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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 Tuesday, July 10, 2007

From Comics Buyer's Guide #1630:

"Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, Or what's a heaven for?"

- Robert Browning

That's one of my favorite quotes. It applies to this month's "Tony's Tips" because I've been working on a change-of-pace column I'd hoped to complete for this issue. It still needs more work, so that column is getting pushed back several months.

Fortunately, you and I are living in the true "Golden Age of Comics," a time when there are more great comics, new and reprint, being published than at any previous time in the entire history of the American comics industry. I can't yet bring you the column I wanted to write, but I can certainly fill a few pages with reviews of outstanding items available at your friendly neighborhood comics shop, bookstore, and online.

It's a good time to be a comics reader.

Elk's Run

Mounting dread is the signature mood of the opening scenes of Elk's Run by Joshua Hale Failkov with artists Noel Tuazon and Scott A. Keating [Villard; $19.95] as we are introduced to the title "star" and quickly made aware things aren't quite right in that secluded hamlet. The war-scarred veterans who found it were looking to create an old-fashioned haven from the corrupt world without, but, through the manipulation of their fears and the betrayals of their leader, their dream has become a nightmare. Fittingly, it's a small group of teens - children, really - who embark upon a rite of passage that will change the town and their lives forever.

Fialkov eases us into the disturbing world of Elk's Run, but the first instances of violence in this 200-page graphic novel are relatively tame: a mother slapping a disrespectful son and an awful but not uncommon traffic fatality. It's in the second chapter that the magnitude of the town's wrongness is revealed. From there on in, the terror grows and doesn't stop until the story reaches its satisfying conclusion. With so many extended comics epics proving themselves unable to close the deal, it's great to come across one that finishes as strong as it begins.

Artists Tuazon and Keating hold up their end of the deal. The storytelling is solid throughout the GN. Their visuals convey the drama and emotion journey of the characters and the situations with which they are forced to deal. If this trio of creators have more books in them, I want to read them.

Ignore the puerile intro by Charlie Huston. It's an exercise, a mercifully brief exercise, in dropping the F-bomb for no reason. I accept such coarseness when it's part and parcel of a character in a story. I see small need for it outside the bounds of fiction, especially when one is the opening act for an exceptional work like Elk's Run.

Would you kiss your mother with that mouth?

Skip the introduction, but do read Elk's Run at your earliest opportunity. It earns the full five Tonys.

Tony Tony Tony Tony Tony

Superman: Up, Up and Away

Ever reaching for the impossible, I'm taking a run at catching up on DC and Marvel super-stars and, when you're talking DC super-stars, you start with Superman. Superman: Up, Up and Away [$14.99] gathers the "One Year Later" issues of Superman and Action Comics. Written by Kurt Busiek and Geoff Johns with art by Pete Woods and Renato Guedes, the story begins with the strange visitor from another planet fighting for truth, justice, and the American way as...a powerless Clark Kent.

"Powerless?" Not even close. Kent's newspaper articles have contributed mightily to Lex Luthor's fall from grace. Though Lex avoided prison, he's been booted from LexCorp with his true nature at last revealed to the people of Metropolis. But if Luthor can no longer live in "his city," then he's going to take it with him via an alien weapon of unstoppable power.

Busiek and Johns pack this eight-issue arc with much goodness. Clark and Lois Lane shine brighter than ever, both as reporters and as husband-and-wife. Perry White and Jimmy Olsen get decent play as well. Green Lantern, Hawkgirl, and Supergirl have guest shots. Villains include a new Kryptonite Man, Toyman, Metallo, Prankster, and many others. It all comes down to a one-on-one battle between Luthor and a re-powered Superman. By the time, I finished reading, I decided, budget be damned, this is what Superman Returns should have been.

Superman: Up, Up and Away earns five Tonys.

Tony Tony Tony Tony Tony

Superman: Back in Action

Remember what I said about "Up, Up and Away" and how it should have been Superman Returns? You can say the same thing about "Back In Action" from Action Comics #841-843, and, you know, I think I just did. In this three-issue story by Busiek (co-plot and script), Fabian Nicieza (co-plot), and Woods, the world outside of Metropolis isn't convinced the real Superman is back. Then our planet catches the avaricious eye of the Auctioneer, the cosmic equivalent of an eBay Power Seller. It's a big glorious retro science-fiction thriller guest-starring Firestorm, Nightwing, and the Teen Titans. It gives Superman a chance to show off his courage and his smarts. It even drops a foreshadowing bomb on its way out the door. Oh, Busiek and Nicieza, you are such shameless teases, but I liked this story as much as I did "Up, Up and Away." Sidebar kudos to Dave Gibbons for the hilarious tabloid newspaper covers on these issues.

Three standard-size comics wouldn't make much of a collection, so the page count is increased by three team-ups from DC Comics Presents, circa 1978 and 1980. Len Wein's Superman/Metal Men pairing is the best of them, grand fun with action, humor, and thrills a'plenty. The Superman/Firestorm tale by Gerry Conway is moderately entertaining, but its writing compares poorly to the wondrous wordsmithing of Wein and Busiek. In the final team-up, Wein puts a bow on his unfairly forgotten Deadman run of the 1980s by "teaming" Boston Brand with the Man of Steel. It's a good yarn, though it works too hard for its uplifting ending. All three were drawn by the amazing Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez.

On its own, the "Back In Action" three-parter would have rated a solid five Tonys. But, since they only make up half of the trade paperback and the Conway story hurts the average, Superman: Back In Action gets a very-good-but-not-precisely-spectacular four Tonys. I'm getting stingy with my fives.

Tony Tony Tony Tony

Superman: Camelot Falls

The DC Universe is a gloomy place of late - as is the Marvel Universe - so it didn't shock me when, after the initial cheerful, uplifting arcs, things got considerably darker in Superman: Camelot Falls [$19.95], reprinting Superman #654-658. Besides those five issues, all written by Busiek with art by Carlos Pacheco and Jesus Merino, this hardcover volume also features a couple pages of Pacheco cover sketches and character designs. It's a nice-looking book, but it felt kind of thin to me.

This "book one" of the arc doesn't start out gloomy. There's a fun tale about Superman and Lois trying to celebrate a mysterious anniversary on a Monday when darn near everything that can go wrong does so. But, after that, we get an alien superman who's suffered monstrous cruelty from the moment of his birth, followed by a dire warning of catastrophe from Arion, long-lived sorcerer of ancient Atlantis. Arion tells of another crisis and a terrible aftermath without Superman. This "book one" ends with him demanding Superman make an equally terrible choice. It's good scary stuff, the kind of storytelling that leaves me with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, but, after Infinite Crisis, I would have loved more months of relative joy from the Superman titles.

Superman: Camelot Falls is well written and drawn, but there's not enough of the story to be truly satisfying. Even so, it earns a very respectable four Tonys.

Tony Tony Tony Tony

Spider Kiss

Harlan Ellison's Spider Kiss [M Press; $12.95] has been called "the best, the meanest rock novel every written." Now I don't know from rock novels. This is the only rock novel I've ever read. But I've now read it three times, the first in its original paperback edition when it was called Rockabilly, the second when it was reprinted some time back, and, most recently, in this handsome new edition with fiery attention-demanding cover painting by Robert McGinnis. I thought it was a good book the first two times I read it. I think it's a great book today.

It's the tale of two men: Stag Preston, destined to shine as brightly as any 1960s rock legend, and Sheldon Morgenstern, the publicity agent who discovered Stag and whose destiny is tied to him. When I read the novel this third time, when it spoke to me more strongly than on previous readings, I asked Ellison if he'd done additional work on it or if I, at age 55, had simply become a better reader. With characteristic modesty, he said the book had always been brilliant and put his money on my more refined reading comprehension as the reason for my greater regard. He's right, but not as right as he thinks.

When I first read this novel, callow youth that I was, I knew with certainty the difference between right and wrong, between fair and unfair, and I still believed this was common knowledge. When I read it this time, I read it in what I call "the Age of Perceived Entitlement" and find it speaks loudly and powerfully to my disgust with those who embrace that sense of entitlement.

Stag Preston abuses his fame without even thinking about it. The world exists for his pleasure and that's how it's meant to be. There shouldn't be any consequences to his actions and, most of the time, even when those actions are criminal, there aren't. They're bought off or covered up by Morgenstern or Colonel Jack Freeport, the big man behind Stag's success. Consequences are for the people Stag turned his back on after they took him into his home, for the young black singer he gets pregnant, for the underage fans Sheldon escorts into his dressing room.

I see this perceived sense of entitlement daily. Politicians and pundits and preachers who expect us to fall into lock-step with whatever the damn hell they're spouting and overlook their flaws, failures, and falsehoods. Entertainers and athletes whose wrists are lightly slapped for offenses that would put you or me in jail. Corporations that make billions in this country and then outsource jobs to New Delhi or move their headquarters to Dubai. If I want it, if I want to do, I'm entitled to it.

