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Monday, February 16, 2004

 

Tony Isabella -- There aren't many people that have seen as much comics history as Tony Isabella, or who are so generous in sharing their experience and wisdom. Here he answers the Five Questions.

Your recent statements about Black Lightning seem to inflame a certain underinformed segment of the online comics community. Given the murky nature of many contractual questions in the comics community, and the enormous inequity between publishers and creators, what would you like readers to know when it comes to the issues, both as they apply to you, and in general?

Iíd like the readers to know that creative issues are not always or even often the cut-and-dried ďwork-for-hireĒ which publishers make them out to be. Iíd also like them to realize that they do a great disservice to creators and their creations when they attribute some sort of parental benevolence to those publishers. Both creators and publishers are looking out for their own best interests, but I believe the interests of the readers are better served by creators than by corporations.

As for how the issues apply to me personally, a quick Google search will doubtless bring readers more information than can possibly be good for them or me. Iíve answered questions over and over again, and answered them honestly. If some readers choose to disparage me as a result, so be it. I knew that was a distinct possibility when I went public.

What's your fondest memory of working at Marvel and/or DC over the course of your career?

I canít narrow it down to just one.

Getting to work with Stan Lee at the start of my comics career was a youthful dream come true and I still remember the first time that he complimented me on some turn of phrase in something Iíd written.

As an editor, it was thrilling to give first or early assignments to writers and artists who then went on to have long and fruitful careers.

I once had a fellow writer come up to me and tell me that a scene Iíd written in a comic book spoke directly to the problems he had been having in his life and that my ďadviceĒ helped him get through those problems.

My Black Lightning writing, especially the second series of stories I did with Eddy Newell, remains something of which I am very proud, no matter how much DC shafted me in the process. My first series of BL stories inspired at least three readers to become teachers. It doesnít get much better than that.

I got to work with many of my comics heroes and became good friends with several of them. Developing SATANíS SIX with Jack Kirby gave me a chance to get to know him and Roz a little better near the end of their lives. If I could get a laugh out of Jack, I knew I was doing my job well.

This subject could be an entire interview in itself. For all that the comics industry does to demean, diminish, and destroy creative talents, I donít regret devoting my efforts to it. I entertained a great many readers, made some good friends, and achieved enormous satisfaction from my work.

What's your least fondest memory about working in the so-called "mainstream?"

The day I got fired from BLACK LIGHTNING, the second series, by Pat ďthe RatĒ Garrahy...and the weeks that followed.

I donít want to go into much detail, but I was angry and depressed for months afterwards. There wasnít a person at DC who hadnít come to realize that hiring Garrahy had been a terrible move on the part of the just-promoted Mike Carlin. I was shocked that Paul Levitz and the other executives upheld my unjust dismissal...because they had admitted to friends of mine that they knew it was an unjust and unwarranted dismissal. Against all fairness and logic, they held to the company line that you had to back editors over freelancers, even knowing that Garrahyís career as a DC editor was going to be relatively short. As it was.

To add further insult to the injury, I quickly learned that every editorial door at DC was closed to me. They circled the wagons in support of an editor - Garrahy - who most of them neither liked nor respected. It was absolutely insane, especially since, again, many of these editors were telling friends of mine that they thought my dismissal was unjust. It was a bad time for me.

I still get angry and even depressed about that stuff from time to time, but those are momentary lapses of mercifully short duration. Iíll talk about it when I feel I must, but I donít expect anyone at DC to make it right...or to even recognize that they should make it right.

That would be the quickest way for DC to get rid of me once and for all. If they tried to make it right, the shock would probably kill me. And then theyíd probably take out a nice ad in COMICS BUYERíS GUIDE mourning my loss. Cynical, arenít I?

One more thing. I only answered this question because youíre a pal of mine. However, having answered it, I must now make my doubtless futile attempt to ward off the usual online idiots...

Yes, I have personal grievances against DC Comics. Those personal grievances are not as important an issue as DCís mistreatment of so many of its minority characters or the mainstream comics industryís mistreatment of creators. If you have a quarter of a brain in your heads, youíll realize that.

Dismiss me as a bitter old crank if you must, but donít allow that to be the end of your discussion of those issues. I'm no good at being noble, but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of one writer donít amount to a hill of beans in this crazy industry that demeans its characters and their creators. Someday you'll understand that.

What's your assessment of the current state of the comics industry, in regard to its treatment of creators and in general?

In the interest of keeping this answer from becoming a book, Iíll define comics industry as the traditional DC/Marvel/Dark Horse/etc comics industry.

Certainly SOME creators are being treated well, some because they are the flavors of the month, and some because they keep producing successful (as defined by the diminished expectations of the 2004 market) comics. However, it should be noted that continued success is, by no means, proof against abrupt termination. Look how many great writers and artists of the past two decades canít get work, not because their efforts didnít sell as well as those of the newer kids, but because editors and publishers perceived them as being old-fashioned and of no interest to the readers. Not that the editors and publishers have much of a clue as to who their readers are and/or where they will find new readers.

I miss the days when one editor would work with one writer and one artist to create great comics. Even with three storytellers, there was a clarity and a unity to the comics. These days, creatively, it seems to be all group-think and mimicry. Manga is selling, so letís clumsily weld faux-manga stylings to our classic characters. We oughta be in pictures, so letís write our comics as if they were screenplays and cast aside some of our best and most unique ways of telling stories. We canít just let comics be comics; they have to be like something else.

Keep in mind these are generalized comments as per your question. There are still some brilliant editors and even publishers in this industry. But, overall, I donít believe the skill levels of comics editors and publishers have kept pace with the skill levels of the better creators. Iíd even characterize this situation as a crisis, one which hampers seasoned veterans and promising newcomers alike.

Earth-2 died for nothing.

As for the current state of the industry in general, how sad is it that we practically orgasm when a comic book sells the hundred thou copies which comics routinely sold in decades past? Weíve lowered our expectations as weíve raised our prices.

American comic books, especially most of the periodicals, are not a good value for customers. The minimalist storytelling styles now in vogue mandate mediocre stories stretched to fit as many issues as will fill a trade paperback. I completely understand the long-term importance of those collections, but these stories should be good and rich enough to justify six or eight issues instead of the collection being used to justify the six or eight issues. Many of them arenít.

American comic books can overcome the value gap by either being so satisfying the customer feels heís getting entertainment equal to what he pays for them...or by offering him as many pages-per-dollar as he can get from SHONEN JUMP or manga collections. Creators and editors have to be better and more productive.

American comic books can also stop repeating themselves endlessly. The multiple Batman/Spider-Man/X-Men titles are stealing sales from each other and from titles that could otherwise be a healthy second tier for the publishers. How many Spider-Man/Doctor Octopus mini-series and specials can we reasonable expect to sell in the couple months the second Spidey movie will be in general release? Why do we think successful movies based on comics will sell those comics when theyíve almost never done so in the past? And why am I asking the questions when Iím the interview subject?

What are your creative plans for 2004?

Iím counting on every editor and publisher in the industry calling me with offers of work once you post this interview.

Failing that, my plan is to create new characters and tell stories with those characters. Iím currently developing three comics which would kind of fit into the genres of super-hero, horror, and crime. When I complete the first scripts and series bibles, Iíll shop them around to various publishers.

Once these properties fail to sell as comic books, Iíll rework them into novels and/or screenplays. Because I think it will be a lot more cost-effective and time-effective if I can get rejected three times with the same properties.

In addition to my comics writing plans, I have signed to write my weekly ďTonyís TipsĒ column for COMICS BUYERíS GUIDE through 2004. Iím also working towards getting my ďTonyís Online TipsĒ columns to post every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday at WORLD FAMOUS COMICS. Humble though these venues may be, the relationships are among the most satisfying and supportive of my career. I hope they continue for many years to come.

I should also mention that Bob Ingersoll and I are eagerly awaiting sales reports on STAR TREK: THE CASE OF THE COLONISTíS CORPSE. If this ďSam Cogley MysteryĒ of ours is successful, it could turn out to be the first in a series of Sam Cogley mysteries. Since we had a blast writing the character and crafting the ins-and-outs of this sci-fi whodunit, and since we received wonderful encouragement and support on this novel from our editors and publisher, we would love to go back to the future and do it again.

Keep up with Tony's opinions by reading his long-running Online Tips column, and stop by his message board to say hi.

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