A devout comic book fan from a young age, Tony Isabella went on to create DC’s first high-profile black superhero, Black Lightning. Incredibly prolific, Isabella has written for Marvel Comics, the Comic Buyer’s Guide, and is the author of the incredibly entertaining, Tony Isabella’s Bloggy Thing. In this interview, we talk about Black Lightning, Stan Lee, diversity in comics, and the city of Cleveland.
As a child, I was fortunate enough to have had letters I wrote printed in the comments page of various wrestling magazines. I read that you had a similar experience as a young comic book fan. What did it mean to you to see your letter in print in your favorite comic book?
It was a thrill. The first time I saw my name in a letters column, it was just my name. I won a page of Doom Patrol art from editor Murray Boltinoff. I kept at it and ended up getting so many letters published I lost count of them. I think the final total was well over fifty.
Prior to comics, what other writing had you done?
As a fan, I had dozens of articles and even comics stories published in fanzines. When I went to work for the Cleveland Plain Dealer as a copy assistant, I wrote a few features for them. I also wrote some articles for a New York-based newspaper called Monster Times. They were a shady outfit. I only got paid by going to their offices when I attended comics conventions in New York City.
What is your creative process like?
I don’t know that I have a creative process per se. How I approach something depends on the nature of the project. I’ve just started work on my first comic-book series in years. Characters and settings and themes came first. Followed by an overall plot for the six issues and a more specific plot for the first issue. Right now, I’m reacquainting myself with comic-book writing after many years of ghosting for newspaper strips. It’s coming back to me but was slow going at first.
You were born in Cleveland. Do you feel that NE Ohio has informed your writing? If so, how?
Everything I’ve ever experienced informs my writing. I’ve always been a little more down-to-earth and political than many of the other mainstream comics writers. That said, there are elements of Cleveland that work their way into my stories. My commitment to diversity, for example, was born out of the divide between the east side and the west side of the city, specifically the divide between black Cleveland and white Cleveland. The way the Plain Dealer has always been the newspaper of the rich and the powerful informs my well-developed sense of outrage towards such thing. The great work done by liberal and progressive forces in Cleveland inspires me on occasion. I was giddy when Cleveland’s city council stuck its thumb in the eye of the bigots of the right by passing that transgender-friendly bathroom law before the Republican National Convention came to town. A classic Cleveland move, like when the mayor’s wife decided she’s rather go bowling than meet the President. My current comics project is set in Cleveland, so you’ll see a lot of explicit Cleveland references in it.
You’ve been paired with numerous artists over the years. Who do you feel has most accurately represented your vision on the page?
That would be a pretty long list because I’ve worked with extraordinary artists like Don Heck and Dick Ayers. The list would definitely include Eddy Newell (Black Lightning), Frank Robbins, Richard Howell (Hawkman), Jim Mooney, Sal Buscema and so many others. My apologies to anyone I left out.
I adore the Black Lightning character/books. Can you briefly run through how you conceived and brought the character to life?
My first black friends were comics fans. I thought it was unfair that there were almost no black characters. That started my interest in diversity in comics, even though I didn’t think of it that way back then. When I went to work for Marvel Comics in late 1972, I tried to write and create characters of color.
By the time I got to DC Comics, and after I talked the company out of publishing a black super-hero who was actually a white racist in his secret identity, I had character goals in mind when I created Black Lightning.
I wanted a hero who would be a positive role model and someone the younger readers could relate to. So, as much as I liked the Marvel heroes, that meant no African kings, no ex-cons, etc. My hero was a teacher because every kid knows teachers.
Jefferson Pierce was created first. I knew everything about the guy whether it made it into stories or not. The super-hero stuff came later. Everything important about Jefferson Pierce/Black Lightning was in my pitch to DC. It’s why I was given solo creator credit on the character. Even the costume, which was finalized by five of us working in a small office, was largely my concept. I think the most striking feature of that original costume was the lighting piping on the arms and chest and that was mine. The boots were mine, too, though they were borrowed from Captain America.
There’s more to the creation story than that, but I’ll be writing the complete version for an upcoming memoir of sorts.
We both share a lifelong love of Godzilla movies. What you believe is the lasting appeal of the King of All Monsters?
That he has been portrayed in so many different ways that there’s some Godzilla that resonates with every viewer from kids to adults to obsessive fans like me. I like Godzilla best as a modern parable, as he was in Gojira. I’ve also enjoyed him as the looming menace that could destroy us all and the super-hero who often saves us all. He is vast, he contains multitudes.
What was it like working for Stan Lee? Maybe a fun memory to share?
Stan Lee is pretty much as you see him in his movie cameos.
He is always creative, always enthusiastic and always the showman.
There I was, working with the man who really solidified my love of comic books and my desire to be part of that industry. I learned a lot from him and we’ve remained friends over the decades.
When I first started working in comics and, when asked, would tell people I was a comic-book writer, their immediate follow-up would be to ask if I drew the pictures. Today, that follow-up question is almost always “Do you know Stan Lee?” They get excited when I tell him I know him, worked him, still keep in touch with him.
It thrills me to know that a comics creator can become that well-known and beloved. We’ve come a long way.
What impact has the explosion of comic book conventions had to your career?
Since there are more comic-book conventions, I get invited to more comic-book conventions. Other than that, I don’t know how much impact they have had. I probably gain some new readers when I am a guest at a convention, but I think my online activities bring me more new readers. I’m not sure the fans who bring me comics from the 1970s and 1980s are still buying new comics. Many of them seem quite content just re-reading the same comics they read when they were kids.
Strictly as a fan, what do you feel is the greatest storyline in comic book history?
ANSWER: Fantastic Four Annual #1 with “Sub-Mariner Versus the Human Race!” was the issue that made me want to make comic books. I don’t think I could narrow it down to just one. The stories that leap to mind are that great run of Fantastic Four where Stan Lee and Jack Kirby introduced the Frightful Four and the Inhumans and Galactus and the Silver Surfer and the Black Panther in just a little over a year. The issues of Spider-Man by Lee and Steve Ditko that led to Spidey being trapped in Doc Ock’s underwater base. Pretty much the entire Roy Thomas runs on The Avengers and The X-Men. The Daredevil “Born Again” storyline. The first teaming of the Justice League and the Justice Society. Many of the Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams Batman comics.
Bat Lash. Sugar and Spike. Usagi Yojimbo. Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor. Cosmo the Merry Martian. Herbie. The first several years of Challengers of the Unknown. Several Sgt. Rock stories by Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert. Japanese manga like Monster and Bakuman and Assassination Classroom and Black Jack. Dozens of Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge stories by Carl Barks.
Honestly, I could never name just one story. The comics art form is blessed with countless classics from some of the best writers and artist of all time. And I’m not just talking in comics.