Sunday, April 10, 2016

Writer Interview: Tony Isabella

Tony Isabella
Tony Isabella is one of the most interesting comic book writers of the 1970s. He made his indelible mark on Marvel and DC as writer of such books as Ghost Rider, Daredevil, Power Man and Black Lightning. Looking back, Isabella’s work tends to stand out from the thousands of stories written in the last 40 years. While the costumes and slang of comics written in the ‘70s may be a bit dated, the themes and issues of his classic tales are not.

I spoke to Tony recently about aspects of his work on the just-released Marvel Masterworks: The Champions. This handsome hardcover compilation collects the entire Champions 17-issue series, as well as other books of the time in which the group guest-starred. The book is topped off with one of my favorite Marvel Annuals of all time, Hulk Annual #7, guesting Angel and the Iceman with Hulk against the Sentinal Master Mold. Taking place in Los Angeles, The Champions featured an odd assortment of heroes who ended up working well together: Angel, Iceman, the Black Widow, Hercules and Ghost Rider.

Isabella wrote the first seven issues of The Champions, then left for greener pastures as he explains below. The rest of the series, and most of the other reprinted stories, were written by the great Bill Mantlo.

Regarding Marvel Masterworks: The Champions:

Jerry Smith: In hindsight, do you wish you would have written about your original concept; the Angel and Iceman touring America, helping those in need? Or are you happy with the resulting book, based on the suggestions of editor Len Wein?

Tony Isabella: I would have preferred to have done my original concept and that remains my position to this day. While I wasn’t thrilled with the editorially-mandated expanded team, I was excited by the sheer challenge of making something out of these directives. I think that I did some good work on the series, though I remain disappointed by my failure to utilize my “heroes for the common man” concept. But, whatever the flaws or successes of what I did in the series, I am enormously gratified by the regard readers have for the Champions. I must have done something right.

JS: In issue #2, the “rulers of the dead” who make a deal with Hades are portrayed, including Mephisto and a standard Christian depiction of Satan. Marvel would never do that now. Was there ever any pushback from anyone due to depicting Satan himself in a comic story, or having Ghost Rider gain his powers from a literal deal with the devil?

TI: I’m sure there was some small bit of pushback when Son of Satan was introduced because of “Satan” being part of the title and all, but Ghost Rider was just the latest in a fairly long history of stories about humans making deals with the devil and finding out the Devil doesn’t play fair.

I never experienced any pushback on my work. When I introduced “the Friend” into Ghost Rider, I got favorable responses from ministers and other people of faith. It wasn’t until Jim Shooter changed my ending for that story that I received any negatives. I’ve spent a lot of time explaining to disappointed fans that Lurch Boy fucked with my story.

JS: Forgive the fanboy question, but in the early issues the Angel’s costume is god-awful. Did you mind it or ever try to get it changed? [In issue #8 the costume is shredded and replaced by a more attractive modern version.]

TI: Yeah, that was a bad-looking costume. My only defense—and it’s a lousy one—is I was so busy trying to launch the Champions and the Black Goliath and Tigra books that I never gave a thought to that costume. We probably just went with whatever costume he’d been wearing in his most recent appearance.

JS: In issue #5, a bystander in the story makes the statement, “Between L.A.’s smog and the Republicans, we’re all gonna flip out before long.” Today Marvel storylines are full of politics and political statements, but in the 1970s it was somewhat unusual. Did you get any pushback on that panel’s dialog from your editor or readers?

TI: I had political and social elements in my stories from the start. I had come to Marvel after three years working at the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. Before that, I was a minor volunteer for the first city council campaign of a young man named Dennis Kucinich. You might have heard of him.

Today, I would probably be attacked on Fox News, but, back then, I never received any blowback from the readers. However, when I wrote an issue of Power Man mocking planned communities, I did receive a phone call from the company whose commercials I had parodied in my story. They invited me to visit their community. I declined because I wasn’t sure I’d be coming back from that visit.

JS: Funny! If I may ask, why did you end up leaving the book after issue #7? In your introduction you mentioned “challenges at other publishers” were the reason for your departure.

TI: I hadn’t been happy at Marvel since Roy Thomas resigned as Editor-in-Chief. I found the company chaotic and frustrating, but didn’t have any options. Until I did.

Gerry Conway
Gerry Conway was Editor-in-Chief and offered me a contract to write 100 pages a month for Marvel, which was more than I wanted to do. At the same time, DC made me an offer to write and edit for them. Marvel wasn’t going to get any less chaotic and moving to DC struck me as an interesting challenge. I accepted the DC offer, but asked them to hold off announcing it until I could tell Gerry.

I let Gerry talk first. It turns out he didn’t have the 100 pages he promised me because he was bound to existing contracts with some other writers. He couldn’t even keep me on my current assignments. So he fired me before I could quit, thanking me for not making it any tougher for him.

I wasn’t concerned. I had accepted the DC offer. However, trying to do me a good turn, Gerry called DC to tell them I had been let go and recommending they hire me. In the fifteen minutes it took for me to walk from Marvel to DC, the original offer went away like the morning dew. It was a bad start to my time with DC, but that is a story that may yet have a happy ending.

JS: How close did you consult with Bill Mantlo on an intended direction for the book when you left? Did you care for the direction he took the storylines?

TI: I never consulted with Bill at all. In fact, some elements of my last issue were changed from what I had plotted and scripted. I didn’t learn about that until I saw the published issue.

JS: Are you surprised by the Marvel movie popularity of the Black Widow, a character whose backstory you expanded—not to mention making her leader of the Champions?

TI: I’m not surprised. The Black Widow’s solo series in Amazing Adventures showed me what a great character she was. When I wrote her out of Daredevil, it was because I felt the partnership wasn’t good for either of them. It made them weaker characters. So, when I was faced with adding a woman to my original Champions concept, she was my immediate choice. I knew from the start she’d become the team leader.

JS: I had never read these classic stories, but I really enjoyed them and would have liked to read more about the team. Why do you think the Champions broke up and the book only lasted 17 issues?

TI: I think the Champions never came together as I would have liked, despite some strong work by Bill Mantlo. It was a shaky time for the comics industry and lots of good books were cancelled.

People have asked if I’d like to write the Champions again. That’s not likely, but, if I did, I think I would come up with a team even stranger than the one I had. Just for the challenge.

Special thanks to Tony Isabella for taking his time to answer these questions. If you would like to follow Tony’s work online, check out his blog Tony Isabella's Bloggy Thing.

About Tony Isabella (from his blog): Tony Isabella is a four-decade veteran of the comic book industry. He is married to the lovely Barb and they have two great kids, Eddie and Kelly, both graduates of Ohio State University. 

To order a copy of Marvel Masterworks: The Champions from Amazon, just click here.


  1. Thanks for sharingetting Tony's answers!

    1. Aargh! Don't know what glitch caused that typo. Anyway, I do appreciate you interviewing Tony and posting the interview.

  2. No problem, Scott! Tony was great to work with, and answered all my nosey questions without reservation. A truly nice guy.

  3. Ran into him at the Gem City Con in Dayton a few weeks back. A great con!