A few years back, Dark Horse Comics publisher Mike Richardson and Steve Duin wrote a sort of comics encyclopedia called Comics: Between the Panels [$34.95]. The 500-page hardcover was obviously not intended as a comprehensive history; it was more a compendium of characters, companies, events, and people who its authors found interesting enough to write about. It's a pretty neat tome, full-color, lots of photos, nicely-made. I wanted a copy even before I learned it included an entry on...me.
The entry was a short one. I'd quote it exactly if I had any clue as to the whereabouts of my copy of the book. As I recall, it mentioned I'd been a writer and an editor at DC and Marvel Comics, a writer elsewhere, and that I had created Black Lightning, before focusing on my "Tony's Tips" columns.
The entry called me a cheerleader for comics, which I took as a compliment. That seemed fair to me. I'm a poor writer, indeed, if the thousands of columns I've published over the years haven't made it indisputably clear that I love comics, comics creators, and the art form to which I've devoted my life. Hand over the pom poms and give me a "C". Yea, comics!
Imagine my surprise when one of my industry buddies thought I should be insulted by the "cheerleader" designation. I took it as an uncommonly accurate compliment. He took it as a repudiation of my comic-book writing. Geez, in the going-on-35 years I've worked in this industry, I've received enough unmistakable disparages that I don't need to go looking for offense elsewhere. Besides, I still hold my self-anointed title as "America's most beloved comic-book writer and columnist," despite my recent efforts to hand it off to someone - anyone - else.
Veteran CBG readers will recall that I wrote about this title in one of my "Tony's Back Page" sidebars, which can be found on the last page of each issue's price guide. I explained how it started as a silly joke to end a column, hence my putting it in quotations whenever I use it, how it caught on, and how its use spread until too many people forgot it was a joke in the first place. Which is why I tried to pass the title on and asked CBG readers to nominate possible candidates.
I received exactly one e-mail from one reader, nominating four writers and, while all are certainly beloved by many who know them, only one was even an occasional columnist. I have decided to take this nigh-utter lack of interest in helping me name a successor as a mandate that I must continue to hold the title of "America's most beloved comic-book writer and columnist."
"Most beloved" doesn't translate to "pushover." I'll continue to mix negative reviews with the positive reviews. While I'd much rather write about the good stuff, readers also need to know what I consider the bad stuff. It gives them a baseline by which they can judge how my opinions agree or differ from their own. I don't expect every reader or even most readers to agree with me on every item I review, but I do hope what I write gives them a clearer idea of whether or not they might like those items.
This month's "Tips" focuses on Dark Horse Comics, celebrating its 20 years of publishing comics. They sent me a spiffy key chain and a delicious cookie; I'm sending them these reviews of a stack of their recent comics. I think I got the better part of the deal, but, after all, I'm the one with the mandate.
I liked some of these comics a lot; others, not so much. But the opinion that counts is that of the comics buyers who whip out their cash or credit cards to buy these or other titles. I'm just sort of an advance scout.
My interest in Conan was pretty much limited to the original Robert E. Howard prose stories and the Roy Thomas-written comic books. I tolerated the L. Sprague DeCamp and Lin Carter additions. However, with a writer as good as Kurt Busiek and a publisher like Dark Horse, I figured the new Conan comics were worth reading and, of course, they were. Indeed, they were as good as those written by Thomas. With Busiek's departure, the torch, make that, the big scary decapitating sword has been passed to other comics writers, one of them being Timothy Truman.
Conan #33-34 [$2.99 each] finds the Cimmerian traveling on the Road of Kings with his current girlfriend, the not entirely trustworthy Jiara. After saving and robbing some priests, they run afoul of the inbred "Dogs of the Hill," reputed to be the last true Zamorians, the greatest thieves in a nation of thieves. It might not be the stuff the awards are made of, but it's an entertaining yarn with chilling moments. The decapitations, the cutting off of extremities, the slashing in half did get ho-hum after the first half-dozen times I saw them, but, hey, that's not out of place for a Conan thriller.
Cory Nord's art was breathtaking from start to finish. There are fans who complain about its lack of background detail and ever-present mistiness, but those things worked well in this story. Let Nord draw Conan his way and, as Dark Horse has done, bring in the guest artists for somewhat different interpretations.
Issue #35 does just that as Tony Lee draws the first half of a two-issue King Conan adventure. After an assassination attempt, Conan decides to join his Black Dragons in an ongoing border war. Conan and his warriors are ambushed by Picts and it's only through the efforts of a Pictish sorceress than the King survives. She is his unlikely ally against the prophet commanding the Picts and sets him to find the key to that prophet's downfall. So far, this is a stronger story than the one preceding it.
Conan and the Songs of the Dead [$2.99] is a five-issue series written by Joe R. Landsdale and drawn by Truman. The story, set in the Stygian desert sometime after Conan's pirate days, looks great. But, despite the great visuals, which include all sorts of spiffy monsters and a sexy jinn, the adventure is undone by its repetitive humor and its frankly incompetent adversary. I would've liked it a lot more if Landsdale had killed some of his darlings and given us a more formidable villain.
On our usual scale of zero to five, Conan and the Songs of the Dead, and Conan #33 and #34 earn three Tonys.
Issue #35 does them one better and picks up four Tonys.
Kudos should also go to editor Scott Allie, whose letter columns are always informative and thoughtful exchanges with his readers.
That "Mary Sue" label may need explaining and so I turn to an essay presented by Pat Pflieger at the American Culture Association conference, March 31, 1999, San Diego, CA:
"She's amazingly intelligent, outrageously beautiful, adored by all around her - and absolutely detested by most reading her adventures. She's Mary Sue, the most reviled character type in media fan fiction. Basically, she's a character representing the author of the story, an avatar, the writer's projection into an interesting world full of interesting people whom she watches weekly and thinks about daily. Sometimes the projections get processed into interesting characters, themselves. Usually, though, they don't. Many hate her, but she is alive in every fandom. She fences with Methos and Duncan MacLeod; she saves the Enterprise, the Voyager, or the fabric of time and space; she fights with Jim Ellison in defense of Cascade; she battles evil in Sunnydale alongside Buffy Sommers..."
In The Escapists, Cleveland comics fan Maxwell Roth uses his inheritance to buy the rights to the Escapist. He wants to write and publisher a modern-day version of the hero and, towards this, recruits his best friend Denny to letter the comic and the lovely, talented Case to draw it. Denny dons an Escapist costume to garner publicity for their first issue by exposing illegal labor practices at a chain store. Instead, he ends up foiling an armed robbery. The new Escapist takes off - sales of 80,000 - and the corporation which used to own the character wants it back...no matter what it has to do to accomplish that. Oh, yeah, and, before the end of the series, Max and Chase fall in love. Dress it up all you want, it's still a "Mary Sue" story, albeit one in which the author's avatar isn't quite as perfect as his "Mary Sue" sisters.
You know what? I don't care. Like editor Diana Schutz, I'm absolutely crazy about these characters. Vaughan delivers a story with heart, drama, suspense, and one of the best, most satisfying conclusions in comics history. From start to finish, the art keeps pace with the writing and supports it wonderfully. Many readers, and, in my weaker moments, I'm one of them, will beseech Vaughan to write a sequel, but he should resist our entreaties. As it stands, this story is near as perfect as it gets.
The sooner Dark Horse gets The Escapists into a hardcover or trade edition, the happier I'll be. If this series isn't nominated in all of the comics awards, those awards which spurn it will lose considerable import in my eyes. I love The Escapists and it earns the full five out of five Tonys.
The anthology's combination of dark and crude humor just left me cold. The Goon and sidekick Franky were always violent, but, in these tales, they are far more unpleasant than I remember from the earlier issues. Once I got past the public urination scene in the Powell/Sniegoski "Peg-Leg Full of Heaven," I was somewhat amused by "The Little Unholy Bastards" kid gang and also by Morrison's Hanna-Barbara-esque rendition of "Gooney Bear." However, the two strips couldn't compensate for the rest of the issue.
I'm probably asking for a broken limb here, but the best score I can give this comic is a disappointing two Tonys.
Here's a surprise. Despite its being based on a video game, I enjoyed Hellgate: London [$2.99] by Ian Edginton and Steve Pugh. Because I'd admired their work in 2000 AD, I decided to check out this title. The lads didn't let me down.
The premise is harsh and simple. London is conquered by the demonic forces which entered our world through tears in the fabric of reality. By 2038, the city isn't totally Hell on Earth, but it isn't far from it. The zero issue sets things up; the first issue jumps ahead to the three groups of human warriors who battle those baleful beasts who want to finish what they began. The humans are not the most natural of allies, but a message hidden in an ancient tome suggests they can take back their world only if they put aside their differences.
Edginton's writing and Pugh's art are up to their usual high standards. The title's video-game origins become very obvious by the end of the first issue, but, as long as the stories continue to entertain me, I can ignore those origins.
Hellgate: London earns a respectable three Tonys...and I stand ready to write the inevitable Hellgate: Cleveland spinoff. I may not even need the demons.
The Perhapanauts: Second Chances #1 [$2.99] confounds me. My initial reaction to this Todd Dezago/Craig Rousseau book series was that Dark Horse, which is already publishing the excellent Hellboy spinoff B.P.R.D., didn't need a second series with such a similar premise, that of a secret organization that combats things that go bump in the night. On the other hand, Perhapanauts did seem to have a somewhat much lighter tone than B.P.R.D., which kept it from being completely redundant.
There were elements I liked very much in the book, including a cast of characters that includes an evolved Bigfoot, an evolved young chupacabra, and a ghost. Rousseau's art and storytelling was energetic and I generally liked Dezago's writing. On the negative side, I shouldn't have had to go to a website to figure who these characters were.
There was ample room on the inside front cover for more "what has gone before" details and, considering that this series seems to start from what I assume was the cliffhanger ending of the previous series, more information was needed. I was also dismayed Dezago didn't work the details into his script. I shouldn't have to go online to follow a comic book story.
I expect I'll like The Perhapanauts more after I read more issues, but, for now, The Perhapanauts: Second Chances #1 (of 4) only receives two Tonys.
Improbably, Sock Monkey: The "Inches" Incident #1 and #2 [$2.99] were my first exposures to Tony Millionaire's weird, delightful series. There's nothing quite like these comic books on the American comics scene; they have a certain old-world charm like Rick Geary's Victorian murder graphic novels, but they also have a child-like sense of wonder and an adult sense of askew dark humor. In these two issues, Uncle Gabby, the sock monkey of the title, and his staunch companion, Mr. Crow, must contend against "Inches," a doll possessed by ants. They're at first pursed by and then allied with Oyster Joe, "the greatest whalesman in the fleet," and perhaps my favorite character in the comic. The perils they face are oddly frightening, but they generally face them with charming etiquette. I can't wait to see how this story ends and I'm looking forward to reading earlier Sock Monkey adventures. Any comic that can get me this excited deserves the full five Tonys and that's exactly what these two issues earn.
Star Wars: Dark Times #1 [$2.99] is set two decades prior to Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. I appreciated the inside front cover giving me the timeline; it helped place the events of the issue into a context I could understand.
The issue opens with Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader, though they don't seem to play much more than a stage-setting role in the main story. From there, we're off to core world New Plympto, where Dass Jennir, former Jedi general, and the rebels of the planet are engaged in a last-ditch battle against the overwhelmingly superior forces of the Empire. Their goal is to cover the escape of their planet's civilians.
The story is credited to Welles Hartley and the script to Mick Harrison. There's nothing new to the plot or the characters - we have all seen this kind of scenario and these kinds of protagonists before - but the writing does keep the story moving well. Far more impressive is the art of Douglas Wheatly, which includes a number of stunning shots during a battle in a forest filled with towering trees. Sadly, the too-muddy computer coloring doesn't compliment the art well.
Star Wars: Dark Times #1 is readable, but not impressive. It earns but two Tonys.
Let's finish with as sure a thing as you'll find in comicdom: Stan Sakai's Usagi Yojimbo #96 and #97 [$2.99]. I've never read a less-than-outstanding issue of this series and don't expect I ever will. The two-issue "Boss Hamanaka's Fortune" is a tight thriller of a town plunged into chaos and fear by the death of its boss. Two gangs of farmers-turned-criminals are trying to find their late master's missing treasure with the wandering Usagi and innocent townspeople caught in the middle. Besides Usagi, we get great characters like the Boss's weakling son, a weary waitress hoping to leave the village before it explodes, and a fierce ronin whose mission is unknown.
Usagi Yojimbo is a true comics treasure, a series that never disappoints by a creator with uncanny command of his material and his talent. It earns the full five Tonys.
Lord, I hope so. The first three months of 2007 have been so much more chaotic than expected. Old business from 2006 lingering on longer than it should have. New business taking longer to get going than hoped. Family/household matters demanding considerable attention. Something had to give and it turned out to be "Tony's Online Tips," though I did manage to write my thrice-weekly "Tony's Other Online Tips" in the interim. You can find those reviews by going to the CBG forums at:
From here on, I'm going to do my best to bring a new TOT every Monday through Friday. Occasionally, these might be shorter than I would like, but, with a little luck, there will be something new here five days a week.
Sometime after midnight tonight, you'll find new "Tony Polls" questions at the usual spot:
The rest of this week will involve lots of catching up on some big things in comics and the return of various TOT features. Come next Monday, we'll have the first installment of "Marvel Mondays," an ongoing look at the Marvel comics of 1966. In turn, that will be followed by the return of our rotating opening acts: Alan Class comics, the Blonde Phantom, giant monsters, and more.
That's a wrap. Thanks for coming back to TOT. 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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