While we’re spotlighting creators issues and outlooks here at Anniversary Week at The Beat, here’s an oldie but a goodie: The (Sad) Saga of Black Lightning’s Creation by Daniel Best which presents documents and drawings from writer Tony Isabella and artist Trevor von Eeden, the team known to have created Black Lightning’s first appearance. There’s some dispute over how the two should be credited — Isabella claims sole creative credit due to having come up with the character all on his own and described the costume and so on — but von Eeden has drawings but…we’ll we won’t get into that here. Von Eeden doesn’t want the creator’s credit–or the royalties that come with it — but has his own opinions. But that’s not what we’re here to talk about today. As is well known, Isabella had the foresight to keep a piece of the character he had created independently of DC editorial — a move he thinks backfired…
Another interesting aspect to the story surrounds the deal that Tony Isabella struck with DC for Black Lightning in the first place. According to the deal each time DC use the character they have to pay Tony a royalty. This is a standard practice for comic books and has been for years, if not decades now, but Tony managed to negotiate a higher rate than standard if Black Lightning is spun off into another medium, say a cartoon series, television or movies. Most established characters that Marvel and DC own don’t fall under this rule as they were created under different circumstances in different times (this also explains why Nightcrawler was absent from the third X-Men movie, as Marvel found themselves in a situation where they would have had to pay Dave Cockrum for the rights to use the character, a situation that did not exist for the first two movies and the early cartoon shows), but the deal explains why Black Vulcan appeared in the Superfriends cartoon series and not Black Lightning. This also explains why you’re very unlikely to see Black Lightning in the cinema any time soon. This kind of a royalty deal is why some characters such as Anarky and the Malibu creations are rarely sighted in print these days. It is then reasonable to theorise that DC did change the credit designation in an attempt to further muddy the waters of Tony’s claims of creation along with wanting to properly acknowledge the input of Trevor Von Eeden in the overall design of Black Lightning. It is also important to note that once DC changed the credit Trevor began to receive half of the money from royalties. “For that matter,” says Tony, “it’s probably a violation of that agreement for Trevor to receive half my royalty money on Black Lightning. But, truth be told, I care far less about that money than I do about DC’s lying about my status as Black Lightning’s sole creator.”
Obviously, there are two sides to every story — how much was the payment to Dave Cockrum that it would have bankrupted a movie franchise? (It was the ballooning cost of the all-star cast of the the first X-Men movie that ended that franchise.) Still, the Black Vulcan/Black Lightning substitution is a well-known case…and left us with one of the most awful cartoon characters of all time, next to Apache Chief. And in honor of Black History Month, let us once more reaffirm those vows to never, ever name a black character Black anything.
The whole post is definitely worth a read if only to show that editorial machinations are as old as comics themselves.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.