TONY'S ONLINE TIPS From COMICS BUYER'S GUIDE #1515 (12/07/02)
"When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants, and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall, always."
The name, to be sure, does not roll trippingly off the tongue. Still, a quick glance at comicdom's direct market charts places THE ULTIMATES among the top five sellers every month since its debut. That achievement earns the Marvel Comics title an extended look in this week's "Tips," and, to mark the occasion, and with apologies to Sergio Leone, I'll shift into "The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly" mode for this review.
The bad: That name, THE ULTIMATES, strikes me as an attempt to connect with young readers. That of itself wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing if the comic was suitable for young readers. It isn't. At best, I'd rate it PG-13, while strongly stressing the "parental guidance" part of that rating. Unlike most Marvel super-hero mags, THE ULTIMATES carries no rating whatsoever.
The good: This series is really ULTIMATE AVENGERS, starring as it does "Ultimate Universe" versions of Captain America, Giant-Man, Wasp, Iron Man, Thor, and the Hulk. Created by the United States to be "the last line of defense against super-powered terrorism," it's a contemporary rationale for a super-hero team.
The bad: "The Ultimates" remains a dumb name. I've never been wild about "Avengers" as a team name, but it would make sense given recent real-world events and the accusations that some politicians are exploiting those events for their own gain. A more enlightened government might see the public relations value of calling the team "The Defenders," a name conducive to garnering wider support among Americans of differing political viewpoints.
Digression: I might buy the government choosing the name for its presumed appeal to young Americans, a subliminal "recruitment" plan for additional super-soldier squads. A writer could wring an intriguing scenario from a government campaign urging youngsters to "be the ultimate you can be" and showing what happens to a teenager who enlists in the program.
The not-so-good: The covers of THE ULTIMATES are fine pieces of work, but I'm increasingly bored by the "pin-up" motif in comic-book covers. After a while, they all look the same.
The not-so-good: Mark Millar is a talented writer, but I find his super-hero work to be mean-spirited. My personal preference is for more uplifting fare, but, even recognizing the appeal and value of a deconstructionist view of super-heroics, Millar's tales strike me as excessively and unrelentingly brutal. If he must take this approach, why sully beloved Marvel icons in doing so?
(That is, of course, a rhetorical question. Marvel and Millar are going for the shock value of demeaning these characters. While this has certainly captured the attention of the pathetically small number of readers who constitute success in today's market, it's a short-sighted approach to building a following. Does anyone think a deconstructionist Spider-Man would have been nearly as popular as the faithful and heroic version Sam Raimi brought to the big screen this year?)
The good: Bryan Hitch is one of the best super-hero artists of our time, arguably one of the best in the history of the genre. He brings realism to his work without sacrificing the dynamic fantasy that is integral to the super-hero form. Visually, his pencil art couldn't have better support than that which it receives from inker Andrew Currie and colorist Paul Mounts.
The good: Chris Eliopoulos is one of the best letterers in the business. You probably already knew that.
The good: It would not be unfair to compare many of the comics stories of today with a young lady's stuffing her bra with toilet paper. Showcasing art over story led to a lack of substance in the latter and the industry isn't overcoming that flaw quickly enough.
On the flip side, padding stories over several issues translated to less creativity required of the writers. However, though it takes THE ULTIMATES six issues to complete "Book One," and though a major matter was left unresolved, there was still a whole lot of story in those six issues.
The not-so-good: Six $2.25 issues of THE ULTIMATES still adds up to twice the cost of a first-run movie sans drinks and popcorn. By the standards of the current comics marketplace, this is a good price for roughly an hour's entertainment, but it isn't competitive with other diversions. I note this without prejudice and without any brilliant ideas how the industry can change the mathematics of the situation.
Breaking news: we interrupt this review to announce that Tony Isabella is launching SPOILER WARNINGS. Having reached the point in this column where some discussion of character and story points is required, the distinguished-but-still-cute-as-a-button columnist asks those who do not wish to learn these details to turn the page and visit the many other fine columns and features in this paper, all of which are included in your low admission price. How's that for a bonafide bargain?
The okay: Captain America is physically imposing, but he falls short of being a true inspiration to those around him. When Millar tries to portray him as such, it doesn't ring true. On some level, one has to believe in super-heroes to make them believable, to make them effective, and I don't sense that belief in Millar's writings. Perhaps the out-of-his-time Cap will grow into that role in coming stories. I hope so.
The good: Millar writes a good Steve Rogers. The character's confusion about the modern world and his longing for the decades he missed are given enough play to make Captain America as much man as symbol. The scenes between Rogers and old friends Bucky and Gail are moving without being maudlin.
The bad: Captain America kicks a defeated and de-Hulked Bruce Banner in the face. Too often in this title, Millar goes for shock over substance.
