I wanted to wish an early birthday to the super-talented comic book writer, critic & columnist Tony Isabella, who was born on December 22, 1951. I’ve enjoyed Isabella’s comic books since I was a kid. His straightforward, no-nonsense, yet slyly humorous observations on society & popular culture in his online blog and in the pages of the late, lamented Comic Buyer’s Guide are always informative & insightful.
Isabella started in the comic book biz in 1972 as an assistant editor at Marvel Comics. He also wrote a diverse assortment of Marvel titles in 1970s, among them Daredevil, Captain America, the “It, the Living Colossus” feature in Astonishing Tales, Monsters Unleashed, and Power Man. He co-created The Champions, and revamped the short-lived heroine The Cat aka Greer Grant Nelson into the popular Tigra in Giant-Sized Creatures #1. For a time Isabella was the regular writer on Ghost Rider. He intended to stay on that particular series longer than he did. Unfortunately, one of his issues was rewritten at literally the last minute by Jim Shooter, in the process derailing a significant ongoing storyline, and Isabella walked off the title in protest.
In 1977, Isabella created Black Lightning, the very first African American character to have a solo title at DC Comics. Paired with then-newcomer Trevor Von Eeden, Isabella wrote the first ten issues of the Black Lightning series. Also at DC, in the mid-1980s, working with artist Richard Howell, Isabella began a major Hawkman storyline. That’s when my young ten year old self first discovered Isabella’s writing. I discussed the interesting premise of that series in my recent blog post about Richard Howell. I think that Isabella was doing some good, suspenseful writing on Hawkman, and it is unfortunate that he departed the series due to a disagreement with editorial.
In the early 1990s, Marvel editor Jim Salicrup gave a number of interesting assignments to Isabella. These included a handful of issues of Web of Spider-Man, a trio of Rocket Racer short stories, and back-up stories for the 1990 Spider-Man annuals featuring Ant-Man and Captain Universe. Both of those tales were illustrated by the legendary Steve Ditko. In the Captain Universe story, the latest recipient of the Uni-Power was a two year old child named Eddie, named after Isabella’s own son. This delightful story also featured a cute nod to Ditko’s classic Gorgo and Konga comic books published by Charlton in the 1960s. (Isabella’s story is collected in the Captain Universe: Power Unimaginable trade paperback. Go get it!)
Salicrup became editor-in-chief of Topps Comics in 1992. Several of the titles published by Topps were based on some of the many previously undeveloped series concepts devised by Jack Kirby, and were referred to as the “Kirbyverse.” Among these was Satan’s Six, an entertaining four issue horror comedy miniseries which Isabella wrote.
In 1995, Isabella had the opportunity to return to Black Lightning, a character who he has said on numerous occasions has great personal significance to him. Working with the immensely talented artist Eddie Newell, Isabella wrote some amazing, emotional, moving stories. However, apparently due to some behind-the-scenes editorial shenanigans, Isabella was removed from the book after issue #8, and the series then sputtered to cancellation just five issues later. Despite this unfortunate turn of events, I definitely look back on those first eight issues by Isabella & Newell, as well as their ten page Black Lightning story in the DCU Holiday Bash II, as among the best mainstream material published by DC in the 1990s.
Isabella has also collaborated with fellow Comic Buyer’s Guide columnist Bob Ingersoll on several occasions. They co-wrote the Star Trek: All of Me special published by DC in 2000, a Star Trek novel, a prose short story in the anthology The Ultimate Super-Villains, and the novel Captain America: Liberty’s Torch. I enjoyed that last one. The book featured illustrations by Mike Zeck & Bob McLeod. In it, Cap is captured and placed on trial by a fanatical, ultra right wing militia that has accused him of betraying the country to minorities and foreigners. What was interesting about how Isabella & Ingersoll wrote the novel is that they never really reveal to us Cap’s own opinions are on all of these controversial issues. Instead of having Steve Rogers get on a soap box to offer a civics lecture, the authors pretty much leave it up to the reader to decide for himself or herself Cap’s views on globalization, immigration, taxes, and big government.
I was thrilled when Isabella recently had the opportunity to return to comic books and write the six issue miniseries The Grim Ghost, published by Atlas Comics in 2011. Isabella did really great work on the series, which also featured amazingly atmospheric artwork by Kelley Jones & Eric Layton. Regrettably, Atlas ended up having some distribution problems, and it took me quite a while to snag a copy of the final issue. That also seems to have prevented a trade paperback collection from being published. All that aside, it was a really good series, and it is well worth tracking down.
Looking back over Isabella’s body of fiction, as well as his work as a columnist, a great deal of his own viewpoints and opinions come out through his writings. Isabella definitely has an ultra liberal perspective. Nope, I am not jumping to conclusions, is says so right on his Facebook page, under Political Views: “Very Liberal.” I’m a bit more middle-of-the-road myself, and occasionally I’ll read something of his and think to myself “Whoa there, Tony, might want to rein it in just a little!” But I certainly respect the deep sincerity of his views.
He is also a very spiritual person. And not, I certainly must add, in a “If you don’t believe in God, you are going to Hell” sort of way. Isabella sees God as a loving entity, not a punishing one. His protagonists often find redemption and the strength to go on via their faith in a higher power, by resolving to do good and set aside their own inner flaws & defects of character. That is what Isabella was trying to do with the character of John Blaze, who had sold his soul to the Devil, within the pages of Ghost Rider, and why he was so angry when Shooter threw a monkey wrench into those plans. This is a theme that he returned to so effectively with the characters of Matthew Dunsinane and Michael Colavito in The Grim Ghost. The importance of casting off pride & resentment, and need to let go of the past, in order for each of these men to finally be free to escape from the purgatory known as the Fringe and find salvation, is one of the central messages of the series.
Something you may have noted in this blog post: Isabella seems to have had his share of clashes with editors at both Marvel and DC. I think that this is indicative of a man who is very principled, ethical and passionate about his work, and who is unwilling to let editorial, or the corporate types overseeing them, impose what he sees as unreasonable demands upon him. The comic book industry has innumerable examples of creators who have been exploited & abandoned by greedy, short-sighted corporate interests. So I certainly admire Isabella for standing up for himself and not allowing others to steamroll him.
I’ve been fortunate enough to meet Tony Isabella on a couple of occasions, first at one of the Big Apple conventions over a decade ago, and then at New York Comic Con in 2011. I later found out that those were the only two NYC conventions that he’s done in the last two decades! Talk about good timing. Both times I found him to be a very pleasant fellow. Having followed his comic books and columns for so long, it was a pleasure to meet him on those two occasions, and to have him autograph some of the books that he has worked upon.
Have a very happy birthday, Tony. I sincerely hope that there are many more years, as well as many more stories, to come for you. Keep up the great work.