From COMICS BUYER'S GUIDE #1620 [September, 2006]:
"Wheresoever you go, go with all your heart."
- Confucius, 551 BC-479
I love my job. I know I've told you that before, but it bears repeating. Outside of the minor inconvenience of actually writing this column, and the occasional disgruntled creator, publisher, or reader, this gig is almost all perks.
I get lots of great comics and other items; in a sense, I get paid to read them. I get to let you know about terrific stuff and, in doing so, maybe give a boost to a worthy creator or publisher. I get to warn you away from some not-so-terrific stuff and, though I take little delight in doing so, I figure such negative reviews help you allocate your disposable funds towards better comic books. At the end of the day, I get to look myself in the mirror and say, "Damn, Isabella, you're getting old!"
I also get to see the face of a guy relatively certain he has done right by his readers. That's the job. I write for the comics buyers, not the comics makers. And yet...
Sometimes the not-so-terrific stuff breaks my heart. Because, most of the time, even in my most cynical moments, I realize those who made the not-so-terrific stuff didn't set out to make it not-so-terrific.
I recently received and read - no names this time - a 128-page black-and-white "graphic novel" that had a retail price so low it would have been a great buy had it not been one of the worst comic books I've read all year. It wasn't so much a graphic novel as the pilot episode of a super-hero series that went wrong on just about every level imaginable. Poor writing, worse art, unfocused theme, awkward pacing, lifeless characters, and so on. There was nothing in the book I could point to and say, "That was interesting" or "I haven't seen that before." And yet...
I'm reminded of a scene from IT'S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER, one of my favorite movies, in which an inebriated Dan Dailey rails against his boss for owning great art he can't begin to appreciate. Dailey asks if the man has the slightest clue how much dedication and work it takes to be even an inferior artist. That scene came to my mind as I read the afore-mentioned graphic novel.
I know how much dedication drove and how much work it took to create even this inferior graphic novel. No one knocks out a 128-page comic book on a whim. The creators who produced this flawed work likely did so with all their heart.
I applaud them. I wish I could be supportive of their efforts in a review. Instead, I offer them this:
Keep going with your heart. If you need to tell your stories and make your comic books, don't stop because you don't get a good review from me or any other critic. Don't stop because your work doesn't sell. I mean, don't spend the rent money publishing comics that don't sell, but, if it gives you joy to see your work in print and you can afford the expense of that, then, by all means, go for it. Go with your heart.
Your dedication and the work itself will be your rewards. As payoffs go, that's not too shabby.
I try to avoid absolutes, but MARVEL MONSTERS [Marvel; $20.99] may be the most fun I've had reading comics this year. This spiffy hardcover collects all five of the Marvel Monsters one-shots from last year. That's over a hundred pages of new comics, nearly fifty pages of monster reprints from the 1960s, and another fifty pages of text and illustrations from the files of Ulysses Bloodstone and the Monster Hunters. It's a giant monster party!
You do have to get in the right frame of mind to enjoy these tales. They seem to take place in the past and present of the main Marvel Universe, but it would be difficult to put them within that continuity, though, I quickly add, the notion of Fin Fang Foom as the temperamental chef of a high-class restaurant would almost make the effort worthwhile. Some reports from the Bloodstone files do indicate a certain disbelief in the complete accuracy of the tales presented in this book.
My recommendation is to not concern yourself with continuity and enjoy the ride. How often are you gonna see Fin Fang Foom, Tim Boo Ba, and Googam, son of Goom all in one story? This book brings back the 12-year-old in me, but it also plays to the adult who can get a laugh over the less-than-reverential treatment of monstrous favorites from A to Zzutak.
With special commendation to Bloodstone Files head writer and coordinator Michael Hoskins and his superlative staff of reporters, and to editors Mark Paniccia, John Barber, and Jenny Lee for being demented enough to do these comics, MARVEL MONSTERS earns the full five out of five Tonys. This is a great collection for comic-book readers and giant monster enthusiasts of all ages.
A confession. I didn't "get" Harvey Pekar's AMERICAN SPLENDOR when I first read it. It wasn't a mainstream comic book, it wasn't a comics fanzine, and it wasn't even an underground comic book as I'd known them to the point. I mean, where were the dope jokes and the naked hippie chicks?
I didn't "get" AMERICAN SPLENDOR, but something about it kept me coming back. I can't tell you when it happened - maybe when I started thinking of the series as HARVEY PEKAR'S AMERICAN SPLENDOR - but, like a Herriman brick to the head that knocked a few loose tiles off my cranial roof, it was revealed unto me that this other guy from Cleveland had brought a new attitude and a new voice to comics writing. In awe of this, I had to choose between loving him or hating him...and he's just too cute to hate.
AMERICAN SPLENDOR never disappointed me, but Pekar's writing took another leap forward with the publication of OUR CANCER YEAR. Written with Joyce Brabner, Harvey's wife, this graphic novel was an emotional, powerful record of a loving couple facing an all-too-real terror. OUR CANCER YEAR is a classic, one of the best comics of all time, and, after its publication, I saw a new artistry and intensity in Harvey's work.
EGO & HUBRIS examines the life and character of a man who has made an art of hatred and vengeance. Malice is a rigid and largely unpleasant individual, but, on considering what he does and why he claims he does it, one can't help but regard him with something not unlike admiration. In writing this book, Pekar uses Malice's own words and, most of the time, Malice succeeds in making a case for his actions. The result is a fascinating visit with an unlikeable character you can't help but liking, if only a little. There has always been a Studs Terkel vibe to Pekar's writings, but, with this biographical graphic novel, Pekar refines that vibe, making it more his own tune than ever before.
EGO & HUBRIS is drawn by Gary Dumm, who drew my Everett True cartoons for CBG way back in the day. Pekar has worked with dozens of fine artists, but, to my mind, none of them surpasses Dumm when it comes to nailing Pekar's true-to-life characters, expressions, and personalities. As Pekar has grown as a writer, so has Dumm as a storyteller. Dumm can render the talkiest sequence interesting, but he never draws attention to that accomplishment. At all times, he keeps the story flowing smoothly forward.
EGO & HUBRIS earns the full five Tonys. How can I not love a job that brings me this book and MARVEL MONSTERS in the same week? Truly I am blessed by the gods of comics.
Ivan Brunetti's SCHIZO #4 [Fantagraphics; $9.95] is 32 pages of big (11" by 15") cartooning fun and eloquence. In the 24 panels of cover story "Whither Shermy?," Brunetti delivers a comic essay on PEANUTS, Charles Schulz, and their relevance to modern readers. It's a brilliant piece of work.
Within SCHIZO, there are Brunetti's funny and sad reflections on his life and romances, including the hilarious "The Unbearable Lightness of Bidding" (on eBay) and the digitized "Ivan Vs. Girls." Other pieces examine historical personalities as diverse as movie director Val Lewton and philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. Not every Brunetti page succeeds, but each is a new adventure, complete unto itself. It's just as well this comic doesn't store easily because I keep coming back to read this strip or that.
SCHIZO #4 is one more reason why comicdom needs Fantagraphics. At the risk of depleting my supply of disembodied columnist heads, the issue picks up five out of five Tonys.
Del Rey Books has built an admirable manga line over the past year or so, working with Japanese publisher Kodansha. Let's look at some of their most recent American debuts.
Romantic comedy is a popular genre in manga and I'm delighted by the variety creators bring to it. In Akira Segami's KAGETORA [$10.95], the young ninja of the title has been given the task and the honor of teaching his skills to the heir of a family of eminent martial artists. Yuki's a sweet girl, destined to someday head her family's dojo, but she's a bit of a klutz when it comes to martial arts. Complicating Kagetora's assignment is that he finds himself falling in love with Yuki, a betrayal of the young ninja's duty to her family.
Manga romantic comedies thrive on complications. In addition to Kagetora's personal conflict, Segami gives us a school rival of Yuki's, as well as the arrival of a second ninja-teacher tasked to check on Kagetora's progress and continued suitability to train the martial arts heiress. With its likeable leads, clever plot twists, and well-timed humor, KAGETORA VOLUME 1 gets the series off to an excellent start. Translated by Akira Tsubasa and adapted by Nunzio DeFilippis and Christina Weir, it gets four Tonys.
