A longtime showbiz journalist and fan's thoughts on comic books, movies and other cool stuff.

Tag: Jim Lee

Comic-Shop Memories: Fantasy Comics, 1989-90, Tucson, Ariz., Part 1

I don’t remember why I stopped shopping at AAA Best when I started my junior year at the University of Arizona. Instead, I starting shopping weekly in Tucson at Fantasy Comics, which is located at 2745 N. Campbell Ave.

Fantasy was in an unremarkable one-story building, with a glass case at the front full of its more expensive comics. New releases were racked to the immediate right. The rest of the current comics were stocked in alphabetical order in racks that stretched to the back of the shop. The main floor featured lots of back issues. Charlie Harris, a frequent DC “letter hack,” either owned the store or worked there.

One of the most memorable things for me about shopping at Fantasy was that back issues were in heat-sealed bags. To get them open, you needed scissors, so there were lots of discarded comic bags in my trash.

Into the Trek comics wormhole

I fell deep into Star Trek at the time. DC published in August new Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation series that I really enjoyed. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier had done poorly at the box office and with critics, but Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s third series debuted in September and was by far its best to date.

But it was the classic Star Trek comic that really caught my eye. It had clever scripts by Peter David and slick art printed on good paper from the team of James Fry and Arne Starr. And nothing beat those covers by Jerome K. Moore. They are spectacular and I never tire of looking at them or admiring the skill Moore brought to those illustrations.

My Star Trek obsession led me to a Star Trek convention experience that cemented my fandom for that franchise. It was a weekend Creation Convention at the Tucson Convention Center, with special guest Patrick Stewart.

Prior to Stewart’s entrance, Gene Roddenberry’s assistant, Richard Arnold, previewed upcoming episodes of The Next Generation. These were sneak peeks at some of the best in the series’ run: “Deja Q,” “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” “Sins of the Father” and “Captain’s Holiday.”

Stewart appeared for a charming Q&A session at the end of the day. Among the secrets he revealed: He had accepted a teaching job at the University of Arizona. But the offer slipped through through the cracks and after landing the role of Captain Picard, he never looked back. What might have been!

Marvel’s X-Men on the rise

The other hot franchise was X-Men. It had been a best-seller for years at this point, but new artists raised the excitement to a new level. Jim Lee’s arrival on X-Men seemed inevitable after lengthy runs on Alpha Flight and Punisher War Journal. He did a few issues here and there at first, before taking the full reins in the summer of 1990. At the same time, Rob Liefeld also was pitching in on X-Men titles and getting some heat. He took over the penciling chores on The New Mutants in 1990 and introduced Cable, another high point. Erik Larsen took over penciling The Amazing Spider-Man from Todd McFarlane, who was set to launch a new Marvel title. With Marc Silvestri jumping from X-Men to Wolverine, the seeds of the Image revolution were taking root.

But Star Trek had sort of taken over my mind. I collected the first DC series, re-watched the movies and original TV shows, and even enjoyed some of the Star Trek novels. “Writer of Stuff” Peter David was the creator whose work I most enjoyed, leading me inevitably to The Incredible Hulk.

Lost in the aisles of Bookman’s

Fantasy was but one of the shops I frequented that year. Another mainstay was Bookman’s, a used-book store that filled a former grocery store space with tons of fascinating objects. Each visit took hours, it seems. I’d start with out-of-town newspapers and move on to a newsstand section full of old and new magazines. Then there were aisles full of used books, cassettes, CDs, and bargain low-grade comics. I always flipped through Comics Scene and the Comics Buyers Guide, catching in the latter news of a Peter David signing at All About Books and Comics in Phoenix. I skipped out on school to drive up from Tucson in time to hit the Thursday evening event.

The Hulk tour hits Phoenix

The signing was part of a tour promoting David and artist Dale Keown’s work on The Incredible Hulk. Keown had only drawn two issues of Hulk at this point, and the signing was sparsely attended. That gave everyone a chance to hang out with David and Keown and chat about a lot of things. David signed several Star Trek issues for me, a Next Generation novel he’d written, and some Hulks. He joked about calling his editor back in New York to rave about the warm Arizona weather.

To my surprise, Keown hailed from Alberta, so we talked about Canada and Arizona, as well as comics. I remember he sold the splash page to The Incredible Hulk #367, his first issue, for about $150. A few years later, I saw the same page for sale in another Phoenix-area store for many multiples of that.

The signing was part of a mini-tour that continued that weekend to comic shops in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. All About produced a poster for the signing similar to the McFarlane one I wrote about previously. Mine is framed but in storage.

Hunting for back issues in Tucson

After that, I started seriously looking for back issues of The Incredible Hulk. David had been writer on Hulk for about three years, and I began by tracking down his back issues. I often visited a Tucson shop called Comics and Things, located in a strip mall at 3934 E. Grant Road, in search of Hulk and Star Trek back issues. It had a good selection of recent back issues but soon vanished into the ether.

