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for Thursday, August 30, 2007

Earlier this summer, I was contacted by the editor of a church youth magazine in the Philippines. He wanted to "raise the bar" of the magazine by adding interviews to it and he specifically wanted to interview "a Christian comic writer who [was] not afraid to show their faith in their work in a non-preachy sort of way." He'd read online interviews with me on the subjects of Ghost Rider and Black Lightning...and thought I'd suit his purpose. While his choice of me will doubtless horrify some, I welcomed the opportunity to reach out to believers and readers in another land...and did my best to answer his questions honestly and respectfully.

Here's the interview.

Ghost Rider 9

When did you start writing comics and how did you get started?

I started writing amateur comics in my early teens, thanks to meeting two Cleveland comics fans my age who could draw my stories. We never published these comics, but we did send them to Marvel Comics as a token of appreciation for the great comic books they were making. This was in the mid-1960s. A few years later, I was writing comics stories for Carl Gafford's Minotaur fanzine, and shortly after that, in fall, 1972, I moved to New York City to work for Marvel Comics.

My first pro comics-writing sales were to The Monster Times, a tabloid published in New York, and to Chamber of Chills, one of Marvel's color comics. My first Marvel script was a disaster and I feared I might never get another assignment from editor Roy Thomas. But then I ghosted a non-Marvel script for another writer and that writer very kindly told Roy that I'd done a terrific job for him. After that, I started getting more writing from Marvel and had a good four-year-run with the company.

Which comics that you wrote are you most proud of?

First and foremost, Black Lightning. I'm also very fond of my work on Ghost Rider, Hawkman, and Satan's Six.

How did you come up with the character of Black Lightning? What was he intended to be? Describe the character as you created him.

That's a long story, which has been told many times. The short version is that I'd been working toward creating a new black super-hero who would be an iconic role model. The other characters I'd written along the way were stepping stones to Black Lightning. I created Jefferson Pierce to be a reluctant warrior, a man of many extraordinary talents who would hear the call of his community and respond to it, even at great cost to his personal happiness. When DC Comics planned to publish a black hero who was actually a white racist, I talked them into dumping that character and going with my creation instead.

How do you feel seeing other people write your character?

I'm fine with others writing Black Lightning when they are faithful to my vision of my creation.

How has your faith, in retrospect, influenced your work?

I was raised a Roman Catholic, but consider myself a liberal Christian, much as I believe Jesus would be if He were living in our time. The concept of "fairness" - of equality - is important to me. It's something we should all strive for in our lives and in the world around us. So, if the Devil or Satan or whatever shows up in comics, then there should be representation for God as well. Super-heroes should reflect the diversity of our world, including heroes of color, of different faiths, of both sexes, of different sexual orientations, of varying countries of origin, of divergent political views, and so on. Striving for fairness is a cornerstone of my work.

My faith is what Jesus has put in my mind, heart, and soul. Truth be told, I'm not a Bible-worshiper. While the Bible and the holy books of other faiths may be useful tools for believers, they were still written by flawed men and reflect the attitudes and agendas of men throughout the ages. Clinging to them, making them the be-all and end-all of one's faith, puts God in a secondary role to men and that's just wrong.

As I like to put, Jesus kept it simple for us dummies: love Him and love one another. It's men who make it complicated by trying to make that love exclusive rather than inclusive.

Tell us about the whole Ghost Rider two-year arc with The Friend that was intended to be Christ?

I'd written myself into a corner. My friend and fellow Marvel writer Steve Gerber made a half-joking suggestion that only God could save the Ghost Rider at that point. Since I felt there should be a heavenly presence in Marvel Comics to offset all of the Satan doppelgangers, I embraced the idea. I liked how it played in that first issue and the fans were overwhelmingly positive about it as well, so I ran with it for two years.

Unfortunately, as has been reported elsewhere and frequently, Jim Shooter, then the number-two editor at Marvel, took offense to the final issue of the arc, the culmination of a storyline approved by three editors before him. The issue was finished and ready to go to the printer when Shooter pulled it and redid several key pages. In his twisted version, the Friend was revealed to be just another demon and trick of Satan. It was an ending that made no sense in light of the previous years of the comic and disappointed fans have been asking me about it ever since.

