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Reviews and commentary by Tony Isabella
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TONY'S ONLINE TIPS
From COMICS BUYER'S GUIDE #1518 (12/28/02)

"It's like Colonel Sanders suing Kentucky Fried Chicken."

--Michael Dean, COMICS JOURNAL editor

One would expect editors and reporters for comics magazines to comment on Stan Lee's $10 million lawsuit against Marvel. However, what impressed me about Dean's one-liner, even beyond how neatly it summed up the magnitude of the suit, was where it was quoted: the "Perspectives" page of NEWSWEEK (November 25).

Generally, coverage of the comics industry in the mainstream press that goes beyond the usual "Pow! Zap!" is a good thing. It's somewhat less so when the coverage concerns yet another case of the industry not doing right by creators and employees.

If Santa is listening, what I'd like for Christmas is a comics industry that doesn't keep shooting itself in the foot. A sweater and some new pajamas would be nice, too.

******

BATMAN YEAR TWO: FEAR THE REAPER (DC; $17.95) collects two of writer Mike W. Barr's best Batman stories, which is another way of saying it collects two of the best Batman stories ever. I can't imagine a list of favorite Batman writers that didn't include Barr and, on my personal list, I'd likely rank him ahead of most of the pack, with Bill Finger and Denny O'Neil being notable exceptions. Not to disrespect Barr's contemporaries or the current Bat-writers, some of whom are very good, but Barr's work joined the more classic elements of the character to a grittiness that never descended into the exploitative excesses of the 1990s.

"Batman Year Two" originally ran in DETECTIVE COMICS #575-578 (June-September, 1978). Following Frank Miller's "Year One," Barr didn't ape the grim realism of Miller's tale, but, instead, wove a more romantic story in which Batman faces a murderous doppelganger from Gotham's past and contemplates a life beyond the mantle of the Bat. The hero of this piece, entering his second year as Gotham's protector, is still struggling to reach an accord with the passions that drive him. The choices he makes aren't always wise and they often come with serious consequences, but Barr leaves no doubt that this Batman links the novice of "Year One" to the more confident hero of later adventures.

There are many high notes in "Year Two." Bruce Wayne has not yet submerged himself entirely into his Batman persona and, yes, I plead guilty to not liking the notion that Wayne is the real mask. Also, Batman and newly appointed Police Commissioner James Gordon have yet to completely define their relationship.

The Reaper, as designed by Alan Davis and drawn by Davis and, in later chapters, Todd McFarlane, is a fearsome foe, physically, visually, and psychologically. In his brutal, unforgiving approach to crime-fighting, the Reaper, I can imagine, is what Batman might fear he could one day become.

In Rachel Caspian, Barr created a memorable romantic interest for Wayne. Like him, she had been shaped by loss and dedicated to a higher purpose. Like him, she dared consider a life beyond her mission. It's such internal conflicts, conflicts which have little or nothing to do with one's chosen partner, that make for a truly compelling romance.

Then there's Joe Chill, the man who killed Wayne's parents in that cold dark alley. When I originally read "Year Two," I wasn't entirely comfortable with Barr's use of him or Batman's actions in regards to Chill. Reading the series again, the pieces fit better, especially in how they form the basis for the second story included in this collection.

(Brief digression: key elements of "Year Two" clearly inspired major elements of 1993's justly-lauded BATMAN: MASK OF THE PHANTASM animated feature. Not to take anything away from a great script by Alan Burnett and Paul Dini, but I've always felt Barr deserved some kind of screen credit as well.)

In 1991, "Full Circle" reunited Barr and Davis for a powerful tale in which old foes and loves returned. Batman now had Robin by his side, but their partnership was in its earliest stages. This was a sequel which played fair from the get-go, reaffirmed what had gone before, and answered new questions asked of its players. In his introduction to this volume, Barr names it his favorite of the many Batman stories he's written. Favorite "Barr Batman" is a hard call, but I don't disagree with him.

On the artistic side of things, Davis was and remains one of the best comic-book artists of our time. His work here is some of his finest.

McFarlane? His drawing, though striking in places, hadn't yet come into its own in 1978. However, his layouts, aided, no doubt, by Barr's script, were solid, moving the story smoothly from panel to panel. It's a shame that story became secondary to flash as his artwork improved.

BATMAN YEAR TWO: FEAR THE REAPER is a must-have collection for Batman fans. On our usual scale of zero to five, even considering the shortcomings of McFarlane's early art, this volume still rates the full five Tonys.

Tony Tony Tony Tony Tony

P.S.: If, like me, you also recall Barr as one of the all-time best writers of STAR TREK comics, you'll want to set your scanners for GEMINI ($6.99), his first STAR TREK novel. It should arrive in your friendly neighborhood bookstore in late January.

******

SPX2002 ($9.95) is this year's Comic Book Legal Defense Fund anthology of works by independent creators. The good news is that you get some 300 pages of comics for your ten bucks. The bad news is that nearly half of those pages don't make the grade here in the land of floating Tony heads.

Unlike the previous SPX anthologies, the 2002 edition is built around a theme: biographical stories. Unfortunately, despite the broadness of the theme, there was a sameness to many of the stories which made itself evident within the first dozen of the close to 50 pieces included in the book. For maximum enjoyment of these works, I recommend reading no more than two or three per day.

My lack of enthusiasm for so many of the stories isn't simply due to their repetitive nature. Some contributors lacked the skill to present subjects in an interesting manner. Some loaded too much copy into too small a space, making the works virtually unreadable. Some opted for "artsy" approaches that needlessly obscured clarity. Call me an old traditionalist--I've been called far worst--but I'm of the belief that if you have an interesting story to tell, tell it clearly. Abstract paintings can be delightful to contemplate, but a story is a story is a story.

The good stories? Fortunately, there are many of them. With apologies that I can't mention them all, I especially enjoyed those by Diane Tamblyn, benjones, Geoffrey Hawley, Pablo Garcia Callejo, Chandler, Lauren McCubbin, Aaron Reiner, Ansis Purins/Jon Natchez, R. Sikoryak, and Joyce Brabner/Josh Neufeld. Their subjects ranged from Rasputin to Haruo Nakajima, the man inside the Godzilla suit for the Big G's first eleven movies.

Though the good stories in SPX2002 only slightly outnumber the bad, I have to take into account the amount of material you get for your money...and the organization which benefits from sales of this anthology. Doing the math that way, it adds up to an above-average three-and-a-half Tonys.

Tony Tony Tony Half Tony

******

Technically, I'm more of an accumulator than a collector, but I do have a kind of sort of collection of novels by creators I know from comics. If I actually had time to read them, I would be more passionate about acquiring these books. Even so, when I see them, either at an antiseptic chain store or a fragrant used books nook, I buy them and squirrel them away towards that mythical future-time when I'll have days upon days to read them. As self-delusions go, it's fairly harmless.

My recent acquisitions include SMALLVILLE; STRANGE VISITOR by Roger Stern; THE BLOWTOP by the legendary Alvin Schwartz; NASHVILLE BREAKDOWN, a 1977 country music novel by Gary Friedrich; and ANGEL: HOLLYWOOD NOIR by Jeff Mariotte. That last one is different than the others in that I actually read it during an all-too-rare quiet afternoon.

ANGEL: HOLLYWOOD NOIR (Pocket; $5.99) is set during the first season of the fan-favorite television series created by Joss Whedon and David Greenwalt. Vampire-with-a-soul Angel is relatively new to Los Angeles, working with Cordelia Chase, another emigrant from BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, and Doyle, a half-demon, half-human who gets psychic 9-1-1 calls from the Powers That Be.

The fun starts with the discovery of a corpse bricked up in a building under demolition. The not-so-recently-deceased is a hard-boiled private eye who isn't going to let a little thing like being dead stop him from closing the case that got him killed. His 1950s style brings him into swift conflict with the 2001 law-enforcement establishment, even as the Powers put Angel and his crew to work on the same case.

Mariotte takes time to develop the late-but-lively Mike Slade and, though he does a fine job of it, it makes for a slow start to the novel. However, once the leads come together to reveal a plot half-a-century in the making, and especially once Angel and Slade meet, things pick up nicely. The book is a page-turner from then to the satisfying ending.

If I have any complaint about the back two-thirds of HOLLYWOOD NOIR, it's that Doyle doesn't get much "screen-time." I've always had a fondness for the character and regretted that he didn't stick around the TV series longer.

Media tie-ins don't always float my boat, but ANGEL: HOLLYWOOD NOIR was an enjoyable way to kill an afternoon. As casual reading goes, I liked it well enough to give it a respectable three Tonys, and to order a couple more books by Mariotte.

Tony Tony Tony

******

Following Kurt Busiek on THE AVENGERS (Marvel; $2.25) had to be quite the challenge for incoming writer Geoff Johns. He hasn't completely met that challenge, but he's certainly giving it a darn good shot. Here are some quick thoughts on the two latest issues I've read, AVENGERS #58 and #59...

Johns does well by Captain America, but I'm somewhat troubled by what strikes me as a certain lack of humility. Maybe under the extreme circumstances shown in these issues--the capital cities of the world disappearing--the remaining world leaders would, indeed, turn to Cap and the Avengers, but the notion of that much power in any one man's hands troubles me. I have no doubt Cap is up to it-- heck, I think he could handle Galactus if he had to--but I'd like to see him show just a little flop-sweat at the magnitude of such a responsibility. Putting on a game face for the world is a good way to go, but there ought to be room in the story for us to catch a glimpse of what's behind the mask.

Johns handles some of the Avengers particularly well. I most like his takes on Ant-Man, the Falcon, Iron Man, and Namor, but it seems like he's making Jack of Hearts a jerk just to have one jerk on the team. It strikes me as forced.

I'm not wild about Johns following the Kang War storyline of Busiek with another the-entire-world-in-jeopardy tale. Taking the team from one uber-menace to the next without any smaller stories in between could get old fast.

I'm also not loving the Kieron Dwyer/Rick Remender artwork on this title. Even ignoring whatever screwed up the coloring in #58, some of the heroes look downright ugly.

I haven't read many Johns-written comic books, though I like most of what I have read. Sadly, I'm not connecting with his work on AVENGERS. Maybe that will change with subsequent stories, but, for now, the best score I can give these issues is a disappointing two Tonys each.

Tony Tony

******

Christmas is over a month away as I write this column, but I'd rather be early than late in wishing you the happiest of holidays. My prayer for you and all the peoples of the world is freedom from want, intolerance, and ignorance, and, most important, the freedom to peacefully determine your own path through life.

Thanks for reading.

******

ADDENDUM

The above column first appeared in COMICS BUYER'S GUIDE #1518 [December 20, 2002]. It shipped on December 2.

Mike Barr, a native of Akron, Ohio, was home for the holidays and, as is our Christmas custom, he dropped by my house to spend a few hours with my family and mutual friend Bob Ingersoll. It was, as always, great to see Mike again.

Barr fans...like me...who would like to see Mike writing new Batman stories for DC are likely to be disappointed. Over at the SILVER BULLET COMICS website, in Bob Rozakis' "Ask the Answer Man" column, Barr mentioned he'd recently been told by a Batman editor that he (Barr) had nothing new to say about the character. Which is an amazing comment when one considers how much of Barr's Batman work is being kept in print by DC Comics, presumably because there are readers who buy and read it. It's times like this when I think Ted Turner can't take over DC Comics fast enough.

An even sadder piece of news since I wrote the above column is that actor Glenn Quinn, who played Doyle during the first season of ANGEL, died on December 3. Quinn was probably best known as a cast member of ROSEANNE, but it was his ANGEL work that brought him into my field of vision. Even though Doyle was killed off on ANGEL, I'd always hoped to see Quinn and his character return in some fashion. He'll be missed.

******

AMAZING SPIDER-MAN

My review of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #45, which ran on November 28, brought this note from AVI GREEN:
I enjoyed the 45th issue of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, too, and liked the way Doctor Octopus was characterized. But if there's anything I have found troubling about J. Michael Straczynski's run on the title, it's the way Mary Jane Parker's been characterized with such surprising nastiness. That she would angrily say she didn't want to talk to Peter on the phone because he supposedly stood her up in the previous issue was not only depressing but also nonsensical. She knows that he's Spider-Man, and that, like a policeman, he's dedicated to fighting any crime that occurs in NYC and the world. She would surely realize that he'd been held up by some villain or other, in this case, Shade.

The alteration Straczynski made to Spidey's origin, namely, how Peter's Uncle Ben got murdered by the burglar who broke into their house, was bothersome--the only fault in issue 38, which, with the exception of that, was a wonderful issue--but even that wasn't as troubling as the way Mary Jane was written. Considering the main object is to reunite Peter and Mary Jane sooner or later, why make it more difficult by characterizing MJ as he did?
I have reason to believe that what the Spider-Man writers may want, vis-a-vis Peter and Mary Jane reuniting, isn't what Marvel's brass wants. Those bosses don't think a married Spider-Man can be "cool," this despite Marvel being fortunate enough to have three fine writers--Paul Jenkins, Kevin Smith, and Straczynski--working on the character. Oh ye of little faith.

If you've been reading Stan Lee's SPIDER-MAN newspaper strip, you'll have noticed that it's currently telling a flashback story from before Peter and Mary Jane were married. I'm guessing that, once this story is concluded, the strip will continue to feature a younger and unmarried Peter Parker, the better to fit in with the movie and the ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN title.

******

NAME THREE MOVIES

A mailing list poster asked the list members to name three of their favorite movies. The first three flicks that popped into my mind were these:
THE QUIET MAN. John Wayne's best performance ever. He's an American boxer who killed a man in the ring and retires to the Irish village his mother hailed from. Real human comedy and drama as cultures clash and Maureen O'Hara heats up the screen. And that lovely, lovely scenery.

IT'S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER. Gene Kelly, Dan Dailey, and Michael Kidd are three WWII soldiers who make a solemn pledge to meet ten years later at their former NYC hangout. Their lives aren't want they expected, they dislike each other, and Kelly runs afoul of gangsters...but, in the end, friendship prevails. Sap that I am, this movie's ending always has me tearing up slightly.

TREMORS. Secluded settings. Giant man-eating worms and their scary offspring. Feisty individualists fighting for survival. How could I not love the series? These are Saturday afternoon monster movies and great fun for the whole family.
My family gave me THE QUIET MAN on DVD for my birthday...and a new DVD player to go with it. Sadly, IT'S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER is not available on DVD. That's just wrong.

The Sci-Fi Channel will be launching a TREMORS series starting in March. Michael Gross will reprise his role as survivalist Burt Gummer. For more info, check out the official TREMORS THE SERIES website at:

http://www.stampede-entertainment.com/tremors

******

TONY STUFF

TONY'S ONLINE TIPS, which appears at Norman Barth's PERPETUAL COMICS website on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, will be taking a break next week as Norman takes a much-deserved vacation. It'll return on Monday, January 6, 2003. But, not to worry, you won't be Tony-less next week.

I want to thank you for all the birthday and holidays wishes you sent to me this week. Your generous PayPal donations, which, as per usual, are split between webmaster Justin and myself came in especially handy at this time of year.

In my column for December 14, I wrote:

"For every $100 that Justin and I receive through the TIP THE TIPSTER link, I'll write an *extra* column in January. Moreover, if any one reader comes up with $100, I'll write an *extra* column on just about anything said generous patron of the arts wants me to write about."

You can look forward to (or maybe dread) TWO all-new TONY'S TIPS columns next week: one on January 1 and another on January 3. The impromptu poll on my message board seems to favor my doing additional reviews, but I may come up with a few other surprises as well. Oh, the delicious suspense!

I'll be back on Tuesday with more stuff.

Tony Isabella

<< 12/21/2002 | 12/28/2002 | 01/01/2003 >>

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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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