"Heroes in history seem to us poetic because they are there. But if we should tell the simple truth of some of our neighbors, it would sound like poetry."
--George William Curtis
It's September as I write this column, which means the time is ripe for Christmas shopping.
Just kidding. Only women and maybe my pal Bob Ingersoll are doing their Christmas shopping in September. The rest of us have plenty of time. I mean, what with Christmas falling on a Thursday, we don't need to get started until December 22. Also known as my birthday, which means I get a reprieve until the 23rd. Besides, you're probably over-thinking any gifts bought more than two days before the holiday.
However, in the event you are of a mind to purchase a comics doodad earlier, a bauble which would make an excellent gift for the refined comics reader in your life, I can direct you to an object well worth presenting to your loved one. It will just take me one or two paragraphs to get you there.
Harvey Pekar is the creator and writer of AMERICAN SPLENDOR, the groundbreaking series which inspired dozens, nay, hundreds of autobiographical comics, as well as the award-winning movie which has been racking up impressive reviews by the boatload. The movie opens at a theater near me in mid-month and Sainted Wife Barb has already expressed interest in seeing it with me. As a pharmacist and a manager with Kaiser Permanente, she works with folks who treated Pekar during his bouts with cancer.
If I were enumerating the finest comics works of all time, OUR CANCER YEAR, the graphic novel Pekar wrote with wife Joyce Brabner, would be one of the first works to make my list. But I was a fan of AMERICAN SPLENDOR long before that and, now as then, I will buy any new Harvey Pekar comic book I see. There are less than a dozen comics creators who rate that kind of faith from me.
More Harvey Pekar is always a good thing and now his fans can get more of him online as well as in his comics. Set your computer to tune in on...
...and you will be whisked to HARVEY PEKAR'S OFFICIAL BLOG, an online journal featuring short musings by Harvey, Joyce, and even Danielle, the 15-year-old girl for whom they have become guardians. The journals aren't updated often enough to suit me - I enjoy reading what all of them have to report - but the website is worth a weekly visit. There are features and links to movie-related sites, but the blog entries are the main attraction.
Now we're getting to the gift part.
The site offers a variety of Pekar books, but the objet d'art which blew me away was the amazing...AMERICAN SPLENDOR HARVEY PEKAR BOBBLEHEAD! For only $14.95 plus shipping, I could and did order two of these animated representations of one of my favorite comics writers. I can't fully explain my delight over this item, but it was definitely delight at first sight.
(Why two? I'm not quite sure. I told myself the "extra" one would make a fine gift, but...)
I'm hoping the Pekar bobblehead starts a trend. I can easily picture myself as the proud owner of an entire village of comics-creator bobbleheads, a crazed Dr. Cyclops discussing the issues of the day with miniature doppelgangers of Alan Moore and Peter David and Sergio Aragones and so many others.
Why are you looking at me that way? The nerve of some people. Do I flinch in terror when you talk to your cats?
Cue the reviews.
Archie digests, especially the double digests, are among the best buys in comics. The material is aimed at younger readers, but older readers can appreciate the craft displayed by the writers and artists, as well as taking enjoyment from the lighthearted stories presented in these "pocket" comics. I usually keep a few of them in my van; they're a fun way to pass the time while I'm waiting for my kids to finish this or that activity.
The 196-page ARCHIE'S PALS 'N' GALS DOUBLE DIGEST #77 ($3.59) was an especially fine collection which allowed most of the Archie cast members a moment or two in the spotlight. Mister Weatherbee was "Getting Away From It All" in an amusing summer vacation tale. Betty Cooper provided a pair of humorous morality plays - "Cookout Lookout" and "Really Great Grandma" - as well as one of her great "daydream" stories. Archie, Chuck Clayton, Frankie Valdez, Reggie, and Jughead all starred in other fun adventures. Not every story worked for me - for the most part, I've never been able to warm up to "Little Archie" - but, on our scale of zero to five disembodied columnists, this digest's overall quality was enough to earn it an impressive four Tonys.
A family coping with loss while on a Hawaiian vacation is the heart of Scott Morse's THE BAREFOOT SERPENT (Top Shelf; $14.95), but this graphic novel takes at least a part of its soul from the cartoonist's appreciation for the films of Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, whose biography bookends the main story.
The Kurosawa opening prepares the reader for the sparsely-told main story. Morse chooses his words carefully and often chooses to let the visuals carry the characterization, mood, and unfolding of his tale. What words there are convey much, as do the deceptively simple drawings. It's economic artistry that compels one to linger over this bit of dialogue or that evocative image as it carries you deeper into the story. Long after I finished the book, I saw the faces of the characters, especially those of the young girl and her father, in my head, and "heard" snatches of conversation from here and there in the graphic novel.
THE BAREFOOT SERPENT gets the full five Tonys. I live to tell you about comics this good.
I am an extremely tough sell when it comes to fantasy removed from the concerns of man and that proved to be the case with DEMON DIARY VOLUME 1 (ToykoPop; $9.95). I was so unimpressed with this initial volume that, mere days after I read it, I had to refresh my memory by reading the back cover come-on:
Gods and demons wage a never-ending battle with the mortal realm as their battlefield. As is the case with most longstanding feuds, the reasons are no longer important - hatred has become a way of life. But it's said that one will arise to restore harmony between gods and demons. Enter Raenef, heir to demon royalty, though he is hardly courtly material. The demon king assigns the wise and noble demon teacher Eclipse to whip into proper demon shape.
Raenef is the black sheep of the demon court, clueless about magic and royal etiquette. But before long, Raenef and Eclipse find that the bounds of their friendship grow stronger than the student/teacher relationship.
It's THE KARATE KID with demons and without characters even remotely as sympathetic as Daniel and Mr. Miyagi. The art is best described as cookie-cutter manga (nothing we haven't seen a hundred times before) while the story plods along sans the slightest trace of urgency. It was a struggle to get through the 100 or so pages of the lead feature.
Lead feature? Yes. The volume also contains two unrelated fantasy tales by the artist/writer team of Kara and Lee Chi Hyong, neither of them compelling.
DEMON DIARY is rated "T" for teens age 13 and up, but I can't think of a reason to recommend it to readers of any age. No Tonys for this one.
I'm phasing out reviews of comics which haven't been sent to me for review, but I can't resist saying a few words about Marvel's ESSENTIAL HUMAN TORCH ($14.99). The volume collects all the Human Torch (and Torch/Thing) stories from STRANGE TALES #101-134, plus the Torch/Spider-Man team-up from the second STRANGE TALES ANNUAL. With the exception of that annual tale, which prints as if it were taken from a seventh-generation fax, the black-and-white reprints look pretty good. But what truly floats my boat about this hefty tome is that the Human Torch series represents early "Marvel Age" storytelling at its wildest and sometimes goofiest.
Right at the start, we get the absurd notion that no one knows Johnny Storm is the Human Torch. His friends and neighbors know Sue Storm, his sister, is the Invisible Girl, and like the Torch, a member of the Fantastic Four, but, somehow, they don't know that he's a super-hero as well. What's even better about this was how plotter Stan Lee and writer Larry Lieber wrote themselves out of it when they finally realized what a dumb idea it was and had Johnny discover that he hadn't fooled anybody.
"No one ever mentioned it to you," says Sue, "because you YOURSELF never spoke of it! They assumed you wanted PRIVACY--and they respected your desire."
That exchange happened in STRANGE TALES #106's "The Threat of the Torrid Twosome." After reading that story, I recommend you go back and reread the earlier tales. Darned if, when Johnny is doing his secret identity shtick, some of the bystanders don't look like they're rolling their eyes at his naivete.
Johnny's intelligence and skill change with the needs of each adventure. Sometimes his power is downright frightening, as when he channels and then disperses the force of an atomic explosion. Another time, he gets taken out by damp acorns.
The villains are every bit as mercurial. The Wizard becomes "Wile E. Coyote...Super-Genius" when the story runs out of pages, tricked by some Sue Storm-assisted slight of hand.
Paste-Pot Pete, well, he always looks silly in these stories, even after he loses the beret and the goatee and the paste pot, but his paste-weapons are formidable. Like many members of the Flash's rogues gallery, he could have made a fortune from the legal use of his inventiveness.
My favorite villain of the run has to be the Painter, an inept forger who discovers...I'm not making this up...an extraterrestrial paint set which allows him to bring his paintings to life. One of the high points of my comics-writing career was actually bringing this clown back in a 1991 WEB OF SPIDER-MAN trilogy. I am fearless in my nostalgia.
I don't want to give the impression that these stories are so bad that they're good. Some of them are a little rough around the edges, but all of them are, at least, entertaining and some of them are outstanding. A Torch/Sub-Mariner battle brings out the best in both combatants. The Plantman is a much better villain than he's generally given credit for being. The Puppet Master is downright scary as he tries to off the Torch and the Thing, once without any regard for his step-daughter Alicia's life. There are also spiffy battles with the Sandman and a bogus Captain America...and a swell team-up with the Iceman.
Writers? Besides Lee and Lieber, there are scripts by Robert Bernstein, Ernie Hart, Jerry Siegel, and Larry Ivie. Siegel's work is choice, displaying the humanity he brought to his best Superman writing. I wish he'd done more writing for Marvel.
Artists? Jack Kirby and Dick Ayers were the mainstays, both at their funky 1960s best. Carl Burgos penciled one story and, at the end of the Torch/Thing run, Bob Powell did five tales with four different inkers.
Besides the terrible reproduction on the STRANGE TALES ANNUAL story, ESSENTIAL HUMAN TORCH loses points with me for not including original publication dates and not having page numbers throughout the book. Even so, it earns four Tonys for taking me back in time to an era filled with possibilities and too vibrant to be slowed by the occasional misstep. These stories and these creators are part of my life. Warts and all, I love them.
The above column first appeared in COMICS BUYER'S GUIDE #1558 [September 26, 2003], which shipped September 8. The cover story announced that David Mack would be returning to DAREDEVIL to write and paint a five-issue story arc. The secondary lead reported that 2004's FREE COMIC BOOK DAY would be held on the Saturday following the release of SPIDER-MAN 2.
Sainted Wife Barbara and I did get to see AMERICAN SPLENDOR at a theater in nearby Montrose. The film is easily one of the best films of the year, perhaps even THE best, and it's certainly one of the finest "comics" films ever. Not for the last time, I recommend that you see this movie at the earliest opportunity. I know I'll be buying the DVD as soon as it's available.
One more thing. I sent my second Harvey Pekar bobblehead to CBG editor Maggie Thompson. She's used to people nodding their heads in agreement whenever she speaks.
MORONS OF THE MONTH
I'm throwing in the towel on this segment. Not permanently, but for the immediate future. There are just too many candidates for this least coveted of awards and narrowing it down to that one ultimate loser each month is too difficult a choice.
Do I choose someone on the national or international stage and risk Bush and his mob "winning" month after month? Worse, by doing that, do I risk blurring the thin line between moronic behavior and palatable evil?
Do I go for someone who has crossed my personal path and allow TIPS to become more narcissist than usual? I know it's difficult to believe, but there are limits even to my ego.
For this farewell-for-now month, I'm going to divide the MOTM honor between all of the finalists. In no discernable order, save which notes I grabbed first, here they are...
THE EDITOR WHOSE NAME SHALL NOT BE REVEALED. After I "outed" myself as a now-retired ghost writer for other writers, I received a phone call from an individual who identified himself as an editor for one of the Big Two comics outfits. I won't identify him beyond that for the simple reason that I can't be sure it was him or if it was someone impersonating him.
This "editor" offered me comics writing work on the condition that I tell him which writers I had ghosted for and on which comic books. How can I count the ways in which this is wrong? Accepting would mean betraying my past clients...not to mention letting slide the implied insult that I wasn't good enough to be offered the work merely on the basis of my ability...not to mention that working for an editor who would make such an effort would be a further betrayal of my artistic and personal ethics.
If the "editor" wasn't who he claimed to be, he still deserves consideration for the MOTM prize. At the very least, he wasted my time with a prank phone call. At the worst, he tried to get me to betray confidences while besmirching the name/reputation of someone who was innocent of this particular churlish behavior.
FUHRER WINE. Why are there people who just can't buy a clue when it comes to marketing Adolf Hitler?
In September, CBSNEWS.COM reported Germany had complained to Italy about a winery which labels its wine bottles with portraits of Adolf Hitler. This "Fuehrerwein" is part of vintner Alessandro Lunardelli's "historic line" of wine. Besides 14 different Hitler labels, the line also features Benito Mussolini, Napoleon, Joseph Stalin, and others. Lunardelli has described the labels as a great marketing success.
The wine is legal in Italy and is also sold on the Internet. However, in Germany, products bearing images and slogans from the Nazi era are outlawed.
Germany has been complaining about the labels for nearly six years. A Jewish organization filed and lost a lawsuit against the vintner, the judge ruling that the labels did not "exalt" Hitler or Mussolini. While admitted the labels are in bad taste, the Italian government says it can do nothing in this matter.
PLAY IT AGAIN, HITLER. Meanwhile, in Dallas, Texas, a school district has apologized for a performance by a Dallas high school marching band which "played an Adolf Hitler anthem and waved a Nazi flag during a football halftime show." The offending tune was part of a "Visions of World War II" theme and, to carry insensitivity to a new plateau, was performed on Rosh Hashana, start of the Jewish new year and also one of the holiest days on the Jewish calendar. Where is Mel Brooks when you need him?
CHILDREN OF THE INTERNET. WHAT MUSIC THEY MAKE! As a proud liberal, at least on most issues, I'm very used to the blatherings of the wrong wing. A recent e-mail directed me to a message board whose dim-witted denizens were taking delight in my having closed the TONY POLLS page after a round of ballot box stuffing. I wish I could say my visit to the board was an enlightening experience, but these creeps haven't learned a new trick in years. However, I was greatly amused by their jibes that I was a coward for closing the polls and, additionally, that, like the "Comic Book Guy" on THE SIMPSONS, I didn't have a life.
Let's see. I sign my name to my columns and online postings. They use aliases. Yep, I must be the coward.
As for my not having a life, you know, I guess if one doesn't count my having a wife and two children, a house/household with its attendant maintenance, my freelance writing, my various community activities, and the occasional evening with friends, that would be correct. They see right through me, don't they?
You see what I mean about not being able to choose just *one* Moron of the Month? The richness of the imbecility around me makes such a selection impossible. Not to mention eating up a whole lot of bandwidth in these weekly columns of mine.
So, for now, I must bid a fond adieu to those marching morons who have performed such a valuable service for me. Which is to say they make *me* look downright brilliant!
Thanks for spending a part of your busy weekend with me. I'll be back next weekend with more stuff.
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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