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for Friday, November 12, 2004

Julius Schwartz


"There are great men, and there are good men. Seldom are both qualities met in one person. But even Mel Brooks knew how to honor this great, good man: May the Schwartz be with you."

- Harlan Ellison

If anyone had any doubts as to the love and respect which DC Comics executives, staffers, and freelancers had for the legendary Julius Schwartz, they have only to look at the ways in which the company has chosen to honor Julie and his decades of service to DC. They have celebrated his life and mourned his passing with dignity, gratitude, and, most importantly, a wink and a smile.

This summer, DC published eight special comic books dedicated to Julie's editorial legacy. They borrowed one of his "tricks of the trade" and asked some of the best writers in the field to write stories around classic Schwartz covers.

You see, my children, in days of yore, well before the coming of comics shops and the direct market and PREVIEWS and the Internet and the charming concept of brutalizing and slaughtering characters as a sales pitch, comic books were sold on newsstands and in drug stores, competing against hundreds of other mainstream distractions for the dimes and quarters of their readers.

Readers seldom knew in advance what would be on the racks when they went to such stores. Avid comics readers would have favorite characters, of course, but, for the majority of the customers, it would be a comic book's cover which would convince them to buy any particular issue.

The wise Schwartz realized this and was clever enough to stack the deck in his favor. He would dream up with imaginative covers, and then get his writers to author imaginative stories making use of these cover scenes. It's largely a lost art these days, but the "cover as come-on" sold an awful lot of comic books to an awful lot of readers who just had to know why Green Lantern was hawking power rings on a city street and how the Atom had managed to get himself chained to a grenade.

DC chose eight such covers for their Julie Schwartz tributes. I read all eight issues in a single day, losing myself in a world of gooey nostalgia, goofy fun, occasional dismay, and some terrific writing and art, barely noticing that, at $2.50 each, they were ten times more expensive than the originals.

Here's what I thought of these special comics.



DC COMICS PRESENTS: BATMAN had an Adam Hughes cover based on the cover of BATMAN #183 [August, 1966]. The original artists were penciller Carmine Infantino and inker Joe Giella. Hughes updates the scene nicely with a Neal Adams ambiance to the Batman and Robin figures, a more modern television set, and those fabulous Jim Lee leather boots.

"Batman of Two Worlds" by writer Geoff Johns, Infantino, and Giella leads off the issue. An actor playing Robin on a TV series is murdered and the main suspect is the actor playing Batman. It's a fun story with a satisfying ending, marred only by a key gimmick being repeated from one of the last batch of Batman cartoons. This isn't a deal breaker, but, considering that Schwartz used to demand his writers "Be Original," it was a disappointment. The Infantino art didn't disappoint, though; the man still has what it takes to tell an exciting comics story.

Len Wein's "The Ratings War" starts with the most appropriate Scarecrow crime...ever. However, the mystery of how a small-time TV producer is managing to film Batman and Robin as they foil crime after crime isn't nearly as challenging to solve as the tale would have readers believe and the ending struck me as out of character for Batman. On a positive note, Wein's wordsmithing skills are as keen as ever and the Andy Kuhn art is equally swell. If they did another Batman comic, I'd buy it.


Mystery in Space

The writers of DC COMICS PRESENTS: MYSTERY IN SPACE lived up to Julie's "Be Original" motto. They did something with their Adam Strange stories even Julie and writer Gardner Fox never got around to. They showed what would happen if unscrupulous men from Earth coveted or received advanced technology from Adam's adopted world of Rann.

In Elliot S! Maggin's "Crisis on 2 Worlds," which guest stars the Elongated Man and his wife Sue, a missed Zeta-beam lands Adam in an African prison and sets the local dictators and the wanna-be dictators to squabbling over the scientific goodies they discover among the adventuring archaeologist's gear. The only way to stop a subsequently launched nuclear missile is to teleport it to Rann. Maggin's script is breathtakingly realized by artist J.H. Williams III and colorist Jose Villarubia.

Grant Morrison teams up with penciller Jerry Ordway and inker Mark McKenna for the emotionally-charged "Two Worlds." It took a beat for me to adapt to the narrative voice Morrison uses in this tale of an ambitious military man's invasion of Rann, but the end result was one of the most moving tributes to Schwartz to be found in any of these specials.

Cover artist Alex Ross did a painted version of the Infantino/ Murphy Anderson cover which appeared on MYSTERY IN SPACE #82 from March, 1963. There are elements I like better in each cover than in the other - this realization coming from flipping back and forth between them for twenty minutes or so - but I love them both madly. This might be my favorite of the specials.


Green Lantern

DC COMICS PRESENTS: GREEN LANTERN was the issue I liked least. "Penny For Your Thoughts, Dollar For Your Destiny" by writer Brian Azzarello has so much of what I most dislike about current super-hero comics that I was amazed he didn't throw in a gratuitous rape as well. He starts his tale with a sophomoric sexual reference and continues with an arrogant mockery of the classic Schwartz heroes. Not even artists Norm Breyfogle and Sal Buscema could alleviate the mean-spirited tone of this piece, begging the question of why this writer was chosen for this event over such talents as Roy Thomas, whose own work owes much to the Schwartz-edited comics he read in the 1940s through the 1960s, and Mike W. Barr, who sold his first comics script to Julie.

Martin Pasko's "Feel Something" is a much better story which recalls the Green Lantern/Green Arrow stories done by Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams, but I had a tough time accepting its revelation of the relationship between Hal Jordan and his father. It feels like a misguided attempt to implant back story which would explain the bad editing and writing that turned Jordan into an insane murderer several years back. I did like the art by penciller Scott McDaniel and inker Andy Owens, but their work was obscured by the muddy and ponderous coloring.

Cover artist Brian Bolland did a fine but too literal version of the original Gil Kane/Murphy Anderson cover of GREEN LANTERN #31 [September, 1964]. However, I appreciate the difficulty any artist faces in doing takes on Kane covers. Kane nailed these scenes when he did them back in the day.



No tribute to Schwartz could be complete without at least one gorilla cover. DC COMICS PRESENTS: HAWKMAN gives us a gorilla with wings as depicted by Jose Luis Garcia Lopez and Kevin Nowlan. It's their take on the Murphy Anderson cover of HAWKMAN #6 [February-March, 1965]. Their gorilla is meaner-looking, but Anderson's is more elegant. For a gorilla, that is.

"Visitors Day" by Cary Bates is the first of several stories to guest-star Julie himself. It's a bit that can and does get old when one sees it too often, but Bates makes it work with the help of good-natured art by John Byrne and Lary Stucker. Kudos to this trio of talents for bringing a smile to my face.

In the second slot is Kurt Busiek's "Love In the Air" with art by Walter Simonson and Bob Wiacek. It's Valentine's Day on Earth and Hawkman keeps missing the clear signals being sent by his wife, distracted as he is by the ongoing crimes of the Shadow Thief and the Matter Master. The story includes a flashback to the day when romance first bloomed between Katar and Shayera, as well as a great supporting role for Commissioner Emmett. At the risk of sounding immodest, it's the best Hawkman story not written by either Gardner Fox or myself.

This might also be my favorite special of the bunch. It's my column and I can have two favorites if I want.



In DC COMICS PRESENTS: THE FLASH, "The Fastest Man--Dead" by Jeph Loeb features more "Be Original" moments by showing readers elements we've never seen in Flash stories. Police scientist Barry Allen testifies in court, is "killed" by Batman foe Deadshot, and, for the finale, does a little bit of C.S.I.-style detective work to solve his own murder. Penciller Ed McGuiness, inker Dexter Vines, and colorist Dave Stewart do justice to Jeph Loeb's dandy script. If Loeb could show the same affinity for Barry's speedy successor, I would love to see him take an extended run at Wally West in the ongoing Flash title.

Denny O'Neil's "Flash Back" gets bogged down in its convoluted life-or-death situation. The Flash is "killed" by an alien weapon and has fifteen minutes to live. Julius Schwartz, once more taking part in a tribute to him, figures out the only way Flash can save himself. Without giving away too much, the hero's salvation hinges on something which is portrayed as "unique" to the comics art form. Where the story fails is that there were other mediums Flash could have used to save himself, mediums which wouldn't have stretched my willing suspension of disbelief nearly as much as the chosen method did. The art by Doug Mahnke and Mark Farmer was good, but lessened by the tale's overblown coloring.

The Alex Ross cover pays tribute to the Infantino/Giella cover of FLASH #163 [August, 1966]. It's another nice piece by Ross, who impresses me mightily time after time.



Stan Lee does a positively Eisner-esque turn with "The Phantom Quarterback," the lead story of DC COMICS PRESENTS: SUPERMAN. With excellent art by Darwyn Cooke and J. Bone, the story focuses on the romantic longings of a scientific genius, forever competing with physically more impressive men for the affections of the woman he loves. Supporting player Superman generously gives center stage to the scientist in this funny and heartwarming tale.

"Secret of the Phantom Quarterback" reunites former Legion of Super-Heroes collaborators Paul Levitz and Keith Giffen in a tale inked by Al Milgrom. Quarterback and future sports announcer Steve Lombard figures prominently in the story, which sadly overplays its otherwise commendable message on the use of chemical enhancements by athletes. It's not a bad story, but it lacks the originality of the Lee/Cooke wonderment which preceded it.

The issue's homage cover is by Adam Hughes, doing his version of the Nick Cardy cover from SUPERMAN #264 [June, 1973]. Both of the covers are eye-catching, but the more realistic Hughes drawing has more impact than the original.



DC COMICS PRESENTS: THE ATOM finds Julius Schwartz taking key roles in both of the issue's stories. The Dave Gibbons version of "Ride a Deadly Grenade" has the Atom being shunted via a Time Pool mishap to the parallel universe of Schwartz and writer Gardner Fox. Using all the pseudo-science at their command, the duo must find a way to return the hero to his own universe. It's a pleasant enough adventure, but suffers a mite from Gibbons - and artists Pat Oliffe and Livesay - trying too hard to channel the 1960s Atom ambiance of Fox, Gil Kane, and Sid Greene.

However, in the second slot, Mark Waid succeeds magnificently in capturing the ambiance and bringing something new to the table. The Atom and lawyer/girlfriend Jean Loring are on the trail of the master criminal known only as "Mr. Originality." Schwartz doesn't play himself in this story, but his character is the closest to the real-life Julie of any of his tribute appearances. I laughed with outright glee at Waid making use of the Superman pins Julie handed out by the hundreds during his travels as DC's honorary ambassador in the 1990s. It's a splendid story with artists Dan Jurgens and Jon Bogdanove holding up their end admirably.

The Brian Bolland cover comes from the original Kane/Anderson cover of THE ATOM #10 [December-January, 1964]. Bolland brings the action a bit closer to the reader, but it's a dead heat as to which is the better cover. I truly do miss the imagination that used to go into comic-book covers.


Justice League of America

This summer's Julius Schwartz tributes - note my hope that DC makes this a reoccurring event - concludes with DC COMICS PRESENTS: JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA. Jose Luis Garcia Lopez and Kevin Nowlan team for a modernized version of the Mike Sekowsky/Murphy Anderson cover of JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #53 [May, 1967]. Both versions put a grin on my weathered face.

Harlan Ellison and Peter David collaborated on "Secret Behind the Stolen Super-Weapons," a story which considers the cost that a career in comics - or any creative endeavor - can take on personal lives. I didn't quite get this story when I read Ellison's plot in a previous issue of CBG, but darned if it didn't grow on me when I read the finished version. Julie's "battle" with the super-heroes still gives me the willies, but, yeah, it not only makes sense to me, it's a situation with which I can relate. The Joe Giella art is arguably the best comics work he's ever done and he's done fine work over the decades.

"Mayhem of the Mysterious Marauders" is Marv Wolfman's clever take on the cover scene. The story is not particularly well served by the art, which fails to make the most of its emotionally-charged moments, but it does contain a Schwartz tribute as moving as those in the Morrison and Ellison/David tales. It was a nice finish to the eight-issue event.


Veteran readers of this column know of my regard and love for Julius Schwartz. If I were to name the most important people in DC Comics history, I would rank him with Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Bob Kane, and Bill Finger. It gladdens my heart to see my friend honored in these comics and through The Jules Schwartz Scholarship Fund. If you are so inclined, you can send donations to the Fund c/o DC Comics, 1700 Broadway, New York, NY 10019.

While I can certainly understand, if not always appreciate the so-called "edgy" takes on classic DC characters and themes, I think the company's publishing schedule can also - and often does - make room for books aimed at fans of their more traditional oeuvre. The Schwartz tribute are a fine example of that.

Greedy old sod that I am, I would like to see more tributes in the future. Comics events honoring the afore-mentioned Siegel and Shuster, Kane and Finger, Mort Weisinger, Robert Kanigher, and so many others could be great fun. How about new issues of legendary 1940s titles like ACTION COMICS, ALL-AMERICAN COMICS, and others, featuring new stories of the many heroes who starred in them back then? Heck, I'm not even the least bit ashamed to say I'd jump at the chance to buy a METAL MEN or even a CAVE CARSON event. Maybe Jerry Lewis would let DC and its crew have another go at his comics adventures. I'm all about the fun.

Obviously, not every contemporary comics customer is going to be as manic as I am about these old comic books. Even so, I think DC could do more such events, please its more traditional readers, honor its legendary characters, creators, and editors, and make a few dollars to boot.

Can I get an "amen" on that?



Eagle-eyed enthusiasts that you are, you have likely noticed there are no "Tonys" - those disembodied columnist heads I use to rate comics - given to the Schwartz tributes reviewed in this TOT. I found I couldn't bring myself to "grade" work created to honor a good friend who was also one of my favorite editors.

I wasn't being soft on the comics themselves. Julie would not have stood for that. It just seemed manifestly inappropriate for me to rate them. Some of these contributors were also friends of Julie's. I wasn't about to put a numerical value on their tributes to a man they loved and who loved them right back.

However, as long as I have your attention, how about some feedback on rating comic books in general? Are letter grades and stars and floating Tony heads important to you? Do the reviews in my column, this magazine, and elsewhere in the comics community not give you sufficient info as to whether or not you might enjoy a comic book without the addition of those devices?

I know where I stand on the issue, but I'd like to discover what my fellow fans and industry professionals think about it. Let me hear from you at:

The "Tonys" will be back in my next column and remain in place through the end of the year. After that...?


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

Tony Isabella

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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.

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