How a comics legend regained control of an antihero he created at DC, and got 50 Cent on board for a movie adaptation
Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson is producing a movie based on "Xerø," first published by DC Comics.
The comic's rights reverted to its creator, Christopher Priest, in 2016.
Priest and his collaborator Joe Illidge spoke to Insider about the movie and the comic's history.
Christopher Priest, the first Black writer to work at a major comics publisher, thought he was done with the industry more than three decades ago.
After a time at Marvel Comics in the 1980s, Priest was, as he puts it, "very happily driving a bus" for a transportation company when he was lured back to the industry in 1990 by the other major publisher, DC Comics.
"I've quit the comics industry repeatedly," he told Insider during an interview this week, "but it won't quit me."
During his initial stint at DC, Priest created a series called "Xerø" that was drawn by the artist ChrisCross and ran for 12 issues from 1997 to 1998. It was about a Black government assassin who "weaponizes race to become invisible" by disguising himself as a white man, Priest said.
The rights to the character reverted back to Priest in 2016. As announced last week, Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson and his production company G-Unit Film and Television are developing a movie based on Priest's work along with Color Farm Media and a new production company called Illuminous, from comics veteran Joe Illidge.
Insider spoke to Priest and Illidge about how the project got off the ground, the history of the source material, and how recent Black-led comic-book movies and shows laid the groundwork to bring Xerø back.
How Xerø is making a comeback
"Xerø" has stuck with Illidge, a former DC Comics editor who is Black, since it was originally published. He even wrote a letter that made it into the fan letters pages in one issue.
"It was quite daring to a degree that surprised me," Illidge told Insider. "It made an impression on me."
But the series was short-lived, and only lasted a dozen issues before being canceled.
Priest has been upfront about his complicated relationship with the comics industry in the past. When it comes to "Xerø," he thinks the book was resented at the time in the DC editorial department because of the deal DC made with Priest to create the book, and because it tackled controversial themes of race.
"It was treated as a second-class book," Priest said. "It was one of the worst editorial experiences I've ever had."
DC declined to comment.
Priest struck a deal with DC where the full rights to "Xerø" would revert to him if DC didn't publish new material for a certain amount of time. In 2016, Priest finally made the request to have full ownership of the character, and DC obliged.
It's a unique situation given the current comics landscape. A number of comics creators have recently spoken out about wanting to own their ideas, and how they are unable to do that at Marvel and DC, where the companies own any new storylines or characters they create.
But the broader entertainment landscape has also changed. Black-led comic-book adaptations, like Marvel Studios' "Black Panther" and HBO's "Watchmen," based on the DC graphic novel of the same name, have opened Hollywood's eyes to an audience that Priest said it "didn't even know it had."
The former, which was inspired by Priest's own work on the character's comic series, grossed more than $1 billion worldwide and was nominated for multiple Oscars including best picture. The latter won the Emmy for best limited series in 2020.
"The audience is out there," Priest said. "You just have to go get them."
The next step was finding a superstar producing partner that understood and embraced the concept.
'50 Cent' understood Xerø completely
Priest and Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson both grew up in the Queens borough of New York City, which Priest called a "shared experience" that attracted him to Jackson for the "Xerø" adaptation.
But he still warned Jackson that some audiences would find the concept of "Xerø" controversial, which was reflected in meetings with other potential producing partners.
"Some people we met with asked us to fundamentally change the idea, but why do it at all if you're going to cut corners?," Priest said. "He just put on a big grin and shook his head, and said something along the lines of 'bring it on.' He knows exactly what this is."
With the help of the media company Color Farm, Priest and Illidge originally conceived of the "Xerø" adaptation as a TV series, and even planned out three seasons. But Jackson wanted to turn it into a movie, with an eye towards a potential franchise.
"G-Unit has our series bible," Illidge said. "There's more than enough material there for a feature."
G-Unit has had conversations with interested writers and directors, Priest and Illidge said. When it comes to eventually finding a film distributor for the poject, Priest said he's "100% confident in Mr. Jackson's ability to sell this movie."
G-Unit has found success elsewhere, notably with the "Power" TV franchise on Starz. Jackson starred in and produced the original "Power" series, which has spawned a number of successful spinoffs produced by G-Unit at the network.
As for himself, Preist is happy to sit back and contribute as a consultant. "Xerø" is a concept he thought of when he was 15 years old, he said. Now, at 60, he's ready to see someone else's take on it.
"I want to hear how other people receive and interpret it," he said. "I want this to be a 21st-century idea."
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