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Saturday, January 29, 2011

Original Art Stories: The (Sad) Saga of Black Lightning’s Creation

“Anything that a writer and artist do together is a co-creation. Absolutely.” –Alan Grant

Jack and Stan. Carmine and Julie. Bill and Bob. Steve and Stan. Hell, even John and Paul. These are creators about whom history continually debates their individual level of involvement in some of the most important works of the latter half of the 20th century. Now you can add two more names to that list, Tony and Trevor.

A large proportion of why people debate who created what is because of the relative lack of material left behind to verify anyone's given role. We know that Jack Kirby often spoke from a field of anger and generally totally dismissed Stan Lee's role in the co-creation of the Marvel Universe. Stan's memory is shot, however he did spend a considerable amount of time, and ink, in the '70s perpetuating the populist myth that he created the Marvel Universe with minimal to no input from Kirby. Steve Ditko totally dismisses any Jack Kirby involvement in the creation of the Amazing Spider-Man, yet there exists a core group of historians who are convinced otherwise. Carmine Infantino waited until Julie Schwartz passed away before filing suit against DC for the rights to the new Flash, the character that kicked off the Silver Age of comics and Batgirl, both of which he designed (in the case of the new Flash, re-designed). Bob Kane spent decades revising history to totally obliterate Bill Fingers involvement in the creation of Batman. And now Tony Isabella is insisting that he and he alone created Black Lightning. On the other side of this coin is Trevor Von Eeden, the original artist for the series who claims that he designed the look of Black Lightning. Who is right and who is wrong?

Unlike some other such debates, both Tony and Trevor are lucid have excellent memories and are not fuelled or clouded by bitterness or resentment towards each other. Both are highly respected creators in the comic book industry, Tony as a writer and Trevor as a writer/artist, but they now find themselves at odds. The debate had been simmering for a few years but stepped up another gear recently when Michael Netzer posted an image of an unpublished Black Lightning cover that he drew for DC back in the late 1970s onto his Facebook page. In doing so he credited Tony Isabella as the creator of the character until I mentioned that Trevor Von Eeden ‘also had a hand in the creation of Black Lightning’. That then set the cats amongst the pigeons. I should make it clear that neither I nor Trevor Von Eeden have ever stated that Trevor should be labelled as co-creator of the character. Indeed Trevor emphatically states, “I didn't co-create his concept and I've NEVER said I did.”

Script for BL #5 with Tony's original credits
Tony Isabella also has very strong views on the subject. “I am the SOLE creator of Black Lightning and was credited as such during the character's first run,” says Tony. “Trevor was the primary designer of the costume, but several other people (myself, Joe Orlando, and Bob Rozakis) came up with elements of that costume. I asked for the ‘Captain America boots’ and said from the start that I wanted lightning bolts on the arms. I don't know if the latter was communicated to (Trevor), but I know I asked (Trevor) for the boots face-to-face. Bob Rozakis came up with the Afro-Mask idea. I thought it was a clever idea that tied in with my having Jeff use street slang when he was operating as Black Lightning. Joe Orlando asked us to widen Black Lightning's shirt opening, which was kind of a thing for Joe. He wanted to do the same with the Challengers of the Unknown, but I talked him out of it there.”

“I did NOT design the Afro-Mask,” says Trevor Von Eeden. “I say this because in the '70s, when he was created, the Afro was a black man's symbol of pride, and self-respect--his singular identity. For a black super-hero to remove his hair (or put ON his hair) as part of his identity is certainly odd. For a black man to do so was, shall we say, tellingly symbolic, and definitely not MY idea.”

“A character,” continues Tony Isabella, “especially this character, isn't his costume. Additionally, the first costume bears a striking resemblance to the jumpsuit worn by motorcycle stunt rider Richard Roundtree in EARTHQUAKE. Trevor knows I have tremendous respect for him and his work, but Black Lightning was my creation. Period.”

“For the record; I have never seen "Earthquake",” states Trevor. “The only black leather in Black Lightning's costume is his boots. His shirt is made of cloth, and his tights are whatever tights are made of. If the editors at DC Comics accepted that version of Black Lightning's costume because THEY had seen the movie, so be it.”

Original BL design
In his defence of his work, Trevor Von Eeden still has the original character designs and preliminary sketches from that time period and recently released them for display on his web-site

Another original BL design

“I do not claim to have ‘co-created’ Black Lightning,” continues Trevor, “DC Comics assigned the "co-creator" credit to me and I'd initially disputed it myself (funny how Jack C. Harris has conveniently forgotten that, in all this hoopla) until I was told that since I designed the costume, I was to be considered a co-creator. To me, that was the end of the matter--that was over 30 years ago.

“I DO claim to have created Black Lightning's costume. If Tony wants credit for the boot flaps, and Joe Orlando for WIDENING his open shirt flap--they can go right ahead and take it, with my blessings. Why? To me, that's like saying: “It was my idea to WIDEN Superman's cape--no, I didn't choose for him to have a cape, nor the color red, either--but I did say that it should be wider...!” -or- “It was my idea to make the top of his boots ‘V’ shaped” -- no, I didn't choose for him to have boots in the first place, create the costume's insignia, colors, basic design, or even the ‘S’ curl of his hair--but that V-shape is a ‘vitally important and indispensable element of what makes the character Superman!’--and so I DEMAND to be considered a co-creator of that costume!


Luke Cage
“That's the essence of Tony's claim, to me and he can believe anything that he wants, 'cause it's still a free country. However, the above-mentioned facts are indisputable. As an aside, Black Lightning's final costume was inspired by Luke Cage's - Marvel's own original "street slang" super-hero! Once I'd finally realized that's what the guys at DC were really going for, underneath all the rhetoric, it was easy.”

Black Lightning
“Trevor is properly credited as the primary visual designer of my first series,” states Tony, “though he most often worked from my script descriptions of characters and, in two instances, sketches drawn by other artists and provided to DC by me.”

“The ‘two pieces of art’ provided by the ‘other artists’ that Tony referred to were character designs for the villains Cyanide and his two henchmen,” replied Trevor, “that DC had provided me, drawn by whomever. Those three characters of course, I did NOT design.

Tony Isabella's 'layouts' with Trevor's art added
“The ‘layouts’ he'd provided me, were in the form of pages containing blank panels. Kinda like how the old EC artists worked on pages that were already in empty, pre-lettered panels. Tony merely sent me the empty panels however I never used them. To my mind, that was MY job, as an artist. It also happens to be the source of my pride--just like the costume I'd created”

Trevor Von Eeden layout for BL #6

During the original series Tony was given sole creator credit, both on his own scripts and also in the book and indeed Trevor’s original art shows the sole creator credit. However Trevor clearly designed the costume and the overall look of the character. Tony also wrote the relaunch in 1995, drawn by Eddy Newell and not Trevor Von Eeden. As Tony recounted, “When I pitched my second Black Lightning series, I asked for Trevor as the artist. I was told he wasn't available and also that he wasn't interested. Obviously, both were lies but I was not in contact with Trevor back then.” The idea of a company not telling the absolute truth about an artist, or indeed any creative person, isn’t anything new. Sadly Isabella would fall into the same trap as other writers at DC at the time, including Alan Grant, Doug Moench and Chuck Dixon; being fired in favour of a new writer by an editor who wanted to establish his own power base. For the record, Trevor had asked to be assigned to the book for the relaunch, but was rejected and instead given Black Canary to draw.

“Anything that comes out of you belongs to the company no matter what you sign. It’s like Marv Wolfman creating a character for Marvel, but if you’re on staff then its work for hire. You can’t win. Look at Steve Gerber with Howard the Duck – he fought like crazy. Even Siegel and Schuster couldn’t win and they created Superman.” – Mike Esposito

Original pencils for BL #1 with Tony's credit
Despite the book carrying a sole ‘created by’ credit line, that being for Tony Isabella, during it’s initial run, subsequent appearances of the character have since sported a shared credit line; ‘Created by Tony Isabella and Trevor Von Eeden’. Tony has his own theories as to why this change was made. “DC made the change in the credits,” says Tony, “when I tried to buy out their interest in the character.” This attempt to buy an established character could also have led to his dismissal from DC Comics. Writer Alan Grant suffered from being professionally ostracised after a similar attempt to buy the rights to Anarky, a character he co-created with artist Norm Breyfogle. It’s important to remember that a company is only interested in retaining characters for copyright reasons, and only those characters that are important to them financially. The reality is that the only real assets a comic book company owns is copyrights to characters – if this wasn’t the truth then Alan Moore would have owned both Watchmen and V For Vendetta for decades. This also means comic book companies are only interested in retaining a character that can turn a profit or is in demand. Thus when an individual, or another company, expresses interest in buying the rights to a character then the company in question will do everything to retain it, no matter the price, with the view that if someone is willing to pay for it, then it must have a higher value than previously thought. This is what has happened with Black Lightning and Anarky, along with the Malibu characters that Marvel now own and refuse to publish.

Original BL design
Another interesting aspect to the story surrounds the deal that Tony Isabella struck with DC for Black Lightning in the first place. According to the deal each time DC use the character they have to pay Tony a royalty. This is a standard practice for comic books and has been for years, if not decades now, but Tony managed to negotiate a higher rate than standard if Black Lightning is spun off into another medium, say a cartoon series, television or movies. Most established characters that Marvel and DC own don’t fall under this rule as they were created under different circumstances in different times (this also explains why Nightcrawler was absent from the third X-Men movie, as Marvel found themselves in a situation where they would have had to pay Dave Cockrum for the rights to use the character, a situation that did not exist for the first two movies and the early cartoon shows), but the deal explains why Black Vulcan appeared in the Superfriends cartoon series and not Black Lightning. This also explains why you’re very unlikely to see Black Lightning in the cinema any time soon. This kind of a royalty deal is why some characters such as Anarky and the Malibu creations are rarely sighted in print these days. It is then reasonable to theorise that DC did change the credit designation in an attempt to further muddy the waters of Tony’s claims of creation along with wanting to properly acknowledge the input of Trevor Von Eeden in the overall design of Black Lightning. It is also important to note that once DC changed the credit Trevor began to receive half of the money from royalties. “For that matter,” says Tony, “it's probably a violation of that agreement for Trevor to receive half my royalty money on Black Lightning. But, truth be told, I care far less about that money than I do about DC's lying about my status as Black Lightning's sole creator.”

Original BL head designs
Ultimately what this boils down to are two creators who can’t agree on a proper credit. The facts are clear, Tony Isabella created the concept of the character, Trevor designed the visuals and both men brought Black Lightning to life. Without Tony’s drive and excellent writing, and Trevor’s vision and superb artistic skills the character would have been entirely different and perhaps people wouldn’t feel as passionate about it as they do today. Hopefully, one day soon, both men can agree on who did what and assign the correct creator credit. In the meantime it would appear that Tony, who appears to be upset with DC Comics, believes that Trevor has wrongly pursued his co-creator credit (which, as Trevor points out, was assigned to him by DC Comics without his knowledge) and Trevor is annoyed that his original hand in designing the visuals for the character is being overlooked. It’s a sad state of affairs indeed, but I, for one, still hold out hope that one day Tony and Trevor will collaborate once more on Black Lightning, but that remains the decision of DC Comics alone. For my money the credit, as it stands, isn’t entirely a fair one – Tony created the character, Trevor designed it. Perhaps a more suitable credit would be, “Black Lightning, concept by Tony Isabella, designed by Trevor Von Eeden”. All I know is that I’d be more than happy to have my name next to either man in perpetuity as a collaborator.

Pencils for BL #5 with Tony's credit
I’ll close this out with the words of the late Mike Esposito, who found himself in a similar situation at DC Comics, and how he felt about credit changes. “Ross Andru and I designed the Metal Men. Bob Kanigher created it in one weekend to get an issue of Showcase out against a deadline. He came to Ross and I and we designed the characters. We never got credit for it. It was always ‘Andru and Esposito artists’ and ‘Bob Kanigher writer’. You always realised that Kanigher was the creator because writers are the creators. You never thought of Andru and Esposito, you thought of Bob Kanigher. Years later when DC published new stories of the Metal Men, in the credits, and I’ll never forget it because I was surprised; it said ‘created by Bob Kanigher, Ross Andru and Mike Esposito’ on the splash page. Bob had something to do with that. He realised that Ross and I had a lot to do with the development of those characters. All Bob did was said we have gold, we have lead and all of that, but he couldn’t draw so we designed all the characters.” – Mike Esposito

A note on sources
Tony Isabella quotes are from the original Michael Netzer Facebook post

Trevor Von Eeden quotes are from the original Michael Netzer Facebook post and also emails from Trevor Von Eeden, 11 Jan 2011 and 27 Jan 2011
Mike Esposito quotes from phone call to author, January 2006
Alan Grant quote from Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle Speak Out
 

7 comments:

bob said...

It's not really a matter of what you might think is fair, given the available evidence (which might be voluminous compared to what's available for most Golden Age and Silver Age characters, but is still very incomplete). From Isabella's perspective, it's a case of DC unilaterally modifying the terms of his status on the character, negatively affecting both his financial and legal stakes in the character. That's an awful precedent. While there's obviously much less money at stake, imagine if DC decided at some point that, say, Vin Sullivan's contribution to the creation of Superman made him a co-creator along with Siegel and Shuster, and since he was on staff at DC at the time that means the Siegel and Shuster estates don't have sole claim to the copyright renewal currently being litigated.

I mean, it's more than a little suspicious that the modification in creator credit was instigated by DC, and then only after Isabella became uncooperative. If it had been Von Eeden going to DC and saying he thought he should get a credit, I'd understand it (though I'd still think DC shouldn't be able to modify it unilaterally without consulting Isabella), but that clearly wasn't the case. DC instigated it, even over Von Eeden's objections, which does beg the question of why DC thought it was advantageous to them not to have Isabella be considered the sole creator.

[DC's whole floating creator credits history is fascinating and largely unexplored. I note that whatever it was before, Kanigher solo, Kanigher/Andru or Kanigher/Andru/Esposito, the Metal Men currently show up without a credited creator. Changes like that happen a lot at DC, with no outward clue if the change was instigated by DC or one or more of the creators, and if the final decision was negotiated in any way or imposed by the will of DC management. Black Lightning is a rare case where we know both who instigated the change (in broad terms, I'm sure there was an actual person in "DC management" who started it) and who had the only vote that mattered in making the change, and even there we can only speculate on why]

There's no real dispute in Isabella's account and Von Eeden's account, after all, just some minor details not too surprising after 30+ years.

Tonebone said...

I'm gonna have to call BS on the comment about XMen 3 not using Nightcrawler because they would have had to pay Cockrum royalties... They probably spent more in one day on the Craft Services catering than they would have to pay him for royalties. I think it's more likely that they didn't think Nightcrawler was a character that would fit into the narrative of the movie, or the studio didn't see him as marketable enough, etc.

Daniel Best said...

As you wish Tonebone. But consider this - the second X-Men movie featured Nightcrawler - hell, it was almost built around the character. He was an X-Man by the movies end. Marvel negotiated a settlement with Cockrum between films, part of which included royalties for Nightcrawler. Suddenly he's not in the 3rd movie - you tell me why.

Nick Ahlhelm said...

Daniel,

Your argument towards Nightcrawler makes no sense, as it would also have cut him from subsequent cartoon shows and that wasn't the case (i.e. Wolverine and the X-Men).

His removal from the 3rd film has far more to do with Alan Cumming hating the make-up given to him.

Cumming actually appeared in the tie-in game to X3 (which Cockrum would also have received money from), which served as a prologue to the movie. It explains away Nightcrawler's disappearance (he doesn't want to live the violent life of an X-Men) in the 3rd film.

Daniel Best said...

Fair enough Nick - I wasn't aware that Cumming pulled the plug on the character, although why the studio didn't just replace him is a question for another time I guess.

Never saw the tie-in game, so that's a new one for me.

LearningByReading said...

Yup, Cumming did discontinue the character. He should have replaced or probably even better never removed. Still do not get it.

Daniel Best said...

Exactly my point. In this day and age where actors are replaced in such movies constantly (I see another Superman movie is being made with another actor, how many Batman's have there been since 1989...) it doesn't make logical sense for the film studio to allow the removal of a character - who had only appeared in one movie - because the actor didn't want to do the role.

But then if the studio had to pay and credit someone...well now, that's a different kettle of fish.