"Some of the happiest moments in life are when you get the last laugh, have the last word, and pay the last installment."
- Evan Esar
Fella name of Shakespeare wrote a play name of All's Well That Ends Well, and the title quickly became a frequently-used saying. My problem with so many DC and Marvel super-hero stories isn't that they end badly - though certainly many of them do - it's that they don't end at all. I'm not speaking of characters and titles. I'm entirely cool with there always being new issues of Fantastic Four and Superman in any given month of the year. I love those heroes and have been digging many of their most recent issues. No, what gives me grief is that individual stories don't end.
Almost every limited series launched prior to and in the wake of DC's Infinite Crisis ended on a cliffhanger, leading into other new series. Marvel's Annihilation and Civil War lead directly into the next big epics with hardly a moment for the reader to catch his or her next breath. Some of the faux-endings are satisfying, most are not...and almost all the major villains at both publishers are horribly overused. The constant cycle of vile acts and subsequent escapes make the heroes look impotent.
Bad and unsatisfactory endings are nothing new for super-hero comics, especially since the "epic" concept took hold. Not naming names, but my close friends and I used to cringe whenever this one writer, a very good writer, started a multi-part story because we knew he was going to blow in the last chapter.
Some substandard endings aren't the fault of the writers. In these pages, I've written about how a two-year Ghost Rider run of mine was derailed in its finale when an assistant editor decided to change what three previous editors had approved. Bill Mantlo's Carrion, introduced in Spectacular Spider-Man #28 [March, 1979], was originally intended to be the Peter Parker clone who "died" in Amazing Spider-Man #149 [October, 1975]. The revelation was approved, but the approval was rescinded after work on the three-issue story was already underway. You can see the scotch tape on the last-minute change of direction. Worse, as a result of this tampering with Mantlo's story, we had to suffer through that Spider-Clone nonsense of the mid-1990s. Oh, the pain, the pain.
I never thought there was a need for Crisis on Infinite Earths in the first place - today's readers have no trouble juggling five or six different versions of Superman, Spider-Man and other classic heroes - but, having committed to destroying what had gone before, DC should have followed through on Marv Wolfman and Len Wein's plan to restart the characters and titles. The unsatisfactory aftermath of Crisis led to two decades of patchwork continuity that proved to be far more confusing than a few parallel Earths.
Even episodic fiction can have endings. The hero (or villain) can get the last laugh without necessarily ruling out some rematch at a much later date. A story can have powerful last words; "Tell my wonderful American sergeant how much I love him." still brings a lump to my throat. A story can have a payoff that doesn't leave room for a sequel. If your super-hero stories are good, or, better yet, great, the readers will come back next issue. You don't have to "trick" them into buying yet another issue or limited series or company-wide crossover.
DC and Marvel can sell the sequential art equivalent of crack or they can sell brilliant, compelling stories that stand on their own. I happen to believe they can keep their readers around a lot longer if they follow the second path.
Marvel Masterworks: Atlas Era Heroes Vol. 1 [Marvel; $54.99] collects all six issues of the 1950-1951 Marvel Boy/Astonishing and the five issues of the 1953-1954 Young Men that starred the Human Torch, Captain America, and Sub-Mariner. If you could find them to buy them, merely good copies of these original comics would run you a thousand bucks, and they wouldn't be in this handsome hardcover edition and they wouldn't come with an informative introduction by Roy Thomas. I looked around and got a decent discount on the book, but would have gladly paid full price for it.
Marvel Boy is a sort of Superman in reverse. His father flees war-torn Earth for the mostly utopian Uranus. Bob Grayson grows to adulthood on his adopted world, developing a smattering of super-powers as he does so, returning to Earth to save his birth world's collective bacon. None of the stories is more than 12 pages, some as short as four. Marvel Boy deals with global and interplanetary menaces, and with more mundane criminals. Common elements include commie-bashing, high body counts, and mass destruction. Besides the Red-bashing, the unknown writers - Stan Lee has been suggested as the author of the first Marvel Boy stories and Bill Everett of the ones he drew - also got in digs against the French ("Americans do not have zee morbid curiosity of zee French!") and, strangely, comic books. I spotted at least three of the later variety in the Everett-drawn stories.
