I was absolutely furious when they cancelled it.

This was a really good book. Joe Bennett and Danny Miki (with Avalon Studios on color) did amazing work. Bennett brought the White Tiger (formerly The Black Panther) to life. Kasper Cole, plagued by incredibly poor artist casting on Black Panther, zoomed to life in The Crew, with Joe Bennett showing us what we’d been missing in the pedestrian, lackluster Panther art. In his new identity as The White Tiger, Cole simply bloomed under Bennett’s direction, as did Danny Vincent (Junta), also a Panther transplant. I gave James “Rhodey” Rhodes a complex edge which I was eager to explore, and we introduced Marvel’s first black Muslim super-hero in “Josiah X,” aka Justice. At Tom’s suggestion, we took our time and rolled out each character individually with four showcase issues, collapsing the storylines into one with issue #4 as the boys discover one another. It was, for me, a rich experience in character development, and both Bennett and Miki—both of whom were jazzed to be on then book—amazed me every issue. So, of course, Marvel cancelled it.

My biggest disappointment with The Crew was with Marvel’s marketing department. I never understood any of those people. I don’t know whose cousin they were or from under which rock the suits found these guys and brought them in, but, at least back in my day, these were some of the most inept, unimaginative, stone-headed people I’d ever seen. It seemed to me that Marvel Creative would come up with these great ideas, and then the marketing department would blow it. All along the development process, we, in fact, knew they would blow it. These guys worked in advertising or for, I don’t know, Wall Street Week or whatever, but they would drop the ball and drop it hard every single time. There was a contentious spirit between creative and marketing at both DC and Marvel, with, my take on it, the marketing guys looking at the creative guys like children, and the creative guys typically upset that long days of hard work ended up for nothing because marketing would not get off its duff and actually go sell comic books.

It was as if they did not understand why they were there. That’s how bad these people were at their jobs. But Paul Levitz and Mike Hobson kept these men and women at their desks even as they watched the numbers dwindle. I cannot say with any authority what went wrong or right with Milestone because both Dwayne McDuffie and Dick Giordano kept me out of that loop—which was a really dumb thing to do considering I was DC’s liaison to Milestone Media—but my instinct tells me the contentious atmosphere between Milestone and DC’s incredibly inept, incompetent and lame marketing department likely put the experiment on a path. The atmosphere was so poisoned, the marketing guys disliked the Milestone guys so much, it seemed to me that marketing would do the bare minimum necessary to promote Milestone. To my knowledge there was little or no effort made to expand the market beyond traditional comic shops—which aren’t terribly popular with the brothers—and get into distribution chains for ethnic community centers like barber and beauty shops, record store chains and boutiques. I know, for a fact, exploring new distribution avenues was a prime motivator for DC to invest in Milestone, and Milestone President Derek T. Dingle had initially laid out an array of stratagem for breaking comics into new distribution channels.

DC Marketing did none of that. They bundled up Milestone and fed it to the normal direct outlets. They put an ad in Diamond’s catalog. And On The Sabbath Day They Rested. A monkey could have done that. The entire point of Milestone wasn’t to lure black kids into comics shops but was to broaden DC’s distribution beyond the narrowing funnel of the direct shops and loosen the stranglehold Diamond had on comics distribution. I have to assume DC Marketing missed that memo somehow or that calamitous things went on behind my back because, from what I could tell, there was no effort—none—made to move Milestone past Diamond and the direct shops.

Alive:: Bennett, Miki & Avalon breathe new life into the would-be Panther, Kasper Cole as The White Tiger.

White Guys Talking To White Guys About Selling To White Guys:
Latino U.S. Market: $750 Billion. Black U.S. Market: $892 Billion.
Marvel and DC Minority-Targeted Publishing Lines: 0.

With The Crew, my pitch to Marvel was precisely the same. The Crew existed not for the direct shops but for the barber shops. For the bodegas. I suggested a Spanish edition published concurrently. Hip-Hop music in-packed with trades. I had a deal in principle with a major online distributor to pay for the CDs in exchange for including their catalog and content on the CD. Friends like Reginald Hudlin were willing to help get us connected with Vibe and XXL Magazines and explore joint ventures with Johnson Publishing. So far as I know, none of that was done. Marvel marketing lifted not one finger for The Crew, saw no potential in the series. Beyond Tom Brevoort’s office there was only an eye roll. Marvel Comics, run by an Hispanic EIC and a close friend of mine, turned blind eye and deaf ear to a rich opportunity. Latino and African American markets are worth hundreds of billions of dollars in the U.S. So far as I know, both majors have stupidly and arrogantly dismissed those markets, along with the multi-billion dollar  Christian/Evangelical market, which virtually no major and precious few indys will touch—like they’re afraid of all that cash waiting to be collected. That’s money, lying all over the floor, and these guys are too lazy to pick it up. Mainstream comics have long had an arrogant Anglo point of view. All of Marvel’s films are Anglo-centric. At least the Batman film people were savvy enough to put Morgan Freeman front and center, while the Iron Man franchise has utterly wasted both Terrence Howard and Don Cheadle. This sends a message to minority communities, whether or not DC or Marvel realize it.

DC staffers seemed, to me, hostile toward and perhaps jealous of Milestone. Marvel was not overtly hostile to The Crew, but, from my chair, they wrote it off as another failed Priest project. As many fans did, it felt to me as if Marvel had judged the book entirely from a racial point of view. Race First. Having not read a single word of this comic, it was branded a “ghetto” book and cancelled before the first issue arrived in stores. This after an arduous, months-long development process that just wore me out. There should be some rule that, if you’re going to put a writer through the ringer for months at a clip, you need to commit to the project for at least a year. You have to give it time to find an audience.

Only, The Crew’s audience was not in comics shops (see sidebar). Write this down someplace: White People Don’t Buy Black Comics. Don’t clutch your chest. Sure, there are exceptions to that rule, but in the history of modern comic books, black characters have never, ever, sold as well as white characters. A series being branded a “black” book is (or, at least was) the kiss of death. I never expected The Crew to do well in comic shops through Diamond. I expected Marvel Marketing to get off their butts and at least make a phone call or two. I had spoken to a number of people anxious to see this book and to explore ways to co-op it; perhaps an in-pack with XXL or Vibe. I put together a CD of original rap and hip-hop from local artists. There’s tons of the stuff, free, theses guys were excited about being part of a Marvel Comic. Thousands of barber shops across the country are where minority kids go every other week: why isn’t there a comics rack in there? Why has both DC and Marvel marketing completely ignored the minority market for seventy-five years?

Because they’re stupid. It’s not even racism, it’s stupidity. Entire departments at these places needed to be fired and, by God, had anybody ever been stupid enough to name me EIC, that would have been the first thing I’d do. Look, you’re either a businessman or you’re a fanboy. It’s tough o be both. A businessman sells. He doesn’t just sell to whites. He doesn’t just sell what he likes. A businessman sells both Coke and Pepsi. A businessman looks for any avenue available to get his product out there. I could be wrong, and I’ll gleefully admit so if someone wants to set me straight. But in twelve years behind desks at Marvel and DC, what I saw from the sales force were white guys talking to white guys about selling to white guys. They were woefully inept at connecting to women or minorities, and, to my knowledge, have never developed strong relationships in black or Latino markets.

An Auspicious Start:: The White Tiger Ralphs up lunch on Danny "Junta" Vincent.

It's Got Legs

The Crew was custom-tailored for Marvel’s marketing department. It could have been—and could be today in trade paperback—a trial balloon used to explore new markets. The one story arc, “Big Trouble In Little Mogadishu,” has no specific bearing on current continuity (whatever that may be), and the people Marvel would be trying to reach with this don’t read comics and wouldn’t have any idea about continuity anyway. I wrote this series eight years ago. Marvel has done absolutely nothing with it. They sent it to Diamond as part of a flood of poorly-planned new launches, most of which were summarily cancelled. And, despite my routine pleas to the contrary, Marvel has not shown the least interest in packaging the series and approaching black and Latino channels for distribution.

The abrupt and premature cancellation of The Crew, which I was terribly invested in and extremely proud of, was, for me, the death knell. I threw up my hands, that’s it for me and comics. Had Tom not offered me Captain America and The Falcon, The Crew would have been my last published comics work. It’s not the art form I despise so much, it’s the idiocy of the people controlling it. Billions of dollars lying on the floor. So many bills we’re slipping in them as we walk past trying to sell the same old crap to the same old people.

Christopher J. Priest
21 September 2011