Picture the distinguished columnist at his keyboard trying to come up with the opening for his column. A heartwarming anecdote from his bucolic life in Medina, Ohio. A penetrating commentary on the larger world outside his home. A brilliant observation on the future of the comics industry. Picture the distinguished columnist coming face-to-face with the awful truth:
I got nothing. Nada. Zip. Bupkis.
Let's hit the reviews...
Several feature pages made ARCHIE #542 (Archie Comics; $2.19) seem even more fun-filled than its 26 pages of story, art, and text would account for. With four complete stories plus those feature pages, a young or even not-so-young reader would likely feel they were getting their money's worth from this issue.
Writer Craig Boldman had the lead-off spot with the fantasy-laced "Command Performance," drawn by Stan Goldberg (penciler) and Bob Smith (inker). After getting the boot from the Lodge mansion, Archie is convinced he should be more of a giver than a taker and treat his dates like princesses. He stumbles onto a magic lamp and mistakes the lovely genie within for one of the Riverdale beauties, confusing her mightily as he responds to her offers to shower him with gifts by treating her to movies and sodas. It's a funny tale, but I kept wondering why the genie looked like Betty.
Digression. Yes, I know that Betty and Veronica are basically identical except for their hair color. I always figured that was part of the gag and, to their credit, artists like Goldberg and the late Dan DeCarlo have always been able to differentiate the lasses via body language and other mannerisms. But, sometimes, the "look" is shared by other girls in these stories, making Riverdale appear to be dangerously inbred.
I DREAM OF JEANNIE not withstanding, I suspect there weren't many perky blondes in ancient Arabia. Giving this mystical miss a darker skin tone and more exotic features would have added some diversity to the issue. In fact, given the times in which we live, and Archie's proven ability to deliver important messages in a non-strident manner, it would be fitting to see Middle Eastern students at Riverdale High. Could be some fresh stories there.
Kathleen Webb delivered a pair of excellent scripts this time around. Kids will respond to "Cleaning Agent" with its exploration of the eternal struggle between parents and their children to get the latter to clean their rooms already. I'm talking to you, Eddie and Kelly!
This is followed by "The Ol' Pigskin Ploy," which will delight fans of Charles Schulz's PEANUTS. Both stories were drawn by the Goldberg/Smith team.
The only story which didn't click with me was Mike Pellowski's "The Riverdale Rap," which mostly consists of a cousin of Chuck's singing a rap song about Archie and company. Telling a comics tale in music is always a challenge; such scripts are difficult to write and rarely succeed. I applaud Pellowski accepting this challenge, but the result wasn't pretty.
ARCHIE #542 is still a good buy for your bucks. On our scale of zero to five, it gets three-and-a-half Tonys.
AVENGERS/JLA #2 (DC/Marvel; $5.95) comes as a disappointment after the opening of this decades-in-the-making crossover. In the previous issue, writer Kurt Busiek and artist George Perez set up an interesting plot, handled the huge cast of characters well, and even provided an in-story trivia contest - How many of the objects of power did you recognize? - for veteran comics readers like yours truly. I got a huge kick out of it.
This time, it's mostly hitting and punching and blasting and smashing and...boring. The interactions between Batman and Captain America are absolutely wonderful, but that's the only high point in this tedious issue. Sure, those terrific Perez action shots will likely live in the swipe files of lesser artists for years to come, but they don't do me much good as a reader.
AVENGERS/JLA #2 gets three Tonys. I expect better from Busiek and Perez.
BATGIRL: YEAR ONE (DC Comics; $17.95) collects the nine-issue limited series by writers Scott Beatty and Chuck Dixon, and artists Marcos Martin and Alvaro Lopez. While not all (or many) DC retcons and updatings have been creatively successful, this blast from the past merges the classic with the contemporary seamlessly and tells a whopping good story along the way.
Beatty and Dixon nail all the characters just right. Barbara Gordon is her expected feisty self with a surprising petulance that surfaces when she becomes (temporarily) frustrated in the pursuit of her goals. Commissioner Gordon is tough cop and strict dad, and his fears for his daughter's safety are entirely believable. Robin and Alfred are at their best, Jason Bard works well in this story, and, best of all, Batman isn't so insanely grim and unyielding that you expect him to end up in an Arkham Asylum cell.
The writing is downright snappy. The overall story is a page-turner with characters and scenes moving smoothly through it. The dialogue - both spoken and thought - is lean without being cinema-choppy.
Martin, Lopez, and colorist Javier Rodriguez did an equally outstanding job with the art. It's some of the most exciting I've seen in contemporary super-hero comic. If Hollywood made a Batman movie this good, I would see it a dozen times.
BATGIRL: YEAR ONE would make a great gift for any comics fan, especially pre-teen and teenage girls. It deserves each and every one of the five Tonys I'm awarding it.
CSI: MIAMI - SMOKING GUN (IDW Publishing; $6.99) puts Horatio Caine and his team on the case of a drive-by shooting on the city's posh South Beach. There are dozens of victims, wounded and killed, and hundreds of pieces of evidence to sift through to discover the who and why of this crime.
Writer Jeff Mariotte does a good job capturing the cast from the TV show. The direction in which the investigation would have to go was obvious from the fourth page of the story, but he managed to keep it interesting. My only (minor) complaint about his script would be the occasional clunky bit of exposition.
I wish the art was as good as the script. While the panel-to-panel storytelling of penciler Jose Aviles is fine, the likenesses of the series actors often look like publicity photos in close-ups and badly-sculpted wax heads in other shots. Some of these shots were so jarring they took me out of the story to marvel at how fake or hideous they looked.
On the plus side of the art, Ashley Wood's pages and panels, used to denote evidence or past events, continue to be an effective and striking storytelling tool. Sick puppy that I am, I'd rather have one of those pages hanging on my office wall than one actually showing the series characters.
CSI: MIAMI - SMOKING GUN loses points for the likenesses and its high cover price, but it still receives a perfectly respectable three Tonys.
Comic strips don't get nearly enough coverage in these pages, which is a shame when you consider how many more readers enjoy them than enjoy even the best-selling comic book. So I come before you to praise NANCY, currently being written and drawn by Guy and Brad Gilchrist. Though this United Features Syndicate strip doesn't run in my local newspapers, I read it online at:
Ernie Bushmiller's NANCY was a thing of beauty. It was simple in the way a flower is simple. It looked good. It made you smile. It never attracted your attention to how much effort and thought it must have taken to make it so beautifully simple. It had staying power; everyone who "met" Nancy, her rough-around-the-edges friend Sluggo, and her gorgeous Aunt Fritzi holds them in their memories and their hearts. They are classic characters who become a part of our American culture.
Following in such legendary footsteps, the Gilchrists aren't as good at hiding the obvious work that has gone into their skilled revitalization of Bushmiller's strip. Modern newspaper publishing demands a thicker line in image and lettered word alike. Writing a strip that harkens back to the charming humor and gentle days of the past while keeping the gags and situations fresh enough to have appeal and meaning for modern readers is a daunting task; when it's done this well, you can't help but notice it. I think this strip would be a fine addition to any comics section...and I wish it was being collected in trade paperbacks.
Consider all the above - and that Aunt Fritzi is one of the most admirable and attractive women in comics - and you can see why I give NANCY the full five Tonys.
The American SHONEN JUMP (Viz; $4.95) has completed its first year of publication and, having read all twelve monthly issues, I am more convinced than ever that it is the best bargain in comics, and by a wide margin. Each issue features over 300 pages of story, art, and special features. True, the ongoing series all fall into the action/adventure/fantasy genre, but, within those parameters, they deliver quality entertainment and surprising variety. I love this big thick hunk of comics fun.
Have my opinions of those ongoing series changed any since I last reviewed SHONEN JUMP? Somewhat.
I was somewhat ambivalent towards Akira Toriyama's "Sandland" when I read its opening chapters. But, as the tale of an alliance between a human and demons to find the water both their people need to survive progressed, it became an exploration of friendship and honor overcoming differences. It made powerful statements about challenging authority that does not serve the people and protecting the environment. When the series ended in JUMP #11, as much as I will miss these characters, it was as natural an end to a story as I could have hoped for.
Other JUMP strips have progressed as well. The games in "Yu-Gi-Oh!" have become more dangerous as Yugi faces opponents willing to kill in their quest for victory. The young ninjas-in-training of "Naruto" are becoming a formidable team.
Luffy, the irrepressible star of Eiichiro Oda's "One Piece," remains determined to become the greatest pirate of them all. His crew has begun to increase in delightful ways.
Hiroyuki Takei continues to develop and explore the mysterious world of the "Shaman King" with his introduction of new characters practicing different disciplines. My favorite character is Manta, a human boy with just enough sixth sense to see the ghosts figuring so prominently in these stories.
Yusuke Urameshi, the hero of "YuYu Hakusho," has won his life back by his ghostly good deeds, and now operates as an "Underworld Detective." He tracks down supernatural criminals and protects the unknowing world from them. This spooky series has action aplenty, humor, and a touch of super-hero attitude.
Humor plays a part in almost all the series running in SHONEN JUMP. The one exception is "Dragon Ball Z," which seems to revolve solely around its increasingly bigger and more brutal battles with nothing to alleviate the gloom and doom of those struggles. I read it every month in the magazine, but I have never been able to warm up to it.
Of course, with a comic as thick as SHONEN JUMP, I don't need to love everything in every issue. Between the strips I do enjoy, the fascinating informational pages, and the fun fan pages, I more than get my money's worth. JUMP is also extremely friendly to new readers; each strip is preceded by a page which neatly sums up its characters and previous chapters.
SHONEN JUMP gets the full five Tonys. Every comics publisher in the United States should be looking at this title and figuring out how to adapt their material to a similar format. It's beating all of them in the mainstream marketplace.
The above column first appeared in COMICS BUYER'S GUIDE #1570 [December 18, 2003], which shipped December 1. SWAMP THING SPROUTS AGAIN was the cover story, reporting on the launch of a new ongoing series by writer Andy Diggle and artist Enrique Breccia. After the first six issues of the series, which Diggle conceived as a mini-series, Wil Pfeifer take over as writer.
The secondary lead - THIRD YEAR OF COMICS GROWTH? - discussed industry hopes that yearly comics sales will have improved again, making them marginally less pathetic when compared to the sales of the 1960s through the 1980s.
The CBG question of the week queried readers on the best comic book they read in 2003. The closest I'll come to answering that is to repeat my assertion that Joe Kubert's YOSSEL is the best graphic novel of the year. Going beyond that would be too much like doing a year-end report and year-end reports are something I believe are best left to...EVERYONE ELSE ON THE WEB!
Do those people take notes all year long? I'd be stretching my brain just to write a DAY-end report.
Let's see what else I have for you today.
With the new year almost here, I thought it would be fitting to start cleaning out my files of interesting items I never quite got around to sharing with you. Such as this year-and-a-half-old mailing list posting from my pal JON KNUTSON:
Remember the ads from the Johnson Smith Company that used to be in every comic book, selling stuff from X-Ray Specs to Monster-Sized Monsters?
They're still around, and you can get their latest catalog for free at:
Nope, I don't get nothin' outta this, other than the pleasure of knowing I've helped people find cool stuff!
The above link takes you to the THINGS YOU NEVER KNEW EXISTED site where you can purchase quality items like the WORLD'S LARGEST UNDERPANTS (only $16.98 and in stock):
"You can get so many people into these shorts, you can have a party! Humongous size 100 undershorts are an ideal gag gift for prospective bridegroom, dad-to-be, or retiring co-worker. Made from soft, comfy 100% cotton just like the ones you're probably wearing right this minute. Machine wash/dry which might shrink them down to size 99."
