End of Summer

Tony Isabella:

The Interview

by Michael Hutchison

Tony Isabella has been working in the comics industry for over a quarter of a century. His major addition to the DC mythos, Black Lightning, was DC's first African-American superhero. Black Lightning makes his first major appearance in several years in this month's DCU Holiday Bash II.


Okay, let's start it off with the question every fan always wants to ask any comic book writer: How did you get started in the comics industry?


I got started in the comics industry because I figured it was better than getting my face stepped on by a mounted policeman's horse. But, maybe I should go back several years before I explain that.

I learned to read from comic books when I was four. I always loved them. After reading Fantastic Four Annual #1 (1963), I realized that real people got paid real money for writing comics and that I wanted to be one of them. To this day, I think that annual is the greatest comic book ever published.

When I hit my teen years, I was a full-fledged fan. I wrote letters to editors. I wrote articles and stories for fanzines. I went to conventions and got to know some of my favorite writers and artists.

I was working for the world's worst newspaper, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, as a copy boy/sometimes reporter, when we went on strike. The publisher called up his good friend the mayor and our picket line was attacked by mounted policemen. I was knocked to the ground by one of my terrified guild brothers and, while laying on the sidewalk, saw a hoof come down inches from my face.

When I got home, I called Roy Thomas, who was Marvel's editor-in-chief, for a job. They needed someone to package reprints for Great Britain. I took the job and was in New York less than two weeks later.


A copyboy/reporter could really get through to the editor-in-chief at Marvel comics?


Roy and I were regular correspondents at the time. We exchanged letters, even talked on the phone once a month or so.


Have you worked, previously or currently, in other mediums besides comic books?


I've written for magazines, newspapers, radio, and even television, although, never for anything anyone would have heard of. I've written for politicians and the odd comedian. I've done advertising. It paid bills, but it was never anything to which I felt a personal connection.

Outside of actual comic books, and inside the comics industry, I'm proud of my daily and weekly columns…the Ringmaster prose story I wrote with my buddy Bob Ingersoll for The Ultimate Super-Villains…and a Captain America prose novel that Bob and I are currently writing.


On to your current project, the Black Lightning story in DCU Holiday Bash II, which is on the stands Thanksgiving Day. Before we get into the story, I must say that I was surprised to find out you were writing it! I should probably recap this quickly for those in our audience who may not follow the behind-the-scenes politics of making comic books. You were, basically, dismissed as the writer of your own comic book, Black Lightning (second series), the series of a character you created. In the 2-3 years since then, you've had a dispute with DC in which you've been a very vocal proponent of creator's rights. For a while, the prospects of your working with DC Comics again looked bleak indeed, but now you're back writing this story and discussing future projects. What was the sudden change in the past year?


I'm not sure there has been an actual change. I had serious problems with two editors at DC during my last stint there. Neither of them are DC editors now. They were dismissed on the same day.

Unfortunately, DC has a policy of always backing its editors, right or wrong. Since I was pretty vocal about my problems with this policy and what happened to me as a result of it, I suspect I was considered "too hot to handle," even though I know that just about every editor up there thought I should not have been booted off the Black Lightning book.

In any case, this new story came about because a courageous editor (Darren Vincenzio) wanted a Black Lightning story in the holiday book and made the very intelligent decision that it should be written by BL's creator and BL's best artist. I wrote the story and turned it on time. He liked the story a lot. Eddy Newell drew the story and turned it on time. Boom! You have a 10-page BL story that all of us think is pretty darn cool.

As for future projects at DC Comics…

I'm a dedicated, reasonable, and, IMHO, extremely talented writer. I know readers want to see more of my work…I get a dozen emails a week that say just that. I know I'd like to write more comics. I think we just need to find editors who will consider these facts, slap their foreheads, and realize, "Yes, I could get Tony Isabella stories for my books."


Your last Black Lightning series received a high volume of praise for its realistic artwork and lifelike characterizations, and the undisputed highlight was issue #5, in which Jefferson Pierce is recovering from bullet wounds in a hospital bed and thinking about the man who saved his life. This issue was enhanced by Eddy Newell's rich "wash-style" black and white artwork. Is it true he's using this same style in the Holiday Bash story, and would you be using this style exclusively if you did another Black Lightning series or mini-series?


Yes, Eddy did use the black-and-white style for the new story and the results are incredible. We're currently pitching a BL mini-series that, if accepted, would be done the same way. We'd like to do a mini-series and a couple of specials every year. That way we can develop the character at a realistic pace and without doing the "company crossover" thing.

Regular style
Eddy Newell's normal style
Washed style
Eddy Newell's wash-style

Do you mind other writers writing your characters if you give your approval, such as when Mike W. Barr used Black Lightning as a member of The Outsiders?


At this point, my position would be that, as the creator of Black Lightning, I should have the right of first refusal on any comics appearances of the character. When we started the new series, I made it quite clear that I would be happy doing Black Lightning for the rest of my life. I still feel that way.

I think Mike W. Barr did a great job with BL in the Outsiders. But, given that I'm available to write the character, why should the editors or the readers settle for some substitute? It doesn't compute.


If you could cast a "Black Lightning" movie, who would you put in the roles of Jefferson (Black Lightning) Pierce, his ex-wife (Lynn), Pete Gambi (his mentor) and Tobias Whale (the villain)?


I think Wesley Snipes would be a good Jeff Pierce. Or Don Cheadle, the actor who played the district attorney on Picket Fences.

I hadn't thought much about Lynn, but, if the producers of Nightman ever give her a chance to show if she can act, I think the night club manager would be good visually.

Peter Gambi? Maybe Danny Aiello.

Tobias Whale? It would have to be Sinbad. No, just kidding. I'll have to think about that one. We're talking lots of make-up and padding here. Maybe he should be computer generated like the T-Rex in The Lost World.


And while we're on the subject of creative casting, what did you think of Sinbad portraying Black Lightning as a party crasher at Superman's funeral on Saturday Night Live?


If I ever see that guy, I'm going to give him a big wet one. I never laughed so hard in my life. I was on the floor rolling around. Very funny bit.


I don't want our readers to think that Black Lightning is the only character you've written! You also revived Hawkman in the mid-1980s, starting with the Shadow War of Hawkman mini-series, then a special that featured Gentleman Ghost and finally a series that lasted through 1987. Somehow, you managed to make Hawkman a compelling character without re-writing a massive chunk of DC History! Had Hawkman always been a favorite superhero of yours, or was it more of an assigned challenge to take this uneven character and make him interesting?


I liked Hawkman, but he was never one of my favorites until Dick Giordano asked me to take a swing at him. I think I did some good work there. In fact, James Robinson once told me that he learned a lot about comics writing from the series and that his treatment of the Shade owes a nod to my treatment of the Gentleman Ghost. It's a shame they've written all these great characters out of the DCU. I'd love to work with them again.


This may just be my personal opinion, but it seems like the 1980s were a Renaissance period for deep, character-driven, intelligent comic books. We had the New Teen Titans, Vigilante, The Dark Knight Returns, The Watchmen, your Hawkman series and the early days of the Superman and Wonder Woman re-launches. Today, for all of our talk of a maturer comics audience, it sometimes seems like we're back to two-dimensional characters and "pow-splat"…the only difference being that we can actually show the pow-splat in gory detail. I bring this up because your Hawkman and especially your Black Lightning series have had critical raves and yet not achieved the rave success that they (in my and many others' opinion) deserved. Are you ever pressured to put in more spectacle and less substance in order to achieve higher sales?


With the exception of my last and least editor on Black Lightning, most of my editors have understood how personal my work is to me and tried to help that work live up to its potential. I'm not the guy you hire to type up your stories. I'm the guy you hire when you want to edit/publish my stories. The best editors know when to stand back and let a writer or artist cook.


What future projects can you tease us with?


Later this year, World Famous Comics will be releasing an ashcan edition of a new adventure heroine I've created. Actually, I created her almost twenty years ago and I wasn't good enough to write her until now. The ashcan features a complete eight-page story drawn by Eddy Newell. The heroine's physical appearance is based on that of my dear friend Anastasia Heonis and I've incorporated some of her personality and speech patterns into the character. Her input has been important because it's a long time since I've been a 26-year-old woman.

Bob Ingersoll and I are working on some projects together. We are writing a Captain America prose novel, Liberty's Torch, that will be published in late 1998. I don't want to say too much about it, save that everyone at Byron Preiss Multimedia and Marvel is pretty high on it.

Bob and I are also looking over portfolio to find an artist for a new super-hero character. We'll be publishing the first chapter of this hero's premiere story as an ashcan in the spring of 1998.

I've got a lot of other characters, concepts, and what-have-you in the works, just waiting for an opportune break in the industry or my schedule. Ironically, if I were doing more work-for-hire for companies like DC, I'd have more time to pursue creator-owned projects.

Oh, yeah, I also plan on continuing my daily and weekly columns until I drop. I haven't run out of things to say yet.

Thanks very much, Tony Isabella. In case anyone's wondering where you can read Tony's daily columns, you'll find a link to Tony's Tips on our Fanzing Multiverse page.

If you enjoy Tony's story in DCU Holiday Bash II, be sure to write to The Powers That Be at DC Comics (DCODCUMail@aol.com ) and tell them you want to see more of Black Lightning!

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