"Like sands through an hourglass, so are the days of our lives."
--from the NBC soap opera DAYS OF OUR LIVES
A comic book a day keeps the deadline away.
When you write/have written as many comics columns as I have, you're always looking for the angle, the change of pace that will challenge you or give you a breath of fresh air or simply make the writing a little bit more fun this time out. While I was trying to come up with that angle, I glanced over the calendar and wondered why Sunday is the first day of the week and not the last.
Sunday is the day of rest, right? The day the Creator kicked back with a celestial beer after spending the previous six shifts making this lovely-if-troubled world of ours. I logged on to the Internet seeking the answer.
The Jews had Saturday for their seventh day. The Christians went with Sunday, the day Jesus rose from the dead. The Muslims go with Friday for their holy day, their "king of days." That leaves room for four more major religions by my reckoning, but, with these columns and all, I don't have the time to start them myself. Knock yourself out, you budding L. Ron Hubbards out there.
Anyway, here's my angle for this week's column: seven reviews for seven days. Grab your hourglass and let's boogie.
What better way to start the week than with Gary Carlson's BIG BANG COMICS SUMMER SPECIAL #1 (Image; $4.95)? Carlson has a knack for producing these retro super-hero comics. Reading them is like finding an hitherto unknown Golden Age comic book at a garage sale, albeit sans the interior color and yellowing pages.
"The Super Stormtroopers" gets its structure from the Justice Society of America stories which appeared in ALL STAR COMICS in the 1940s. A trio of Nazi warriors have been given the power of Thor, stealing Thunder Girl's own powers in the process. It's up to the Knights of Justice to battle the Nazis and prevent the further use of their powers for evil.
If this WERE an old JSA story, I think it would be remembered as a pretty good one. The super-heroic doppelgangers are fun, the 44-page tale moves forward at an exciting pace, and the artistic homages are often dead on. Mark Lewis and Bill Black do a terrific "Simon and Kirby," and there are likewise outstanding contributions from Tim Stiles, Jeff Weigel, and Michael Kirsten.
On our scale of zero to five, BIG BANG COMICS SUMMER SPECIAL picks up four Tonys.
Monday is the "moon's day," so WEREWOLF THE APOCALYPSE: VOLUME ONE (Moonstone; $15.95) seemed like a good choice for the day. The hefty tome collects the first three stories in Moonstone's ongoing series of comics based on the WEREWOLF role-playing games. All of the stories are written by Joe Gentile, who is also editor-in-chief and co-publisher of the company. No wonder he has an affinity for creatures who go bump in the night. With so many different jobs, he probably works straight through until dawn.
The werewolves of this series are the troubled, oft-contrary protectors of the Earth against the callousness of man and the fury of their own darkest natures. Their role-playing game origins give Gentile's original tales a ready-made and apparently rich history, but that history doesn't come through as well as it could. Readers who are also players of the game will almost certainly have a leg up over the rest of us.
The most successful of the three tales is the Eddy Newell-drawn "Shades of Grey Justice," which takes advantage of its first-person narration to bring the story's heroine and her situation to life. Newell's magnificent art brings out the raw emotion and sets the stage for a moody and frightening story of bad choices leading to bad consequences. Not surprisingly, it's the best story in the collection.
Unfortunately, it's slim pickings after that. There are some interesting characters in "Scavenger Hunt," but they get lost in a chaotic story involving a serum that can destroys the werewolves. The clarity of the story is further damaged by some of the muddiest use of grey tones I've ever seen. Some white space here and there would have been beneficial.
The third and final story, "What's So Bloody About Peace, Love, and Understanding?," involves betrayal among a peace-loving, but violent tribe of werewolves. The script fails to bring out the personalities of its protagonists and doesn't compensate for poor storytelling choices on the part of the artist. The art isn't as muddy as in the previous story, but the grey tones are still spread too thick over the pages.
If the Gentile/Newell story were the only one being considered here, I might give it four or even five Tonys. But, with a $15.95 cover price, the best I can do for WEREWOLF THE APOCALYPSE: VOLUME ONE is a disappointing two Tonys.
Tuesday was named for Tyr, Norse god of battle. Since battle between powerful super-teams seems to be inevitably in JLA/AVENGERS (Marvel/DC; $5.95), I decided the first of this four-issue series should be the comic du jour.
A epic gathering like this demands not just a great writer and great artist, but a great writer and a great artist who will obsess about continuity almost as much as their readers undoubtedly will. Kurt Busiek and George Perez certainly fulfill that requirement and better than almost anyone else I could name.
It's a given that Busiek and Perez are going to get the heroes and villains right. Captain America and Superman seem a little out of sorts, but I expect that will turn out to be more than initially meets the eye. Besides, they earn the benefit of the doubt with me for a brilliant scene, even though it's not actually shown, between Batman and the Punisher.
I'm disappointed the teams are being manipulating into duking it out with each other - we've seen that so many times before - but there are so many spiffy bits of business in the issue, especially for us "baby boomer" comics fans, that I can extend the benefit of doubt to cover this. (I don't know whether to be alarmed or proud that I could identify eleven of twelve items of power being sought by the heroes before those items were named. I can't remember my cell phone number most days.)
I sense the fine editorial hand of Tom Brevoort in this issue and he, as well as colorist/separator Tom Smith, deserve kudos for their roles in this thoroughly entertaining extravaganza. Resist as I might, JLA/AVENGERS #1 brings out the super-hero-loving kid in me. It picks up the full five Tonys.
Wednesday's a no-brainer. Romans named it for Mercury. Hermes, if you're more into Greek myths. The really fast guy who delivers flowers in his spare time. Today's comic: THE FLASH #201 (DC; $2.25).
Haven't read FLASH in months. Cover says "his new life starts now" and a headline asks where he is. Solid, suspenseful story by Geoff Johns. Wouldn't work for a new reader. Works fine for this lapsed one. Gotta turn pages. Find out what the heck is going on with Wally West and his world.
Artist Alberto Dose is new to me, but real good. Captures the darker tone of this storyline.
Cop killer in Central City. Not the usual suspect, I'm sure. Looks like FLASH #201 caught me. It gets five Tonys. Gets me back for FLASH #202, too.
The astrological planetary character for Thursday is "power." That struck me as reason enough to read and review SUPREME POWER #2 (Max/$2.99), J. Michael Straczynski's mature readers re-imagining of the Justice League...excuse me...of Marvel's Squadron Supreme. When Ralph Macchio and the late Mark Gruenwald did their own take on the Squadron nearly two decades ago, it was with the intent of exploring the theme of absolute power corrupting absolutely. They did such a terrific job that I've never particularly seen the need for any further Squadron stories.
Straczynski is one of my favorite writers, so, like Busiek and Perez above, he gets the benefit of the doubt every time out. But, having read the first two issues of this new series, I find myself disappointed in its predictability. Everything that has happened in the stories so far is very logical in examining the "real world" consequences (or as close to "real world" as you're gonna get in a super-hero comic) of the appearance of Hyperion-Superman and other super-beings in a world that has never known such individuals prior to this. Logical, but not surprising. Logical, but not wondrous. Logical, but not emotionally compelling.
Straczynski's writing is very good, though not as good as what he's been doing over in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN. The Gary Frank and Jon Sibal art is also very good. But, as was the case with the title's first issue, this second issue doesn't give me that "I gotta see what happens next" vibe.
Straczynski and Frank are capable of so much better than this. Blame my heightened expectations if you must, but I can only give three Tonys to SUPREME POWER #2.
Beauty and harmony are Friday's astrological characteristics, which made WONDER WOMAN #195 (DC; $2.25) the obvious choice. That it was a stand-alone issue also suited me; it's been quite a while since I've read the title.
I'll get my minor complaints out of the way first. While I'll give cover artist Adam Hughes props for trying something different, the editor in me didn't like the Wonder Woman figure being obscured on said cover. Of course, maybe that was meant to reflect that she barely appears inside the issue, my other complaint. If I'm buying a Wonder Woman comic, I want to see her in it.
Greg Rucka comes aboard as the title's new writer with a story about a man's first day as a member of Ambassador/Princess Diana's staff. It's a perfectly serviceable way of introducing new readers to Diana's current life and the people around her. Rucka works a lot of information into "The Mission" and does so in a smooth manner. By issue's end, I had a good grasp of who Wonder Woman is and what she does. It was an impressive script.
No complaints about the art either. Penciler Drew Johnson and inker Ray Snyder told the story well - tricky given how many panels were told from the unseen Diana's point of view - and the drawing itself was of high quality throughout. Additional kudos are also due colorist Trish Mulvihill and letterer Todd Klein. This was one nice looking comic book.
WONDER WOMAN #195 won't necessarily bring me back for the next issue, but the four Tonys I'm awarding it this time out makes that a definite possibility.
That brings us to the Sabbath day and TESTAMENT (Metron Press; $15.95), a graphic album retelling of Old Testament stories by Jim Krueger and over a dozen outstanding artists. It's PICTURE STORIES FROM THE BIBLE, written in a contemporary, conversational style and depicted in artistic styles ranging from the fully-pained realistic images of Bill Koeb to the colorful and familiar cartoons of Sergio Aragones. It's a great-looking book brimming with talent.
Krueger uses the device of a bartender to relate THE story and tell a customer about its Author. Early on, the bartender says all he's selling is beer, but that's obviously NOT the case. In fact, it's so obviously not the case that the inherent dishonesty of this claim bothered me. I have no problem with TESTAMENT putting forth its viewpoint and encouraging readers to make it their own, and, in fact, am pleased to see comics work WITH a viewpoint. But this fib was the sort of slight-of-hand we get from politicians and other salesmen. TESTAMENT should have been above that.
Krueger's writing capably moves the story smoothly from event to event. It's solid work, marred by the sometimes clumsy mentions of the Author. Even a good point can be hammered home too often. Less would have been more effective here.
I have no such quibbles about TESTAMENT's art. There isn't a poor showing in the entire volume. Koeb's smoke-filled bar made my eyes water. Bill Sienkiewicz combined his styles and influences - Was that a Neal Adams riff I saw in one panel? - to tell powerfully the story of creation. Vince Locke's "Tower of Babel" sequence is breathtaking, as are the ancient battles depicted by Rudy Nebres. Aragones' take on Jonah had me grinning. No matter your religious affiliation or lack thereof, you'll be impressed by the art in this book. It's a showcase of some of comicdom's best.
TESTAMENT gets four out of five Tonys.
Seven days, seven comics. Now I have to start figuring out an angle for next week's column.
The above column first appeared in COMICS BUYER'S GUIDE #1560 [October 10, 2003], which shipped September 22. I thought it was a pretty good one and I plan to attempt other "concept" columns in the near future.
CBG's front story reported artist Mike Ploog would return to comics with a new fantasy series called ALBADAZAD, written by J.M. DeMatteis and published by CrossGen. To the best of my knowledge, the project is still on CrossGen's downsized schedule.
The second lead announced that a pilot for a new FLASH series is being written by Todd Komarnicki for Warner Brothers Television. The short item says this Flash will have no costume and will have the ability to travel backwards and forward in time. If it's not too much trouble, could he make a quick trip to 1976 before I sell Black Lightning to DC Comics...or at least make sure that I get the company's promises in writing? Thanks.
COMIC STRIP SURVIVORS?
In last weekend's column, I wrote about Mike Needs, the public editor of the AKRON BEACON-JOURNAL, asking the members of his VRN (Virtual Readers Network) which of five newspaper strips they would boot from the paper to make room for a new strip. The strips being considered for the heave-ho were BLONDIE, CATHY, GET FUZZY, HAGAR THE HORRIBLE, and ROSE IS ROSE. You can check out my comments in that column.
Needs let slip a few more details when he reported the results of the poll to the VRN. The new strip will be Sundays only...and that suggests to me that it will be Berke Breathed's OPUS revival. Moreover, the strip comes with "stipulations" that will require the dropping of TWO strips from the Sunday comics section. He didn't mention whether or not the daily versions of the two booted Sunday strips will be dropped, but I'm assuming that won't be the case. I'll let you know if I've assumed wrongly.
As Needs wrote, and as any newspaper editor will confirm, when a paper drops a strip, some readers get angry. The Beacon-Journal dropped PRINCE VALIANT and MARY WORTH more than a year ago and the complaints haven't stopped since. The daily MARY WORTH was brought back, albeit in the classified ads section.
Over 70 members of the VRN responded to this question and, as someone who's kicked around the fringes of the comic strips scene for decades, I found some of their comments very interesting. For example, one reader voted to drop CATHY, saying she was too old to appreciate it. I'd never thought of the strip as youth-oriented, so that reason caught me by surprise.
Another female reader extolled the positive nature of ROSE IN ROSE from what could be described as a conservative/traditionalist standpoint. Then she expressed her hope that CALVIN AND HOBBES was coming back to the newspaper, singling out the strip's ability to make her laugh at the chaotic world around her. How delightful to find a reader who appreciates a wide range of comics expression in her morning newspaper.
Sidebar. Tom Batiuk, my friend and neighbor here in bucolic Medina, Ohio, does CRANKSHAFT and FUNKY WINKERBEAN. He often tells serious stories within these strips and, as you might expect, does get some heat for injection serious themes into the "funny pages." On a vicarious basis, I share his frustration with those who would try to limit his subject matter. Fortunately, those attempts have been unsuccessful. His strips are doing just fine.
Back to the VRN. One reader pleaded for BLONDIE to remain in the paper. He has been a loyal reader of the strip since the days when Alexander was known as "Baby Dumpling."
Another reader sent in her "write-in vote" for BEETLE BAILEY, which wasn't on the chopping block. She tired of "physical abuse" being portrayed as appropriate on the comics page. I do enjoy the strip, but she's has a point. I wince whenever Sarge beats up on Beetle; that's a tired bit which could and really should be dropped from the strip.
The VRN does have its share of wrong wing morons. One of them ranted about comic strips which promote a "liberal agenda." These strips, according to the view from inside his own ass, included, as you might expect, DOONESBURY and THE BOONDOCKS. But he also cited CLEATS, FLO & FRIENDS, FOX TROT, and ROSE IS ROSE among the strips he considered liberal propaganda.
Two readers, while guessing that OPUS would be the new strip, also called for the return of PRINCE VALIANT. Comic strip readers never forget.
Not all respondents were clear about their likes or dislikes, but here's the tally Needs came up with...
For the boot:
GET FUZZY - 19
BLONDIE - 16
CATHY - 12
ROSE IS ROSE - 12
HAGAR - 7
Do not touch:
GET FUZZY - 7
ROSE IS ROSE - 7
HAGAR - 5
BLONDIE - 3
CATHY - 3
Needs is recommending that BLONDIE and GET FUZZY be dropped to make room for the new strip. I'll let you know if that's actually what happens when the new strip makes its debut.
This next bit also ran in Friday's TONY'S ONLINE TIPS column for PERPETUAL COMICS, but it bears repeating:
At a time when I certainly didn't need any more stuff to deal with comes the incredible news that DC Comics has published a story in which Black Lightning, the character I created for them back in the 1970s and revived to critical acclaim in the 1990s, commits a cold-blooded murder. The issue hit the comics shops on Wednesday and I started receiving e-mails from angry and saddened readers at 2:00 am Thursday, followed by similar phone calls throughout the day. I do apologize for not answering all the e-mails or returning all the phone calls, but, as you can imagine, I need some time to digest this latest insult to my creation.
There will be some sort of "official response" from me in the next few days. Until then, beyond that this represents yet another chapter in the long history of bad faith and disrespect DC Comics has shown ever since I created Black Lightning, beyond this wanton violation of Lightning's character and morals, I want you to think about this:
If you don't consider the great Milestone Comics characters like ICON and STATIC, and that certainly seems to be DC's policy, DC has only published three ongoing super-hero comics whose title stars have been African-Americans. Two of them, GREEN LANTERN and STEEL, were continuations or spinoffs of titles which starred white characters. Only BLACK LIGHTNING was an original.
Only three black super-hero headliners in the entire history of DC Comics and now one of them, almost as a "we need a shock to end this issue" easy way out, has been turned into a cold-blooded murderer. That's an egregious wrong that extends well beyond the wrongs done to the character and his creator.
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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