Yes, to answer a common question, it is great to get paid for reading comic books. More correctly, I imagine it would be great to get paid for reading comic books. I'll let you know for certain once I figure out how to go from reading the comic books to getting a check without writing this column in between.
The other frequent misconception about what I and the rest of CBG's reviewers do is who we do it for. I would have thought this magazine's title - Comics BUYER'S Guide - would be enough of a clue for anyone. For those who require more:
I love comics. I wish comics creators and publishers nothing but the greatest success in all their endeavors. But I don't write reviews for the creators or the publishers. I write them for their customers and, while I might understand the limitations under which a creator or publisher might labor, I don't believe their customers - and I include retailers in that group - consider such things when they purchase comics and related items. I can sympathize with the woes on the creating/publishing side of the equation, but I can't ignore flaws on that basis.
What I owe anyone who sends me review items is my best efforts to read what they send me in a timely manner and, if I do choose to review it here or elsewhere, my best efforts to be both informative and fair in my comments. That's it.
AMAZING SPIDER-MAN VOL. 10: NEW AVENGERS [Marvel; $14.99] has what may be the best Hydra story since Nick Fury was fighting the organization's baggy-pants hordes in the 1960s. Writer J. Michael Straczynski took advantage of Spidey's membership in the new Avengers to place the web-slinging Everyman in the middle of a spectacular attack on the whole darn United States of America. Truth be told, other recent Straczynski arcs have disappointed me greatly, but he brought his "A" game to this one. There are scary villains, crazy-wild action, and wonderful character bits, laced with clever humor and moving melancholy. In short, this is the real Spider-Man and he's as entertaining as ever.
NEW AVENGERS collects AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #519-524 for more or less the same price as the originals. The Mike Deodato Jr. art is never less than good and occasionally rises to the superb. I can't quite give this volume my top score, but it's an easy four out of five Tonys.
The Punisher doesn't often entertain me. Put him in a comic with a super-hero - any super-hero - and my willing suspension of disbelief flies right out the window. No super-hero worthy of the name would allow Frank Castle to remain on the street.
Go the "dark, violent humor" or "psychological profile" routes and you lose me, too. Death and dismemberment are only funny to a point and I don't want to spend any time inside Castle's head. In the hands of most writers, he's a murderous psychopath near as bad as the criminals he dispatches.
The Punisher works for me when, like Mack Bolan -- the paperback character he was "modeled" after back in the 1970s -- his psyche is left largely unexplored and he in situations where it's him against villains with few or no redeeming qualities. That's what I got in PUNISHER: RIVER OF BLOOD [Marvel, $15.99], a story that originally appeared in 1994's Punisher: War Zone #31-36.
Written by Chuck Dixon and drawn by the legendary Joe Kubert, RIVER OF BLOOD pits the Punisher against the Russian mob in their own backyard. The lead villain is the colorful and vicious Vikady, a man embracing capitalism with all the bling he can lay his hands on. The Punisher's unlikely ally in this battle is the frightening Dragunov, a cold warrior determined to bring Vikady down once and for all. Adding to the intensity is the grim reality that is part and parcel of the former Yugoslavia.
PUNISHER: RIVER OF BLOOD isn't a classic, but it is a solidly crafted thriller. It earns a respectable three Tonys. I'd happily read any Punisher adventure this good.
GREEN LANTERN: REBIRTH [DC; $24.99] came as a warm-and-fuzzy surprise in the middle of all the DCU crisis stuff. Now I expected writer Geoff Johns to do a decent job restoring Hal Jordan to his role as Green Lantern, even as I feared his path would be littered with the dross of unfortunate past decisions which DC has made with regards to this iconic character. It's boring to kick continuity droppings out of your way when you're trying to tell an exciting, satisfying story.
The surprise came in how well Johns made use of that garbage while introducing one of the single-most brilliant concepts I have ever seen in a Green Lantern comic, the true explanation of why the power rings don't work on the color yellow. If I had been on OPRAH at the time, I would have been doing cartwheels on her coach while proclaiming my fanboy love for Johns.
REBIRTH does everything we could have asked of it. It brings back Hal. It explains mysteries without putting us to sleep. It restores the Green Lanterns and the Guardians to a workable corner of the DCU. It includes lots of delicious character bits for Hal, John Stewart, Guy Gardner, Kyle Rayner, Green Arrow, Carol Ferris, and even the Batman. It has exhilarating art by Ethan Van Sciver, Prentis Rollins, and others. I've never thought you had to remake the DCU or any other comics universe. You just have to use them to tell stories this good.
