Original Art Stories: The (Sad) Saga of Black Lightning’s Creation
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?
Michael Netzer posted an image of an unpublished Black Lightning cover that he drew for DC back in the late 1970s onto his Facebook page.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|
“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.”
|Original BL design|
|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!
“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|
|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|
|Original BL design|
|Original BL head designs|
|Pencils for BL #5 with Tony's credit|
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