The good: Count me an avid supporter of Marvel's "previously" pages. In THE ULTIMATES, the well-designed pages have proven to be a concise and painless way to bring readers up to speed.
The ugly: The classic Bruce Banner is a tragic hero, a man who overcame a childhood of abuse to become a brilliant, compassionate, and even heroic adult, only to be cursed by his transformation into the Hulk. Millar goes a different way; his Banner is a pathetic psychopath who, cuckold by his girlfriend and teased by an abusive Henry Pym, deliberately becomes the Hulk in an infantile display of "I'll show them all." Hundreds of innocents die in the wake of his superhuman hissy fit. I'd probably kick him in the face, too, but, in my defense, I'm not precisely the living personification of the American ideal.
The good and the bad: I won't deny that the Ultimates version of Nick Fury is a very cool dude. However, his presence as leader of SHIELD isn't remotely believable outside of comics, movies, and television. In the real world, such a position would doubtless be filled by someone like Colin Powell.
The good: Millar's Iron Man is my second favorite character in the series. Tony Stark's determination to face his impending death by living life to the fullest is inspirational. His willingness to risk what remains of his life to protect innocents is truly heroic. I love the blend of dreamer and realist.
The bad: Miller undermines his stories with his propensity for sophomoric shock and titillation. Glom the giant naked Henry Pym. Titter as the Wasp distracts the Hulk by flashing her headlights at him. Watch Captain America kick a powerless man in the face. Gasp as Pym beats his wife and then commands his ants to eat her alive. Cheap shots, one and all.
The ugly: While I'm on the subject, I doubt I'll ever forgive Jim Shooter for his manifestly overrated run on THE AVENGERS in the early 1980s. Not only did he portray Tigra as a cowardly slut, but he turned Hank Pym into a wife-beater. That's always stuck in my craw, despite the moderately successful efforts of later writers to redeem Pym. You can imagine how thrilled I was to see Millar seize upon that ill-considered characterization and magnify it to such a murderous degree.
The good: I like the concept that the Wasp is a closet mutant. That could be the basis for a compelling examination of intolerance in this series. Too bad that part of the story was overshadowed by the sensationalistic violence. Hopefully, Millar will address it in future issues.
The great: Thor as a liberal activist. He demands concessions from the American government before charging into battle. He makes no secret of his contempt for the current administration. He is as big and boisterous as his legend. Even if you don't believe that he's really the God of Thunder, you want to. How could he not be my favorite member of the Ultimates?
Digression: My interest in writing Marvel characters comes and mostly goes, but I'd sign up to write ULTIMATE THOR in a heartbeat. If the F.B.I. didn't already have a file on me, I guarantee they'd open one within three issues of said title.
The good and the bad: While I do believe the government would withhold and even fabricate some elements of the "Hulk Incident" to protect its assets, I find it disheartening that Cap and Tony Stark seem to be okay with the deception. And, yes, I'm assuming Thor is out of the loop on this one. I can't believe he'd keep quiet about the reality of the incident.
The good: The most recent issue introduced the Black Widow and (by name) Hawkeye. I like the idea of a private team operating in the shadow of the public one. It's in keeping with the nature of a spy-guy like Fury and could make for some intriguing conflicts in the future.
Digression: My opposition to Hank Pym as wife-beater is on the record, but, given the reality existing in THE ULTIMATES, that ship has already sailed. Who wants to bet that he ends up on the secret team as an alternative to being put on trial? How would that sit with the members of the public team?
Further digression: While we're speculating, who do you think might take Hank's spot on the public team? Will it be an Ultimates version of an existing Marvel character or a brand-new character? Will there be demands the government diversify the racial makeup of the team? Will religious conservatives object to the presence of a pagan god on the team? Will Simon Cowell be hired to headline a nationally-televised "American Ultimate" competition? Is in time to move on to the big finish?
The big finish: My first impression of ULTIMATES #1-7 was not, save for the artwork, a favorable one. I've never quite understood why a comics company would want to take perfectly good super-heroes and contort them into dark caricatures of themselves. It's a trick which rarely works beyond the moment and I've always been a bigger picture kind of guy.
However, as I reread the issues for my review, I couldn't deny that, despite the mean-spirited tone of the book, there was as much good as there was bad. Millar is a skilled writer, though I pray he will someday use his powers for good. Hitch is a simply amazing artist. Thor has the potential to be the breakout character of the team. Perhaps most importantly, I want to see what happens in the next issue.
Balancing the concept, the writing, and the art, THE ULTIMATES to date earns three out of a possible five Tonys. I suspect a good number of readers will be stunned I didn't rate it higher or lower. I know I am.
The above column first appeared in COMICS BUYER'S GUIDE #1515 [November 29, 2002], which shipped on November 11. The comments I made about wanting to write an ULTIMATE THOR comic book earned me an anonymous phone call from someone suggesting I move to Iraq and see how I like that. As this was the third time some GOP-hole has made this exact suggestion to me, I'm thinking it must be included in some kinda EVIL FOR DUMMIES handbook used by the right-wingnuts who support Faux-President Dubya and his gangsters.
At the risk of expanding this idiot's knowledge of geography and government, I must point out that Dubya's America and Iraq are only two of the possible choices. My own preferred choice would be for a United States of America committed to common sense, fairness, freedom, and real compassion for one's fellows.
Getting back to THE ULTIMATES...
While Mark Millar's stories may be mean-spirited, he seemed a decent enough sort during his one-day appearance at MID-OHIO-CON. In fact, when an erroneous fire alarm momentarily forced attendees to vacate the convention hotel, Miller scored points with his fans by continuing to autograph comics in the cold and snow outside the facility. Here's a picture of the moment taken by PAUL SIZER, the creator/writer/artist of LITTLE WHITE MOUSE...
Sizer has more photos and other neat stuff on his own website, which is located at...
My thanks to Paul for allowing me to run the photo here...and my strong recommendation to all of you to check out Paul's website and his terrific LITTLE WHITE MOUSE comics.
If you came here from Friday's edition of TONY'S ONLINE TIPS at Perpetual Comics, came here seeking information on next year's TONY ISABELLA FAREWELL TOUR, I owe you an apology. It seems that Mister "Most Beloved Comic-Book Writer and Columnist" can't read a schedule to save his life.
My "farewell tour" column, which ran in CBG #1516, is due to appear here *next* Saturday. The good news is that, by the time it does appear, I will have even more details about said tour for you. Again, my apologies for luring you here under unintentionally false pretenses.
Today's letter comes to us from DAVE CHAMBERLAIN:
I remember admiring your career and talent as long ago as the early 1970s when I was struggling to publish my own little fanzine, 'NUFF SAID! Since then, I've respected your body of work and what you've added to the industry we love.
This comes to you as a request. I am a longterm subscriber to CBG, and as such, have followed your column for some time. I am distressed by the "review" trap you've fallen into.
Now admittedly, I don't have the big editorial picture that I'm sure you do. Perhaps the CBG staff has requested you take this direction, but I find it concerning for a couple of reasons.
First of all, I think it's a waste of your time. Ample space is given to reviews in CBG. With the absence of Mark Evanier's POV column, we've lost a window on the comic book business. I'm not asking you to be a replacement for the venerable Evanier, but Tony, I think your talents are wasted doing reviews.
You have a wealth of knowledge and experience in this industry that deserves exploration. I'd love to read about your experiences from thirty years ago as well as your insights on the industry as it exists today...and anything inbetween. From assistant editor to writer to editor to retailer to distributor to columnistwhat a treasure!
Please don't take this as criticism. It's not. Your reviews are well-written and thoughtful and provide perspective on books we otherwise might not seek out. You have the latitude to highlight unknown gems, but not for whole columns week after week. There's more of value for you to discuss. Are you open to it?
Thanks for listening, Tony, and best wishes in all your future endeavors.
I appreciate your comments, Dave.
The decision to concentrate on reviews in my CBG columns was entirely my own. Without naming names, I felt there were way too many reviewers in comicdom who can be bought with a free comic, or whose critical experience starts and ends with comics, or who are just plain simple-minded. Heck, if I weren't a kind-hearted soul, I could name one reviewer who's all three.
Oh, and let's not forget the reviewers who limit themselves to one kind of comic book as if all others were unworthy. They amuse and annoy me, especially when, as they bemoan what they consider a lack of variety in comics art, they simultaneously write off entire genres as unimportant.
On a personal level, I enjoy writing reviews and introducing my readers to comics they might have otherwise missed. I was once called a comics "cheerleader" and, though it gets harder every year to get up from those splits, it's a designation I relish in an odd sort of way. Lord knows most comics creators don't get a whole lot of acclaim outside and even within the industry.
From time to time, I'll certainly depart from the reviews to discuss some new development in the comics biz or reminisce about my past work. But, right now, I am focusing on redefining or even eliminating my role in the comics community. The antics of puerile publishers or star-loving editors don't hold much interest for me, and, for the most part, I'm bored with writing about my past comics career(s). The future beckons me.
Don't read the above too severely. I still love comics and I can still write rings around much of what passes for talent in the comics field. I also feel a certain obligation to share what I've learned over the decades...if only to save others some of the hard knocks I've taken. But it's a big world out there, at least until Dubya and his chicken-hawks reduce it to a cinder, and I'm thinking I need to explore more of it.
CBG-wise, the reviews are where my head is at the moment. But I appreciate your suggestions and even concede the wisdom in them. I relish the excitement of opening the unopened doors; perhaps what I find behind them will be of interest to us both.
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.
Please send material you would like me to review to: