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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 #1523 (02/01/03)

"Justice is what takes a man's part when injustice would take his all"

--Unknown

The Justice League was my first.

I was already an avid fan of the Challengers of the Unknown, but they weren't a super-hero team per se. I hadn't yet discovered the Fantastic Four, whose 1963 annual set my life on the path which led to my being here. And, though I had read two Superboy stories featuring the Legion of Super Heroes, I didn't like those kids from the future much. I mean, geez, first they played a series of cruel practical jokes on Superboy before asking him to join their snotty little club, and then they threw him into a cage for "crimes" they *thought* he would commit in his future. Feel free to add your own political joke here. It's too easy for me.

If you think I'm kidding about the early Legion, check out THE LEGION OF SUPER-HEROES ARCHIVES VOLUME ONE and read their stories from ADVENTURE COMICS #247 (April, 1958) and #267 (December, 1959). Who would have thought the future would bring the return of hazing and the elimination of due process?

brave-and-bold30.jpg But, from the moment I saw the full-page advertisement for THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD #28 (February-March, 1960) and its announcement of the world's greatest heroes appearing together in one magazine, I was won over. These were grown-up heroes; they wouldn't act like those super-bullies from the future. I couldn't wait to read their first adventure, which, unfortunately, sold out before I got to the drug store where I bought my comics. I didn't know from schedules back then, so I missed their next issue as well. I bet the Legion had something to do with that.

Bad fortune would not long delay my introduction to the JLA. On a late spring/early summer family trip, I found BRAVE AND BOLD #29 and #30 at a little out-of-the-way grocery store. My folks didn't understand why I wanted two issues of the same comic book, but, it was my quarter and I was free to spend it as foolishly as I wished. God bless them.

In celebration of my first super-hero team, and of my terrific parents, I'm devoting this week's column to reviews of recent JLA and JSA comics. I've restocked my supply of those lovable floating Tony-heads I use to rate stuff on a scale of zero to five, so leave us get started.

******

The double-sized=plus JLA #75 ($3.95) features the conclusion of "The Obsidian Age/The Hunt for Aquaman" story arc. It's got one writer, four pencilers, and four inkers. I always get nervous when I see such multiple credits, but the artistic styles were not so disparate as to interfere with my reading.

Writer Joe Kelly used a great deal of exposition to bring any new readers up to speed and, though it wasn't the smoothest writing I've read of late, I prefer it to being lost in a very complicated storyline. An evil sorceress from the past is rewriting history to put Atlantis, Aquaman's sunken kingdom, in charge of the world as we no longer know it. Two teams of Justice Leaguers are battling her and some of them are dead. Righteousness carries the day, the dead get better, and the story continues in AQUAMAN #1.

Kelly's writing is fair-to-middling throughout this extended issue. There are no truly memorable moments, either in the action or in the dialogue, but there are also no moments that fall below the acceptable. The same can be said for the artwork. It does a good job telling the story and the characters look like themselves even as rotting corpses, but there's nothing special about any of the visuals. The result is a perfectly readable comic book with a fair-for-these-times cover price, but that's all it is.

Aquaman was and maybe still is a major part of the League, so I wasn't too upset over the appearance that this lengthy story arc was basically a several-issues prologue to his relaunched series. Or that some dangling JLA plot-threads are unresolved at the end of the arc. Episodic comics don't always end neatly; it's the nature of the beast. However, the JLA hooks--"Where's Plastic Man?" and "What do we do with all these members?"--are hooks we've seen many times before. They don't inspire any particular urge to seek out JLA #76. That's not so good.

Recognizing the effort that clearly went into producing this flawed epic, I give JLA #75 a respectable three Tonys. Let me know if I should come back for the next issue.

Tony Tony Tony

******

From the sheer number of SECRET FILES AND ORIGINS specials we see from DC Comics, I can only conclude that readers like them and that they sell well. Since I like them, too, I don't begrudge DC making a bit of money off them. Big of me, huh?

JLA/JSA SECRET FILES AND ORIGINS #1 ($4.95) leads into a not-inexpensive JLA/JSA team-up, and what appear to be upcoming stories of Tempest (the former Aqualad) and Metamorpho (one of the all-time coolest characters in the DC Universe). There are also vignettes with Young Justice and Agent Chase of the D.E.O., plus a selection of profile pages of various characters.

"The Day Before" finds JLA and JSA members socializing. Some of the scenes are amusing, some are thoughtful looks at the heroes. The last page is one heck of a "gotcha." Kudos to writers David S. Goyer and Geoff Johns, penciler Stephen Sadowski, and inker Andrew Pepoy. They all did a fine job introducing the heroes and bringing me into their lives.

Rick Veitch's "Home Again" gives a brief look at Atlantis in the days after "The Obsidian Age." Told from the point of view of Tempest's infant child, it's nicely moody. Unfortunately, using such a "voice" limits the amount of information which can be given to the reader in the allotted four pages. Mood alone doesn't keep my interest.

Jim Beard's "Stormchasers" finds JLA and JSA representatives seeking to recruit the Red Tornado to rejoin their teams. There's not enough substance to this one to make it worth the four pages. The artwork is pretty shaky as well.

Rich Hedden's "The Ghost of Stagg Manor" returns Metamorpho to the land of the living in five pages. As a Metamorpho fan, I feel cheated. But it's a good little story with excellent Phil Winslade art. I prefer a less realistic depiction of the Element Man, but there's no denying the quality of the visuals here.

Dan Curtis Johnson's "Telephone" is another good story wherein we see the oft-uneasy relationship between the federal government and America's super-heroes. The story does have one major flaw: at no time is the D.E.O. referred to by its full name. That's sloppy writing, especially in a comic book that should serve to ease new readers into ongoing DCU continuity.

With profile pin-ups by artists Jeff Smith and Tom Mandrake, dozens of beloved characters, an excellent lead story, and a couple entertaining short tales, I think I can see my way to award JLA/JSA SECRET FILES AND ORIGINS #1 four Tonys.

Tony Tony Tony Tony

******

JLA/JSA: VIRTUE AND VICE (DC; $24.95) is 96 densely-plotted, exciting pages in which dozens of the world's greatest super-heroes do battle with an assortment of high-end villains and one another. The League/Society roll calls alone account for 29 characters, yet at no time during the story did I feel any of them were extraneous or ill-used. That's a remarkable achievement for writers Goyer and Johns, an achievement which eluded lesser authors in a great many company-wide crossovers of years past.

This handsome hardcover volume centers on the first official reunion of the League and the Society in many years. Intended as a peaceful social event to acquaint/reacquaint the heroes with each other and allow for the sharing of ideas and technologies between teams, it goes awry when the spirits of mankind's seven deadliest sins possess the bodies of members from each group. From there, we get an epic struggle between good and evil, a genuine page-turner of an adventure with heroics and surprises a'plenty.

Penciler Carlos Pacheco, inker Jesus Merino, and colorist Guy Major provide stunning visuals throughout, but they never sacrifice story-telling clarity in doing so. Every character in the book is instantly recognizable, no artistic styling obscuring who they are and what they're doing. My solitary quibble, and this may just be my inner prude coming out, is that Wonder Woman and Power Girl seem likely to burst out of their costumes almost every time they take a breath. I suspect this will not be a problem for other readers, but it...ah...stood out in my eyes.

The hefty price tag on JLA/JSA: VIRTUE AND VICE will probably prevent many readers from being able to purchase it, and that's a shame. But the story is extremely well-done and the hardcover book is handsomely-made. On that basis, I'm giving VIRTUE AND VICE the full five Tonys.

Tony Tony Tony Tony Tony

******

JLA: SECRET ORIGINS ($7.95) is a place-holder for the upcoming JLA: LIBERTY AND JUSTICE by the Alex Ross/Paul Dini team. In this tabloid-size special, their beautifully-painted, movingly-written recaps of the origins of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and nine other JLA members harken back to the classic Silver Age versions of the characters, albeit investing them with a power and realism born of the creative attitudes and production advances of the present. The greatest and wonder of those original stories are strengthened in these retellings and I eagerly await the new Ross/Dini tale they preface. In addition to the origins, SECRET ORIGINS has interviews with Dini and Ross, as well as preview art and preliminary sketches from LIBERTY AND JUSTICE.

JLA: SECRET ORIGINS isn't as satisfying as the other Ross/Dini collaborations in this oversized format--their takes on Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Captain Marvel remain among my personal favorites--but it's a wonderful volume nonetheless. It earns five Tonys and my fervent wish that more of DC's editors and writers had the vision to see these heroes as Dini and Ross do.

Tony Tony Tony Tony Tony

******

JSA: THE RETURN OF HAWKMAN ($19.95) collects the "Injustice Be Done" and "The Return of Hawkman" story arcs from the monthly JSA title, as well as a story from JSA SECRET FILES #1 that bridges the two tales. For the past several months, readers have been telling me JSA is their favorite DC super-hero mag and these adventures certainly explain why. Though both stories fall into the "heroes acting in their own self-interest" category--in the first, the Society must defend themselves against the monstrously murderous Johnny Sorrow and his allies; in the second, they travel to Thanagar in search of two of their own--they also allow the heroes to save a world or two along the way. Though I'd like to see less self-interest and more selflessness in super-hero comics, I can hardly fault writers Goyer and Johns for pursuing such stories. It's always tricky to combine the hero and the heroic in balanced proportions.

Goyer and Johns continue to impress with how well they bring these characters and the oft-overwhelming DC Universe to readers. A completely novice reader might still have some trouble following the stories--editor Bob Greenberger does address this by including an introductory page in this volume--but even a largely lapsed DC reader like me should be able to get into the swing of things in a matter of pages.

Since a veritable army of pencilers and inkers drew the tales reprinted in this book, I won't discuss the art in detail. Suffice to say, some of the work is outstanding and none of it is less than very good. Once again, it does not surprise me that so many of my readers think so highly of the ongoing JSA title.

JSA: THE RETURN OF HAWKMAN picks up another five Tonys for the Goyer/Johns team. These guys are good.

Tony Tony Tony Tony Tony

******

ADDENDUM

The above column first appeared in COMICS BUYER'S GUIDE #1523 [January 24, 2003], which shipped January 6. The cover feature for that issue was "Under the Radar," wherein several publishers were contacted and asked to recommend a title of theirs which they felt readers might have overlooked. DC got to pick a title for each of its imprints. Here's the list of spotlighted titles:

Marvel: THOR

DC/Wildstorm: 21 DOWN

Image: AGE OF BRONZE

Dark Horse: BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL

CrossGen: ROUTE 666

DC/Vertigo: THE FILTH

DC: GOTHAM CENTRAL

I was disappointed to see so few companies represented here, though I suppose a case could be made that all titles from smaller companies are overlooked, so picking just one from them would be a difficult task. And, of course, I contend that THE FILTH is not so much overlooked as it is shunned by comics readers who have wearied of British excess. Would that such writers were so "rebellious" on the matter of their prime minister playing lap dog for George Bush, the world's wickedest faux-president.

******

BONUS REVIEWS

Noting the time which had passed since I read and reviewed the above comics, I'm adding quickie reviews of JLA #76 and #77 ($2.25 each) to this re-presentation.

JLA #76 features "Picking Up the Pieces" by writer Joe Kelly, penciler Lewis La Rosa, and inker Al Milgrom. Focusing on Plastic Man pulling himself together after existing as bits and pieces for thousands of years, the story is virtually impenetrable for the new or lapsed reader. Characters appear or are mentioned and, often, they are neither named nor explained. I got the impressions that Plastic Man is more powerful than I or his fellow heroes had ever dreamed, and the team was undergoing a roster revision, but those elements of the story never received the attention they deserved. Finally, the art was disappointing: awkward faces, lots of closed and squinty eyes, stiff figures, and so forth. On every level, it was a sub-par issue. No Tonys here.

JLA #77 was a definite improvement. Guest writer Rick Veitch delivered a neat little sci-fi thriller in "Stardust Memories" with terrific art by guest penciler Darryl Banks and guest inker Wayne Faucher. In this done-in-one story, the JLA crosses paths with a mechanical intelligence which steals memories and, in doing so, has destroyed at least one galactic civilization. It's a clever plot, somewhat reminiscent of the heady adventures editor Julius Schwartz and his writers used to craft in the Silver Age of Comics. Veitch doesn't get all the heroes right--his John Stewart is particularly off--but he makes very good use of Batman, Superman, and the Atom. This one gets four out of five Tonys.

Tony Tony Tony Tony

******

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY

Comics and cartoon fans will find much to interest them in the February 7 issue of ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY. For starters, DAREDEVIL (the movie) gets the cover and six interior pages. Naturally, star Ben Affleck gets the most ink, but you'll also see mentions of Stan Lee, Bill Everett, and Frank Miller.

Across the top of the cover we get a blurb for a piece listing the 25 best episodes of THE SIMPSONS. Ken Tucker writes the intro to the list, chosen by the EW staff, and, as a left-handed bonus, the staff also gives their choice for the...worst...episode...ever. It's a fun article which is sure to bring back some happy memories and make all the more eager for boxed DVD sets of SIMPSONS seasons three through forever. I want them now!

EW coverage of the Sundance Film Festival includes some great reviews for AMERICAN SPLENDOR, the movie based on Harvey Pekar's comic books and the winner of the Grand Jury Prize in the dramatic competition, and this brush with political fame:
...the filmmakers enjoyed sparkling reviews and a welcome that was just short of presidential. "Everything [turned] in the most surreal way when Al Gore showed up," says codirector Shari Springer Berman. "I don't know how or why, but he was wearing an AMERICAN SPLENDOR button at the end."
Sigh. Not only would actual winner Gore have been a truly hip president, but we would now be enjoying having someone in the Oval Office who wasn't, well, an arrogant monster.

******

TONY'S MAILBOX

Coming up in a week or two will be a pair of columns devoted to reader answers to questions I posed in CBG: questions about why you read reviews, what you'd like me to write about, what are your "Holy Grails" of comics collecting, and what you think of Marvel's current solicitation format. I couldn't get all of the responses into those columns, so I figured I'd run this one here. It's from GREG SCHIENKE:
There have been many times I've meant to write based on a topic you've raised in CBG. I was stunned to see two months had passed since you asked your questions about why people read reviews. Every day or so, I'd idly think that I should sit down and send the e-mail, but looks like I was too late.

For what it is worth, I read reviews for two reasons: to have my opinions validated and to help me make my mind up on comics I'm on the fence about purchasing. For the former, your reviews are great (though we seem to disagree about the new Batman; once again this is a case of unappealing art keeping me from what might be an interesting story); for the latter, THE FOURTH RAIL...

...is my must-read on Wednesday nights. The week's new comics aren't available at my local dealer until Thursday.

You can write about what ever you want. CBG is no longer the periodical it was in the mid-1970s; why should you be constrained to just reviewing? Let's read some slice-of-life events or an honest journal of how you are treated by editors on your farewell tour. For what it is worth, I think that the representation of the "hip" editors in Brian Ahern's comic strip in CBG #1525 is exactly why writers aren't getting as much work in comics any more as are the cast-offs from the movie industry.

My Holy Grail was to collect every comic book from the month of my birth year to the present, the only caveat being that the comics bought from, let's say, August, 1961, would be ones that I would have bought had I been capable of doing so. The high cost of back issues has pretty much pushed me out of the back issue market. Besides a lot of that itch has been scratched by my acquiring a full set of the original JLAs, copies of all the team-up issues of THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD, and those strange esoteric comics that only the 1960s could produce like THE MIGHTY CRUSADERS and the Harvey heroes.

As for your Marvel solicitations question, it doesn't matter much to me. I'm going to buy AVENGERS every month, so I don't need to know what the story is going to about. It would take a couple of bad previous issues to make me reconsider my regular purchases. If a book would become so bad I actually dropped it, PREVIEWS will tell me when the creators change and I can use that as a cue to start buying the book again.

When a new title is being offered, I could very well decide to buy the title based on a mix of writer and character. I'm pretty well on the Brian Bendis bandwagon, so I buy all his work without hesitation. I like Metamorpho, so I'd probably buy a Metamorpho comic without thinking about it. However, if Metamorpho was being produced by Rob Liefeld's studio, I'd really, really have to think about and even then make my decision after reading a review on THE FOURTH RAIL.

Truth be told when it comes to new comics, I don't need solicitation copy from the big companies. I know what I am going to get from online talk about the creators' previous work and the type of product the mainstream companies try to generally pass off as super-hero books. With Marvel, the big billboard of unappealing art just finalizes my disinterest.

We didn't have advance solicitation copy to convince us to buy FANTASTIC FOUR when we were kids. Why do we need it now?
You raise some interesting points, Greg, for which I do thank you. However, to reiterate what I've said previously, I won't be writing any blow-by-blow reports of how many proposals are received by various editors. I know going into this that my experience and fan-following and talent don't mean a whole lot to today's editors and publishers, and that the odds of them even reading my proposals are slim. I'm quite prepared for that.

In a sense, the creation and development of my ideas are ends unto themselves. I'd love to share them with as wide an audience as possible, but, no matter what happens, I'll know that I did my best to bring something worthwhile to comicdom.

******

TONY STUFF

It's been a hectic and strange week at Casa Isabella, which is why you didn't see any new editions of TONY'S ONLINE TIPS, and why this column isn't posting until either late Saturday or sometime on Sunday. Everything is settling down nicely, though, and I should be back on schedule by Monday morning.

I've received some e-mails commenting on the lack of political or social commentary in my columns. The short version of why this has been the case is that I'm simply overwhelmed by the arrogance, duplicity, and voracity of the faux-administration...and horrified by the mainstream media turning a blind eye to it. Bush gives his mendacious state-of-the-union performance and all three of my local papers give him a virtual exclusive on their front pages...burying the voices of opposition deep within the papers. Where the heck is the "liberal media" the GOP-heads keep crying about?

In Ohio, we're being treated to a Republican governor, a crass political hack who savaged his Democratic opponent for suggesting the state needed money and might have to enact some new taxes, now admitting just that. Of course, as a typical child of privilege, the governor is calling for new taxes targeting the poor and middle class to the near-exclusion of the wealthy...and he's also planning budget cuts that will most severely hurt the poorest schools in the state. Somehow, the "liberal media" has failed to take note of the class warfare being waged before its very eyes.

So, even if the political and social commentary is currently taking a back seat to comics stuff, rest assured that I continue to study the events of the day while trying to discern how I can best (and legally) help remove these villains from their seats of power. That they have usurped great power does not absolve us, all of us, of our responsibility to set things right.

Tony Isabella

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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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