There was something of a minor controversy in the comics world in July, after Bleeding Cool picked up an Instagram post from comic artist Trevor Von Eeden and added commentary to it. The post in question was a photo of a check, which Trevor described as his payment from the Black Lightning TV show. Bleeding Cool reported their assumption that this check must also be indicative of Tony Isabella’s proceeds from the show. Naturally, Tony had something to say about that. I reached out to him just prior to Comic-Con and recorded an interview with him on the subject and related topics. Here’s a transcript of that conversation.
Jim MacQuarrie: Bleeding Cool has amazing inventions, I hear?
Tony Isabella: (laughs) That’s one way to put it. Uh, shoddy, irresponsible journalism is probably a better way to put it.
Jim: Okay, the TMZ of Comics, perhaps?
Tony: Oh, really, don’t insult TMZ that way.
Jim: Okay, so let’s see if we can straighten this out, and the fans have some idea of what actually happens in things like this. I don’t know where to start… I’ll just trust you to tell me at this point.
Tony: Well, I guess I do share information with Trevor Von Eeden from time to time, because we have been friends. And one of the reasons that when I wrote the new credit line as part of my agreement with DC Comics, I included Trevor, and the official credit line is “created by Tony Isabella with Trevor Von Eeden,” and that was meant to be ambiguous. As Trevor knows, I do not consider him a co-creator of Black Lightning. I consider him the primary designer of the costume, but there’s no getting around the fact that elements of that costume were designed by Bob Rozakis, Joe Orlando, and myself. So he’s not the sole designer of the costume. But knowing that Trevor had sprained his wrist recently, and I had just received a check from DC—and I won’t go into what that check covers, because that’s between me and DC Comics, just as it should have been between Trevor Von Eeden and DC Comics—but the fact of the matter is, the characterization that that check was my payment for my participation in the TV show, is erroneous. And although I got a rather snarky little note from Rich Johnston telling me that Trevor had every right to share the check with them, which, again, I think was irresponsible of Trevor to do that and for Bleeding Cool to publish it, the fact of the matter is that if they had characterized their story as “this is what Trevor got paid,” they still would have been wrong, okay, they still would have been wrong, but it wouldn’t have involved me. But the various headlines said “this is what the creators of Black Lightning got.” And as the creator of Black Lightning, I can tell you that from the headline on, that’s erroneous.
Tony: It’s hard, I mean, I understand that Bleeding Cool, which at its start, actually did some decent, helpful reporting on things like Rick Olney, who was a con-man from the New York area…
Jim: I was up to my eyeballs in the Rick Olney thing…
Tony: Yeah. Well, he [Johnston] did good work at that point. Bleeding Cool has pretty much degenerated into clickbait, gossip, and, what I find most offensive, this whole idea of “let’s you and him fight,” which Wimpy used to say in the Popeye strips.And so I have not had anything to do with… I wrote off Bleeding Cool long ago, I cut out Rich Johnston from anything long ago, and this was a case where, there’s the article… I put out a statement on my blog because there’s so much to cover with this whole creator compensation, what people often incorrectly assume is creator compensation, and it can never be reduced to simplistic terms, as Bleeding Cool tried to do. These are complicated agreements, relationships between creators, such as myself, and publishers, and the TV shows—they’re always going to be complicated, there’s so much more to them than meets the eye, and I’m not going to go into specifics on my agreement, but, like most agreements, I didn’t get everything I wanted, DC Comics didn’t get everything they wanted, and that’s a basis for a good solid agreement, it’s give-and-take. Is DC gonna be a hundred percent happy with everything I do and say? Probably not. Am I gonna be a hundred percent happy with everything they do with Black Lightning? Probably not. But there’s still a basis for that agreement, it’s an agreement that I think has worked well for both myself and DC Comics. I’ve done stuff behind the scenes, some of which I’ve been able to talk about, I mean I did write the “core values” paper for Black Lightning before they had hired anybody for the TV series, before they knew there was going to be a TV series, when Salim and Mara Brock Akil were hired as showrunners, and they are awesome beyond belief. We had a long, long phone conference in which we discussed so much about Black Lightning, and very early on it was clear to me that whatever minor differences there might be between my current version of Black Lightning, which of course is a younger unmarried man living in Cleveland, and their version of Black Lightning, the same core values drive both my comic book work and the TV show. Salim flew me out to meet with the writers last July, and I spent like six hours in the writer’s room, and I’ve written about this in my blog, it was an incredible experience. I came away from that feeling really confident that this was going to be a great TV series, and a TV series that I could be proud of.
Jim: It’s a solid show. It’s really good.
Tony: To me, I always knew Black Lightning could be a TV series. When I created this character, my intent, and my dream, and my belief, was that he would take DC’s Big Three of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, and turn it into the Big Four. And to this day, on my watch, when I can control it, you will never, ever, ever see Black Lightning being subservient to another superhero. He’s a headliner, he’s not a sidekick.
Again, these are complicated issues, creator credits are not as simple as people would have them. The standard now is that the writer and the artist who first wrote and drew the character are considered the creators; that might be a convenient credit, if not necessarily a historically accurate credit. For example, the Aquaman credit says “created by Paul Norris.” That is absolutely false. Aquaman was created by Mort Weisinger and Paul Norris. DC had an agreement with Paul Norris, they had no agreement with Mort Weisinger. And one of the reasons to get these historic credits, even if for business reasons you have what has now become the standard, of “first writer, first artist,” that’s not historically accurate. Editors have created characters. Writers have created characters and then had them designed by art directors, and then an artist comes along and the characters have already been designed. There are times when an artist creates a character.
Jim: I’ve personally seen, like Kurt Busiek does his little character sketches and gives them to Brent Anderson or Alex Ross, and says “here’s the character,” and so do they get a co-creator credit because they cleaned up his drawings and made them pro quality?
Tony: You know, and if they do, and if Kurt’s okay with that, I’m okay with that. As I said, my aim, I wanted to make sure Trevor got money from Black Lightning, which is why when I wrote the credit line of “by Tony Isabella with Trevor Von Eeden,” it was intentionally ambiguous. When I appear at a convention, I do not let the convention refer to me as the co-creator of Black Lightning; it’s always going to be the creator of Black Lightning, but that assured Trevor of getting income such as he did in the check he so foolishly shared with Rich Johnston.
Jim: Right. I think he actually posted it on his Instagram for some reason.
Tony: Yeah, and that was a breach of trust, it was a breach of, um, my personal…. because Bleeding Cool specifically linked that check with my compensation, it became an invasion of my privacy.
Tony: And so that’s why I spoke out against it as strongly as I did. I will be writing about creator credits in the future, because I write a near-daily blog, so I write about lots of stuff. And when somebody takes Black Lightning in a direction I’m not comfortable with, I’ll certainly be writing about that. But the main thing is, I don’t want people to look at that Blee — well, they shouldn’t look at Bleeding Cool and believe it in the first place—
Jim: Even just, if Trevor Von Eeden, who I’ve never met, posts that on his Instagram or Twitter or whatever, there’s a whole lot of context that’s missing, in terms of what’s that check for, what period does it cover, what’s excluded, what’s included….
Tony: I can tell you, without getting specific, what’s excluded. What he posted just shows the amount. It doesn’t show the breakdown of how that amount was arrived at.
Tony: And I cannot speak for Trevor, but, I mean, I get my payments electronically, but I also get a copy in the mail, and what I get has the breakdown. So I know exactly what that amount represents, and it does not represent what either Trevor or Bleeding Cool represented it to represent.
Jim: See, that was my assumption, that we weren’t getting the story, ’cause I’ve seen, over the last 20 years that I’ve been paying attention, that we’ve had the internet, a whole lot of amateur armchair copyright lawyers and attorneys-without-degree who want to pontificate about who should be getting what and how much money “Stan Lee stole from Jack Kirby” or “how greedy the Kirby estate was” to try and claim their money, or my friend Ken Penders is currently getting raked over the coals over the whole Sonic the Hedgehog issue ’cause he had the temerity to ask to get paid, and they generally don’t know what they’re talking about.
