The drive into Baltimore on Sunday, October 7th was a pleasant one. Traffic was minimal and I was able to get to the parking garage rather quickly. Not to mention, the weather was excellent. As I grabbed my phone and backpack, I quickly made my way to the Baltimore Convention Center. If I was at all confused where I was supposed to be, the world of comics quickly let me know.
After snapping a couple of pics, I made my way inside and grabbed my press badge. I then made my way over to one of the rooms that would be hosting a discussion with the creator of Black Lightning, Tony Isabella.
As a fan of the show, I was intrigued by the mere thought of seeing someone who could have been responsible for one of my current favorite shows. I made my way inside the room, took a seat and grabbed my audio recorder (a.k.a. cell phone for anyone asking). Shortly after I arrived, Tony walked in alongside the host of the discussion. The topics ranged from his stints in Marvel and DC comics for which he stated the latter was one of the “worst experiences he’d had” as a comic book writer to contemporary social issues in comics. Now to clarify, things with DC Comics are in a much better place today given Tony’s work on the current CW Network series, Black Lightning, which has been very successful and is set to return for a second season and the new comic book series, Black Lightning: Cold Dead Hands (2017).
To paint a better picture of his thought processes, the host dove into Black Lightning and the environment surrounding the character. The environment that influences Black Lightning also ties deeply into Tony’s upbringing as he explained during the discussion. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Tony witnessed segregation and racial disparity in the 1950’s. As a youngster, Tony’s first Black friends were comic book fans that joined a comic club he helped organize. Even at a young age Tony noticed that there weren’t that many characters that resembled his friends. “I noticed that there weren’t really any Black superheroes, maybe Black Panther and Falcon…but that’s about it,” Tony said in regards to his motivation behind Black Lightning. He realized that if he could get into the industry, he would try to change that, and he did. That moment helped shape his approach and thoughts as a writer for years to come.
Although the first run of Black Lightning only lasted 10 issues, alongside his previous projects which included Marvel’s Luke Cage and Black Goliath, Tony cemented himself as a unique comic book writer and editor who wanted to encourage representation within the world of comics. He also wanted to push the stories of Black superheroes forward and encourage positive and realistic dialogue of the issues affecting African-Americans with contemporary topics including police brutality, racism, diversity and violence within Black communities. With Black Lightning: Cold Dead Hands, Tony was able to craft powerful storytelling and social commentary alongside a beloved and respected hero that all fans could relate and cheer for. Given the controversy of the topics at hand, it would be natural for there to be hesitation on DC Comics part to avoid such publicity which may harm their brand. But as Tony stated, “Nobody flinched. Nobody flinched no matter how realistically brutal Cold Dead Hands got.”
As for the TV show on CW Network, Tony spoke highly of it and is proud of the work CW and the Akil’s (Samil and Mary Brock Akil) are doing with the series. Tony said, “The show is dedicated to real issues as you see with Green Light and its influence on the show.” For Season 1 of the show, he was consulted by the Akil’s as they crafted the foundation that would see incredible success. He jokingly remarked on the time he was taking selfies with the cast at the premier in Washington, DC, specifically at the request of Black Lightning himself, Cress Williams. As Tony shared the story of his son being impressed by the love he received from the cast he said, “yes..i’m a hero to my son, again!” Tony also mentioned that due to the overwhelming success of the show, the cast and producers are back at work. He doesn’t plan on doing any work on the show for Season 2 since it is already in motion, but you never know in the world of comics. Anything can happen and maybe a cameo a la Stan Lee-style would be good for a chuckle or two. In fact, he already knows a role he could play, “I’m hoping to the be the Stan Lee of the CW shows….I’d be the Tinder date from hell.” Tony joked as the room erupted in laughter. Although, the show is being crafted with new ideas, one thing is for certain, Tony’s fingerprint is clearly evident on the show if you’ve followed his work.
Nowadays, Tony is working on a book called, “Black Lightning and My Road to Diversity. The publication articulates Tony’s original premise behind working primarily on people of color as superheroes and super villains. It will explore the history behind those characters, his views on diversity in comics, and the writers that have shaped this perspective that people may not be aware of. Tony also has a blog, that I would encourage you to follow (I did!) if you are a fan and want to keep up with his appearances, projects, and his thoughts on all things comics or otherwise.
The discussion was filled with so many funny moments due to Tony’s humor as he shared the stories of that impacted his career, however he touched on just as many brutally honest points on the state of the world as it pertains to racism, sexism, and bigotry that is reflected in everyday life and in comics. As Tony stated, “Comics have always been a progressive art form. Comic books were formed by Jewish businessmen who were locked out of traditional publishing. So we’ve always been at our best when we’ve been inclusive and addressed social issues. It doesn’t mean we don’t have entertaining stories, just give them that little extra thing that ties them to the real world.” He went on to speak on how Superman’s first “villain” was a man that was beating on his wife and how Ms. Marvel (Kamala Khan), is one of his favorite comics due to the great storytelling and opportunity to create more stories based on a diverse character.
As the discussion wrapped up I felt a sense of great pride not only as a fan of the Black Lightning, but as a fan of comic books. The art form has the potential to affect change on an entertaining, yet powerful level that we shouldn’t take for granted.
The social issues are there and it is the responsibility of all of us, fans and creators, to support great stories, but not at the expense of detaching the art from the real world.
Thank you, Tony.