That's what Spider Kiss says to me today. Ellison's players are as finely crafted as ever. They are flawed creatures, some of them beyond redemption, some of them hoping to be more than the sum of their sins, but each of them believable and, in the case of Stag Preston, frighteningly intriguing. Ellison's wordplay is stunning, overcoming the hipster voice that occasionally runs its fingernails over my chalkboard, not surprising in a novel written near half a century ago. Most satisfying of all, there are actual consequences to the actions of the "entitled" herein. They don't fully balance the scales of justice, but, in this imperfect world, I'll take what I can get.

Spider Kiss earns the full five out of five Tonys. Any other rock novel I might read the rest of my life will have one heck of a tough act to follow.

Tony Tony Tony Tony Tony

Strongarm 1

There's a lot I love about Steve Horton's Strongarm #1 [Image; $2.99] and just one thing I don't. Let's start with the positives.

The lead characters of this sci-fi adventure series are 28-year-old twin brothers. Rob is a delivery boy with no agenda save picking up his check and getting beyond the friend stage with a woman recently escaped from an abusive relationship, and Nick is a revolutionary. I dig the futuristic urban resistence backdrop. Deep within my mature, thoughtful persona, there yet lurks a young rebel burning to take the fight to the Man.

On what he thinks is a routine delivery, Rob is attacked by an assassin wearing "massive biomechanical arms." Showing unexpected moxie, he takes out the assassin, only to watch as the arms leave the assassin and graft themselves onto his arms. Worse, the arms are large and in charge of the now-helpless Rob.

Strongarm has an authentic "manga" look to it. Artist David Ahn is adept at handling both action sequences and the more human moments. His backgrounds build a believable world of the future. His storytelling is solid throughout.

Horton's writing is equally solid. Interesting characters and an intriguing setting. A conspiratorial hint of dire mysteries to be revealed. My problem is that, at 24 pages, there's not enough of all that good stuff.

Strongarm #1 didn't progress quite as leisurely as many manga adventures, but this issue didn't satisfy me. I wanted and needed more time with these characters and their world. Give me 200 pages of this for ten or eleven bucks and I'd be ranking it a lot higher. At 24 pages for three bucks, I feel like I read little more than a excerpt of the story.

Strongarm #1 earns a respectable three Tonys. My complaints about the small portions won't stop me from recommending you check it out and that you put Horton and Ahn on your comics radar. They definitely showed me something here.

Tony Tony Tony

Last Hero Standing

The "Spider-Girl Universe" is a favorite of mine. Writer and driving force Tom DeFalco brings readers entertaining stories that recall the better Marvel comics of the 1970s. Set in a near-future MU where Peter Parker has a crime-fighting daughter and where other youngsters have taken on the responsibilities that come with great power, the comics might not be award-winners, but they are always energetic and enjoyable.

From 2005, Last Hero Standing [$13.99] collects a five-issue mini-series by DeFalco and artist Pat Olliffe, a sprawling super-hero epic that features dozens of characters fighting for the soul of their super-heroic existence. Spider-Girl is the reader's window into this astonishing world; her interactions with the other heroes, especially a Captain America now past his prime, propel the story and lend emotional weight to events chronicled therein. The villain - no spoilers here - seeks to correct what he considers his greatest mistake. His plan is chillingly diabolical.

When you're enjoying the Marvel reprints of the 1960s and the 1970s, and you get to wondering why they don't write them like that anymore, wonder no further. Some people are writing them like that in the here and now. It just takes a little digging to find those comic books.

Last Hero Standing earns three out of five Tonys. If you like it, I have no doubt you'll also enjoy the manga-format reprints of DeFalco's Spider-Girl, J2, and A-Next. Look for them at bookstores and your better neighborhood comics shops.

Tony Tony Tony



Action Comics 843

After my review of Superman: Back In Action ran in CBG, I got an e-mail from Kurt Busiek revealing what *almost* appeared on the tabloid spoof cover of Action Comics #843. In the upper right corner, there's a giant "S" formed by people. The copy around and under it reads:

He's our hero! Entire Ohio town forms human "S" that can be SEEN FROM SPACE!

The original plan, scrapped for space reasons, was to identify the town as my own Medina, Ohio. Though it ended up on the cutting room floor, the reference is just one more proof that Medina is the nexus of all comic-book realities.

I expect to see more Medina references in comic books and, if it's not too much trouble, more cameo appearances by yours truly. If nothing else, it's a sure way to get your comic mentioned in one of my columns.

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

Tony Isabella

<< 07/09/2007 | 07/10/2007 | 07/11/2007 >>

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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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