Saturday, June 18, 2016

The Jim Shooter "Victim" Files: Tony Isabella

This essay is adapted from a longer article that appeared at The Hooded Utilitarian on October 23, 2013.

For the introduction to "The Jim Shooter 'Victim' Files" series, click here.

Tony Isabella (born in 1951) entered the comics business in 1972 as an editorial assistant at Marvel. In 1973, he began writing stories for titles in Marvel’s black-and-white magazine line. He spent a few months in 1974 editing titles for the line as well. He got his start writing for the company’s color comics in 1973 with fill-in issues of Captain America, Hero for Hire, and The Incredible Hulk. His first regular color-comic series assignment was the "It! The Living Colossus" feature in Astonishing Tales, which he began with the February 1974 issue. He took over writing the company’s Ghost Rider series a few months later.

Jim Shooter joined Marvel’s staff as associate editor in January 1976. Almost immediately after starting, he flagged a Ghost Rider story Isabella had scripted. It was the culmination of a two-year storyline in which a bearded “friend” had repeatedly saved the motorcycle-riding demon-hero in his battles with Satan. In the climactic episode, Isabella intended to reveal the “friend” as Jesus Christ. Shooter, in a 2011 comment on his blog (click here), recalled that Isabella's story granted Ghost Rider “the continuation of his powers, thereafter Divine, not demonic.” Isabella says (click here) Ghost Rider “accepted Jesus as his savior and freed himself from Satan’s power forever.” Shooter ended up rescripting the episode, and artist Frank Robbins drew several new pages in accord with the rewrite. In the revised version, the Jesus figure was revealed as an illusion cast by the devil and written out of the series. Isabella then quit the feature and left Marvel. He considers the revisions among “the most arrogant and wrongheaded actions I've ever seen from an editor.”

According to Isabella in a September 2011 blog posting (click here), Marv Wolfman, Marvel’s then-editor-in-chief (and Shooter’s supervisor) had approved the storyline. He claims to be skeptical of any claim that Wolfman authorized the revisions. He says, “[U]ntil Marv himself tells me otherwise, Shooter gets the blame for undoing a two-year storyline in another writer’s book.”

Shooter and Wolfman both addressed the incident under oath in November 1999 at the trial in Wolfman v. Marvel Characters, Inc. (This was Wolfman’s suit against Marvel claiming ownership of Blade and other company characters he was involved with creating.) Here is Shooter’s account of what happened:

Tony had introduced some religious references into the story that I thought were inappropriate. He had Jesus Christ appearing as a character. I didn’t think that was a good idea. So, as was my usual custom, I called Tony and I tried to work it out with him. You know, it’s always better if you can get the writer to make his own corrections. He was adamant. He just absolutely refused to be cooperative about making any changes. And so it was a big enough deal that I went to Marv and I asked him, you know, what he thought should be done. And he asked me, was I, did I have time and could I make the changes? And I said, yes, I could. […] And I changed the course of the story so that it no longer had the religious references. The reason that was significant is because I think Tony Isabella quit over that, actually.

In his trial testimony, Wolfman repeatedly identified Shooter as an assistant editor during this time. When Marvel attorney David Fleischer asked Wolfman if an assistant editor would be assigned to supervise a scriptwriter in lieu of himself, he replied:

No, the assistant editors didn’t serve in that capacity at that particular time […] They would have, if it was a major problem or something they would have come to me […] their job was to find if there were any errors, correct small things, syntax, correct minor problems. (TCJ #236, p. 79)

Shortly after this, Wolfman specifically discussed the Ghost Rider incident:

FLEISCHER: Do you recall Mr. Shooter ever coming to you and telling you that he thought some religious content that he read in one of the stories that he was responsible for editing was inappropriate?

WOLFMAN: Well, again, editing would be the wrong word. He wasn’t an editor. He was an assistant editor, which meant he assisted the editor. No, I don’t recall it.

FLEISCHER: Do you recall that in the
Ghost Writer [sic], Mr. Shooter called to your attention that there was a reference to Jesus Christ?

WOLFMAN: No, I don’t recall it.

FLEISCHER: Who wrote
Ghost Writer [sic]?

WOLFMAN: Dozens of people at one time period.

FLEISCHER: Was Tony Isabella one of the writers?

WOLFMAN: Yes, Tony was a writer that did
Ghost Writer [sic].

FLEISCHER: And hearing Mr. Isabella’s name, does that refresh your recollection about this incident?

WOLFMAN: No, it’s really a minor thing.

FLEISCHER: Do you recall that Mr. Shooter came to you and told you that he discussed with Mr. Isabella the fact that he thought the reference to Jesus Christ in the book was inappropriate and that Mr. Isabella refused to change it?

WOLFMAN: I don’t remember the incident at all. As I say, this is a very minor type of thing.

FLEISCHER: It’s very minor, but you don’t remember it?

WOLFMAN: It’s very minor, therefore I don’t remember it.

FLEISCHER: Would you regard as minor a situation where the editor in chief has to dictate to a writer against the writer’s will the content of a book?

WOLFMAN: If the case is the words of Jesus Christ, that is not dictating the contents, that’s dictating a possible standard or a possible other problem. It’s a very very incredibly minor thing that I would have made a decision in about an eighth of a second or gone to Stan [Marvel publisher Stan Lee] if it was a problem like the other one [a situation with Doug Moench that did not involve Shooter]. It’s not something I would ever remember.
(TCJ #236, p. 79)

When Fleischer asked Wolfman about three other instances when Shooter allegedly came to him with concerns, he responded, “No, I don’t remember. Mr. Shooter was a major complainer so it could have been.” (TCJ #236, p. 80)

In Wolfman’s correspondence with me, he contradicted his sworn testimony. He said that Shooter had the authority to order the changes without consulting him. He also stated that he thought he didn’t remember the incident because Shooter didn’t come to him about it. Essentially, he denied all responsibility for what happened.

Shooter wrote the following in the aforementioned 2011 blog comment (click here):

At that time I had no authority to make massive changes like that to a book unless the EIC commanded that it be done.

Isabella does not appear to have ever discussed the matter with Wolfman. But responsibility for that, at least at the time, seems to have been Wolfman’s. He has said he had a policy as editor-in-chief of systematically calling everyone who worked for Marvel at least once a month (Sean Howe, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, p. 181). It would appear there was no such call made to Isabella after the incident. And Wolfman was all but certainly aware that Isabella had quit the feature, as Wolfman scripted the following issue.

For my part, I think Shooter averted a problem that had been enabled by the laissez-faire editorial environment that existed under Wolfman and his predecessors Len Wein and Roy Thomas. Any media depiction of Jesus Christ is potentially controversial. One that is not a straightforward adaptation of New Testament narratives is all but certain to be. Portraying Jesus as a character in a contemporary fictional setting, as well as giving sanction to the actions of another fictional character, is blasphemous. This sort of depiction is addressed in Revelation 22:18-19. It expressly forbids any portrayal of the return of Christ that differs with the Revelation prophecies. Publishing the story was an invitation for complaints and possibly even a boycott campaign. As such, Isabella’s storyline should have never made it through the editorial process without the knowledge and approval of Marvel publisher Stan Lee and company president James Galton. It’s not clear Wolfman even knew about it before Shooter brought it to his attention.

Ghost Rider teams up with... Jesus Christ?!?. From Ghost Rider #9 (December 1974). Scripted by Tony Isabella, penciled by Jim Mooney, and inked by Sal Trapani.

As for what happened after Shooter flagged the story, I believe him when he says he brought his concerns to Wolfman, and that Wolfman authorized the changes. It is highly unlikely that a new editor with next to no prior experience would have the authority to order new pages drawn without supervisor approval. According to Wolfman's sworn account, he didn't.

Additionally, I note Shooter apparently was not shy about raising concerns. Wolfman’s characterization of Shooter as a “major complainer” during this time refers to his experience as editor-in-chief with Shooter. That was approximately three months.

In short, I believe the sworn statements given by both Wolfman and Shooter on the matter, which are not at odds.

Shortly after the Ghost Rider dust-up, Tony Isabella began writing for DC Comics, where he co-created the original Black Lightning series with artist Trevor von Eeden. He left DC in 1978. During Shooter’s tenure as editor-in-chief, he returned to Marvel, scripting a handful of stories for various titles in 1979 and 1980. He was briefly the scriptwriter for Marvel's Moon Knight series in 1983. There were no reported conflicts with Shooter or any other Marvel editor during that time. His highest-profile assignment in the field since then was probably as the regular scriptwriter for DC’s Hawkman character in the mid-1980s. He has done occasional scriptwriting work for DC and other publishers since then.

Note: Tony Isabella and Marv Wolfman were asked to comment on an early draft of the above article. Isabella and Wolfman, who each have long-time grudges against Shooter, were both hostile in their responses. Isabella called the draft of the account “inaccurate” but did not provide any specifics. Wolfman initially discussed things in detail before writing back with the demand that I not use his response. He did not want to be seen as participating with the article. As such, I paraphrased his statements instead of quoting them. If Wolfman asks for the quotes to be published, I will be happy to do so.

Related Posts
  • The Jim Shooter "Victim" Files
           -- Introduction
           -- Steve Englehart
           -- Gerry Conway
           -- Mary Skrenes
           -- Len Wein


  1. It's been a few years since I heard these stories and I've tried to think of ways that could have preserved Isabella's story while safekeeping the integrity of the characters and company.

    I think the problem is a consequence of, as you say, a laissez faire attitude in the editorial department. This could and should have been nipped in the bud. Quite frankly, from a personal point of view, I wouldn't have allowed this story. I agree the most vocal Christians would have had a problem with this, not because of "second coming" exegetic interpretations, but simply because having Jesus help a demonic looking character would have been unacceptable.

    At best, I might have kept the storyline going providing "The Friend" wasn't properly identified. I actually think a "divinely-powered" Ghost Rider might have some potential to be explored. But, ultimately, this is the consequence of the creative chaos atmosphere. If Shooter was a "complainer", it's because he understood the editor's job better than the fanboys-turned-pros that just wanted to write their favorite characters.

