Tuesday, December 4, 2012


No volume of comics history has ever made me feel as sad as Marvel
Comics: The Untold Story
by Sean Howe [Harper; $26.99] and that’s
coming from me, the guy who has often said that the history of the
comics industry is the history of comics creators being screwed by
publishers, editors and even their fellow creators.  It’s taken me
several attempts to push through that sadness to write what isn’t
at all a proper review of Howe’s book.

The Untold Story is a well-written if sensationalistic history of
Marvel Comics.  Not without some justification, Howe’s book almost
invariably portrays industry people (bosses and workers alike) at
their most venal.  However, credit to Howe, this is a page-turner.
I have no doubt the uninvolved will relish its revelations and not
give much heed to whether or not they are accurate.

Understand, I am not accusing Howe of any knowing fabrications in
this book.  Nor am I verifying any of them that do not pertain to
me directly.  But, as I’ve also said on several occasions, we are
all the heroes of our own stories.  Howe interviewed many people in
the preparation of this book.  I suspect, knowingly or otherwise,
they tried to put themselves in the best possible light.  We all do
that.  I recognize this in myself as I recognize it in others and
it’s the reason I try (and certainly do not always succeed) to tell
my own stories as accurately as possible.

My sadness comes from knowing so many of the people who Howe writes
about.  The occasions when those people suffered misery saddens me
because they mostly didn’t deserve that.  The occasions when they
were the architects of someone else’s misery saddens me because I
have always wanted comics creators to be better than that.  So, for
me, someone involved in several of the events and who knows, loves
and admires many of the players, the book is far more sad than it
is fascinating.

And thus I vent for a moment before continuing... 

Oh my God. I'm back. I'm home. All the time, it was...we finally
really did it. You maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn
you all to Hell!

Okay...I’m back.

Howe did not interview me for this book.  That doesn’t bother me as
much as it bothers some of my readers.  God bless them for how much
they love my writing, but I think a realistic assessment of my role
in Marvel Comics history is that I was a damn fine utility player
who took whatever position needed playing, did it as well as or
better than most and managed to write some memorable stories
along the way.  I was on staff at Marvel for less than four years
all total.  I was out of the loop as often as I was in the loop.

Early on in my reading of this book, I decided I would only address
the handful of mentions of me in the book.  I tended to avoid the
office dramas as much as I could.  Almost every woman I dated while
living in New York was not involved in the comics industry or even
comics fandom.  I hung out with non-comics friends almost as much
as with comics friends...and I tried to keep both “sides” separate.
I figured out early on that, as much as I loved comics and working
in comics, I would occasionally need a break from comics.

Before I address those specific mentions of me in this book, I want
to make an opening statement of sorts.  I enjoyed my time working
in the Marvel Bullpen, especially when Roy Thomas was the editor-
in-chief.  I learned a lot from Roy, Sol Brodsky, Stan Lee and many
others.  I thought my hard work was appreciated as much as anyone’s
hard work could be appreciated in the comics industry.  I have fond
memories of my co-workers.

Over the years, I’ve come to the opinion that the Marvel writers of
my time there constituted the best writing staff in comics before
and since that time.  In a company often unfairly considered to be
no more than a comic-book fast food joint, Marvel had a whole lot
of extremely talented writers all of whom brought their own voices
to the work.  When I compare myself to guys like Roy, Steve Gerber,
Don McGregor, Steve Englehart, Doug Moench, Archie Goodwin, Chris
Claremont, Jim Starlin, Marv Wolfman and Bill Mantlo, I’m clearly
an “also present.”  If my writing was memorable, it was because I
was playing on the same field with those writers.

Howe first mentions me on page 127:

Tony Isabella, a devout Catholic and a copyboy at the Cleveland
Plain Dealer, moved to New York to assist Sol Brodsky, who’d
returned to Marvel and was overseeing repackaging comics for the
British market. Isabella also began helping out with the monster

That paragraph is mostly accurate.  Based on my introducing Jesus
into the cast of Ghost Rider, I can see why someone would assume I
was a devout Catholic.  But, at the time I wrote those stories, I
hadn’t been inside a church in years. 

While living with my parents and working for the Plain Dealer, I
quickly figured out that, as long as I left the house for about an
hour on Sunday mornings, they assumed I was going to church and not
one of the local diners for breakfast.  I moved out of their house
before I moved to New York, which meant I could dispense with that
routine.  And, to the best of my recollection, I never stepped into
a church while I lived in New York.