How were you planning on depicting Ghost Rider accepting Christ? Could you tell us how the series would have gone if there weren't any changes forced on your story?

I wasn't going to be a big obvious deal. Johnny Blaze would have accepted the Friend's hand and Satan would have no power over him after that. He would've chosen to keep his Ghost Rider powers because of the good they could do.

After that, both the Friend and Satan would've been gone from the book. You'd have seen Johnny walking the walk, but not making a big deal about it. He and Roxanne would have gotten married and had kids. He'd be helping people when he could. I'd probably have shown them going to church on occasion. But it wouldn't have been him shouting "I'm Christian!" in the middle of battles.

I wrote an arc intended to take the Ghost Rider book away from the supernatural and towards the super-heroic. My main obligations there were to entertain readers and sell comics. I believed those obligations were met.

Do you think stories like those could still happen today?

Yes, but they would have to be exceedingly well told and they would have to avoid the extremism of the religious right. I would welcome comic books that took their inspiration from the diversity, generosity, and acceptance embraced by our Savior.

Do you think that it is possible today to get a writing job at a comic company while being vocal about your Christianity?

Editors and publishers have all sorts of reasons for firing or not hiring writers. Some of them are stupid, some of them are near criminally stupid. But if a writer is good enough and they think his work will sell, they won't care if he worships Jesus or Crom. That said, let me also state that there's a time and a place to be vocal about one's Christianity. The quality of your work is your sales pitch, not your religious beliefs. I rather be hired because I'm a good writer, not because I'm a Christian writer or an Italian writer or a dashingly handsome writer.

Do you have suggestions for letting faith influence one's work without it becoming too preachy or "Sunday School"?

Story first, message second. They can be equally important to one's work, but, unless the story is good, the readers won't stay around long enough to hear the message.

What are your suggestions for writers who want to become published writers?

Write, write, write...and then submit your work to people who can pay you for it. Repeat as necessary.

One thing you should never do is send your work to me or guys like me. Only editors and publishers can buy your work. Not to be too cranky about it, but when writers send me their work, I delete it or throw it away unread. On advice of my attorney.

I know you wrote comics back in the day, but what are you doing now?

My "day job" is doing some writing for one of my favorite comics creators, but you'll likely never see my byline on what I'm writing. Which is okay by me because I'm having fun, because I'm getting paid very well, and because I'm being treated with far more respect than is common in the comics industry. I continue to write columns and other material for COMICS BUYER'S GUIDE.

Up until recently, I was also writing material for a vast array of business and political clients. But I think I'm done with that now as I return to the work I love best...creating and writing comics.

When I have something to report on that front, you'll find it in my TONY'S ONLINE TIPS columns

Who are some Christians in the comic business today that you know about?

It's not for me to say who is and isn't Christian. Two of the best, most noble, and, though they hate when I tell them this, most Christian men I know consider themselves atheists. Are they gonna be surprised when they're welcomed into Heaven!

Who are the comic writers/artists that you admire?

The list of comics writers and artists I admire is too long for any interview. But the writers, comics and otherwise, who have had the greatest influence on me include Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Harlan Ellison, Lester Dent, Neil Simon, Ed McBain, Dave Barry, Max Allan Collins, and William Shakespeare.

What are the things that influence/inspire you to write?

Life and my experiences living it in the world around us...not to mention my own finely-tuned sense of right and wrong.



All week long, we've been running Peanuts-inspired strips and editorial cartoons. Here's the finale...

From November 22, 2006, we have Tank McNamara by Jeff Millar and Bill Hinds:

Tank McNamara

TOT reader Tom Duffy sent Tim Richard's Brewster Rockit from December 20, 2006:

Brewster Rockit

Mark Tatulli's Lio is one of my favorite comic strips. Here's his strip from March 27 of this year:


Finally, here's Stephan Pastis' Pearls Before Swine strip from April 20:

Pearls Before Swine

I have lots more "Comics in the Comics" in my files. Heck, I could probably do a month just with Superman and Batman references. Look for those comics and more in future TOTs.



Back in May, visitors to the Tony Polls page were asked to pick their favorites of nominees for the Comics Buyer's Guide Fan Awards. We ran the results of some of the categories earlier in the week. Here's the rest...

Of these COMICS BUYER'S GUIDE Fan Awards nominees, who would you pick for Favorite Comic Book Letterer?

Richard Starkings and Comicraft.....34.55%
Todd Klein.....32.73%
John Workman.....18.18%
Chris Eliopoulos.....14.55%
Jeff Eckleberry.....0%

I voted for Todd Klein, but I very much like the work of all the above. CBG's readers picked Jeff Eckleberry.

Favorite Comic Book Cover Artist?

Alex Ross.....44.26%
Adam Hughes.....31.15%
George Perez.....24.59%
Joseph Michael Linsner.....0%
Scott Christian Sava.....0%

I cast my vote for Alex Ross, who is on the short list of artists I'd maim an editor to work with. The surprising winner of the CBG Fan Award was Scott Christian Sava.

Favorite Comic Book Story?

52 #1-34: various story titles.....36.54%
Fables #50: "Happily Ever After".....34.62%
Civil War #1-6: "Civil War".....15.38%
Infinite Crisis #2-7: various story titles.....11.54%
Claws #1-3: "Claws".....1.92%

I'm unforgivably behind in my reading of Fables. Thus, flawed ending and all, I voted for Civil War. CBG's readers voted for "Happily Ever After."

Favorite Comic Book?

Amazing Spider-Man.....15.38%
Mouse Guard.....3.85%

I voted for Amazing Spider-Man because no Marvel title showcased the human suffering and totalitarian horror of Civil War better. The CBG readers agreed with me.

Favorite Original Graphic Novel/Album?

Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall.....36.96%
Lost Girls.....30.43%
Pride of Baghdad.....21.74%
Dreamland Chronicles.....6.52%
Halo Graphic Novel.....4.35%

I didn't vote in this category because the only nominee that I had read was Pride of Baghdad, which is an excellent book. CBG's readers picked Dreamland Chronicles.

Favorite Character?

Captain America.....28.07%

With one obvious exception, this was a close race. I could've voted for any of the top four and felt good about my choice, but I went with Spider-Man. So did CBG's readers.

Favorite Comic Book Publisher?

Dark Horse.....6.67%

The word "favorite" in these awards gives me a lot of leeway in deciding how to vote. Eliminating the company that has failed to live up to their agreements with me was easy, as was voting for the company that keeps sending me checks. So I cast my ballot for Marvel and, doubtless for reasons of their own, so did CBG's readers. But I do have a big heart, so I'll also express my love for Dark Horse, spunky and always surprising Image, and the solid citizens of Archie Comics. As for DC, the light is always on and my capacity for forgiveness is nigh-boundless.

I'll have more Tony Polls results for you in the near future. In the meantime, you can vote on the current questions by heading over to:

Thanks for spending a part of your day with me. I'll be back soon with more stuff.

Tony Isabella

<< 08/28/2007 | 08/30/2007 | 09/04/2007 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Message Board. Also, read Heroes and Villains: Real and Imagined.

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Zero Tonys
ZERO: Burn your money before buying any comic receiving this rating. It doesn't *necessarily* mean there's absolutely nothing of value here - though it *could* - but whatever value it might possess shrinks into insignificance before its overall awfulness.

ONE: Buy something else. Maybe I found something which wasn't completely dreadful in the item, but not enough for me to recommend it when there are better comics available. I only want what's best for you, my children.

TWO: Basic judgment call. I found some value, but not enough to recommend it. My review should give you enough info to decide if you want to take a chance on it. Are you feeling lucky today, punk? Well, are you?

THREE: This denotes something I find perfectly respectable. There are better books out there, but I wouldn't regret buying this item. Based on my review, you should be able to determine if it's of interest to you. Let the Force guide you.

FOUR: I recommend anything earning this rating. Unless you don't like the genre, subject matter, or past work of the creators, I believe you'll enjoy this item. Isn't it uncanny how I can look right into your soul that way?

FIVE: Anything getting this rating is among the best comicdom has to offer. You should buy/read this, even if the genre/subject matter doesn't appeal to you. It's for your own good. Me, I live for comics and books this good...but not in a pathetic "Comic-Book Guy" sort of way.

Please send material you would like me to review to:

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