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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 #1474 (03/02/02)

"The play of imagination is a great help in the work of imagination."
-Uncredited; 20,000 QUIPS & QUOTES by Evan Esar

I have been reviewing DC Comics titles for the past few weeks, but my goal of reviewing an entire's month worth of the publisher's diverse and numerous offerings has eluded me. The company released more comic books in that one month than I could read and review, though I am going into training so that I can try this again in the summer. "A man's reach," as someone once said, "should ever exceed his grasp or what's a heaven for?"

I give DC high marks for coming as close to publishing a comic mag for every age and interest as any company within recent memory. One area of particular interest to me and, I suspect, other comics fans of my generation, was the series of prestige format one-shots in which Stan Lee, working with some of the best artists in comics today, created new versions of classic DC heroes. So, to wrap up this series of DC reviews, I'm going to take a look at the six JUST IMAGINE STAN LEE books published to date.

******

Given the unwieldy title of this comic book, JUST IMAGINE STAN LEE WITH JOE KUBERT CREATING BATMAN (DC; $5.95) has a classy cover design which contains a lot of information, visual and otherwise, without looking cluttered. Brainchild Studios is credited with the publication and logo design, so I'm assuming the above praise goes to them and to cover artist Kubert. They kicked off DC's Stan Lee event in fine style. Moving right along...

The great: Stan Lee's introductory note sets the proper tone for this series. His trademark enthusiasm comes through perfectly, but his words also conveys his clear respect for the creators and the chroniclers of Batman from the 1930s to today.

The unconscionable: Bill Finger is not credited as co-creator of Batman. It's long past time for DC to make this right no matter what it takes.

The good: Lee and Kubert make a great team. The story flows well, with the writing and artwork both working in service of that story. It's not quite a textbook of how to do comics, but most of DC and Marvel's current creators could learn from it.

The good: I like this "new" Batman. He has good instincts and tries to live by them, even when the mean streets in which he lives heap tragedy on him. He is not an unblemished hero, but there is a greatness and a nobility within him. An ongoing title portraying his journey towards them would be worth reading.

The inspiring: This comic book has some of Lee's best writing in years. It is dramatic without being melodramatic. Most of the characters have believable, consistent speech patterns. In fact, the only misstep is page 18 which breaks the rhythm of the story by referring to it as a story.

The equally inspiring: Kubert's artwork is a wondrous thing to behold. Again, the current DC and Marvel storytellers could learn much from his work here.

The giggle: Seeing Lee's Batman earn his fortune by wrestling professionally, succeeding where an earlier Lee super-hero creation (with Steve Ditko) did not. I like the symmetry of this; wrestling was big in the 1960s and it's even bigger today. It is very cool that Lee recognized and made use of this.

The other giggle, the one where I'm laughing at them and not with them: Any wrestler who wears a cape is asking to have his neck broken. That cape looks cool, but our hero would do well to remove it dramatically ere he enters the ring.

The so-so: There are two scenes introducing Dominic Darrk and his Church of Eternal Empowerment. Set-ups for the other one-shots in the JUST IMAGINE series, they are a clumsy fit to the otherwise smooth-as-silk flow of this story.

The good: Bill Oakley is one of the best letterers in comics. His work has the heart often lacking in today's over-computerized lettering. I hope he's with the series for the duration.

The good: I'm not as familiar with the work of colorist Sibin Slavkovic or separators SAF-Scanart of Slovenia, but I hope to see much more of their work in the future. This is the kind of comics coloring I prefer, coloring which serves and does not overpower the story or the artwork.

The okay: The "On the Street" back-up by writer Michael Uslan and artist Michael Wm. Kaluta was a pleasant filler. I enjoyed it, especially Kaluta's artwork, but this regularly scheduled back-up feature will have to prove itself to be more than an one-trick pony before I can embrace it fully.

The okay: Adam Hughes does the back cover. It's a nice piece of work, but it follows two tough acts in Kubert and Kaluta. I'll give Hughes props for taking on the challenge.