There are several familiar elements in Toshihiko Kobayashi's PASTEL [$10.95]. Boy (Mugi) meets girl (Yuu), boy falls in love at first sight, boy accidentally sees girl naked, boy loses girl, boy and girl and girl's kid sister (Tsukasa) end up living with boy, boy accidentally sees girl naked with alarming regularity, boy's old girlfriend (Manami) returns all grown up, and so forth. What makes PASTEL stand out is the excellence of the writing and art, and, from a story standpoint, the tragedy that brings the girls to live with Mugi's house.
Yuu and Tsukasa's father has recently passed away. He was a close friend of Mugi's mostly-absent-on-business father, who vowed to look after the sisters. Though it never dominates the story, the keenly-felt personal loss brings an appealing emotional weight to PASTEL as Mugi and the sisters hesitatingly and humorously come together as a family.
Translated and adapted by David Ury, PASTEL is recommended for readers 16 and up. Despite all those familiar elements, I enjoyed the series' first two volumes enough to award them an only slightly generous four out of five Tonys.
That generosity doesn't extend to PICHI PICHI PITCH [$10.95]. Drawn by Pink Hanamori from a scenario by Michiko Yokote, the manga is basically a tedious mermaid version of Sailor Moon. Every time the super-powered mermaids battle their evil foes, they use their magical voices to dispatch the villains in the exact same way. The mermaids, their foes, and the set-ups to their battles are equally bland. Adding to my dismay, the Hanamori/Yokote storytelling is so choppy I often felt as if the publisher had omitted several story pages from this debut volume.
With so many manga titles coming to the United States, simple logic dictates some will be just as awful as our worst home-grown failures. Such is the case with PICHI PICHI PITCH and that's why its debut volume doesn't get even one Tony.
Jin Kobayashi's SCHOOL RUMBLE [$10.95] has more than its fair share of familiar manga elements. There's the sweet girl who has a crush on the handsome guy, too shy to tell him how she feels, and just ditzy enough to forget to sign that love note she wrote him. Then there's the weird guy - in this manga, the school's resident juvenile delinquent - who is secretly in love with the girl and who would do anything for her. But Kobayashi plays these elements with such exuberance and skill I easily got caught up with the kids and their romantic pratfalls. I also appreciated the pin-up bio pages which added a bit more to key characters. The bottom line is that I had fun with this first book and sometimes that's all I need from a comic. Translated and adapted by William Flanagan, SCHOOL RUMBLE 1 earns a perfectly respectable three Tonys.
It doesn't go on sale until October, but I wanted to give you an early heads-up on Peter Kuper's THEO AND THE BLUE NOTE [Viking; $15.99]. Kuper is an award-winning cartoonist and illustrator who has distinguished himself with splendid graphic novels, such as his adaptation of Upton Sinclair's THE JUNGLE, with powerful political cartoons for WORLD WAR 3 ILLUSTRATED, and with vibrant drawings for TIME, NEWSWEEK, THE NEW YORK TIMES, and others. He's yet another talented comics kid from Cleveland.
THEO AND THE BLUE NOTE is Kuper's first picture book for kids. The title hero is this cool cat who only knows how to play one note on his saxophone until a fateful journey to the moon gives him the chance to raise the roof with his music idols.
The child in me grooves to the energy which super-charges each and every drawing in this book. The adult loves the homages to Nat King Cole, Charlie Parker, and other legendary musicians. Kuper's mad skills makes THEO AND THE BLUE NOTE a treasure to be enjoyed by kids and their parents alike. Give that man and his swinging book the full five Tonys.
TONY POLLS returns from hiatus this week with questions from San Diego's Comic-Con International. We'll be asking you to vote for what you thought was the biggest news to come out of the show, as well as the news you personally found to be the most exciting. You can cast your votes here:
We've fallen behind on bringing you the results of completed polls, but, starting in tomorrow's column, we'll be running those results on a nigh-daily basis until we catch up. First up will be how you voted in our completely unofficial Eisner Awards balloting and how your choices compared with the actual winners. There were a lot of categories, so running these results will probably carry us well into next week's columns.
We're always open to poll questions suggestions from readers, especially when those readers include choices for those questions. You can send them to us at:
See you at the TONY POLLS page!
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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