It's the end of history or, to put it more accurately, The Cartoon History of the Modern World Part II: From the Bastille to Baghdad [Harper; $18.99] is the finale of the award-winning series by Larry Gonick. I've followed this magnificient series since Rip Off Press published the first comic-book installment in 1978. That issue featured "The Evolution of Everything (Including Sex)." In this concluding book, Gonick takes us all the way into the second President Bush's invasion of Iraq, a story which hasn't yet reached a conclusion, satisfying or otherwise.
Gonick's appealing cartoon style and ready wit, tinged ever so slightly with a bit of sarcasm when called for, makes history fun. Even the terrible parts. Who would have thought that scholarship and silliness would combine so well?
One of the things I like best about Gonick's history is that he revels in the sheer scope of it. Near the end of this volume, quite a few countries and the important events therein are barely mentioned, but, really, what's a few decades when you're discussing the entirety of our planet's history? Maybe a hundred years from now another cartoonist will take up the story where Gonick leaves off to delight and inform his audience.
A while back, I wrote that I was looking forward to Marvel Masterworks Atlas Era Menace Vol. 1 [Marvel; $59.99]. I've now read this hardcover collection reprinting what is arguably Marvel's best 1950s horror title. My anticipation was justified.
Menace published 11 issues from March, 1953 to May, 1954. For the first seven of those, editor Stan Lee wrote every story, teaming with his best artists: Bill Everett, George Tuska, Russ Heath, Joe Sinnott, John Romita, Joe Maneely, Gene Colan, and others. Lee's tales from this era reveal that, even then, he was a writer of exceptional skill, a wordsmith who connected to readers beyond the stories. He spoke in a conversational, conspiratorial tone surpassed only by the EC comic books of the day.
Menace runs the usual gamut - aliens, ghosts, vampires, werewolves, zombies, etc. - with a handful of true classics among its stories. It was in issue #5 [July, 1953] that Lee and Everett created the zombie who would be revived in the 1970s to headline his own black-and-white comics mag. But along with the standard spookiness, Lee would also include the likes of "Men in Black," a powerful cautionary tale about intolerauunce, "Crack-Down," a darkly humorous crime story, and "The Witch in the Woods," a clever satire of the comic-book critics of the day.
Marvel Masterworks Atlas Era Menace Vol. 1 is packed with 49 stories, including Lee and Everett's parody of their own "Zombie" from Crazy #4 [March, 1954], all 11 covers, and Dr. Michael J. Vassallo's informative introduction to the wonders of this title. The book is one of my favorite collections of the year and it earns the full five Tonys.
Marvel Comics doesn't have a monopoly on classy collections of classic comics. From Fantagraphics comes Strange Suspense: The Steve Ditko Archives Vol. 1 [$39.99]. Edited by Blake Bell, author of the 2008 Ditko biography, Strange & Stranger, this book reprints over 200 pages of stories and covers from 1953-1954, Ditko's first years as a solo comics artist.
These pre-Code stories, drawn a decade before Ditko would make comics history with his work on Spider-Man and Dr. Strange, reveal an artist who quickly found his style and just as quickly stretched his imagination and budding skill to imbue even the most mediocre scripts with atmosphere and energy. "Stretching Things," his very first solo job, is a horror story with a grotesque protagonist who Ditko brings to disturbing life, while his second effort, "Paper Romance" is a steamy love story.
In other pieces, Ditko shows a deftness for crime, westerns, and humor, but his fantasy, horror, and science fiction tales are the highlight of the book. His sinister humans are as frightening as his demons and monsters. His storytelling is always sure and, often, even at this early stage of his career, inventive. It's no wonder he became a key architect of the Marvel Age of super-heroes. From the start, Ditko was an original.
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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