TONY’S TIPS #210

When recently contemplating my favorite comic-book companies that are gone but not forgotten, I knew early on that all my top choices would be publishers from before I started working in the industry. What sort of surprised me when I got to choosing the comics outfit I missed the most was that it was the American Comics Group, best known as ACG to the fans of the 1960s.

When I reading their comic books in the 1960s, there were only four ACG titles: Adventures into the Unknown, Forbidden Worlds, Unknown Worlds and Herbie. Almost every story and maybe every story in those issues was written by editor Robert E. Hughes utilizing a variety of aliases. The “voice” of Hughes was also evident in the letters page where he was never afraid to challenge readers if he felt they didn’t appreciate a story he thought was great or praised a story he felt was one of his weaker efforts. He even faced down trolls who wrote insulting letters to his comics. Yes, there were trolls back then. We just didn’t call them that.

Hughes also had a knack for making average and even mild-mannered characters the heroes of his stories. I never got tired of seeing some put-upon schlemiel rise up to a challenge and change his life for the better. As veteran readers of my work know, I’m a sucker for a good redemption tale.

For some time now, the UK-based PS Artbooks has been reprinting both Adventures into the Unknown and Forbidden Worlds in hardcover editions. At great peril to my checking account, I’ve been buying and enjoying them. My latest was Forbidden Worlds Volume Twelve [$59.99], which reprints issues #71-76, cover-dated October 1958 to March 1959. There are many highlights in those issues.

Ogden Whitney drew all six covers. An underrated talent, Whitney’s cast of characters – you would see similar types on his covers and his interior stories – were realistic representations of ordinary human beings. Exactly the sort that would serve as the protagonists in Hughes’ stories.

However, it was not just human beings who showed surprising courage or learned important life lessons in these tales. “The Iron Brain” was a robot who developed independent thought and wanted to be accepted by the humans around him. It wasn’t a unique concept for a story, but Hughes and artist Mike Roy told it in such a way as to make the characters, even the robot, very real.

There are some amazing artists in these issues. Many of them were and remain underrated, but there are stellar turns by John Forte, Paul Reinman and John Rosenberger. A story drawn by John Buscema is indicative of his amazing talent, and even Al Williamson shows up for a story. Solid, steady and sometimes sensational visuals were not at all alien to ACG’s comic books.

The highlight of this particular volume is “Herbie’s Quiet Saturday Afternoon” by Hughes and Whitney. This is an early adventure of the stout young hero with thick glasses who is generally considered to be ACG’s best continuing character. Right from the start, this kid was clearly a star.

As long as PS Artbooks reprints these wonderful ACG comic books, I will continue buying them. They might be dangerous to my financial well-being, but they delight my soul.

ISBN 978-1-78636-007-6

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Escape from Monster Island

Escape from Monster Island [Zenescope; $15.99] could be an above-average movie of the sort beloved by creature-feature afficinados. The premise is that the U.S. Government has been capturing dozens of species of “monsters”, keeping their existence secret from the public and imprisoning them on an island for experimental purposes. Yes, experimenting on these creatures is monstrous, so labeling the test subjects as “monsters” is definitely calling the kettle black.

The monsters pretty much took over the island a few years back and all that’s keeping them from going beyond the island is the force field that locks them in. But the force field is failing, an elite mercenary squad is being sent it to recover vital research and the military wants to nuke the island as soon as the force field stops working. The clock is definitely ticking.

Written by Joe Tyler from a story by Joe Brusha and Ralph Tedesco, Escape is entering. Some of the characters – human and “monster” – are well developed. Others are little more than cannon fodder. This graphic novel, which collects the six-issue comic-book series, has exciting action, scary “monsters” and surprising twists. The Carlos Granda art is excellent, both in the actual drawings and in telling the story in a visually smooth manner. Best of all, the adventure has a satisfying ending, something that still seems to be a great challenge for many comics creators.

Escape from Monster Island isn’t an award-winning comics work, but it is a solid and enjoyable tale. I recommend to my fellow monster-movie fanatics. And, hey, if you’re a movie maker with a reasonably decent budget, you might want to take a look at this book for your next film.

ISBN 978-1942275374

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Civil War II

Speaking of comics with unsatisfying endings, not to mention a heap of other shortcomings, I give you Civil War II [Marvel; $50]. Let me amend that. I wouldn’t give you Civil War II on account of we’re friends and friends don’t hurt each other that way.

Collecting Civil War #0-8 and a story from Free Comic Book Day 2016 (Civil War), this hardcover book is another sad example of Marvel shooting itself in the crotch for shock value. Yeah, I know “foot” is the usual target, but, hey, shock value. Did it work?

Ulysses, a new Inhuman, seems to have the power to tell the future with certainty via the horribly realistic visions he receives and “lives” through. Which is enough for Carol Danvers (Captain Marvel) and other wannabe totalitarians to start locking up people because Ulysses says so. They aren’t locking up people for crimes they’ve committed. They’re locking up people because one man – one man – is saying they will commit those crimes. Which is all fascist Captain Marvel needs to upend constitutional and moral rights. Even after she’s given evidence that Ulysses may not be batting the thousand percent she has been claiming.

Congratulations, Marvel. I’ll never be able to think of Carol as a hero again. Maybe it’s time to retire her and bring back Mar-Vell to assume the name of Captain Marvel. His being dead shouldn’t stop you. You threw logic out the window with this and so many of your other “big freaking event” series.

Sidebar. There’s supposed to be a Captain Marvel movie. I sincerely hope the Marvel Cinematic Universe chooses to ignore Civil War II. It would be nice to have the real Carol Danvers up there on the big screen and not the evil twin of the comic books.

Civil War II is not recommended for readers of any age. Even beyond the disastrous dismantling of Captain Marvel’s legacy, it lacks an ending that resolves any of the issues it raised. It simply takes Ulysses out of the equation. Disappointing.

ISBN 978-1-302-90156-1

I’ll be back next week with more reviews.

© 2017 Tony Isabella

TONY’S TIPS #209

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) is one of my favorite Marvel Studios movies. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) is even better. It has all the humor of the first film plus it amps up the action (big stuff going on) and the human drama (made me tear up a few times). Here’s the quickie summary from the Internet Movie Database, which is always my first stop when I’m reviewing a film:

“Set to the backdrop of Awesome Mixtape #2, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 continues the team’s adventures as they unravel the mystery of Peter Quill’s true parentage.”

The movie opens on a splendidly weird battle between the Guardians and a slimy space monster. Their job: protect the super-batteries that power the world of the Soverign, a golden-skinned race who believe themselves superior to all others. Which is probably why, after the heroes defeat the slimy space monster, Rocket decides to steal some of the batteries. He’s like that.

Though the action – chases through space, crash landings, a battle with a near-omnipotent being – is breathtaking, what takes this sequel to its greater heights are the human stories. Quill’s desire to find his father. Gamora’s troubled relationship with her sister Nebula. Yondu and his Ravagers’ exile from the larger community of Ravagers, the reason for their breach of the space pirates code and their misery at being outcasts among outlaws. Characters finding unexpected common ground with others. Even more than in the first movie, the characters come to life in ways that make them very real to the audience.

The acting is as good or better than in any of the Marvel movies. For that matter, it’s as good or better than in most other movies released in 2017. Chris Pratt (Star-Lord), Zoe Saldana (Gamora), Dave Bautista (Drax), Karen Gillan (Nebula), Pom Klementieff (Mantis), Kurt Russell (Ego) and Vin Diesel and Bradley Cooper as, respectively, the voices of Baby Groot and Rocket are all amazing. But, the star of the film is Michael Rooker, who deserves an Oscar nomination for his layered portrayal of Yondu. It’s the performance of a lifetime and left me eager to see what he does next.

Marvel Comics readers will squeal with sheer delight at all the new characters the movie introduces into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The vastness of that universe is used to great effect and, even if a viewer doesn’t share the “oh, wow” recognition factor of devoted Marvelites like me, the writing never leaves said viewer out of the loop. What a ride!

Director and writer James Gunn probably won’t get any nominations for either of his roles on this movie, but he deserves them. I am already looking forward to Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 will be in the theaters for several weeks to come, but, if you haven’t seen it yet, don’t put it off. You’ll want to see it more than once and you’ll want to tell your friends and loved ones about it. If the fates are kind, the movie will be available for purchase on Blu-ray and DVD before the winter holidays. It would sure make my gift shopping easier.

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Lois Lane novel

Lois Lane: Triple Threat by Gwenda Bond [Switch Press; $16.95] is the third hardcover novel in the reimagining of the classic comics character by the noted young adult and children’s author. In these books, teenage Lois and her family have settled in Metropolis after bouncing around from army base to base depending on where her dad, General Sam Lane, was stationed. She’s made friends at her school and works part time for the Scoop, a teen department of The Daily Planet. And she has an online boyfriend she’s never met in person. He goes by the screen name SmallvilleGuy.

This time around, mysterious teens with super-powers are turning up in Metropolis and are targeting Lois. She’s already made enemies in her brief career as a journalist, including the gang boss who ran the city before she helped put him away and the still-at-large mad scientist who worked for said gang boss. Now there is another new player on the scene, a woman claiming to be hundreds of years old. All this while Lois’ dad continues to investigates reports of the flying man he and her once saw, a flying man who saved their lives. Oh, yeah, one more thing:

SmallvilleGuy is coming to Metropolis with his parents so he and Lois can finally meet. Pressure, much?

Bond’s Lois Lane is one of the best versions of the character. She is a dedicated journalist, but she also has the empathy to consider the people behind the stories. She has a suspicious mind, but she is also learning to trust people. Like SmallvilleGuy, she wants to do good in the world, which sometimes means making touch decisions, not all of which this reader would agree with.

I’ve enjoyed all three of these Lois Lane novels. I recommend them to you and hope we’ve not seen the last of them.

Lois Lane: Fallout [$16.95]

ISBN 978-1630790059

Lois Lane: Double Down [$16.95]

ISBN 978-1630790387

Lois Lane: Triple Threat [$16.95]

ISBN 978-1630790820

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Frozen

My weekend light reading was Disney Frozen #1-6 [$2.99 each], which were published by Joe Books, a Canadian comic book company with the rights to publish comics based on Disney’s animated feature films and TV shows. I’ve been aware of the company’s existence, but this is the first time I’ve read any of their offerings.

Written by Georgia Ball and drawn by Benedetta Barone – with some other hands on deck from time to time – the Frozen comic books are aimed at young readers, but not so young that it prevents an older reader from enjoying them. The longer stories are good and usually have morals about family, friendship and goodness to share. Their drawback is that Ball seems to shy away from any real suspense of sense of jeopardy. Even as a kid, I wanted stories to have a little edge to them.

A couple issues of Frozen are filled with short gag stories of one or more pages. These fall so flat that I wonder if they come from U.K. comic books. While there are amazing Disney comics coming out of Italy and other European countries, the Disney U.K. product has been almost unfailingly tepid…and that’s coming from a writer who once had the job of making them somehow less tepid for the American audience.

I liked Frozen – the movie – a lot. Kids love Frozen a lot. Those kids would certainly be thrilled to have Frozen comic books, which make great little gifts and rewards for the youngsters. However, if you’re an older reader, you’ll want to pass on these comics.

I’ll be back next week with more reviews.

© 2017 Tony Isabella

TONY’S TIPS #208

Everything I’m writing about this week should be considered my pick of the week. They’re all so terrific I couldn’t choose just one of them. This is a wonderful time to be a comics fan.

Nadia Pym is The Unstoppable Wasp [Marvel; $3.99 per issue]. She’s the daughter of Hank Pym and Maria Trovaya, his first wife. During the Cold War, Trovaya was kidnapped and killed by Russian agents. What we now know – besides the Cold War continuing to this day with Russia interfering in our elections and being ruled by a murderous dictator – is Maria lived long enough to give birth to a daughter of whom the kinda dead for now Pym was unaware. I’m simultaneously appalled and impressed by this continuity implant.

Nadia was raised in the same Red Room program in which Black Widow was trained. Getting hold of a Pym Particle – what allows Ant-Man and others to change their size – she escaped and came to America. I’m hearing Neil Diamond right now, are you?

Nadia is brilliant and so full of determination and wonder that I can’t help but love her. The Red Room clearly couldn’t lay a glove on her. She has helped the Avengers and other heroes. She has the blessing of and is helped by Janet Van Dyne, the original Wasp. She’s being guided by Edwin Jarvis, once voted the 25th best Avenger and who I would rank higher on that list. She has used her abilities and considerable inheritance to form G.I.R.L. – Genius in (action) Research Labs – and recruit gifted young women to do their scientific research in a female-friendly atmosphere. She’s become friends with Mockingbird, Moon Girl, Ms. Marvel, me and any comics readers who love positive super-heroes whose comic books make them feel all happy inside.

Writer Jeremy Whitley is the creator of Princeless, a comics series about a courageous and smart princess who refuses to abide by the stereotypes to which society would hold her. It has been nominated for two Eisner Awards – Best Single Issue and Best Comic for Kids Ages 8-12 – and five Glyph Awards, winning three of the latter in the categories of Best Female Character, Best Writer and Story of the Year. He and Nadia deserve to win more awards because his work on The Unstoppable Wasp is downright transformative.

Issue after issue, artist Elsa Charretier delivers clear, exciting storytelling in a pleasing spritely style that conveys action and emotion with equal aplomb. I don’t use the word “spritely” lightly. Her art is magical.

Praise must also go to color artist Megan Wilson, who casts scene after scene in vibrant hues that support the stories, and editors Alanna Smith and Tom Brevoort for what they do to facilitate this most remarkable comics series. I’ll be shocked if The Unstoppable Wasp doesn’t get nominated for and win a whole bunch of comic-book awards next year.

The Unstoppable Wasp Vol. 1: Unstoppable! [$12.99] will be coming out in September. The trade paperback will collect the first four issues of the title and Nadia’s earlier appearance in All-New, All-Different Avengers #14. I recommend this book to comics readers of all ages, and to public and school libraries.

ISBN 978-1302906467

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Astro City

In this year’s Eisner nominations, Astro City by Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson [Vertigo/DC] is up for Best Continuing Series and my pal Kurt is up for Best Writer. Both should win.

Astro City sets the standard for consistent high quality in issue after issue. I tend to read comics series in batches and recently read issues #37-43 [$3.99]. The high quality has become a given for this series, but I am equally impressed by the variety of stories to be told in this universe.

We get stories of heroes (and a heroine) defined by their eras and the rebellious attitudes and music of those eras. There’s not even a slight doubt in my mind that I would buy ongoing series starring Mister Cakewalk or Jazzbaby. But that’s not Astro City’s style. It is an anthology series that always satisfying while always leaving me wanting more.

We get stories about a human woman – a lawyer – who lives in Astro City’s spooky Shadow Hill neighborhood. She ends up representing a magic-based super-heroine before a tribunal of supernatural beings.

We meet the super-hero the city was named for and a super-villain who has been stranded on an island for years. We get some wondrous background on the Gentleman, one of my favorite of the Astro City heroes. All of these stories are entertaining, poignant with great art and storytelling. I think even the most jaded super-hero fan in the world would be filled with delight reading Astro City.

Astro City Vol. 15: Everyday Heroes [$24.99] is the most recent of the Astro City hardcovers. It collects issues #37-41. I recommend it to any reader who loves super-hero comic books and comic books in general.

ISBN 978-1401274931

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Hero-a-Go-Go

I’m only about 50 pages into the 272-page Hero-A-Go-Go: Campy Comic Books, Crimefighters, & Culture of the Swinging Sixties by Michael Eury [TwoMorrows; $36.95] and yet, here I am, deeming it worthy of pick-of-the-week status and recommending it to you. Sure, I suppose I could have sped my way through the entire book. But the pages I have read were enough to convince me this is a tome to be enjoyed at a leisurely pace.

Eury is a comics fanatic and the editor of the esteemed Back Issue magazine. In this book, he weaves a symphony of “camp” comic books and popular culture, bounding from riff to riff as he explores the likes of Magicman, Nemesis, Metamorpho, Captain Action, the super-heroic versions of Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Werewolf, Captain Klutz, Herbie, Super-Hip, aspects of Batman and Batmania and much more. It’s a book filled with essays, histories and interviews with Bill Mumy, Ralph Bakshi, Dean Torrence (of Jan and Dean), Ramona Fradon and other Sixties legends.

I’m taking my time reading this treasure trove of fun facts, but I have the sacred responsibility – it’s the Code of the Tipster – to alert you to the book sooner rather than later. Recommended it to local and school libraries. Purchase a copy for yourself. Purchase a copy for your best comics-reading pal. You will be glad you did. Now excuse me while I read about Jerry Lewis and Super-Goof.

ISBN 978-1-60549-073-1

I’ll be back next week with more reviews.

© 2017 Tony Isabella

TONY’S TIPS #207

The comic book was way better than the movie. I’m talking about The Assignment [Hard Case Crime/Titan Comics; $19.99], the adaptation of the 2016 limited release movie directed by Walter Hill and co-written by Hill and Dennis Hamill. I watched the film as a video on demand. There’s a mildly convoluted history to the Matz/Jef graphic novel, which I’ll cover as tersely as possible. First, here’s the basic plot:

A hitman murders the beloved brother of a brilliant rogue surgeon. The surgeon hires one of the hitman’s clients to kidnap the killer and bring him to her. She performs gender reassignment surgery on him. That’s both her revenge and her experiment. Will the assassin accept this second chance at life or will he continue his violent ways?

Hamill wrote the original screenplay in 1978. It was called Tom Boy and its protagonist was a juvenile delinquent who raped and killed the wife of a plastic surgeon. Hill optioned the screenplay twice, rewriting it. He had success with a earlier graphic novel in France and so decided to do The Assignment as a graphic novel. The graphic novel attracted an investor, who asked that the movie be done very cheaply and that it have recognizable names in the cast. To Hill’s credit, the movie doesn’t look cheap and he did sign some terrific actors for key roles.

I watched the movie after reading the comic book. The movie lacked the depth of characterization of the comic book. The actors always seemed to be consciously acting and, given the pedigree of the cast – Michelle Rodriguez, Sigourney Weaver, Tony Shalhoub – that was immensely disappointing to me. Rodriguez plays hitman Frank Kitchen both before and after surgery and never looks the part of the male hitman. The frequent violent action scenes were very well staged. There were some good moments between Frank and a woman who becomes important to him, and between Frank and a dog he rescues from a man who trains dogs to fight. The ending of the movie indicates a new direction for Frank, but doesn’t demonstrate it in the slightest. Like I said, the comic book is way better than the movie.

The Wikipedia page for the movie doesn’t mention Matz or Jef. The former is a well-known French writer who has had previous graphic novel success with some of his works being adapted or optioned for movies. I couldn’t find any information on Jef, but, after looking at his riveting drawings and storytelling, I agree with the graphic novel’s description of him as an “artist extraordinaire”.

Matz and Jef bring Frank Kitchen to life in much more vivid fashion than did the movie. I felt they got me more into his head than the movie. Best of all, they continued the story, albeit only for a few pages, beyond the movie. Their satisfying final scenes made me want to see more of this character and his life going forward.

Sidebar. In this column, I used male pronouns for Frank because he isn’t transsexual. His gender reassignment was not something that he wanted. It was done to him against his will. He remains Frank, even as he makes adjustments to his life. I intend no disrespect to the trans community.

I tried to avoid spoilers as much as possible because I think the adaptation is well worth reading. If Hill, Matz and Jef – or other comics creators – have more to say about Frank, I would definitely be on board with those stories.

ISBN 978-1785861451

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Donald Duck Sundays

Walt Disney’s Donald Duck: The Complete Sunday Comics 1939-1942 by Bob Karp and Al Taliaferro [IDW; $49.99] is my pick of the week. These original newspaper strips were reproduced from the pristine original material in the Disney Vaults, the real-world equivalent of Scrooge McDuck’s Money bin.

Donald made his Sunday newspaper debut in several episodes of the popular Silly Symphonies page. His own comics page launched shortly after that and became an instant hit. Reading these strips, each a short comedic story that stands on its own, made it clear why that was the case. They are masterful little cartoons on paper featuring Donald battling against a world that defies him and often gets downright insulting about it. One has to admire the confidence of our man Don, as well as his endless optimism and pure stubbornness. Even though these strips are almost eighty years old and are clearly products of their times, they are still entertaining today.

Writer Bob Karp was a master gag writer. He started working for the Disney company in the 1930s and continued writing the Donald Duck newspaper strips into the 1970s. Artist Al Taliaferro was a great counterpart to Karp with the ability to add a surprising fluidity to his two-dimensional drawings. It’s easy to imagine these amazing strips as animated cartoons.

Donald Duck: The Complete Sunday Comics 1939-1942 was an absolute joy to read. I recommend it for readers of all ages.

ISBN 978-1631405303

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Red Hood and the Outlaws

Continuing my quest to get relatively current with DC’s super-hero comics, I read Red Hood and the Outlaws though issue #8 [$2.99 per issue]. Sadly, the title isn’t doing it for me, even though I think the team roster is nothing short of brilliant.

You have Red Hood (Jason Todd) who was Robin and therefore in line to be Batman before he got murdered and revived and turned into a mostly-but-not-always grim-and-gritty vigilante at odds with much of the super-hero community. You have Bizarro, who, as we know from countless stories, is an imperfect duplicate of Superman, but kind of likeable in his own way. You have Artemis, who is not completely unlike Wonder Woman.

Red Hood and the Outlaws stars DC’s big three except they are not the big three, just a twisted reflection of the big three. Which is a terrific notion. Out of the hope that this comic-book series will rise to the level of the terrific notion at its core, I’ll continue to read it. I aspire to optimism.

I’ll be back next week with more reviews.

© 2017 Tony Isabella