I have reviewed some individual issues of VILLAINS UNITED here and there, but, this time out, we're looking at the trade paperback of the six-issue series [DC; $12.99]. Part of DC's "Countdown to Infinite Crisis," VU saw the DCU villains reacting to the shocking news that the Justice League had been tampered with their minds by joining forces in a society dedicated to stopping the heroes from ever doing such a thing again. That's an understandable reaction, but, of course, the villains are still villains and, while forming this mutual protection society, they also do things like murdering any villains who won't join their ranks.
Six of those refuseniks band together under the guidance of the mysterious Mockingbird. Writer Gail Simone earned praise from me and other reviews for making us relate to even the worst of the six. Like many DCU titles, VU wasn't near as friendly to new DCU readers as it should've been, but this collection does address that problem by including an eight-page recap of the events leading up to the series and, at the tail end of the book, a kind of "villain roll call."
VU is somewhat open-ended - What DCU or Marvel comics aren't these days? - but Simone still delivers a satisfying chunk of story here. With outstanding art by Dale Eaglesham and Val Semeiks, this collection earns four out of five Tonys.
A quick sidebar. Kudos for this volume should also go to Bob Greenberger, who was, until recently, DC's Senior Editor/Collected Editions. Over a couple decades, Greenberger has done outstanding work for DC and other publishers. His departure is both DC's loss and a loss to its readers. My relationship with Greenberger hasn't always been the rosiest, but I think any publisher smart enough to land him is getting one heck of an editor.
MICHAEL CHABON PRESENTS THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF THE ESCAPIST #8 [Dark Horse; $8.95] is smart super-hero fun, something it has in common with the previous seven issues. Each 84-page issue offers action, comedy, human drama, revisionist comics history, and more. It's the Sky Bar of comic books, each bite releasing a different and delicious flavor.
"The Escapists" is the first part of a story by writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Philip Bond with three pages drawn by Eduardo Barreto for effect. An aspiring comics writer uses an inheritance to buy the rights to the Escapist, planning to self-publish his new stories. I'm not sure where this tale is going, but Vaughan does a fine job getting us into his small cast of characters. Against all odds, you want this to work out for them.
Things get even more real when Harvey Pekar takes a bus ride with the Escapist and, in doing so, examines the recent successes and pitfalls of his life. Ironically, Pekar seems even more true-to-life while talking to a super-hero than in his some of his other recent (but still excellent) efforts. It's an unexpected team-up, but Pekar and artist Dean Haspiel make it work.
Andi Watson's "Powder Burns" is an interesting change of pace, even for this book. Set in a World War II combat zone, the tale of two soldiers is linked only tenuously to the Escapist. I can't say it worked for me, but if an editor can't take some chances when she (the brilliant Diana Schutz) has 80 pages to play with, then what's the point of doing an anthology?
Jeff Parker's "The Escapist at the Royal Festival of Magic" is a more traditional super-hero adventure. It purports to be a rare Escapist "Big Little Book" that Parker has adapted into a comics story. That fun notion informs the delightful tale.
Anything that tickles me as much as THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF THE ESCAPIST #8 has to get five Tonys from me. I'm already eagerly awaiting the next issue.
When it comes to checking out new kinds of comic books, yours truly is a reviewer without fear. So when I saw Dark Horse Comics had released its first Harlequin romance manga books, I threw all caution, not to mention twenty bucks, to the wind. Clutching the purchases to my heaving bosom, I...
...remembered too late that, many years ago, when I owned and operated a comic-book store that also sold magazines and paperback novels, I'd read some Harlequin books. The addition of comics art made these Dark Horse efforts go down a little easier, but the end result was still indigestion.
According to the back covers, "Harlequin Ginger Blossom titles are the perfect marriage between manga and romance - beautifully drawn stories by renowned Japanese artists adapted from best-loved Harlequin romance fiction." The books come in two colors: pink and violet. Wait, it gets better.
The HARLEQUIN PINK books are "printed in flirty pink ink" and offer "the sweeter side of love for readers 12 and up." HARLEQUIN VIOLET books are "printed in hot violet ink" and promise "sexy and sophisticated romance for readers 16 and up."
How mild? To avoid spoiling surprises, I'll reveal his dark secret in the ancient language of my ancestors:
He used to date his brother's wife.
What? You didn't know I spoke italic?
GIRL IN A MILLION is more unremarkable than awful. The art is generic wide-eyed manga stuff. The writing is functionary but not interesting. The plot flows adequately. I think what turns me off most about the book is knowing that much better romance comics are being published in Japan every month. This is just "manga lite." It may have fewer calories than good manga, but you could read it all night and never get a decent buzz.
A GIRL IN A MILLION gets just one Tony and that's only because "flirty pink ink" made me giggle.
...because I have to reveal major story points to explain sufficiently my distaste for the book.
