"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
- Arthur C. Clarke
I always liked that Arthur C. Clarke quote, though I couldn't tell you where it's from if my life depended on it. I do recall I first saw it in an issue of INCREDIBLE HULK written by Roy Thomas from a plot by Harlan Ellison, a year or two before I met either of those fine gentlemen who were and remain inspirations to me in my own life and writings. Following my week of frustrating computer tribulations, which often found me staring in fear and dismay at an uncooperative device I understand as poorly as the ambitious Mickey Mouse understood his sorcerous master's powers, Clarke's assertion rings exceptionally true for me.
Sometimes, however, magic is just magic, wonderment sufficient unto itself. That's the overwhelming vibe I get from THE COMPLETE PEANUTS: 1950 TO 1952 by Charles M. Schulz (Fantagraphics; $28.95). Yes, of course, Schulz was a genius who brilliantly constructed a world as basic, complex, and fantastic as any real childhood could be. Yes, Fantagraphics poured its decades of experience producing outstanding works of comics art and commentary into what's arguably its finest publication ever. Yet, for all the obvious toil Schulz put into his groundbreaking comic strip and that Fantagraphics put into its presentation of that strip, this beautiful, beautiful book feels like magic. It practically glows as I hold it.
The heart and soul of this grand tome are the Peanuts strips. The half-century since their original appearances hasn't diminished their humor and their truth. I smiled at most of them and laughed at loud at many. As entertainment, thoughtful entertainment, they stand the test of time.
The comics fan in me was fascinated by the introduction of key characters and running gags. Schulz was a veritable master of time and space, his child stars aging at whatever pace best suited their usefulness to his comic strip.
THE COMPLETE PEANUTS would be a prized treasure if it did no more than collect Schulz's comic strips, but Fantagraphics did the artist and his work further honor by presenting them in as handsome a volume as I've ever seen and surrounding them with informative supplemental text.
Some have criticized this volume's cover as being too morose, but I thought designer Seth's choices of image and colors fit the "Charlie Brown angst" of the early 1950s. His front and end pages likewise captured the joys of childhood in the oft-colorless post-war America. Those were quietly happy times for our land, a fiery war behind us and a cold one only beginning.
Garrison Keillor's introduction sets a loving and respectful tone. PEANUTS was warm-and-fuzzy good times, but it was a serious work as well. Keillor encourages us to appreciate both aspects of Schulz's genius.
The presentation of the strips is immaculate. Three dailies per 6-1/2" by 8" page, surrounded by enough empty space to allow a reader to focus on them one by one without losing the sense of flow from strip to strip.
Almost three hundred pages later, following the last strip of 1952, the supplemental material kicks in. David Michaelis, who is writing the first full-scale biography of Schulz contributes a fine essay on the artist's life and career.
We get a 1987 Schulz interview conducted by Richard Marschall and Gary Groth. The riveting discussion reveals a cantankerousness the cartoonist rarely displayed in public forums.
The volume concludes with a wonderfully obsessive index to the PEANUTS strips of 1950-1952. Want to read the ones involving comic books? You'll find them on pages 17, 21, 38, 91, 106, 122, 205, 252, 255, 260, and 265. It's a fun and useful feature.
In this corner of CBG, I rate review items on a scale of zero to five Tonys. That scale isn't big enough for what is perhaps the most significant publishing project in comicdom today. Joining an exceedingly select group of books, THE COMPLETE PEANUTS earns six Tonys. If you literally can only afford to spend thirty bucks on comics this month, this book is what you should spend it on. Then you should start saving for the next volume.
A different kind of magic informs THE ADAM STRANGE ARCHIVES: VOLUME 1 (DC Comics; $49.95). The hardcover collects the first 19 adventures of "Earth's First Spaceman," the legendary cosmic hero created by equally legendary editor Julius Schwartz, writer Gardner Fox, and pencillers Mike Sekowsky and Carmine Infantino. The magic is the magic of the imaginative concepts Schwartz and Fox brought to the stories - published from 1958 to 1960 - concepts translated from the sci-fi and fantasy pulps of earlier decades, but no less the fascinating for it.
Reviewing DC's archive editions is always a nostalgic delight. The formula plots I would find boring in comics created for today's market are charming diversions in these Adam Strange tales. True, these stories rarely varied from "Adam catches a teleportation beam to the distant planet Rann, finds the planet in peril, saves Rann, fades out before he and girlfriend Alanna can get too busy," but, even now, the thoughtful twists Schwartz and Fox worked into their formula strike me as exceedingly clever. Those gentlemen knew what they were doing.
