Comic book legend Tony Isabella about comic & the superhero film genre
by rick olivares
It has been close to two decades now and the superhero genre that has become Hollywood blockbuster fare shows no signs of slowing down.
Some of the more popular films and web shows of recent times have been the Captain America trilogy starring Chris Evans in the titular role and the Netlfix series Daredevil, Luke Cage and the upcoming Iron Fist.
We spoke to American writer and comic book industry legend Tony Isabella who worked on all three characters including creating DC Comics’ popular Black Lightning character back in the 1970s. And we also discussed the comic book industry that has undergone massive change. The printed comic book, which used to routinely sell in the hundreds of thousands (there are a few that still do) have found competition in the form of trade paperbacks and web comics or downloads.
Although the 64-year old Isabella is done with his writing monthly books, he remains a respected voice in the industry as he still writes in his blog, Tony Isabella’s Bloggy Thing.
Here’s the transcript of the interview all the way from Ohio.
Rick: Hi, Tony. How are you?
Tony: Am all good.
Rick: Many of the books that you worked on, Power Man, Hero for Hire, Daredevil, Ghost Rider, and Captain America have gone on to become wildly popular especially with their television, web, and film versions making the characters household names. How do you feel about that considering some of them, like Misty Knight, are your own creations? What are your thoughts about the Luke Cage Netflix series, the upcoming Iron Fist, and the popular and well-received Captain America films?
Tony: I’m delighted to see these great characters reaching a new audience. I like all the Marvel Studios movies and TV shows, but the Luke Cage series has been my favorite of the latter. Marvel and Netflix were kind enough to invite Misty Knight co-creator Arvell Jones and I to the Harlem premiere of the Cage series. I was just plain blown away by Simone Missick’s portrayal of Misty Knight. I told her recently that her Misty has become my favorite version of the character and that includes the one I wrote.
Netflix’s Iron Fist series looks like it’s going to have one foot in the mystical side of the Marvel Universe. I’m intrigued to see how that will work on the smaller screen, having been showcased so magnificently in the Doctor Strange movies.
The Captain America movies? Captain America: The Winter Soldier is in the running for my favorite Marvel movie, but I’ve enjoyed all three of them. Cap is such a great character. I’m so glad that he’s being portrayed as a hero who inspired other heroes and who always tries to do the right thing, even when doing the right thing comes with a heavy cost.
Rick: At that time, you were heavily writing, you did a lot of African-American books and characters. Was that by design? In essence, they were and are groundbreaking. Can you share any anecdotes about these characters and how they came about?
Tony: I was into diversity before I knew that’s what it was. My first black friends were comics fans. I thought it was manifestly unfair that they weren’t better represented in the comic books we all loved. So, when given the opportunity to write black heroes at Marvel, I jumped at the chance.
Luke Cage came out before I started work at Marvel. I wrote/pitched an article about him to the editors at The Cleveland Plain Dealer. I worked there as a copy assistant. They turned it down because, a few months prior, they had run a full-page article I wrote on the Green Lantern/Green Arrow story wherein Green Arrow’s sidekick was hooked on drugs. They felt that was enough comic-book coverage for a couple years.
I was feeling my way with the black heroes at Marvel. I didn’t like that Luke Cage was an ex-convict and that Sam Wilson (The Falcon) was revealed to be a criminal. Had I written them longer, I would have cleared Luke and had him become a part-time college student. I did what I could for the Falcon. When I turned Bill Foster into Black Goliath - I wanted to call him Giant-Man, but, apparently, Hank Pym’s last series under that name had bombed. - I figured it was a step in the right direction. He was a scientist with his own small company.
Misty Knight was created because Arvell Jones and I wanted to get a strong black woman into the Iron Fist series...and because giving Danny Rand a partner would allow me to stop with those dumb second-person captions I hated writing. Now he would have someone to talk to, someone who would call him on his naivety as needed.
It really came together with Black Lightning. Creating Jeff Pierce all my lonesome meant I could give readers a black hero who would be a positive role model from the get-go. I still think my work on my second Black Lightning series is the best writing I ever did in comics.
Rick: The Champions was one of my favorite books when it came out. I loved that line-up! It was recently relaunched with younger characters like Ms. Marvel, Nova, etc. Have you read it? What are your thoughts on this younger roster?
Tony: I haven’t read it yet, but am looking forward to it. Some of the team members are among my favorites. Ms. Marvel is probably my favorite current Marvel hero. I love the diversity of the team.
While my country may have elected a racist, misogynist, xenophobe president with a vice president who is a woman-hating homophobe, I think the tide of history remains with the progressives. Our young readers are accepting of all kinds of people and reflecting that in our comic books is the right thing to do.
Rick: What comics are your favorites at the moment and why?
Tony: It could take all day answering that one. From Marvel, my favorite title is probably Ms. Marvel right now. From DC, I like a bunch of the “Rebirth” titles, even though I don’t understand what “Rebirth” is. At Dark Horse: Usagi Yojimbo, Lady Killer, Resident Alien. At Image: Chew, Postal, and Nailbiter. I read and enjoy a great many collections of classic and not-so-classic comics. I read many American and European graphic novels. I like the Disney comic books being published by IDW and featuring Disney comics from Italy and other countries. I like the Phantom comics from Australia. I also read a lot of manga, which my favorite series currently being the wild and wonderful Assassination Classroom. I like variety in the comics I read and each of the above are unique.
Rick: Although the films have brought wider acclaim and popularity to comic book characters, sales have declined. What are your thoughts with more people downloading and buying trade paperbacks as opposed to single comics?
Tony: Technology will out and there’s no escaping that. Looking at how much stuff I have accumulated over my life, I now download prose books onto my Kindle on a regular basis. Which I take with me on trips and such. It’s a convenient way to get/read books without adding to my accumulation.
My experiences with downloading comics haven’t been as successful, but that’s more because my Kindle isn’t ideal for that. Sooner or later, I’ll get a device that will serve my needs better and I’ll try again.
I love the feel of real books and comics. I love holding them in my hands as I read them. I’ll never stop buying real books and comics. But I will reduce my buying of them and enjoy some of them via my electronic devices. Especially when the creators get paid for these works. You have to think about tomorrow because it’s going to come whether you like it or not.