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Friday, September 12, 2008

Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko/220 pgs. & $39.99 from Fantagraphics Books

Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko/220 pgs. & $39.99 from Fantagraphics Books/by Blake Bell/sold in comics and book shops and at

This critical retrospective celebrates the work and life of one of comic’s most original and fiercely independent cartoonists in the last fifty years, Steve Ditko.

Not only is he the co-creator of Marvel Comic’s Spider-Man and creator of Dr. Strange, he is, without question, the leading proponent in comics of the Objectivist philosophy of life established by writer and novelist Ayn Rand. Objectivism is similar to libertarianism. He has paid a heavy price for that philosophy; Ditko has never received the financial remuneration he deserves, admittedly because of the restrictive contracts that he signed when it was common to do so in the publishing industry.

Ditko’s reality based art has a subtle awkwardness in human stance and an off-kilter perspective in the environment of his characters that has made it unique and perfect, in particular, for teenaged Spider-man and mystic Dr. Strange.

This volume is full of this art, the characters he created, and of his personal history, including a more implied than stated criticism of his philosophy and the negative impact it has had on his career as an artist. Therefore, if you’ve ever wanted to work in comics or to know about the working conditions therein, or what it means to be creative in the world of art, Strange and Stranger is for you.

If you’re a comics fanatic who wants to learn the above plus as much as you can about the man and the artist named Steve Ditko, this book is also for you.

Since Ditko is in his 80s at this writing, I doubt their will be a more comprehensive retrospect published during his lifetime. This wonderful book receives the highest recommendation.

Review by Michael Vance

Check out Dark Corridor #1 for two Michael Vance short stories at

Sigil - From 2001

Average. It is not a description that any creative person covets.

As example, in an editorial section of the comic book Sigil, someone wrote: So what started out as a nice homage to science fiction and classic film stereotypes ends with just about every preconceived notion turned upside down and inside out. "Ask Mark Alessi," Barbara [Kesel] joked. "I'm allergic to doing anything exactly the same way it's been done before."

That sounds like Barbara doesn't like average.

But Sigil is nothing but a nice homage to science fiction, full of stereotypes, and turns nothing upside down or inside out.

Sigil is average.

Sigil is about two races in an intergalactic battle with gigantic space-ships and heavily armored human and alien warriors. Boy, that's original. One of the warriors gets an odd brand on his chest that gives him a super power.

Well, at least it isn't a ring and a green lantern.

Enough about words. What, ancient reviewer, is earth shattering and revolutionary about the art?

Do you like Japanese comics art? Then you'll like Sigil. Once again, there is nothing wrong with Japanese comics art, and certainly nothing deficient in this variation of that national style. It is vibrant, due to excellent coloring, visually energetic, and wholly entertaining. It tells the story. It is above average.

It will not adorn the ceiling of any Italian chapels or the walls of any art gallery.

Enough about art. Enough nit-picking. Enough, already.

Apparently, this publisher bragging about originality and excellence brings out the worst in this reviewer. So, after the harsh, negative comments, it is important to remember that Sigil is not a poor comic book. It just isn't the powerhouse claimed.

Although Crossgen has not realized its hype of creative superiority, Sigil is entertaining and worth a read.

Sigil: Mark of Power/$19.95 & 192 pgs., from Crossgen Comics/story: Barbara Kesel/principal artist: Ben Lai/available in comics shops and at

Review by Michael Vance

Scion - From 2001

The Heron Dynasty of the West, and the Raven Dynasty of the East uneasily coexist on the planet Avalon. Annual competitive tournaments, steeped in ceremony, release tensions that would otherwise lead to war between the two factions. Thus begins Crossgen Comics' first trade paperback collection of their hit comic Scion, in a story entitled "Conflict of Conscience".

When the young Heron Prince Ethan's tournament sword inflicts a wound upon his opponent that the beings known as "gene splicers" are unable to heal, he is held in contempt of the competition, and is to be imprisoned by the Dynasty to the East for one year. But when a beautiful member of an underground movement, seeking to free the genetically engineered "lesser races" from slavery, frees Ethan, the Raven clan decides it's time for war. And from there, things get even more interesting.

Let me say this about Scion: It's worth buying on both aesthetic and literary levels.

