This Interview was done via e-mail and was originally published in May of 2000. I decided to bring it back now due to the news of a Black Lightning TV series. Tony was one of the first comic creators I got to “know” via online when I joined the internet. He wrote a Tony’s Online Tips column and posted frequently on usenet (and old pre web browser based message board of sorts). Tony had actually requested letters for X-Files (Topps) on usenet and I was one that replied. I got a number of them published in the Topps X-Files series, particularly towards the end of the series.
I should also note that Tony stopped doing Tony’s Online Tips back in 2010. He currently writes a blog and you should probably read his Tony Isabella’s Black Lightning Facts in regards to some of the things he says here in regards to the character.
If you read Comic Buyers Guide or visit Tony’s Online Tips, you already know who Tony Isabella is. For those that don’t, he’s a long time writer who has also been an editor and comic shop owner. He has recently been getting some freelance work and he is here to tell us about his work, his past and some things he’s involved with outside of comics.
Jamie: What do you do differently that separates you from most comic writers?
Tony Isabella: I don’t know; maybe my deodorant isn’t strong enough.
Jamie: Which method of writing do you use most and prefer? “Marvel Style” or full script?
Tony Isabella: I’ve been using full script almost exclusively for several years because that’s what was requested by the artist or required by the editor. However, I went with “Marvel Style” on my MARVEL COMICS: DAREDEVIL story with Eddy Newell because a) I wanted to make sure I still remembered how to do it, and b) Eddy and I wanted to show we could do it. However, I should point out that my plots are fairly detailed. They even include some dialogue.
I don’t have a strong preference for one method over another. I’m adaptable to the needs of the story, the needs of the artist, and the needs of the client.
Jamie: I know you’re doing a Daredevil one-shot. When is it coming out and what is it about?
Tony Isabella: It’s one of six “Marvels Comics” one-shots; these are the comic books published within the Marvel Universe itself. They come out at the end of May. Ours features a Daredevil unlike any you’ve seen. Eddy has done his usual magnificent best to make me look good. And that’s all you’re getting out of me.
I think that a reader spending $2.25 for a comic book deserves to experience all the surprises within that comic book first-hand and not after having already read about them elsewhere. I’m proud of this story; I want my readers to get all they can out of it.
Jamie: In the May edition of Gauntlet Magazine you tell a story about Jim Shooter nixing a Ghost Rider story you wrote which had some religious elements in it. Do you think he did that because he wasn’t religious himself?
Tony Isabella: I think he did it mostly because he could, although I was also told at the time that he was an agnostic and the story offended him. I think if you look at interviews from creators who were working at Marvel at the time–I left for DC shortly after he came on staff–you’ll see a picture of an arrogant guy who didn’t really know too much about the Marvel Universe. He certainly never grasped that he was trampling on the conclusion of a two-year story approved and supported by three previous editors.
Jamie: Do you have any other stories that didn’t make it to Gauntlet that you can share here?
Tony Isabella: I think I covered the Ghost Rider stuff pretty thoroughly in that article. As for other stories, heck, I’ve got lots of them…and if I keep writing a daily online column I’ll probably get to them all by next Thursday.
Jamie: Do you have any new work you can announce yet?
Tony Isabella: Sadly, no. I don’t like to announce stuff until I’ve finished it and been paid for it. I do have a project awaiting a contract, various proposals being looked at by various editors, and a number of characters and concepts I’m developing.
However, out on the stands now is the first chapter of the three- issue back-up serial I wrote for Claypool’s ELVIRA, MISTRESS OF THE DARK #83-85. It’s a little ditty called “Better Read Than Dead.” It’s sort of a parable for our times involving Elvira, a library bookmobile, and a censorious group called Protect Our Old People.
It was a very satisfying story to write.
Jamie: You’ve been doing daily columns at Tony’s Online Tips for a long time. Do you think your column is responsible for you getting your recent assignments?
Tony Isabella: I think it’s certainly helped. It keeps my name out there before the readers and those editors savvy enough to appreciate/understand online promotion. And it’s also been a useful tool for promoting the assignments I get.
Case in point: CAPTAIN AMERICA: LIBERTY’S TORCH, the novel I wrote with Bob Ingersoll. It had the best sell-through of any of the Marvel novels to that point; an impressive number of copies were sold through my website via Amazon Books.
Jamie: In your column, you are a big booster of Archie Comics. Why?
