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Tony's Online Tips
Reviews and commentary by Tony Isabella
"America's Most Beloved Comic-Book Writer & Columnist"

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TONY'S ONLINE TIPS
From COMICS BUYER'S GUIDE #1468 (01/26/02)

"Angels we have heard on high, tell us to go out and buy!"
-Tom Lehrer, "A Christmas Carol"

If I actually paid for more than a handful of the hundreds of comic books which find their way into Casa Isabella each month, I'd be a comics industry dream come true. Okay, maybe it wouldn't be the dream where comics are bought by every man, woman, and child in America, or the dream where Oprah's latest book club selection is CrossGen's MYSTIC or DC's JUST IMAGINE STAN LEE WITH FRANK MILLER CREATING SCOOBY-DOO, or even the one where Nicole Kidman realizes that only a manly CBG columnist of Italian ancestry can ever truly satisfy her, but a dream nonetheless.

I love comics of all kinds, this despite my having spent most of the past three decades working in the comics field as a writer, editor, retailer, distributor, consultant, promoter, commentator, and lecturer. From ACTION COMICS, AMERICAN SPLENDOR, ARCHIE, and AVENGERS...to UNCLE SCROOGE, X-MEN, YOUNG ROMANCE, and ZORRO...I'm still loving these things. In fact, it's only the twin barriers of time and money that keep from reading every comic book I can get my slab-busting hands on.

T'was not always the case. For the past few years, I confess, I've been reading only enough comics to get me through my CBG and online columns. During this time, thousands of unread comics have filled numerous corners of my home and office. Like many long-time readers, it had become difficult for me to marshal enthusiasm for current comics. But, slowly but surely, with their beguiling ways, the comics industry has won me back.

One of the most visible results of my born-again love for the comics is that I'm reviewing more comics in this column than ever before. This week, I'm looking at the latest review copies I have from Dark Horse Comics and rating them on my own exclusive equine-based scale. It goes like this:

WIN (the best of the bunch)

PLACE (a solid performer)

SHOW (a contender)

ALSO-RAN (didn't die on the track)

GLUE (*should* have died on the track)

A quick warning. In most cases, these are the first issues of these titles I've read. I'm very big on comics being accessible to new readers and that is a factor in my reviews. With 17 comics and a DARK HORSE EXTRA on the track, let's start the races.

******

ANGEL #1 (of 4; $2.99) is based on the television show created by Joss Whedon and David Greenwalt. Angel is your basic centuries-old-vampire-with-a-soul-trying-to-atone-for-his-past-evil; the show is a favorite in the Isabella household.

Written by Brett Matthews and Whedon himself, the comic takes more of an overt "super-hero" approach to ANGEL than is seen in the TV show. That concept could work, were it not for the writing and the Mel Rubi/Chris Dreier artwork leaning towards the shallow end of the genre pool. Save for a few welcome scenes featuring Angel's supporting players, the issue is mostly slam-bang action with, at least at this point in the story, not much of a plot. Add Rubi's and Dreier's inability to nail the likenesses of the actors playing these roles and the best I can give this book is a dismal ALSO-RAN. I hope ANGEL performs better with its second issue.

******

When it comes to well-known properties like BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER and STAR WARS, most readers buying the comic-book versions don't need a lot of "what has gone before." But, the comics still need to bring readers up to date on what's happening in the current stories.

BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER #37 ($2.99) is a fine continuation of the feisty slayer's television adventures. However, it's a middle chapter of a longer story which plays with the false/new memories created by the introduction of kid sister Dawn into a reality where she had not previously existed. So, in between a tale in which Big Sis is fighting a nasty Asian vampire, we get some fun flashbacks showing the alternate/new history of the "Buffyverse." I got a tad lost in places, but not so much that it prevented me from enjoying the issue. Writers Tom Fassbender and Jim Pascoe did an excellent job adapting the Buffy characters to comics, as did penciler Cliff Richards (with inkers Joe Pimental and Will Conrad) in captured the likenesses of the actors who play those characters. This one earns a PLACE rating.

******

BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER: OZ #3 (of 3; $2.99) is Christopher Golden's telling of what happened to Oz, the werewolf boyfriend of Buffy pal Willow, between the episode in which he left Sunnyvale to seek a means of controlling his inner beast, and the episode in which he briefly returned to Sunnyvale. This issue scores points for its exquisite John Totleben cover and Golden's writing, but it loses some for not sufficiently recapping the previous issues for new readers and for the so-so artwork. With better art, it could have been a contender, but, as is, it's an ALSO-RAN.

******

DARK HORSE EXTRA #40 costs a mere quarter and folds out into a four-page newspaper-size promotional mag. Along with the plugs for upcoming Dark Horse stuff, you get a trio of brilliantly-hued comic strips (Ancient Joe, Buffy, and Spyboy) with a suitable-for-hanging poster of Shannon Wheeler's Too Much Coffee Man. It's an amazing buy for a quarter and, as such, it rates a WIN.

******

Joss Whedon's FRAY #4 ($2.99) features a vampire slayer of the future who has yet to attain the powers and skills of her calling. Whedon's writing isn't as sharp and layered as his screenwriting--he created and continues to oversee and write for BUFFY and ANGEL-- but he still tells a great story and manages to recap most of what has gone before the issue's end. The art by Karl Moline and Andy Owens is good, but not outstanding, with an occasional awkward and therefore distracting panel. I give it a SHOW.

******

GRENDEL: THE DEVIL INSIDE #1 and #2 ($2.99 each) reprint the previous published story by creator/writer Matt Wagner and artist Bernie Mireault. I've never been a big Grendel fan, but, even so, I appreciated the adroit manner in which these issues depict the growing rage of the protagonist and his helpless surrender to that rage. Editor Diana Schutz, one of the best in the biz, sweetens this re-presentation with lively letters pages and photo features. My personal disinterest in Grendel notwithstanding, the two issues most definitely rate a WIN.

******

Kosuke Fujishima's OH MY GODDESS! Part X #5 ($3.50) features the second half of the heartwarming storyline wherein engineering student Keiichi Morisato and Belldandy, the goddess he unwittingly summoned to Earth many issues ago, can't stop holding hands. This charming manga features 40 pages of story, a lovely cover painting, and an inside front cover which painlessly introduces new readers to the cast of characters and the story so far. Chalk up another WIN for the folks at Dark Horse.

******

There was, and may still be, a sub-genre of fantasy fiction which seemingly consisted of not-very-talented writers taking their boring Dungeons and Dragons games and turning them into ever more tiresome novels. OUTLAW 7 #1 ($2.99) is the comic-book equivalent of that painful phenomena. It combines uninteresting characters in great numbers with equally uninteresting situations, also in great numbers. The writing is completely inadequate to the challenge of turning this literary sow's ear into anything other than a raggedy and ripening sow's ear. The artwork was as hard on my eyes as what passed for a story was on my mind. This comic book is GLUE and not even particularly functional glue at that.

******

The production values on SILKE #4 ($2.99) are exceptional, and you can probably figure out that the review won't be favorable when it begins like that. Creator/writer/illustrator Tony Daniel makes no effort to ease the new reader into this story of (I think) some mutated humans battling each other at the behest of some government agency or enormous corporation. Truth be told, save for admiring the splash page artwork and noting that the heroine's proportions weren't as unrealistic as in many similar comics, it was a struggle to read this issue. It's a higher grade of GLUE than Outlaw 7, but it's GLUE nonetheless.

******

STAR WARS #34 and #35 ($2.99 each) comprise the last half of the "Darkness" arc by writer John Ostrander, penciler Jan Durasema, and inker Ray Kryssing. These comics were a tough call; I wanted to rate them higher than I did, but I had some problems with some aspects of them.

The Jon Foster cover paintings were moderately intriguing, but didn't do justice to the absolutely wonderful interior art of these issues. Durasema and Kryssing, working with colorist Dave McCaig, created some of the best-looking Star Wars comics ever.

Ostrander's script was well-written, but neither he nor editor Dave Land offered much of a leg-up for the reader just coming into this story. With more background, I think I would have been more interested in the characters and the story. I'll probably catch up on the preceding issues at some point in the near future, but they aren't, at this point, must-read comics for me.

On my racing form, these issues rare a PLACE. However, it was the interior art which lifted them to that level.

******

STAR WARS INFINITIES: A NEW HOPE #3 (of 4; $2.99) could have used both "What Has Gone Before" and a "What the Heck We're Doing" sections, though it didn't take me long to figure out this comic is set in some alternate reality where Luke Skywalker didn't make the Death Star go...well, it shouldn't really go anything, space being a vacuum and all, but that's aside from the point.

This issue gets high marks all around. Chris Warner delivered a great script that has me anxious to see what happens next to its familiar-yet-different characters. Artists Al Rio and Neil Nelson told the story well and nailed the likenesses perfectly. Colorist Dave McCaig has definitely made me a fan of his work. This comic definitely rates a WIN.

******

STAR WARS: JEDI QUEST #1 and #2 (of 4; $2.99 each) take place shortly after STAR WARS: THE PHANTOM MENACE and 28 years prior to STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE. Anakin Skywalker struggles with his fear as he makes (or acquires) his first light-saber and goes on a mission with mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi. The mission, protecting a ship from a space pirate/slaver, has connections to both Anakin's past and the Jedi Knights themselves. I wouldn't have objected to a bit of "The Story So Far" on the inside front cover, but, if a reader has seen THE PHANTOM MENACE, he wouldn't have much trouble getting into this series and its lead characters.

Ryder Windham's script is solid. The Pop Mhan and Norman Lee artwork is good, but not a great fit with the Star Wars universe. Colorist Dave Nestelle also did a good job, though I think he could have expanded the range of colors beyond what he used and lightened up on the darkness of the ones he did use. My complaints are not major ones. I give these issues a rating of PLACE.

******

STAR WARS: JEDI VS. SITH #6 (of 6; $2.99) didn't work for me. The mini-series takes place 1000 years before the events of A NEW HOPE or about 950 years before I give a rodent's posterior about anything that happens in the mythos. I'll give Dark Horse credit for including a "The Story So Far" recap on the inside front cover, but that's the best I have for them here.

Darko Macan's script is serviceable, but he writes as if there were a competition on how many times he could use the word "death" or its variants in this issue. The story is all grim and bloody, the characters about as unpleasant a bunch as you'll find outside your in-laws, and the artwork rarely rises above mere competency. Readers whose interest in STAR WARS encompasses the centuries-old history of that reality might love this stuff, but the best rating I can give it is an ALSO-RAN.

******

STAR WARS: TAG & BINK ARE DEAD #1 (of 2; $2.99) had me from this opening caption

It is a period of great strife and turmoil at DARK HORSE COMICS. With Episode II still months away, editors struggle to meet the demand for new STAR WARS comics, brought on by a ravenous and unforgiving fan base.

Tag and Bink are rebels who manage to be in the wrong place at the wrong time over and over again...and still manage to survive to make their next rendezvous with absolute disaster. They are on the scene when Princess Leia is seized at the start of A NEW HOPE, when Alderaan is blown away, and when the Death Star goes...whoops, I did that joke already. Think Abbott and Costello in George Lucas drag and you won't be too far off the mark.

Writer Kevin Rubio is a mad genius. I wish that I had thought of this book; that's how much I enjoyed reading it. Penciler Lucas Marangon and inker Howard M. Shum meet magnificently the challenge of giving Rubio's insanity illustrated life. This was my favorite comic of the Dark Horse batch and it rates the biggest WIN we can fit on the page. I love these guys.

******

That brings us to USAGI YOJIMBO #52 ($2.99) by Stan Sakai, a terrific issue in which the title hero never appears. I'm not sure why he's not around...to my great shame, I am terribly behind in my reading of this, one of my all-time favorite comic titles...but the samurai rabbit's absence did not lessen my enjoyment of the issue in the slightest, a credit to Sakai's storytelling skill.

"Kitsune's Tale" is a done-in-one adventure wherein traveling companions Gen and Kitsune pause in their travels, and the former learns of the latter's past. The deceptively simple story contains elements of humor and insight, loss and hope, heart and humanity, all marvelously staged by writer/artist Sakai.

Enjoying USAGI YOJIMBO is not a casual experience. Along with the exciting stories, readers get smoothly integrated lessons on a culture and a time so distant from our own. I've been recommending this series to readers of all ages for well over a decade and don't see any reason to stop now. It's a WIN.

I hope you enjoyed our day at the races. I'll be reviewing a month's worth of Image titles next week. Stop by to see what kind of wacky rating systems I come up with for them!

******

FUN WITH FAITH

BELIEFNET is "a multi-faith e-community designed to help you meet your own religious and spiritual needs-in an interesting, captivating, and engaging way." The site isn't affiliated with any particular religion and does not promote any particular religion. It seeks to provide information and inspiration which it hopes will set visitors on the path that's right for them.

A comics friend directed me to the site's BELIEF-O-MATIC quiz as an amusing and perhaps enlightening way to kill a few minutes. Here's the set-up:

Even if YOU don't know what faith you are, "Belief-O-Matic" knows. Answer questions about your concept of God, the afterlife, human nature, and more...Belief-O-Matic will tell you what religion (if any) you practice...or ought to consider practicing. Warning: Belief-O-Matic assumes no legal liability for the ultimate fate of your soul.

There are 20 questions. The top score on the list reprinted here represents the faith that B-O-M felt most closely matched my beliefs, though it cautioned that even a score of 100% didn't mean the faith and I shared all the same views. It then listed another 26 faiths in order of how much they had in common with my beliefs. I found the results amusing:

1. Liberal Protestant (100%)

2. Bah'a'i (93%)

3. Liberal Quaker (89%)

4. Unitarian Universalism (80%)

5. Mahayana Buddhism (71%)

6. Neo-Paganism (70%)

7. New Age (70%)

8. Reform Judaism (67%)

9. Orthodox Quaker (62%)

10. Christian Science (no percentage listed)

11. Theravada Buddhism (59%)

12. Latter-Day Saint (Mormon) (57%)

13. Sikhism (57%)

14. New Thought (55%)

15. Secular Humanism (52%)

16. Orthodox Judaism (52%)

17. Conservative Protestant (51%)

18. Jainism (51%)

19. Taoism (49%)

20. Islam (47%)

21. Jehovah's Witness (46%)

22. Hinduism (44%)

23. Scientology (44%)

24. Seventh Day Adventist (34%)

25. Atheism and Agnosticism (33%)

26. Eastern Orthodox (29%)

27. Roman Catholic (29%)

Please, God, don't let my parents read this week's column and discover that the faith they raised me in came in dead last on this list. I'm afraid they would light so many prayer candles at Sts. Philip and James Church in Cleveland that they could accidentally burn the place down.

For the spiritually curious, Belief-O-Match has links to info on each of the religions listed. If you'd like to take this quiz yourself, head over to:

http://www.beliefnet.com/story/76/story_7665_1.html

******

TONY'S MAILBOX

The e-mail is starting to come in on the all-reviews format of my current CBG columns and, so far, the readers seem to be enjoying the switch. This note is from STEPHEN BEALS

Thank you for making the decision to write reviews with bite for CBG. Don Thompson's reviews were one of my favorite features in CBG and it seemed like things got kind of wimpy for years. It was almost like the omission of a comic-book title in a review of, say, recent Marvel releases was the reviewer's subtle way of saying that they didn't like it.

I think it is possible to write about a comic you didn't like and be civilized about it. Don once wrote a review of X-Men titles in the early 1990s that I considered worthy of framing; it said everything I was thinking and left no doubt that the books--at that time--were absolute brainless fodder with the exception of Peter David's X-Factor run. I've just re-started my CBG subscription, so I'm looking forward to reading your reviews.

Re: your Archie reviews. I like the "Juggies" method. I don't think I've read a review of Archies since Don Thompson reviewed them about ten years ago. Not much has changed, really, because it seems like you're saying about the same things. Archie was one of my favorites in grade school and I love that the company is still putting out a lot of books.

CBG edits out the word "crap?" That's surprising. I know they have been cautious about the language for years and that it's often cited that the CBG is carried in some elementary school libraries, but I'm almost certain I've seen the word appear in the CBG before. Oh well.

You have, but my CBG editors insist it was an oversight they will not allow again. In recent years, they have also edited such common phrases as "don't give a rat's ass" and "...and monkeys will fly out of my butt." Maybe I'm just a potty-mouth, but I don't see the problem.

Thanks for your kind comments on my reviews and how I review comics. My operative plan for 2002 is to stick to this all-reviews format in my CBG columns.

I'll be back next Saturday with more stuff.

Tony Isabella

<< 01/12/2002 | 01/19/2002 | 01/26/2002 >>

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THE "TONY" SCALE

Zero Tonys
ZERO: Burn your money before buying any comic receiving this rating. It doesn't *necessarily* mean there's absolutely nothing of value here - though it *could* - but whatever value it might possess shrinks into insignificance before its overall awfulness.

Tony
ONE: Buy something else. Maybe I found something which wasn't completely dreadful in the item, but not enough for me to recommend it when there are better comics available. I only want what's best for you, my children.

TonyTony
TWO: Basic judgment call. I found some value, but not enough to recommend it. My review should give you enough info to decide if you want to take a chance on it. Are you feeling lucky today, punk? Well, are you?

TonyTonyTony
THREE: This denotes something I find perfectly respectable. There are better books out there, but I wouldn't regret buying this item. Based on my review, you should be able to determine if it's of interest to you. Let the Force guide you.

TonyTonyTonyTony
FOUR: I recommend anything earning this rating. Unless you don't like the genre, subject matter, or past work of the creators, I believe you'll enjoy this item. Isn't it uncanny how I can look right into your soul that way?

TonyTonyTonyTonyTony
FIVE: Anything getting this rating is among the best comicdom has to offer. You should buy/read this, even if the genre/subject matter doesn't appeal to you. It's for your own good. Me, I live for comics and books this good...but not in a pathetic "Comic-Book Guy" sort of way.



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