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Reviews and commentary by Tony Isabella
"America's Most Beloved Comic-Book Writer & Columnist"

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for Saturday, December 20, 2003


"When a work lifts your spirits and inspires bold and noble thoughts in you, do not look for any other standard to judge by: the work is good, the product of a master craftsman."

--La Bruyere

Judge Tony here, riding the night court bench at CBG Central. I have another batch of reviews for you this week, but I also have a question for you.

A friend of mine who writes online comics reviews eschews any rating system whatsoever. She doesn't use letter grades or stars or even disembodied Tony Isabella heads. She comments on what she does or doesn't like about the comic book at hand, sometimes making a recommendation to her readers and sometimes not.

I have been reviewing comics and related items in CBG for over a decade and, for me, using a rating system has been a relatively recent addition to these columns. I started off using a variety of rating systems, as much for laughs as to give you a shorthand view of what I thought of my review subjects, and then settled into the "zero to five Tonys" scale I presently use. Most of this paper's other reviewers use A-F letter grades, but you know they were all teacher's pets as kids and probably smelled of chalk dust well into summer vacation.

Let's face it. The only real men among CBG's reviewers are me and Maggie Thompson. And maybe Heidi MacDonald when she doesn't go all girlie talking about "the dress."

Having thus sealed my fate when I meet ANY of CBG's reviewers in a dark alley, here is my question for you:

Does my using a rating system increase the usefulness of my reviews for you?

You can cast your vote by e-mail or postal mail, but you can also vote online by going to my TONY POLLS page:

I'll keep this poll open until the end of the year and report the results in January. Even if you vote online, feel free to send me any additional thoughts you have on this issue. I write these reviews, not for comics creators or publishers, but for my readers. Help me guide you better.

We're dangerously close to denying this week's review items a speedy trial, so let's get down to business.


Herod comes to children in the night bestowing upon them power and the certainty they will die on their 21st birthday. Preston Kills is one such recipient. By touching a dead person, he can see the moments just before and after their deaths. Since he was 13, he's used his power to help his homicide detective brother Robert. Preston Kills is twenty years old.

21 DOWN: THE CONDUIT (Wildstorm; $19.95) is a trade paperback collection of the first seven issues of this series. Co-written by Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray, 21 DOWN is one of the best of the "no spandex" super-hero books on the stands.

What is good about 21 DOWN trumps the not-as-good. Preston's changing reactions to his changing situation, which range from his attending meetings for terminal brain cancer patients to embracing a lifestyle choice he'd always fought, are well played. Within his story, there are moments of heartwarming friendship and downright chilling horror.

The scripting is solid throughout these issues, avoiding the clipped and minimalist Hollywood-style dialogue we see in so many current comics. It even rises to the lyrical on occasion, as when Preston tells someone his surname means "river in Dutch but murder in English."

Penciler Jesus Saiz matches the scripting beat-for-beat with a sure style of storytelling and character design. Inker Palmiotti gives further evidence that he deserves his rep as one of the best in the business. Also included in this collection are Joe Jusko's paperback-chic cover paintings from the original comics and several pages of character notes/sketches.

The not-as-good? My affection for "sexy, lethal, and driven FBI Agent" Mickey Rinaldi waned quickly. She seems more of a plot convenience than a fully-rounded character. The revelation of her motive in pursuing Herod is pedestrian, especially when played as this volume's cliffhanger ending. If Palmiotti and Gray don't make her more interesting in subsequent issues, she could drag down an otherwise top-notch thriller.

21 DOWN: THE CONDUIT picks up four out of five Tonys. I would recommend it to readers mid-teen and older.

Tony Tony Tony Tony


From the moment I first "met" Alanna Wolff and Jeff Byrd, the counselors of the macabre, I knew Batton Lash, their creator, had come up with one of the most brilliant concepts for a comic strip in the history of the genre.

"Beware the creatures of the night--they have lawyers!"

At some point, perhaps disheartened because all those Garfield and Snoopy plush toys on store shelves left no room for the Alanna, Jeff, and secretary Mavis plush toys, Lash went from comic strips to comic books, mastering the art form with such ease I suspect his attorney characters won him a great settlement in a some landmark legal victory over the Muses. Of course, what keeps me coming back to SUPERNATURAL LAW issue after issue is that Lash is never content to rest on his well-deserved laurels. He continues to explore both new avenues of paranormal litigation and new ways of telling his always entertaining stories.

MISTER NEGATIVITY AND OTHER TALES OF SUPERNATURAL LAW (Exhibit A Press; $15.95) collects recent issues of the regular comic title and its MAVIS spin-off. The range of these tales is breathtaking. Lash presents a living mummy story which would have done Universal or Hammer Studios proud. He sends up Dave Sim's CEREBUS in a tale of a converted-to-Christianity demon suing to be allowed to worship in an earthly church. Another episode is a funny/sad homage to the classic STRANGE ADVENTURES sci-fi of Julius Schwartz, Gardner Fox, John Broome, and Carmine Infantino. Yet another is told entirely in visual iconography. For this volume's big finish, Lash takes us into Stephen King territory. A new reader discovering Wolff & Byrd through this collection might feel like he's missing some important information about the characters on occasion, but, generally, this book is very friendly to that new reader.

MISTER NEGATIVITY scores for accessibility, characterization, craftsmanship, humor, tragedy, and overall bang-for-your bucks. It gets the full five Tonys.

Tony Tony Tony Tony Tony


Comics creation is a back-breaking task and promises to become more so as American writers and artists rise to the challenge - as they must - of competing for reader interest with the incredible variety and volume of manga. We have to think beyond the 32-page pamphlets, not an easy adjustment for comics creators accustomed to the "leisurely" pace of 20-24 pages per month.

I think it's a mistake to abandon our traditional storytelling values in a futile attempt to ape manga styles, but our readers are clearly attracted to the big satisfying chunks of story to be found in manga. That's the real battlefield. Any tools and techniques which help us amp up the volume without diminishing our home-grown identity or quality should be welcomed and given a chance to prove their utility.

Enter Buddy Scalera's VISUAL REFERENCE FOR COMIC ARTISTS: VOL. 1-3 (After Hours Comics; $10 each). For each CD-ROM volume, comics writer Scalera has taken hundreds of photos of dramatically posed and lighted figures, buildings, weapons, everyday scenes, rubble, vehicles, and more. With each new volume, Scalera has acted on the advice and suggestions of his fellow comics pros, whether it be in making the photos larger and sharper or using models with the kind of physiques seen in contemporary super-hero comics. In the latest volume, he had two close friends to fight each other to the extent that you can see their muscles straining painfully. I was grateful I don't have that kind of physique; I get the feeling Buddy could talk his models into anything in the name of art.

(On the other hand, if Buddy ever needs shots of a middle-aged short guy being seduced by gorgeous heroines, which is something I think comics readers are crying out for, I'm definitely the man for the job.)

My immediate concern on studying VISUAL REFERENCE was that we might suddenly start seeing the identical shots in comic book after comic book. Scalera recognized this possibility, but felt artists run the same risk using magazine photos as reference. Ultimately, how an artist uses the images is still up to the artist. What they see gets filtered through their own brain and changed accordingly on its way to the finished page.

I can see these images being as useful to an aspiring creator as copying the work of their favorite artists. Both are learning tools, which should be largely abandoned once the creator actually begins working in comics.

I can see them being helpful to an established artist having difficulty with a tricky angle or who needs to craft a convincing background quickly. Used in moderation, and, of course, filtered through the artist's own style, they can speed up production in an innocuous way. Readers hunger for more pages of their favorites. We should try to satisfy their cravings.

Some writers will also find the images useful in communicating with their artists, as in "This pose is what I was thinking of for that panel." Since I usually write full scripts (or panel-by-panel plots) and work with artists whose moves I know, I generally prefer to let them shoot the action as they see it, taking their cues from my descriptions and dialogue. But, if I was working with an artist whose work I didn't know well, and if I had a key shot in a script that had to be just right, I could see sending him photo reference. Use the tools; don't let the tools use you.

I hope Scalera keeps these CDs coming. My suggestion for his future volumes would be more photos of average people doing average things: sleeping, relaxing, working at their desks, dropping coins in a vending machine, making a sandwich, all the real world images that would make the incredible stuff in super-hero comics that much more believable.

At ten bucks a pop, VISUAL REFERENCE FOR COMICS ARTISTS is an economical and valuable tool for comics creators. Our man Scalera gets four Tonys for his hard work and inspiration in tailoring this product to the needs of those creators.

Tony Tony Tony Tony


With the winter holidays almost upon us, let me take a moment to make a request. Every day, in the United States and around the world, there are men, women, and children, entire families, who are in short supply of the most basic needs: food, shelter, clothing, health care, education, employment, faith in themselves, and faith in the future. Our governments fail our brothers and sisters on a criminally regular basis, which means it's up to us to extend what help we can.

I know the character of my readers. I know you to be good and generous souls. Many of you contribute a portion of your holiday spending budgets to worthy causes. Thank you.

Consider this, then, the gentlest of reminders that the needs of our fellows are not seasonal. They need our assistance as much in July as in December. Moreover, they need us to work to change our societies to put the well-being of people above and beyond the profits of the rich and the ideologies of the powerful. They need us to be heroes.

Heroes do walk among us. Maybe even as close as the faces in our mirrors.

Happy holidays to my "Tips!" readers, to my colleagues at CBG and on the web, to all my friends and kindred souls in and out of comics, to the heroes who are, and to the heroes who are aborning with each passing moment.

God bless all the peoples of the world.



The above column first appeared in COMICS BUYER'S GUIDE #1569 [December 12, 2003], which shipped November 24. The issue's cover story was "COMICS TO FILM 2004" with a bumper to an interior piece by Steve Fritz. First up is Mark Hamill's COMIC-BOOK: THE MOVIE, which will be released on January 27 as a two-DVD set. I'm looking forward to that one.

The second lead reports that CrossGen Comics has sold MegaCon to Beth Widera, the convention's original director. I had a great time at MegaCon 2003, due in no small part to Beth's hard work and that of her crew, and I wish her all the best for 2004 and beyond. If I ever launch a "comeback tour," I'll definitely put MegaCon on my schedule.



This issue's question was: What's your favorite holiday story in comics? Why?

I have two favorite holiday stories, one for personal reasons and one for the sheer joy of it.

The personal one is "'Twas the Night Before Kwanzaa," the last Black Lightning story I wrote for DC Comics and the last published story I wrote for artist Eddy Newell. It appeared in DC UNIVERSE HOLIDAY BASH #2 (dated 1998) and, while it didn't lead to any more BL stories by Eddy and myself, it did allow me to leave my creation with a (however temporary) happy ending.

My other favorite is that Carl Barks classic, "A Christmas For Shacktown," which, coincidentally enough, I wrote about at length in Thursday's edition of this column. I called it one of the best Barks stories of all and, on my message board, comics historian DON MARKSTEIN concurred. He wrote:

In case anybody here doesn't know it, what Tony said about "A Christmas For Shacktown" is WAY true. Anybody who hasn't read it should read it.

If you ask me, Disney ought to bring it out in an hardcover edition, sturdily constructed to withstand kid ownership, and release it each year for parents who want to give their kids permanent keepsakes. And parents should introduce their kids to it by reading it to them aloud. In fact, make it an annual tradition. It bears rereading.

Now it's my turn to second Don and, while I'm at it, recommend his awesome TOONOPEDIA website. It's an ever-growing encyclopedia of the comics arts with hundreds of informative entries. It should be a regular stop on your online travels:



I also wrote about Don Rosa's "Gyro's First Invention" in the afore-mentioned TOT. It's a 20-page sequel to "Shacktown," which appeared last year in various overseas Disney comics. I expressed my hope that Gemstone, which publishes Disney comics in the United States, would schedule the American debut of the story as soon as possible. Looks like I nearly missed the boat on this one, but my pal HOY MURPHY was there to toss me a line. Posting on my message board, he wrote:

Gemstone printed that wonderful Rosa story in the issue of either WALT DISNEY'S COMICS AND STORIES or UNCLE SCROOGE that came out in November, the week before Mid-Ohio-Con. I spoke with Don about it at the con.

And it is a wonderful story, pulling together elements from the Shacktown story, along with another Gyro story about a thinking machine, and giving the origin of Gyro's best pal, Helper. When the CBG awards ballot comes out next year, I'm going to have a hard time choosing between this story and the earlier "Three Caballeros Ride Again" story Rosa did that was published this fall in COMICS AND STORIES.

So, the story's out there, Tony! Go read it!

That I will, Hoy, just as soon as I can find those issues in the mess that is my office/bedroom/hallway. Fortunately, my kids have promised to help me sort through all the comics and magazines which have been piling up for months during their winter break from school. Once that's done, you can bet catching up on the Gemstone titles will be a high priority for me.



James Hudnall, a terrific comics writer and a fellow member of the Comics Community message boards, sent me a press release about his return to comics. I don't usually run such notices here, but, having read and enjoyed the preview mentioned herein, I wanted to share the wealth. Here's the PR:

Dark Planet Productions, Inc was created by James D. Hudnall in 2001 as a place he could bring his comic properties to other media, such as film, television and the Internet. In addition to optioning several of James Hudnall's comic book properties to television, Dark Planet just signed a mid-six-figure movie deal with Universal for the comic, THE PSYCHO, written by Hudnall and painted by Dan Brereton. In 2003, Dark Planet has teamed up with Sulaco Studios to produce comics for the North American market, using some of the best talent in Europe and America. Our goal is to create fresh, interesting, and original material for the comics buying public.

The first two titles will be 2 TO THE CHEST and ROGUES.

2 TO THE CHEST is the story of a young LA police officer who almost dies in a shooting and learns the secrets to the greatest mystery of all time. ROGUES is a fun fantasy adventure story about two troublemakers in a mythical world. Both series will be monthly and in color.

In coming months, Dark Planet will produce trades collecting the works of James Hudnall and Sulaco Studios. These will be nicely priced and in full color.

"It's been my goal from the day I started in comics to write stories that can be collected into books as complete stories," says Hudnall.

"Now the industry has caught up to my idea. There's more acceptance of trades. In fact, they will probably dominate the industry in time. And Dark Planet is ready with a host of creator-owned material by exciting talent."

Dark Planet's books debut in February 2004, at finer comics stores everywhere. The solicitation is in this month's Diamond catalog. A ten-page preview of both books can be seen on the Dark Planet website. There will also be a free color preview book sent to retailers in December.
For the free previews, head over to:

That's all for today. Thanks for spending a part of your day with me. I'll be back soon with more stuff.

Tony Isabella

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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.

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:

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