The heroine's love interest is arrogant, cold, self-centered, and obscenely wealthy. He essentially stalks and seduces her as an act of revenge for what he mistakenly believes was a wrong done to his sister by the heroine's brother. Having bedded the heroine, he then tosses her to the curb as cruelly as possible. When he learns of his error, having fallen in love with her, he tries to win her back. She gets hit by a car.
Suffering from mild amnesia, the heroine wakes up on the guy's private island where she is told that the two of them got married in the hospital. It's a lie, but she doesn't learn that until they have some more non-explicit sex.
The heroine is pretty much a pampered prisoner on the island, but, when she finally figures out the truth, she does get to leave. Her rapist - let's call it like it is, okay? - takes ill because he can't stand to be without her. She returns and nurses him back to health. Then they live happily ever after.
Maybe I'm just a hopeless romantic, but that's when I tossed the book across the room.
RESPONSE is better written and drawn than GIRL IN A MILLION. The writing has more bite, the art has more intensity. But I can't wrap my brain around the rich guy not only getting away with nasty and criminal acts, but ultimately being rewarded for them. That's why this book gets no Tonys from me.
Publishing romance comics is a terrific idea. Publishing bad romance comics isn't.
Dark Horse can do better than regurgitating timeworn Harlequin romances in manga drag.
It's like I plan these things.
If you want an exceptional romance story in comic-book form, you need go no further than FADE FROM GRACE by Gabriel Benson and Jeff Amano [Image; $14.95]. This trade edition reprints the entire story originally published by Beckett Comics and over a dozen pages of bonus features.
Created by Amano, FADE is the story of an ordinary man whose love for his wife triggers extraordinary abilities in him. Feeling a responsibility to repay whatever power granted him the ability to save the woman he loves, he then uses his amazing abilities to help others. Yes, it's a super-hero story...and MOBY DICK is just this book about a whale.
Benson and Amano tell their story from Grace's point of view. Maybe they stack the deck by making her and her husband the kind of just plain good people who readers would be happy to have in their own lives, but, from the opening pages of the first chapter, we do care about Grace and John. This story will tug at your heart over and over again.
Amano's art is breathtaking. In his afterword, KABUKI creator David Mack wrote, "...this is an artist who can convey volumes of description and depths of emotion with but the most subtle and elegant economics of line and near abstract shapes of color." I'm a story first and foremost guy, but, after reading FADE FROM GRACE once, I went back over it for the sheer delight of again enjoying Amano's visuals.
FADE FROM GRACE is a comics treasure. It receives five out of five Tonys. Comics fans need to own this volume because they will want to read it every now and then. Comics retailers need to keep it in stock because it's a great answer to the oft-asked question, "What's good?"
Every weekend, I post new questions on our TONY POLLS page for your voting entertainment. This week's comics and comics-related questions can be found at:
This column will be taking a leave of absence for the rest of the week while I deal with some personal matters. Don't panic. I intend to be back on Monday, April 10, with as much entertaining and informative material as I can squeeze into 3,000 words or so. I do love writing TOT.
I don't want to give you the false impression that I can deal with those personal matters in a few days. The truth, or at least as much of the truth as I'm comfortable sharing with you at this time, is that I'm beginning to deal with those matters, with some concerns, dissatisfactions, and out-and-out serious problems in my life. Which, to ease your concerns, I expect to remain a good life if I don't weaken.
I will be offline most of this week and through the weekend. I won't be posting on my message board during this period, though, of course the Tony Board regulars will still be there and having a great time. You can meet them at:
I do have to make some adjustments to my schedule in the wake of these matters. I will not be attending Comic-Con International in San Diego as I had planned. It came down to a choice of going there or going on vacation with my family. With my son Eddie going to college in the fall of 2007, I'm not inclined to miss even one more family vacation.
I will be attending two conventions this year: the EAST COAST BLACK AGE OF COMICS CONVENTION in May [www.ecbacc.com] and MID-OHIO-CON [www.midohiocon.com] in November. Though I prefer not to speak in absolutes, I don't see myself adding any other public appearances this year. My focus is elsewhere.
My return to comics writing will also continue to be delayed, though not, I hope, for long. Outside of rewriting the occasional foreign Walt Disney story for Gemstone Comics, there is no comics work on my immediate schedule. When - and I definitely mean "when" here - I have something to announce, I'll announce it here first. However, I won't announce anything until I have finished writing it and, if it's something I'm writing for a client, it's been approved and paid for by that client.
As I wrote above, don't panic or, for that matter, call me or send me e-mails of concern that I won't be able to respond to. I'll be back. I just have some matters to which I must attend. Do feel free to "pray 'em if you got 'em." As the official poster child for "needs all the help he can get," I'm perfectly okay with a little divine intervention now and then.
Thanks for spending a part of your day with me. I'll be back next week 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.
Please send material you would like me to review to: