Is Black Adam an anti-hero or villain? Fans and creators alike are split on the question. So too, it seems, are the characters that make up the upcoming movie bearing his name. In the recently released trailer, Pierce Brosnan’s Dr. Fate says that Black Adam (AKA Teth or Theo Adam) can “be the destroyer of this world, or [...] its savior.”
But if you ask Christopher Priest, the veteran comic writer famous for his character work on DC and Marvel properties, there’s no question. On June 21, fans will get to see Priest’s and artist Rafa Sandoval’s take on the infamous character in a new Black Adam comic book series, and his answer will be clear: Black Adam is a villain - unforgivable, irredeemable, damned.
Popverse spoke with Priest ahead of the series debut to hear what he had to say about writing a villain like Black Adam. Read on to hear his thoughts but, be warned, some minor spoilers for Black Adam #1 follow.
Popverse: I want to talk about your intention to bring Black Adam back to his villainous roots, but first, I have a quick question. The first arc in this series is called ‘Theogony,’ which is the Greek origin of the gods. What does that have to do with Black Adam?
Christopher Priest: I see Black Adam the character as kind of in the Thor realm. He's kind of a demigod or something larger than man. And I wanted him to interact with his gods. However, I did my homework and I realized that the Egyptian gods have been hopelessly screwed up through various turns of continuity. Some of them look silly and some of them look like the Roadrunner. I just don't want the Roadrunner in this book.
So then I said, ‘Oh, I know, I’ll use the New Gods.’ But of course I can't use the New Gods, because they belong to some group. You know, every comic book company has these little fiefdoms, and the characters all belong within a certain purview. So every time you want to use one of the characters it's like, ‘Oh, you can't use one of the New Gods. They're all having lunch. They're out doing something.’
Then I said, ‘Ok, well, I don't want to use the Egyptian gods. We can't use the New Gods…’ So I've decided to roll my own. We'll be rolling our own gods for this series; we will see the birth of those gods. And Black Adam is directly responsible for the mess that these people create.
That's very exciting. So you're introducing your own pantheon?
Here's an unlettered preview of Black Adam #1 by Rafa Sandoval and Matt Herms.
Awesome. So on the subject of Black Adam being kind of a Thor, demigod kind of character, there was a line that struck me right at the beginning of the book. Black Adam says, “even an immortal can grow.” How can a villain grow?
What I mean in terms of his villainy is not so much that he's returning to be a villain, but that his past villainy has come back to haunt him. All the dirt that he's done over the centuries. Once I started researching this character, I read that he had thrown a temper tantrum and basically laid waste to a neighboring country. I called my editor, Paul Kaminski, and Paul was like, “Yes, well, he’s an antihero.” And I said 'No. This guy can't be an antihero.'
'I know you’re DC, I know you want all the heroes to like each other and hold hands and sing Kumbaya, but with all due respect to other writers who make way more money than I do, I just violently disagree with the idea that you can redeem this character. This character is irredeemable. You can't have this character kill mothers and sons and fathers and daughters and children and old men and lay waste to a country and then just go, “Well, I just woke up this morning and decided to be a good guy.” That is utter, complete nonsense. I don't buy it.'
So Paul and I have a gentleman's agreement. We agree to disagree. Either Paul or DC or both want to see this character as an antihero, because they want to produce a movie and they want the lunch boxes and Black Adam dolls. But this guy is a villain, a villain facing his own mortality. He is an immortal facing his own mortality. He's trying to clean up his act because he is obsessed with his legacy, but he's haunted by the original sin of how he got his powers in the first place, plus all the crap that he's done over the years.
The thing that I keep hammering over and over again with DC is that there is no redemption for Black Adam. That's basically the theme of the book. He is trying for redemption but, spoiler alert, it is not working. This guy is a bad guy.
But he genuinely wants it, right? He wants redemption?
He wants it, yes, but he wants it for the wrong reasons. It's like people on their deathbed who find Jesus. Or fathers who haven't spoken to their kids in 20 years but, all of a sudden, they want to speak. They want to make themselves feel better because they're dying.
You probably already know this - we infect Black Adam with a space virus, so he thinks he's dying. He's trying to accelerate this process of redemption, you know, he wants the end of the Black Adam story to be better than the beginning. And who can blame him? It's a good goal, and we have every reason to root for the guy.
But as I sit here, I look back over the landscape over the trail of bodies that this guy has left in his past, and I’m telling you that for us to turn around and say, 'It’s okay, this guy is all better now…' I think that does a disservice to the character. I think it insults the readers. The guy is a villain. He is a hardcore - it doesn't come more hardcore than Black Adam. He goes to Hell. Literally! I send him to Hell at one point, and God knows he deserves it.
Very interesting, I can’t wait to see that. So it seems Black Adam is very aware of his legacy, of his villainy, but what about Kahndaq? Does Kahndaq see him as a villain?
No, Kahndaq… I'm going to try to stay away from our politics, so let's talk about somewhere else. There are dozens of countries on the continent of Africa where people are drawn to strongmen. They believe whatever the strongman says and they fall for whatever their line is. They elect him to office and then the guy won't leave. Then, they have to throw him out of office and bring in another savior who is another strongman and promising to liberate them. But then he won't leave. That’s the nature of that particular political beast.
People of Kahndaq, they see him as a liberator, because they were under the thumb of a dictator. They are technically still under the thumb of the dictator, but Black Adam is a benevolent dictator. We're dealing with a storyline where there is a democracy movement going on in Kahndaq. Black Adam opposes it, but the reason he opposes it is that this is a country that never had democracy. You can't just suddenly flick a switch and impose self-rule on people who have never had it. America has done that over and over again and it's had mixed results at best. It's not that he doesn't want them to have self-rule, it's that it can't just happen overnight. It has to be a process, let's put it that way. So no, they don't see him as a villain at all.
I do want to keep talking about that, but really quickly, how much of the history of Kahndaq is your doing, and how much of it has already been established in DC Cannon? There's a line in Black Adam #1 that says Kahndaq broke away from Egypt in the 600s AD I believe?
Yes, 618. When Egypt was invaded.
Right. Was that you or was that already established?
Well, some of that is me retconning a little bit. Originally, the character was from Egypt. In the Fawcett years he was from Egypt, and then at some point – it might have been 'New 52' or right around 'New 52,' I believe it was Geoff Johns – somebody created Kahndaq [see Author’s Note], which may or may not have been named after [comic editor] Jenette Kahn. Don't quote me on that, I don't know for sure. We all loved Jenette, though, so they might have named a country after her.
Looking it up, the fictional country of Kahndaq was created for the DC event comic 52. It first appeared in 52 #1, which was written by Geoff Johns, Grant Morrison, Greg Rucka, and Mark Waid, and drawn by Keith Giffen and Joe Bennett.
Obviously, by changing it so that Black Adam is from Kahndaq, we now have a fuller level of agency over the country, as opposed to making it a literal historical place. But what bothers me about that is that we are taking away agency from Egyptian people by severing that connection. So I try to split the difference and say, ‘Okay, he is the ruler of Kahndaq. His investment is in this area of Kahndaq. But these people are hereditary Egyptians.’ That restores that agency to that constituency, to that group of people that read our comics.
I see. There’s such a respect for history in this book, from ancient to modern geopolitical history going on right now. What draws you to historical, geopolitical thrillers like Black Adam or, previously, Deathstroke? Are you a history buff?
No, no not at all.
Really? That surprises me.
Yeah, this is painful for me. This is me spending hours and hours diving into stuff and asking questions. I'll put it to you this way: what I really liked about the very first Iron Man movie was how real it felt. When Tony Stark comes walking out of that cave wearing the original, crude set of armor, I just bought it. I just bought all of the larger-than-life stuff because they worked so hard to make the world real. I'm working really hard to make the world real.
You'll see in this story arc that it takes place on a couple of different planes of existence. One is certainly the world we live in, but another is this outer space adventure that we keep flashing back to. So we have that on two different levels, and then we have the third level which is this new character named Malik who is in Washington D.C.. Not in the glamorous part of Washington D.C., where all the politicians live, he lives where the black folks live. He lives with the homies, in that environment there. We visit that environment and I want that environment to be as real as everything else that we're doing.
What I'm doing is laying out a firm foundation and painting a realistic picture of the world. So when Theo Adam says, "Shazam" and chases a guy out of downtown Egypt into outer space, and then the guy he's chasing hits the warp drive and Black Adam blasts off into faster-than-light travel, hopefully you will buy that as much as you buy everything that you see here on Earth.
That scene sounds incredible. Speaking of great action, we'd be remiss if we didn't talk about the action-packed art by Rafa Sandoval in this book. In an interview for DC’s blog, you said that Rafa brings out the “Kirby-Simonson Big Noise.” Can you expand on that? I love that phrasing.
Yeah, I’ll give you a tease. Black Adam #3 is us doing the Epic of Gilgamesh. But as though it was by Jack Kirby and Walt Simonson. It's just big big action, big big fun. We are literally not even pretending that it's not Gilgamesh. It's clearly Gilgamesh, so Gilgamesh, don’t sue us.
Yeah, you're going to get in trouble with the people who own the Gilgamesh franchise.
That's okay, we’re having a great time. I loved Simonson’s Thor, didn't you?
Oh my gosh.
And I know Walt personally. I love you Walt, if you're reading this. What amazing stuff. So it's kind of like a tip of the hat to Walt, and Rafa is the perfect guy to do this. He does this big action stuff incredibly well and I'm looking forward to people seeing it.
Alright, final question: we knew from the jump that this was going to be the about Black Adam leaving behind his legacy. What kind of person can inherit the legacy of Black Adam?
Again, these are minor spoilers, but they won't ruin your experience of the comic. Like I said, there's a democracy movement in Kahndaq, and the leader of the movement has tracked down a descendant of Theo Adam. At the same time, Black Adam gets infected with this space virus, so he believes he’s going to die. He needs to pass his power on. He needs a protector of Kahndaq. He needs someone to clean up his legacy. He doesn't want to go out like this.
It just so happens that this person, this leader of the democracy movement, has already located a candidate for him. At this point, Black Adam is on his deathbed, so he didn't really have much time to vet this person. I was going to make a political joke and I caught myself. Anyway, the person he chooses to give his legacy to… it’s just the nearest schmuck that qualifies.
Get ready for the upcoming film with everything you need to know about the Black Adam film.