June 27, 2016

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Local comic book writer Tony Isabella was taught by the best at Marvel

Comic book men drawn in different directions

Tony Isabella and Tom Batiuk have a lot in common. As children, they both remember a family member reading the comics to them. As teenagers, they both had a fascination with comic books and spent long hours creating characters and writing comic book storylines. They both published comic strips, magazines and books. These are the stories of two Medina County residents who followed the same passion down two very different paths to national success.
This is Tony Isabella’s story. To read Tom Batiuk’s story, click here.
Medina resident Tony Isabella has written for Marvel and DC Comics. Some of his creations include Black Lightning for DC and Misty Knight and Tigra for Marvel. (NANCY JOHNSON / GAZETTE)

Medina resident Tony Isabella has written for Marvel and DC Comics. Some of his creations include Black Lightning for DC and Misty Knight and Tigra for Marvel. (NANCY JOHNSON / GAZETTE)

You may not recognize Tony Isabella if he walked past you at Buehler’s. But the Medina resident is somewhat of a superhero, albeit in Clark Kent garb.

Like Clevelander Jerry Siegel, co-creator and writer of the Superman series, Isabella is a comic book writer with a long list of credits to his name.

Isabella created Black Lightning, DC Comics’ first African-American superhero with his own title. He also created Marvel’s Tigra and Misty Knight, known as Iron Fist’s sassy sidekick.

“I based the character on Pam Grier,” he said.

Growing up in Cleveland, Isabella remembers a relative reading comic books to him when he was a toddler.

“I can’t remember if it was my mother or my aunt who read to me, but I do recall the comic books: Superman, the Presto Kid, who was a Western character who defeated the bad guys with magic tricks. I paid attention and studied the words. I wanted to be like Tarzan of the Apes, who taught himself to read by studying his parents’ journals.”

A 1963 trip to Oneonta, New York, to visit relatives fed 11-year-old Isabella’s comic book craving.

“Every time we stopped along the way, I bought a comic book,” he said. “My parents were upset that I was spending my vacation money on comics. When we got to Oneonta, I was told I could buy just one more comic. I went to my Great-Uncle Pete’s cigar shop and bought the “Fantastic Four” annual for 25 cents. It was the only comic book I didn’t already have.”

After reading the Fantastic Four’s adventures cover to cover and with time on his hands, Isabella began to read the credits in the annual.

“It was the first time I realized that creating comic books was an actual job. And I wanted that job,” he said.

By the time he was a teenager, Isabella was publishing his own fanzine. “I wrote about comics, science fiction, things like that.”

One of his readers was a young Gene Simmons, who later formed legendary rock band KISS.

“The KISS persona was influenced by Gene’s love of comic books,” Isabella said.

Isabella eventually landed a gig at the Cleveland Plain-Dealer as a copy assistant.

“I figured if I couldn’t write comic books, I would be Clark Kent and work at a newspaper,” he said.

By 1972, Isabella was discouraged with the newspaper business.

“We had gone on strike. After getting pushed and shoved in the picket line, I decided I’d had enough,” he said. “The next day I called Roy Thomas at Marvel.”

Thomas was one of Marvel’s top writers and editors, credited with bringing Conan the Barbarian to Marvel.

“Roy knew me from my fanzines. I asked him if he had any work for me.”

Thomas did have a job for Isabella. Marvel had just launched a line of British weeklies in serial form and needed someone who knew the material. Isabella did and was hired to oversee the project from cover design and copy to the ads that ran in the series.

“Once you’re at a company like Marvel,” Isabella said, “all you have to do is show you’re a strong, creative person and you’re given projects to work on.”

In addition to the British series, Isabella handled the production of black-and-white comic magazines such as “Monsters Unleashed,” “Tales of the Zombie” and “Deadly Hands of Kung Fu.” He also edited Marvel’s fan magazine “FOOM,” which was an acronym for Friends of Ol’ Marvel.

“I had great teachers at Marvel,” Isabella said, “People like Stan Lee — the godfather of comics. He co-created Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, Hulk and X-Men. … He’s amazing.”

Sol Brodsky was another mentor for Isabella.

“Sol was a comic book genius,” Isabella said. Brodsky, who died in 1984, was Marvel’s vice president of operations and special projects.

“Sol could do any part of putting together a comic — writing, drawing, coloring, lettering, production. He could probably even run the stapling machine.

“The way it worked back then at Marvel was that I would go to Roy Thomas with a bare-bones storyline for, say, ‘Ghost Rider.’ He would ask me things like was I going to kill off a character or would the story make a good cover scene. And then I was on my own to write,” Isabella said.

In 1976, disillusioned with a change in Marvel management, Isabella moved over to DC Comics.

“I was at DC for less than a year,” he said. “It just wasn’t fun anymore.”

Isabella moved back to Cleveland. In 1978 he bought a comic book store called Cosmic Comics, which was in downtown Cleveland’s Colonial Arcade. He renamed the store Tony Isabella’s Cosmic Comics.

In 1988, management forced Isabella to move the store to the Euclid Arcade.

“It was a bad fit for us,” he said.

By then, Isabella and wife Barbara had moved to Medina. After the birth of son, Eddie, in 1988, Isabella shuttered the store and became a work-at-home dad. A few years later, daughter Kelley was born.

Since then, Isabella has enjoyed a successful freelance career.

“I’ve written comic books for various publishers. I pitch in to help comic strip creators with a full script or story development. I’m a ghost writer — I won’t tell you for which cartoonists — but if someone is looking for, say, a week of pudding jokes, I sit down and come up with seven days’ worth of pudding jokes.”

He writes a weekly column for Talesofwonder.com, a blog (Tonyisabella.blogspot.com) and is working on several Garfield books based on cartoons originally produced in France.

“You could call me the script doctor,” he said. “I’m working on script and dialogue restoration and I’m writing new gags for the books.”

Isabella said he thoroughly researches stories before writing.

“If you’re asking your readers to believe the fantastic, then when you get to the real part, it has to be real,” he said. “When a story has a legal, medical, geographical or political angle, I do a lot of research to make it factual.”

Isabella co-wrote the Captain America novel “Liberty’s Torch” (Berkley) and the “Star Trek” novel “The Case of the Colonist’s Corpse” (Pocket Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.) The latter was based on the character Sam Cogley, a lawyer who appeared in a “Star Trek” television episode. The book is written and designed to resemble the old “Perry Mason” novels.

He is also the author of “1,000 Comic Books You Must Read” (Krause Publications.) And until the 2013 demise of the Comic Buyer’s Guide magazine, Isabella was a contributing editor and the lead reviewer of the longest-running periodical dedicated to the industry.

With hundreds of credits to his name, Isabella said he finds inspiration all around him.

“Everything inspires me in one way or another,” he said. He said his Roman Catholic upbringing is the basis for many of his stories of redemption.

“Stan Lee used to say nobody’s all good or all evil,” Isabella said, “I’m a believer in heroes being heroes, but that doesn’t mean they can’t stumble along the way.

“They used to say the ’30s and ’40s were the Golden Age of Comics, but I think we’re in the Golden Age now,” Isabella said. “Past comics are being reprinted, new work from all over the world is being published.

“I’m happy where I’m at right now. I’ve got a great wife and family. I’ve done a lot of work that people enjoy. And I plan to keep writing until I can no longer get my fingers on the keyboard.”

Contact reporter Nancy Johnson at (330) 721-4065 or areanews@medina-gazette.com.