TONY'S ONLINE TIPS From COMICS BUYER'S GUIDE #1512 (11/26/02)
"A people that values its privileges above its principles soon loses both."
-Dwight D. Eisenhower, Inaugural Address (1/20/53)
A recent recruit to the loyal legions of Tips readers e-mailed me seeking enlightenment on a reference he came across in an online review column. In passing, the reviewer mentioned "Tony Isabella's eight-page rule" without delving into the intricacies of the rule, not too surprising since I made up the rule on the run and bend it frequently. Here's the bare bones version:
A comic book has eight pages to show me "something" or I don't continue on to page nine.
The devil being in the details, I'll expand on this "doctrine" by noting the "something" can be an intriguing character, opening, or setting. It can be a clever bit of writing, visual storytelling that pulls me further into the tale, or a development on page eight that makes me want to learn what happens next.
If a comic doesn't deliver "something" in those first pages, if it gives me no reason to care about the characters, if its story can't hold my interest, I toss it aside for the next comic book on the reading pile. Knock on wood, there's always a next comic on my reading pile, usually several hundred, hence the necessity for the "Tony Isabella eight-page rule."
Will I bend/break/shatter this rule for a creator whose past works have entertained me? Of course.
When reading the first issue of a comic, do I sometimes force myself to read beyond page eight because it's a first issue? Yes, far more often than I should.
Has "train wreck fascination" kept me reading past page eight of some monumentally awful comic books? I bow my head in shame and confess this is so.
These exceptions to my rule don't negate its value to me, and, by extension, to you who read my reviews. It cuts our losses and allows us to move on to comics and related items that, good or bad, are more worthy of our discussion.
Cue this week's reviews.
HOUSE OF JAVA: VOLUME 2 (NBM/ComicsLit; $15.95) collects nine "slices of life" by Mark Murphy. Some of his stories are as short as a single page, but all of them share a simple realism and are no less compelling for it.
The best of Murphy's tales is probably "May 27th," wherein an young intern is assigned as counselor to a young man awaiting trial for drug possession. His trial is the same date as her graduation, three months away. Murphy drops us into their lives at intervals, letting us see how their lives are changing...or not. The story, not surprisingly, was inspired by a true story Murphy was told by someone he met on a plane.
My two favorite stories in this book feature a comics-reading paper boy named Nathan, who faces such challenges as coming up with the money for the new Kiss album and not being killed by a tornado. Murphy makes both riveting.
I should also mention a recurrent and most welcome theme seen in a number of Murphy's stories: men and woman are equally clueless in their dealings with one another. We're all bozos on the bus of romance and relationships.
Murphy's art is notable for its clear panel-to-panel flow and comics-realistic portrayals of people and places. It reminded me of Terry Beatty and Pete Morisi with a bit of Jaime Hernandez added to the mix. It's not flashy, but it works perfectly with the tales Murphy is spinning.
On our disembodied critic scale of one to five, HOUSE OF JAVA: VOLUME 2 picks up a commendable four Tonys.
Before I get to my review of THE SHIELD: VOLUME 1 ($12.95), I have to extend kudos to Archie Comics for unlocking the "vault" and giving today's fans an inexpensive opportunity to read some of its super-hero comics of the 1940s. The company was called MLJ Comics back then and its titles featured a score of pretty cool super-heroes. A few of the guys, the Shield most definitely among them, have made brief comebacks since then, but, as long as I've been a comics fan, there has always been a mystique around MLJ's costumed crusaders...and never enough surviving copies to satisfy comicdom's curiosity.
The cover proclaims the Shield to be "America's 1st Patriotic Comic-Book Hero" and I'm not about to challenge the scholarship of comics historians Robert M. Overstreet and Paul Castiglia, authors of this book's forward and introduction. Though Captain America is better known and arguably better-conceived, the Shield does appear to have been the first comics hero to don the Stars and Stripes as prelude to battling bad guys, even beating out Quality's Uncle Sam by a few months.
Joe Higgins, the son of a G-Man killed defending our country, vows to shield America and its people from all who would harm them. Using his father's scientific secrets, Higgins constructs a super-suit which makes him nigh-invulnerable and stronger than any mortal man. Only the head of the F.B.I. knows the Shield's true identity, the better to sic Higgins on those nasty "Stokian" and "Moscanian" spies among us. (The readers of the day weren't fooled; they knew Nazis when they saw them.) As origins go, this one made sure the Shield could leap into action at a panel's notice.
THE SHIELD: VOLUME 1 collects the hero's adventures from PEP COMICS #1-5, and SHIELD-WIZARD COMICS #1. That covers roughly the first half of 1940. The stories are drawn by Irving Novick - yes, the same great artist who continued to draw for DC Comics well into the 1980s - and likely written by Harry Shorten, who was also one of MLJ's editors. Both men are credited on some of the stories in this collection.
The stories are Golden Age excitement at its manic best, great fun as long as you don't ask too many questions. Like, why would Higgins soak himself in kerosene and ignite himself before leaping toward an enemy ship? Did he want to give them a better target for their paralyzing ray gun, the one that doesn't work if said target happens to be wet?
And, in a later story, after the Shield rips an anti-aircraft gun from an American ship and carries it to the top of a bridge to use against enemy bombers, where does he get the ammo to feed into the gun? I didn't see any belts up there with him. The answer to all these questions is: I don't care.
The Golden Age of Comics was about comics writers and artists unleashing their imaginations. Though some would learn quickly to master these flights of fancy in service of their stories, it was a time for the wild, the wondrous, and even the wacky. Baby steps on the path to a mature art form.
For the era, Novick's art is almost as dynamic as that of Jack Kirby. In his foreword, Overstreet says Novick was "ahead of most of his peers and would only be considered slightly dated in modern terms of storytelling, panel-to-panel progression, and portrayal of the characters themselves." It's remarkable work.
Modern readers will also be pleasantly surprised by the cameo appearance of other MLJ heroes (The Wizard, Cadet Kornell) in these earliest Shield adventures. They took place before the founding of the Justice Society and contemporaneously with the first meeting of the Sub-Mariner and the Human Torch.
Taking into account the budget-friendly price of this trade paperback collection, and the historical importance of the stories, THE SHIELD: VOLUME ONE rates four Tonys. I hope it's but the first of many such volumes.
CSI: CRIME SCENE INVESTIGATION: DOUBLE DEALER (Pocket Books; $6.99) is the first in a series of original novels based on the TV series. The show has become one of my favorites in recent months, but I bought this paperback because it's written by one of my six favorite non-comics writers, Max Allan Collins. Okay, Collins is also a comics writer and one of the best, but I'm trying to keep my list manageable. Don't bring it up again and I'll tell you who the other five are at the end of this review.
First off, let's give points to whoever wrote the back-cover copy of this book. In one paragraph, two sentences, you learn what you absolutely need to know to read this book:
Meet the little known and even less understood heroes of police work in Las Vegas - the forensic investigators. Led by veteran Gil Grissom, the remarkable team assigned to the Criminalistics Bureau's graveyard shift - including Catherine Willows, Warrick Brown, Nick Stokes, and Sara Sidle - must combine cutting-edge scientific methods and old-fashioned savvy as they work to untangle the evidence behind the yellow police tape.
Two cases get the action started. A lawyer is shot and killed at an out-of-the-way casino even as a 15-year-old murder victim is discovered at a construction site. In both, the modus operandi of the killer(s) appears to be identical.
Collins does a convincing job writing all the CSI characters. Not unexpectedly, he does an equally fine job taking the readers through the investigations. This attention to accuracy, historical and otherwise, is Collins' M.O. in the excellent Nate Heller novels that earned him a spot on my "top six" list.
I don't like to review mysteries in detail, so all I say about this one is:
a) the killer/killers is/are very careful and very smart, but not so much so as to strain one's credulity;
b) Grissom and crew catch some lucky breaks, but not so lucky as to strain one's credulity;
c) the ultimate payoff is well worth any trepidation I might have had about those lucky breaks; and,
d) my other favorite non-comics writers are Dave Barry, Harlan Ellison, Stephen King, Ed McBain, and Neil Simon. I have a list of my favorite non-comics writers no longer living, but no good reason to include them in this week's column. I'll get around to them one of these weeks. Relish the suspense.
CSI: DOUBLE DEALER gets four Tonys...and I've already ordered the next book in the series.
My pal Russ Maheras has been advertising his MAELSTROM #8 ($5) in this newspaper, which reminded me that I hadn't gotten around to reviewing the fanzine. Maheras packs a lot of material into the 56 pages of his publication and, though I needed a magnifying glass to read it - MAELSTROM measures 5-1/2" by 7" - it was well worth that additional effort.
The warm-ups to the main event are a tribute to Steve Ditko as the artist's 75th birthday draws near, an editorial on high comics prices, a "few choice words about THE COMICS JOURNAL's anti-super-hero bias," and a brief look at collecting paperbacks. Even given MAELSTROM's petite dimensions, it was very cool to see the vintage paperbacks included in that last article.
The main event? That would be Maheras' index of the first 400 issues of THE BUYER'S GUIDE TO COMICS FANDOM, the original name of our beloved CBG. I'm forever in awe of the dedication and insanity that goes into comics scholarship of this caliber. Comicdom needs more fans like Maheras.
I had to take this zine's size into account, but MAELSTROM #8 still rates three Tonys.
If you'd like to order a copy, send five bucks, which includes shipping, to:
144 Morgan Place
Highwood, IL 60040
Try to avoid asking Maheras when he's going to index the next 1100-plus issues of this newspaper. I'm afraid that could send him right over the edge, a loss to us all.
The above column first appeared in COMICS BUYER'S GUIDE #1512 [November 8, 2002], which shipped on October 21.
If I have an e-mail address for a creator and/or editor whose work I've reviewed in a column, I'll e-mail them an advance copy of said column. Sometimes they drop me a note back.
MAX ALLAN COLLINS writes:
Thanks, Tony, for the kind words about CSI: DOUBLE DEALER. The second one is out and you should know...you may want to comment on it if you review it...that the title CSI: SIN CITY is not mine, and was done not only without my input but without my knowledge. My title was terrific: DEAD NUDE GIRLS. Some politically correct party above me on the food chain (not a small group) nixed it and this title was substituted. Apologies, obviously, to Frank Miller.
You probably know I'm also doing a CSI 5-part comic book mini-series for IDW, right? ROAD TO PERDITION has put me back on the comics path, it would seem.
Speaking as a fan of MAC's comics work from his stint on the DICK TRACY strip and MS. TREE on, I'm delighted at his triumphant return to comics.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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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