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Reviews and commentary by Tony Isabella
"America's Most Beloved Comic-Book Writer & Columnist"

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TONY'S ONLINE TIPS
for Wednesday, June 21, 2006

From COMICS BUYER'S GUIDE #1619 [August, 2006]:

"The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word 'crisis.' One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger - but recognize the opportunity."

- John F. Kennedy (1917-1963), speech in Indianapolis, April 12, 1959

Infinite Crisis 6

I didn't catch "Infinite Crisis fever," but I did read every issue of every standard-size DC Universe comic book from INFINITE CRISIS #1 to the last pre-One Year Later issues of each DCU title. Before I start reading the One Year Later issues, I'll share with you my picks for the best and the worst of this roughly five-month period. Oh, the suspense.

Some of the DCU issues didn't have much to do with the current crisis. These titles were either set in the past, like JONAH HEX or BATMAN AND THE MONSTER MEN, or somehow removed from the events of the crisis. JUSTICE and VIGILANTE would be among that grouping. LEGION OF SUPER-HEROES was a tougher call; I decided to include it with the IC titles based on it being included among the OYL titles. Fear not; along with the best and the worst of the IC comics, I'll also have a "best of the rest" list for you.

Here are my top five IC titles:

5. CATWOMAN. I'm not happy with the notion that Selina Kyle only turned hero because the JLA messed with her mind, but I can't deny the outstanding work writer Will Pfeiffer did on this title. I'm delighted he's sticking with it.

4. JSA CLASSIFIED. This title made the list on the strength of Jen Van Meter's "Injustice Society" story arc. She and VILLAINS UNITED's Gail Simone write villains better than anyone else in the DCU. Maybe too well. They bear watching.

3. GOTHAM CENTRAL. Greg Rucka did an excellent job keeping GC relatively real while tying it into IC. I'm going to miss this DCU cop show.

2. LEGION OF SUPER-HEROES. Teen rebels. It's such a natural premise for the team, it's amazing no one thought of it before Mark Waid and Barry Kitson. I bow to their brilliance.

1. BIRDS OF PREY. Kudos to Gail Simone for bringing us these strong and interesting characters month after month with only the occasional misstep. I'm delighted DC had enough sense to keep her on the title. She made it DC's best super-hero book.

Where there's a top five, there's also a bottom five. These are my picks for the worst of the DC:

5. TEEN TITANS. I was amazed at how much I disliked this one. Thin plots, endless action, bad art, and a grim-and-gritty version of Captain Carrot and the Zoo Crew that was as utterly pointless as it was terrible. Decent character bits would pop through the muck every now and then, but they were far too few.

4. DETECTIVE COMICS. This title achieved its low ranking on the basis of a two-issue Zsasz story in which Batman used a nearly-murdered Alfred as bait for the psycho killer, getting other folks killed in service of his latest master plan. It was bad enough DC made the Batman unpleasant and insane; did they have to make him incompetent as well?

3. BATMAN: GOTHAM KNIGHTS. Hush and the Joker battled for too many issues without killing each other. The Batman continued to be incompetent. The title ended on a cliffhanger that may or may not be resolved and which seems to contradict the cliffhanger on which the main Batman title ended prior to OYL.

2. BATMAN. Nowhere was Batman more incompetent than in this, his flagship title, as he battled a vicious Jason Todd amidst cheap pop psychology. It took an entire annual to reveal how Jason came back from the dead and why he went bad; it wasn't no how worth the wait. Thank God there are new writers coming on board.

1. JLA. What if the Justice League of America closed shop and nobody came except for several members determined to be as beastly to one another as possible? What if the death throes of this once-great title were stretched out over several issues?

That brings us to the "best of the rest," my choices for the top five non-IC titles:

5. BATMAN: GOTHAM COUNTY LINE. A nifty, scary story by Steve Niles and Scott Hampton. Maybe a little weird for the Batman, but I sure got a kick out of it.

4. BATMAN: JOURNEY INTO KNIGHT. Set early in Batman's career, this 12-issue series by Andy Helfer and Tan Eng Huat has delivered great character play, pulp action, and soap opera.

3. PLASTIC MAN by Kyle Baker. Now that's funny!

2. ALL STAR SUPERMAN by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely is a delightful mix of modern sensibilities and Silver Age wonderment. It's a Superman comic you can get excited about.

1. JONAH HEX by Justin Grey, Jimmy Palmiotti, and artist Luke Ross. After years of DC's failed attempts to re-create this classic western protagonist, here come Grey, Palmiotti, and Ross to bring Hex back to the glory days of writers like John Albano and Michael Fleisher. This isn't merely the best of the rest; it might be the best book DC currently publishes.

Those are my pre-OYL picks. Check back with me in six months or so and I'll have another go at this.

