Comic Art Friday: Tony, Tony, Tony

I’ve always been as much a student of comic book history as I am a connoisseur of comics themselves. Indeed, given the state of modern comics, I get far more enjoyment from reading about the great comics and creators of times past than from the often execrable product being churned out today.

(Don’t get me wrong: There has always been more chaff than wheat in comics. Although that’s pretty much true in any creative field. To quote Sturgeon’s Law — named for legendary science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon, who’s credited with coining it — 90 percent of everything is crap.)

1000 Comic Books You Must Read by Tony Isabella

Right now, I’m leafing through the pages of Tony Isabella‘s excellent new book, 1000 Comic Books You Must Read. This fun, reflective volume — chock full of classic full-color cover art — lists one man’s suggestions, not necessarily of comics’ all-time best works, but rather its most seminal volumes. Although I’m only about a quarter through the book, I’m enjoying Isabella’s approach to the theme — especially his broad-based perspective that includes key issues outside the superhero genre which dominates the field today, including Western, romance, and funny animal comics.

Isabella makes a terrific choice to compile such a volume. A noted comics writer and editor who began his career at Marvel in 1972, he has for many years written the “Tony’s Tips” column for Comic Buyer’s Guide magazine, as well as a companion blog called Tony’s Online Tips. Never shy with an opinion, Isabella’s blog is one of a mere handful of comics sites I frequent.

Since I’m reading Tony’s book, I thought this might be a good time to leap back into the archives and pull out a couple of Common Elements commissions featuring characters Tony created… namely, Black Lightning and Tigra.

Elektra and Black Lightning, pencils and inks by comics artist Darryl Banks

Black Lightning — seen above with Marvel’s antiheroine Elektra, in a commissioned drawing by Darryl Banks — may be Isabella’s most famous contribution to the comics pantheon. Created by Isabella and designed by artist Trevor Von Eeden, Black Lightning was DC’s first hero of African heritage to headline his own series; not surprising, given that DC’s foot-dragging in introducing superheroes of color is the stuff of comics history. By way of comparison, by the time Black Lightning debuted in April 1977, Marvel had already given masthead status to four black heroes, beginning with the Falcon in 1971 (in Captain America and the Falcon) and followed by Luke Cage in 1972 (in Luke Cage, Hero for Hire), the Black Panther in 1973 (in Jungle Action, Featuring the Black Panther, followed by an eponymous series beginning in January 1977), and Black Goliath in 1976 (in Black Goliath — written, not coincidentally, by Tony Isabella).

In his original incarnation, Black Lightning was in civilian life a high school principal and former Olympic decathlete named Jefferson Pierce. Over time, Pierce gained sufficient status that he rose to the position of U.S. Secretary of Education (in an administration led by President Lex Luthor — not exactly a bright spot on one’s résumé). Black Lightning has served several tours of duty in the superhero team known as the Outsiders, and recently was a member of the Justice League of America for a period of time.

Tiger Girl and Tigra, pencils and inks by comics artist Greg LaRocque

Unlike Black Lightning, who sprang from whole cloth in the mind of Tony Isabella, Tigra — seen here at right, alongside Dell Comics’ Tiger Girl and friend, in a drawing by Greg LaRocque — was a preexisting character named Greer Nelson, whom Isabella and artist Don Perlin transmogrified from a rather generic Catwoman knockoff called the Cat into a “were-woman” who was half-human, half-tiger. (The “were-woman” business always confused me. If a werewolf is a man who transforms into a wolf, shouldn’t a were-woman be a man who transforms into a woman? But then, that’s why they don’t hire me to write comics. I’m too darned logical.)

Debuting in her new identity in Marvel’s Giant-Size Creatures #1 (July 1974 — and, just to be clear — it was the magazine, not Tigra, that was giant-size), Tigra soon became the featured character in another horror-flavored comic called Marvel Chillers. After a stint as a solo act, Tigra joined the Avengers, then later moved to California as a charter member of the superteam’s branch franchise, the West Coast Avengers (eventually redubbed Avengers West Coast). More recently, she has served as one of the government-licensed superheroes in the 50-State Initiative, and as leader of the underground Avengers Resistance.

If you’re interested in a fond glance back at more than 70 years of comic book history, I recommend Tony Isabella’s 1000 Comic Books You Must Read, as well as the author’s continuing blog, Tony’s Online Tips. You can tell Tony your Uncle Swan sent you.

And that’s your Comic Art Friday.

Explore posts in the same categories: Comic Art Friday, Getting Racial Up In This Piece, Good Reads

2 Comments on “Comic Art Friday: Tony, Tony, Tony”

  1. Damon Says:

    As usual, another excellent entry. Regarding the number of “masthead” heroes Marvel had introduced prior to Black Lightning’s debut, one could even arguably include Brother Voodoo who, although didn’t have a title under his on name, was the lead feature in STRANGE TALES, with his name prominently in the masthead.

    Funny about DC back in the day, they usually dragged their feet whenever it came to exploiting any trend or craze.

    Marvel had their sword-and-sorcery titles out like CONAN THE BARBARIAN long before DC limped out stuff like BEOWULF, SWORDS AGAINST SORCERY, and CLAW THE UNCONQUERED. Marvel had MASTER OF KUNG FU and IRON FIST (in Marvel Premiere initially) out on the stands well prior to DC’s KARATE KID and RICHARD DRAGON, KUNG FU FIGHTER.

    May be part of the reason why DC’s still number two to this day.

    • SwanShadow Says:

      Damon: That’s an excellent point about Brother Voodoo.

      I didn’t include BV in my list only because Strange Tales at that time was an anthology book, in which BV was but one of a series of short-run lead features after the departure of the Doctor Strange and Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD co-headliners. (As you’ll recall, BV’s five issues were followed by three issues starring the Golem, an issue of giant-monster reprint stories, and a run of Adam Warlock.) Thus, BV never really “took control” of Strange Tales in the way that, say, the Panther took over Jungle Action when he arrived with issue #6. But I definitely wouldn’t have any argument with counting BV as another Marvel marquee hero of color in the early ’70s.

      Your other point illustrates one of the main reasons why I was much more of a Marvel reader than a DC guy way back when. DC always seemed to be coming to the dance after the party ended, as you cogently describe with your examples. (Even DC’s much acclaimed drug addiction storyline in Green Lantern/Green Arrow was beaten to the spinner racks by Marvel’s “Harry Osborn pops pills” sequence in Amazing Spider-Man, if only by a couple of months.) Marvel’s seat-of-one’s-trousers editorial culture enabled a great deal more responsiveness and flexibility than did DC’s more corporate, conservative regime.

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