Tuesday, March 31, 2015

THE STAN LEE PROJECT

I receive about a dozen interview requests every month from people who have probably been turned down by everyone else on their “want to interview someone in comics” list. Depending on my schedule when asked, I try to accommodate these folks.

In December, I received a request from Aurelio Cortez, who teaches 8th grade gifted students at Vista Heights Middle School in Moreno Valley, CA. Two of his students - Alyssa and Emily - were doing a National History Day project on Stan Lee and wanted to interview me regarding Lee's leadership and legacy. Cortez described the young ladies as “4.0, high-achieving students who are excited about life and their studies.  They are going to do a tremendous job on their project and I am excited for them.”

It would have taken a grumpier old man than me to turn down their request. Here are the questions they asked me and my responses to those questions...

1: We read you wrote Ghost Rider for a two year period and were wondering what comic book you most enjoyed writing.

ANSWER: My second Black Lightning series, published in the early 1990s. It was some of the best writing I’ve ever done. Artist Eddy Newell nailed the visual look I wanted for the series and, for the most part, the editors let me do my stories without interference or second-guessing. I was able to write the emotional, exciting and relatively realistic story of a hero in a struggling neighborhood of a major Midwestern city and show him bringing hope to the people who lived in that community. It was a very satisfying eight-issue run and it allowed me to write about situations that were important to me.

2: How do you think Stan Lee demonstrated leadership in the early years of Marvel?

ANSWER: Stan set the tone for the Marvel super-heroes in the 1960s and beyond. The stories took place in a fictional universe that was close to our real world. He made the heroes and the villains more human. His writing was much sharper and more witty than that of any other writer in comics; all of us writers who came after Fantastic Four #1 learned from Stan. He collaborated with artists in such a way as to make their work more visually exciting and investing them more fully in the stories. He started running credits for writers, artists and letterers in the comic books, adding colorists credits as soon as that became possible. He got readers excited about the comic books again and that resulted in great publicity for comics in general. He invited the Marvel readers into the world of Marvel Comics and even the Marvel movies reflect that sense of inclusion.  At the age of 92, Stan is still the grand master of comics, working harder than comics people half his age. 

3: What got you interested in writing comic books?

I learned how to read from comic books at the age of four. I was an avid reader for the next several years, but my interest in writing comic books didn’t happen until 1963. On a boring vacation trip, I bought Fantastic Four Annual #1 and, besides being the best comic book I’d ever read, it made me realize that writing comic books was an actual job and it was an actual job I wanted. From that moment, I started studying comic books more closely and, within a year or two, I was trying to write my own comic-book scripts. My fall-back plan was to become a crusading newspaper reporter, but, happily, I did get to write comic books professionally and work in the comic industry instead. I’ve been in the business for just over 42 years. 

4: Have you ever worked with Stan Lee on a project. If so, what was it?

When I came to work in the Marvel Comics offices in New York City in late 1972, I worked with Stan Lee, Roy Thomas and Sol Brodsky. I had been hired to put together The Mighty World of Marvel, which was a weekly magazine which reprinted our early super-hero comics. The magazine was put together in New York, but published and sold in Great Britain. Roy got me started, Sol handled the production of the magazine and Stan would approve the covers I would design with various artists and the copy I wrote for those covers. Before too long, we had added Spider-Man Comics Weekly and Avengers Weekly to our British line. So I was editing three magazines each and every week for a while.

I also worked with Stan on Monsters Unlimited. This was an American magazine which mostly featured photos from monster movies to which Stan would add humorous dialogue balloons. After an issue or so, we added text articles about monster movies. I would buy and edit the articles and help Stan do the layout for the magazine. This was a lot of fun.

I did other things with Stan during my time at Marvel. I learned a lot about writing comics stories from him and Roy. I also learned about the production end of things from Sol. I could not have asked for three better teachers.

5: Do you think Stan Lee made comic books popular during the time you were enjoying comics?

Stan made a real connection with the Marvel readers. We were drawn to the great characters, stories and art, but Stan took it a step further and made us feel like we were part of a select community of comics fans. I loved comic books from before I learned to read from them, but Stan and Marvel cemented that love. I continue to read and enjoy all sorts of comics from all over the world.

