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

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for Monday, September 7, 2009

Boris Karloff

I was delighted to hold a copy of Boris Karloff Tales of Mystery Volume One [Dark Horse; $49.95] in my hands for two reasons. The first is that, some time back, Sara Karloff - the daughter of the wonderful actor - contacted me seeking advice on what she might do with the comics material that was part of her father's estate. I said the material was worth reprinting, both because of the regard with which her father is held and because many of those tales were drawn by legendary comics artists like George Evans, Tom Gill, Mike Sekowsky, and others. The second reason: I couldn't afford to buy many issues of the title when they were originally published and now I can finally read some of the issues I missed. Don't you love it when everybody wins?

This first volume reprints Boris Karloff Thriller #1 and #2, 80 pages each, and the standard size Boris Karloff Tales of Mystery #3 and #4. Thriller was the horror/suspense anthology TV series Karloff hosted in 1960-1962. When the series ended, the comic book changed its name to Tales of Mystery. There was a total of 97 issues, ending in February, 1980.

Though Gold Key did not submit its books to the censorious Comics Code Authority, its in-house code was sufficient to assure parents of wholesome reading. Many of the stories in this volume are less intense than they could or should have been, but they don't eschew the occasional violent crime or murder. They would usually portray such things in a circumspect manner, either from a distance or off-camera. The various prohibitions notwithstanding, there are some real chillers included in this book.

Veteran writers Leo Dorfman and Paul S. Newman wrote a few of the stories reprinted here, but most remain uncredited. The artistic roster features 1960s mainstays Evans, Gill, Sekowsky, Ray Bailey, Joe Certa, Bob Fujitani, Alberto Gioletti, Don Heck, Sparky Moore, Mike Peppe, Jerry Robinson, Jack Sparling, and Dan Spiegle, and inking by Gill assistants Herb Trimpe and John Verpoorten.

My favorite stories in this collection:

"The Green Monkey," wherein a stolen jade idol exacts its vengeance on those who have stolen it;

"Past and Present Danger," set in New Orleans during Mardi Gras;

"The Hand in the Wall," a clever psychological thriller;

"The Devil's Armchair," a haunted object story drawn with vigor by Sekowsky, who also drew "The Green Monkey";

"Find the Traitor," suspense set in a Latin American dictatorship and drawn by Fujitani; and,

"Night Caller," a fast-paced adventure set in the Amazon jungle and brilliantly drawn by the Sekowsky/Peppe team. Though there are many good artists represented in this volume, Sekowsky and Peppe are the clear stand-outs.

Boris Karloff Tales of Mystery Volume One is a nice look at comic books largely overlooked by comics fans, both when originally published and since. I'm glad to see them back in print in such a handsome format. This initial book earns an impressive four out of five Tonys.

Tony Tony Tony Tony

State of Jones

After listening to one of the authors on "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart," I requested The State of Jones: The Small Southern County That Seceded from the Confederacy by Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer [Doubleday; $27.50] from my library. The book is a fascinating and frequently horrifying account of the outnumbered, under-supplied Mississippi unionists defying the wealthy slave-owners who launched the American civil war to preserve their lavish lifestyles and their "right" to enslave other human beings. It's also the story of the heroic, remarkable Newton Knight and his two families, one white, one black.

This is a page turner, though the chronicles of brutality (on both sides of the conflict) and atrocities (more on the Confederate side) often forced me away from the book. At least when I was in school - and that was before and not long after the Civil Rights Act became law - our history books glossed over the darkest parts of this story. I never knew the Confederate leaders plundered the families of the poor soldiers pressed into fighting for a cause not their own or that those Southerners who sided with the Union were subjected to even worse treatment. I never knew that the racism of Andrew Johnson and the weariness of Ulysses S. Grant allowed these same Confederate monsters to reclaim their power shortly after the war and continue subjugating the poor. Sadly, the reality of the common man blindly following leaders who constantly act against his best interests is all too familiar to me. I see its like whenever the ignorant scream their Faux News talking points at "tea parties" and town hall meetings.

If I were a history teacher, The State of Jones would be required reading for my students. It's an exceptional work of non-fiction and, as such, it earns the full five Tonys.

Tony Tony Tony Tony Tony

Lines of Contention

In January, "Tony's Tips" reader Manny Fiori sent me Lines of Contention: Political Cartoons of the Civil War by J. G. Lewin and P.J. Huff [Collins; $19.95]. I remembered the book while reading The State of Jones, pulled it from one of my many "to be read" boxes, and read huge chunks of it whenever I needed a break from the horror of the other book.

Fiori aptly described Lines as one third comics and two thirds Civil War history and was dead on in further pointing out, as do the volume's authors, that these cartoons shaped the news of their time. The book is a good companion to State of Jones, though I noted with dismay that the cartoonists of that era shied away from commenting on the atrocities and brutalities that abound in State. Today's political cartoonists are somewhat more courageous, but most still have a ways to go when challenging their subjects both humorously and rationally.

The political cartoon has been refined since the 1860s. The art is less detailed, but more expressive. I noted - with far more glee than I should have - that the artistic tactic of "making shit up" was as prevalent then as it is today, though said tactic seems to be more the providence of the right than the left. Some current examples of these, oh I'll just call them "right wing liars," are the odious Chip Bok and the often racist Glenn McCoy.

I enjoyed the heck out of Lines of Contention and thank the esteemed Fiori for sending it my way. It earns the impressive four out of five Tonys.

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.

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