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Nerdlocker Interview: Tony Isabella

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I’m from a small farming town in Northeast Ohio called Medina. It is located about 30 minutes south of Cleveland. It’s grown quite a bit since my childhood days, but the town itself is still quaint with under 30,000 residents. Needless to say, the pool of famous people to come from my home town is extremely shallow. To my knowledge, Ryan Dunn of Jackass fame holds the title of most famous Medinian (and shared the same exact birthday as myself). If you fit into an older demographic and/or are a racing fan, you may argue that’s it’s Bobby Rahal, but that’s an argument for another day.

As with most small towns, we have a local newspaper that I still check in on every so often called The Medina Gazette. Much to my surprise, I recently saw a great article about a very prolific comic book writer who lives in Medina (You can read the article HERE). His name is Tony Isabella. I could not believe it. Of particular note, Tony is well known for creating one of DC Comics first African-American superheroes, Black Lighting, which just happened to be one of the first comics I ever read way back in the early 80s. It is definitely a small world after all!

Obviously I had to reach out to Tony, who started his career on the fringes of the Silver Age of Comics, working with some of the legends like Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko to name a few and thrived during the Bronze Age on such titles as Ghost Rider, Captain America, Daredevil, Black Lighting, Hawkman and many more! I was thrilled to find him extremely amenable to my silly questions. So without further ado, Tony Isabella!

Artwork by Michael Netzer

Nerdlocker (NL): Tell us about yourself.

Tony Isabella (TI): I have been a writer since I was four years old. I’ve been writing professionally for over four decades. I live in Medina, Ohio with Barbara, my wife of thirty years and the pharmacist/manager of the home infusion program for a major health care company. We have two kids, both graduates of The Ohio State University who landed jobs in their chosen fields within moments of graduating. My son Eddie is a civil engineer in West Virginia. My daughter Kelly, who lives with us, works in theft prevention for a major bank. Our cat Simba makes sure I wake up no latter than five every morning and spends several hours a day in my office making sure I’m not goofing off.

Though most of my work has been in comic books, either writing them or writing about them, I’ve co-authored a couple of novels and done lots of other writing jobs. These days, my day job is ghosting for several newspaper comic strips and, no, I won’t tell you which ones because that’s not how ghosting work.

NL: Where do you find inspiration and what are some of your influences?

TI: Inspiration is everywhere. I read three newspapers every day and an assortment of comics, non-fiction books, novels and magazines. I spent too much time surfing the Internet. This has resulted in a bucket list of nearly 300 things I would like to write before I kick the bucket.

Decades ago, when I asked to name my influences, that list included Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Shakespeare, Ed McBain, Stephen King, Harlan Ellison, Dave Barry, Len Wein, Neil Simon, Robert Kanigher, Lester Dent and O. Henry. There were doubtless many other writers I didn’t think of then. Today, the list has grown, but I’m not consciously aware of influences. They are part of the mix that tumbles through my head when I write something.

NL: Where did you get your training and how do you continue to perfect your skills?

TI: I’m mostly self-taught. I learned to read at a young age by looking at the words when adults read comic books to me. I wanted to read them on my own and bypass the adults. My parents didn’t realize I could read until someone else told them I could read. It was much the same with writing. I wanted to express myself and learned how to do it before I started kindergarten. I used to be called to the principal’s office on a regular basis so that she could show me off to visitors. As if she or the school had anything to do with this little kid being able to read and write.

I like to think I improve – there is no perfect – my writing skills on a constant basis. When I find an impressive bit of writing, I’ll study it closely to see how the writer did what he or she did. When I’m ghosting for a cartoonist, I’ll study his or her writing style, the better to mimic it. It’s an ongoing process.

NL: When did you get your professional start writing?

TI: My first professional sales were to The Cleveland Plain Dealer and The Monster Times. The first was a daily newspaper whose bias was for the rich and the powerful. The second was a tabloid newspaper whose bias was for the awesome and monstrous. I had much more of an affinity for the latter.

However, before I sold anything or went to work for Marvel Comics, I wrote hundreds of articles, columns and comics stories for comics fanzines and apas. I contributed to my high school literary annual and, for the mercifully few months I was in college, to my college newspaper.

NL: How does a kid from Cleveland, Ohio find his way to the Nerdy world of comic book writer?

