TONY’S TIPS #220

Marvel’s The Defenders will drop on Netflix on Friday, August 18. The series runs a tight eight episodes. Courtesy of Marvel Comics, I viewed the first two episodes at a special screening at the ABC Building in New York City. I was invited because, with my long-time friend Arvell Jones, I created Misty Knight. Along with Arv’s wife Wanda, others in attendance were Tom Brevoort, David Bogart, Brian Overton, Larry Hama, Michael Gaydos and son Kevin, Martha Thomases, Ann (Mrs. Archie) Goodwin and her family and others I did not know. It wasn’t a large gathering, but the screening room was very nice. I had a great time.

Don’t worry. I was just setting the stage. I know what you really want me to write about are the first two episodes. Let’s see if I can do so without too many spoilers…

Defenders 01

I was mightily impressed by the writing of Douglas Petrie and Marco Ramirez, as well as the directing of S.J. Clarkson. I doubt it was an easy task to bring together the leads and supporting casts of four separate series, refer to what has gone before in those four series and move the characters into a new story. Yet Clarkson and company wove together scenes of all the characters, taking care of both back story and new business and keeping the audience engaged in the overall story. Most of the scenes flowed well. I’ll discuss the ones that didn’t in a moment.

The Daredevil segments pick up with Matt Murdock having abandoned his super-hero identity to do satisfying pro bono work. A scene of him laying hard truth on a young accident victim was magnificently played by Charlie Cox, as was his ongoing struggle with the lure of his other identity. Also pleasing were his scenes with Deborah Ann Woll [Karen Page] and Elden Henson [Foggy Nelson]. I’m hoping the three continue to move toward their former camaraderie in the next season of Daredevil.

Jessica Jones [Krysten Ritter] is struggling with her new fame in the wake of her lethal defeat of Killgrave in her own series. Her adoptive sister [Trish Walker, played by Rachael Taylor] is worried for her and with good cause. Her friend Malcolm [Eka Darville] has insinuated himself into her stalled private eye business. All these interactions are wonderful.

Luke Cage [Mike Colter] is out of prison and finally has that cup of coffee with Claire Temple [Rosario Dawson], so brilliant as our doorway into all four of the series. Misty Knight [Simone Messick] is now part of a city-wide task force and steers Luke towards some ways he can help the Harlem community.

Iron Fist [Finn Jones] and Colleen Wing [Jessica Henwick] are still tracking down the Hand without much success. They get their asses handed to them by [redacted], but do find a lead that brings them back to New York. Sadly, the Iron Fist segments are the only weak link in these two episodes. Jones is not on the same level as the other leads and his mediocre performance doesn’t give Henwick much to work with.

Sigourney Weaver plays Alexandra, a character who is first shown as vulnerable and then elegant and then so scary she intimates one of the scarier supporting characters. If I had to name the top three performances in these episodes, I would rank her with the always-incredible Colter and Messick.

Defenders 02

The individual quests of the characters start to overlap in these first two episodes, though the entire quartet has not yet “formed” their team. Matt Murdock meets Jessica Jones in the second episode, “rescuing” her from a Misty Knight interrogation. It turns out that Luke Cage was represented by Foggy Nelson, who works for attorney Jeri Hogarth [Carrie-Anne Moss] who has represented both Jones and Danny “Iron Fist” Rand. Foggy’s outsourced some cases to his friend Matt and one of those includes representing Jessica. Luke tries to help a young man who has already lost a sister and a brother to the streets and that ties in with whatever Alexandra is planning. Which is the case with the missing person job pursued by Jessica. Luke’s “case” leads to his meeting Danny and an entertaining fight between them. None of this feels forced. Though we don’t know exactly what Alexandra’s planning, it’s clearly something major enough to affect the entire city. I can’t wait to see how it all plays out.

Defenders 03

Here comes the blasphemy part of my review. Although Luke Cage and Danny Rand are besties in the comics and generally work very well together in the comics, I don’t want to see a similar bromance in the Marvel Cinematic Universe unless actor Finn Jones ups his game considerably in the remaining six episodes.