Ride with me on the space waves of nostalgia...
Reading THE ADAM STRANGE ARCHIVES, I realize how few of these comic books I ever saw on a newsstand. DC's distribution was very good in my Cleveland neighborhood, so I have to assume the copies were snatched up quickly by other comic-book readers poaching in my hunting territory. The nerve of them.
MYSTERY IN SPACE #63 [November, 1960] was the first I recall seeing/buying and its "The Weapon That Swallowed Men" is one of the last tales in this first Adam Strange collection. The sparse cover depicting our hero being dissolved and sucked into an alien vacumn cleaner was too haunting to resist.
(The cover is misidentified as being drawn by Gil Kane and Joe Giella, as are several other covers in the volume. It's so clearly pencilled by Infantino that I'm embarrassed for my friends at DC, as well as thinking, not for the first time, that the company made a major mistake when it failed to retain the services of production manager Bob Rozakis, who'd have caught this error in a heartbeat. A fifty-dollar book like this deserves the very best at every stage of preparation.)
Infantino is rightfully thought of as THE Adam Strange artist, but there's no denying the raw energy of the Sekowsky-drawn tales. Had I seen these three issues of SHOWCASE, which is where Adam made his debut before headlining MYSTERY IN SPACE, I would have ranged as far as my bicycle and my parents would have allowed in search of subsequent issues. Inexplicably, Sekowsky's biographical data is absent from the volume's "Contributors" pages.
The stories? The sci-fi ideas come fast and furious, many of them presaging characters and sequences from the super-hero titles for which the creators would be best known. Adam is as cool-headed as any hero, as observant as the Batman at his best, as brilliant as Doc Savage in turning the tales on the villains. And Strange's motives were very accessible to my younger self: his obvious love of adventure, his easy acceptance of his responsibility to help his fellow men, and his love for Alanna. By late 1960s, I had started to notice the cute blonde who'd moved to our parish from somewhere "down South" and the, ahem, rapidly developing charms of one of my other classmates at Sts. Phillip and James. I'd have jumped on a hundred teleportation beams to be their hero.
The "Zeta-beams" always hit Earth in the southern hemisphere. Doubtless Schwartz and Fox had some scientific reason for this, but it would have been worth doing just for the "cool" factor of seeing Adam in so many exotic regions of our own world. If I were writing Adam Strange stories today, and if he were still commuting to Rann, I'd probably make it a two-way commute with Alanna coming to visit him as well. In the DC Universe, well, at least in the DCU I knew and loved, there were wonders to be found and incredible perils to face in the lands beyond the United States. After Adam saved her on Rann, Alanna could save him right back on Earth.
One more quibble before I hand out the Tonys. The coloring on THE ADAM STRANGE ARCHIVES left a lot to be desired. Maybe DC was following the original colors - remember I never saw these stories in their original publications - but Adam's hair color, which I am fairly certain was blond, is an odd red-orange combination. There were also multiple hair and costume colors for Alanna, sometimes in the same story. As a firm believer that everything in a comic book should be in support of the story, I only notice the color when it is exceedingly good or excruciatingly bad. This volume's coloring isn't the latter, but it was "wrong" enough for me to notice it and be taken out of the stories, albeit momentarily. Again, I expect better from a fifty-dollar book.
THE ADAM STRANGE ARCHIVES: VOLUME 1 is great fun which suffers from editorial and production mistakes. The mistakes are why it's getting four-and-a-half Tonys and not the full five I really wanted to give it. Maybe Adam can figure out some clever way to fix such problems before his second volume is published.
AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #505 (Marvel; $2.25) is a heartwarming and heartbreaking done-in-one ish by writers Fiona Avery and J. Michael Straczynski with art by penciller John Romita Jr. and inker Scott Hanna. In "Vibes," the worlds at risk are more personal than life, the universe, and everything, which is a wonderful change-of-pace. The reunion of Peter and Mary Jane Parker is tested by her trip to Hollywood to read for a part and, I suspect, will be further tested by a decision she makes therein. On the spandex side of the issue, Spider-Man deals with a street crime and tries to achieve the best result he can from the situation. Both are moving sequences, both ring very true. I've been in the same position as MJ and made the same decision. I hope it works out better for her.
Were I one to quibble - heaven forbid - I might point out that Peter's opening speech, which might work wonderfully coming out of the mouth of a talented actor, falls very flat on the printed page. But I'm just so knocked out by the rest of the writing and the as-good artwork, that I'm barely going to mention that and get right to awarding AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #505 the full five Tonys.
The twists keep coming in AVENGERS/THUNDERBOLTS #2 (Marvel; $2.99) by writers Kurt Busiek and Fabian Nicieza with art by Barry Kitson (breakdowns) and Gary Erskine (finishes). The Thunderbolts may (or may not) be working to protect the world. The Avengers may (or may not) be doing the right thing trying to stop said team of supposedly reformed villains. Two issues into this series and I'm not really sure who I should be rooting for and who I should trust. That's cool. On the down side, the pin-up-style cover is boring and the interior art was better when Kitson was doing full pencils. This one gets a very respectable four Tonys.
SEVEN OF SEVEN: VOLUME THREE (ADV Manga; $9.99) completes the story of Japanese schoolgirl Nana Suzuki and her six magically-created doppelgangers. Writer Yasuhiro Imagawa and artist Azusa Kunihiro bring the comical tale to its close with heart and style, as Nana and her "sisters" face numerous challenges in their quest to get into the same high school as the boy they love.
ADV suggests SEVEN OF SEVEN for readers 13 and up, doubtless due to some of the salacious humor which pops up from time to time. I didn't find this any worse than what can be viewed on network TV during what was called "the family hour," so it's not an issue for me. However, parents should check out this and other manga before giving it to their kids or the friends of their kids. What flies in Japan might not fly in the United States.
With that caveat in place, I happily award SEVEN OF SEVEN the full five Tonys. It's a great series and I look forward to seeing the anime on which it's based.
The above column first appeared in COMICS BUYER'S GUIDE #1590 [May 7, 2004], which shipped April 19. The cover story reported on CBG's coming switch from a weekly newspaper to a monthly magazine. This should be old news to TOT readers as I devoted the April 21st edition of the column to this story.
The above column also marks the last time you'll see anything get SIX Tonys. I'll still be handing out "Tonys" here and in CBG, but, for design purposes, the monthly will be going with a scale of zero to five Tonys. The next item on my "things to do" list after sending this TOT off to Justin is to rework my ratings descriptions to fit the new scale.
CBG has also redesigned the floating Tony heads as part of its extreme magazine makeover. You'll see the new models for the first time in CBG #1595. I love them a whole bunch.
TOT will be adopting the same ratings scale I use for my CBG columns, but won't be using those new Tony heads. Instead, my hope is that some of the amazing artists who faithfully read this column will doodle their own version of my smiling/scowling continence and send said drawings to my in exchange for my admiration, gratitude, and willingness to plug your latest work or website.
You can draw a single Tony head...or you can draw a series of six Tony heads with expression denoting everything from the worst of the worst to the best of the best. Have at it!
MORE TONY STUFF
I wrote my first column for the new CBG monthly last weekend and fiddled with it a bit more on Monday. I'm pleased the column retains the personality of the weekly columns.
The changes I've made to the column itself are so subtle most returning readers won't even notice them. The opening comments are going to be strictly comics-related, a concession to my going from 52 weekly columns to a mere 12 monthly ones.
I won't be reviewing periodical comics to any great extent in the new format. When I do, they will be first issues, story arcs, or comics available for ordering from their publishers. By way of example, I reviewed SHE-HULK #1 and #2 for the first monthly TIPS. Together, they represented the first issue of the revived title and a story arc. I also reviewed TALES OF THE VAMPIRES #4 because it can be ordered from the Dark Horse website.
I will be doing some other writing for CBG, but exactly what isn't something which we can sit down and work out in the midst of wrapping up the weeklies and launching the monthly. Rest assured both the CBG crew and yours truly would like me to be as much a part of the new format as possible.
The CBG switch has had a domino effect on this online column, albeit a temporary one. Justin and I have been knocking ourselves out getting TOT to you on a nigh-daily basis, but we need to build up lead time to keep things running smoothly.
The best solution I could come up with was to go to an "every other day" schedule until I can start getting TOT to Justin a full week before it posts. That shouldn't take long, especially since I haven't yet sought or found work to replace the 40 weekly columns I won't be writing for CBG.
Thanks for your continued enthusiastic support of our efforts. I'll be back on Sunday 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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