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VIDEO SERIES GIVES NEW DIMENSION TO COMIC-BOOK ART FORM

The world of comic books has its own firmament of celebrities, consisting of the artists and writers responsible for the costumed superheroes that every month save the Earth from destruction.

Some are so well-known, such as Stan Lee, Marvel Comics editor emeritus, that even the non-comics reader may recognize the name.So it is that Lee himself serves as host for a new line of cassettes called "The Comic Book Greats," which can call itself a series now that Volume Two has been released. Distributed by Stabur Home Video, each of the first two (50 minutes, $19.95 each) focuses on one artist who is seen in conversation with Lee and later working at his board. The one-on-one format seems strangely static for people who work in the action-filled, melodramatic medium of comics, but fans of the form probably won't notice - they'll be hanging on every word.

The first tape features Todd McFarlane, the heir to Marvel's popular Spider-Man character and the young man credited with injecting new excitement into the comic. The second focuses on Rob Liefeld, a 23-year-old "Wunderkind" from Anaheim, Calif., who turned professional at age 19. Liefeld, who can be seen on television in a Spike Lee commercial for Levis jeans, is credited with writing and illustrating X-Force, a comic that sold five million copies.

Both artists are personable and unassuming, rather in contrast to Lee's promotional style that's well-honed from years of hyping his Marvel comics. It's interesting that while McFarlane and Liefeld make passing references to DC Comics, Marvel's rival, the name never passes Lee's lips. Are we to assume that "Comic Book Greats" will never interview an artist from the house of Superman and Batman? A Stabur spokesman says no; tapes on non-Marvel artists such as Sergio Aragones and Will Eisner are on the way.

Lee's questioning primarily concerns the artist's working habits and how he began his career. The subtext is that the viewer is an aspiring comic-book artist. If you are, these tapes contain invaluable insights into the degree of obsessiveness that drove these two. McFarlane, who is allowed to introduce his wife and 6-week-old baby, mentions the 80-hour, seven-day work weeks of his early years.

The aspiring artist will also hear some sound insights from McFarlane into the need to develop one's own style. When he took on responsibility for Spider-Man, he says, he decided not to copy what had gone before despite his admiration for the artists. While acknowledging that he came to be regarded as a maverick among co-workers, his comment that an imitator can never produce anything more than a good imitation has the ring of wisdom.

For the second half of the tapes, McFarlane and Liefeld repair to drawing boards for practical demonstrations of their craft, with Lee looking on. McFarlane shows how to achieve depth effects with a few deft touches, and Liefeld creates (supposedly right on camera) two new superheroes.

Enjoyable as "The Comic Book Greats" videos are, there is one glaring omission: Almost no completed artwork is seen. A few blowups serve as backdrops in the studio, but I had expected the camera to linger over wonderful panels of McFarlane and Liefeld at their best while they chatted on with Lee.

Where to get the tapes: "The Comic Book Greats" series is distributed primarily to comic-book shops, but titles can be ordered directly from Stabur Home Video, 800-346-8940.