My fellow citizens, my fellow comics readers across the globe, I come to you here to pledge my full support to the next leader of the free world...
President Barbara Gordon.
What? Who did you think I meant?
I'm writing this column in November, just before Election Day, that means I probably won't know who won the presidential election until the voters and the courts and the recounters and some more courts have made me even crazier than usual. But, in my own little world, a world where visitors to my TONY'S ONLINE TIPS website were asked to select the next President of the United States from a list of 19 comics characters, I have the final results which will likely elude me in reality:
Barbara Gordon.....21.94% of the vote
J. Jonah Jameson.....2.55%
It was a spirited election, but one without rancor. I think my favorite of the write-in votes was for Batman foe Ra's Al Ghul. The reader who chose him felt he wanted a candidate who was strong on the environment. I can appreciate the sentiment, but I prefer candidates who consider me part of the environment, too.
Several readers commented on the absence of Steve Rogers from the ballot. In my defense, I have always felt Captain America is respective of the American Dream and not the America of the moment. Besides, it would've broken my heart had a churlish group like the Howling Commandoes For Truth emerged to smear Cap's wartime service to my country.
Who did I vote for? I'll reveal the obvious after we look at a handful of more or less non-partisan comics.
"Pack-a humans, please, Frank. Unsalted."
When it sticks to its subject, ALL FLEE! by Gavin Burrows and Simon Gane [Top Shelf; $3.95] is a hilarious and downright charming send-up of giant monster movies. We meet an elderly Godzilla-type in "A Finishing School for Monsters" as he tries in vain to teach some dignified city-stomping to the hip-hop creatures in his class. Then, in the title tale, a sexy new monster joins the faculty and captures his heart. Their May-December romance is funny and oddly touching. A trio of gags pages completes the monstrous portion of this comic book to good effect.
After the monster stuff, though, ALL FLEE takes an ill-advised detour. "Crusin' With the Dorks" is "a bar tale" about a group of dorks who form a band, champion the mundane, and, apparently, rally the young dorks of England to their banner. It lacks the charm and the raucous wit of the Burrows/Gane monster stuff.
The dreary detour is annoying, but it's only seven pages out of the issue. ALL FLEE still delivers good bang for its four-buck cover charge. That earns it four out of five Tonys.
"I'm just so sick of never knowing the rules. There are no f****** rules here! This country has no structure. I'm just tired of having to guess at every turn. God, is this what this trip was supposed to be about? WELL?"
Japanese comics are rightfully praised for their variety and it's a lesson some mainstream publishers are learning, though they do seem to be sticking to genres not far distant from their usual catalogues. Still, though they seldom receive the recognition they deserve for it, independent American comics creators and publishers offer as much variety as the imports.
It's been over three years since the events in this book transpired. Given what's happened since in the world, much of the material seems dwarfed - to the point of changing the tenor of the book for me completely.
That's because independent air travel has - especially in the Arab world - changed since Tania and I visited Morocco. If the book's events took place after the 9/11 attacks, our travels would have told a different story. This is what I got out of my latest reading of the travelogue: a sense that I'm witnessing events that seem like they took place a long time ago, even though they were only three years ago.
I felt a sense of dread as I followed Smith and his wife via this comics travelogue, a sense that a wrong turn here or a wrong word there could have seriously consequences for them. Smith did an amazing job capturing their annoyance and frustration in dealing with the locals. Yet the lure of the unfamiliar is so great that it's also easy to see why, despite the occasional bump in the road, they continue onward.
The book's most chilling moment came when it seemed to me that Smith was feeling pretty confident in his ability to travel safely, as he and a friend nearly fell victim to an aggressive salesman of a sort he'd fended off earlier in his travels. It was a reminder of how dangerous the Middle East was and remains.
Backing up the comics are actual journal entries which Smith made during the time covered in this book. The entries add another layer of veracity to his travelogue.
So proclaims 15-year-old Ethan Chiles on the bus to the prison where, if he survives, he will be spending the next half-century. HARD TIME: 50 TO LIFE [DC; $9.95] collects the first six issues of Steve Gerber's remarkable series about a youngster possessed of a power that may be equal parts blessing and curse.
It starts with a school stunt that turns into a shooting that takes four lives. Unable to exact the ultimate vengeance on Ethan, society banishes him to the state pen, a living Hell he shares with criminals of varying levels of viciousness. ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY called the series "OZ meets MY SO-CALLED LIFE."
I don't toss around the word "remarkable" lightly here. Three decades after he wrote brilliantly of teenage despair and horror in MAN-THING and OMEGA THE UNKNOWN, Gerber once again creates a young protagonist so real it hurts. That he achieves this within what is essentially a super-hero series, albeit a refreshing and realistic take on that genre, adds to the artistic success of this riveting ongoing - fingers crossed - series. Most "super-teen" comics are a mix of pop culture new and old; HARD TIME comes from the darkest corners of the human experience, brightened only by the dim chance of redemption somewhere far down the road.
HARD TIME: 50 TO LIFE is a true page-turner. I couldn't wait to see would happen next and, when it came into view, I was often surprised by it. The force which emerges from Ethan is pivotal to the resolution of several plights, but it is his own ingenuity that trumps the deadliest threat he faces herein.
Gerber is clearly the driving force behind HARD TIME, but his story benefits greatly from artist Brian Hurtt's clear storytelling and compelling drawings, as well as the evocative coloring by Brian Haberlin and Avalon Studios. Kudos should likewise accrue to Andy Helfer (who steered the series pre-publication), Joan Hilty (editor of the ongoing series), Anton Kawasaki (editor of this collection), and publication designer Peter Hamboussi. This book looks as good as it reads.
MARK'S MOM: That's nice. Can you pass the potatoes?
My first experiences with the writing of Robert Kirkman were not pleasant. On a whim, I purchased and read the MARVEL KNIGHTS 2099 one-shots he did for Marvel earlier this year. Man, did they stink up the place. When I reviewed them online, I summed them up by asking: When did super-hero comic books stop being about hope and start being about hopelessness?
It was posters on my message board who convinced me to give Kirkman another chance and specifically recommended INVINCIBLE, a super-hero title created with artist Cory Walker. When INVINCIBLE: FAMILY MATTERS [$12.95] fortuitously showed up in a review package from Image Comics, I gave it a read.
The starting point for INVINCIBLE is...what if Superman had a son? Mark Grayson is an average high-school senior except that his father is the mightiest super-hero on Earth and Mark had inherited some of his powers.
Some of the add-ons are familiar. Omni-Man is Superman sans the exploding home world and plus membership in a group reminiscent of the Guardians from the Green Lantern comics. Mark hangs around with a team of fellow super-teens.
Others are fresher. The quiet courage of Mark's mother as her men face danger and her unwavering faith that, even if events take Omni-Man away from her for months at a time, her husband will still be coming back to her, these are something touchingly human in the midst of all the spandex.
Kirkman's writing is good throughout. He wisely disposes of Omni-Man's origin in a few pages, covering what needs to be covered without dragging it out. His dialogue reads smoothly, no clunkers that stop a reader in his tracks. I enjoyed this collection. Not as much as Kurt Busiek - who contributed a glowing introduction to the book - but I enjoyed it. If I come across a second INVINCIBLE collection or the later individual issues - this trade reprints the first four issues - I'd certainly read them.
On the visual end, Cory Walker's art and storytelling are both quite good. A whole lot of his characters do look as if they were related to each other, but that's a common shortcoming with comics artists. They need to meet more people. Bill Crabtree goes for brights and pastels in coloring these stories and it makes for a nice change from the over-rendered computer coloring we usually see in adventure comics.
The trade paperback itself is a pretty sweet package. Besides the afore-mentioned introduction and stories, it offers 18 pages of behind-the-scenes sketches and commentary.
The introduction by Roy Thomas puts the material in critical and historical perspective. Yes, these stories are often crudely written and drawn, but, despite that, there is an unformed energy to them which serves Marvel well to this very day. A blow-by-blow review seems silly here, so, instead, I'll share observations which occurred to me as I read these old comics.
With few exceptions, these stories look like not-very-distant relations of the Sunday comic strips from the newspapers. As those strips were the inspiration for comic books themselves, that isn't surprising. However, it is interesting to see which artists were the first to break that mold. Bill Everett does it almost from the launch of his "Sub-Mariner" series, as does Ben Thompson with his "Adventures of Ka-Zar the Great."