My bottom line on the Defenders is that it’s well worth watching. Only doing eight episodes keeps the tension of the overall story at a high level. The first season of Luke Cage is still my favorite of these Netflix series, but I have an open mind as to where Defenders will fall on my list. It could be a contender.

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Defenders EW

Here’s a non-Defenders reflection based on the conversation I had with Marvel executive editor Tom Brevoort at the screening. Because I sort of relish my somewhat outsider status in the comics field, I don’t keep up with editorial comings and goings to the extent I should. On the other hand, to my credit, I also ignore the gossipy “Let’s you and he fight” click bait promoted by Bleeding Cool and other similar websites. But, yes, I should know much more about the editorial workings of the leading comics publishers.

Tom told me Marvel’s editorial staff numbers just a smidgin over a dozen editors and assistants. That boggled my mind given how many comic books they produced every month, how many of them are among my favorite current comics and how few of them are badly written or drawn. That doesn’t mean I like all of their comics. Readers here and elsewhere know that’s not the case. But that Marvel manages to pull this off with such a small editorial staff impresses the heck out of me. Next time you’re enjoying your favorite Marvel (or DC or other publisher) comics, give a thought to the hard-working editors who get those issues across the finish line.

That’s it for this edition of Tony’s Tips! I’ll be back next week with more reviews. See you then.

© 2017 Tony Isabella

TONY’S TIPS #219

This week’s pick of the week is Usagi Yojimbo Saga Volume 7 by Stan Sakai [Dark Horse; $24.99]. The 624-page trade paperback collects Usagi Yojimbo Volume Three #117-138 and 2009’s Free Comic Book Day story, “One Dark and Stormy Night.” It’s hard for me to imagine a week when Usagi Yojimbo wouldn’t be my top pick. Since 1984, there is no cartoonist who’s created more consistently exceptional work. If you asked me to name the world’s greatest living cartoonist, my answer, without hesitation, would be Stan Sakai.

Usagi Yojimbo is set at the start of Japan’s Edo period, which ran from 1603 to 1868. Miyamoto Usgai, is a rabbit warrior, masterless since his lord died in battle. Based partly on the famous swordsman Miyamoto Musashi, the ronin travels across the land on a warrior’s pilgrimage. He often interacts with the many friends he has made on his journeys and sometimes works as a bodyguard or bounty hunter. His skill is astounding. His compassion, courage and firm sense of justice are the equal of his fighting prowess.

For a little over a year, I’ve been reading Usagi Yojimbo from the feature’s beginning. I started with the two-volume collection from Fantagraphics and have continued with the Dark Horse books. I tried to read one story each day to make sure that I would read at least one great comics story every day.

In this volume, Usagi has to protect his somewhat larcenous friends Kitsune and Kiyoko and, in doing so, must face an evil wizard and said mage’s zombie warriors. In another story arc, the ronin must examine his feelings about honor and vengeance. In other tales, he becomes embroiled with crime gangs and outlaws. Sakai creates each of the adventures with a sure sense of character and storytelling, backed up by meticulous research in all the elements of the tales. Simply put, I am in awe of this cartoonist.

The next collection, due out this month, is The Usagi Yojimbo Saga: Legends. This unnumbered volume gathers some of the warrior’s most intriguing tales, including Senso, Yokai, and the long out of print Space Usagi. It will weigh in at 557 pages.

Usagi Yojimbo is a masterpiece of the comics art form. It belongs in the home library of every serious comics reader, as well as in every public and school library across the land. If the series is not already being studied as the great literature it is, it should be. It is an ongoing work of art.

Usagi Yojimbo Saga Volume 1 [$24.99]

ISBN 978-1616556099

Usagi Yojimbo Saga Volume 2 [$24.99]

ISBN 978-1616556105

Usagi Yojimbo Saga Volume 3 [$24.99]

ISBN 978-1616556112

Usagi Yojimbo Saga Volume 4 [$24.99]

ISBN 978-1616556129

Usagi Yojimbo Saga Volume 5 [$24.99]

ISBN 978-1616556136

Usagi Yojimbo Saga Volume 6 [$24.99]

ISBN 978-1616556143

Usagi Yojimbo Saga Volume 7 [$24.99]

ISBN 978-1616556150

Usagi Yojimbo Saga Legends [$24.99]

ISBN 978-1506703237

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Marvel Digest

Archie Comics have partnered with Marvel Comics to launch a series of digests reprinting the latter’s super-hero tales. Marvel Comics Digest #1 [July 2017; $6.99] features over 200 pages of Spider-Man stories in Archie’s standard 6.5″ by 5″ format.

This debut issue leads off with 1966’s “Just a Guy Named Joe,” the last Spider-Man story drawn by Steve Ditko, who also plotted this off-beat story of a boxer who gains super-powers. Stan Lee scripted the story.  That’s followed by a four-issue arc by Len Wein and Ross Andru from 1976. After that, we get more recent tales from various Spider-Man titles that retold earlier adventures or were out of the traditional Marvel continuity, including some based on the cartoon shows. One of the latter teams Spidey with Deadpool.

More than any other comics publisher, Archie rules the supermarket. The company pays dearly for check-out counter space, but does well with it.  Adding Marvel to the mix – the second issue of the digest series will feature the Avengers – is a smart move. I’m expecting we will see other Marvel heroes from the movies and maybe even TV appearing in digest form.

It would also be smart for Archie to work with DC in the same way. I think a DC Superhero Girls or Wonder Woman digest would sell very well these days, especially considering it would be seen by female and male shoppers with daughters. Those are potential comics buyers who don’t frequent comic-book shops.

I recommend Marvel Comics Digest for fun summer reading and, come the holidays, for stocking stuffers.

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Youngblood

Rob Liefeld’s Youngblood [Image; $3.99 per issue] has returned with new characters, new creators and a new situation for the heroes old and new.  I’ve read the first two issues of the title and plan to continue reading it.

I’m not very familiar with Youngblood in its various incarnations. The background of this new series is still unfolding in these two issues, but, someone along the past line, Youngblood became known as the world’s most infamous super-team. One of its members is now the president of the United States and another is suffering from a terminal condition. Young heroes are emerging and kind of sort of working together. When one goes missing, others launch the search to find him. Their efforts are met with opposition from yet another member of the original team.

Writer Chad Bowers does a good job here, though more clarity would be welcome. Likewise, more and quicker background information. Jim Towe’s art is pretty good as well. The bottom line is that this is a solid super-hero comic book.

Being pretty much a universe unto itself, Youngblood is the kind of super-hero comic that should appeal to those who find Marvel’s and DC’s super-hero universe too vast. I recommend it as a change-of-pace for those readers.

That’s all for this week. I’ll be back next week with more reviews and maybe a surprise or two.

© 2017 Tony Isabella

TONY’S TIPS #218

I’m just back from G-Fest, the biggest and best Godzilla convention on this side of the world. I had a wonderful time there, but that pleasure comes at a cost: this week’s column is running late. I’m determined to get my crazy schedule under control, so, hopefully, we’ll be back on track by next week.

I’m not sure what the official title of The Complete Sabrina the Teenage Witch: 1962-1972 [Archie Comics; $9.99] is. It’s listed as the above on Amazon and, on the cover of the 5.2 x 1.1 x 7.5 inches book, as Sabrina the Teenage Witch Complete Collection V1. What I’m absolutely sure of is that I love this 500-plus page gathering of ten years of Sabrina goodness.

The early Sabrina is my favorite version of the character. She is not evil, just selfish and thoughtless in the manner of many young people then and now. She was originally drawn with a devilish mien about her, a dangerously sexy look. Alas, her appearance was soften over the years.

Following an introduction by Archie Comics editor-in-chief Victor Gorelick, we get the first Sabrina story from Archie’s Mad House #22 [October 1962] by writer George Gladir, penciler Dan DeCarlo and inker Rudy Lapick. In just five pages, we learn everything we need to know about Sabrina, including her envy of the lives/loves of ordinary teenage girls. It’s a classic introduction.

Della the Head Witch was the next regular character to be added to the Sabrina stories. Aunt Hilda didn’t come along until 1964 and, apart from an earlier one-shot appearance, Aunt Zelda wasn’t added to the ongoing cast until 1971. There’s a one-shot crossover with Mad House’s Ronald the Rubber Boy early on with Sabrina not being placed in the Archie Universe until the success of the Archie songs and TV series made it advantageous to tie the teenage witch to the better-known characters. Even so, there were long-ish periods when Sabrina didn’t appear in solo stories or at all.

Though DeCarlo is the best of the Sabrina artists, there are some interesting and very good interpretations by other artists. There were a handful of stories drawn by Bill Kreese and Gus LeMoine. I’m fond of the LeMoine work and would rank him just below DeCarlo and tied with Stan Goldberg.

The early stories are the most fun for me, but the Archie Universe ones have their moments. When Al Hartley comes in to write and draw Sabrina for some Christmas specials, his religious proselytizing is a tad heavy-handed for my tastes.

The bottom line: I love having all these Sabrina stories collected in one volume. I’ve always liked the character and seeing how she was developed over her first decade of comics life is interesting. This book is a must-have for Sabrina and Archie fans and would be a swell stocking stuffer come the winter holidays.

The Complete Sabrina the Teenage Witch: 1962-1972 is my pick of the week. Check it out.

ISBN 978-1-936975-94-5

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ANAD Avengers

The Marvel Comics super-hero universe is a complicated creature and I’m not ashamed to admit it’s too convoluted for me to follow with any confidence. Which doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy many Marvel titles within that universe.

I take the position that each individual title is its own universe. It probably connects to other titles, but I don’t worry about that. If I try to figure out why some characters are appearing in several titles simultaneously, my head will explode. Most of us would not want that to happen.

There are approximately 3000 Avengers appearing in 127 comic books that have the word “Avengers” in their titles. That’s just a rough estimate, but I think my numbers are pretty close. Which Avengers appear in which title is determined by a fantasy super-hero draft not unlike fantasy sports drafts. Which may not be true, but is, at least, a pretty convincing alternative fact.

Writer Mark Waid seems to have done pretty well with his draft for All-New, All-Different Avengers. The roster listed on the “what has gone before” page of issues #14 and #15 [$3.99 each and the finales of the title that began a year earlier] listed Captain America (Sam Wilson, the one who’s not a Nazi), Iron Man (who I think is in some kind of coma), Thor (the Jane Foster one), Vision, Spider-Man (the Miles Morales one), Ms. Marvel, Nova and the Wasp (the daughter of Hank Pym). Janey Van Dyne, the first Wasp also appears. The spiffy keen art is by Adam Kubert and Jeremy Whitley is credited as a co-writer of issue #14.

You’re probably think my head is about to explode. It’s not. These two issues are done-in-one character stories centering around Nadia Pym and Jane Foster. In issue #14, Nadia, one of the very smartest people in the Marvel Comics universe, tries to figure out how she can bring the two Civil War II sides to find a peaceful resolution. In issue #15, Jane Foster is trying to decide which side she should be on while dealing with her mortal self’s terminal cancer. Despite the grimness of the subject matter and the impossibility of truly happy endings, both issues are uplifting. Nadia and Jane are true heroes, something still in short supply in most super-hero comics from any publisher.

I liked both issues a lot and will be following the new Mark Waid-written Avengers title. Meanwhile, can anyone tell me which of the Avengers titles drafted It the Living Colossus?

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Destroyer 1

Victor LaVelle’s Destroyer [Boom! Studios; $3.99 per issue] brings the Frankenstein Monster back to civilization in a six-issue series drawn by Dietrich Smith with colors by Joana Lafuente. We meet the Monster sitting on an iceberg and swimming with the whales, up to the moment when whalers slaughter said whales. The Monster exacts a brutal vengeance on the whalers and then hitches a ride with the animal rights activists who witnessed the carnage. Within a handful of pages, LaVelle hits the reader with the Monster’s grim reaction to “catching up” on the world via the Internet and follows that up with a violent surprise I didn’t see coming.

Destroyer had already hooked me. Then we got introduced to the last surviving member of the Frankenstein family and a genius scientist who lost her son and seeks to revive him. I’m two issues into this series and planning to stay right to the end. I expect the eventual meeting between the Monster and the scientist will be nothing short of stunning.

Destroyer is action, horror and social commentary. I recommend it to older readers. It’s well worth reading.

No conventions or travel for a bit, so I’ll be back next week with more reviews. See you then.

© 2017 Tony Isabella