The bottom line: I highly recommend this comic book to anyone who is a fan of Stan Lee, Joe Kubert, Batman, great storytelling, super-heroes, and the seemingly endless possibilities of the truly great comic-book characters.

******

You won't find Amazon princesses in JUST IMAGINE STAN LEE WITH JIM LEE CREATING WONDER WOMAN ($5.95). It's in the jungles of Peru where Maria Mendoza is chosen by the Sun God to be the protector of the Earth against the forces of destruction. Unfortunately, this issue didn't come together as well as the others in the series and wasn't as much fun.

The okay: Jim Lee and Scott Williams are terrific artists, but I get bored pretty quickly with the over-rendered art which briefly held sway a decade ago. Lee's work has always been superior to his many imitators, but this style of comics art seems forever calling attention to itself.

The "oh, please": If the "sun god" was going to the trouble of creating armor for his protector anyway, how come he couldn't make it so it covered her entire bosom? That's a rhetorical question, of course, but I'm still working on why the transformed Maria wears white stretch pants.

The good: Lee the elder imbues his story with a sense of myth and magic. We get the great evil vanquished...only to be reborn in a man's lust for power. We get the great good creating a champion to face the evil. These are familiar themes, but Lee explores them so earnestly the reader never sees the wrinkles. Which is amazing considering how tight Wonder Woman's costume is.

(See what I mean about Lee the younger's style forever calling attention to itself?)

The good: Maria Mendoza's passion for social justice speaks to my proudly bleeding liberal heart. If this Wonder Woman continued in her own series, I could see her addressing a vast range of real-world concerns. I wouldn't miss an issue.

The disappointing: Judge Mendoza, Maria's father, needed more on-stage time to flesh out his character. A proud man fallen under the shade of the villain du jour, he barely reveals the man he must have been before his fall from grace. Because of that, his tragedy carries less emotional weight than it could have.

The disappointing: The rest of the supporting cast also comes off as two-dimensional. Armando Guitez is cut from the same cloth as so many celluloid villains, the ones who murder some non-entity to show they're the bad guy and then kill someone close to the hero to make it personal. Steve Trevor is an undercover archaeologist whose main purpose is to offer aid and exposition as needed. The jury that deliberates in my head is still out on Mike Willard, the handsome sports car-driving editor/writer of the tabloid National Exposer, but his offices seems to have the same basic layout as Lee the younger's Wildstorm offices in La Jolla.

Unanswered question: Guitez turns into a really ugly monster when he bonds with the afore-mentioned great evil. Why don't these good-looking bad boys ever take a moment to consider their changed appearance? Me, I'd be uttering a few choice expletives if I got all scaly and claw-y and snout-y.

Unanswered question: As Wonder Woman, Maria flies from Peru to Los Angeles under her own power. By story's end, she gets a job as Willard's assistant. I'm asking...did she have a green card tucked away in her stretch pants?

The very cool: For the "On the Street" back-up, Lee the elder and co-writer Michael Uslan team up with artists Gene Colan and Tom Palmer. The uplifting tale shows the power of Wonder Woman making a difference in the lives of others, even when she doesn't interact with them directly.

Also very cool: The back-up introduces museum curators Diana Prince and Carter (Hall?), and shows them receiving a pair of hawk-headed runes from Steve Trevor. If this be foreshadowing (Duh!), we can look forward to seeing the arrival of Hawkman and Hawkwoman to the Stan Lee corner of DC Comics.

The bottom line: Though this is the least of the JUST IMAGINE issues released to date, I can't imagine not getting all of them. Just for the sheer fun and wonder of it.

******

In JUST IMAGINE STAN LEE WITH JOHN BUSCEMA CREATING SUPERMAN ($5.95), the title hero is an alien police officer, an ordinary man competing and surpassing his enhanced colleagues by virtue of his brain and his will. He pursues the killer of his wife onto a ship, the only one of its kind, which is capable of traveling across the galaxies by bending space and time. The ship crashes on Earth and that's where the story gets interesting.

The good: How could I not get all misty about Lee and Buscema reuniting one more time? I first read this issue when it came out, and again after Buscema's death. On both occasions, I read it with joy and wonder, though it was a somewhat more solemn pleasure that second time around. Sigh.

