The Secrets of DC’s New Black Adam

Christopher Priest tells us how and why Black Adam has been reinvented for the modern DC Universe.

Black Adam #1 from DC Comics
Photo: DC Comics

This article contains spoilers for Black Adam #1 from DC Comics

You think you know Black Adam? The brand new Black Adam series from DC might have something to say about that. Black Adam #1 by Christopher Priest and Rafa Sandoval might very well be the best single issue of superhero comics released so far this year. Focusing less on Black Adam as a cosmic antihero and more on Theo Adam as the head of state of DC’s fictional nation of Khandaq, it’s a moody look at one of the most fascinating characters in the DCU.

Written by Priest (who has been on a roll with antiheroes lately with his brilliant Deathstroke series from a few years back and a recent US Agent book for Marvel), the man whose writing redefined Black Panther for the modern era, and with incredible art by Sandoval, the first issue of Black Adam takes you to the furthest reaches of the cosmos and also settings as mundane as the Washington, DC Metro with equal ease. Far from an origin story, it plays almost like what you’d want a sequel to the upcoming Black Adam movie starring Dwayne Johnson to evolve into, and Priest isn’t shying away from bending all the conventions you usually associate with Shazam-related characters to tell a brand new story.

We spoke with Priest about this first issue in a new episode of DC Standom. The text below are select answers from that interview, edited for length and clarity, but you can also listen to the full episode here…

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Den of Geek: Let’s start with that title, “Theogony” which implies that you’ll be dealing with a lot of gods in this story.

Christopher Priest: I wanted to have Black Adam interact with some gods… but there’s so much continuity wrapped up in the Egyptian gods. Are they real? Are they dead? I don’t know what’s going on with them. So I looked elsewhere, to some neighboring gods. I really would have liked to have borrowed Jack Kirby‘s New Gods, but that’s never going to happen. You know, every kind of company, whether it’s Marvel, DC, Image, there’s all these little fiefdoms. I don’t know who’s in charge of the  New Gods [at DC], but I know they’re not giving them up. So we can’t use the New Gods and we’re not going to use the Egyptian gods. So we decided to make our own gods….

I see Black Adam as a larger than life, ancient guy. He talks the big talk. It’s not quite Thor talk, but it’s big talk. When he shows himself as Theo, then he talks like you or I. But in his Black Adam form, he’s boastful. I really wanted him to have an Asgard, an Odin, and people that he can talk to, and I just couldn’t find them. So I said, “we’ll just roll our own.” You’ll see we are birthing our own gods here.

You did at least get to play around with Jack Kirby‘s New Gods in that opening issue with the fake Darkseid fight that of course gets Adam into such a mess. Was this just your way of nodding to what you wanted to do initially?

I think it’s my way of throwing red meat to the crowd. We could have started with like, “once upon a time there was a guy named Theo and he’s having this this meeting with these senators at the Senate hearing…” and then he’s walking around and then there’s his murder mystery and then maybe on page 22 he gets into something. I said “no, I think we need to get right to some cosmic crap going on.” 

Our storyline will unravel that opening bit of business in outer space over the first three issues where we will be cutting back to that and piecing it together. We walked into the middle of that fight. In issue two we see how the fight began, and issue three we see how the fight ends and where it leads and what it means and how it blossoms into this theogony, this birth of the gods thing that’s going on. There’s a lot to it but we wanted toget to what readers want to see. They want to see the action stuff, but then they also want to have substance, and hopefully we deliver that as well in issue one.

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He’s even more eerie as Theo than he is as Black Adam, and that’s something we’ve never seen with that character before. I don’t think Theo’s ever really been deeply explored in the modern day. 

It’s funny, you should say that, because I find myself having to use a lot of restraint and not just write 22 pages of Theo running around doing stuff. When I was working on Black Panther, when you first meet him, you meet you meet T’Challa, and he’s in a business suit, he’s got a shaved head, and he looks like Captain Sisko, from Deep Space Nine. I like to write characters from the inside out. 

I really feel like the Fawcett characters belong to younger readers, and I was always against integrating those characters into the mainstream DC Universe because I didn’t see what benefit what they were adding to the DC Universe that DC didn’t already have. Why do you need a Shazam when you have a Superman? What What does Dr. Sivana bring to the party that Lex Luthor can’t do? I’ve been just poo-pooing the idea that every time Shazam shows up he’s scowling and he’s punching people. That’s just so wrong. An evil Mary Marvel? What were they thinking? 

But my editor, Paul Kaminski, is someone that I’ve known for a long time, and we’ve wanted to work together for a long time. So he puts up with my nonsense, and he’s put up with an awful lot of it. And I’m so grateful that he has, but we ended up having two or three discussions about it. And finally, I said to him, in an effort to get rid of him, I said, “look, I’m not the guy you want for this. Because if I was going to write this book, I would do something like this.” And I laid out chapter and verse of what I would do. 

It’s a very subversive approach to the character, starting with this Theo identity that I find eminently interesting and underdeveloped. He is from Khandaq, and we are making that connection to Ancient Egypt. Now, this is a head of state, you know, but in America, he’s just another Middle Eastern guy walking around, and is subject to the same sort of ignorance and stupidity that people from that part of the world are routinely subjected to in our country….I just figured that Paul would email me back and say, “forget it, we can’t do that.” I’m really surprised that not only was he enthusiastic about it, but that the powers that be at DC… [eventually] signed off. There’s a lot of scrutiny going into things both at Marvel and DC because of the explosion of streaming TV. There’s a lot of money in these characters now, so I just figured that this would never happen….I’m really very surprised that this book is coming out, I can’t believe they’re actually doing this.

So hang on to your hat because I’m having a I’m having a great time. I really hope that this finds an audience and we keep going. I would really be disappointed if we got shut down at 12 issues. I just hope that there’s enough readers out there that will support it and and keep us going.

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This is career best work from Rafa Sandoval. When did you realize that’s who you were collaborating with and how has that changed your vision for the book? Theo is an even more striking visual than Black Adam!

I was not familiar at all with Rafa [before this book]. So I was initially very nervous, because I wanted this to work on the big action level, and I wanted it to function on the Black Panther level. This guy is ahead of state. Don’t screw with him. It’s a little ironic, by the way, that we’re in the middle of these historic Senate hearings, and our conflict opens with a historic Senate hearing where our guy Theo is just taking these schmuck politicians out for a walk, and I just so love doing that. So I was incredibly nervous and then incredibly delighted when not only does Rafa deliver this massive, cosmic fight that opens the book, but when we get into the nuances of just the guy sitting there in a Senate chamber…just the fact that he could do the big stuff and he could do the pedestrian stuff….On every level, he has delivered exactly what the book needed.

Black Adam #1 is out now from DC Comics.