  2. Martin Dent submitted the below comment. A response is forthcoming.

    "Portraying Jesus as a character in a contemporary fictional setting, as well as giving sanction to the actions of another fictional character, is blasphemous. This sort of depiction is addressed in Revelation 22:18-19. It expressly forbids any portrayal of the return of Christ that differs with the Revelation prophecies."

    I would really like to know where you came up with this. As a Pastor of a Christian church for 15 years this is the first I have heard of this opinion. The movie 'Ben Hurr' has a fictional Jesus encounter that clearly didn't happen and that movie is far from blasphemous. The scripture you site is prohibiting anything adding to the account of Jesus or the bible as 'Fact' i.e. making up things then claiming they truly happened. Most Christians also believe that Jesus makes post-ascension appearances such as appearing to Saul on the road to Damascus. Blasphemy is not the source of the controversy. Having a character explicitly turn to Jesus and repent is the controversy. Yes, there have been christian characters, (Nightcrawler, Firebird for example) but their conversion experience is never shown. Jesus is helping someone who is 'demon-possessed'. He did this often in the New Testament. The story of Legion comes to mind for example. To be honest I speculate most Christians would see Satan using a 'Jesus' Illusion to be far more troubling.

    But here is the problem with this whole story. It is all assumptions. Other than 'inappropriate' and not a 'good idea' we have no idea what Shooter was thinking when he changed it. Why was it not a 'good idea'? Did he think comics should be secular? Did he think having Jesus would be garner negative press? Did he think Ghost Rider becoming a Christian ruined the concept of the character? Did he not want Jesus making further appearances spouting Christian Ideals and Philosophy? Given Shooter's other stories and statements through out the years, I think the last one is the closest to the truth. But again we are just speculating.'Blasphemous' is not something to be speculated when you have faulty basis of establishing it. Again, Jesus images are used all the time. This depiction would be viewed as positive in my opinion. Tony Isabella is himself a Christian. Why would he write a story offensive to himself?

  3. I subscribe every R.S.Martin word

  4. I apologize for the time delay in responding to this comment.

    My understanding of what is and what isn’t considered appropriate come from a variety of sources. Much of it is from discussions with evangelical ministers of my acquaintance during the 1970s and 1980s. I’ve also discussed it with Unitarian ministers--I'm a Unitarian--and academics specializing in religious literature. They were of the view that this stricture from Revelation was the basis for the protests over such films as Denys Arcand’s Jesus of Montreal.

    The 1959 film version of Ben-Hur, which I assume is the one you’re referring to—I haven’t seen the others, so I cannot comment on them--doesn’t violate the Revelation stricture. It is set during the period of Christ’s lifetime, and does not depict Christ returning to Earth after the Resurrection, in conjunction with the Rapture or otherwise.

    Ben-Hur does violate the convention against fabricating incidents in Christ’s life that are not featured in the Gospels. I recall that, for all the other issues raised, this alone was considered enough to make The Last Temptation of Christ, both novel and film version, blasphemous by the standards of the evangelicals I knew. All I can say as to why Ben-Hur did not provoke controversy is that 1959 was a far less touchy time for religious conservatives than the 1970s and 1980s were. The 1970s saw the rise of a far more libertine popular culture, and the growing profile of Protestant fundamentalism during that time was in part a response to it. Arts and entertainment media were seen as an increasingly corrupting force that needed to checked. That meant speaking out with material that was seen to cross the lines of propriety. The controversies and protests that accompanied the releases of Jesus of Montreal, The Last Temptation of Christ, and Jean-Luc Godard’s Hail, Mary are probably the most conspicuous examples of that.

    I really don’t know how you can depict a violent adventure hero as operating with divine sanction in the context of the Christian faith without it being sacrilegious. It was not Isabella’s intent to make Ghost Rider an individual of faith, as was done with Nightcrawler. Isabella was making the character an agent of divine forces. He was arrogating to himself the authority of what should be considered appropriately violent behavior in a Christian context. My understanding is that there is NO violent behavior that is considered appropriate in a Christian context. Presenting things as otherwise, as Isabella was doing, was presumptuous and, yes, blasphemous. He was quite ignorant of what he was doing.

    Isabella was also undermining the value of the character to Marvel. Make Ghost Rider an agent of divine forces, and he could never again be used as a superhero-adventure protagonist in a manner that would be appropriate.

    A demon disguised as Christ is objectionable? I doubt it. To quote the words of Christ in Matthew 7:15: “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.” A demon disguised as Christ is an example of this.

    Incidentally, my understanding is that steering clear of such wolves is the reason why scripture should be strictly followed. Deviations are a means of temptation to sin. Let’s say, for instance, you hear what you think is a divine order to murder your children. But since this contradicts Christ’s words on the treatment of children in, for example, Matthew 18, you know that it could not be divine and should be ignored.

    It is not my intention to speak for Jim Shooter, and I did not do so. I just said I thought he “averted a problem.” The article is mainly an account of recollections of what happened from Isabella, Shooter, and Marv Wolfman. My commentary about the inappropriateness of Isabella’s storyline takes up all of one paragraph, and is portrayed as my opinion.

    Thanks for commenting. And again, sorry for the delay in replying.