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

Current TOT >> TOT Archives | About Tony | Books by Tony | Message Board

for Tuesday, March 2, 2004


"Whenever I dwell for any length of time on my own shortcomings, they gradually begin to seem mild harmless, rather engaging little things, not at all like the staring defects in other people's characters."

- Margaret Halsey

Call me Isabella. Tony Isabella. Actually, just plain "Tony" will do because I've rarely been one to stand on ceremony in these weekly commentaries of mine.

My editors asked that I update my biographical information for a sidebar along the lines of "The Tony Scale" which appears here on occasion. Theoretically, this will allow brand-new CBG readers to instantly take me to their hearts. Isn't it cute when editors talk that way?

I was born on December 22, 1951, which makes me, among other things, older than Godzilla, who turns 50 this year. I learned to read from comics at the age of four and have never stopped reading them. Along the way, I started writing to comic-book letter pages, writing for comics fanzines, corresponding with other comics fans and the occasional comics pro, and going to comic-book conventions. Clearly, I was on the road to ruin.

That road led from my then-home of Cleveland, Ohio to New York City and a job as an editorial assistant at Marvel Comics. It was the fall of 1972, and, much to my amazement, I found myself working with Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Sol Brodsky, and so many other legendary comics creators that merely listing them would fill this column and allow me to knock off early today. This, my now-less-cute editors inform me, would be a bad idea.

I did other work-type things before getting into the comics industry, have done them while I was doing comics gigs, and still do them to this day. However, comics has been my chosen profession and, in my 31 years in the field, my titles have included: writer, editor, retailer, distributor, publicist, consultant, lecturer, and columnist. I have been called "America's most-beloved comic-book writer and columnist" (initially by myself, as a joke, but darned if it didn't catch on) and the "granddaddy of online columnists" (by virtue of the thousands of columns I have written for my TONY'S ONLINE TIPS website). I'm trying to get people to think of me as "the guy we send money to for no good reason whatsoever," but that one isn't meeting with wide acceptance. Yet.

I created Black Lightning at DC Comics, co-created Tigra for Marvel Comics, developed Jack Kirby's Satan's Six at Topps Comics, and have written for countless other comic-book titles from AMAZING SPIDER-MAN to YOUNG LOVE. Of course, when I say "countless," what I really mean is that I've never counted them. Math confuses and frightens me.

The Case of the Colonist's Corpse: A Sam Cogley Mystery (Star Trek) I was an editor at both Marvel and DC in the 1970s. I owned and operated a comic-book store for over a decade in the 1970s and 1980s. In recent years, working with Bob Ingersoll, I've published two novels: CAPTAIN AMERICA: LIBERTY'S TORCH and the just-released STAR TREK: THE CASE OF THE COLONIST'S CORPSE. If I can't be known as "the guy people send money to for no good reason whatsoever," I could live with "bestselling author." Hint, hint.

I live in Medina, Ohio with Sainted Wife Barbara and our two wonderful children, 15-year-old Eddie and 12-year-old Kelly. Since I'm fixating on details this week, I'll concede "Sainted" generally refers to people who have passed from this mortal vale. However, it also refers to people who dwell in Paradise. Barb is alive and will have been married to me for two decades come June. If that's not Paradise - for me, at least - what is?

While I take a hatchet to the above, the better to fit it into that sidebar my editors requested, why don't you mosey on down to this week's reviews?


We live in the Golden Age of Comics Scholarship. The kids who loved comics in the 1940s through the 1970s and beyond have grown up into serious-minded adults with a passion for uncovering comics history and presenting the hard-mined nuggets of their explorations in books and magazines. Among these prospectors of the past, few shine as brightly as Bill Schelly.

WORDS OF WONDER: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF OTTO BINDER (Hamster Press; $18.95) is Schelly's latest, a biography of the writer whose brilliance illuminated the worlds of comics and science fiction for over four decades. The handsome hardcover book tells the story of Binder's life from his youth in a town not unlike the "Smallville" he would write about as a adult, through his success as a writer of science fiction, science fact, and comics, and through the sadness of his later years. What emerges from the telling is a decent, generous, and remarkably talented man who left a legacy in his work and in those he helped and inspired along the way. When a book has you thinking how much you miss someone you never met, you know the biographer has done his job exceedingly well.

Binder is best remembered for his Captain Marvel and Superman scripts, which number in the high hundreds. Though not the creator of either hero, he defined the former in the 1940s and revitalized the later in the 1960s. The sense of serious whimsey he brought to the Captain during their thirteen years of shared service remains, to this day, the signature tone of the hero. Working the DC Comics side of the industry street with editor Mort Weisinger, Binder was instrumental in creating or developing the characters and concepts which defined Superman's Silver Age. Additionally, he was an early and strong supporter of comics fandom, magnanimous with his time and his knowledge. It can be said that Binder himself planted the seeds that blossomed into his own biography.

WORDS OF WONDER is as remarkable as its subject. Schelly has filled its pages with keen insight, rare photographs, and wonderful illustrations. His story of Otto Binder deserves and gets the full five out of five Tonys.

Tony Tony Tony Tony Tony


JLA: Zatanna's SearchJLA: ZATANNA'S SEARCH (DC; $12.95) reprints all five chapters of one of the most beloved storylines of the Silver Age of Comics, plus the Batman story awkwardly retconned into continuity to take advantage of the renewed popularity afforded the Caped Crusader via a hit TV series. It was an epic tale of heroes and villains, magic and science, and that its star was a young woman fetchingly drawn by some of the best artists of the era certainly helped cement it in the adolescent affections of myself and others.

Nobody could spin an old story better than legendary editor Julius Schwartz and his writers. In this case, he and Gardner Fox took Zatana the Magician from the dusty back pages of ACTION COMICS (1938-1951), shook off the cobwebs, and made finding him the goal of his daughter Zatanna.

Armed with her dad's magic and the top half of his traditional magician's garb, Zatanna went a'questing, her travels bringing her in contact with great heroes like Hawkman, the Atom, Green Lantern, and the Elongated Man, all of whom (plus Batman) turned out to be instrumental in reunited her with her father. What made this saga even more exciting than Zee's fishnets and high heels - well, you didn't think she was naked from the waist down, did you? - was that it was played out over two years and in five different DC titles. Each appearance was anticipated and savored, and Schwartz and Fox, those masters of timing, knew when to bring the serial it to a most satisfying conclusion.

Fox's scripts are great fun, but the reader has to be willing to accept the occasional pseudo-science and wacky applications of the supernatural. For example, in a visit to a realm where Zatana might be found, Green Lantern's power ring will only work when it's on his left hand instead of his usual right. It's obvious Fox and Schwartz loved to throw change-ups at their readers: a clever twist here, a bit of science there, frequent nods to notable fantasy and SF writers. All part of their repertoire.

ZATANNA'S SEARCH is worth buying strictly for the stories and its delightful Brian Bolland cover, but I was somewhat disappointed by the book's additional material or lack thereof. Steven Utley's introduction was fine for its two pages, but this volume cried out for some Schwartz-ian reminiscences.

I would have put the original comics in front of him and asked dozens of questions on how he and Fox determined the when and where of each new chapter of the story. I would have pressed him on how they came up with the illogical-but-inspired notion that Batman had once battled a disguised Zatanna. I would probably also have asked if Bob Kane really drew any of the artwork on that Batman chapter. Stuff like that.

ZATANNA'S SEARCH gives us zip biographical information on Fox, Schwartz, or the contributing artists. There was ample room to do this within the reprints. In the mid-1960s, the last pages of most DC stories - and chapters of stories - were really only two-thirds of a page high with the remaining third being a paid advertisement or a house ad. In this volume, DC filled the space with a floating Zatanna head on a Justice League logo. These space-filler appeared thirteen times in the book, ample room to have included short bios of Schwartz, Fox, Utley, the artists, the letterers, and maybe even the colorists.

Completing the book is a 10-page "secret origin" of Zatara and Zatanna. Written by Gerry Conway with artwork by Romeo Tanghal and Vince Colletta, the 1980 tale seems out of place here. The one new thing it added to the characters was the revelation that they are descendants of Leonardo Da Vinci. Then and now, I thought this was cool, mostly because it meant that Marvel's murderous and psychotic Punisher wasn't the only Italian-American hero in comics. Even so, I'd have traded it for a Schwartz interview or witty annotations of the reprinted stories.

JLA: ZATANNA'S SEARCH earns four-and-a-half Tonys, losing half a head because its editors could and should have made better use of their available pages.

Tony Tony Tony Tony Half Tony


Mark Arnold is the editor and publisher of THE HARVEYVILLE FUN TIMES, a fanzine which covers Casper, Richie Rich, and other Harvey Comics stars with a winning combination of bemusement and respect. This time out, in addition to the latest issue of the FUN TIMES, he sent a copy of GIANT SHANDA ANIMAL #8 (Shanda Fantasy Arts; $4.99), an anthology of anthropomorphic comics stories.

Arnold has the cover and lead spot in this year's ANIMAL with his 50th-anniversary tribute to Richie Rich. "A Treasure Chest of Riches." Drawn by Shelley Pleger, the tale pokes gentle fun at the "Willy Wealthy" comic books of olde. Arnold kids because he loves, and his fondness for Richie comes through loud and clear. This is a fine story and I hope we see more of Arnold's comics writing in the years to come.

Mike Curtis contributed two scripts with characters I assume are from the ongoing SHANDA THE PANDA title. In "Making Ovaltine," Shanda finds a chocolate-y good way to answer a girl's question on how babies are made. It's short, to the point, and put a smile on my face. The Mary Bellamy art was sparse on the backgrounds, but she did a terrific job on the faces and expressions.

"The Dating Game" is the second Curtis story and it focuses on a thoughtful teen exploring her sexuality. I was impressed by how modestly Curtis and artist Jerry Loomis handled the subject matter. The nature of this story will likely offend some readers, but I'd have no problem sharing it with my own children.

The only ANIMAL story that didn't work for me was ZethBear's "The Deal," which seems to be a prelude to a longer story coming in the ongoing SHANDA title. Though I found the art interesting, the plot developments - if that's what they were - meant nothing to me. There wasn't enough here to get a new reader, such as me, to seek out the ongoing series.

However, "The Deal" notwithstanding, there was much goodness to be enjoyed in GIANT SHANDA ANIMAL #8. I give the special three-and-a-half Tonys.

Tony Tony Tony Half Tony

If you'd like a taste of Arnold's HARVEYVILLE FUN TIMES, check out the fanzine's website at:

I'll be back next week with more comics reviews and maybe even a shorter autobiography. In the meantime, let's not be too quick to dismiss the "guy we send money to for no good reason whatsoever" concept. I think it's got potential.



The above column first appeared in COMICS BUYER'S GUIDE #1579 [February 20], which shipped February 2. The cover story reported that Checker Publishing would be collecting the original Gold Key STAR TREK comics in trade paperback collections. The first volume is due in May.

Comic Book: The Movie The second lead noted the DVD release of Mark Hamill's COMIC BOOK: THE MOVIE. I own and have watched the movie portion of the DVD. Look for a review in the near future.

Of additional note:

CBG reader Joe Dombi of Medina, Ohio took issue with comments I made (in a previous "Tony's Tips" column) about there not being any nearby comics shops of interest to me. His letter led off the issue's "Oh, So?" letters section. I responded to Dombi's letter in my column for CBG #1581, which is scheduled to be posted online in a few days. Watch for it.

Howard E. Michaels, Jr., another CBG reader, expressed zilch interest in the manga so often mentioned and reviewed in my column. However, he did admit my review of BATMAN: CHILD OF DREAMS has him considering checking out that graphic novel by Kia Asamiya and Max Allan Collins.

It's always nice to see reader feedback on my columns, whether in print or online. So don't be shy about letting me know what's on your mind after reading this edition of TOT.



From editor Roy Thomas and TwoMorrows Publishing, ALTER EGO #33 ($5.95) puts the spotlight on the prolific Mike Sekowsky from the late comics artist's years at Timely Comics to his freelancing for DC Comics and almost every other comics publisher of the 1950s through the 1970s to his last years, working on animated cartoons in California. On one side of the magazine, Jim Amash interviews Valeria Barclay, who was romantically involved with Sekowsky during their years at Timely. On the flip side, fan Bernie Bubnis writes about his 1960s meeting with Sekowsky, who was then drawing JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA; Amash interviews Pat (Mrs. Mike) Sekowsky about their years together; and Mark Evanier gathers Sekowsky co-workers and fans Scott Shaw, Dave Stevens, and Floyd Norman to reminiscence about the artist. The Sekowsky material alone is worth the mag's cover price. But, of course, there's more:

Will Murray ventures into dusty old issues of WRITER'S DIGEST to uncover comics-related articles.

Pat Calhoun writes of "Casualties of the Comics Code."

Bill Schelly eulogizes the late Biljo White, one of the most popular and influential comics fans of the 1960s, while Dr. Michael J. Vassallo does the same for comics artist John Tartaglione.

Michael T. Gilbert presents some of the earliest work of the legendary MAD editor Harvey Kurtzman.

Courtesy of Mike Esposito, this issue of AE also reprints the "Captain Marble" parody he did with writer Yvonne Rae and penciler Ross Andru in the 1950s.

Plus: letters from readers, a pair of clever homage covers by Ron Frenz, and articles by Alex Toth, Marc Swayze, and Don Perlin. That adds up to over 100 pages of fascinating comics history from them who was there for it.

Maybe one of these days Roy Thomas will put together an issue of this magazine that doesn't rate the full five Tonys, but ALTER EGO #33 isn't that issue.

Tony Tony Tony Tony Tony



When I wrote about THE DAVE COCKRUM TRIBUTE BOOK in Monday's TOT, I completely forgot to mention I'm one of the contributors to this worthy project. "None But the Dave" was written on my hiatus just before I got back to work on TOT. Editor/publisher Clifford Meth liked the piece, so let's add that to the long list of reasons why you should buy this book. For ordering information, just aim your connection to:

While we're at it, I should also mention another Meth project of which I'm a small part. It's a collection of his short stories called "GOD'S 15 MINUTES" (Aardwolf; $19.95). Here's what Meth had to say about it in his solicitations:
"GOD'S 15 MINUTES" (Aardwolf Publishing, 252 pages, trade paperback) combines the talents of author Clifford Meth with top talents in the comics industry, including Michael Kaluta (cover), George Perez, Joe Kubert, Mike Ploog, Bill Messner-Loebs, Gene Colan, Marie Severin, Dave Cockrum, Joe Sinnott, Herb Trimpe, and Gray Morrow. The anthology features introductions by Harlan Ellison, Roy Thomas, Andy Shernoff (of the legendary punk band The Dictators), Al Feldstein, Steve Gerber, and Tony Isabella!

Proceeds from the anthology benefit the KICK Internet Piracy Fund--the legal fund set up to assist author Harlan Ellison in his landmark lawsuit with AOL.

The book is listed in February PREVIEWS for April shipping. A signed/numbered edition of the book (signed by Meth, Ellison, and Kaluta) is available from Aardwolf:
Once again, Meth succeeds in making me feel like the runt of the litter by lining up such an amazing line-up of contributors. On the other hand, it's swell to be in such great company and in a book I can recommend to my readers.

Which, in case you dozed off, I just did.



This morning's newspapers - I'm writing this on February 27 - played up some good news for a change. The big story on the front pages of the Akron Beacon Journal and the Cleveland Plain Dealer was the birth of sextuplets to a couple from Cuyahoga Falls. The mom is a 29-year-old advertising writer; the father is a chemist. They also have a 2-year-old son. Obviously, the family and its new members have challenges ahead of them, medically and financially, but they are happy and optimistic. According to my wife Barb, who heard this on either the radio or the evening television news, the proud papa picks up some extra money selling comic books on eBay. If I can track down more information on this, I'll pass it along to the loyal legions of TOT readers.

The other news stories which caught my attention weren't near as cheerful. The U.S. Roman Catholic Church keeps fudging/hiding the numbers, but it appears about 4% of the church's clerics have been accused of molesting minors since 1950, with the total number of abuse claims rising to approximately 10,700. Two-thirds of the claims have been substantiated while a third were not investigated because the accused were deceased. Note that these numbers do not appear to include claims of clergymen molesting non-minors. Given the Church's culture of secrecy in the past, as well as Vatican complaints that "no tolerance" policies are too strict in dealing with the confirmed molesters in their ranks, I fear that even these tragic numbers may be too low...and I find it obscene that the Pope is involving the church in the gay marriage issue when he has such an enormous plank in his own eye.

Two more interesting stories.

On page three of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, it's reported the United States is easing travel restrictions on Libya to permit the negotiation of deals between oil firms.

On page nine, it's reported Bush is tightening restrictions on travel to Cuba.

Libya is a known terrorist state, whose citizens have attacked and murdered Americans with the support of the Libyan government. However, it has oil and Bush has many friends in the oil industry. Do the math. It's simple.

I don't know if Cuba has any oil - I'm guessing not - and, try as I might, I can't recall any recent incidents of Cubans attacking Americans with or without the sanction of the island's government. On the other hand, there are a lot of Florida voters who emigrated from Cuba and who hate Fidel Castro, Communist dictator of their former home. Hmm...Bush lost the popular vote in Florida and only won its electoral votes through the shenanigans of his governor brother and the malfeasance of Supreme Court justices appointed by Daddy Bush. Again, the math is absurdly and tragically simple. I don't even need my calculator.

A final question to close this section.

How many of you think the Plain Dealer should have run these two stories on the same page?



Our first letter today comes from AARON WILLIAMS, the talented creator of NODWICK and PS 238:
Best of Dork Storm Press 2004

I just wanted to say thanks for the Free Comic Book Day review of THE BEST OF DORK STORM PRESS! I especially wanted to thank you for pointing out our major drawback: the cover. You were spot-on, it was bo-ring. When FCBD came around again this year, we decided to make a more dynamic one. Whadda ya think?
I like it!

Dork Storm has been publishing comics for gamers which can be easily read and enjoyed by non-gamers alike. Don't wait until FCBD to check out their books!

I also heard from ADAM KNAVE:
Having been a long time fan of BLACK LIGHTNING - the second series, I wasn't reading comics when the first came out - I have been finding out more and more of your history with it. I wanted to say that, for what it's worth, I am sorry for all that happened with your creation. As a writer myself, I don't know if I could be as calm about it as you come off about it now. I want you to know there is yet another voice in your corner over here, and a fan of your work.
Your letter - and other similar letters I have received - mean a lot to me, Adam. Whether or not I ever return to chronicling the adventures of Jefferson Pierce, whether or not he is ever returned to my creative control, I take heart in knowing how much he means to his fans.

Whenever I answer questions for Lightning-related interviews, I always figure it's the last time I'll be talking about Jeff, his current mistreatment, and my situation. Then, much to my surprise and occasional delight, someone asks a new question or, as you did here, expresses their appreciation of the character and my writing. At such times, I recognize that there is still much to be said and written about Jeff Pierce.

Let's keep good thoughts for the future. Because the future, like Black Lightning, holds the possibilities of better tomorrows and endless opportunities.

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

Tony Isabella

<< 03/01/2004 | 03/02/2004 | 03/03/2004 >>

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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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