Harvey Pekar has been named "Clevelander of the Year" by the CLEVELAND FREE TIMES, the better of the city's two weekly news and entertainment tabloids. The FREE TIMES considered candidates who had left their mark on my former home and its reputation, choosing the author of AMERICAN SPLENDOR over Congressman Dennis Kucinich, basketball star LeBron James, Mayor Jane Campbell, and billionaire philanthropist Peter B. Lewis.
The FREE TIMES reported on Harvey's incredible year, a year in which he traveled the country (plus England and Scotland) to talk about and promote the film based on his autobiographical comic-book series. At press time, AMERICAN SPLENDOR had appeared on over 200 "Top Films of the Year" lists. It's been called the "Best Film of the Year" by Newsweek, Entertainment Weekly, the Associated Press, New York Magazine, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and a dozen other magazines and organizations. To start the new year on a good note, AMERICAN SPLENDOR was named best film of 2003 by the National Society of Film Critics.
Writing for the TIMES, Associate Editor Larry Durstin opined that these honors would not go to Pekar's head:
What I see is a man of fierce integrity and uncompromising artistic vision - a genuinely good guy with more than his fair share of hopeful gentleness just beneath his grumpy exterior. Like any good Clevelander, Harvey has an affinity for the underdog and a healthy resentment of the privileged. But unlike almost anyone else, he has been able to brilliantly illustrate this worldview in his work while showing that not only is ordinary life pretty complex stuff, but that a carefully examined one - no matter how dark or quirky - is definitely worth living.
Pekar is a contributing columnist and jazz critic for the FREE TIMES, but, while the paper takes obvious pride in this, Durstin's piece makes its case for honoring Harvey in fair manner. If you'd like to read the article, as well as Pekar's FREE TIMES columns and reviews, visit the paper's website at:
I'll have an amusing/annoying anecdote about Pekar's selection after this week's reviews.
HEAVEN'S WAR by Micah Harris and Michael Gaydos (Image Comics; $12.95) is more evidence that we should throw away our previously-conceived notions of what Image comic books are. When it comes to sheer variety, only DC Comics and some of the manga publishers can match this publisher.
HEAVEN'S WAR is a fairly ambitious effort. Literary bogeyman Aleister Crowley schemes to alter the outcome of an angelic battle and, in doing so, bend the world of man to his will. Opposing him are the Inklings, 20th century fantasy authors whose ranks include J.R.R. Tolkein, C.S. Lewis, and Charles Williams. The story weighs in at 100 pages with another 14 pages of annotations.
This was a graphic novel I wanted to like so much more than I did. Writer Harris reaches for the heavens in more than the events of this story. As I read this book, I caught faint echoes of Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman. Sadly, the script falls quite short of the "this is how it was" conviction of Moore's FROM HELL, and fails to bring its historical players to life with the vivacity of those in Gaiman's THE SANDMAN.
To Harris' credit, Williams, the nominal hero of this tale, is a fascinating character. I think HEAVEN'S WAR could've benefitted from more time with him. But Tolkein and Lewis come off as little more than sidekicks while Crowley comes off as a typical "mad mage" whose motives are scarcely explored.
Gaydos' black-and-white artwork shows many of the strengths he brought to Marvel's ALIAS, but the absence of color is keenly felt. Color could have alleviated the tedium of the many "talking heads" shots, the many blank panels, the many static shots of objects, and maybe even Gaydos' tendency to "ham it up" in his portrayals of the crazed Crowley.
I wanted to like HEAVEN'S WAY more than I did. In the book's second chapter, I bulled my way through several leaden pages of a character expounding on the vital clues to be found in a painting. I kept going to the annotations to make sure I wasn't missing other key story points. I'd go back to refresh my perceptions of earlier events. For all that, I came away from this book with a sad "nice try" rattling through my thoughts.
On my scale of zero to five, HEAVEN'S WAR gets a disappointing three Tonys. My consolation prize to Harris and Gaydos is that it also earns them another shot. I think they have a great comic book in them; this just wasn't it.
It's not hard to envision Mark Twain as a writer of hilarious and snarky comic books. Okay, he would be nearly 170 years old if he were writing them today, but I bet his comics would be as biting and funny and wonderful as the best of their peers. Fortunately, thanks to Eureka Productions, we can have a taste of what Twain the comic-book writer could have been.
Satanic mischief is the subject of "The Mysterious Stranger," a delightfully dark 36-pager by Geary, and it's only one of several outstanding tales. Kevin Atkinson does considerable justice to "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County." Simon Gane does commensurate honor to "Is He Living Or Is He Dead?". Lance Tooks turns "A Dog's Tale" into heartrending theater in comic-book form. I laughed out loud at the adaptations of "A Ghost Story" (by Anton Emdin) and "The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut" (by Antonella Caputo and Nicholas Miller). Oh, heck, there wasn't a story I didn't like in this book.
If you've never read Twain, GRAPHIC CLASSICS: MARK TWAIN is a fine introduction to that great writer. If you haven't read him in a while, this volume will compel you to rediscover what a treasure he was and remains. It earns the full five Tonys.
I was seriously underwhelmed by VERTICAL (Vertigo/DC; $4.95). This "mad, modern love story about two wild teenagers who meet at the Warhol Factory in the pop-colored world of the '60s" struck me as being mostly about its unusual format: a little over ten inches high and about three-and-a-quarter inches wide.
Written by Steven T. Seagle, the story is told in 64 vertical strips of mostly three panels each. It does conjure up the memory of DC's old romance comics, even to the "wild" teenage protagonists being as uninteresting as their 1960s counterparts. They whine and they sulk and they bond sans any good reason to do so. They need to be in love, but their love never rings true. If I'm gonna read sappy romance comics about self-absorbed teens, then either come up with something new or give me reprints of the goofy originals whose style Seagle attempts to mimic here.
The story is always the main thing with me, but Mike Allred's artwork and Laura Allred's coloring of same is worth an extra Tony. It's beautiful stuff which works well with the vertical format. A pity it wasn't in service of a better story.
Sidebar. I have been asking a few dealers how they displayed VERTICAL. Some only ordered enough copies to fill whatever advance orders. Those that did order shelf copies have been displaying it as they would a regular-sized comic book; they report the unusual format does catch the eye of browsing customers. Some sold out and have already reordered. No matter what I think of the story, this experiment was definitely worth conducting. It'll be interesting to see where it leads.
My concern is with the comic book in front of me and not where it might lead to. Thinking as I do that VERTICAL is more about its format than its story, the best I can give it is a parsimonious two Tonys. One of those is for the artwork and coloring and the other, ironically, is for the format. Science marches on!
BLOOD STREAM #1 (Image; $2.99) got my attention with its cover painting of a sleeping woman lying nude while clutching handguns and with its shades of crimson hues. On the minus side, some retailers are justifiably concerned about displaying the comic at a time when the censorious seem to be driving the legal system. Be that as it may, it's a striking cover. Kudos to Adam Shaw, who also serves as co-writer (with Penny Register), interior artist, and designer of the series.
The interiors aren't as interesting. Amber dances in a seedy strip club that looks like an office building. Her employer sets her up to be kidnapped by conspiratorial scientists who strap her to a green-glowing machine to test her blood. Neither she nor we learn why in this first chapter. That's pretty thin for a 22-page story. Too thin to get me back for the second.
Shaw's interior painted art doesn't rise to the level of his cover work, but it's good. Amber looks real. So do the supporting players, though some of them seem ill cast for their roles. Were I to hazard some guesses, I'd guess that Shaw used his friends for models and that this limited his range.
The writing isn't bad, especially when it tells the story from Amber's point of view. Beyond that, it struck me as more concerned with building the conspiracy/mystery than anything else. If you want readers to shell out three bucks for your next issue, you need to give them at least some answers in this one.
BLOOD STREAM gets but two Tonys. The comics shops are filled with much better comics on which to spend your money.
Here's the Harvey Pekar anecdote I promised you:
I usually get my news from newspapers or online, but I learned about the FREE PRESS selecting Pekar "Clevelander of the Year" from the local CBS outlet's evening news. They ran a promo of the story before the news and mentioned it once or twice while leading into commercials. I was impressed; it seemed the station was giving our man Harvey his props.
You know how you really used to love someone or something from your past but how they now embarrass you mightily? That's exactly how I feel about Cleveland. The city is in a quagmire. It takes a step back for every step forward. Its news media does a terrible job covering the important issues of the day. Its sports teams are lamentable, one arguably has the most racially insensitive "mascot" in professional sports while another treats a talented teenager as if he were the second coming. The rich get richer, the poor don't, and the middle class treads water to stay afloat. I do retain some honest affection for my former home town, but I'm quick to correct people who think I still live there.
There I am, eagerly awaiting this news report on comics legend Harvey Pekar. So what do I get?
Picture a Jay Leno wannabe wandering the streets of Cleveland with a copy of the FREE TIMES in his hands. He stops people on the street to ask them if they know who Harvey Pekar is. Predictably, they don't. His life was the basis for the best movie of the year and they don't know who he is.
The Leno wannabe mugs for the camera - ho, ho - as he sticks his microphone in their vacant faces. He doesn't come out and say it as such, but his smirk proclaims they are stupid, that the FREE TIMES is stupid for making such a choice, and that he, of course, is the hippest man in Cleveland. Which is, to my mind, like being the best-dressed man at a nudist colony.
I don't know which upset me most: that so many Clevelanders remain unaware of Pekar's genius, not to mention his international fame, or that this mean-spirited attempt at comedy was presented on what purported to be a news program.
"Cleveland" used to be a punch line sufficient unto itself. That I lack a punch line for this story is perhaps symbolic of the joke that is no longer funny. I gave up on Cleveland over a decade ago; I don't believe Pekar has.
He is a true voice of the people there. He does what he can. Gentle and grumpy, optimistic and cautious, he makes the case for the courage and gallantry of our daily lives.
He is a hero.
The above column first appeared in COMICS BUYER'S GUIDE #1579 [February 13, 2004], which shipped January 26. The cover reported on Marvel's new "Marvel Age" line:
"March will begin a new age for Marvel Comics, the Marvel Age. According to Marvel Manager of Sales and Marketing David Gabriel, the new line will reprint classic Marvel stories in comic-book format and new series in manga format, with all titles aimed at younger audiences."
Your humble columnist started out as more-or-less ambivalent to the notion of Marvel once again retelling classic tales. I even ordered a copy of MARVEL AGE: SPIDER-MAN #1. However, the more I got to thinking about it, the more I realized enough was freaking enough already. No Spider-Man retelling, not even ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN series by Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley, which I like, has been near as good as the original by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Some have been downright horrible. I'm getting off that merry-go-round here and now.
The issue's secondary lead reported that artist Dave Cockrum's condition was improving. Cockrum, who created or co-created many of the heroes featured prominently in the X-Men relaunch of 1975, had been hospitalized with double pneumonia and other ailments. That improvement notwithstanding, he remains in the VA hospital in the Bronx with an extremely difficult road ahead of him.
Writer-publisher Clifford Meth, a long-time friend of Dave, is putting together THE UNCANNY DAVE COCKRUM TRIBUTE book to benefit the artist. For more information on the project, which includes a piece by yours truly, go to:
Dave and his wife Paty are dear friends of mine, who regularly extended helping hands to others in comicdom. In a better, fairer world, Dave would have made a million bucks from his contributions to the X-Men. In *this* world, it's up to his fans and friends to give him a boost. I ask that you place your orders for the tribute book as soon as possible and I thank you for showing such support for a couple who represent comicdom at its best.
CBG QUESTION OF THE WEEK
What's your favorite comics "romance story?"
I don't know that I *have* an actual favorite comics "romance" story, but several likely candidates leapt immediately to mind as I read that question. Be warned, though, some of these tales did not have happy endings.
In no particular order:
DAREDEVIL: BORN AGAIN by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli. One of my all-time favorite super-hero sagas. Boy meets girl. Boy shares deepest secrets with girl. Boy loses girl...who flies off to Hollywood, appears in porno movies, becomes a drug addict, sells said deepest secrets for a fix, and sets in motion events which all but destroy boy. Boy forgives her. Boy and girl start a new life together. Of course, later Daredevil writers felt the need to piss all over this story, but that doesn't diminish this exquisite tale of love, loss, and triumph.
SGT. FURY AND HIS HOWLING COMMANDOES #18: "Killed in Action" by Stan Lee and Dick Ayers. Though it lasted a mere fifteen issues in comic-book time, the romance of Nicholas Fury and Pamela Hawley was as memorable as they come. I got misty when Fury, home from a mission with an engagement ring in his hand, learns that his love has been killed in a German bombing raid. Her last words, told to Nick by her grieving father, still haunt me: "Tell my wonderful American sergeant how much I love him."
SUB-MARINER #8: "In the Rage of Battle" by Roy Thomas and John Buscema. It was a typical super-hero slugfest with Namor and the Thing going at it. Then, in the last scene, Betty Dean enters to calm the enraged sea-prince. He is the eternally young Peter Pan; she is Wendy all grown up. Their time of romance is over, but her love for him has clearly never died.
YOUNG LOVE: "I Love a Stuntman!" I'm embarrassed to admit I don't remember where this five-page story originally appeared or, even worse, the issue of YOUNG LOVE in which editor Tony Isabella reprinted it, though the reprint came within the last year or so of that DC Comics romance title. I don't know who wrote it. What I do know is Alan Weiss drew it and that it made me laugh when I read it...because it was a honestly humorous tale. One of these days, I have *got* to get my comics organized.
More stories will doubtless occur to me the instant this TOT is posted, but these are the ones I remembered first.
How would you have answered this question?
IN THE NEWS
Gay marriage and THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST seem to be the big stories in the news on the day I'm writing this column, so here's a few brief thoughts on those subjects.
Faux-president Bush is now backing a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. This strikes me as a long stretch from both his avowed conservatism (which he embraces only when it suits him) and the "compassionate conservatism" (which was never more than a deceptively cruel come-on). It doesn't surprise me - I think he is running scared and doing this to shore up his flagging support from the religious right - but it's one more reason I would give my left testicle (the cute one) for five minutes in a woodshed with Dubya and a really solid baseball bat.
The bigots and the fearful and the zealots can moan all they want, but the history of this great country makes it clear that we will have legally sanctioned gay marriage and we'll have it within the next decade. Our country and our Constitution were not created to limit individual freedoms but to expand and protect them. We're not a nation that, as a whole, supports second-class citizenry for our fellows. Some of our brethren may be having some difficulties seeing that now, and some of them will never come around, but gay marriage will happen and the USA will be a better, kinder, and even stronger country for it.
As for THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST...kudos to Mel Gibson for how he's playing the wide-eyed zealot role of his life. He's won over the religious right - the same people who object to violent video games but who are joyously dragging their underage children to see this "R"-rated movie - and has successful deflected the charges of anti-Semitism surrounding the flick. The press even gives him the pass on his insane father's pronouncements that the Holocaust never happened and that those six million dead Jews moved to Brooklyn and the Bronx. I am not making this up.
The message of Jesus Christ is absurdly simple:
Love one another.
Bush doesn't get it. Gibson doesn't get it. I find this far more horrifying than gay marriage or celluloid gore.
SUPERMAN DIES - AND LIVES - AGAIN
My pal ROGER STERN sent me this note:
I'm trying to drum up some publicity for the new edition of my first novel, and it occurred to me that your online readers would probably be interested in hearing about it.
Barnes & Noble Publishing is reissuing THE DEATH AND LIFE OF SUPERMAN in March, as a trade paperback -- the first time it's been printed in that format. The Bantam editions have been unavailable for a few years, and I'm really happy to see the book back in print, especially in such a nice, big, affordable edition. There are some new introductions and such -- plus, I got to go over a new set of galleys and tidy up the typos that were in the earlier editions.
Here's the official stuff that Barnes & Noble has posted on their website:
Annotation: A New York Times bestseller, this most dramatic chapter in the life of the Man of Steel now arrives in a new trade paperback edition. It tells the dramatic tale of Superman's ultimate battle, expanding on the story line found in the best- selling comic book series.
Synopsis: On November 18, 1992, news of Superman's death shocked the world as the legendary Man of Steel was killed defending Metropolis from the monster called Doomsday. Here is the dramatic story behind the best-selling comic: the fates of Clark Kent, Lois Lane, Ma and Pa Kent, the Justice League, and the reign of the four super-beings who mysteriously appeared after Superman's funeral, each claiming to be the real Last Son of Krypton. And finally, here is the complete, incredible story of Superman's triumphant return!
In this thrilling revised edition, Roger Stern, a veteran Superman writer, chronicles the most amazing comeback in comic book history - told with more gripping detail and background than ever before. It includes all-new introductions by Stern and DC Comics editor Mike Carlin and an all-new postscript by DC Comics editor Charles Kochman.
That's the official stuff...
The really neat thing is that people will be able to go to Barnes & Noble and get my first and second novels - the second is SMALLVILLE: STRANGE VISITOR - and, hopefully later this year, my third. I'm waiting on my editor's notes on my first draft of a new Superman/Justice League novel for Pocket Books.
Of course, B&N has some of my graphic novels and comics trades on sale, too, but if you check out their website, you often have to scroll past dozens of MADLIBS books before you can find the correct entry. If anyone has more questions - about the novel or whatever - they can get word to me at:
With March upon us, it sounds like a trip to Barnes & Noble is order for Roger Stern fans...and I most definitely count myself in that group. I read, reviewed, and recommended SMALLVILLE: STRANGE VISITOR some time back, but I haven't yet read Stern's first novel, a deplorable situation I intend to remedy.
I'm back and that's about all I have to say on that subject. I have some interesting plans for this website, some expansion and some redesign, but you'll have to keep checking back to see what I have in store for you.
Whenever new material is posted here - and I'm hoping it will be frequently - you'll find a notice on the official TONY ISABELLA MESSAGE BOARD:
You will also find friendly folks and interesting conversation there, so I recommend dropping by as often as you can.
One more thing for today.
I'm not gonna give you the old song-and-dance about how *you* are the real editor of this column because you ain't. You're the reader. Hopefully, you enjoy these words I'm laying down for you. Whether you do or not, my electronic door is always open. E-mail me or post your TOT thoughts on the message board...and thanks for spending part of your day with me.
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: