"It's a sure sign of summer if the chair gets up when you do."
- Walter Winchell (1897-1972)
Summer is here and you shouldn't wait a moment longer to stock up on comics, books, and DVDs to help you become one with your chair. I have some suggestions, but those can wait as I explain why "America's most beloved comic-book columnist and writer" is burning the midnight plastic making sure my stack of the afore-mentioned items is high enough for me to reach it without falling out of my chair.
From the home office in Medina, Ohio...
Tony Isabella's Top 10 Reasons
For Stocking Up On
Summer Reading and Viewing
10. You never know...the lawn just might mow itself and I'd have to fill that time somehow.
9. I am on a mad quest to read all the CBG, Eisner, and Harvey Awards nominees. It will not end well.
8. Going outside increases the chances that a one-in-a-billion accident will give me super-powers. Then the super-villains will start showing up, causing the property values in my pleasant little city to plummet.
7. If I watch Godzilla movies two or three times a week, it's like he never really left us.
6. Statistically speaking, based on watching monster movies on the Sci-Fi Channel, your odds of being eaten by giant bugs, snakes, crocodiles, fish, Mansquito, etc., increase the more time you spend outdoors. There has not been a single televised case of a comics reader being eaten by a Frankenfish while sitting in his nice comfy recliner.
5. If I'm not reading comics or watching DVDs, I start making lists of people who deserve to be eaten.
4. The more comics I request and borrow from my local library, the more comics they buy. I'm helping the comics industry from my comfy recliner.
3. It's true. I never get tired of explaining to people that my Naked City DVDs aren't porn.
1. All my friends are going to Comic-Con International and I'm not, which makes my choices, consolation-wise, either read a lot of comics or eat a ton of strawberry cheesecake ice cream.
I am, of course, being facetious.
It's summer. Enjoy the outdoors. Throw around a baseball or take a walk. Spend time with your family, friends, and neighbors. Fire up the grill to cool some burgers and hot dogs. Bask in the fresh air and sunshine.
If you are fortunate enough to attend the big noise in San Diego, be sensible. Get out of the convention center on occasion. Eat healthy meals. Keep hydrated. Bathe daily and wash your hands frequently. Wear clothing appropriate to your body type. Exercise patience and politeness at all times; there are a hundred thousand other people at the convention.
Take advantage of the opportunity to meet as many comic-book fans and professionals as you can. Don't spend the mortgage money, but do avail yourself of the cool comics and other items offered for sale at the convention. Most of all, have fun.
Cue the reviews.
Orphans! Mayhem! Terror! Those are but the initial come-ons for The Black Diamond Detective Agency [First Second; $16.99], Eddie Campbell's graphic novel adaptation of an unproduced screenplay by C. Gaby Mitchell. I think Campbell had me before I even began reading the book, thanks to cover blurbs like:
"An epic tale of a newly industrialized America..."
"A rousing tale of the hunt for a mysterious train bomber."
"A tale so filled with twists, turns, and heart-stopping thrills, that its telling is best experienced through the modern wonder of the graphic narrative."
The book lives up to the cover enticements. Mystery man-with-a-past John Hardin is implicated in the terrible bombing while his wife goes missing. His search for her and the real murderers has him hunted by and then allied with the detective agency. Campbell gives the story a convincing turn-of-the-century vibe while pulling us into a world of shocking intrigue and violence. As with most of Campbell's work, I read this graphic novel once for the story and a second time just to revel in the artwork.
Apparently, there is Hollywood interest in Mitchell's script. This could be one cool movie. I hope whoever makes that movie is smart enough to bring Campbell on board.
Civil War. No super-hero or villain, at least among those who survived the conflict, saw their existence changed more profoundly than the Amazing Spider-Man. Out of loyalty, Peter Parker stood at the side of Tony Stark and revealed his civilian identity to the world. He fought alongside Iron Man against Captain America. And, when he finally realized what a monstrous wrong he had championed, Spidey proved to be perhaps the greatest hero of all by publically changing sides and standing against Stark.
Civil War: Amazing Spider-Man [Marvel; $17.99] collects issues #532-538 of the title. "The War At Home" chronicles Spidey making his worst choice since his origin, his growing realization he's on the wrong side, the treachery of Tony Stark, and the awful price Peter pays for his choices, good and bad.
Writer J. Michael Straczynski is at the top of his craft here. Each chapter left me with a coldness in the pit of my stomach as I would revel in the sheer courage of Captain America and his allies, but fear the worst from a government determined to foster fear and undo centuries of hard-earned civil rights. When Cap explains his choice to Spider-Man, his words leave me breathless.
Penciller Ron Garney and inker Bill Reinhold more than hold up their end of these comics. It's Marvel storytelling at its best, as dynamic in the human moments as it is in the sprawling battles. This is the kind of super-hero comic I fell in love with as a kid, and the kind I yearn for today.
Blame it on Don McGregor. Ever since he introduced me to Ed McBain's 87th Precinct when we were both Marvel editors, I can't get enough of "cop fiction." Most of what I watch on TV falls into that category and, when it comes to comic books, I have a special fondness for series which combine cops with super-heroes or the supernatural. Among my recent favorites is The Cross Bronx: Volume 1 [Image; $14.99] by Michael Avon Oeming and Ivan Brandon. Here's the deal:
Oeming and Brandon take us down mean streets made even more so when a spectral beauty starts exacting terrible vengeance on those who assaulted her and left for her dead. Detective Rafael Aponte is a good man, worn to the bone by a career that has all but ruined his marriage while destroying his faith in God. He clings to his devotion to justice, a justice he believes shouldn't be denied to even the most brutal of criminals.
There is dark magic on the streets; it respects no boundaries and shows no mercy. It will test and threaten everything Aponte is and believes, changing his life forever. Forgive the melodramatic vamping, but I want to share my appreciation for this work without giving away any of its twists and turns.
The Cross Bronx collects the original four-issue mini-series, along with another 20 pages of covers and pin-ups. The writing and art are first-rate; the coloring is often too dark for my tastes. That minor quibble does not diminish my overall respect for the work. It earns a solid four Tonys.
I planned to pace myself reading The Complete Chester Gould's Dick Tracy Volume Two [IDW Publishing; $29.99], but that plan went awry pretty quick. This volume reprints the strip - both dailies and Sundays - from May 21, 1933 to January 29. 1935. As author and Gould successor Max Allan Collins recounts in his introduction to this volume, Gould was learning while earning, refining his storytelling while creating one of the most exciting comic strips of all time. The action moved as fast as speeding bullets and it often seemed like Tracy or sidekick Junior or girlfriend Tess were in mortal peril weekly. It must have been maddening for readers of the era to have to wait an entire day to find out what would happen to Gould's good guys and bad guys. I breezed through eight months' of the strip in a morning and couldn't turn the pages fast enough. I'd still be reading if I didn't have to stop to write this review. The sacrifices I make for you...
Tracy has already amassed a number of mortal enemies as this volume opens and their aggregate hankering to rid themselves of the detective puts him and his loved ones in life-threatening peril on a far too frequent basis. But the hatred of the villains is just as likely to work against them. It's a dangerous dance and there are casualties on both sides.
Junior emerges as a star in his own right during these strips. He's smart, tough, and a crack shot. But, just when you think he's invincible, his youthful naivety gets him a seemingly hopeless jam. No wonder he was such a popular character back in the day. Indeed, the more I read of these early strips, the more I'm convinced that he was the main inspiration for Batman's Robin.
Besides 20 months of the strips themselves and the insightful Collins introduction, this second book also features the conclusion of the 1980 Gould interview conducted by Collins and Tracy expert Matt Masterson. Though Gould often has to be prompted to remember specific details of his work, his drive, loyalty, and strength of character come through loud and clear.
There are books I can't imagine not being in the library of a serious comics buff. This is one of them.
When it comes to publishing spiffy collections of the world's greatest comic strips, Fantagraphics is the industry leader. Not to dissuade any other publisher from following that lead, but those kids from Seattle really do it up right.
The Complete Peanuts: 1963-1964 by Charles M. Schulz [$28.95] is the seventh book in the series. The introduction is by Bill Melendez who, with Schulz and Lee Mendelson, did 50 Peanuts television specials and four feature films. I can only imagine the joy in that long an association with such great characters and the legend who brought them into the world.
Among the high points of this book are never-before-collected sequences (Linus running for school president, Snoopy recovering in a hospital), and the introduction of the new-to-the-neighborhood 555 95472 and his sisters 333 and 444. Their father believed that everyone in society was losing their identities and decided all the members of their family should have numbers instead of names. It's probably a good thing Dad and Mom stopped at 555.
Let's also extend kudos to Fantagraphics for proving an index-by-subject for the strips reprinted in this volume. It's a great reference tool.
Hank Ketcham's Complete Dennis the Menace 1955-1956 [$24.95] is the third in the series. Its over 600 panels give indisputable evidence that Ketcham was a master of humor and composition. The more I read of Dennis, the more I'm drawn to this determined little guy who endlessly strives to remake the world to suit him. He'll take a saw to the legs of a dining room chair to make it his size. He'll fearlessly question the strange doings of the adults around him. His reach ever exceeds his grasp because he is convinced he can accomplish any task. He's a genuine American hero and rebel in bib overalls.
E.C. Segar's Popeye: "I Yam What I Yam" [$29.95] is a giant of a book - almost 15" by 11" - as befits its hero. This first of six volumes begins with the "Thimble Theatre" adventure that introduced the magical Whiffle Hen and the world's mightiest sailor. It has a biographical article by comics historian Bill Blackbeard, an introduction by Jules Feiffer, and over 170 pages of hilarious and exciting comic strips. Chester Gould virtually fired his stories at his readers, a dizzying array of twists and turns, but Segar was a master of deliciously drawing out suspense. In one sequence, an unarmed Popeye is shot repeatedly by a villain while the rest of the cast cowers elsewhere on their ship. It took over a week from when the first shot was heard before the readers of the day learned it was Popeye who was shot.
Every one of these three Fantagraphics volumes are must-haves for the serious comics fan. Every one of them earns the full five out of five Tonys.
Classic Media has continued its "Toho Master Collection" with Godzilla Raids Again [$19.93], second in the long-running series. Like the company's release of the original Gojira, this DVD features the Japanese film with English subtitles and the U.S. version, originally released in this country as Gigantis the Fire Monster. The extras are audio commentary by Godzilla experts Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski, an "Art of Suit Acting" featurette, and a slide show of movie posters.
Godzilla Raids Again isn't as thoughtful or as well-crafted as Gojira, but it has its strengths. It wastes little time in getting to the first battle between Godzilla and Anguirus. Its characters are sympathetic and well-played with the hero fearing he might be a coward and the comedic sidekick showing surprising depth. The romantic element carries emotional weight and there's a moment when one wonders if the sidekick is carrying a torch for the hero's fiancee. When the two monsters duke it out in Osaka, it's one of the better monster battles in the series. As discussed in the commentary, the critters fight with animalistic fury and not as men in suits. The visual quality of the film is outstanding. And, while there are a few "huh?" moments along the way, the resolution of the movie's final battle between Godzilla and humanity is very satisfying.
The U.S. version pales in comparison. The visual quality of the movie is pretty bad. It's padded with stock footage that made my eyes roll for how cheap it looked and my head hurt for the sheer inanity of its voiceover narration. The dubbing is downright odd in places, such as when the female lead exclaims "Banana oil!," a phrase out of use for at least a decade prior to the release of the American version of the film. My recommendation would be to watch the American version with the audio commentary. The discussion of the planned-then-aborted Volcano Monsters is an especially choice bit of Godzilla history.
The "Art of Suit Action" featurette is also not to be missed. These actors had a passion for the work and were competitive about it. The actor who played Godzilla in the movie is reported to have taken considerable pride in kicking the costumed butt of the actor who played Anguirus.
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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