The writing and art on Hulk surprised me. David started with a fairly conventional Hulk story with McFarlane on art. Their collaboration ended with a satisfying climax that completely changed the series’ premise. David next turned the Hulk gray and got him a job as a high-end Las Vegas bouncer named Joe Fixit. Jeff Purves drew this run and did a fabulous job before disappearing from the world of comics.

Hulk was so good that Sam Kieth drew the fill-ins — if you could call them that.

Keown drew Hulk for the next three years, and it became was a huge hit. David stuck with the title for years after, and still writes new Hulk stories from time to time. Great stuff.

How much is too much Batman?

This also was a time when Batman was still riding high on the popularity of the Tim Burton movie. So Batman was super-hot and DC released in the autumn of 1989 Legends of the Dark Knight #1. Promoted as the first new solo Batman book since 1940, this series set free top talent to do their ultimate Batman story.

The first issue also marked the first time I remember variant covers from a major publisher, as DC promoted the book with a second cover that came in four different colors. They said in the book that it was “just for fun,” but the result surely made DC’s accountants happy as fans decided they needed to have a copy of each color — and therefore bought four copies of that first issue.

Pointing out the differences between Tucson and Phoenix, that first Legends of the Dark Knight sold out immediately down south. The same was true of The New Titans #60 and 61, which were key parts of the current Batman storyline, “A Lonely Place of Dying.” I easily found both on my first comic shop stop on my next trip to Phoenix.

Next: My short career as a “letter hack.”

Reviews: Hulk #1, DD #5, Cold War #1, Last of the Greats #1, Aquaman #2, Justice League #3

The Incredible Hulk #1 was better than I expected. Not having read the book in years, I missed out on and don’t understand most of the Red Hulk stuff or what mental state Bruce Banner and the Hulk are in these days. I therefore expected to be confused, but wasn’t, though I’m sure it helped that I recognized the Mole Man’s underground minions. Writer Jason Aaron did a good of job of putting it all together and making sure there was some actual action in a first issue. The art by Marc Silvestri et. al was quite good — definitely Silvestri’s distinctive style but amped up with some nice detail that came through quite well in the inks and was well-complemented by Sunny Gho’s colors. That said, I”m not interested enough in the Hulk to make this a regular read at $3.99 a pop.

Daredevil #5 is another terrific issue from Mark Waid and Marcos Martin. This reads very, very smoothly and is clear enough that I think the average reader could pick it up and understand pretty much the whole thing. It looks incredible, too. Martin and colorist Javier Rodriguez deserve very high marks for making such a great-looking book.
Cold War #1 is a new, period espionage thriller from John Byrne that I was mildly disappointed with because I thought Byrne had done such a great job on the revived Next Men series. This isn’t quite as good as that, as it’s just a bit too restrained and dated. The dated part is on purpose, as though this is a series Byrne has wanted to do for decades, i.e., a time when this kind of thing would have been much more relevant. It’s still a nice modern Byrne comic, though, with solid art and decent storytelling. It just doesn’t have the kind of zip that a book like this should have.
The Last of the Greats #1 by Joshua Hale Fialkov and Brent Peebles is for me a tough one. I like the concept, which is that seven alien beings came to Earth and used their powers to solve many of mankind’s problems in return for demanding control and fealty from the people of Earth. People then turned on them, and all but one were killed. The issue begins with six humans coming to the last of these aliens, dubbed the “Greats,” and asking for his help with a fairly big problem. But I think the execution is talky and exposition heavy, and think this could have been much more compelling by show more than telling.
On to the DC relaunch books, Aquaman #2 was about the same as the first issue — a story that’s slick and commercial if not particularly deep — but it was the cover that struck me the most. My first thought was it was a recolored version of the cover to Star Wars #64, my least-favorite issue from the original Marvel series. It’s close enough to be an homage — or a swipe if you’re so inclined — but it’s far too distracting for me and I don’t know I will remember much else about this particular issue.
Justice League has been getting better with each issue and #3 is the best yet. Finally, we get to meet Wonder Woman, and she both charms and kicks ass. The action kicks into high gear with a huge invasion from Darkseid’s minions, while writer Geoff Johns delivers a nice chunk of the ongoing Cyborg origin subplot. It’s interesting to note the ways in which Jim Lee’s art has evolved as well as the ways its stayed the same. The finale’s introduction of Aquaman gives him a hairstyle, facial hair and costume straight out of 1996. Some other details, like the cops on the first page also look a bit dated. But the way Lee draws his heroic figures — both men and women — has improved tremendously from his days on The Uncanny X-Men, with anatomy and posing that’s overall more realistic and more solid looking. Wonder Woman here is a far cry from the somewhat plastic looking sexy Psylocke from way back in the day. Anyway, issue #4 looks like it’s going to be a barn-burner.
That’s only a fraction of the stack I’m looking to get through, so I may just stay up late and read funny books until my eyes pop out of my head to get a look at more New 52, the Fear Itself epilogues and more X-Men: Regenesis.

Reviewing DC’s Justice League #1 in print and in digital

I haven’t reviewed new comics in a while, though I’ve had a few requests and will get some comments on those books up in the next day or so.

In the interim, DC’s New 52 kicked off yesterday with the release of Justice League #1. I got a copy from DC, and found it to have some good points and some bad. I also tried the digital edition on my iPhone and that spurred lots of ideas on what works and what doesn’t about that format.

But first, the comic itself is good but not great.

Jim Lee and Scott Williams deliver some fantastic looking art. It’s attractive and highly detailed and colored well by Alex Sinclair. And while Lee’s never been the very best storyteller in comics, he’s also much better than he used to be and the book is an attractive and easy read.

As usual, Lee’s designs for Batman, Green Lantern and Superman are powerful and modern. I especially like the intense detail Lee and Williams give to Green Lantern’s powers.

I almost think the art is too detailed, though that may just be my middle-aging eyesight speaking. When this gets collected into a slightly larger format like a hardcover, I think it’ll look even better because there will be a bit more room for these details to shine.

The script by Geoff Johns is a bit more mixed. This issue takes an approach similar to that of the first episode of a TV series. We start knowing nothing, get a big splash of action with Batman, and then introduce some conflict as Green Lantern shows up and the pair head straight for a confrontation with Superman. There’s also a sub plot introducing Vic Stone, who eventually will become Cyborg. The issue is quickly paced and reads well, though some of the dialog is a bit stiff.

And that’s it. That’s all that happens. There’s some decent action, some decent characterization and a solid finish, but there’s just not quite enough story here to build the anticipation that I think would make readers truly excited to come back for issue two. It’s close, but if this was a double size issue that featured at least a glimpse of all the characters on the cover and conveyed a sense of where this was going, it would have been a much stronger read.

I expect reactions to this book will be all over the place. Something like this brings so many pre-conceived notions and inflated expectations with it, that there is no way it will play the same way to any two readers.

So the copy I received from DC was the digital combo pack version, which costs a dollar more than the regular version and includes a code for downloading the digital version of the comic.

I have not been a regular reader of digital comics. Part of it is just that I prefer to read comics in print and part that I haven’t really enjoyed my attempts to read comics on a computer screen. I don’t have an iPad, which seems to be the ideal device for reading digital comics, and my iPhone is great but I just can’t see myself reading many comics on so tiny a screen.

Still, I tried it out on my iPhone and it worked quite well. The code, which is printed on the inside back cover, is a fairly long 32-character alpha-numeric code. I can imagine some folks might get frustrated at having to type in such a long code for each digital comic, but it worked for me on the first time. I entered the code at the website on my laptop and Justice League #1 was assigned to my ComiXology account and available to read on my iPhone instantly.

Reading the comic on the iPhone was a good but not perfect experience. The art looked good and the way the phone transitioned from panel to panel was intuitive and easy. I kind of liked turning the phone every so often to get the displayed panels to fill the screen. What things got problematic was on the larger images — panels that take up half a page or more. It was just not easy to see what I was looking at in those panels. I expect the iPad would not have the same issue.

What this digital experience left me wondering, though, is why DC is packaging its comics in two editions. Why charge an extra dollar for the digital code instead of just making them packaging them together in a single product? I think comics are expensive already without having the option of paying even more for another edition of the same thing. When I buy music, either on CD or digitally, I have the right to listen to it on my computer, my iPod, my car stereo, my living room, etc., for no extra cost. I’d be far more likely to read digital comics if they came with the print comics I’m already buying at no extra charge.

Similarly, I would think anyone who pays the full price for a digital comic should have the option to get a print copy if they want it. And It’s not at all clear to me if DC (or anyone else) is offering digital subscriptions similar to the way iTunes sells a Season Pass for TV shows. A reasonably priced digital subscription plan that included print copies is something I would think hard for people to pass up, while at the same time having the potential to boost readership in both print and digital.

With the first huge wave of first issues set to arrive next week, I find myself hoping for surprises. Everyone’s going to read Grant Morrison’s Action Comics #1, but what I would really like to find is a few hidden gems from further down the list. I’m playing wait-and-see on these books and want to look at them before I decide which ones to pick up. But I really hope this experiment makes room for the kind of fun, strange and interesting mainstream comics that the major publishers have had trouble making a go of in recent years.

Beyond that, we’ll see.  

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