Showcase Presents Superman

Released last year at the special introductory price of $9.99, SHOWCASE PRESENTS SUPERMAN VOL. ONE [DC] is one of the best deals and most fun in comicdom. Sans color, it reprints over 500 pages of stories from ACTION COMICS #241 [June, 1958] through SUPERMAN #133 [November, 1959]. These are the comics in which editor Mort Weisinger began building the Superman mythos that would define the character and his world for decades. You'll find landmark events and more than a few surprises.

The Fortress of Solitude plays a major role in several tales and is visited by Superman pals Batman, Robin, Lois Lane, and Jimmy Olsen. Brainiac is very different in his first appearance than in later ones, but still manages to kick Superman's behind. Read the story; if the guy hadn't decided to take a suspended animation nap, Superman and several major Earth cities would still be shrunken and in bottles.

After a nearly two-year absence, Lex Luthor returns to reclaim his position as Superman's foremost foe. Even when incarcerated in prison, Luthor is a catalyst for stories. During his periods of freedom, he transforms himself into a kryptonite man - the element deadly to Superman became a frequent and major plot element in the late 1950s and early 1960s - and creates the first adult Bizarro. Other newcomers to the Superman mythos during this period include the bottle city of Kandor (rescued from Krypton's fate by "virtue" of being shrunken and stolen by Brainiac), flashbacks exploring Krypton, tales of Clark Kent's past, Titano the Super-Ape, Metallo, Lori Lemaris, and the Kara/Linda Lee Supergirl.

All the terrific Superman writers and artists of the era are represented in this collection: Otto Binder, Alvin Schwartz, Robert Bernstein, Jerry Coleman, Bill Finger, Wayne Boring, Al Plastino, Curt Swan, Kurt Schaffenberger, and Dick Sprang. Most gratifying was the return of writer Jerry Siegel to the character he co-created. Fittingly, Siegel delved into his hero's past with "How Perry White Hired Clark Kent." In a second story, "Superman Joins the Army," Siegel's Superman takes an overly zealous Army officer down several pegs. Maybe it's just the rebel in me, but I always love Superman challenging authority with a wink and a smile. Even in today's more serious world, I wouldn't mind seeing that aspect of his personality make a resurgence.

SHOWCASE PRESENTS SUPERMAN VOL. ONE earns the full five out of five Tonys. Comics buyers won't go wrong getting this book or the other SHOWCASE PRESENTS collections published to date. Kudos to DC for following Marvel's lead with these volumes.

Tony Tony Tony Tony Tony

Captain America: Winter Soldier

Spoilers ahead!

"Dead" only rarely means "completely and permanently dead" in super-hero comics. Batman readers have suffered through the return of Jason Todd over what seems like the past decade. While over at Marvel, CAPTAIN AMERICA writer Ed Brubaker has pulled off what was once believed to be unthinkable. He brought back Bucky Barnes, the sidekick Cap and the world saw "die" in the closing days of World War II...and he made us like it.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: WINTER SOLDIER VOL. 1 [$16.99] collects the first seven issues of the current series. Written by Brubaker, the individual chapters are drawn by Steve Epting, Michael Lark, John Paul Leon, and Tom Palmer.

This trade paperback is downright compelling. We start with a deadly plan to use actual weapons of mass destruction to recharge the Cosmic Cube. We continue with the death of the Red Skull and fanatic followers determined to carry out his plan anyway. Along the way, Brubaker and crew introduce the Winter Soldier and slowly reveal his origins. Cap and SHIELD agent Sharon Carter are drawn together by their common mission and by their lingering emotional and romantic ties. Good people die and their deaths are not mere shock schlock; we feel their loss.

I couldn't wait for the second WINTER SOLDIER volume. When I finished reading this first book, I went straight away to CAPTAIN AMERICA #8-16 [$2.99 each] and the CAPTAIN AMERICA 65TH ANNIVERSARY SPECIAL #1 [$3.99]. As you can see, CAPTAIN AMERICA has become a must-read for your favorite Tipster.

Captain America's quest for the soul of Bucky is driving this series and, unlike the Jason Todd debacle at DC, it's working big time. Brubaker is delivering satisfying developments on a regular basis with nary a misstep along the way. Sustaining a story this intense for over a year is no small accomplishment.

Brubaker retooled Bucky's history and that works exceedingly well in these stories. By tweaking the continuity slightly, he's made Bucky a more interesting character. The ANNIVERSARY SPECIAL, set in World War II, gives further "center stage" time to Bucky and guest-stars Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandoes. It's a special that truly feels special.

Time for me to stop gushing and get to the numbers. CAPTAIN AMERICA: WINTER SOLDIER VOL. 1, the following issues of the ongoing CAPTAIN AMERICA title, and the ANNIVERSARY SPECIAL earn five out of five Tonys. I recommend them all.

Tony Tony Tony Tony Tony

The Thing 1

He's rich, rocky, and rollicking! THE THING has his own solo title once again and, on the recommendation of several readers, I read the first five issues [Marvel; $2.99 each]. The short version of this review is that THE THING is a blast from the past with just enough modern overtones to keep it fresh.

Writer Dan Slott kicks off the series with the newly-wealthy Ben Grimm living large with a sexy starlet on his arm. Along the course of these issues, the Thing experiences some heartbreak, some disappointments, and learns some important lessons about life in a non-sappy way. He stumbles here and there, but Slott never gives us reason to doubt Ben is a true hero with a generous heart. This is the Thing as we know and love him.

The individual stories are about as down to Earth as they get in the Marvel Universe. They have a 1970s/1980s vibe to them as we watch Arcade kidnap a high society party and super-villains doing unwanted "urban renewal" on Yancy Street. There are guest-stars by the dozen including Nighthawk, a struggling-to-reform Constrictor, Iron Man, Daredevil, the Inhumans, and more. These aren't comics to change the Marvel Universe forever; they're just entertaining and solidly-crafted comic books with top-of-the-line art by artist Andrea DiVito and colorist Laura Villari.

THE THING #1-5 earn four Tonys apiece. I recommend them as a welcome respite from the teeth-clenching angst and spectacle of the big crossover comics.

Tony Tony Tony Tony

Art of Ray Harryhausen

THE ART OF RAY HARRYHAUSEN by Ray Harryhausen and Tony Dalton [Billboard Books; $50] is a big, beautiful companion volume to the special effects grandmaster's AN ANIMATED LIFE. The first book was more a traditional autobiography and centered on his movies; this one focuses on Harryhausen's art, revealing the process by which he created his cinema masterpieces.

ART is divided into generously-illustrated chapters, each of which zeroes in on a different area of his work: dinosaurs, aliens, myths, and more. The authors delve into Harryhausen's influences, inspirations, and formative years. Though the technical details of Harryhausen's work will fascinate hands-on readers, the writing is light enough for the all-thumbs crowd, of which, sadly, your humble reviewer must be included.

Visually, the book is amazing. There are double-page spreads that will knock your socks off. There are expressive renderings of Harryhausen's classic creations along with evocative landscapes and spectacles. Any coffee table would be honored to serve as pedestal for this terrific tome.

THE ART OF RAY HARRYHAUSEN earns the full five Tonys.

Tony Tony Tony Tony Tony

Shadow Rock

Jeremy and Robert Love's SHADOW ROCK [Dark Horse; $9.95] is a full-color, suitable-for-all-ages horror thriller. Timothy London, a youngster still struggling with the death of his mother, comes to a New England fishing town to live with his dad. His transition from the city is not a smooth one as he faces the scorn of the "in crowd," the barely concealed prejudice of Shadow Rock's movers and shakers, and the mystery of Kendahl Fog, a youngster who died under strange circumstances. Things get even stranger when Timothy meets Kendahl and, with the help of the ghost and a human friend, begins to unlock the deadly secrets of Shadow Rock.

Jeremy Love writes a cracking good script with characters that make the story their own. Robert Love brings the tale to life with crisp flowing art and an assist from co-inker Jeff Wasson. It's a great looking book, albeit a tad pricey at ten bucks for 80 pages. The cover price is the only less-than-positive note I have on this graphic novel. Other than that, I love it a lot.

SHADOW ROCK picks up five Tonys. I especially recommend it to elementary school and public libraries. Their young readers will enjoy it much as I did.

Tony Tony Tony Tony Tony

Off Road

OFF ROAD [Oni Press; $11.95] is cartoonist Sean Murphy's first graphic novel, an adventure/comedy about three pals - Greg, Trent, and Brad - who go "rideabout" in Greg's new Jeep. Trent is trying to get over a recently-ended romance, Brad has an abusive father, and Greg, well, he's having a pretty good day. Until their journey into adventure leads to mishaps, encounters with various unpleasant folks, and a raging fire.

Murphy's book is like a way-better-than-average "buddy film." He makes it easy to relate to the three pals and to dislike those who do them any kind of wrong. The humor comes from the characters without mocking them. The story flows well. The resolutions don't seem at all forces. And, by the end of the book, I was thinking I wouldn't mind seeing more of Greg, Trent, and Brad in some future graphic novel. Maybe see how they apply what they learned in this GN and what new adventure/trouble they can find.

OFF ROAD is down-to-Earth adventure, comedy, and even drama. The design of the book is excellent and includes bonus strips from when Murphy was hoping to sell the story as a syndicated newspaper strip. It's a book that delivers solid bang for your bucks and it earns four out of five Tonys.

Tony Tony Tony Tony

I'm looking forward to Murphy's next GN.

******

That's all for now, my friends. Thanks for spending a part of your day with me.

I'll be back tomorrow with more stuff.

Tony Isabella

<< 06/07/2006 | 06/21/2006 | 06/22/2006 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Message Board. Also, read Heroes and Villains: Real and Imagined and view my Amazon Wish List.

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THE "TONY" SCALE

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.

Tony
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.

TonyTony
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?

TonyTonyTony
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.

TonyTonyTonyTony
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?

TonyTonyTonyTonyTony
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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