NOVEMBER 2011: INTERVIEW with TONY ISABELLA by BRADLEY MASON HAMLIN
for MYSTERY ISLAND PUBLICATIONS
BMH: You’re back writing comic books for the first time in a decade. Tell us about your involvement with GRIM GHOST from the new Atlas Comics.
ISABELLA: I did a little work for the 1970's version of Atlas Comics. Knowing this, Barry Pearl, a good buddy and one of my biggest fans, dropped my name when the new Atlas first appeared at the New York Comic Con and then insisted I contact them. I exchanged the usual pleasantries with Brendan Deneen and Jason Goodman. When it turned out they needed a writer for Grim Ghost, they offered me the gig.
I’d written the third and final issue of the title back in the day. I accepted the gig for several reasons with the major one being I wanted to prove, mostly to myself, that I could still write really good comic books after being away from them for so long.
There was some editorial/writer butting of the heads at the start, but, within a relatively short time, Brendan and Jason realized I knew what I was doing and they would get the best work out of me if they just let me do my thing. I’m very pleased with the results: a six-issue story that had six issues worth of story, interesting characters, and lots of surprises. They were very happy with the scripts and, most importantly, the readers were very happy with the book. If all goes well, I’ll be writing a second six-issue series in 2012.
It’s important to note that the Atlas guys let me write my stories. That doesn’t happen too often at DC and Marvel where writers have to write stories conceived in editorial meetings or by a junta of writers. I’ll be 60 at the end of the year and, at this stage of my life, with rare exception, I’m not interested in writing other people’s stories.
BMH: I'm glad to hear you're experiencing that kind of artistic freedom. In the 1970s, you wrote a two-year run of GHOST RIDER for Marvel Comics. Do you still think it was a bad idea for Marvel editors to pull/rewrite Jesus Christ out of your Johnny Blaze story? I assume you were deeply offended as a writer, but were you also offended spiritually?
ISABELLA: Coincidentally, I just completed another interview centered completely on Ghost Rider. First off, it should be noted for the record that three different editors-in-chief (Roy Thomas, Len Wein, and Marv Wolfman) all approved this extended story line and how I wanted to end it. It was one assistant editor, Jim Shooter, who was offended by the conclusion to my run. Taking advantage of the confusion between the end of Marv’s time as editor-in-chief and the start of Gerry Conway’s, Shooter pulled back my completed and ready for the printer issue. He had a few pages redrawn and re-scripted them himself to completely change the planned and approved ending to my story. It was as arrogant and insulting a move as any I have seen in my four decades in comics.
As for being spiritually offended, that wasn’t really an issue for me. With so many avatars of the Adversary working various corners of the Marvel Universe, I felt Heaven should get a voice as well. It made logical sense to me and reader response was overwhelming favorable.
BMH: Ghost Rider also appeared in my personal favorite of all the series you worked on: THE CHAMPIONS! Can you tell us a little about how the Champions came about and why they sort of fell into a bad rep? When I was twelve, I thought it was a really fun series and wouldn’t mind re-reading those comics today.
ISABELLA: I think you’re pulling that “bad rep” stuff out of your ass when you’re talking about overall reaction to the Champions. I’m always hearing from readers who loved the original series, though I myself have never been overly pleased with it. OTOH, if you’re talking about editorial comments at a time when some members of editorial personnel were also trashing Jack Kirby in Marvel letter columns, then I can understand it. There were some real snakes in the Bullpen during those years.
Anyway, my relative dislike of the Champions comes mostly from it not being the book I wanted to write. I pitched a “buddies on the road” series starring Iceman and the Angel. Sort of Route 66 with super-heroes. My original idea was trashed during a meeting with the editors that, in retrospect, was hilarious.
Imagine the then-writer of Fantastic FOUR telling me that a super-hero team had to have FIVE members. And then following that with equally insane proclamations like: every super-hero team needed a strong guy, every super-hero team needed a woman, and, finally, the utterly insane notion that every super-hero team needed one member who had his own title as well.
Given the editorial proclamations, I think I wrote some okay comic books for the series. But it was never the book I wanted it to be.
BMH: Well, I liked the Champions as an oddball lineup, and I believe the criticism comes from its uniqueness as well as its short lifespan. Having owned two comic shops, you get to hear all the interesting banter from the fans over the years, and for reasons unknown the Champions suffered such commentary as: "That guy in the X-Men is so lame he should go join the Champions." I even read a comic where the writer used the same unjustified joke. Sort of like when people (via some lame comedy trend) make fun of Aquaman ... Anyway, if the bad rep came out of anyone's ass, I would put my money on Hercules.
Being that you’re a comic writing veteran from back in the day when comic books looked like real comic books and were actually fun to read – do you think this “New 52” reboot of the DCU will help recapture the fun and excitement that has largely been missing?
ISABELLA: While I find several of DC’s “New 52" titles entertaining and/or interesting, I don’t think that they will or are intended to recapture the fun and excitement of past eras. Nor should they. I certainly wouldn’t mind more variety in the books, maybe even a title or two that was more old-school fun, but I don’t think there is anything to be gained by producing the same kinds of comic books we did in the past. I also think there’s nothing to be gained from
doing the same thing across a company’s line. Many of these "New 52" seem to rely on brutality and gore...and precious few of them have a strong individual voice.
BMH: I don't understand why they blasted out so many variations at once, but maybe I'll give the new Aquaman a shot.
You created Black Lightning in the 1970s and then wrote a second critically-acclaimed run in the 1990s. Has Black Lightning been re-established in the new DCU?
ISABELLA: He didn’t appear in any of the first month books and those are the only ones I’ve read to date.
BMH: He seems a perfect fit for the Justice League title as a regular member, strange that the powers at be don't see that.
How much did Trevor Von Eeden have to do with creating Black Lightning. Was it an even collaboration or did he pencil essentially an already fully realized idea?
ISABELLA: I’m the sole creator of Black Lightning. The character and every key element of the series was fully realized before I even pitched it to DC. It was my creation. It wasn’t a work-for-hire deal. It was supposed to be a partnership between the creator of the character (myself) and DC. Unfortunately, DC has never fully honored its agreements with me.
Trevor is the primary but not only designer of the original Black Lightning costume. He disputes that others were involved, but his version is disputed by every living person who was in the room at the time the first costume was designed. Indeed, he has admitted that key elements like the Afro-mask and what I called the Captain America boots came from Bob Rozakis and myself...and also that the late Joe Orlando asked for the front of Black Lightning’s shirt to be more open. Of course, the original costume hasn’t been used in any comic books since BATMAN AND THE OUTSIDERS.
After the end of the first Black Lightning series, I wanted to buy out DC’s “share” of my creation. The company response to this was to retroactively declare Von Eeden a co-creator; he was not listed as such during the first run of the series and for the next couple years after the first run. Go check the original run and you will see this is the case. At this time, DC also started giving Trevor half of the royalties they had agreed to pay me.
I’m sorry this ongoing dispute has led to an estrangement between Trevor and myself because I think he’s developed into an incredibly talented artist. But the truth is the truth: he’s not remotely the co-creator of Black Lightning.
BMH: What was the deal with Black Vulcan on the Super Friends? Did you get credit for that knockoff?
ISABELLA: Here’s the most accurate version of the deal I’ve been able to piece together. Black Lightning was supposed to appear on the show. A DC executive told me as much. My deal with DC called for me to receive 20% of whatever DC made on the use of my character in the series. I wouldn’t have received 20% of what DC made from the show, just 20% of - for the sake of argument, let’s say there were ten DC characters in the show - one-tenth of what DC made. But DC didn’t want to pay me out of their cut.
DC told the folks at Hanna-Barbera they would have to pay extra for the use of Black Lightning. Hanna-Barbera balked at this and told DC they would just do their own version of Black Lightning. Which DC let them get away with.
Hanna-Barbera didn’t owe me for the use of Black Lightning. It was DC Comics who owed me. I didn’t find out my creation wasn’t on the show until the first Black Vulcan episode aired. My response was to write a story called “The Other Black Lightning” where in this unscrupulous promoter named Barbara Hanna - subtle, huh? - created her own fraudulent version of Black Lightning. That turned out to be my last script of the first run. It wasn’t the first time that DC had violated our partnership agreement, but it was when I knew the company would never honor it.
I worked for DC a few more times since - Hawkman and then a second Black Lightning series - but the company always ends up screwing me over. Currently, I am blacklisted at the company for the heinous crime of speaking the truth about this sort of thing. As much as I would love to write Black Lightning again, I can’t imagine anyone at DC being smart enough to make that happen and I can’t imagine DC giving me the kind of contract I would need before writing for them again.
BMH: What do you think of STATIC SHOCK? That character bugged me from the get-go, seemed like a really watered down and wrongly politically correct version of Black Lightning.
ISABELLA: Wow! That may be the most wrongheaded description of Static I’ve ever read. Outside of both characters being black and having electrical powers, the two aren’t at all alike. I love the original Static comic book and the animated series. You’ll get nothing but love from me for what my friend Dwayne McDuffie and the Milestone creators accomplished. Those remain some of the very best comics of the 1990s and the Static Shock show was excellent as well.
BMH: Well, maybe I didn't give him a fair shake of the joy buzzer, but I did find it interesting that the cats on Batman: Brave & the Bold sort of blended the two characters into their version of Black Lightning.
If Warner Brothers released a Black Lightning film, do you think you’d get proper acknowledgment? I know Gary Friedrich is still pretty hot in the ear canals over the Ghost Rider movie.
ISABELLA: DC Comics is contractually obligated to credit me as Black Lightning’s creator. Whether the company honors that obligation is always iffy. That’s how DC rolls.
BMH: After a bit of controversy with the New York Comic Con people, how did you like the convention?
ISABELLA: The controversy was more my fault than theirs. They aren’t comics people. I shouldn’t have assumed they’d think “this guy has been working in comics for four decades and we should be happy to give him free passes.” From their viewpoint, they were offering a generous professional discount. So be it.
That said, I had a great time signing at the Atlas Comics booth and seeing old friends, often for the first time in decades. I made a lot of new friends as well and started the ball rolling on a couple new projects.
But the Javitz Center was a real disappointment. Inadequate food and restroom facilities. It’s an unpleasant venue for such a big convention. If I return next year, I’ll stay at a closer hotel to make it easier to escape from the show for an hour here and there.
The layout of the convention needs work as well. DC has mastered their booth setup; they can handle a lot of traffic without causing backups. Marvel does an adequate job of this. But the video game exhibitors need to be spread out and better organized so that they don’t create massive gridlock around their displays.
BMH: What’s your favorite story you’ve written, the superlative tale that every comic book fan should read?
BLACK LIGHTNING #5's “Blowed Away” is my favorite story. It was an emotional story that I believe said interesting things about Black Lightning, super-heroes in general, and the ordinary citizens who are caught up in that world. Artist Eddy Newell did an incredible job with the visuals. It won an online award for best issue of the year. Readers discovering it for the first time are every bit as enthusiastic as those who read it when it was originally published.
Unfortunately, DC has never reprinted the Black Lightning stories I did with Eddy. When you see the kind of mediocre material they have reprinted in hardcover and trade paperback, the omission makes no sense whatsoever.
BMH: I would love to see a DC Showcase collection of Black Lightning.
Anything we missed? What does the world not know about Tony Isabella?
I’m at a terrific place in my life. I have a wonderful family and many great friends. Somehow or another. I always have work I enjoy and which engages me. There is a satisfying creative life beyond big outfits like DC and Marvel.
No one in comics can hurt me. They can anger me, annoy me, and God knows, cheat me. But they can’t touch anything that’s important to me. It’s liberating to not care what anyone thinks of me outside of my family and friends. It allows me to be honest in my writings about the comics industry.
For updates on what I’m doing - here comes the plug - your readers should visit my nigh-daily:
TONY ISABELLA’S BLOGGY THING!
Thank you, Tony. Your stories and creation of the legendary Black Lightning will always be appreciated on Mystery Island.
Mystery Island Publications
"Tony Isabella Interview" by Bradley Mason Hamlin.
© 2011 Mystery Island Publications. Edited by Lucy Hell. Published November 27, 2011.
Photos of Tony Isabella from the collection of Tony Isabella.
Action figure pictures by BMH from the collection of Mystery Island.
All rights reserved.
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