Happy birthday to Tony Isabella

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.

Ghost Rider 7 cover

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.

Captain Universe TPB pg 135

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.

Satan's Six 1 cover

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.

Grim Ghost 6 cover

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.

Black Lightning 5 cover

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.

Happy birthday to Richard Howell

I want to wish a very happy birthday to comic book creator Richard Howell, who was born on November 16th.  Not only is Richard a fantastic artist and a talented writer, but he is also a genuinely nice guy who I have had the pleasure of meeting on several occasions.

Looking back, I probably discovered Howell’s work when he was penciling Tony Isabella’s great Hawkman stories.  The two of them collaborated on the four issue Shadow War of Hawkman miniseries in 1985, which was followed the next year by a special and then an ongoing series.

Hawkman Special cover

Isabella had a great conceit for his storyline: Hawkman and Hawkwoman discovered that their fellow Thanagarians were covertly invading Earth. Unfortunately, Carter and Shiera Hall were forced to combat this infiltration completely on their own.  The Thanagarians possessed a device called the Absorbacon which enabled them to read the minds of anyone on Earth (the Hawks were immune because they were also from Thanagar).  So there was no going to Superman or the Justice League or anybody else for help.  Their only ally came in the unlikely form of their old enemy the Gentleman Ghost, who took it as a challenge worthy of his larcenous talents to “steal back” Earth from the Thanagarians (being dead, presumably they were unable to read his mind).  As a ten year old kid, I found this set-up majorly chilling & spooky, the idea that Carter and Shiera were seemingly all on their own, everyone else on Earth was compromised, and their one source of assistance was an untrustworthy villain.

Unfortunately, Isabella departed the ongoing Hawkman title with issue #7 due to disagreements with editorial, and his successor wrapped up the invasion storyline in a rushed, unsatisfactory manner.  Nevertheless, the work that Isabella & Howell did do together was really great.  Howell really showed his versatility, rendering the Kubert-designed Hawks with their combination of high-tech & primitive weaponry, the science fiction designs for the Thanagarian invaders, and the supernatural aspects of the series.

Vision Scarlet Witch 1 cover

Around this time, Howell was also over at Marvel, penciling the twelve issue Vision and the Scarlet Witch series written by Steve Englehart.   This took place in real time, which meant that we saw Wanda get pregnant and, in the last issue, give birth to twin baby boys.  Unlike some, I was never terribly bothered by the notion that Wanda used magic to conceive children with an android.  (I was quite annoyed when a few years later John Byrne did a major retcon, wiping the twins out of existence, but fortunately Allan Heinberg eventually reversed this and brought them back into being as super-powered teenagers in the pages of Young Avengers.)

Howell did some really great work on this series.  The wide range of guest stars that popped up enabled him to render a significant portion of the Marvel universe.  A few years later, Howell again had the opportunity to draw the Scarlet Witch in the four chapter serial “Separate Lives” which ran in Marvel Comics Presents #60-63.  He also wrote, lettered, and colored the entire story, demonstrating he was a man of many talents.  Between that story and his work a few years earlier, I thought that Howell drew one of the most all-time beautiful, sexy depictions of the Scarlet Witch.  Years later, when I told him that, he modestly responded “It’s not difficult drawing a beautiful woman who was visually created by Jack Kirby and then developed into a star by Don Heck.”

Another group of characters who Howell drew really well were the Inhumans.  In addition to drawing their appearance in Vision and the Scarlet Witch, Howell penciled a “Tales of the Inhumans” short story written by Peter Gillis and inked by Sam De La Rosa which saw print in the back of Thor Annual #12, of all places.  I just found a copy of that comic about a year ago.  The splash page by Howell & De La Rosa is gorgeous.  Howell also penciled & colored a double-sized Inhumans Special written by Lou Mougin published in 1990 that delved into the history of the Royal Family immediately prior to their first appearances in the pages of Fantastic Four.  Vince Colletta inked that one and despite his tendency to do rush jobs, especially in his later years, Howell said he was generally satisfied with how the art turned out.  If you want to check it out, that Inhumans Special was just reprinted by Marvel in a trade paperback along with their 1988 graphic novel written by Ann Nocenti.

Inhumans backup Richard Howell

In the 1980s, Howell also drew All-Star Squadron, the Green Lantern feature in Action Comics Weekly, various profile pics for Who’s Who, DNAgents, and his creator-owned Portiz Prinz of the Glamazons.  That last one first originated as a self-published project in the late 1970s.

Howell did some work on Vampirella for Harris Comics in the early 1990s.  He then co-founded Claypool Comics with Ed Via in 1993.  I first found out about Claypool several years later.  As I’ve mentioned before, I used to see artist Dave Cockrum quite often at conventions & store signings.  When I asked him what he was currently working on, he told me he was penciling Soulsearchers and Company for Claypool.  Since I loved Dave’s artwork, I had my comic shop order the current issue, which was #30.  I read it, and thought it was awesome.  The series was a supernatural comedy written by Peter David, with co-plots & edits by Howell.  I was soon following Soulsearchers and Company on a regular basis.

Claypool also published three other series.  There was the twelve issue Phantom of Fear City, written by Howell’s old collaborator Steve Englehart, Elvira: Mistress of the Dark, an anthology featuring the campy, vampy horror hostess, and Deadbeats, a dark vampire soap opera written & penciled by Howell, with rich embellishments by Argentine illustrator Ricardo Villagran.  Howell acknowledges that Dark Shadows had an influence on Deadbeats, and series actresses Kathryn Leigh Scott, Nancy Barrett & Lara Parker have each written introductions for the three trade paperbacks.

Deadbeats Learning the Game cover

It took me a while to get into Deadbeats, simply because I’ve never been a huge fan of vampires.  This was around the time that Interview With A Vampire and Vampire: The Masquerade were really popular, and I just thought the whole notion of the undead as these refined, romantic, aristocratic beings was so annoying & pretentious (you can just imagine what I think of all that Twilight nonsense nowadays).  And so I unfortunately assumed that Deadbeats was more of the same.

However, corresponding with Howell via e-mail, he wore down my resistance, and I finally picked up the first two TPB collections, “New In Town” and “Learning The Game.”  And I have to confess I loved them.  Yes, the vampires in Deadbeats were super-sexy (both the women and the men, got to give Howell points for fairness) but most of them were unabashedly evil, committing brutally violent killings in their quest for fresh blood.  There were also a few morally conflicted members of the undead, as well as some who had relatively benevolent agendas, such as the vampire king Hermano (no relation).  There was also a really interesting cast of humans who were batting against the vampires of Mystic Grove, led by teenage couple Kirby Collier and Jo Isles.  Anyway, once I was done with those two TPBs, I started following Deadbeats with issue #50.

One of my favorite covers from Deadbeats is #53, penciled by Howell, with lush inking by Steve Leialoha.  I don’t know who did the coloring, but it looks fantastic.  One of the subplots in Deadbeats concerned Kirby’s long-lost father Adam arriving in Mystic Grove and recruiting vampire hunter Dakota Kane in an attempt to track down the mysterious bat cult that had kidnapped his wife years before.  It turned out that sultry lounge singer Countess DiMiera, currently performing at Mystic Grove’s popular social spot the Bat Club, was a member of that secret society, as well as a conduit for their dark deity, Murcielago the Bat-God.

Deadbeats 53 cover

I really loved Howell & Leialoha’s depiction of the sinister songstress on that cover (in hindsight, she might have reminded me of a more wicked version of Howell’s Scarlet Witch).  I asked Howell to let me know if he ever wanted to sell the original artwork.  He responded that he typically held on to all of his originals.  But a few years later he was kind enough to do a really nice sketch of the Countess and her disciples for me.  You can view that, and a few other beautiful pieces he has drawn for me, on Comic Art Fans:

http://www.comicartfans.com/gallerydetailsearch.asp?artist=Richard+Howell&GCat=60

Unfortunately, due to low sales, in 2007 Diamond Distributors decided they would no longer carry any of Claypool’s titles (this is the kind of thing that happens when you are stuck doing business with a monopoly).  Deadbeats, Soulsearchers, and Elvira were all canceled.  Since 2007, Howell has continued the Deadbeats story as an online comic at the Claypool website.  I’m glad he’s been able to do that, but I really hope that one of these days he has the opportunity to collect those installments together in print editions.

As you can see, Richard Howell has had a very diverse career, during which he has written and drawn some amazing comic books.  I really enjoy his art, and I hope to see more from him in the future.  Happy birthday, Richard.  Keep up the great work.