Do these stories hold up well? Not always, but they sure are fun to read. Some of my favorites from are "When a Planet Dies," in which a sleazy water commissioner tries to conquer Uranus by controlling its water, and "Caves of Doom," in which Marvel Boy nukes the Grand Canyon. Also worth noting is Hank Chapman's "The Nightmare," a non-Marvel Boy tale starring Chapman and editor Stan Lee, and drawn by Wayne Boring, who was much better known for his hundreds of Superman stories.
Most of the Young Men stories have been reprinted previously, but it's still cool to have them all together. In his intro, Roy Thomas relates how neat it was to have the stories acknowledge that Cap, Namor, and the Torch had been out of action for a few years, and often explanations for those absences.
The Human Torch is clearly the "star" of Young Men. He gets the most exposure on the first three covers and flies solo on the others. From the flashback of him frying Hitler in a Berlin bunker to him shooting a criminal through the heart with his flame, this Torch is a fairly bloodthirsty bonfire. He's more powerful than in the 1940s, save for when plots require he be less powerful. His power over flames comes and goes. Still, as befitting his star status, he does get the baddest villain in the run:
"I am the Hypnotist. I am Dara...I am all the evil ones since time began!"
How could a super-hero top that?
The Captain America stories feature terrific early art by John Romita, lots of commie-bashing and two of the greatest moments in comics history. In one, Cap gazes lovingly at a nuclear explosion, sighing, "A glorious sight...when it's on our side in the struggle for world peace."
In the second, Cap uncovers an undercover spy when the enemy agent absentmindedly stands behind a fluoroscope: "The Reds gave him that medal years ago! He swallowed it to hide when he turned spy and changed his name and nationality!"
Bill Everett's Sub-Mariner stories have gorgeous women, weird villains, and a wonderful craziness. My favorite has Namor and his cousin Namora joining an aquashow extravaganza, meeting up with a sunken shipload of ghostly pirates, and contending with the show's commie backers. The felonious show promoters are hilarious; they even abscond with the box-office receipts: "It'll serve those dirty commies right! The only reason I went to work for 'em anyway was so's I could get my hands on some of their dough!"
I devoted so much space to this one review because this book is representative of why I think right now is the real Golden Age of Comics. The stories it reprints are great fun and historically important. It's sold alongside a brilliant and stunningly diverse array of new material from all around the world. If comics readers have the means, they can enjoy more great comics than at any other time in comics history. That's worth taking several hundred words to celebrate.
Peter Kuper's Stop Forgetting To Remember: The Autobiography of Walter Kurtz [Crown; $19.95] looks at the life of a cartoonist and Kuper's own life through his Kurtz alter ego. How much of this eclectic graphic novel is reality and how much is fabrication isn't an issue, though I did recognize "characters" from when I knew Peter in Cleveland, prior to my moving to New York to work for Marvel. What's at issue, what is the heart of this book, are the stories it tells and how well it tells them.
Youthful freedom metamorphoses into parental responsibilities. Old friendships are tested. The world changes around Kuper/Kurtz with notable moments of history appropriately referenced. Some of Kuper's earlier tales - the earliest is from 1993 - are woven into the larger story. The emotional moments, the humor, the political comments, if Kuper were a baseball pitcher, he'd be a master of the change-up. His skilled approach makes the 200 pages flow smoothly, swiftly, and, most important, compellingly. It's a book that deserves to be read at one sitting, straight through, and then returned to in bits and pieces as time permits. I've had it for a couple weeks and it's still a long way from leaving my night stand and going on a shelf.
Stop Forgetting To Remember earns the five out of five Tonys. It went on sale this month, which gives you plenty of time to order a copy or four. Somebody you love must have a birthday coming up.
Catwoman: The Replacements [DC; $14.99] picks up a year after the events of Infinite Crisis. Selina Kyle is giving birth to her daughter Helena. Holly Robinson has taken her place as Catwoman, the guardian of Gotham City's East End. Teamed with the psychotic Film Freak, the current Angle Man is seeking revenge on Selina for beating the snot out of him. Black Mask is one year dead and a GCPD detective likes Catwoman (Selina) for the murder. Which makes sense since she did, indeed, kill the vicious crime-boss after he threatened to kill all her loved ones.
When these tales by Will Pfeifer with artists David Lopez and Alvaro Lopez are good, they're terrific. I love Selina making her way as a single mom and Holly trying to fill her cat-boots, as well as Selina getting in a little costume time herself. There are fine guest turns by Batman, Wildcat, and private detective Slam Bradley. Over the course of the six issues collected in this trade paperback (Catwoman #53-58), most of my questions about Selina's unseen year were answered smoothly. When certain story elements were bad, they were really bad, most notably the deux ex machine use of Zatanna's mind-wiping with a tedious explanation of what it entails and how difficult it can be and a saw-it-coming-a-mile-away example of why her doing this is always a bad idea.
Catwoman: The Replacements is much more good than bad. While I understand DC's publishing plan - six issues and into the trade as fast as the presses can roll - the collection would have been improved by the inclusion of a few more issues and the tying up of loose ends to be found therein. Let's give this one four Tonys and hope for more flexibility in the future.
It was comics publisher Donny Harrison's birthday party and, for the occasion, he had squeezed his plump form into a Wonder Guy costume. Then he keeled over and onto a knife, dying in front of his wife, his friends, his business associates, his mistress, and the creators of Wonder Guy. That's the "Oh, wow!" opening of A Killing In Comics by Max Allan Collins with illustrations by Terry Beatty [Berkley; $14.00].
If you were as knocked out by Men of Tomorrow, Gerard Jones' landmark work on the geeks and gangsters who created the comic-book industry, as I was, you'll absolutely cherish A Killing In Comics. The thinly-disguised comics legends walk the same mean streets as Collins' original creations: Maggie Starr, the lovely ex-ecdysiast who runs her late husband's newspaper syndicate; Jack Starr, her stepson and troubleshooter, charged by her to find out who murdered Harrison; and "Honey" Daily, Harrison's mistress.
All the reasons Collins is one of my favorite writers are seen in this book. His characters are intriguing and likeable; even the bad guys and gals have a certain charm. His plots are intriguing, his writing straightforward. He brings the eras of which he writes to life. Sometimes his books seem too real to be fiction. He's a writer who knows the value of getting the details right and, most of all, he's a writer who knows how to entertain us.
On the matter of A Killing In Comics, that's all you're gonna get out of me. It's a great book and I don't want to spoil any of it for you. It earns the full five Tonys.
Two manga series are on my current reading list, both due to a publicity guy who was clearly passionate about them and convinced me to give them a chance. Thanks, Erik.
Naoki Urasawa's Monster: Volume 5 [Viz Media; $9.99] continues the adventures of the haunted Dr. Tenma, a brilliant surgeon whose career derailed when he chose to operate on young Johan instead of a powerful politician. The politician died, Johan was revealed to be a deadly assassin and serial killer. Tenma, blamed for some of Johan's murders, is now on the run, trying to find Johan and bring an end to his killing. Tenma is a very good man, torn between this thing he must do and his natural instincts as a healer.
Tenma and Johan aren't the only great characters in Monster. Regulars include Inspector Runge, a disgraced detective who thinks Johan and Tenma are two sides of the same man, and Anna Liebert, Jonah's twin sister. In this book, we also meet a copycat killer who Runge uses as bait to trap Tenma, and a contract killer given a chance for a new life.
Monster is must-read manga. The tension that runs through the serial draws me irresistibly to each volume. New perils confound Tenma at every turn while surprising developments are frequent and furious. If you seek an exciting and suspenseful manga, this is the one I'd recommend. Naoki Urasawa's thriller earns the full five out of five Tonys.
The other manga on my list is The Drifting Classroom by Kazuo Umezu [Viz; $9.99]. I've only read the first of the five volumes published in the USA to date, but it was an impressive enough start that I'll be reading all of them.
An earthquake sweeps a large elementary school from reality as we know it. To those outside the school, it looks as if all that remains is a huge hole in the ground. To those within its walls, the natural world is gone, replaced by some unearthly landscape of unending emptiness and shadows. There is panic and rising terror among students and teachers alike. Where are they? What brought them here? How can they survive, much less return to the existence they knew?
Umezu is a master of both emotion and horror. His young hero Sho's last words to his mother were appalling and know he may never be able to take them back. A father must stab his own son to calm down a mob of frightened students. And outside is a dark unknown that chills them all. There is no gore and no inhuman monsters in this first book (rated "M" for "mature"), but it's still one scary read. It's a darn good beginning that earns The Drifting Classroom four out of five Tonys.
Most every Tuesday, I post new Tony Polls questions for your balloting entertainment. Being as how I'm in the process of determining the future of Tony's Online Tips, this week's questions ask you to rate some of what I do here. These questions will remain active until sometime next Tuesday and you can vote on them by going here:
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: