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

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TONY'S ONLINE TIPS
for Thursday, April 22, 2004

Happy birthday, Steve Englehart!

Steve Englehart

The early 1970s were an exciting time for comic-book readers, especially those of us who dreamed of working in the comics field. New names were showing up in the credits of my favorite Marvel and DC titles and, when I met some of the owners of those names, I saw they weren't much older than me. The dream, though still distant, seemed a bit more obtainable after that.

Amazing Adventures 13 Englehart was one of those names and, before too long, his was name whose appearance in those credits meant I would be enjoying an exceptional comic book. I can't pinpoint when that revelation came to me - my best guess would be either his first issues of CAPTAIN AMERICA or his short-lived "Beast" series in AMAZING ADVENTURES - but he quickly became one of favorite Marvel writers, trailing only Stan Lee and Roy Thomas.

Back then, I wrote lots of letters to comic book editors and writers. I wrote letters "reviewing" the comics I read and letters filled with questions about the industry. Over fifty of the first kind were published. Most of the second went unanswered, save for four gentlemen who went out of their way to write back and answer my often naive questions.

DC editors Murray Boltinoff and Dick Giordano were exceedingly kind to me, as was Marvel editor Roy Thomas.

My fourth "pal" in the business was Steve Englehart.

Steve and I didn't correspond for long. His letters contained good solid tips about writing and "do not quote" information about the field. Within a year - I wish I could be more exact about the timeline - I'd been recruited by Roy Thomas to assist Stan Lee and Sol Brodsky in the preparation of THE MIGHTY WORLD OF MARVEL...and I finally got to meet Steve in person, every bit as friendly as he had been in his letters.

Steve has written hundreds of great comics. Trying to select a favorite from the likes of THE AVENGERS, THE DEFENDERS, Batman in DETECTIVE COMICS, DOCTOR STRANGE, GREEN LANTERN, INCREDIBLE HULK, MASTER OF KUNG FU, THE NIGHT MAN, and so many others would be daunting. If there's a downside to my appreciation of his writing, it's only that he rarely writes comics these days. New Englehart stories are too few and too far between.

Still, the older ones are well worth reading and/or rereading. For a fairly complete checklist, along with other Englehart stuff, visit Steve's website at:

www.steveenglehart.com

Happy birthday, Steve. Thanks for all the terrific comics and for your friendship.

Then and now, you're one of the good guys.

******

ULTIMATE FANTASTIC FOUR

I am of the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" school of comic books. If a character or a concept is solid from the start, a good writer should be able to tell good stories with that character or concept.

With long-term characters and the little oddball glitches that accompany longevity, my "fix" of choice is to ignore the glitch as if it never happened. More often than not, trying to explain away such glitches results in boring stories. Re-booting characters and concepts, besides being an inefficient way to deal with glitches, often brings new problems into play.

However, as much as I believe the above to be true, I would never carve these "rules" of mine into stone. Not when I recognize that comics creators can and have flown magnificently into the face of them and entertained me mightily in the process.

Case in point: Marvel's ULTIMATE FANTASTIC FOUR.

There's nothing wrong with the Fantastic Four. It's a great concept: a loving family of super-heroes who sometimes have their disagreements. The individual members were solid characters from the get-go and have never needed a great deal of personal growth to remain solid characters. Good writers have been able to write good stories with them. Not-so-good writers haven't been able to write good stories with them, but, even when they have twisted the Four almost beyond recognition, better writers have always been able to set them to rights.

The bottom line:

We don't *need* ULTIMATE FANTASTIC FOUR.

I'm just glad we have it.

Writers Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Millar have rebuilt the Four from the ground up. It took me a moment to wrap my head around the concept of a teenage Reed Richards, but, after that moment, it was fun all the way.

Reed. Ben. Sue. Johnny. Each is perfectly recognizable to a child of the Silver Age of Comics.

The "event" that turns them into Mister Fantastic, the Thing, the Invisible Girl, and the Human Torch takes place in a federally-funded lab, erasing the more dated aspects of the original origin scenario. The pacing of the aftermath of the event is glacial in comparison to the original, but it gives readers a chance to focus on each hero in turn.

Victor Von Doom - not yet a Doctor, apparently - is also part of the event and what I like least about the new series. Tying the villain to the origin of the heroes is a Hollywood cliche. I have never understood why so many current comics writers are slavishly devoted to "cinema" in the telling of their stories. In case they hadn't noticed, Hollywood comes to the comics for their blockbuster movies, not the other way around.

The Mole Man is also tied to the new origin, but that didn't bother me as much. He seemed like a better fit.

A few more thoughts on the writing:

I read ULTIMATE FANTASTIC FOUR #1-4 ($2.25) for this review. Four issues and the last of them ends with Mole Man's first attack on the surface world. At this point, Reed, Ben, and Johnny haven't been reunited with Sue, nor have they actually formed a team. This is typical with today's super-hero comics; it takes a lot of issues to tell a story. This usually annoys the crap out of me. That it didn't this time around is a tribute to how much Bendis and Millar put into each chapter.

The issues didn't feel padded, just full. The characters were likeable, the dialogue rang true, the situations were interesting, and there were some grand "oh, wow" moments that kept my interest high. If you must take four or five or however many issues to tell a story, doing it this well defuses most arguments to the contrary. Kudos to Bendis and Millar.

The visuals?

Adam Kubert is a superb artist and storyteller. That he did justice and then some to these scripts wasn't a surprise. Inkers Danny Miki and John Dell complimented Kubert's pencils nicely, and colorist Dave Stewart did an outstanding job putting down the hues. Chris Eliopoulos' lettering was what I like to see from lettering; it was easy to read and didn't draw attention to itself expect when the scripts demanded that it do so.

ULTIMATE FANTASTIC FOUR is one sweet-looking and sweet-reading comic book. Bendis and Millar make the re-booting/retelling stuff look easy, but, kids and lesser talents shouldn't try this at home. You could hurt your readers and yourselves.

ULTIMATE FANTASTIC FOUR #1-4 pick up the full five out of five Tonys. If Bendis and Millar keep this up, I'll stick with the book as long as they do.

Tony Tony Tony Tony Tony

******

KNIGHTS 4

Who are these people and who dealt this mess?

KNIGHTS 4 #1-3 (Marvel; $2.99) features characters who we are apparently expected to believe are the Fantastic Four. I say this because these issues were originally supposed to be issues of the real FANTASTIC FOUR title until comics fandom collectively bitched-slapped Bill Jemas and restored writer Mark Waid to said title with such alacrity that Mark never missed an issue.

Let me preface the various snotty comments I'm about to make by confessing that I've not read FANTASTIC FOUR for several years, save for Waid's very first issue. Not to fear; I plan to catch up on the title in May and will doubtless write about it at length in this column. Anyway, the point is...I accept the possibility that some of what I don't like in KNIGHTS 4 may have its origins in the FF issues I have not read. Knowing what I know of Waid's writing and sanity, I think it an unlikely possibility, but, hey, I wanted to put that out there for you. Okay?

In KNIGHTS 4, the Fantastic Four lose their federal financing, which I never knew they had, get railroaded by the city of New York in what sounds like an insurance scam to me, and end up broke and in desperate need of employment. Y'know, even in the oft-mercurial Marvel Universe, I found this scenario unbelievable. Why would the feds shut off its access to the many wonderful things Reed Richards has invented and will doubtless invent in the future? Why wouldn't some rich Marvel Universe denizen sponsor them? Why wouldn't the Avengers add a wing on to their mansion?

Right from the get-go, I don't believe the scenario created by writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. That can't be good.

Among the other things I don't believe about KNIGHTS 4 is that Reed Richards could be made clinically depressed and intellectually impotent by the absurd setback Aguirre-Sacasa posits here, or that industry wouldn't be lining up around several Manhattan blocks to hire him. The man has crazy mad skills. He could design a doodad on a napkin at the corner deli and sell it for more money than you or I make in a decade.

We're also asked to believe Johnny Storm's major concern when the Four get evicted from the Baxter Building is...he won't be able to do the nasty with his super-model of a girlfriend, at least not in the team's new apartment. How comforting to know that there are super-heroes who have their priorities straight.

Johnny wants to be an actor in this title, but he doesn't have any talent and his agent dumps him. Because no one wants to watch celebrities who don't have any talent. I guess we're also supposed to believe the Marvel Universe entertainment industry has loftier standards than our own sad universe.

Sue Richards, having apparently kept her certifications up to date between issues, gets hired as a teacher. Because every school I know would jump at the chance to hire a super-hero with a list of vengeful enemies longer than her husband's elongated...arm. What could possibly go wrong?

Ben Grimm comes off the best. He gets a job in construction; his foreman cautions him against working too hard lest we work the whole crew out of their jobs. I have seen the bit before, but it's not a bad one.

It took all three of these tedious issues to get to the point where the FF actually move out of the Baxter Building. The action is all filler: Ben saves a construction worker, Ben and Johnny have a spat, Reed foils a bank robbery. The dialogue is either rehashed Stan Lee or out of character. The situation stretches my willing suspension of disbelief beyond the breaking point. In short, these are not good comic books. They are especially not good FANTASTIC FOUR comic books.

The visuals? Not much hope there either.

Penciller Steve McNiven is a good artist, but the only member of the team that looks even remotely right is the Thing. Is it too much to ask that featured characters be on model?

Morry Hollowell's coloring wasn't bad, but the varying shades of color he adds to various captions and word balloons make them a tad difficult to read in places. It's annoying.

To be fair, KNIGHTS 4 #1-3 have decent production values: the pencilling (when it's not off model), the inking, the coloring, and the lettering. Unfortunately, at its core, it remains a bad idea, poorly executed. It gets one Tony...a parting gift from a reviewer who won't be back next issue.

Tony

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

Tony Isabella

<< 04/21/2004 | 04/22/2004 | 04/23/2004 >>

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THE "TONY" SCALE

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.

Tony
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.

TonyTony
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?

TonyTonyTony
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.

TonyTonyTonyTony
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?

TonyTonyTonyTonyTony
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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