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

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for Saturday, July 3, 2004


"Creating a new theory is not like destroying an old barn and erecting a skyscraper in its place. It is rather like climbing a mountain, gaining new and wider views, discovering unexpected connections between our starting point and its rich environment."

- Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

Welcome to the mountain. We probably won't climb very high in this introductory column, but we need to cover some basics at the onset of our ascent. I ask the kind indulgence of our veteran CBG readers while I greet those joining us for the first time.

I'm Tony Isabella, the host of the largest review section in comics today. I learned to read from comic books at the tender age of four. I was an active member of comics fandom in my teens and went to work in the comics industry in 1972. I've remained there ever since as a writer, editor, retailer, distributor, columnist, consultant, lecturer, and promoter. If you poke around your comics stacks, you might find something I've written. If you poke around the Internet, you'll definitely learn more about me than you need to know. I am vast, I contain multitudes.

Here's what else you should know:

I like quotations. I like the notion of summing up a concept in a few choice words. I start my columns with them and sometimes I even stick them in the middle of same.

"Host" is a ceremonial title, perhaps given in recognition of my having been writing for CBG longer than anyone other than editor Maggie Thompson. Consider me more of a cheerleader for the young upstarts also reviewing stuff in this magazine. I hold them in the highest esteem, especially those who survived the traditional CBG "pranks on the new kids" process without bursting into tears. You have to be strong to play on this team.

Expect to see positive and negative reviews from all of CBG's reviewers. The best reason I can give for our covering the finest and the most dreadful comics has to offer is this: you can't truly appreciate the best without noting the worst.

Readers need that "base line" so they can judge how closely a reviewer's tastes are in sync with their own. You won't agree with every reviewer, but you'll know where they stand.

I also guarantee that even the most negative reviews here will not have been written in malice. Even in the comics world, people don't always get along with one another. But no CBG reviewer will be reviewing the works of any comics creator with which he or she has a personal beef. Host's honor.

It gets trickier with the positive reviews because we all know and like a great many comics creators personally. Every reviewer makes his or her own call on this, but I don't believe any will be recusing themselves from reviewing anything on the basis that they like its creator. In my case, because thirty-plus years in comics have brought with them friendships of long durations, I'll let you know when a relationship is a particularly close one.

CBG's cadre of critics will be rating comics on a carefully-considered four-star scale. However, in this column, your crazed Uncle Tony will rate comic books and related materials on a scale of zero to five Tonys. I really like the idea of those disembodied heads floating all over the pages. The explanation of what these heads denote can be found in the convenient chart I have included within this column.

I think you're ready for the reviews.

How do you like me so far?


Tales of the Vampires 4

TALES OF THE VAMPIRES #4 [Dark Horse; $2.99] is the next-to-last issue in a five-issue spin-off from BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER. What makes this a must-have for fans of that recently-concluded TV series is that the stories are written by Buffy/Angel creator Joss Whedon and some of the best writers from those shows, all of them stretching their wings to tell tales which are a part of the larger mythos without featuring the actual Buffy/Angel characters. They clearly love a challenge; I love the results.

Whedon's contribution is a framing sequence wherein a group of future Watchers are learning their craft at the feet of an ancient captive vampire. This story began in the first issue of TALES and has continued through each of the stories. The individual chapters are expertly told by Whedon and artist Alex Sanchez, but you won't get the full benefit of the steady build to horror unless you read the previous chapters.

(Fear not. If your local comics retailer can't provide these older issues, you can obtain them from the Dark Horse website...or wait for the trade paperback collection which will be published in November of this year.)

Jane Espenson has been the star of TALES from the start. Her contribution this issue is "Dust Bowl." Set in Kansas circa 1933, the story examines the birth and "life" of a vampire who must learn how to survive sans guidance from his sire. Jeff Parker's artwork is a somber depiction of the soul-crushing times and might just be the best to have appeared in the series to date.

Ben Edlund, creator of THE TICK, writes and pencils the quirky "Taking Care of Business" with assists from the "Nick of Time Crew" and inker Derek Fridolfs. His protagonist is an Inquisition-era priest-turned-vampire who now preys on the ministry of all faiths. Telling you any more would compromise your enjoyment of this neat little gem.

Editor Scott Allie has done an outstanding job helming Dark Horse's BTVS comics these past few years. His hard work is one of the reasons they've consistently received high marks from me. This issue is no exception.

TALES OF THE VAMPIRES #4 picks up four Tonys.

Tony Tony Tony Tony


Smallville Vol. 1

SMALLVILLE (DC; $9.95) is a satisfying collection of stories "based on the hit TV show" which, was, of course, based on the 50-plus years of Superboy comic books which preceded it. The trend of comic books based on TV shows based on comic books makes for an odd combination of fun and ironic.

The credo of the show is "No flights, no tights." Clark Kent doesn't know he's going to grow up to be Superman, but he does know he's got amazing powers and isn't from around here.

The brilliance of the TV show is also its greatest weakness: Clark's landing on Earth was cloaked in a kryptonite meteor shower that smashed up Smallville and its unlucky citizens. That explains why the government didn't turn the town into the Midwest version of Area 51, and also allows for the regular-like-clockwork appearance of meteor mutants to give young Kent something to deal with besides smouldering teen angst. Unfortunately, even brilliant ideas can be overused. Three years of weird goings-on have me wondering why the homeland security feds haven't surrounded the berg with electrified containment fences already.

The relationships between Clark, his family, and his friends are the heart of the show, none of them more compelling then his uneasy friendship with a young Lex Luthor. You and I know what's coming, but the Lex of the TV show and the comics reprinted in this book still struggles against and usually, but not always, overcomes his darker impulses.

SMALLVILLE (TV) writer and producer Mark Verheiden, himself no stranger to comics writing, authors or co-authors more than half of the stories in this collection. All of them are well-done and two of them - the haunting "Paterfamilias" and the thoughtful "Phelan" - are exceptional. The first tale is co-written by SMALLVILLE (TV) scribe Clint Carpenter; the second is a solo effort.

Carpenter teams with Verheiden on three stories and solos on two. His "Vows" is a surprising and memorable look at the Luthor family before the death of Lex's mother.

"What I Did On My Summer Vacation" is a silly bit of fluff in which teenage reporter Chloe Sullivan, she who forever pines for Clark, and Pete "Do I have any lines this week?" Ross investigate a shady corporation conducting illegal business with a mobster. I love the character of Chloe and all, but her super-reporter skills are as hard for me take as the feds ignoring Smallville no matter how much evidence of weirdness comes to light. "Summer Vacation" is the only dog in this pack.

Let's talk artwork for a moment.

Some of it is excellent. Pencillers Kilian Plunkett and Tom Derenick are two of the three stand-outs. They keep the characters on model with their live counterparts. They tell the stories well, and, when I say this, I mean their panel-to-panel and page-to-page layouts keeps the plots flowing smoothly while including necessary visual information. They draw extremely well.

Some of it is merely adequate. These artists rely so heavily on photo reference that their close-ups of Clark, Lex, and others stop stories dead in their tracks. The reader knows he's looking at what are essentially publicity stills.

My favorite story is Michael Green's masterful "Exile and the Kingdom." In ten tight pages, Green brings into focus everything that makes Lex such a fascinating character. Artist John Paul Leon brings a deceptive economy of line to the tale, accentuating both the light and shadow of Lex's world. I'm a story-first reader, but I went back to study the art on this one.

SMALLVILLE delivers 160 pages of mostly terrific comics and features, including a cover gallery by John Van Fleet and a prose article on the creation of the series. That adds up to good value for your bucks and a admirable four Tonys.

Tony Tony Tony Tony


Dodge's Bullets

DODGE'S BULLETS (Images; $9.95), a crime fiction graphic novel by writer Jay Faerber and artist James K. Francis, is too tame for the "modern noir" claim it makes for itself. If anything, it puts me in mind of the undistinguished cop/detective shows which aired on pre-advisories TV during the "family hour." Those shows lacked the beat-cool house style of 77 SUNSET STRIP and its fellows in the Warner Bros' stable of gumshoes and flatfoots. They were crime by the numbers, watched only when there was nothing else to watch on TV and no new comic books to read.

Musician Webster Dodge is the rebellious son of a cop who works as a low-rent detective because his guitar-playing can't pay his rent. Hired to track a client's father, or so he thinks, Dodge uses standard tricks to find the guy. It's journeyman detection we've seen many times before and, as we've also seen many times, it turns out that Dodge's client isn't who or what he said he was and then Dodge gets hit by a car.

Quick digression. Dodge gets hit by said car hard enough to crack its windshield and dent its hood. He wakes up in a hospital, not the least bit dead, misleads the cops, and then checks himself out to get to the bottom of...the case. Someone, either Faerber or Francis, wasn't paying attention to those driver's ed films in high school. That's where I should have stopped reading.

Faerber doesn't bring anything new to the game. Dodge lives on a boat, gets beat up by thugs, has a friend who is a computer whiz, withholds information from the police, almost gets his friend killed, and so on and so on.

Faerber's dialogue isn't bad and his protagonist isn't without charm. Beyond a handful of awkward figures and panel arrangements, Francis' art is consistently good through the book's 70-plus pages. Yet, despite their talent, their graphic novel lacked intensity and originality...and you need those to compete in a marketplace where there are always new and often very good comic books to read. Not to mention a zillion channels on TV.

DODGE'S BULLETS gets a disappointing two Tonys.

Tony Tony


She-Hulk 2

Marvel's She-Hulk was created to secure the trademark on the name before the producers of the then-popular Hulk television show could beat the comics publisher to it. THE SAVAGE SHE-HULK debuted in 1980 to less than stellar acclaim and ran 25 issues. The title had its fans, but it wasn't until first Roger Stern and then John Byrne, in THE AVENGERS and FANTASTIC FOUR, respectively, made her over into a sassy and sexy super-heroine that she really captured the hearts of the readers. In 1989, Byrne launched THE SENSATIONAL SHE-HULK, a sort of super-heroic sitcom in which the heroine often broke the "fourth wall" between herself and the reader. There was no going back after that; the She-Hulk was a star.

It's writer Dan Slott's turn to chronicle the life of attorney Jen Walkers, cousin of Bruce Banner, who became the She-Hulk after receiving a gamma-irradiated blood transfusion from her relative. In SHE-HULK #1 and #2 (Marvel; $2.99), he's chosen to walk a tricky line between drama and comedy and, so far, hasn't ended up on his butt. Let's take a closer look at these issues.

The first thing I noticed was, that, while the two issues had striking painted covers of the She-Hulk, the artists obviously drew different women. I'm terrible at recognizing "celebrity sources," but the She-Hulk of the first cover has a lean body and face, while the second, equally attractive cover heroine has a fuller face and body. Were I to guess, the second artist used Lucy Lawless of XENA WARRIOR PRINCESS fame as his "model." I'd like to see the artists settle on one body/face type for the She-Hulk.

Slott does a fine job showing Jen's low self-esteem and her flamboyant acting out in her She-Hulk persona, stopping short of beating readers over their heads with it. His showing the professional consequences of her duel lives likewise worked well for me.

Another digression. I'm not a lawyer, though I occasionally team up with one to write novels, but it struck me as odd that a prosecutor in a criminal case would discuss damages and punishments more in keeping with a civil trail. Movie and TV writers get these wrong frequently, but I hold comics writers to a higher standard. I'd declare a mistrial, save for the fact that Slott did just that in the first issue and for entirely reasonable reasons.

About that fine line between comedy and drama...

Jen ends up working for a power law firm intent on being the leader in "superhuman law." The scenario has its humorous aspects, but Slott gives equal weight to the human side. By the end of the second issue, I was sold on this ongoing series.

Visually, SHE-HULK looks good. Penciler Juan Bobillo has a small consistency problem with Jen's and the She-Hulk's heights and weights, but it was only glaring on occasion. I'd give him decent marks all around.

I was pleased by colorist Chris Chuckry's work. Too often, today's colorists ladle on the hues without regard to the stories; Chuckry worked with the stories, enhanced them without drawing too much attention to his contribution.

I liked these first two issues of THE SHE-HULK. I tend to be overly cautious when a character or concept is on its third series, but I'm sticking with this one. It's a close call, but I'm giving them four Tonys each.

Tony Tony Tony Tony


Editor/publisher Mark Arnold has been expanding the scope of THE HARVEYVILLE FUN TIMES (Summer; $4.50) for several issues now. The current issue (#55) centers on classic Harvey Comics characters like Richie Rich, Casper, Hot Stuff, and Little Dot, but Arnold and his writers also discuss other suitable-for-all-ages comics in the fanzine's packed-to-the-covers 28 pages.

This issue has Harvey news, a look at Harvey foreign editions, wide-ranging columns by Christopher E. Baret and Joe Torcivia, and interviews with Harvey artist Sid Couchey, animation historians Karl Cohen, Jerry Beck, and Jim Korkis, and some guy named Tony Isabella. Like most fanzines, THE HARVEYVILLE FUN TIMES is pricey compared to more professional efforts, but, like the best fanzines, you can't beat its sense of camaraderie and scholarship. I've been a regular reader for many years.

THE HARVEYVILLE FUN TIMES #55 earns a respectable three Tonys. Ordering information can be found at:

Tony Tony Tony


Once again, welcome to CBG's review section. This month and in the months to come, you'll find more reviews than you can shake a Skrull at. You'll find we like all kinds of comic books around here and our reviews will reflect that.

The world of comics gets bigger all the time.



The above column first appeared in COMICS BUYER'S GUIDE #1595 [August, 2004]. That's the first monthly and magazine-format issue of the publication, which had been a weekly newspaper previously. The movie incarnations of Spider-Man and Doctor Octopus graced the cover of the magazine, which is available at fine comic book shops, bookstores, and newsstands even as we speak.

CBG #1595 weighed in at 244 pages for a cover price of $5.99. I'll be reviewing it here next week, a clear conflict of interest for which I fully expect to be spanked.

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

Tony Isabella

<< 07/02/2004 | 07/03/2004 | 07/04/2004 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Message Board. Also, read Heroes and Villains: Real and Imagined and view my Amazon Wish List.

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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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