Grotesque Anatomy
Tuesday, December 02, 2003
  Snark Lightning
First things first.  I like Graeme McMillan a great deal.  Although I've never met him in person, I consider him one of my favorite columnists, bloggers, and message board posters.  And the fact that he posts in my sad little forum even more frequently than I do has earned him a special place in my heart.  A great deal of his charm comes from his special, patented blend of Scottish snark, but what happens when that withering snarkiness is directed at a target I like rather than at Mark Millar?

Answer:  I get that strange conflicted feeling inside, much like when it was announced that Grant Morrison was writing an X-Men comic for Marvel.

Over on his blog today, Graeme posted the following excerpt from SBC's interview with Tony Isabella:
"DC’s first and best step towards making Black Lightning successful would be to get past their territorial posturing and bring me back in on this property. I might not have all the answers, but I know more of them than DC does... at least where it concerns this special character... Black Lightning could be a dream come true for the industry, but DC never promotes the property."
Graeme didn't really comment on this quote, at least not on the main blog, but I think it's pretty clear what Graeme was getting at in reproducing it.  (If there had been any doubt, Graeme removed it when he cracked in the comments section:  "But Black Lightning could be a dream come true for the industry... IF HE WRITES IT! Don't you understand? Tony Isabella can save comics!")

On its face, it's a pretty damning quote.  Tony Isabella, not exactly known as a "hot" or "name" creator, thinks he could take a third- or fourth-string character like Black Lightning and transform him into a "dream come true for the industry"?  Sounds like a textbook example you'd use to illustrate the phrase "smacks of arrogance."  But as I learned long ago from a Mad magazine feature on how movie studios cut and paste negative reviews into positive blurbs through the miracle of the ellipsis, one should be suspicious of "dot dot dot" constructions.  So what did Graeme leave out from the original interview?  To provide the full context, I'm going to reproduce the question Isabella was responding to as well as his full answer:
Markisan Naso: Along with creative reservations, you have also expressed some financial concerns about Black Lightning’s future, saying you have no faith in DC to make the character profitable. What exactly are the details of your contract with DC? In your opinion, what will make this character successful?

Tony Isabella: I have the contractual right to share in any/all non-comics profits made from my creation, though DC has, on occasion, interpreted this in a manner to deny me royalties or a portion of the royalties I’m owed. That’s as detailed an answer as you’re going to get from me at the present time.

So many clueless fans are going to jump on this next answer, ignore every other issue I’ve raised and statement I’ve made, and claim it as “proof” that I’m only doing this because I am not writing comics any more. So be it. I knew this interview was gonna be dangerous when I agreed to do it.

DC’s first and best step towards making Black Lightning successful would be to get past their territorial posturing and bring me back in on this property. I might not have all the answers, but I know more of them than DC least where it concerns this special character.

Think about it. The entertainment industry is constantly called on the carpet for not featuring more non-white faces in movies and on TV...and to show them as headliners and in roles not restricted to the usual sitcoms and sidekicks. It’s constantly being challenged to show more positive non-white characters...and to provide greater opportunities to non-white creators and performers.

Black Lightning could be a dream come true for the industry, but DC never promotes the property. In the 26 years since I created the character, the company has sold exactly one option on my creation.

That was to Lorimar, a sister company, and for the bargain basement price of $3,000...of which I received $300.

On receipt of that check, I contacted DC and asked for details on the option. I have no particular interest in writing television, but I wanted to make myself available to whoever had purchased the option and help them however I could. I was told they had no idea who was in charge of the project. As near as I could determine, no one at DC ever followed up on the option. The company’s lack of interest in the success of Black Lightning was as obvious then as it is now. You can imagine my frustration and understand why, once a year or so, I write to DC inquiring about buying Black Lightning back from them or, at the very least, licensing the character from them for my own projects. This crass negligence in promoting Black Lightning devalues my contractual rights in the property.

The portions Graeme quoted are highlighted in blue.  So the first ellipsis is Isabella's own.  But the second ellipsis obliterates an entire paragraph where Isabella sets up why he thinks Black Lightning could be "a dream come true for the industry"--not because Isabella has deluded himself into thinking he's the savior of the comics industry, but because the Black Lightning character could be used by DC to address concerns of racial representation in comics and related licensing.  Frankly, I'm surprised DC isn't doing more to trumpet the fact that they created one of the earliest African-American superheroes to get his own title.  (The SBC interview claims that Black Lightning was "the first African-American superhero to get his own title," but I think Luke Cage beat Black Lightning for that honor by a couple years (1972 vs. 1977).)

Yes, perhaps it was a bit egotistical for Isabella to insist that he be the one to guide Black Lightning to this dream role.  After all, Judd Winick certainly seems to be giving the character plenty of attention in both Green Arrow and Outsiders, so perhaps Winick would be interested in seeing what he could do with the character in a solo book.  But I'll cut Isabella a little slack here since he has a personal stake in the character as the creator.

I'm really not trying to take sides on this issue.  I don't fully agree with everything Isabella says in his interview, nor do I completely disagree with Graeme.  I cringe every time Isabella starts talking about how other creators clearly don't understand Black Lightning/Jefferson Pierce:  Trying to determine what corporate-owned characters would "really" do is pointless when corporations can twist those properties however they may desire.  And as Graeme pointed out in an earlier column about the Isabella/Black Lightning brouhaha, it's not just characters of color that DC uses, abuses, or lets languish in limbo.

I'm also not trying to imply that Graeme was mean-spirited in singling out certain statements made by Isabella.  As Graeme confessed in the comments thread:  "I have a soft spot for Tony Isabella's stuff, actually..."  It's just that I don't want the bigger issues Isabella raises to get lost in a sea of snark.  As Isabella says in an exchange toward the end of his interview:
MN: There doesn’t seem to be a lot of media coverage on your reaction to events in GA? Why do you think this story isn’t receiving more press?

TI: That’s a question better asked of those who could be covering this story and aren’t. I think the story isn’t what Tony Isabella has to say but the issues I’d like to raise: the lack of super-heroes of color, the minor roles given to existing super-heroes of color, the demeaning of a pioneer African-American character, the comics industry’s poor record of fair treatment for creators, and even the plight of older creators in today’s industry. All of these issues are far more newsworthy than the rants of that bitter old bastard Isabella. On the other hand, in the right light, I do make for an adorable poster child.

MN: You mention you may attempt to address DC's overall treatment of African-American heroes through the media. Given the lack of press thus far is this something you still plan to pursue? If so, how?

TI: Yes. However, on reflection, because of my personal involvement, I don’t believe I’m the right person to address this issue. It’s too important an issue for me to risk it being dismissed as just another Isabella rant. So, instead, I plan to encourage others to discuss and speak out on this issue and not merely as it applies to DC Comics. None of the mainstream publishers should get a pass on this one.

This reminded me of reading Marc Mason's account of his experiences at this year's San Diego con.  Marc witnessed young children searching for toys of African-American heroes; girls looking for action figures other than "Marvel's semi-porn Black Cat and Elektra figures"; and a ten-year old Latino kid wanting "a superhero toy that look[ed] like him" but instead settling for a Spawn toy.  The underrepresentation of minorities in comics makes me think of the increasing popularity of manga in many ways:  Mainstream comics appear to ignore the desires of potential audiences, such as more stories aimed at children; more formats that deliver more value for the money; and more diverse characters.  If publishers keep ignoring their audiences, is it any surprise when those audiences ignore mainstream comics in return?
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