In Conversation with Black Lightning Creator Tony Isabella

Just hours after Tony Isabella saw The CW’s Black Lightning trailer, he was on his way to Philadelphia to appear at the East Coast Black Age Of Comics Convention. Isabella, who created Black Lightning with Trevor Von Eeden, was one of five recipients of ECBACC’s lifetime achievement award. Isabella is a longtime attendee of ECBACC, but this year his presence was particularly exciting, considering the Black Lighting TV series will premiere this winter and he’s working on another Black Lightning comic series.

“I loved the costumes. There are some smartass lines in there and I love writing smartass lines so I love the fact that’s a little bit of me in there, that they’re doing that,” Isabella told Player.One. “I love the tone of the show. I had read a script, which was I think was the second draft when the show was at Fox. I’m sure there will be some changes for the CW, but the Fox script was really edgy, and not fantasy edgy like Arrow. Real world edgy. Police brutality, driving while black, the gang. It really is real world edgy and the more of that they keep I think the more the TV show will work.”

Isabella cleared up rumors that a pilot had been filmed ahead of the series pickup. He said The CW filmed an eight-to-twelve minute presentation piece, which is where the trailer comes from.

“I loved it [the trailer] more than I can adequately express,” Isabella reiterated during a panel discussion. “You have to understand, I’m not 100 percent in the loop. DC and the showrunners Salim and Mara Brock Akil have done their best to keep me in the loop, so I have known stuff before it hits online. For example, people kept talking about a Black Lightning pilot having been filmed. No. No pilot was filmed. They did a presentation piece, which was then cut into the trailer. And when I first heard that from DC, I thought it was a bad thing. And then they told me no, well, we sold Legends of Tomorrow with a picture of the cast and brief synopsis.”

Black Lighting going to series was unexpected, but it wasn’t a surprise to Isabella because Luke Cage’s popularity nearly crashed Netflix and there’s been a more conscious effort in the comic book industry to be more inclusive.

“I knew Luke Cage was partially to blame, or to thank, because the Luke Cage show was depending on the survey, you see anywhere from the fourth to first streamed show last year. I knew, obviously, CW couldn’t get Luke Cage, but they could get Black Lighting. The people at DC already wanted to do it, so I was 99 percent sure it was going to get picked up. The affiliates went crazy for it.”

The CW trailer for Black Lighting set the series to premiere in the 2017-18 midseason, but the show being labeled as a midseason replacement doesn’t worry Isabella; he thinks placement matters less and less these days.

“Midseason replacement is a meaningless term now. Networks put shows out whenever they want, they don’t even put them on networks. Netflix, I mean look at Netflix. So I’m not concerned when finally it debuts on TV, as long as it’s good and I really think it’s going to be really good.”

Isabella hasn’t been on the best of terms with DC Comics due to conflict over Black Lightning attribution, but he’s confident the industry changing when it comes to keeping creators in the loop. He got a laugh out of the fact DC sent him a copy of the trailer after it dropped online.

“This is new territory for them, they are not used to keeping creators in the loop on this stuff and they are trying really hard so I’m not going to nitpick them for not getting it right. So I see the trailer, two hours before we go in the car to drive here on Thursday. Loved it. I know basics of what’s going on with the show. It’s in my wheelhouse. I love the show. I love the showrunners. I love the acting picks they made.”

Isabella said he had a discussion with the Akil’s about the potential for crossovers with the rest of the Arrowverse. Since then, other reports have indicated no crossover is planned, but Isabella explains why he thinks the series should hold off on connecting to The Flash and Arrow, at least for the first season.

“We talked about that, not that I have any say in it. I said early on, I said, ‘You know I’m a little tired of Black Lightning being subservient to other characters. I don’t like him teaming up with Batman and Superman. They pretty much give him orders.’ We could always change it later on. When it was at Fox, I said, ‘You really got to find a way to cross it over with Lucifer.’

When Black Lightning was first rumored for a Fox pickup, fans had one question about the cast in particular, and they still do. What about Static Shock? Jaden Smith was once rumored to star as the live-action version of the hero millennial audiences fell in love with in the early 2000’s on Kid’s WB each Saturday morning.  But Isabella is not fond of the prospect of Static in Black Lightning series.

“It was frustrating when people say, ‘I can’t wait to see Static in there.’ Static is a great character, but you put him in Black Lightning, he’s a sidekick, or you reduce Black Lightning to just a mentor role,” Isabella said, adding that Young Justice Season 3 would be a perfect place for Static. “I love both characters, I mean, I love Black Lighting more.”

Fans are also calling for Metamorpho and The Outsiders. Isabella is not opposed.

“I got to tell you, I love the idea of Metamorpho at some point in the future. I love the character. I’m trying to convince DC that some of their b and c characters, they don’t necessarily have to do them themselves. I know a studio like Asylum, they would love to do a DC or Marvel superhero, but their budgets are not Warner Brothers budgets. But Metamorpho you could do. With the technology to do Sharknado, you could do Metamorpho.

Isabella also said, “I think he is,” about the possibility of Tobias Whale appearing in Black Lighting. 

“But I think he will be more like the version you’ve seen before,” Isabella added, noting his new comic book series contains a different take on Tobias Whale than we’re familiar with.

So far, Black Lighting on The CW, like Isabella said, appears to capture the tone of the character from the comics, but the most important value he hopes stays true to the character is responsibility.

“Responsibility. He doesn’t want to be a superhero. He does it because he can and because there’s a need. I always refer to him as a reluctant hero. He would rather be a teacher, he would rather be principal, but he can’t turn his back on what else he is. So he has to use that for the benefit of the community and the world. A lot of superhero comics these days are so self absorbed, every issue the heroes are fighting their old enemies. They’re not actually doing stuff for the community, and that’s what I want to change. Those are the characters I want to write.”

Originally published on Player.One May 22, 2017.