For the introduction to "The Jim Shooter 'Victim' Files" series, click here.
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.
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.
- The Jim Shooter "Victim" Files
-- Steve Englehart
-- Gerry Conway
-- Mary Skrenes
-- Len Wein