Tony Isabella is an American comic book writer, editor, actor, artist, and critic, known as the creator and writer of Marvel Comics’ Black Goliath; DC Comics’ first major African-American superhero, Black Lightning; and as a columnist and critic for the Comics Buyer’s Guide.
How did you get started in comics?
I had learned to read and write from comics by the age of four. Though I always loved them, it wasn’t until I read Fantastic Four Annual #1 in 1963 that I realized making comics was an actual job and it was a job I wanted. From there, I taught myself how to write comics. I corresponded with editors and writers. I acquired some actual comics scripts. I wrote stories for comics fanzines. I became a fan known by comics professionals. Eventually, at a time when I wanted to make a job change – I was working for a Cleveland newspaper at the time – Marvel Comics had an opening for someone to assist Stan Lee with the British comics weeklies and other things.
Roy Thomas hired me. I moved to New York two weeks later. That was the start of my comics career.
What was it like working for Marvel in the 1970s?
Challenging, creative, fun and stressful. The stress came from those dreaded deadlines and the challenge from trying to make the best comics under often ridiculous conditions. It was creative because Roy Thomas moved Marvel into new areas and encouraged the writers and artists to up their individual games.
The fun? Getting to work with Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Sol Brodsky and so many other legendary comics people and also with great talents of my own generation.
What was the biggest difference between DC and Marvel, as you’ve worked for both?
Understanding that I’m speaking of the 1970s because I’ve not worked in the offices of either company since then, Marvel was more creative and fun while DC was more rigid and stodgy.
You’ve created quite a few characters. Which one did you enjoy writing the most?
Black Lightning. Jefferson Pierce is the creation who means the most to me and who means a lot to a great many readers. I’ve often said I’d be thrilled to write Black Lightning stories until the day I die.
Do you think your environment, where you live, has an effect on the type of stories you create?
I grew up middle class and street level in Cleveland, which is why I am most drawn to those kinds of stories. For the past 37 years, I’ve lived in the city of Medina, Ohio, which is way way too Republican for me and way too white. So, more than ever, my stories promote diversity, inclusion, and progressive themes.
Is it easier for you to create if given an assignment or does it get in the way of your creativity?
That depends on a lot of factors. These days, I do my best to avoid taking on assignments that don’t inspire me or that will be micro-managed. I do my best work when I have editors who want to help me tell my stories better. I’m not a fan of editors who want the writer to tell their own stories. As for my creativity, there’s not a day that goes by without me coming up with at least one good idea for something. I doubt I’ll live long enough to see all those ideas produced or published.
You’ve also written novels and screenplays, not just comics. In what medium, do you think you’ve achieved the most with your writing?
Definitely comics. I’m a novice at screenplays. I’m really just starting to learn how to write them. The novels I have written with Bob Ingersoll have turned out very well, so I’m eager to solo on one soon. But comics writing comes most naturally to me and it’s where I shine.
What have you written that you’re most proud of?
Black Lightning: Cold Dead Hands, a six-issue series that was supposed to reboot Black Lightning for modern times. Followed closely by my mid-90s return of Black Lightning.
What was the oddest thing you’ve ever been asked to do in your writing career?
Hands down, it was when a perpetual Hollywood starlet asked me to write a Tigra movie in which she would play the character. I was intrigued, but she kept dodging my questions about what I would be paid. She sent me boxes of photos of her in various states of undress. She said I could move into her tiny Los Angeles apartment, which was so small we’d have to share her bed. She mentioned that a few times. Somewhat slow on the uptake, I eventually realized she was offering to have sex with me while I wrote that script. How desperate do you have to be to think sleeping with the writer will get you anywhere. Anyway, I declined her offer.
What projects are you working on now?
I haven’t been very productive for several months now, due to various health issues. My lifelong depression got pretty bad in this time of the pandemic, right-wing terrorism, and general frustration with the comics industry. However… I’m getting back to work. There are a number of projects that I’ll be working on. Some comics. Some non-fiction books. Some movie and TV development. I’m hoping those fall into place quickly enough for me to make some announcements come fall.