6: We  understand you worked at both Marvel and DC comics, what are your experiences with the people while working at those companies?

Marvel was more fun and supportive. Almost every Marvel staffer was friendly and always willing to share their knowledge of the comics business with the new guy. DC was the opposite. Most of the people there were rigid in their thinking and suspicious of anything and anyone that wasn’t exactly what they were used to. Though I wrote comics for DC on a freelance basis for several years, I found the company to be less than honest and honorable in its dealings with creators. By contrast, Marvel has always kept its agreements with me and then some.

7: Did Stan Lee influence you or your work?

Stan is probably one of my biggest influences. I studied the comic books he wrote and learned a lot from him even before I worked with him. I have also been influenced by Stan’s showmanship and the fun he brings to everything he does. As much as possible, I learned to incorporate that into my own public appearances.

8: When you worked at Marvel Comics, did you look up to anyone?

When I started, I looked up to just about everyone. I was a young man of 20 and this was my dream job. I was naive, which allowed a few people to take advantage of me. Still, overall, it was a great learning experience and, to this day, I am grateful to people like Stan, Roy, Sol, Steve Gerber, Don McGregor, Marv Wolfman, George Roussos, Mike Esposito, John Romita, John Verpoorten, Danny Crespi, Larry Lieber and so many others. I worked with some of the best and nicest people in comics.

9: What are your feelings toward Stan Lee?

He has been one of the most important people in my life. His comics writing inspired me. Working with him was terrific. We still keep in touch today and I visited him in his Los Angeles office around this time (January) last year. I’m honored to call Stan my friend and my mentor.

******************************

Alyssa and Emily won second place in their district’s History Day contest. They and their teacher should be proud.

I’ll be back tomorrow with a new installment of our ongoing Rawhide Kid Wednesday series since last September. If you start reading now and stay up all night, you can probably read all 61 of the previous installments. Excelsior!

© 2015 Tony Isabella

Monday, March 30, 2015

TONY'S TIPS #101

This week in TONY'S TIPS at Tales of Wonder...Batman newspaper strips and two versions of the Frankenstein Monster!

INDIANA WANTS ME

I didn’t expect to be away from my nigh-daily blogging as long as I was. In truth, I didn’t expect a lot of what has happened to me and a lot of what I’ve been going through over the past fourteen months or so. It has been a challenging period of my life and I’m working my way back to a more productive me.

My first notion for today’s bloggy thing was to tell you what was up with me and let you know what you can expect from this blog in the future. I wrote that bloggy thing twice before I consigned it to the oblivion it deserved.

If there’s something in my life I think would make for entertaining or informative reading, I’ll write about it. We all face challenges as we live our lives and there’s nothing so unusual about my struggles that demand I write about them here.

As for what’s coming up in future bloggy things, you’ll find that out when I post them. I’m excited about my plans and some already-in-the-works pieces, but I’d much rather write those bloggy things than write about them.  Besides...we have more important stuff to discuss today.

I was invited to be a guest at a summer convention that should be terrific fun on all counts. The event has offered to pay all of my usual expenses. It’s in a state where I haven’t appeared since the launch of Satan’s Six in 1993. Among the attendees will be friends I haven’t see in decades, a number of comics industry pals and even some outside-of-comics folks with whom I could conceivably have a professional relationship in the future.  I was looking forward to being at this convention.

The problem with my attending this convention is...it’s being held in Indiana. The state whose Republican governor and overwhelmingly Republican state representatives have just passed a deceptive law which allows discrimination in the name of religion. They claim the law protects “religious liberty,” but its real purpose is to allow “Christians” to be bigots without any genuine fear of consequence. It’s a mean-spirited law that seeks to inflict second-class status on LGBT citizens in Indiana. It’s clearly not something Jesus would do, but these phony “Christians” left their alleged savior behind  a long time ago.

Indiana Governor Mike Pence and its vile ilk are among the leading reasons why we can’t have nice things in this country. His claims this law isn’t about discrimination is a bold-faced lie. Especially given that bigotry and discrimination are practically cornerstones of the Republican Party platform.

