I don't know if ALEX SCHOMBURG invented what I call the "big-screen" comic-book covers of the 1940s, but he was surely among the best - if not *the* best - at designing and drawing them. Whenever I see such covers, their giant super-heroes towering over hordes of criminals or enemy soldiers, I think of Schomburg.
Schomburg was born in Puerto Rico in 1905, moving to New York City as a teenager. He and his three brothers ran a commercial art business in the 1920s. Not much later, in the 1930s, Schomburg was painting terrific covers for the science fiction pulps of the day. Switching to comics in the 1940s, he drew approximately 500 covers and some interior tales as well. He returned to illustrating books and science fiction magazines in the 1950s and for the rest of his long and successful career.
Had he not passed away in 1998, Schomburg would be celebrating his 100th birthday today. That made it a no-brainer to run some of his covers in today's TOT. It was a more difficult task to choose the actual covers.
It was a sign of the times, but many of Schomburg's World War II covers feature racist images of the Japanese soldiers the heroes are merrily pummeling. The Germans and Italians got off with some relatively mild caricatures, but the Japanese leaders and troops on these cover sometimes don't even appear to be human. As dramatic and as historically important as these covers may be, I could not bring myself to use any of them here.
I went with CAPTAIN AMERICA #47 [June, 1945] for the opening cover. The GRAND COMICS DATABASE [www.comics.org] isn't certain of the identification, but lists Stan Lee as the editor of the issue and the scripter of "The Crime Dictator," the 20-page story which leads off the issue. Vince Alascia was the artist.
There are two other stories in the issue:
Human Torch in "Horror in Room 1705" (drawn by Al Gabriele, 7 pages), and,
Captain America in "The Monster of the Morgue" (pencilled by Alascia, inked by Al Bellman, 17 pages).
The end of World War II only barely reduced the epic scope of Schomburg covers. Even though the Captain and Bucky's foes on the cover of CAPTAIN AMERICA #58 [September, 1946] are mere home-grown criminals, the heroes still dwarf them. Nor does Schomburg stint on the backgrounds, drawing a crowd scene in the lower right corner of the work. I love this stuff.
Stan Lee is listed as the editor of this issue, but the GCD's other credits for the most of the stories are uncertain. Question marks behind names denote that uncertainty.
Captain America in "Crime on Cue" (10 pages) with pencil art by Al Avison (?) and inks by Frank Borth (?);
"Dead Man Talks," a single-page "Let's Play Detective" feature with art by Bellman (?);
Captain America in "The Sportsman of Crime" (12 pages), drawn by Avison (?);
Captain America in "The House of Hate" (13 pages) with pencils by Don Rico (?) and inks by Syd Shores (?).
Celebrating the artistic achievements of Schomburg should not be construed as ignoring or even excusing any of the racist images which appeared on some of his World War II covers. The works were a product of their era, worthy of study for their historical value and as a cautionary note against the far more subtle racism which exists in the comics industry to this day. But those images aren't the totality of the artist and, during his long career, he created countless comic-book covers, illustrations, and paintings that can and should be appreciated.
It is those works we celebrate this day.
BATMAN: JEKYLL & HYDE
My first thought after reading BATMAN: JEKYLL & HYDE #1 [DC; $2.99] was "This appears to be a very ambitious mini-series; I wish I liked the first issue better." Writer Paul Jenkins is taking a serious look at the conflicting natures of Batman reflected through the duel mirrors of the murderous/tragic Harvey Dent and a plague of inexplicable spree killings in Gotham.
I mostly like the writing in this first issue. Jenkins is a talented wordsmith and the notion of the spree killings - seemingly average and decent citizens going berserk for no reason that anyone can determine - is entertainingly chilling. It's the kind of case I like to see Batman sink his fangs into. What I could do without is yet another attempt to dig into the psyches of Batman and Dent. We get these every couple of years and they rarely-if-ever reveal anything new about either character. If it turns out Jenkins does have something new to say here, I'll be amazed and delighted...and quite willing to eat crow for all the Internet to see.
I mostly hate the visuals in this first issue. While artist Jae Lee can draw a striking panel here and there, his storytelling is muddy and vague. The unrelenting brown and grey of June Chung's coloring added to my displeasure. Whatever mood Lee and Chung were trying to establish, my overwhelming response was extreme fatigue. It was tiring to look at their work.
Some readers will undoubtedly like BATMAN: JEKYLL & HYDE far more than I do. I liked this debut issue well enough to give it a respectable three out of five Tonys.
BIRDS OF PREY
This may look like a review of BIRDS OF PREY #81 [DC; $2.50], but there's more to it than that.
Let's do the review part first.
The Adriana Melo/Will Conrad cover is a striking one, even if Black Canary looks like she's doing the "Toyota Leap" and the cover blurb is a way-too-obvious choice. But the cover did catch my eye and promised an interesting story...and that's exactly what a cover is supposed to do.
"Undefended Border" is the first part of "The Battle Within." Black Canary (Dinah Lance) and Wildcat (Ted Grant) are on a mission in Singapore, posing as American gangsters wanting to buy all the drugs produced by a vicious and seemingly untouchable organization. The exact nature of the mission isn't revealed in this chapter, but there are fine scenes of the heroes playing their roles, conversing like the old friends they are, meeting interesting and dangerous people, and mixing it up with a few thugs. Then there's the first of this issue's two cliffhanger endings. It's an oldie, but still effective.
The second cliffhanger features Helena "Huntress" Bertinelli, who left Oracle (Barbara Gordon) and the Canary at the end of last issue, upset she had been manipulated by women she thought were her friends. That's shorthand for a much better and more interesting scenario than I can cram into this review.
Other things I liked about this issue:
Gail Simone's writing. I have praised it before and the above comments should confirm my admiration for it. I think she's one of the DC Universe's best writers.
The art. Penciller Joe Bennett draws well, nails the regular characters, and tells the story well. Inker Jack Jadson is a good match for Bennett's style. Colorist "Hi-Fi Design" - which likely isn't a birth name - did a great job as well. Their Singapore is gloriously bright and yet still scary when the story calls for it. Their Gotham City is sufficiently dark without being covered in the mud of too many other Batman books. Good stuff all around.
The Twelve Brothers In Silk. These assassins are terrifying and they haven't even done anything yet.
BIRDS OF PREY #81 picks up four out of five Tonys. The title has become a must-read for me.
Moving on to other matters...
There are two things about comics reviews I believe. One is that creators should generally not argue with reviewers. Thank the reviewers for positive reviews, cautiously correct errors of fact in the reviews, and don't respond to negative reviews unless you've honestly learned something from them. You might disagree with the review, but so what? Any reviewer that changes his opinion because the creator gets a little or even a lot upset shouldn't be walking these mean streets in the first place.
The other thing I believe is that reviewers shouldn't respond to negative reaction to their reviews. That's as much a mug's game as the above. You've had your say, you're unlikely to change the minds of those who disagree with you, let it go.
Naturally, being an idiot, I'm about to violate the second of my firmly-held convictions.
In my May 3 review of BIRDS OF PREY #76-80, I wrote:
Might as well get this out of the way early. While Simone is by no means as guilty as other DC writers, there is still a feeling outsiders aren't welcome in the DCU. Too many DCU comics read as if we are expected to know everything that has happened or is happening in the DCU. If you show a mechanical gizmo on Barbara Gordon's back, tell me *something* about what it is, what it does, and maybe even how it got there. Simone is a good enough writer to work exposition into her scripts smoothly and, when she fails to give such needed information, her editors need to catch the lapse. Clarity is a good thing.
Some have characterized these comments as "condescending," but I assure one and all they weren't intended that way. The lack of clarity is one of my major problems with DCU writing and I think it's a problem that needs to be addressed by DC writers and editors alike. Writers can sometimes be too close to scripts to spot such flaws; editors are the bridge between the writers and the readers. Both should take responsibility to make sure new or lapsed readers get a leg up on each issue of a title.
I was a big supporter of the brief text intros that appeared on the first pages of the Marvel comics of the 1970s. In just two or three lines, a new reader could get a pretty good idea of what the title was about. Unfortunately, there's nothing of this nature in BIRDS OF PREY #81.
Who are the Birds of Prey? What do they do? If I've come to this title cold, or even from, say, the Justice League cartoons, I don't know the answers to those questions and this issue's script doesn't clearly provide them.
Sometimes clarity - even when it may seem redundant - can add punch to a story. Let's look at a specific panel from this issue, the only panel that mentions the Huntress by name.
Black Canary asks:
"Any word from Huntress?"
In the next panel, Oracle responds:
"Not for two weeks. She won't answer my messages.
"I can't make her come back, Dinah..."
If Huntress had also been referred to as "Helena" and a brief mention made of her feeling betrayed by Oracle, the issue's second cliffhanger, in which it appears that she taken control of the mob family she was born into, would have been much more effective.
The new reader will have no idea that Helena Bertinelli is the Huntress mentioned in that earlier exchange. I'm suitably shocked because *I* know who she is, but the shock ending is meaningless to that new reader.
Look at the current DCU titles and, for that matter, current Marvel titles. You will almost certainly find further examples of this "No Outsiders Allowed" style of comics writing. That won't be difficult. Not at all.
What would be difficult would be convincing me that this isn't the bad thing I believe it to be.
To sum things up:
Birds of Prey? Really good comic book with a really terrific writer and interesting characters.
Giving new readers a leg up to encourage them to stick around to become regular readers? Really good idea. Might even go so far as to say it's vital to series writing.
Thanks for spending a part of your day with me. I'll be back tomorrow 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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