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
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
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
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
a Captain America prose novel that Bob and I are currently
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.
Eddy Newell's normal 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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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!