At this time, DC Comics had superior plotting and writing in their comics. Marvel had more kick-butt action. The DC emphasis on plotting and writing remained pretty much constant well into the 1970s; eventually, the publisher started confusing sensationalism for excitement. Marvel does the same thing, but, overall, I think its plotting and writing got better in the 1950s and 1960s with a few welcome pockets of true excellence in almost every decade since then. Well, probably, not the 1990s.
The Human Torch is akin to the Frankenstein Monster when he's first introduced, then, inexplicably, becomes a roving adventurer by his second story. He blends in with humanity well, but there's no explanation of how he manages this. He takes his human identity as "Jim Hammond" in his fourth story.
The Angel is a mystery on several levels. As Thomas questions in his introduction, he seemed a pretty bland character to receive cover status in these earliest issues. I'm not sure if he can fly or not, if he has super-strength or not, or why/how he does what he does. Yet the character was arguably Marvel's biggest super-hero star after the trio of Captain America, Sub-Mariner, and the Human Torch. Go figure.
Everett's Sub-Mariner is the highlight of these issues. Namor is an unlikely hero in appearance and demeanor, but he captivates the reader. The ongoing storyline lets Everett to develop/define his creation. The art is astonishing, easily better than any other Marvel art of the era; Everett doesn't have a true rival until the emergence of Jack Kirby.
"The Masked Raider" adds "western" to the genres featured in these issues, but the stories are mediocre at best. I swear there are places where the artist, doubtless churning these out as fast as humanly possible, skips over a panel. The most surprising thing about this strip is a scene in which the disguised Raider refers to a Mexican outlaw as a "greaser." Such slurs were, sad to say, not uncommon in 1940s comics, but they were usually directed at blacks and Asians. Reading this in 2004, it stood out.
Thompson's "Ka-Zar the Great," despite its debt to Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan, is fun stuff. There is an ongoing storyline and the endless amusement of the hero hanging out with his menagerie of animal pals, many of them with distinct personalities.
The back pages of MARVEL MYSTERY tried out a variety of other strips. Issue #1's "Jungle Terror" is a standard and uninteresting adventure yarn.
"American Ace," which ran in issues #2 and #3, really looks as if it was designed to be a Sunday comics strip. It appears to have been inspired by Roy Crane's "Captain Easy" with a deliciously evil and beautiful villainess to boot. The second installment ends with the story unresolved and destined to remain so.
MARVEL MYSTERY #4 has two new strips. "Electro" is a robot in the service of a benevolent scientist and his globe-trotting good Samaritans. It's dull, but the premise has considerable potential. One could combine this strip and "American Ace" into a modern-day thriller: rogue do-gooders clashing with world governments and the established super-heroes.
"Ferret, Mystery Detective" is notable for Irwin Hasen's art, some of his earliest, but little else. The mystery is why Ferret pursues this occupation when he is clearly really bad at it. I'm amazed he survived this first story.
MARVEL MASTERWORKS: GOLDEN AGE MARVEL COMICS VOL. 1 leaves me eager for its follow-up volumes. The stories have great historical value and many of them are entertaining in their own right. I hope this publishing program meets with great success and I'll do my bit to encourage it by giving their premiere volume the full five out of five Tonys.
Keep them flying, Marvel!
Which comics character got my vote in my online election for President of the United States? Did you even have to think about that for an instant?
I don't agree with or approve of some of the things DC Comics has done with him. I may flat-out not believe some of the things the company has done with him. Still, at the end of the day, I had to go with my "favorite son" among the candidates:
He's a truly compassionate man who focuses on helping people without judging them. I once described him as a "liberal Northern Baptist" and that continues to work for me.
He's an intelligent man and a reluctant warrior. I think that combination is important in a commander-in-chief.
That said, I agree with my online readers that Barbara Gordon and many of the other candidates would also make great presidents. One reader commented that the winner could put together the finest cabinet in history from the rest of the candidates.
If it weren't for the frequent random apocalypses, I'd rather live in the comics world than the real one.
I post new "Tony Polls" questions every Monday at my website. Get in on the fun by going to:
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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