TI: From the moment I read Fantastic Four Annual #1 and had this great epiphany that making comics was a real job people got paid for, I wanted that job. My back-up plan was to be Clark Kent, but a couple years working as a copy assistant for The Plain Dealer soured me on that. Still…

The money I made at the PD allowed me to go to conventions around the country and meet comics professionals. When the paper went on strike and I had a near-encounter with the hoof of a police horse sent to break up our picket line, I called Roy Thomas to see what jobs – any jobs – might be available at Marvel. As it turned out, Marvel needed someone to work with Stan Lee and Sol Brodsky on the new line of British weeklies the company had just launched. That’s how I got my foot in the door.

My weekly salary was low. Almost everybody’s weekly salary was low. We compensated with freelance assignments. I started writing prose articles for Marvel’s black-and-white comics magazines and, within a short while, was writing actual comics stories for those titles and the color comics.

NL: What is your game day process, meaning when you start your day with a project, how do you get prepped/psyched to write?

TI: I get up when my cat wakes me up. I feed her and then I go online to post my blog, read my e-mail, check out my Facebook page, visit a dozen or so websites for comics and other news, read those three newspapers I mentioned earlier and then, now fully awake, I start writing. The above takes me around two hours.

Most of my current gigs don’t take me long to complete. Columns are a couple of hours each. The comic-strip stuff runs anywhere from an afternoon to three days. Occasionally, I have a gig that occupies me for three or four days.

Since I usually have a few different jobs on my desk at any given time, I’ll work on the one due soonest. If I get hung up on a part of it, I’ll switch to another job until my head is clear enough to go back to the first job. Once I start working, the hours sort of fly by. I’ll look at the time on my screen and suddenly realize, to my surprise, that I’ve been working for several hours without any breaks. That’s when I take a break, grab something to eat and watch a TV show or movie.

I try not to commit myself to more work than I can actually do in the regular course of things. It’s less stressful for me and less stressful for my clients.

NL: What’s your favorite nerd related snack? (like what do you munch on while playing video games, reading comic books, watching movies, writing, etc…)

TI: I mostly snack while I’m writing: Goldfish crackers and Traditional Chex Mix while mainlining Wild Cherry Pepsi. I don’t eat or drink while reading comic books so that my chi will be pure when I review them in my blog. I never play video games on account of I’m better at all other ways of wasting time.

When I’m the only one home, I usually eat my meals while watching movies or recorded TV shows. If I’m not having a meal, I am often tempted by fresh crusty bread and non-crusty cheese.

NL: Who are some of your favorite writers?

TI: Besides those writers already mentioned, I’d add Max Allan Collins, Frank Doyle of Archie Comics fame, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Joss Whedon, J. Michael Straczynski, John Layman and too many others to list if I want to answer the rest of your questions.

NL: Who is your favorite character to write?

TI: Jeff Pierce (Black Lightning). In a better, more honest, more just comics industry, I would write Black Lightning stories for the rest of my life.

NL: What character that you’ve never written, would you like to?

TI: When I was younger, I could have given you a long list in response to this question. These days, being so much more cognizant of what I could and couldn’t do with characters owned by corporations, I am far more interested in going my own way. If there’s something about an existing character that interests me, I can always concentrate on that “something” and build an original character around it. I’m not against working on characters belonging to others, depending, of course, on the terms of my employment, but it’s not anything I think about. Oh, sure, I might read a particularly bad take on a character and think I could do better. Or read an intriguing take on a character and think it might be fun to play with it. But I’m not anyone the big companies are going to pursue or even consider hiring – too old and crabby, I guess – so I don’t spend much time or energy thinking about such things.

NL: Who are some of your favorites comic book artists?

TI: Yes, I could start listing my favorite comic book artists, but will Nerdlocker still want to publish this interview in 2024? Because that’s how long it would take for me to name them.

I can stay that it was a thrill to work with the artists who, with Stan Lee, shaped the Marvel Universe of my youth: Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Don Heck and Dick Ayers. I generally refer to them as “The Big Four.”

I did quite a few comic books with Frank Robbins and I cherish the fun I had scripting from his pencils and his friendship during the years when we were both living in New York City. He was a terrific artist and writer.

Of living artists I’ve worked with, the ones I would most like to work with again are (in alphabetical order): Richard Howell, Kelley Jones, Will Meugniot and Eddy Newell. Those guys are my modern-day Big Four.

NL: How has the comic book industry changed over the years of your involvement?

TI: I could write a book trying to answer that question. It’s bigger, but there’s more room for smaller publishers and self-publishers. It’s meaner, especially when you look at the disrespect with which publishers treat creators, but it’s also friendlier thanks to the Internet. It was once possible for me to know or at least know of almost everybody working for the half-dozen companies around when I started. Now there are thousands of creators in this country I have yet to discover and many more in other countries. I have the odd day when I wish I was still a bigger player in it and many more days when I’m glad I am not. It’s more chaotic and more wonderful than I ever imagined it would be.

For some time now, I have said that this – right now – is the real “Golden Age of Comics.” Comics fans have access to some of the best and not-so-best comic books of the past. They have access to great comics from around the world. The range of great new material stuns me. I could spend all my days reading comics and never live long to read everything I’d like to read.

Nothing pisses me off more than fans who are stuck in their youth. There’s nothing wrong with revering the comic books you loved when you were twelve. But if you only read and reread those comics, you are doing yourself and this art form a disservice.

NL: Star Wars of Star Trek?

TI: Star Trek. Less religious claptrap, more logic and science. Also, Trek is more connected to our time and offers more hope we won’t make ourselves extinct.

NL: What do you do in your free time?

TI: I love being with my wife and kids and friends, but our schedules make those times way too rare. We try.

I watch cheesy monster movies, which I blog about so I can pretend I’m working while I watch them. I watch The Daily Show, The Colbert Report and way too many dramas featuring cops, detectives, horror, science fiction and super-heroes. I also watch The Big Bang Theory and The Simpsons.

I’m two years into a seven-year-plan to reduce my Vast Accumulation of Stuff to the point where I can call it a collection again. This involves comic-book garage sales during the summer and those can be fun. Are you seeing a pattern here?

I enjoy my work so much that it’s as much fun for me as just about any entertainment. Some people would consider that madness, but I think of it as a blessing.

NL: Give us a Nerdy secret that most people don’t know about you.

TI: I go to comics conventions in disguise as Zatara. When I see people I dislike, I curse them while speaking backwards.

“Marc ti, cd scimoc!”

NL: What is your favorite movie?

TI: The Quiet Man with John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara. It’s a wonderful tale of redemption that is equal parts comedy and human drama. It has that incredible Irish scenery and O’Hara, who, in this film, is the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen in the movies.

It’s Always Fair Weather is my second favorite movie. It’s about three World War II buddies who vow to reunite in ten years. Because of their own shortcomings, their reunion isn’t the happy occasion they were expecting. But their friendship sees them though and they are better for reuniting. It’s a great musical with great dancing, great songs and a wild barroom brawl.

NL: What is your favorite video game?

TI: I don’t play video games. Ever. I don’t even have solitaire on my computer anymore. Just not my thing.

NL: What is your favorite comic book or comic book character?

TI: My favorite comic-book of all time is Fantastic Four Annual #1 for the impact it had on my life. My favorite character is the afore-mentioned Jeff Pierce. My second Black Lightning series featured my best sustained writing ever.

NL: What are some of your upcoming projects?

TI: Besides the comic-strip work I can’t talk about, I’m kind of sort of a script doctor on The Garfield Show comics albums published by Papercutz. These were originally published in France and taken from the frames of the cartoon show. My job is to restore as much of the original Mark Evanier scripts as possible and do whatever else it takes to make the stories more entertaining for comics readers. I find the work challenging enough to be fun and I get to work with friends I cherish like Mark, editor Jim Salicrup and letterer Tom Orzechowski.

I’m also trying to make time to work on those bucket list I talked about earlier. I’m so eager to get to these projects that I may cut way back on the comic-strip work.

NL: Is there a question you’ve always wanted to be asked, but have never found the opportunity?

TI: I don’t think that I’ve ever been asked this question before. Well played, sir. Well played.

NL: Thanks! I saw that one in a Mad Magazine I read a very long time ago. Couldn’t help myself.

And there you have it folks, Mr. Tony Isabella. I can’t remember having this much fun working on an interview, so I really hope we can return with Tony Isabella, Part 2, The Sequel To End All Sequels! Stay tuned.

In the meantime, as Tony stated, he continues to write on his blog, which I highly recommend you check out – http://tonyisabella.blogspot.com/.

If you are in or around Medina, Ohio this coming weekend (September 26 – 28), you’ll definitely want to stop by Tony’s Vast Accumulation of Stuff garage sale! Check his blog for more details.

Please connect with Tony on Twitter – HERE to get his latest updates.

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I'm a true child of the 80s from a small town near Cleveland, Ohio. My all time favorite topics are Star Wars, slasher films and Cleveland sports (despite the misery it causes). I narrowly avoided law school, instead choosing film school. I have been accused of being a walking IMDB, but I take it as a compliment!