Reviews and commentary by Tony Isabella
"America's Most Beloved Comic-Book Writer & Columnist"
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TONY'S ONLINE TIPS
for Saturday, July 31, 2004
From COMICS BUYER'S GUIDE #1596:
"Comic books have great characters and stories."
- Bub, husband of Betty
Few newspaper strips have warmed my comics-loving heart more than Gary Delainey and Gerry Rasmussen's BETTY for Monday, May 31. The strip offers a number of triggers for discussion, though I will but lightly shoot off my columnist's mouth at this time.
Betty notes "most movies these days are based on comic books." It's an exaggeration, but it's certainly true there have been a lot of movies based on comics in the theaters with more heading there. This is a good thing, but it doesn't come without pitfalls for the creators who have a share in comics properties that are or could be heading to the silver screen.
Many comics publishers - though, thankfully, not all - are now insisting on control of movie rights and a hefty share of the money from any movie deals, even on otherwise creator-owned properties. This includes some publishers who don't pay the creators any money until after they have collected from the distributor of those comic books. There's something very wrong with that picture.
Digression. Any creators or publishers who wish to further enlighten me on this matter are welcome to e-mail me. My research has only just begun as I write this month's column.
Bub, Betty's husband, isn't surprised at Hollywood's interest in comic books. He knows they have great characters and stories. He's inspired to get one to read.
The final panel of the strip finds them at their local comics shop. Betty is stunned by how prices have gone up. Bub wonders if they have comic books at the libraries.
What I call "bang-for-your-bucks" is an issue I've discussed in previous columns. Publishers and creators are addressing this imperative in various ways.
More pages for your money is one way to go. Manga collections usually offer 200 pages of comics for ten bucks; Viz's SHONEN JUMP monthly presents over 300 pages for five. The Archie comics digest have always been a good buy. One of the books I'll be reviewing in a bit reprints several full-color issues of a super-hero title at a third less total price than the originals, three of which sold out, would have cost the reader.
More story within existing page-counts is another way to go. A number of creators are exploring how to get more story into the comics they write. While this won't bode well for artists mired in the "pin-up style" of comics art which flourished in the 1990s, it will, if successful, offer readers a more satisfying experience in even the traditional 32-page comics.
For me, price isn't as important as value. If a creator or a publisher can't give me more pages for my money, they can fall back on this strategy:
Make their comic books so darned good that I don't think twice about what I paid for them.
However, the good news for Bub is...they do have comic books in libraries. In fact, it's been my experience that such libraries will do their best to get comics requested by their patrons, either by ordering them or through loan arrangements with other libraries. Is this a great time for comics readers or what?
Let's hit the reviews.
THE STEVE DITKO READER 2 (Pure Imagination; $25) collects over two dozen stories drawn by the co-creator of Spider-Man before he web-slung his way into comic-book history, including a full-length KONGA story. Published by Charlton Comics from 1957 through 1962, the tales reveal Ditko's ability to capture the reader's attention even when illustrating scripts of uneven quality.
Charlton was notorious for its poor printing and its tendencies to knock out its comics as fast as possible, the better to keep its presses running. For all that, many of its comics are remembered fondly by readers and collectors, none more so than those featuring art by Ditko.
From a story standpoint, we're talking a real mixed bag here. There are fantasy stories which make no sense whatsoever and others where the writers seemed to do back flips to ward off the harsher punishments which befell wrongdoers in pre-Code horror comic books. There's one of the wackiest "Hitler lives" tales I've ever read and an incredibly obvious ripoff of THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN movie. There are even three stories from a 1958 issue of BLACK FURY, whose star was a black stallion leading his manada (Spanish for "herd") across plains and through deserts while playing a pivotal role in the lives of men good and evil.
KONGA is a favorite of mine. Charlton got the rights to adapt this 1961 British monster movie and, despite the giant ape's death at the end of the first issue, had no trouble reviving Konga for an ongoing series. Ditko had a knack for this title, drawing stories of adventure, science fiction, and even out-and-out humor. Some of the issues even ended on cliffhangers, a practice which ended when, presumably, Ditko got too busy with his Marvel Comics work to draw every issue.
Charlton's bad printing haunts this collection. You can see Ditko's remarkable storytelling and get sense of the atmosphere he brought to these tales. But it's maddening to know that his pages, the originals, had to have looked so much better than they did in even their initial publication. I keep hoping the pages will show up in somebody's attic someday.
THE STEVE DITKO READER 2 may be too pricey for all but truly avid fans of Ditko or Charlton. Since I fall into both groups of afficionados, I'm glad to have these stories even in this imperfect presentation. On our "Tips" scale of zero to five, this collection rates a solid three Tonys.
HOW LOATHSOME (NBM Publishing; $18.95) by Ted Naifeh and Tristan Crane is not, as Will Eisner's P'Gell would have put it, a story for little boys. Nor is Catherine Gore a classic cinema beauty in the mold of the crime-fighting Spirit's bevy of not-so-bad girls. Yet she is tough, outspoken, and, once you get a sense of her, just vulnerable enough to keep you interested in her life and loves.
Catherine's world lies a few steps beyond the "norm." Gender is flexible, relationships more so. Still, society on the fringes shares with the mainstream the search for companionship to ease the loneliness of one's days and nights.
This graphic novel was my introduction to Crane's writing. I was impressed at how quickly he involved me in Catherine's life and how surely he kept me involved, even when she was not at her best. The culture shock of walking in Catherine's world would probably do me in, but, despite that distance between us, she was, in Crane's capable hands, someone whose woes and joys were of concern to me. The story's satisfying conclusion notwithstanding, I wanted to know what happened to her next.
Naifeh's duo-toned art also pulled me into this book, which he co-wrote with Crane. A striking image here, an intimate and oh-so-revealing close-up there, the overall sense of being in a very real place, all these added weight to an already meaty story.
Presented in a handsome clothbound edition, HOW LOATHSOME is an engaging graphic novel and a fine example of the variety found in today's comics. Recommended for older readers only - trust me and P'Gell on this - I give it four Tonys.
I was a recent (and very young) addition to the Marvel Comics staff when the classic comics tales reprinted in THE CHRONICLES OF CONAN: THE SONG OF RED SONJA AND OTHER STORIES (Dark Horse Comics; $15.95) first hit the newsstands. To say I was in awe of what Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith were doing is an understatement. Against the vast canvas of the Tarim War, they were still able to focus on Conan and the epic's cast of characters in a surprisingly intimate manner. They made the war as much about people as about nations and ideologies. Somewhat older now, I can't help but reflect that, if wars were more about people, we'd have fewer wars.
I didn't get to work on "The Shadow of the Vulture," in which Conan clashes with the feared Mikhal Oglu; "The Song of Red Sonja," Windsor-Smith's masterpiece; or the John Buscema-drawn finales to the War. Editor Thomas, mentor though he was to me, wasn't about to entrust the new kid with the back-up proofreading of his epic. But I'd follow the pages around production as best I could, often reading them out of order until a make-ready copy would arrive in the office from the printer. I'd stay late at the office or come in early to read them over and over again. I might have been new, but I knew a classic when I read it.
I'd rank the fateful meeting of Conan and the Living Tarim in whose name the war is being waged and our last glimpse of that man-god in the epilogue of "The Hour of the Griffin" as two of the most truly memorable moments in comics. Indeed, the Thomas scripts for these issues influenced my own writing in later years, most notably on THE SHADOW WAR OF HAWKMAN (1985) and the "Gang War" trilogy in BLACK LIGHTNING #6-8 (1995). Hmm...maybe I'm about due for another comic-book conflict.
I was less wet behind the ears when Thomas and Windsor-Smith reunited for their 58-page adaptation of Conan creator Robert E. Howard's "Red Nails," which first appeared in the black-and-white SAVAGE TALES #2-3. Then, I thought the story of Conan and Valeria fighting for their lives in a desolate city of death ran a tad too long. Now, rereading it complete in one volume, it takes my breath away with its twists and turns, and its statement on the ultimate futility of war. Odd how, thirty years later, its appearance with the conclusion of the Tarim War in this collection, gives it even greater meaning.
I reserve my highest rating for works that are among the very best comicdom has to offer. THE CHRONICLES OF CONAN: THE SONG OF RED SONJA AND OTHER STORIES meets that standard. The insightful, lyrical, and exhilarating writing of Thomas, the senses-staggering Windsor-Smith drawings, the sheer power of the Buscema artwork; all these earn this magnificent volume the full five Tonys.
MOBILE SUIT GUNDAM SEED #1 (Del Rey; $10.95) was one of the first four series with which Random House launched its manga line. It's a re-imagining of the basic Gundam story, which is summarized in a special feature within the book:
In the not-so-distant future, humanity's settlement of space leads to a bitter war between the people of Earth and rebel space colonists. The space-dwellers use giant humanoid fighting vehicles called "mobile suits" to even the odds...
In GUNDAM SEED, the genetically enhanced Coordinators war with the Naturals who dominate the Earth alliance. Earth is developing its own mobile suits and, through a fluke of fortune, a young man, a Coordinator, ends up piloting a prototype mobile suit in defense of the Naturals and his friends who have been caught in the middle of a Coordinator surprise attack.
"Mecha manga" isn't a favorite of mine, especially in series where the machines overwhelm the humanity. Writers Hajime Yatate and Yoshiyuki Tomino do have some interesting characters in GUNDAM SEED - Kira Yamato, the young Coordinator mentioned above, and the feisty Lt. Raimus, who finds herself the highest-ranking officer of the Earth forces on the scene of the attack - but the mobile suits crowd them off the pages whenever there's action.
The art is by Masatsugu Iwase and it also represents a manga-style which simply isn't my cuppa. All the characters, including the guys, are drawn to a wide-eyed feminine model. Masatsuga does do a decent job differentiating the main players within the style, but they still look as if they're all related.
Readers who like "mecha manga" more than I do, which wouldn't be hard, will enjoy MOBILE SUIT GUNDAM SEED far more than I do. In recognition of those readers and the quality evident in thus first volume of the series, I give it two Tonys.
[For descriptions of what my ratings mean, check out the handy sidebar elsewhere on this page.]
TEEN TITANS: A KID'S GAME (DC Comics; $9.95) reprints the first seven issues of the new ongoing title along with a fistful of pin-ups and profile pages. My favorite thing about the profile pages was that I already knew all the important character info they contained from the stories themselves. You shouldn't need a handbook to enjoy and understand a bunch of comic books.
Writer Geoff Johns has rebuilt the Teen Titans in the wake of the Titans/Young Justice crossover which claimed the life of Donna Troy, the original Wonder Girl. The relaunch doesn't depend on the reader having read those books. Everything you need to know can be gleaned from the effect Troy's death has had on the young heroes and on the members of the Justice League.
Johns brought his "A" game to these stories. I never had much use for Kid Flash (nee Impulse), Superboy, or Wonder Girl, but he brings out the best and most intriguing in each of them. His work on Kid Flash is especially notable.
Likewise, he does a terrific job with the rest of the team - Beast Boy, Cyborg, Robin, and Starfire - and portraying the natural tension between the younger heroes and their somewhat over-involved Justice League mentors. His handling of an unusually sympathetic Batman and a grieving Wonder Woman was especially choice. Piling on the props, he gets kudos for playing Deathstroke the Terminator as the delusional sociopath he should be.
Digression. I absolutely HATED DC's various attempts to make Deathstroke into some sort of edgy hero. The predator played house with an underage girl and got her killed. He got his own two sons killed after his parenting skills left them mentally and physically damaged. He's a monster. End of digression.
My only complaint about the story arc reprinted in this book is that it falls into the oh-so-overused "revenge" motif of super-hero comics. The peril stems, not from the super-heroes coming to the rescue of innocents, but from some menace seeking vengeance on the heroes. The innocents they may save along the way are only in danger because an old enemy wants the heroes dead. It's well past time for super-hero writers to return to the genre's roots.
TEEN TITANS: A KID'S TALE delivers considerable bang-for-your-bucks. The art by Mike McKone and Tom Grummett is outstanding and tells the stories well. Jeromy Cox always delivers great coloring that doesn't overpower the art. The feature pages and pin-ups add further value to this trade paperback.
TEEN TITANS: A KID'S TALE earns four Tonys.
Delainey and Rasmussen continued exploring the world of comic books in the BETTY strip for June 1. Bub recalled reading Batman, Spider-Man, Dr. Strange, the Fantastic Four, and the Green Lantern. Looking for what was new and exciting in comics, he and Betty found one comic "about a bald guy who works in a mail room" and another "about a dead guy."
I'm not sure if the cartoonists consider this a good thing or a bad thing, but I like to think it's a good thing. I love super-hero comics, at least when they're done well, but I also love that I can find comics about other kinds of characters. Variety remains the spice of my comic-book life.
In the June 2 BETTY strip, Bob makes his selection. He says it's "the usual - a lone hero who stands for what's right."
Betty replies that sounds pretty good and says she would like to read something like that herself. Then she turns from the comics and heads for the Oprah magazines.
Hey, we can't win them all over.
Thanks for spending a part of your day with me. I'll be back tomorrow with more stuff.
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THE "TONY" SCALE
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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