Tony: Almost never.
Jim: Which is the source of this entire story.
Tony: Yeah. My take is, there are creative differences that I know nothing about. I love, you know, Stan Lee was my first boss, a mentor, and is still a friend. Jack Kirby was a friend. I love both those guys equally. When people try to do a whole “Lee versus Kirby” thing, well, they usually leave out Larry Lieber, who scripted some of these stories, but the fact is, here’s my take on that: “Were you in the room?” And if you weren’t in the room, you’re just speculating. I don’t care how knowledgeable you claim to be, I don’t care that “oh, I talked to Stan, he said this,” “I talked to Jack and he said this,” you weren’t in the room, so you don’t know.
Now, when it comes to Black Lightning, I was in every room. I was in the room when I pitched the character to DC, before anybody at DC knew anything about Jefferson Pierce or Black Lightning. I was in the room when the costume was designed. I was in the room. So I know what I’m talking about.
And one of the issues that I will be discussing, because I think it’s important, we live in a time where we have millions of comic book fans who don’t read comic books. Because they’ve come to the comic books from the movies and the TV shows, and we haven’t quite figured out the way to get those millions of fans to buy and read our books. And that’s partially the problem because the comics industry and the convention industry are not giving creators their proper due. Without Jim Starlin, there is no Avengers: Infinity War. Without Don McGregor and Reggie Hudlin and Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and Christopher Priest, there is no Black Panther movie. Without Mike Grell, there isn’t Arrow. And without Tony Isabella, there isn’t Black Lightning. Without Trevor Von Eeden, there’s still Black Lightning. But without Tony Isabella, there is no Black Lightning. And this is why I think guys like Starlin, and Grell, and Don McGregor, and Priest, and Reggie Hudlin, and of course Stan Lee… well, Stan Lee already is treated as a celebrity… all these other creators should be treated as celebrities too. They should be treated at least as good, but probably treated better, than say, Zombie Number 3 from Walking Dead, who shows up at a Wizard World and gets 50 bucks for his signature on a photo. You don’t have these movies without these guys. You don’t have Ant-Man without, the current version of Ant-Man without David Micheline. And just right down the line, you don’t have most of the X-Men movies without Chris Claremont. And you certainly don’t have Cloak & Dagger without Bill Mantlo, you don’t have Rocket Racoon without Bill Mantlo, and as I said, right down the line, you can look at these movies, and I love these movies, I’m so excited that we have them, I just think that creators, the comic creators who made these movies and TV shows possible, they should get more money. And they should get more respect, and they should be treated as the celebrities they deserve to be. Because it all stems from the comic books. And until the comics industry and the comics conventions start treating the creators that way, we’re not going to be able to bridge that gap between our comic books and the millions of fans of our comic books who aren’t currently buying our comic books.
Jim: I think it serves the publishers’ interests to have the creators’ names buried way down in the back credits rather than, say, J.K. Rowling’s name across the top of every Harry Potter book and movie.
Tony: I mean I understand the difference between a primary creator and an auxiliary creator. I’m quite happy to be listed in the “special thanks” credits of the Luke Cage show and the Defenders show and now Ant-Man and the Wasp. That’s fine, I’m satisfied with that credit, but I’m also very glad that my name is at the front of Black Lightning.
Jim: And that’s as it should be.
Tony: Because I’m the primary creator of Black Lightning.
Jim: It should be above the title, frankly.
Tony: And one other thing, because I can’t blame this on Rich Johnston, although God knows, y’know we could go on all night with things that could be blamed on Rich Johnston and his merry band of yahoos… this idea of, fans will say publishers are only doing things because they legally have to, or publishers are doing things out of the goodness of their heart, that companies are doing things out of the goodness of their hearts, here’s the thing to remember: corporations don’t have hearts. Corporations have never had hearts, they never will, they’re not people. But within those corporations, there are good, decent people, the people who arranged a special showing of Guardians of the Galaxy for my friend Bill Mantlo in his care facility; the people at Marvel who have invited me to the Luke Cage premiere, to the Ant-Man and the Wasp premiere, to special screenings of Luke Cage and the Defenders, and have made it possible financially for me to attend these events. I will tell you, Marvel Comics has always kept its agreements with me. They’re not legally obligated to bring me out to these things. They do so. I think it’s good for business. But it’s also something that comes out of the goodness of their hearts. So while I’ll certainly agree that corporations don’t have hearts, that corporations do things for legal reasons, I will never discount that there are people working for those corporations, often in high places, who do do things out of the goodness of their hearts, who are good people, who try to share the wealth, who try to give comics creators at least a taste of what their hard work has brought forth.
Jim: I totally agree, and I’ve heard many stories of people in executive positions going out of their way to give people creator credit that they didn’t have to legally, or give them a financial arrangements that they didn’t have to, we can name names if we want… I think, looking at what Rich Johnston reported, he was trying to play up, I think, the idea that the studios and networks are screwing over the artists again, look how little they’re getting, this show’s raking in the millions, and you guys are getting four-figure payments and gee that really sucks, but outside of context…
Tony: I think you’re giving Johnston too much credit. I think it’s more a case of “let’s you and him fight.” Here’s the evil DC Comics, here’s the creators, and they don’t even like me. (laughs) So it’s not like Rich Johnston is my champion.
Jim: No, he’s looking for a controversy.
Tony: It’s just “let’s you and him fight,” it’s just basically writing about stuff he knows nothing about. When has Rich Johnston created anything that’s appeared on TV or in the movies? He doesn’t have any idea what he’s talking about.
Jim: I think he wrote a comic once, I don’t know that it was successful.
Tony: Well, I know he’s written a few comic books, but there’s a difference between writing a comic book and creating something that lives beyond the comic book.
Jim: Exactly. It’s totally 100% he’s got to fill the website on those days when there’s not a Rick Olney to go after. He’s got to manufacture controversy, because controversy sells, “if it bleeds, it leads,” let’s start a fight. I totally agree there. I wonder, looking at fan reaction, I haven’t really paid a whole lot of attention to the fan reaction, the comments, I didn’t read the comments section, because that way lies madness.
Tony: That’s probably a good way to go. Every time I read the comments sections, I always end up regretting it.
Jim: I think it breaks down to the two polarized sides, “those damn greedy creators are trying to take away my comic books because they want money” or conversely, “the evil corporation is screwing the creators again,” and no middle ground, and no understanding of what the contracts are or what they entail or how this number was arrived at. I’m wondering if some of the perception plays off of the fact, well, this is me as a fan saying “I’m still pissed that 30 years ago DC screwed you on Black Vulcan.”
Tony: I have a theory on, I have a philosophy on some of this stuff… and it’s basically that there’s only so much hate I’m capable of processing at any given time. And right now my quota of hate is pretty much taken up by the Trump administration.
Jim: Lot of that going around.
Tony: So I really don’t have time to be upset about Black Vulcan anymore. I do still manage to be a little bit upset about Jim Shooter screwing over my Ghost Rider ending; I’ll never be thrilled with the way I got dumped off the second Black Lightning series; but y’know, I can only spend so much of my time hating anything. And as I said, Trump and his people more than take up that percentage of my time that I have to waste on this sort of stuff, so I’m over the Black Vulcan thing. I still think that every time Black Vulcan is used anywhere that I should get paid, but it’s not going to be a big issue for me.
These past few years, I’ve been treated with great respect by both DC and Marvel, I may not get everything I want, but I will say that when I was doing the Black Lightning: Cold Dead Hands miniseries, which I think is the finest work I’ve done in comics, it was a gutsy, up-to-the-moment series, and nobody at DC flinched. And that was despite the fact that the usual alt-right Nazi idiots were attacking it, and that’s just going to happen, it’s a polarized country, but DC didn’t flinch. I got to tell the story I wanted to tell; it’s my story, my editors, Jim Chadwick and Harvey Richards, never tried to make it their story. Their work was always to help me tell my story better. And they did. They gave me probably the best notes I’ve ever received in comics, they were never carved in stone. Sometimes I made changes based on their notes; sometimes I explained to them why I wasn’t going to make the changes. But nothing that was changed in Black Lightning, other than in the second issue, for some reason, Standards & Practices wouldn’t let me use the word “ass.” Despite the fact that it had been used in the previous issue; I didn’t get any “black ass,” I didn’t get any “lame ass,” didn’t get any “punk ass,” and when I started sending notes to Standards & Practices basically with headlines like “Tony Wants Ass,” they started to realize that I would embarrass the shit out of them if they pulled that on me again. And after that, everything was fine. Because really, the language I was using was not anything different than what you’ll see at 8 o’clock on TV. It was nothing you wouldn’t see on the CW shows, or hear on the CW shows, I should say.
So no, I’ve had a great couple of years here, I hope they continue, I hope there’s more Black Lightning in my future, I hope there’s more interesting projects in my future. I’m currently writing a book called Black Lightning and My Road to Diversity, which will cover the entire Black Lightning story, plus dealing with early black creators in comics that nobody notices, and just, y’know, how we got to where we are today, where we have this wondrous diversity in both the characters and creators of characters, something that I think has enriched our industry, and has certainly enriched my enjoyment of the industry. I’m always going to have projects out there. I’m waiting to see if a local filmmaker is going to get the million-dollar grant we’ve applied for so that we can make my first movie. I would be the writer of the movie, obviously, but also be a producer of the movie, and will hopefully, because the budget will allow for at least some SAG actors, and certainly there are actors that have appeared on an episode or two of Black Lightning that I would certainly love to work with, as well as actors who have worked on the cheesy sci-fi movies that I love so much. So we’ll see. There’s always something going on with me.
And I try not to get too involved with controversy, though it does seem to follow me around, but this was a case where, again, Trevor’s posting of that check was certainly not something that only affected him. And it was foolish of him to do it. And then of course Rich Johnston jumping on it the way he did, and misrepresenting it even further than Trevor did, I just felt I had to say something about that.
Jim: So the takeaway then, is (a) the check does not accurately reflect anybody’s actual compensation, presented devoid of context….
Tony: I’m not going to say that about Trevor, because it’s not my place to say that about Trevor; I will tell you it doesn’t accurately represent my compensation.
Jim: Okay, and it being presented out of context is misleading at best.. and basically all the news we’ve gotten on this is manufactured controversy.
Jim: You’re happy with where you are with DC, DC’s happy with where you are, the show’s awesome, everybody is on the same page. [Note: since this interview, something went down with DC that may have altered this state of affairs. We’ll try to do a follow-up.]
Tony: We’re as happy as anyone is going to be in a give-and-take situation. Am I 100% happy? No. Are they 100% happy? Probably not. I’m not going to speak for them, but probably not. And that’s life. That’s business. That’s even creativity. But I am happy. And I’m pretty sure they’re pretty happy with me.
Jim: And you don’t need somebody else on some website trying to start a fight for you for clickbait reasons?
Tony: Yeah. And I know that’s going to happen. I know that there are these websites that that’s what they exist for. And there are websites that only focus on one narrow part of the industry. Me, as I said, the wondrous diversity of our industry, with creators, with characters, with types of comics, I mean, this is a dream come true for a guy who started reading comics when he was four years old. So 63 years into my life as a comic book reader, and I think comics are better than they’ve ever been. There’s more variety, there’s more different types of comics, and I couldn’t be happier, and I don’t think we need the negativity. I mean, sure, when something is wrong, definitely speak out about it. But trying to manufacture wrong, when you don’t have all the facts, and when you’re just trying to get a few extra clicks on your website, to me, that’s wrong.