I suppose you could call me a Christian back then...since I tried
to do what Jesus would do to the best of my ability.  But “devout”
remained off the table.  Adding Jesus to the Ghost Rider series was
a fantasy/mythology thing to me.  I thought there needed to be some
sort of counter to all the Satan-types in the Marvel Universe.  I
dabbled with born-again Christianity for a time until I figured out
I had gotten it right the first time.

It’s possible my co-workers believed me to be a “devout Catholic.”
It might explain why I was never invited to participate in the drug
use Howe describes in his book.  My New York drug experiences
were but thrice in occurrence.

The first occasion was because an artist and staffer convinced me
I should try pot.  I burned my lip, but otherwise had no reaction
to the demon weed.  On the other hand, that artist would turn into
a right-wing jerk in his later years, possibly proving that pot is,
indeed, a gateway drug to asshat behavior.

The second occasion was...I asked Duffy Vohland to get me some pot
as a birthday present for a woman I knew.  I wasn’t dating her, but
she was a terrific friend and, at the time, I thought this was just
a really good idea for a gift.

The third occasion was...when a woman I was dating smoked some of
that pot when we were all together.  I wasn’t smoking, but, because
she thought I should, she would inhale and then give me these long
soulful kisses.  I rather enjoyed that.  I might have gotten a bit
high at the time, but I’m not convinced it wasn’t because the lady
was such an amazing kisser.

I pause here so my children can utter a collective “eww!”

We’ll return to Marvel Comics: The Untold Story and my own untold
stories tomorrow.  See you then.

© 2012 Tony Isabella


  1. I've read excerpts from this book, and I'm conflicted about reading all of it. It's great to put a human face on all the names I remember reading on the splash pages of my comics all those years ago, but sometimes too much of that knowledge can color my perceptions. The same thing happened with the original Star Trek. Intellectually, I knew that the actors were human beings, with all sorts of flaws and personality conflicts, but reading all those tell-all stories about the cast over the years has affected my enjoyment of the show. It's one thing to suspect your heroes have feet of clay; it's another to pull off their shoes and look for yourself....

  2. Just finished reading Howes book last night - and I experienced a similar feeling of sadness. As a huge comic book fan in the Sixties and Seventies, I loved the comics Marvel produced during those years - I own a shelf full of Masterworks and Essential volumes to proof it, so I was greatly saddened to read what Marvel became in recent years. The emphasis on packaging over content and content that sounds like borderline porn - how sad for the great creators who laid the foundation of this fictional universe.

  3. Glad to see your input on this book. Just finished it a few weeks ago and enjoyed it immensely mainly due to reasons of nostalgia. I didn't have the same reactions as you, obviously, since I lacked the intimate interaction with many of the players, yet a profound sense of melancholy enveloped me as well. I suppose that came from the sense that so much potential creative greatness was squashed by what I can only refer to as the "business side". While, Sadly, it is necessary to recognize that the comics industry is a "for profit" enterprise that requires a modicum of artistic forbearance to thrive, it seems that Marvel really struggled to find a balance between the corporate and the creators.

    Look forward to the rest of your thoughts...

  4. I also understand your sadness re: the depictions of people in the book, and the concern expressed about the subjectivity of interviews (that the interviewee tends to always be the hero). Nevertheless I feel that the book is useful. I am still in the early stages of the book, currently on page 171 (I tend to give books of this nature a very "close reading" (i.e. going through them and making notes in the margins & indexes). I suspect that this book will kicking the football firmly into play (soccer analogy) where these persons/facts/theories will be further debated, and maybe one day result in someone producing a much lengthier analysis of Marvel's history (assuming a publisher can be found, if not then self-published by some diligent researcher). I also sense some of the sensationalising of the history which occurs in the book; hopefully this will push us to find an even more accurate history in the near future (comic book fans/readers/researchers generally will struggle with doing dispassionate history precisely because we tend to be "fans"; also the passage of time is sometimes essential to producing good history (being too close chronologically to the events affects all of us currently). I was very impressed by the 20 pages or so of notes (pp 439 - 459) and by the index numbering 23 or so pages, which suggest a serious attempt to organize information. When I finish the book my views may be more fully formed, so consider this an early view of the book. RJB

  5. Hey, not all of us '70s pothead types grew up to be right-wing asshats.I'm a left wing asshat.