1000 Comic books You Must Read
By Tony Isabella
Reviewed by Howard Lee
When I first saw Tony Isabella’s 1000 Comic books You Must Read It took me a while before decided to get the book mainly because of the title. I mean 1000 Comic books You Must Read sound like an invitation to disaster. Being a long time comic book fans I have read lots of comic books over the years and many of them have become my favorites, but I would really hesitate to tell any true comic book fan that these are the comic book they must read let alone devote a whole book my choices. After all what I might thing is a great comic may be crap to another comic book fan. Still I bought the book and started to read Tony’s personal best in comics and found out that this was more than just his list of favorite comic book but his true love-affair with comics. Tony Isabella who has been a writer for both DC and Marvel since the early 80’s and creator of DC’s Black Lighting one the first African-American Superhero to have his own title. Takes us on a journey of not only the history of comic books but how comic book played an important part of his life.
After reading Tony’s book twice I realized that the best way to review Tony’s book is to do it as it relates to my own love affair with comic books since Tony and I are close in age and both grew up in the mid-west Tony in Cleveland and me in Chicago. I also found that Tony’s list is not to far from my own so let’s get started.
In chapter one of Tony’s book he talks about how comic books have influenced American culture and the one comic book that really created the superhero genre Superman. Superman who was created by Cleveland teen-ager Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster as Tony quite rightly writes about is what comics are all about Superman with that superhero with the solid moral core that came from another planet and show us how humans should treat each other. Tony then tells how Siegel and Shuster’s creation even as Clark Kent is here for all the Clark Kents in the world who are all Supermen at heart. I am one of those Clark Kents as a child grown up in Chicago I read Superman comics as well as Batman like Tony I went to my local Walgreen, Woolworth or mom and pop store and bought comic books almost every week with the quarter I earned which was a lot for me back in 1960 when I started buying a reading comics. (Yes, 1960 I have been reading comics for about 50 years I still love them) That gives me the right to really look at Tony’s book as some one who grew up at the same time and since we are both from the mid-west we are practically neighbors.
In chapter two Tony deals with the comics from the 30’s and 40’s and why this was called the Golden Age of Comics. While Tony starts with the usual suspect from the 40’s DC Universe like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman plus other the original Justice Society of America members The Flash, Green Lantern, and Hawkman. But Tony goes a bit deeper into the Golden Age DCU with lesser known superheroes like Jonny Quick, The Boy Commandos, and the Newsboy Legion both created by Jack Kirby.
Moving through the 40’s Tony visits early Marvel Comics characters like Capt. America, Sub-Mariner and the Human Torch. He also brings in the lesser known Marvel superheroes like Miss America and the All Winners Squad which was like Marvel version of the JSA. Both groups came out in the 40’s and during WWII they fought the Nazi and the Japanese. During the 40’s many kids and soldiers read their favorite superheroes fought the Axis powers. But less you think that only DC and Marvel where the only superheroes fighting the Nazi you would be wrong comic books in the 40’s had many comic book publishers like Fawcett their character Capt. Marvel not only fought the Nazi, but gave DC’s Superman a run for his money not only was Capt. Marvel Superman’s chief rival but the competed with him on ever level from comics, toys, radio programs and movie serials. But DC finally did get the best of Capt. Marvel by suing Fawcett for copyright infringement putting an end to Superman’s chief rival. Another comic publisher who score a major hit in the 40’s was Quality Comics their Military Comics that featured The Blackhawks they were a band of pilots from European countries under Nazi control who came together to fight to free their people from the evil of the Nazi. Like Capt. Marvel the Blackhawks became to popular that they are also made into a movie serial and like Capt. Marvel the Blackhawks became part of DC in the 50’s when DC bought out Quality Comics.
Tony wisely included one of the longest running comic book heroes that still being published today Will Eisner’s Spirit. The Spirit at times was comical and sometimes overly dramatic was and is still very popular (As the recent Frank Miller movie proved) Tony has brought together some of the best Spirit covers including “The Man Who Could Fly” if you read only one Spirit story that is the one. For me the Spirit was one of my favorite I actually thought the 1980’s Spirit t.v. movie was quite good. Plus in the 80’s I did contact Will Eisner to see if I could produce a play based on the Spirit.
Now less talk about the lesser known superheroes of the 40’s Tony has brought together the best and the worst of the 40’s comics. These superheroes got really down and dirty with the villains and showed them no mercy. I must warn you if you are not a fan of Golden Age comics or just not interested then these next superheroes will not mean anything to you. Jack Cole’s Plastic Man who’s elastic body helps him fight crime was once the criminal Eel O’Brien who during a crime gone wrong is dropped into a vat of chemicals like The Joker but unlike The Joker, Plastic man turned his life around and became a force for good. Now let’s talk about some of the worst comics of the 40’s these comics are better confined to the pages of comic history. Boy Comics’s Crimebuster was an attempt to create a superhero for boys, but Crimebuster was not much of one and his costume did not strike fear in the hearts of criminals only laughter. Now I know that funny animal comics were a staple of many comics companies in the 40’s for me none of them was were really very good so I never looked for them or bought them.
Now let’s get real down and dirty these following superheroes where some on my favorites and I am surprised that Tony featured them in the book, but I am glad he did. When I became a serious comic book collector in the 70’s I started to collect these comics mainly because of the stories and the artwork even though early 40’s comic book art was some times crude and rough there is an honesty to that early work that can not be duplicated today. The first was Daredevil not the Marvel Comics of the 69’s but the Daredevil from Silver Streak Comics of the 40’s Daredevil was created by Jack Cole who was also the writer and artist of Plastic man. This Daredevil in his red and blue costume really gave it to villains in the 40’s including Hitler and got the job done. Unfortunately in the 50’s Daredevil brand of justice was not in line with the rules of comics he became a part of Boy’s Comics where he was teamed with The Little Wise Guys similar to the DC Newsboy Legion of Star Spangled Comics and when Lev Gleason boy comics was canceled that was the end of Daredevil. The next superhero is The Green Lama he was a mystic from Tibet who use magic to not only solve crime but to change the world by ending the social evils that cause the real troubles of the world. The Green Lama by Spark Productions stay around just a bit after the 50’s but went the way of many companies in the 50’s.
Now two more superheroes of the 40’s that was not mentioned by Tony that should have been part of this list that is the Black Terror another one of these not by the book comic book superheroes who took the fight to the villains and followed his own rules of justice. Even his costume showed he means business an all black costume with skull and crossbones on the front if you are a villain you know you’re in trouble. Now here the good part these three superheroes are back thanks to Dynamite Comics they have brought them back in all their glory to fight today’s evil with good old fashion 40’s style. I am glad their back. (I am not getting paid to plug Dynamite Comics I just love those characters) Just one more of my favorites from the 40’s that should have made the list is The Crimson Avenger who like The Shadow struck fear into the hearts of criminals which was not easy since he was as short is the Golden Age Atom. Not if you didn’t know that the Golden Age Atom was short but very strong trying explain the Crimson Avenger is going to be hard let just say this don’t let size fool you.
Getting back to the 40’s Tony starts to show how that after the war many changes are happening in the U.S. soldiers are coming back and comic book heroes don’t have the Nazi to fight tries to fight regular villains but after fighting Nazi local criminals pales to world wars, but that’s not all that is changing returning soldiers are not reading comic books any more they are more concern with getting their life back and kids where now being entertain by a new thing called television. But the real problem was comic book where now under attack from all sides, poor distribution, weak sales, and most of all comic books were blamed for the growing juvenile delinquency. This perfect storm set up the near downfall of comic book industry in the 50’s.
The dreaded 50’s for me the 50’s was not only the decade I was born but the worst time for the comic book industry not because there where no great artist or writers, but the restrains that where put on them by the self-imposed comic book authority code. There where few bright spots during this time. The only superhero comic books that seem to survive the 50’s where the big three from DC Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman but even they had to become family-friendly to stay ahead of the comic book code. The stories were not the best but they did keep the fans buy. I should know I was one of those fans. This was not the case at Marvel by the beginning of the 50’s all of their stable of stars were gone no Sub-Mariner, Human Torch or Capt. America. Other comic book companies like Fawcett the publisher’s of Capt Marvel and Quality the publisher’s of The Blackhawks did even worst eventually the where both bought by DC Comics.
So what did comic book fans read in the 50’s well most comic book read like the B-movies of the time. In the 50’s cheap B-movies from producers like William Castle and Roger Corman was everywhere. That seems to be in comics too the comic book publishers like Dell/Gold Key Comics, Marvel and DC came out with westerns, funny animals, TV and movie ties, and romance comics. But Tony bless his comic collector’s heart did profile the bright stop of the comics in the 50’s EC Comics line of comics that included the classic Mad Magazine, Weird Science, Shock Suspense Stories, and Tales from the Crypt. Even though EC comics read like some of those B- horror movies the art work was so good the stories so scary at least they were to me they were great comics and considered some of the best comics ever published. But the downside of comics in the 50’s was the comic book were blamed for the rise of teenage violence and the whole industry was almost banned by educators and the government until the comic book publishers came up with the self-imposed Comic book Authority Code that is still enforced today.
My 50’s collection didn’t have many comics from EC, Marvel, or Dell. I was still a Batman and Superman fan with few exceptions. But as the 50’s was coming to the end several things started to happen at DC Comics. They started to revamp and bring back their superheroes from the 40’s to a new generation of comic book readers like me. In 1956 I was just a year old when DC Showcase #4 came out with the revamp “The Flash”, but that was not the comic that I collected sorry Barry. My favorite comic that I collected every issue until 1988 came out in 1958 Adventure Comics #247 the first appearance of the Legion of Superheroes. Thanks Tony for including it in this book it’s definitely one of the “1000 Comic Books You Should Read” As the 50’s moved closer to the 60’s DC revamped another 40’s superhero “The Green Lantern” this time making him part of an intergalactic police force. (another un paid plug you have to watch Green Lantern: First Flight) So even as the 50’s was closing not only was DC reinventing itself with the return of the golden age superheroes another long thought rival will turn comic book industry on its head.
But before we talk about the 60’s there is one comic book from the 50’s that Tony included that deserves recognition that’s “The Adventures of Tin-Tin” if you haven’t heard of Tin-Tin that not unusual. Its not a U.S. comics book is comes from Belgium about a young adventurer like Jonny Quest who travels around the world with his uncle and dog helping people. Tin-Tin was an animated series in the 60’s that I used to watch as a child.
Now to the 60’s the 1960’s was the year everything changed in comics its now called “The Silver Age”.