Another website where you can find more goofy stuff is ARCHIE McPHEE ONLINE at:
On my quick visit there, I found the exciting "Devil Girl Wig w/Glitter Horns" for only $15.95:
"Put on this devilish wig and you'll instantly become a sassy vixen of the underworld! The long red locks and glitter horns might make you feel like doing something a bit naughty, but be careful 'cause if you play with fire, you're gonna get burned. Fits most adult heads."
I think I'll do my 2004 Christmas shopping early.
Even as I committed to preparing at least three online columns per week, I made the decision to reduce my mailing list activity in the new year. The main reason for this is to buy myself more time for writing fiction, be it comics or prose.
A secondary reason is my inability to refine from taking some posters to the virtual woodshed when they push certain buttons of mine. The casual callousness of such posters bugs the heck out of me and so I respond, knowing on some level that other posters will be offended by my response, erroneously claiming that I am somehow depriving them of the free expression of their opinions by freely expressing my contempt for those "opinions."
I'm not proud of these angry responses. The best I can hope for is that someone on the fringes of the electronic battle will be able to understand the difference between expressing their opinion of a comic book and insulting a comics professional who worked on that comic book. Some do, some don't, and I end up wasting energy I could have put to much better use.
Going through my files, I found one such response. It touched on so many of the things which annoy me that I'm going to clean it up a bit and share with you.
One of the triggers was the mania with which some historians attempt to find prototypes where none existed:
I remain extremely skeptical of such unfounded speculation. It doesn't reflect either reports of how the Marvel Bullpen worked in the 1950s, or what I saw at Marvel in the 1970s, or what folks who were there in the 1950s and early 1960s told me during my time at Marvel.
I've a low threshold for such speculation these days, whether it concerns the character of professionals who have passed...or who created what, the latter usually based on one creator's disgruntled statements made during a particularly angry period in his life...or what the agreements between the publishers and the talent really were in decades past.
I did overreact to the comments about [name withheld]. having somehow missed the original message on his alleged ability to meet his deadlines while drunk. Even in jest, that's one of the most left-handed compliments I've ever seen.
Without going into details, he went through some very troubled times during his life and it seemed to me...erroneously...that you were making light of them.
I'm going through a pretty angry time myself. I've spent over 30 years in the comics business and have watched talented creators screwed over in more ways than you can imagine.
As I wrote recently, I love comics, I love writing comics, and I love most of my fellow pros and fans, but I hate everything else about this business. I'm sensitive, perhaps overly sensitive, to the casual pro-bashing, etc that is a regular component of lists such as this.
I'm sensitive to the arrogance with which so-called historians make their claims as to how things worked, often without first-hand knowledge or even second-hand interview knowledge.
I apologize if my comments were harsh. They were. But I feel the positions behind those comments are dead-on.
I mean, just look at the discussions you're trying to start in your post. You want us to name the ugliest comic book we know, the most bland stories, and the most amateurish art. You want to talk about "when good artists go bad."
To recall a scene from one of my all-time favorite movies, IT'S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER, do you have any idea what it takes to be an artist, even an inferior one?
Do you have any idea what it takes to be a writer, again, even an inferior one?
Do you have any real concept what it takes to be either in an industry that has...historically, routinely, continually...abused and cheated the very creators who give it life?
I don't believe you do.
So, yes, your posts do often push my buttons.
Now you know why.
That wasn't pretty, was it? I share with you because sharing is what I do in these online columns. I think I'm a decent guy and all, but even decent guys have their warts.
Online communication makes it pretty easy to lose one's cool. Even when arguing on the side of the angels, that heat can diminish your arguments. One more thing to work on as I try to be a better man in 2004 than I was in 2003.
Thanks for spending a part of your day with me. I'll be back soon 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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