The good: Lee's writing is, by turns, melodramatic and impish. When the story calls for it, he's the serious orator. When he sees an opening, he goes for the small laugh, the laugh that amuses without distracting from the story. Like an athlete regaining his form, he does this much better than he did in BATMAN.

The good: Salden, a.k.a. Superman, is a fine creation. On our world, he's an outsider and a reluctant hero, fighting evil to keep it from being a distraction to Earth's development of space flight. He's no rocket scientist; he can't get back to his own world until some local genius builds a spaceship. Down the line, when he meets the other JI heroes, this self-interest contrasts intriguingly with the more altruistic characters.

The good: The Buscema artwork lacks none of John's signature characteristics. He can draw beauty and ugliness with just enough reality to make them believable. His figures, whether in motion or at ease, have the same quality. His storytelling is as sure as it ever was, moving a reader through the issue with nary a visual bump along the way. He was one of the finest artists in comics history and, damn, but he'll be missed.

The ho-hum: Gundor Gorrok is a criminal Salden put away some time in the past. He breaks out of prison and kills Salden's wife, which is not exactly the freshest biscuit in the basket. On Earth, despite the powers he gains from our lesser gravity, he remains an one-note thug and ends up working for Dominic Darrk of the Church of Eternal Empowerment after the bad Reverend does a few mystical tricks. A truly great arch-foe needs more than the revenge motif

to make him worthy of our continued interest.

Funny stuff: When Salden must quickly come up with an earthly identity, he draws his inspiration from a "Clark & Peter Ice Cream" truck and the street sign at the intersection of "Parker Place" and "Kent Street." I don't think I could have resisted the temptation to go with the legally dangerous choice.

The wonderful: Lois Lane is an hard-as-nails agent who signs up Salden, sics her attorney on the feds when they try to exercise eminent domain over the gear they erroneously believe is the source of Superman's powers, and, by the end of the story, is preparing to dump her other clients to concentrate on Superman...and not just on a professional level. This Lois is clever, greedy, and lusty; she would destroy a lesser man.

The just-as-wonderful: In the "On the Street" back-up by Lee, Uslan, and artist Kyle Baker, we meet Joe, the owner and creative mastermind behind Fly-By-Night Comics. Figuring that aliens don't have rights and that Superman represents an opportunity to top DC and Marvel, he sells millions of Superman comics in a few months. That's when an angry Lois Lane storms into his office and slaps her business card on his desk...

Superman's
Agent-Manager
Lois Lane
555-2587
"He gets the bad guys; I get 20%!"
...and hilarity ensues.

The bottom line: It's a toss-up which JUST IMAGINE offering is better, this book or the Lee-Kubert Batman. What I definitely know is that I'm having a blast following the series. Stop by next week for my reviews of Stan the Man's takes on Green Lantern, the Flash, and the Justice League of America.

******

APOLOGY

If you came looking for this column early Saturday morning and didn't find it, it's because I'm writing it Saturday afternoon. I had to attend to some pressing personal matters this week and that played havoc with my schedule. Our obstinate universe just refuses to align itself to my specifications. I'm sorry for the delay and I'll try to do better in the future.

******

TONY'S MAILBOX

Our first letter comes from JOE FRANK, who takes issue with a bit of phrasing from the above column. He writes

You referred to the treatment of neglected Batman co-creator Bill Finger as "unconscionable." I agree; his contributions, though important, continue to be ignored by people who should know better. Yet, if treating a vital co-creator as a nonentity or lesser helper is blatantly wrong in one situation, why not another?

Case in point: In reference to Spider-Man, you call him a "Lee super-hero creation (with Steve Ditko)." If it was a co-creation between equals, as Stan has occasionally admitted, why phrase it as if it were mostly the work of one with a lesser assist from the other? The precision of words is important. As a writer, you know that better than most. Why not use the more correct co-creator phrase in reference to Stan (as well as Steve?)

If it's wrong to treat Finger as a second class citizen, why is it any more acceptable when it's done to Steve Ditko? At least, you bothered to mention Ditko's name. Too many omit it altogether. While I agree ignoring Finger is pathetic, he's not an isolated case. Dismissing or lessening the contributions of any co-creator is just plain wrong. With the upcoming Spider-Man movie, I hope to see Stan and Steve equally noted for their vital contributions.

I sent Joe this response via e-mail

Though I have a great deal of respect for Steve Ditko and feel he played a vital role in the visual creation of Spider-Man, I believe Stan Lee was the primary creator of the character. I also don't feel my wording excludes Ditko from co-creator status.

In the case of Batman, virtually everything that was essential to the character beyond the name, the bat-motif, and the "playboy fighting crime in disguise" bit came from Finger. He even refined the design of the costume.

I, too, hope that Stan and Steve receive credit on the movie and hope (without much expectation) they will profit from the film. But I still feel Stan was the primary creator here.

Since I wrote the above, Joe has sent and I have read a note written by Stan Lee (dated 8/18/99) wherein Stan says he has always considered Steve Ditko to be Spider-Man's co-creator. Since I did not deny that status in my column, I'm certainly not going to argue against it now.

However, when I write that I consider Stan the primary creator of Spider-Man, I'm including such generally-accepted-as-accurate reports that Ditko was not Stan's first choice for the Spider-Man artist. In itself, that establishes that Stan was already working on Spider-Man before Ditko entered the picture.

Joe also sent me several articles written by Ditko in which he sets forth his involvement with Spider-Man. The articles are from Robin Synder's THE COMICS, a newsletter which strives to provide a "first-person history" of the comics field. As is typical, Ditko spends a good chunk of the initial article preaching his simplistic "A=A" philosophy before stating his claims.

It wouldn't be fair to refute articles most of you have likely not read, so I'll try to zero in on what I see as the key problem with accepting Ditko's version of events without reservations. It comes down to this

Ditko puts forth the truth as he recalls it, but does not back up his statements with hard evidence. He writes of loose synopsis, but doesn't provide copies of them, or corroborating testimony from any other witness to the creative process. He is the only witness and, by his own words, that puts the burden of proof of his claims on him. He fails his own test for objectivity.

The key elements of Spider-Man's origin are Peter Parker, his family, his life, his fateful encounter with a radioactive spider, his reaction to the spider-powers he receives, his tragic mistake, and the effect of that mistake on his life. Were these elements in Stan's original synopsis? If they weren't, and if Ditko can prove he was their originator, then I will gladly change my opinion that Stan was the primary creator of Spider-Man.

I've no doubt Ditko played an absolutely key role in shaping the visuals of Spider-Man's world and in developing the character's world beyond that first story. But the true creation of Spider-Man is in that first story and, barring refuting evidence from Ditko or anyone else, the key elements of that creation were already in play when Ditko entered the picture.

In the case of Joe's taking issue with my column's phrasing, I think this is one of those nits that people sometimes must pick and I don't fault him for it. Stan Lee considers Steve Ditko to be the co-creator of Spider-Man and, given what Ditko brought to the table, I think that's justified. I've referred to Ditko as such in the past and will doubtless do so in the future. In fact, having expended all this energy responding to Joe's complaint, you can BET I'll do so in the future.

For the record, I don't believe that phrasing was inaccurate. Calling Spider-Man a Stan Lee creation does not negate the presence of a co-creator. Saying Stan created Spider-Man "with Steve Ditko" doesn't deny co-creator status to Ditko.

Here's a promise. If and when Marvel gets around to doing a "WHAT IF JULIUS SCHWARTZ CREATED SPIDER-MAN WITH..." comic, and if it fails to credit both Stan and Steve as creators, I'll devote as much space to those omissions as I did with that of Bill Finger in the Batman creator credits.

******

I'll be back here on Tuesday with the "TONY POLLS" results for the week of February 24, and again next Saturday with a CBG reprint and other goodies.

See you then.

Tony Isabella

<< 02/26/2002 | 03/02/2002 | 03/05/2002 >>

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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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