When Pence signed this noxious bill into law, the responses to such blatant bigotry were immediate. Citizens protested in Indiana and elsewhere. Many state businesses were quick to proclaim they would not discriminate against LGBT and other citizens, and condemned the law that would let any business discriminate in this manner. Some out-of-state companies and organizations pulled planned events and  other business from Indiana. Major sports entities have said this law is not in keeping with their own policies supporting inclusion. NBA legend Charles Barkley, who once fought Godzilla, is on record saying the NCAA Final Four tournament should be moved from Indiana. Pence and the law’s supporters have no intention of repealing the law, though Pence has made the clearly perfidious claim that he and the representatives will “clarify” it.

Every day, Republicans say and do terrible things. One can attempt to ignore them, but their actions and words do hurt people. Decent people. Hard-working people. Law-abiding people. And those decent, hard-working, law-abiding people include dear friends and readers and collaborators of mine.

In a career that has lasted more than four decades, I have tried to bring greater diversity and tolerance into my work and my industry. The more I learned about Indiana’s “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” the more I realized I had to take a public stand against it. Even if that stand meant making one of the most painful decisions I have ever made.

On Friday, I posted this note on my Facebook page and several other online venues:

Because the governor of Indiana and its state legislature have come down on the side of bigotry and discrimination, I cancelled what would have been my first convention appearance in that state in two decades. Sometimes a writer has to walk the walk.

The response to my post was overwhelmingly positive and supportive. While these expressions of good will didn’t ease my pain, they were greatly appreciated...as were the conversations that followed on my Facebook page and elsewhere.

One of the very first responses I received was from the convention promoters. Let me say straight up that these gentlemen have always acted in the best good faith. I felt as awful about disappointing them as I did about not going to their event. They have asked me to reconsider my decision and this is something you and I need to talk about. I am actively soliciting your advice, but not until you’ve read the rest of today’s bloggy thing.

The convention added this to its website even before it learned of my cancellation:

As proud citizens of this city and state, we’re saddened that this bill has cast such a negative light on Hoosiers.  The perception created by this bill does not represent who we are or what we stand for. Our fans and attendees are as diverse as they come, and we want them to feel comfortable in our city.  We are Hoosiers, some of us born and raised, and we know that our friends, family, and our neighbors are some of the warmest and most welcoming individuals in the country, even if the new legislation threatens to paint us otherwise.

As a show born and bred here in Indiana, we’re going to continue to fight against these negative perceptions and continue to offer a warm and inclusive environment for all of our fans, guests, and attendees.  We do not wish to leave, we wish to affect change.  In response to the RFRA, we have updated our exhibitor terms and agreements to make it clear that we will not do business with, accept money from, or receive sponsorship from any business entity that chooses to discriminate against people based on their ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, abilities, religion, or socio-economic background. We will not tolerate discrimination in any form and will continue to promote a welcoming atmosphere within our walls and within our city.


That’s a powerful and powerfully stated response to the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” It’s the kind of message which makes me think I should reconsider my decision, though that’s something I’m not going to do until I hear back from my bloggy thing readers and my other friends online.

On my Facebook page, Holly Simpson posted that there are 31 states with “heightened religious freedom protections.” My gut feeling is that Indiana is as good a place as any to draw the line and start pushing back against this rampant bigotry. However, going forward, laws like Indiana’s RFRA will be a factor whenever I consider any future convention or personal appearances.

Roger Price, who put on so many wonderful Mid-Ohio-Con events, had this to say:

While I fully respect your decision, let me play devil's advocate for a moment. In addition to taking an admirable stand, doesn't this also punish the show's promoter and fans just for having a dumb-ass governor? Something neither the organizer or audience has any real control over.

Darryn Roberts suggested this:

I've always found the best way to protest is to turn up and let the bastards know. What you SHOULD do is wear a rainbow unitard and have a $1.00 kissing booth at your stall, no chicks allowed.

Sorry, Darryn. No matter what I decide, I will not expose innocent people to the sight of me in a unitard and, even if I did turn my table into a kissing booth, it would be terribly wrong of me to discriminate against the ladies.

Raymond Rose posted:

While I agree with your decision, the one question I feel needs to be asked is "this decision hurts the governor and state legislature how?" Just playing Devil's Advocate, since I do agree with your boycott.

Kurt Busiek posted:

The answer is that the aggregate of people and businesses canceling plans to take part in things Indianan is going to cost the state millions in taxes and development, to the point that Pence is already asking for legislation to "clarify" the law. Without this kind of reaction, that wouldn't happen.
Finally, Nat Gertler posted:

The goal isn’t to hurt the governor and legislature, I assume, but to incentivize the repeal of the law and to disincentivize other jurisdictions from following suit.

Nat is a much nicer person than I am because I really would like to find ways to legally hurt Pence and his cadre of creeps. Those who foster bigotry and discrimination deserve to be hurt. Towards that end, here’s a link to a list of the Indiana legislators who voted in favor of the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” and where they work. Apparently, discriminating against their fellow citizens is just a part-time job.

WARNING! I have not verified the information contained in the above list. However, if you’re a resident of Indiana who can verify this information, it might be fun to let these businesses know you won’t be spending money with them because of these legislators. Let them know bigotry is bad for business.

How can I personally hurt Pence and his goons? Well, I kind of sort of have an idea about that, but it’s an idea that would require the cooperation of Indiana activists. It would also require the green light from the convention promoters.

Let’s say I do attend this convention and, instead of selling old comics and stuff at my booth, I turn it into an information center for some legitimate organization working to overturn this dastardly law. Although I normally do not charge for my signature on comics and other items I have written, I would ask my fans and readers to make donations to the organization to help fund a campaign against RFRA and those who passed it.

Could such a small effort help increase awareness of the harm RFRA can and will do to Indiana citizens and the state itself? Could it raise a fun bucks for the cause?

Honestly, I have no idea. The last time I was involved in any kind of fundraiser at a convention, I raised more money than any other professional except for Jeff Smith. Of course, on that occasion, I was sitting in a flush tank and, for a nominal fee, folks could buy baseball throws, try to douse me with freezing cold water and watch me turn Doctor Manhattan blue. That would not be happening at this convention. I guarantee it.

Before I make any further decisions on this convention appearance, I need the advice of my bloggy thing readers and my online friends. I am prepared to stand by my earlier decision and not attend this  convention. I want to make a statement, however small, against this terrible bill and the bigots who made it law.

Could I make a more public statement if I attend the convention, spending as little as humanly possible while speaking out against RFRA on Pence’s home court?

I want your thoughts on these tough choices before me. I want your help in finding the right organization to work with on this effort. I am out of my league here.

You can post your comments on this bloggy thing or on my Facebook page. You can e-mail me with your thoughts. I’ll weigh everything you have to say and make my decision as quickly as I possibly can. The law is scheduled to take effect in July. The war against it has already begun.

I picked a great time to return to blogging, didn’t I?
    
I’ll be back tomorrow with more stuff.

© 2015 Tony Isabella

Friday, March 27, 2015

WALKING THE WALK

I just made a very painful decision. Because the governor of Indiana and its state legislature have come down on the side of bigotry and discrimination, I cancelled what would have been my first convention appearance in that state in a decade or three. Sometimes a writer has to walk the walk.

I will have more to say on this in the near future.

Monday, March 23, 2015

TONY'S TIPS #100

This week in TONY'S TIPS...

My 100th column for Tales of Wonder is all about the Batman.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

TONY'S TIPS #99

This week in TONY'S TIPS at Tales of Wonder...Flash Gordon and his pals at Dynamite, Loki Agent of Asgard, Silver Surfer!

Sunday, March 15, 2015

THE COMPLETE FUNKY WINKERBEAN VOLUME 4

Just published:

The Complete Funky Winkerbean Volume 4: 1981-1983 by Tom Batiuk [Black Squirrel Press; $45]. With a foreword by Stan Lee, this handsome hardcover book collects three more years of the Funky Winkerbean newspaper comic strip, both dailies and Sundays. As regular readers of this column will recall, Batiuk is my friend, neighbor and occasional employer. But, long before I met Tom, I was a big fan of this strip. I'm looking forward to rereading these strips and, of course, I recommend this volume to you as well.

ISBN 978-1-60635-229-8