt, who is permitted to represent everything Theo Teth-Adam never could – and, in doing so, provide some measure of atonement without actually redeeming an irredeemable character.
“Now, ontologically, if we succeed, if Malik somehow redeems Black Adam, BA becomes instantly less interesting,” Priest explains. “This is what we do– glamorize the villain, say Darth Vader, and then try and redeem him so the Ewoks can dance. Vader murdered billions. Don’t sing any damned songs about him. There Is No Redemption For Black Adam. The minute you give in to fan wishes and change him into Captain Nice Guy, it’s over. And it’s a cheat.”
The narrative limitations of redemption, the authorial responsibility for ethnic identity, the questions about our responsibilities to our gods and their responsibilities to us. It’s all heady stuff for an ostensibly mainstream superhero book, especially one intended to ride the wave of theatrical zeitgeist around a movie adaptation. Which brings up a nagging point I pose to Priest: is this the sort of thing that comic fans, or for that matter comic critics, are equipped to handle? Or is any attempt to work these themes into the context of a superhero book destined to go down like preparing a Michelin meal in a Swanson’s frozen dinner box?
Publicly, at least, Priest is optimistic. “I think if Avengers: Endgame proved anything, it is that our audience is smarter and more sophisticated than we give them credit for,” he says. “I think we are producing work for a mostly if not exclusively adult audience. My mentor, Larry Hama, taught me that, people who read anything, anything at all, tend to be, in the aggregate, smarter than people who read nothing. There’s lots of books far more sophisticated than what I am writing here. [Tom King and Mitch Gerads’] Mister Miracle was awesome and explored a lot of the same themes of meaning and existence.”
Maybe Priest is right about that. There is a tendency, especially among jaded critics who have read altogether too much of this stuff, to see superhero comics as the sum of their genre conventions: a few punches, a few overwrought narrative captions, and maybe some dynamic art to give it all some spice. But superhero stories are like any other genre: at their best, they can serve to elevate ideas specifically because they make them accessible and universal; timeless and enduring because they live in a world of capes or cowboys or private eyes for all eternity. Priest and his collaborators, whether they intend it or not, are working to raise Black Adam into that rarefied realm of superheroic myth. And believing in them seems like the least we can do.
Black Adam #5 is due out in stores and digitally next Tuesday, October 18th.