Penciller Jim Cheung, and Don Hillsman II on inks, treat readers to a bright, vibrant world that may be the most well conceived blend of medieval and science fiction aspects ever done in comics.

The artists, however, turn right around and show an underbelly of the world that is as dark and foreboding as the rest is inviting. In short, with this series, they appear to have nearly mastered their craft.

Writer Ron Marz weaves a tale of political intrigue that hooks the reader almost from the very beginning. The action is there for comic-adrenalin junkies, but there is no danger of overdose, as the spacing of sequences is just right, and it is always well-motivated. Most important, however, the writer's characterization shines as Ethan is faced with a moral dilemma, the roots of which are all too real in our world, as well as his.

The long and short: Scion does not disappoint. Look for it in comic shops and bookstores. Call 1-888-comicbook for your nearest local comic shop.

Scion, published by Crossgen Comics, 192 pages, $19.95.

Mark Allen

Safe Havens - From 2001

The Safe Havens Yearbook/ $12.95 & 150 pgs., Plan 9 Pub./sold in book stores, by mail and on the internet at

The first joyful flower of spring struggles out of the soil only to discover it has grown at the base of a playground slide.

"Geronimo!" shouts an unseen child at the top of that slide.

"Oh, crud," laments the flower.

On one level, that taste of Bill Holbrook’s The Safe Havens Yearbook may be the perfect metaphor for working one’s way through the real public school system in America.

On several other levels, however, Holbrook’s public school does not exist in the real world. Drugs, teen pregnancy and violence cast no shadows in the halls of this school. Holbrook focuses on the gentle, whimsical side of life in Safe Haven, and that is certainly legitimate fodder for commentary. In Holbrook’s case, a teenager’s struggles to find a niche in society and a self identity cast long, witty, touching, funny and insightful shadows.

This cartoonist’s art perfectly sets his stage. Thick, simple linework speaks visual volumes about this simple, straight-forward world. Neither is he a stranger to clever, visual sleight-of-hand to make a philosophical point: Witness a young boy walking in a snow-globe as a huge hand picks it up and shakes it. Now the boy walks in snowfall and muses, "Where does all this pollen come from, anyway?"

Holbrook’s cast also includes a teacher with more piercings than the target at an archery contest, a school mascot always in costume, and Samantha, a girl becoming a young woman. In fact, she and all of Holbrook’s characters visually age and grow with time.

Firmly rooted in the traditions of school and family comic strips, The Safe Havens Yearbook has nevertheless found its own unique voice, and one that entertains and intrigues.

Isn’t it time you enrolled?

Yearbook is highly recommended for readers of all ages. The comic strip On The Fasttrack is also produced by Holbrook.

Review by Michael Vance

Rio - From 2001

A friend of mine (who is a comics enthusiast) once gave his father (who isn't) a work of sequential art to peruse, at which time his father asked, "Is this another one a' them dang funny books?" Something like that.

Later, good ol' Dad would hit his son up several times about another installment of that entertaining book, which, at first, he didn't even want to read.

The point?

There is comic book material out there to interest far more people than are currently reading it. That is one of the things this column is all about, broadening the comic-book-reading public.

The creation? Doug Wildey's Rio.

Rio is a former gun-fighter, road agent, and train robber, who, in the course of his many adventures, earns a full pardon for his crimes by working a special assignment for President Ulysses S. Grant. In his travels, he encounters other such historic figures as Jesse James, and the Apache renegade, Geronimo.

The stories combine authentic western locales with interesting characters, both served up with pretty-as-you-please pencils, inks and paints.

Doug Wildey is not just another comic book artist, with all due respect to comic book artists everywhere. His love of the Old West shines through all of his Rio work. His work on the subject has, in fact, been featured in numerous gallery showings, such as the 1992 Nevada show entitled "The Best of the West."

Throughout the stories, however, it's difficult to determine what really steals the show, Wildey's art, or his incredible knack for characterization and story telling. Doug Wildey was one of the medium's true treasures.

There are currently three Rio graphic novels available; Rio, published by the now-defunct Comico Comic Company, Rio Rides Again, by Marvel Comics, and Rio At Bay, from Dark Horse Comics. Prices range from $6.95 to $9.95, with a page count of 60 to 70. Comic shops, bookstores, and online searches can yield results in locating these works. Locate your local comic ship by calling 1-888-comicbook.

Review by Mark Allen