Tony Isabella: I honestly enjoy their titles. The late Frank Doyle was one of the best comic-book writers in the history of our industry. George Gladir has done many excellent scripts as well. And Craig Boldman has turned JUGHEAD into one of my favorite comics.
I also think the rest of the industry can learn a lot from Archie Comics. Their characters are among the most visible in comics and I’ve found their digest magazines in nearly every supermarket I’ve ever visited.
Their comics are wholesome reading for younger readers, though I’d like to see more variation in the body types and skin colors of the high school students.
Finally, Archie serves a segment of the comics-reading public that is generally ignored by all other publishers and most direct market retailers. I think they can attract new readers to our stores and to a lifelong love of comics.
Jamie: With Tony’s Online Tips, you do a lot of comic-book reviews. How many comic books get sent to you per week or month?
Tony Isabella: I’ve never kept a strict count, but it’s over 300 items a month. I try to read as many as I can, but I have to set aside some time to actually write the columns…and to take care of my kids…and to answer interview questions.
Jamie: What comics do you buy on a regular basis?
Tony Isabella: Very few. Mostly stuff I don’t get sent for free and off-brand titles that seem interesting. I do buy extra copies of everything I write because my relatives are much too cheap to buy copies for themselves.
Jamie: Okay, I’m going to spill the beans. You were the secret “Deep Postage” compiler of The X-Files letters pages for Topps Comics. I understand there were quite a few behind the scenes problems doing those comics. Can you tell us some stories about the problems you faced?
Tony Isabella: The basic problem was that whoever was approving the comics over in Chris Carter Land were the poster kids for anal retentiveness. Although it’s possible that they were so picky because they never wanted the comics out there in the first place.
The main reason the comics fell behind schedule was because it took so long to satisfy the X-Files people. They went over *everything* with a fine-tooth comb, including the letters columns.
After I had written a couple of letters pages, I started writing them 50-75% longer than Topps could actually fit into the issues. That way, after the X-Files folks made their cuts, Topps still had enough to fill the pages. This also saved me from having to return to completed columns and add additional material.
I rarely ran negative letters in these columns because the editors were afraid that the X-Files people would want even more changes in the material. Almost from the start, there were never enough useable letters for our needs. That’s why I started including the “Deep Postage” news items…and making up letters completely.
I also wrote the Xena letters columns, but those were a lot easier to produce.
Jamie: Do you know why Topps Comics stopped publishing comic books?
Tony Isabella: Given the market conditions, falling sales, and the difficulties in producing their best-selling title, which was The X-Files, the company opted to get out of comics for the time being. I hope Topps gets back into comics publishing in the future because they were a terrific client. They paid well. They paid fast. And the people I worked with were very professional.
Jamie: You are best known as the creator of Black Lightning. I was curious what kind of research did you do before creating him?
Tony Isabella: The first series didn’t require much research. Although it was somewhat grittier than other DC super-hero comics of the time, it was still fantasy-based.
The second series was much more realistic. I did research for two years before writing the first issue. I went to Cleveland’s inner city, interviewed all sorts of people, tutored gang kids, and did my best to get it as right as I could without losing the fantastic elements entirely.
Jamie: You have often said that another writer doing Black Lightning would be like crossing the picket line. Why do you feel that way?
Tony Isabella: I’ll try to make this short. I was unfairly fired from the title I created, a title on which I was doing the best work of my career. As far as I’m concerned, this is an ongoing labor dispute between myself and DC and will remain so until they do the right thing by me. Which the company will likely never do.
There’s a lot of history between myself and DC over my creation of Black Lightning. Promises that weren’t kept. The fabrication that the artist of the first series was a co-creator of the character. The failure to promote the use of the character outside the comics industry to any great extent. And so on.
Given all this, my position is that no one other than myself should write Black Lightning. I’m ready and able to write as many Black Lightning comics as DC is willing to publish. They need no other writers for this creation of mine.
Jamie: Some of your fans know you went through a serious period of depression, can you tell us about that?
Tony Isabella: I was diagnosed with clinical depression around the time I was fired from Black Lightning. I probably had it all my life, but it was that event…along with some personal problems in my life which shall remain personal…which triggered self-destructive behavior on my part and convinced me to seek medical help.
I got some therapy. I got some drugs. The first worked well, the second didn’t. Eventually, my therapist and I found other ways for me to deal with my depression. Being here for my kids was the most powerful motivating factor in my improved condition.
I’ll suffer from depression my entire life, but it’s an enemy that I know and that knowledge gives me power over it. There are more than a few graves on which I want to dance; I intend to live long enough to accomplish that modest goal.
Jamie: Outside of comics, you are running for the board of your local (Medina County) Library. Can you tell all the stuff you do that’s involved with that and how is it going?
Tony Isabella: One doesn’t run for a position on the board, one applies. When there are vacancies on the board, they are filled–alternately–by the Medina County Commissioners and the presiding judge of the Medina Court. I’ve applied for the last two openings and never got as far as an actual interview.
The Commissioners eliminated me because I had an agenda, which is to say I think the First Amendment is a good thing. The judge went with the typical political hack; God forbid he should appoint an average citizen to the board.
Currently, I have “divorced” myself from participation in library matters in protest of the board’s decision to put filters on some of the library’s computers. It was a blatant attempt to mollify the Medina Christian Coalition and didn’t even succeed on that base level. The cowardice of the current board disgusts me.
I’ve been exploring the possibility of legal action to overturn the board’s decision, but, without the assistance of the Ohio branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, that probably won’t happen. I don’t have the financial means or legal expertise to challenge the board without help…and the ACLU has turned down my every request for assistance.
I still support the ACLU. I know the organization doesn’t have the manpower to fight every battle. But it was very disappointing when they walked away from this one. Especially since they had gotten involved with library concerns previously.
Jamie: You were also a comic book store owner for a while. Can you tell us more about that?
Tony Isabella: Cosmic Comics was easily the most successful comics shop in the Cleveland area for nine of the eleven years I owned it. We had a full line of comics–the only store that did–and a good selection of magazines and paperbacks.
I enjoyed running the store and serving my customers, but I wanted to get back to full-time writing. Seven years into the gig, I was ready to sell, but my waste-of-oxygen attorney was never able to find a buyer who could actually afford to pay me even a fraction of what it was worth.
Unfortunately, Cosmic Comics lost its location…right on the heels of my suffering a considerable financial loss from my involvement with the International Superman Expo of 1988. The new location was so awful that I couldn’t hire or keep good employees. This led to an increase in employee theft and in shoplifting.
Add the afore-mentioned attorney, later disbarred from the practice of the law, albeit not soon enough to help me, and the store became a money pit for the last two years of its existence. I didn’t make a dime from it in those final years.
It’ll make a heck of a book someday. Might do for comic shops what Psycho did for motels.
Jamie: As a former editor, retailer and long-time freelancer, you have a wide perspective on the industry. What do you think needs to be done to improve it?
Tony Isabella: We must look beyond the Direct Sales Market, beyond the flavors of the month, and beyond the editors and publishers who have slim knowledge–creative or historical–of the comics art form. And we must stop pissing off the readers who have stuck with us for years and years waiting for us to get our acts together.
That and hire me a lot more often.
Jamie: I was wondering what your opinion is on current legal battles between Marvel and creators over the rights of characters, battles such as Joe Simon with Captain America, Marv Wolfman over Blade, etc…
Tony Isabella: I hope they win and win big. The comics industry has treated creators abominably since its earliest days. I’d love to see these guys balance the scales a bit. As far as I’m concerned, if the comics industry can only exist by treating its creators poorly, then it doesn’t deserve to exist one more day.
Jamie: Anything else you want to say?
Tony Isabella: Often readers ask why I’m not writing more comics. They ask the same question of many other comics creators as well. The answer, more often that not, is that editors and publishers aren’t hiring us. If they hire us, we will write and draw.
If readers want to see more comics by favorite writers and artists, by creators who aren’t this month’s flavor, they absolutely must do three things…
One. Let the editors and publishers know, frequently and politely, that you’re ready to give them your hard-earned cash for new comics by these creators.
Two. Actually buy the comics we do. Let’s suppose, for example, that MARVELS COMICS: DAREDEVIL #1 turns out to be the best-selling of the six specials. Odds are someone might figure Eddy and I had a little to do with that success…and that someone might hire us for more projects.
Three. Assuming you like the comics we do, write the editors and publishers and let them know you liked them and are eager to buy more comics by us. Tell your retailer you liked them and are eager to buy more comics by us. Tell your fellow readers you liked them and convince them to buy more comics by us.
Thanks. You’ve been a lovely audience. Don’t forget to tip the interviewer as you leave. He’s been working his way through beauty school and obviously needs all the help he can get.