If you’ve read comics for any period of time, you’ve probably encountered Tony Isabella some way or another. You may know him as a writer, a comics retailer, a critic, a creator, a beloved columnist for Comics Buyer’s Guide, or as the man behind Black Lightning, the first African-American superhero to headline his own title from DC Comics in the 1970s. In all his time in the industry, Tony has acquired a vast collection of comics and an enormous wealth of reading experience, all of which he puts to good use in 1,000 Comic Books You Must Read, a decades spanning collection for readers of all kinds. Whether you’re new to the format and looking for good recommendations or you’re well-versed in the joys of comics and you want to see which of your favorites made the cut, pull up a chair and get ready to join in the debate. In fact, Tony is getting ready to unveil a website devoted to discussion about the book (“People will be able to go on and make recommendations for the next book, bitch about what was left out, and complain about what was included,” Tony jokes), but first, we got him to answer a few of our own questions.
Congratulations on the book! It must have been fun to put together.
Yeah. It was a much bigger project than any of us realized it would be. But now that it’s done, now that I’ve made every mistake that I could have possibly made [laughs] the first time around, we’re all hoping that it sells really well so I can do a sequel.
How long did you spend working on the book?
About eight months. It was a long process. I talked to well over a hundred friends in the industry to get their suggestions. I went through thousands and thousands of comic books and past reviews I had written. And then it was just a question of organizing, making the tough decisions on what to pull out. I think by the time I was done, I had written 1,100 entries, obviously not all of which got into the book. Yeah, it was a long process, and we had to make sure we had good cover scans. Our designers are brilliant. Shawn Williams and the other designers did a terrific job, but we had to give them good covers to work with. We had to track down copyright information. We got so much from the Grand Comic-Book Database and its members. So yeah, it was a big job.
Are you ready for all the debate that’s sure to come about what’s in and not in the book? I imagine that’s part of the fun of doing it in the first place.
Later this month, we’re actually launching a website for the book so that people can post on the message board and tell me what an idiot I was to leave out this book or include that book. It came down to my desire that, No. 1, the vast variety was to be found in mainstream comics. Mainstream comics have never been just about superheroes, although superheroes are clearly the driving force of the market. But I wanted to show the variety that existed from the very beginning. I told myself right off the bat that we’re not trying to get the thousand best comics or the thousand most important comics. It was really a thousand neat comic books, comic books I thought people would enjoy reading. And a lot of it was personal decisions. I happen not to like Batman: The Killing Joke, so that’s not in there. And there’s a war comic that’s in there for no other reason than it’s got a pro-Castro story, because it came out at a time when we thought Castro was a really good guy. A lot of the books in there have a personal meaning for me. Some of them, I just thought were really neat. Again, I was trying to get a real interesting mix so that people could just read this compact history of the comic book and see examples from every decade.
One that I noticed was missing that I might argue should be included was Adventure Comics #462, the issue featuring the death of Batman of Earth-Two.
That was a possibility. Some stuff got overlooked. James Robinson’s Starman isn’t in there, and that’s simply because I forgot. The best superhero comic of its decade, but I forgot it! A personal favorite of mine, Cosmo the Merry Martian, which was published by Archie in the late 1950s—all of us could have sworn that I had included that. But I had never written an essay for it. As I said, it was a big project. I made a lot of mistakes. All of us made a lot of mistakes putting it together. But we’re very pleased with the way it turned out and hopeful that we’ll get to do it again and I can include all these books that I forgot or we couldn’t get a good cover scan for in time. Just another collection of a thousand really neat comic books.
What do you think will be the most controversial decision you made in the book?
There was one reviewer—I can’t even remember the website—who felt that there were too many superheroes in the book. And there are a lot of superheroes in the book. But he also felt that we should have included a lot more small press comics and alternative comics, and I have to disagree there. I included a lot of alternative comics, a lot of independent comics. I will include more in a sequel, but my thrust was always to show the variety and wonder of the mainstream comic book, which so often gets overlooked by the media outside of the comics industry. I mean, they have their darlings; they have their avant-garde cartoonists and graphic novelists, and some of them are great. Some of them are in the book. Some of them will be in the next book. But for at least this book, I wanted to focus on the mainstream.
Had you read all 1,000 comics before taking this on?
Most of them. They are actually a few books in there that I have not read. People whose word I accept as gospel recommended them, told me about them, and even though I hadn’t actually read the issue, I put it in. That Castro issue is a good example of that. I haven’t read that issue. But as it was described to me, I said yes, it had to be in there. But I will have to say that, one way or another, I’ve probably read 90 to 95 percent of everything that’s in this book. And when I say that, I’m not talking about having just read a story here or there. I’ve read the entire comics, begged, borrowed, or stolen them. No, I didn’t steal any of them. But yeah, I’ve read most everything in this book.
What controversies are you expecting?
There are an awful lot of books written by me in there. And while it’s true that every one of those books was recommended by one of my legion of helpers, they were originally supposed to be placeholders, and I’d always intended to take some of them out to include others. But as we got closer and closer to the deadline, the designers couldn’t accommodate that. There’s one book that’s in there that I really wanted taken out because most of these reviews are very positive, even for the goofier stuff. But there’s one entirely negative entry in there, and that’s Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars. Early on, I had said, “Take that one out; it’s negative—none of the others are that negative.” And again, it’s one of those things that slipped through the cracks. It doesn’t belong in the book. It’s there, but it doesn’t belong there. From a personal standpoint, that’s the only one I regret being in there, but people are going to say, “How could you leave this out?” “How could you include that?” Most of the reviews have been wonderful, very, very positive, glowing. The one review that was kind of so-so complained in one breath about too many superheroes and then complained there were too many Archie comics. It’s kind of like, Which way do you want it?
But I think we did a good job getting lots of other stuff in there. I’ve seen people going through this book going, “What the heck is that? I’ve never heard of that title.” They’re surprised to see things like Caspar and Jughead’s Follies and 87th Precinct and Patsy Walker in this book. But these were all important parts of the comics industry.
The book is nicely organized by decade.
Well, I’m really glad that I decided to do it by decade. And to do it chronologically, because not only does it save me trying to rate these comic books, which would have been an impossible job, but it does give you the history of the industry.
It was interesting to not the number of pages devoted to each decade. Before I opened the book, I thought it would dwindle from the Golden Age on, but this current decade we’re in has as many books as any other decade.
What I’ve been telling people all along is there’s the old saw that the Golden Age of comics is when you’re 12, or the Golden Age of comics was the 1940s, but the Golden Age of comics is right now. We’re living in it. There’s great new material. There’s easily accessible collections of great old material. There’s material available in this country from all over the world. There’s never been so much great stuff out there for comic-book readers. Some of [the older work] is online. Libraries are carrying this material, so you can actually read it through your library. It’s a Golden Age for a comics fan. There’s just so much wonderful stuff available.
You have a nice amount of graphic novels mentioned in the book as well.
Some of the graphic novels that have come out in the past few years have just amazed me. Just off the top of my head, Cancer Vixen. In fact, there are a couple of cancer-related comics in this book. There have been just wonderful, quirky little graphic novels, again from all over the world. There’s a series called Monster from Japan that is as suspenseful and thrilling as anything I’ve ever read. It’s a serial about a doctor who chooses between two patients and saves a young gunshot victim over the mayor of the city in which he works. The young gunshot victim turns out to be a mass murderer, and the doctor’s trying to stop him. It’s just riveting. You just never know what’s going to happen in each new volume. And it’s all here right now. You need deeper pockets than I have to own it all, but a lot of it is available through libraries.
Do you still feel as passionate about comics now as you always did?
Oh, yeah. I’m more passionate in many ways. I’m not writing mainstream comics right now. My fiction work in the comics field has been ghosting for some newspaper strips and things like that. I hope to get back into actual comics writing soon. But I’m as passionate as ever. How can you be a fan of this art form and not be passionate in this day and age? Even if a company like DC is not doing right by its classic characters, there’s still so much other stuff, and DC is reprinting some of the best stories of those classic characters. So even if you don’t like what they’re doing with, say, Batman now, there are dozens of great books about Batman featuring Batman stories that you can choose from.
Are you not a fan of the big “event” miniseries comics publishers sometimes do?
This brings up the old DC vs. Marvel debate, but generally speaking, I find Marvel’s big events more interesting and more entertaining than DC’s big events. When DC does a big event, I always get the feeling that they’re floundering, that they don’t know what’s coming up next. When Marvel does a big event, I may not agree with how every character is treated, but the ideas are stronger and I really do want to see what will happen next. Most of what Marvel’s done over the past several years [have used great concepts]—Civil War is a great idea. You can quibble about the execution of it, but it’s a great idea. Secret Invasion is a great idea. A world where Norman Osborn is the top cop in America is a great idea. I’m not sure it’s entirely believable, but it’s a great idea and they’ve been doing interesting stuff with these concepts.
How many comics do you read a month now?
I receive probably, just in terms of review copies, about 300 a month. And I’m guessing I probably read anywhere from six to a dozen comics per day. Obviously, if I’m reading a collection, I’m not reading 10 other comics that day.
Very often, I have to turn to Wikipedia of all places to find out what’s going on in a comic book or who the characters are. Because, sad to say, while some of the writers in comics today are as good as any writers we’ve ever had, an awful lot of them just don’t know the basics. They don’t know how to introduce characters so that a new reader can pick up on what’s going on. They’re writing for the trade paperback. They’re trying to show that they can write screenplays, but they’re not providing enough information for a new reader or even a veteran reader like me to come into a title after being away for a year and know what’s going on.
It does seem harder to get into the continuity of some monthly series if you have been away for any length of time. There used to be editor’s notes in the text to help you fill in the blanks, but those don’t exist anymore in comics.
It’s easier for me in a lot of cases because I have my online column. I have my own message board. If I really get stuck, I can post a message on my board saying, “What the heck’s going on?” and one of my readers will send me an email explaining what’s going on.
I’m not going to make this an absolute statement, because there are some very fine editors in the field, but the quality of editing in comic books is not as good as it once was. Partially that’s because editors are called upon to do a lot more than actually produce stories. In some instances, they’re dealing with superstars who have been acquired from other media and they’ve pretty much been told, “Hands off.” But I just don’t think the quality of the editing—with exceptions, because there are some fine editors in the field—is what it once was.
Do you have any plans to return to writing Black Lightning?
That’s entirely up to DC Comics. I have pretty much been blackballed from DC Comics. It’s a case of they’ve never lived up to their original agreement with me on the character, which, I will stress over and over again, was never a work-for-hire agreement. It was a partnership agreement. When I tried to buy back the character, they retroactively decided that the character had a cocreator, which, for the first year the character ran, you never saw any creator’s credit but mine. I’d return to the character in a heartbeat, but when they recently did a Black Lightning Year One, the editorial director decreed that I could not be hired to write it. I don’t understand it. I don’t think it’s what the fans want. But the fact of the matter is, it’s entirely DC Comics’ doing that I’m not writing Black Lightning right this minute. Given my choice, I’d be writing Black Lightning stories till the end of my days.
The creator deal for Black Lightning would have been groundbreaking back then, right?
It was the first one. My deal was the one that they used to get other people to do it. But it was a handshake deal; it was a verbal agreement. While DC will never be able to produce any documents showing that the creation of Black Lightning was work-for-hire, I can’t produce any agreements showing that it was supposed to be a partnership. But it was a partnership that they violated almost from the very beginning.
I’ve said countless times that nothing would please me more than to write Black Lightning again. To write Black Lightning until they have to pry my cold, dead hands off my keyboard. But unfortunately, at this point, until it becomes viable for me to do something about it legally, the ball’s in their court. They have control of Black Lightning right now.
Do you think about taking legal action?
Yes. But as my good friend Marv Wolfman will tell you, lawsuits are expensive. And I don’t have the tenacity of my other good friend Harlan Ellison. So if there comes an opportunity to take legal action, I certainly will. And I’ve made preparations for that day, but right now, that day isn’t here. You’ve got to look at it like, Do I want to spend money on a lawsuit at this time when there’s not a lot of reward to be gained from it, or do I want to put my kids through college? I kind of would like to put my kids through college first. And I am exploring other ways of getting back into comics writing. I’m currently developing a couple of comic-book series for a new-to-comics book publisher. If those work, if everything works well there, I could be writing a couple of regular comics again. Once my development work is done there and we see where they go, I’ll pursue other things. I do want to get back to comic-book writing. I got away from it for a very long time doing noncomics writing. At this point in my life, I’d like to get back to the comic books. But you know, it depends on finding editors and publishers who are willing to pay a decent wage and pay a decent wage for me.-- John Hogan