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

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for Tuesday, November 28, 2006

"I celebrated Thanksgiving in an old-fashioned way. I invited everyone in my neighborhood to my house, we had an enormous feast, and then I killed them and took their land."

- Jon Stewart

Today's reviews originally appeared in COMICS BUYER'S GUIDE #1624 [January, 2007]...

Stan Lee's Amazing Marvel Universe

The day after Thanksgiving likewise marks the beginning of the Christmas shopping season. Oh, who am I kidding? Nowadays, Arbor Day marks the beginning of the Christmas shopping season. However, if you haven't completed your shopping, let me suggest the perfect gift for anyone who is or was a fan of Marvel Comics.

STAN LEE'S AMAZING MARVEL UNIVERSE by Roy Thomas [Sterling; $50] will take you - hey, who says you can't buy yourself a gift, too? - through 50 legendary moments in Marvel history as recounted by Thomas and usually participated in by Lee. The journey starts with the Captain America text story and teenage Stan Lee wrote for the Golden Age CAPTAIN AMERICA #3 and goes to his 1997 reunion with artist John Romita Sr. for SPIDER-MAN/DAREDEVIL: TO THE DEATH. The stops along the way are thrilling reminders of Marvel's best comics and creators, enlivened by actual audio commentaries by "Stan the Man." I played a couple of them for boyhood pal Terry Fairbanks, who gets to hang around because he's my wife's uncle, and his eyes went wide with astonished glee.

From the Amazing Spider-Man and the Avengers to Fin Fang Foom and the Fantastic Four to the Vision and the X-Men, the handsomely-crafted tome will delight you. It's page after page of fun facts and wondrous art by Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, John Romita, Don Heck, John Buscema, Jim Steranko, and more. It's so much fun I'm ready to spring for a second book. How does STAN LEE'S ALMOST AS AMAZING MARVEL UNIVERSE sound to you?

All kidding aside, this book is spectacular. On our scale of zero to five, it earns the full five Tonys.

Tony Tony Tony Tony Tony

The Shadow

From Anthony Tollin and Nostalgia Ventures comes THE SHADOW: "CRIME, INSURED" AND "THE GOLDEN VULTURE" [$12.95], the first in a series of authorized reprints of Shadow and Doc Savage pulp novels. Each of these trade paperbacks will have two complete, unabridged novels with reproductions of the original covers and interior art. My pal Anthony - again I'm making with the full disclosure; we've been friends for over three decades - couldn't have picked better adventures for this first book.

"Crime, Insured" may be the best Shadow novel ever. Written by Walter B. Gibson, it pits the Master of Darkness against an army of gangsters and the crooked businessman from whom they have been buying "crime insurance" to cover their losses when their criminal ventures go awry, usually at the hands of the Shadow. Our hero is even more outnumbered than usual, his aides are in dire jeopardy, and there may be no safe haven for him. I couldn't turn the pages fast enough.

"The Golden Vulture," though not in the same league as "Crime, Insured," is still an exciting yarn and one of historical import. It was written by Lester Dent as a test. It was 1932; Street and Smith, original publishers of the Shadow magazine, were preparing to launch a new magazine and wanted Dent to write the adventures of that new title's star. To state the obvious, the hero of that new magazine was...Doc Savage!

"Vulture" won Dent the Doc Savage assignment, no small prize in those Depression years, but the story sat on the shelf for six years until it was given to Gibson to revise for use in THE SHADOW. The character had evolved over those years, but the story was still solid. Gibson brought the Shadow into action sooner than Dent had and revised scenes and chapters as necessary to reflect his hero's evolution. As a result, we have a true collaboration between two of the greatest adventure writers of all time.

Two terrific thrillers, classic pulp magazine art, and a pair of introductions by Tollin and Will Murray. That earns this first book the full five Tonys.

Tony Tony Tony Tony Tony

Invincible Ultimate Collection 1 Invincible Ultimate Collection 2

Robert Kirkman's INVINCIBLE is probably not the best superhero comic in the universe, but it's definitely a darn good one. I'm partial to the Andromeda Galaxy's EARTH-MEN myself; writer Neisboz Gol%#phhhhh is a genius, even though the creative tension between "him" and artist T-3145 often disrupts the harmony of their multi-dimensional epics. Still, best superhero comic in the universe or not, INVINCIBLE is always entertaining and frequently poignant in its ongoing tale of a young man dealing with issues both fantastic and mundane.

INVINCIBLE ULTIMATE COLLECTION VOLUME 1 and VOLUME 2 (Image; $34.99 each) were my intro to Mark Grayson, the super-powered son of the world's greatest superhero. Mark is just coming into his great power and responsibility as the series opens and my reference to the origin of Spider-Man is intentional. Not since Peter Parker has there been a superhero quite so accessible to readers as Mark. If you're close to his age, you can identify with much of what he's going through. If you're closer to my age, you can remember some of what he's going through from your own life and see if reflected in the lives of your children.

Between them, these two volumes reprint the first 24 issues of INVINCIBLE as well as some ancillary comics. The first year of the title featured satisfying done-in-one adventures with continuing, but limited-in-scope sub-plots. In the second year, with the book doing quite well, Kirkman introduced sub-plots of a vaster nature. It's all great reading: the triumphs, the tragedies, the shocking developments, the slice-of-life moments, the tender and the brutal. It's a winning combination of classic superhero conventions and a number of clever twists on those conventions.

Kirkman is a fine writer, but he receives tremendous creative support from original artist Cory Walker (who's still involved with the title), current artist Ryan Ottley, and colorist Bill Crabtree. The cast is as well-defined visually as it is in Kirkman's scripts. The panel-to-panel, page-to-page storytelling flows so smoothly it never takes the reader out of the comic. The color is both bright and compelling.

Besides the comics, these INVINCIBLE ULTIMATE COLLECTION books have dozens of pages of introductions, sketches, and other special features. If the DC and Marvel superheroes aren't quite floating your boat at present, you might enjoy this familiar-yet-different addition to the genre. At the risk of looking like a soft touch, these volumes also earn the full five Tonys.

Tony Tony Tony Tony Tony

ArchEnemies 1

One hero, one villain, one apartment. That's the amusing high concept of ARCHENEMIES [Dark Horse, $2.99], a four-issue series by Drew Melbourne and Yvel Guichet. It is a funny premise, though the story does takes some unsettling turns along the way.

Star Fighter (Ethan Baxter) and Underlord (Vincent Darko) are the arch-enemies of the title. They are also unfriendly roommates, though neither knows of other's dual identity. Ethan is something of a jerk, which makes it difficult to identify with him. Vincent is somewhat more of a jerk. But, by the end of these initial four issues, we realize they have as many things in common as they have differences. If there's another series, there's no guarantee their roles and relationship with be the same as in this one.

Melbourne is a promising writer, though this particularly tale could have used another issue or two. The final issue seems rushed and some of its revelations might have played better if there were more inkling of them earlier on.

Guichet's art gets a little wide-eyed and manga-footed for my taste, but it's solid work. Inker Joe Rubinstein does a good job of pulling the art together, though the occasionally over-rendered color sometimes works against him.

In addition to the lead story, each issue of ARCHENEMIES also featured a funny "World's Worst Roommates" comic strip by Melbourne and D.J. Coffman and some additional text material, some of it tied into the lead story.

The bottom line: ARCHENEMIES is an interesting not entirely successful launch. If Melbourne and Guichet can balance the humor and the darkness a bit better, I'd be up for more. But this first series was still good enough to earn a perfectly respectable three out of five Tonys.

Tony Tony Tony

Children of the Grave

CHILDREN OF THE GRAVE [IDW; $14.99] is a weird war story with a heart. Writer Tom Waltz and artist Casey Maloney don't hold back when it comes to the carnage of armed conflict or the madness that grips soldiers and civilians alike in the deadliest corners of the world. But it also isn't afraid to explore what lies behind that madness and to offer, perhaps, a bit of hope for a less violent and more sane tomorrow.

CHILDREN is the story of a team of Special Forces operatives charged with the covert assassination of a vicious terrorist. But these soldiers do not march into darkness alone. They are joined by the restless spirits of the children the terrorist has murdered and the unresolved ghosts of their own lives. On this mission, the questions raised and surprises revealed don't stop until the story reaches its satisfying conclusion.

CHILDREN first saw print in 2005 as a mini-series published by Shooting Star Comics. In reprinting it, this IDW trade paperback adds lots of extras: a haunting new cover painting by Dan Brereton, an introduction by Beau Smith, newly gray-scaled art, a gallery of guest artist pin-ups, and a never-before-published story featuring a mysterious character called the Sorrow. That's considerable bang for your comics-buying bucks.

CHILDREN OF THE GRAVE earns four Tonys.

Tony Tony Tony Tony

Stagger Lee

Derek McCulloch's and Shepherd Hendrix's STAGGER LEE [Image; $17.99] is one of the most fascinating graphic novels of the year. A melodious duet of fact and fiction, the book explores the story behind one of the most famous blues folk songs of all, a story that inspired literally hundreds of versions of the song.

In this STAGGER LEE, we likewise see different versions of the crime which the songs immortalize. Though some musical historians believe the song predates the crime, McCulloch and Hendrix relate the most common version: in 1895, a African-American man named Lee Sheldon, nicknamed "Stag Lee," shot and killed his friend William Lyons in a barroom dispute. In the politically-charged St. Louis of that era, the black-on-black crime was not ignored as would have normally been the custom. Instead, both Democrats and Republicans took keen interest in its prosecution, and, in doing so, triggered events that would drastically change the political fortunes of a number of individuals.

Within and without the Sheldon trial, we also get the stories of the great lawyer (but flawed man) retained to defend Sheldon, of that lawyer's temperate associate, of a romance between a talented musician and his secretive lady-love, and of some of the many songs which told of Stagger Lee. McCulloch's dialogue conveys the period well, as do Hendrix's drawings. In a bit of genius, the black-and-white art is actually brown-and-white, which, with the sepia color of the paper, also conveys its turn-of-the-century setting.

STAGGER LEE is bound to be a contender in next year's various awards and most deservedly so. This brilliant graphic novel earns the full five Tonys.

Tony Tony Tony Tony Tony

Medina Library

There isn't a comic-book store in my hometown of Medina, Ohio, the only spinner rack is in the new Borders (which does have a good selection of manga books and a tolerable selection of non-Japanese trade paperbacks), but I finally got around to taking advantage of another local comics resource: our public library.

The Medina branch of the Medina County District Library system is a state of transition, occupying temporary quarters in a strip mall while its main building is being expanded and renovated on the other side of town. After being away from the library for way too long a period, my daughter Kelly and I went there the other day to renew our cards and, holy Dewey decimal system, Batman, the comics and graphic novels section has grown handsomely.

On this visit, I got SPIDER-GIRL VOL. 2 and 3, the hardcover RUNAWAYS, and two of IDW's C.S.I. trades. In addition, the library is eager to expand its comics/graphic novels holdings; I've already recommended a number of items and, of course, reserved them for when they arrive.

It does my heart good to see my local library getting heavily into my favorite art form and to know libraries across the country are doing the same. Public libraries that have comics and graphic novels, and who encourage their patrons to recommended additions to their collections are an incredibly good thing. So I'm giving all such libraries a coast-to-coast five Tonys.

Tony Tony Tony Tony Tony

Thanks for spending a part of your day with me. I'll be back tomorrow with more stuff.

Tony Isabella

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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.

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:

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