"I hear there are all these fans, but Jesus Christ, where are they when it's time to buy the comic? It's like they buy one copy in each state and pass it around to each other."
January 26 was colder than it's been in Ohio in several years, but I stopped feeling the freeze when, trudging through the snow and back up my driveway with the Sunday newspapers clutched to my pajamas, I flipped over The Cleveland Plain Dealer to discover that AMERICAN SPLENDOR had scored big. The movie, based on the life and comics of Harvey Pekar, won the grand jury prize, the top dramatic award, at this year's Sundance Film Festival. I was thrilled for Pekar, who also hails from Cleveland, and excited that, once again, comics was staking its claim as one of the most important and vital art forms of our time.
I think one either "gets" or "doesn't get" AMERICAN SPLENDOR, with precious little ground between the two. Pekar self-published his first issue in 1976, and, at the time, I fell solidly into the "doesn't" crowd. Okay, yeah, he had Robert Crumb drawing some of his stories, but who wants to read about the mundane life of some cranky file clerk? As it turned out, I did. With each subsequent issue, I began to figure out what Pekar was doing.
What Pekar was doing and continues to do was summed up quite well by comics historian Don Markstein at his TOONOPEDIA website [www.toonopedia.com]. He wrote:
Pekar's critics accuse him of having founded the "dull autobiography" genre of comics writing. But as if often the case, his many imitators miss the point. It isn't Pekar's normal, work-a-day life that draws so many readers to his work. It's his ability to find piquant things to say about the ordinary things he sees and does.
OUR CANCER YEAR is my favorite of Pekar's works and arguably among the best graphic novels of all time. Written with wife Joyce Brabner, it tells of his being diagnosed and treated for lymphatic cancer in the 1990s. Last year, the cancer recurred and Pekar had to undergo further treatment. Happily, the cancer is once again in remission.
These days, Pekar's comic books are published by Dark Horse. He's retired from his job as a file clerk, and obviously pleased by AMERICAN SPLENDOR and the accolades the film received at Sundance. According to reports, several parties are bidding on distribution rights to the movie.
I eagerly anticipate the day when I can see Pekar and Brabner on the big screen; they're played by Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis, but they appear as themselves in the movie's documentary segments. However, Pekar's best and most "Harvey" scene may have come at the question-and-answer session which followed the showing of the film at Sundance. Asked about what he's doing now that he's retired, he responded:
"I'm trying to construct a new lifestyle for myself, and I'm apprehensive about it. I gotta go home, see what I can do to make some bread, who I can write for. So if anybody here knows anybody who needs some record reviews or book reviews, have them call me. I'm in the Cleveland phone book."
Leave it to Pekar to seize an opportunity. I think he may be my newest hero.
Another of my heroes is Alan Moore, whose SUPREME: THE STORY OF THE YEAR (Checker; $26.95) does for the extraordinary what Pekar does for the mundane. Working with a character who began life as a dismal "homage" of Superman, Moore turned SUPREME into a glorious exploration of the imagination and wonder that informed the source material. Recreating the 1960s for the 1990s, he combined fun and fantasy with an understated commentary on the state of super-hero comics through the decades.
Among the delights contained within this 324-page volume is a group of heroes whose ranks span all human history. Each level of their incredible headquarters exists in a different period of time. That omnipresent sanctuary could be the model for the many-layered story Moore tells here.
SUPREME: THE STORY OF THE YEAR reprints SUPREME #41 through #52b. The "modern" sequences are drawn in the typical-for-the-'90s style of overly-muscled, overly-rendered super-heroes which marked most early Image Comics titles in general...and Supreme creator Rob Liefeld's titles in particular. Moore makes this elephantine style work in delightful contrast to the astonishing flashback sequences drawn by Rick Veitch.
"Delightful" is a suitable one-word summation of this volume. It has its minor production flaws--such as a lack of page numbers, and credits which refer to the original issues and not to the book chapters or pages--but it delivers amusement a'plenty and more than a little fodder for contemplation.
On our scale of zero to five, SUPREME: THE STORY OF THE YEAR most definitely deserves the full five Tonys.
I didn't know Curt Swan as well as I would have liked. I knew his work--he'll always be MY Superman artist--but I didn't meet him until late in his life. I'm pretty sure Julius Schwartz introduced us at some comics convention and positive I never saw Swan anywhere other than comics conventions. But I liked him enormously from the moment we met. We had friendly conversations, shared some meals, and tipped more than a few drinks. He was a decent a man as he was talented an artist.
Eddy Zeno's CURT SWAN: A LIFE IN COMICS (Vanguard; $19.95) is cover-billed as "an illustrated biography of the artist who defined Superman for generations of comic-book fans," and is that and more, but, for me, it was also another chance to spend some time with the man himself and with others who admired him.
Zeno covers Swan's career by breaking it into several "eras." He shows how Swan's style developed, how the artist adapted to the changing sensibilities of the marketplace, and how the work always retained its classic humanity and realism, no matter how fantastic the tales he illustrated. Interviews with comics professionals who worked with Swan or were inspired by his work add other viewpoints to Zeno's own. This aspect of the book alone makes it an important addition to comics history.
But what really makes Zeno's book sing for me is how it brings Swan to life for those readers who knew him and for those readers who, sadly, never got to meet him. There is a sense of the man and the artist in these pages. It warms the heart, even as it reminds me how much I miss him and how much I wish I could have spent more time with him.
This is an era where arrogant and cynical comics professionals strut across comics convention stages and the Internet, spreading their metaphorical tail feathers like needy peacocks. Swan always spoke through his work and his "words" will stay with us long after even the most raucous hype and trash talking has faded to deserved oblivion. As much as he defined Superman for those generations of fans, he also defined "class" and "classic" for his contemporaries and those who follow in his footsteps.
For giving me a few more hours with Curt Swan, Zeno earns my profound thanks, and his book, CURT SWAN: A LIFE IN COMICS, earns the full five Tonys.
I'm told "Barry Allen" is one of the aliases used by Leonardo DiCaprio's character in CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, and that this is what tips the FBI agent played by Tom Hanks that his suspect is a young person. While I'm impressed, and maybe a little nervous, that the FBI reads comic books, I mention this only as tenuous justification for my review of the book on which the movie is based.
CATCH ME IF YOU CAN (Broadway; $14.95) has been released as a trade paperback tie-in with the movie. Written by Frank Abagnale with Stan Redding, it's billed as "the uproarious bestselling true story of one of the world's most sought-after con man." However, while the book doesn't lack for humor, it also turns serious when the story leads to the darker corners of Abagnale's criminal life. Yes, it often revels in its young hero's triumphs, but it does not hesitate to examine the consequences of said triumphs for crook and victim alike. When justice finally catches up with Abagnale, the initial consequences will horrify you.
I bought CATCH ME IF YOU CAN to read while waiting for my kids at various activities. I ended up setting aside the better part of a day to finish it. Young Abagnale, as put forward by an older and wiser Abagnale, is a fascinating felon. You know he's going to get caught, but the suspense is as delicious as it is fearsome. When he is caught, you wonder what will become of him. Unfortunately, the book doesn't go into sufficient detail about what did become of him and that's a shame. From what was told, his post-prison life and successes would make for interesting reading.
(Don't worry. I won't keep you in suspense. Abagnale is now one of the world's respected authorities on counterfeiting and the creation of secure documents. He lectures at the FBI Academy and, through its National Academy, instructs federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies. He's married with three kids and lives in the Midwest. As happy endings go, it's a good one.)
Abagnale and Redding do ramble a bit as they tell their story, and, as noted, they abbreviate a meaningful part of that story, but I'm still recommending CATCH ME IF YOU CAN as a nice break from the comics and the comics-related stuff. Even without an appearance by "Barry Allen," I give it three-and-a-half Tonys.
I've criticized ACG Comics publisher Roger Broughton for the less-than-stellar production values of his titles, but I'm pleased to report that HEROES UNLIMITED #1 and SUMMER LOVE #1 ($5.95 each) look pretty good to me. Each of the 64-page issue reprints vintage material from the files of the original American Comics Group and Charlton Comics, and the black-and-white art boasts reproduction as sharp as any in the business.
HEROES UNLIMITED presents five stories written by Richard E. Hughes, who also served as editor for ACG. The book leads off with the World War II origin of "The Grim Reaper," an exciting costumed-hero tale which compares favorably to the best of the era. That's followed by two stories of the wonderfully bizarre "Cowboy Sahib," an American who becomes a king in post-war India. Drawn by Leonard Starr, these terrific tales made the bok for me.
Rounding out HEROES UNLIMITED, we have "The Crime Crusher," a less-than-Sherlockian private detective, and "The Commando Cubs," a standard kids-battling-Nazis story, which is notable for its Bob Oksner art and the inclusion of one "Pokey" Jones among the cubs. Although this African-American youth is drawn in the stereotypical style of the era and utters an unfortunate "Lawdy" early on in the story, he is otherwise treated as just another member of the gang and is responsible for the successful completion of their mission. Neither of these last two stories is a classic, but they are fun. I'd give HEROES UNLIMITED #1 a solid four Tonys.
The Beatles are the selling point of SUMMER LOVE, appearing on the Dick Giordano cover, and playing an off-stage role in a pair of stories. In the first, they save a young woman's marriage and, in the second, a teen's adoration for them almost gets her booted out of high school.
Charlton published many romance comics over the years and was one of the last companies to do so. The stories reprinted here are uncredited, but recognizable artists include Giordano, Jack Abel, Vince Colletta, Charles Nicholas, and Tony Tallerico. Besides the Beatles fables, we get a well-written trio of hospital romances, a cliched "dumb girl doesn't appreciate her boyfriend" tale, an odd combination of hazing and morality, and the typical "I fell in love with him and THEN learned he was rich" story. It's not a bad batch of stories, but SUMMER LOVE #1 only rates three Tonys.
I'm impressed by the improvement Broughton has made in these releases, but I'd still like to see more of an editorial presence and more historical background on the reprints. Since comics fans love sharing their knowledge with others, I bet he could accomplish both for the price of complimentary copies.
The above column first appeared in COMICS BUYER'S GUIDE #1527 [February 21, 2003], which shipped February 3.
My pal MIKE W. BARR has moved back to his hometown of Akron, Ohio, just as I was leaving for four days in Florida. But I sent him an advance look at the CBG column I reprinted yesterday, which included my review of his STAR TREK: GEMINI novel. Here is Mike's unedited response:
FIVE Tonys!? I'd like to thank the Academy for this honor. Maybe you'd better tell comicdom in general that I didn't sleep with you to get you to give me this award...but that I threatened to if you didn't.
Mike did a signing at the Borders Books in nearby (for both of us) Cuyahoga Falls yesterday. I bought a few copies of his book to give to family and friends. Mike signed one of them for me to send to the very next person who makes at least a $20 PayPal donation to this website. That offer starts now.
Since I wouldn't want to disappoint anyone who contributes to this website financially, I'll send some autographed Tony Isabella comics to anyone who makes at least a $20 donation the rest of the month. The PayPal link lurks below.
The political comments which ran yesterday brought a response from my pal RUSS MAHERAS. I'm going to rerun my comments in bold, his comments in italics, and then back to normal type for whatever comments I might have on his comments. If this gets confusing, you should consider it a metaphor for global affairs.
I propose a special tax on any utterance of the phrase, "If you don't like it here [referring to the good old United States of America], why don't you move to Iraq?" Those are far from the only choices available to American citizens. Heck, we've even been known to try to change things we don't like about our beloved land or its policies. Our forefathers even allowed for such attempts to make changes in a little thing I like to call the Constitution of the United States of America.
Actually, I use that phrase on occasion, but I use it from the perspective of an American who has lived in several countries overseas for more than 10 years, and visited many more. A lot of the complaining I hear--and most of the time, complaining is all it is--revolves around issues that are so petty I just have to shake my head and smile. In most of these cases, the individuals aren't trying to constructively change anything. They are just spoiled and have tunnel vision, because they have no clue about what life anywhere overseas is like. Things we take for granted in the U.S. are luxuries, or not even conceivable, in other countries. Voting or activism in what you believe in is one thing; complaining and doing nothing about it is something completely different-- especially if you can't even point out the location of your own country on a blank world map.
Two. It is neither a criminal act nor an act of cowardice to disagree with and even oppose government acts or policies which you feel are ill-conceived or immoral as long as you act within the law in doing so. That holds true for foreign citizens and governments as much as it holds true for American citizens.
True, provided that you do obey the laws. And in order to be valid, this statement must apply to the feelings of all American citizens, whether they are liberals, moderates or conservatives. Your statement about "foreign citizens and governments" is very questionable because each country and culture plays by a different set of rules than the United States does. Your set of values and beliefs may seem like something out of the Bizarro World to some cultures far removed from your own, and such false projections is often why we've had so many failures in foreign policy over the years.
Three. Stop dissing France. Our historical ally doesn't have to agree with every position put forth by the USA, and that hardly makes them cowards. Over a million French soldiers died in World War I, which left their land at a numerical disadvantage when World War II rolled around. Another 100,000 French soldiers died in the battle against Hitler, to say nothing of the civilians who risked and gave their lives.
If not for France's help during the Revolutionary War, we probably would not even exist as a country, and for that, we should be grateful. However, the post-World War II attitude of the French government towards the U.S. has almost always been arrogant and confrontational. We helped save their country in WW I and WW II, and to our everlasting regret, bailed them out in Vietnam. In my opinion, the American blood we've spilled over the years protecting France's interests has more than paid back the debt we owe them for the help they gave us during the Revolutionary War. And I feel it's about time for France--who has been no foreign policy angel herself --to at least treat us with some respect and dignity.
Four. I have a candidate for President, though I'll be amazed if he's actually on the ballot in November of 2004. Representative Dennis Kucinich of Ohio has declared his candidacy for the highest office in the land. I don't agree with all his positions, but, he grew up in the same Cleveland neighborhood as I did; he remembers my mother's name; and, when he was mayor of Cleveland, he used to visit my Cosmic Comics store and buy the occasional comic book.
If he's the decent guy you say he is, I wish him the best of luck--we need more of such folks in government.
First off, I want to thank Russ for his comments. By way of response...
The values of one sovereign nation are not always going to be shared by another sovereign nation. If they were, we wouldn't be having this discussion. On the world scene, the question becomes one of respecting the values of another nation and having them, in turn, respect ours. Clearly, sometimes the gulf between values is too vast to allow this. We could not tolerate Nazi Germany or the Imperial Japan that allied itself with Hitler.
The problem I have with Bush's alleged values is that they are both inconsistent and illogical. He goes after Iraq, but not North Korea (clearly the greater threat being as how their missiles could conceivably reach us) or Saudi Arabia (who got a suspicious pass on its role in the 9-11 attacks and its continuing oppression of women and non-Muslims).
Whenever we do not respect the values of another nation, we're risking opening the door to their not respecting ours. That can be an acceptable risk. But Bush hasn't made a believable link between Iraq and the 9-11 attacks...and he hasn't made the convincing case for why Iraq should be first on our list of democracy converts. At the same time, others *have* made the case that attacking Iraq will destabilize the Middle East even further, require us to maintain an expensive presence--human and monetary--there for decades to come, and trigger terrorist attacks on the American people.
On the question of France's alleged arrogance, I think Dubya and crew have matched and perhaps surpassed them. Bush has pulled out of treaties without offering alternatives to the problems said treaties were negotiated to resolve, has bullied his way across the world demanding support for his war, has dismissed any who disagree with his policies, has used the 9-11 attacks to pursue an economic and political agenda that has little to do with national security, has used his dubiously-taken office to enrich his wealthy fellows and increase his personal power...and that's just the short version of my reasons for doubting him and his policies.
Arrogance? Bush's picture should be next to the word in the dictionary. He makes France look positively demure.
[Take deep breaths, Tony. Take deep breaths.]
Moving right along...
I like and respect Dennis Kucinich, even though we disagree on a number of issues. I wasn't pleased by his flip-flop on abortion, which I believe is wrong, but which I also recognize requires more compassionate and expansive thinking than we're getting from either side of the issue. And I was sorely disappointed by his voting for that obscene flag-burning amendment, which is as direct an assault on freedom of speech as we've seen. But I think Kucinich is a good and honest guy who deserves to be heard and might even make a good president. If you want to learn more about him and his positions, you can visit his website at:
I had an absolute blast at MEGACON last weekend and am looking forward to the next stop on the TONY ISABELLA FAREWELL TOUR. That would be PLANET COMICON on Saturday and Sunday, March 29 and 30, at the Overland Park International Trade Center in Kansas City. The guest list includes Apollo astronauts Capt. Richard Gordon and Dr. Edgar Mitchell, the always impressive Lou Ferrigno, and such comics greats as Dick Ayers, Steve Englehart, Bruce Jones, Bill Morrison, George Perez, Len Wein, and Marv Wolfman, just to name a few. You can get the entire guest list at the show's website:
Look for my new TONY'S ONLINE TIPS columns at Perpetual Comics on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Then I'll be back here at World Famous Comics on Saturday with another CBG reprint plus. You are most warmly invited to join me for all of the above.
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: