Tony Isabella has had a long career in comic books, with high-profile work in the ‘70s and ’80s including runs on Marvel Comics titles including Ghost Rider and Power Man and Iron Fist, and creating DC Comics hero Black Lightning.
Yet in recent years his work has been predominantly seen in writing about comic books, such as his recently ended, long-running, Comic Buyer’s Guide column “Tony’s Tips” and the reference book 1000 Comic Books You Must Read. After about a decade away, Isabella’s returning to comic book scripting with The Grim Ghost, part of the revival of Atlas Comics produced in partnership with Ardden Entertainment. It’s a character that Isabella worked on during the original mid-‘70s run of Atlas, and he’s teaming with co-writer Stephen Susco (The Grudge, The Grudge 2) and veteran artist Kelley Jones (The Sandman, Batman).
In an exclusive interview Newsarama, talked with both writers about The Grim Ghost, their collaboration, working with Jones, and what makes a character that hasn’t been seen in 35 years viable in 2011.Newsarama: Tony, I guess the first obvious question is, after having worked on the original Grim Ghost back in the '70s, did you ever consider the possibility of revisiting the character in the interim 35 years?
Tony Isabella: I never even considered the possibility of anyone revisiting the character over three decades later. It’s not that the The Grim Ghost and some other Atlas characters aren’t terrific concepts — because they are - it’s just that they weren’t on the comics scene for more than a couple months.
Working on the Ghost again after all these years has brought back some pleasant memories of working with my friend Larry Lieber and watching some Marvel staffers going back and forth between deriding Atlas Comics and being somehow offended that the Goodman family was getting back in the comics business. I also remember the somewhat guilty conspiratorial smiles when moonlighting freelancers ran into each other at the Atlas offices.
Nrama: Stephen, unless I'm mistaken, this is your first work as a comic book writer — you've been involved with comic book adaptations, so it's not exactly a surprising move, but have you been looking to get into this side of the business for a while?
Stephen Susco: Yes, this is my first work in the world of comics. I didn’t grow up reading them, honestly — mostly due to the fact that the super-cool neighborhood kid who had an encyclopedic knowledge (and collection) decreed that I just “wasn’t cool enough.” Even the damn Tolken kids felt the same… Ergo I ended up a Stephen King / Ray Bradbury junkie. [Laughs.]
But I’ve been venturing more and more into the field, via my adaptations (more recently Hack/Slash and The Veil). I’ve always been intrigued by the creative latitude offered by the comic endeavor, and it’s great to finally stick my toe in the pond.
Nrama: It's a character that hasn't been seen in decades —— what makes the Grim Ghost viable in the year 2011? Is it perhaps partly that the original series only lasted three issues, and thus the concept never reached its potential?
Isabella: The themes Stephen and I will be exploring are timeless. Back in the day, had the series continued, I would have taken the Ghost into some fairly revolutionary, even dangerous, territory. I hope we can do the same with this new series.
Nrama: Stephen, as the newcomer to the character, what’s appealing to you about the Grim Ghost? Obviously you've got a background in horror and the supernatural, which come to play here.
Susco: Grim Ghost appeals to me on many levels — primarily because the supernatural and horrific elements are representative of the deeper currents underlying human existence, questions that are commonalities to all mankind, throughout recorded time. I was also drawn in by the team: Brendan Deneen and I go way back, when I was writing a bunch of movies for Dimension Films. He’s a brilliant mind with a startlingly powerful nose for potent material. And when I got on the phone with Jason Goodman and Bryce Moses I was delighted to find Brendan among such kindred spirits.Nrama: As a co-writing team, it’s a pairing of an industry veteran and someone new to the medium (kind of like a buddy cop movie). How has that dynamic been thus far, and how does the division labor break down between the two of you?
Isabella: Stephen and I come from similar backgrounds — Midwest, Catholic, family — though he, like darn near everyone else in comics, is much younger than I am. From our first plot conference, held in secret away from prying editorial eyes, we were in synch with each other on who our characters are and what this comic book is about.
I never like to get into who does what in a collaboration. Let’s put it this way: there are times when I’ll do the heavier lifting and times when Stephen will. After just one script, there are already times when I think to myself what a terrific idea something is and then realize I can’t remember which of us came up with it. I think readers will assume that certain bits are mine and certain bits are Stephen’s...and I think the readers will be wrong as often as they are right.
I also want to mention that editor Brendan Deneen, who wrote the zero issue, gave us a rough road map for what ground he wanted us to cover in the first six-issue story arc. We’ll be taking a few side trips from Brendan’s map, but his contribution has proven to be very helpful in especially my getting up to speed on the series.
Susco: It’s quite a thrill to be working with Tony — spending an hour on the phone with him is like experiencing an education stop-gap. I always jump off with pages of scribbled notes, factoids to investigate and explore. He’s got an expansive view of human nature and it’s a thrill to be creating a story with one of the original captains of the Grim Ghost ship.
Nrama: As far as the story itself, it looks like the initial action may be split between the present and the Grim Ghost's past. Is that a fair assessment, and what can you tell readers at this point about the kind of conflicts that are going to be explored?
Isabella: We’ll be delving into the pasts of both the Grim Ghost and our co-star, a contemporary man of mystery named Michael. I don’t like to give our specific information on upcoming stories, but, as with the original series, you can expect there will be conflicts between heaven and hell and between the desire for redemption and human weakness. The best laid plans of men and mice can, unfortunately, lead to some pretty dark places.
Susco: I don’t want to speak too much as to the journey we’re taking our characters on... Save that there will be many, many surprises.
Nrama: The solicitations for the first issue mention the Revolutionary War, and it looks like there's room to explore other eras within the series. Do you enjoy exploring different historical eras, and what kind of research does a story like this take?
Isabella: I love and dread exploring different historical eras because I can be a research maniac. I get so fascinated by the research that it can get in the way of the actual writing. Luckily, Brendan and Stephen are there to pull me back from the abyss.
Nrama: The two of you are working with artist Kelley Jones, who's very well known in the comic book industry for his work on various Batman titles. How has that experience been thus far?
Isabella: Because the first issue was written full script, I haven’t seen any of Kelley’s pages yet. But I’m excited to be working with him. He’s a great artist and, more importantly, he’s a fine storyteller. I come from a school that says everything - the writing and the art - has to be in service of the story. I know the Grim Ghost visuals will be wonderful to behold, but I also know they’ll enhance what I think is a pretty terrific story.
Susco: It’s also massively thrilling to be paired with Kelley — his work is evocative and inspiring (Gotham After Midnight!), and he’s bringing extraordinary depth to Grim.
Nrama: And Tony, though you've been busy on outside projects, it's been a while since readers have seen you writing a comic. How has it been stepping back into that role?
Isabella: While I have done quite a bit of writing for newspaper strips — a very different discipline — it has been over a decade since I’ve written a comic-book script. I could feel the rust at first, but, within a few pages, I could tell my comics-writing mojo was working just fine.
I developed some new comics-writing techniques for myself. This is not at all unusual for me. I think I did some fine writing in the 1970s. I bumped that up several notches for the 1980s and, again, for the 1990s. You’ll recognize some “Isabella touches” in these current scripts, but I think my passion and inventiveness have been enhanced by greater craft. I’m intensely involved with all these characters. And nothing floats my boat more than coming up with a moment or a scene that even catches me by surprise.
I hope the readers who’ve enjoyed my writing in the past will read The Grim Ghost. They won’t be disappointed.