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CREATOR INTERVIEW: TONY ISABELLA

Being the super-cool guy that he is, former Ghost Rider writer Tony Isabella sat down for a quick question-and-answer interview for Vengeance Unbound!

1) Your first issue of Ghost Rider was published in 1974, right after the series creator, Gary Friedrich, left the book. Was Ghost Rider a book that you were wanting to write at the time, or was it more of a case of the book desperately needing a writer to keep it going?

The book needed a writer desperately and, after I'd written an issue, I
thought I could some entertaining and interesting things with it. However, in retrospect, I regret that Gary Friedrich was taken off a title he created. If I were offered a book under the same circumstances, I wouldn't take it without the creator giving me his blessing.

2) Your run on the book seemed to take the series in a direction completely different then what had come before, what with Johnny Blaze moving to Los Angeles and the addition of Karen Page to the cast. Any thoughts on what prompted the change in status quo for such a young book?

I started thinking of Johnny Blaze as a motorized cowboy and that naturally led to my emphasizing the "lonely hero" themes which I'd found compelling in Marvel western titles like KID COLT OUTLAW and RAWHIDE KID. I did that for a few issues. The horror stuff worked well with an atmospheric artist like Mike Ploog, but not nearly as well with equally terrific but more traditional artists like Jim Mooney and Sal Buscema.

The Kids were the super-heroes of their times, so Johnny went in a similar direction. At the time, he was sharing the West with the Hulk and virtually no one else...so I moved him all the way to Los Angeles. I figured the Hollywood backdrop would make for exciting stories. I used Karen Page and the Stuntmaster in my stories for no other reason that those characters were already in show business in the Marvel Universe.

3) What were your thoughts on writing a book with the supernatural and satanic overtones that made the early Ghost Rider stories so distinct? Was it a very big concern for you, or did it not matter at all?

I looked it as mining mythology for stories, not terribly different from what Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had done with THOR. Okay, yeah, the odds of my receiving complaints from religious-minded readers were considerably higher than their receiving complaints from Odin-worshipers, but this was how I looked at it then.

When I added an element of Christianity to oppose Satan, the favorable response was such than I began to expand on my original plans. From that point on, as I'll discuss a question or two down, I became to consider my stories from a fairness standpoint as well. If we were going to represent "Hell" in our comics, shouldn't we also represent "Heaven?"

4) In the early years, the book seemed unable to make up its mind about whether it was a supernatural/horror comic or a super-hero comic. Which did you envision the book being?

Definitely a super-hero comic, albeit one with heavy supernatural overtones. The motorcycle translated into fast-paced action which, in turn, translated into super-hero action. Had Mike Ploog been on the book when I got the assignment, I probably would've emphasized the horror aspects more. Since he wasn't, I went with what I felt were my strengths and the strengths of the artists who worked with me on the series.

5) One of the more memorable plotlines in your run, at least to me, was the inclusion of the "mysterious friend" that helped Johnny face down Satan and various other evildoers. Obviously, this "friend" seemed to be the comic interpretation of Jesus Christ, helping Blaze through his time of need. What made you decide to write this story?

As Gary Friedrich had laid down the rules, it was only the pureness of Roxanne Simpson that kept Satan from claiming the soul of Johnny Blaze. So, when I started writing the book, that was the forbidden fruit I couldn't resist. What happens when Roxanne can no longer protect Johnny? So I set up the scenario...and probably discovered I'd written myself into a corner.

I was discussing the book with a group of writers, confident that, one way or another, I get Johnny out of this jam. That's when the legendary Steve Gerber quipped "Why don't you have God save him?" I laughed and then went...wait a minute...that's just crazy enough to work. I pitched it to editor Roy Thomas, laying out where I'd be going with the character after that, and he approved what would end up being a two-year-long story arc.

Len Wein and Marv Wolfman, who succeeded Roy as editor, were also very supportive of my plans. Unfortunately, when it came time for the conclusion of the story arc to go to press, the ever-arrogant,
ever-overrated, and just-plain-nasty Jim Shooter decided to change the ending and, by doing so, the entire thrust of the story I had so painstakingly constructed. I've been explaining and apologizing for my last issue ever since. Shooter truly turned a silk purse into a sow's ear.

6) What did you find appealing to the Ghost Rider's character? Did you see him lasting as a Marvel character, or were his chances of success viewed as slim?

If I had to narrow down the appeal of the character for me, it was the motorized cowboy bit. I really did love those Marvel westerns of the 1960s.

I was in my early 20s when I wrote GHOST RIDER. At that age, you think everything will last forever.

7) What were some fond memories (if any) of working on Ghost Rider?

There were many. The incredibly positive response I got from the readers was a first for me. I got to know and work with the great Frank Robbins. I added Marvel Universe versions of my dear friends Richard and Wendy Pini to the supporting cast, which, thinking back on it, was one of the most bizarre things I ever did. The joy of working on a title no one in the office much cared about, which can be and was a very liberating thing for me.

8) When you left the series, was it because you were ready to move on, or were there more stories you'd have liked to have told about GR?

I left GHOST RIDER because I was leaving Marvel. No disrespect is intended to my friends Len Wein and Marv Wolfman, but the company was never as much fun for me after Roy Thomas stepped down from his gig as editor-in-chief. When Roy decided not to return to the job, I moved over to DC Comics. The move was a little more complicated than described here. But it doesn't have anything to do with GHOST RIDER per se, so you get the short version.

Had I continued to write GHOST RIDER, you would have seen virtually no supernatural elements in the book. Johnny and Roxanne would've continued to work in Hollywood, moving to other projects when the Stuntmaster show was canceled. They would have gotten married and started a family. I sometimes joke that, if I were still writing the book today, it would be the super-hero equivalent of BONANZA. Johnny would be Ben Cartwright and working with his sons Adam and "Hoss"
and his daughter Jo.

9) Finally, moving away from the past, what are some of the projects you're involved with now?

Bob Ingersoll and I have written our second novel, STAR TREK: THE CASE OF THE COLONIST'S CORPSE. It's a "Sam Cogley" mystery which will be hitting bookstores around the end of the year. If the book is successful, we could end up doing a continuing series of Cogley novels.

In the meantime, I'll continue writing my weekly "Tony's Tips" for COMICS BUYER'S GUIDE, my thrice-weekly "Tony's Online Tips" for the PERPETUAL COMICS website, and whatever other interesting gigs come my way. I'll also be working on a solo novel and various proposals for comics projects.

10) Thank you for your time, do you have any closing remarks?

I appreciate the interest in my GHOST RIDER stories. I was and am fond of Johnny Blaze and I like to think I did right by him during our time together.

Big thanks to Mr. Isabella for taking the time to do this interview, and be sure to check out the links to his online columns that I've posted below!

TONY'S ONLINE TIPS
A new column every Monday/Wednesday/Friday

TONY'S TIPS
Reprints from Comics Buyer's Guide plus new material every Saturday

TONY POLLS
New questions every week

TONY ISABELLA'S MESSAGE BOARD

HEROES AND VILLAINS, REAL AND IMAGINED
An online archive of his most-requested columns


Tony Isabella
Writer on Ghost Rider and The Champions
1974-1976

Issues Reviewed:
Ghost Rider # 6
Ghost Rider # 7
Ghost Rider # 8
Ghost Rider # 9
Ghost Rider # 11
Ghost Rider # 12
Ghost Rider # 13
Ghost Rider # 14
Ghost Rider # 15
The Champions # 1
The Champions # 2