Monday, February 12, 2018

POBB February 7, 2018

Pick of the Brown Bag
February 7, 2018
Ray Tate

Do you wake up every morning and say, “Crap.  That mangy, orange yeti is still sitting in the President’s chair.”  

Looking for a way out of that funk? May I again suggest that you watch Crisis on Earth X

This crossover makes you smile.  DC superheroes beat the tar out of Nazis from a parallel world and inspire instant hope that maybe we can defeat the Nazis rising now.  As of this writing, it’s still free to watch on the CW ap.

Welcome to the Pick of the Brown Bag, this week in comic book reviews, I look at Green Lanterns, Legenderry Red Sonja and Spirits of Vengeance.  Please note that I will be referring to Red Sonja as just Red Sonja, and Legenderry as Legendary.  It’s also tagged such.  I realize Dynamite wants to trademark the title, but misspellings irk me.  I also have a few words to say about Batman, Harley Quinn, Monstro Mechanica, Superman and VS on Twitter: #PickoftheBrownBag.  The books excluded in the blog just don’t rate a full review. 

I know what you’re thinking.  Did he, or didn’t he dare to try another X-Men book?  He did.

X-Men Red is comprehensible and good.  I can scarcely believe it myself.  You don’t need a flow chart to understand what’s going on.  The same crystal clear plotting that Tom Taylor employs in All-New Wolverine can be found here.  The story begins with an attack on a mutant girl.

Don’t worry.  She’s rescued spectacularly under the auspices of former Supergirl artist Mahmud Asrar.  This time, he's rendering X-Men Red.  X-Men Red consists of Jean Grey, Wolverine, Honey Badger, Nightcrawler and Namor.  Two other X-Men, Gentle and Trinary, complete the team, but I’m unfamiliar with them.  I’m sure Taylor will inform me painlessly on their who, why and what.  

Right now though, Taylor turns back the clock to explain the events leading up to this newest wave of hate for mutants.  The first involves a carjacking gone worse.

As the situation escalates, Wolverine and Honey Badger attempt a rescue only to demonstrate their amazing mutant healing powers.  Fortunately, Jean Grey shows up to quell the damage.

Wait, that’s not young Jean Grey.  It’s mature Jean Grey.  Isn’t she dead? Apparently not, and guess what I don’t know how she’s alive.  Come to think of it.  I don’t know how Jean Grey died either.  Probably Phoenix related.  In any case, Taylor doesn’t explain.  Instead, he focuses on what Jean’s doing here and why. 

Black Panther is the star of from what I hear is a phenomenal movie, but his appearance isn’t gratuitous.  Jean needs the Black Panther and his status support when she speaks at the United Nations.

Alas, an old X-Men nemesis wrecks what could have been a momentous step for humanity’s and mutantkind’s mutual benefit.  No, this time it’s not Magneto.

If you’re new to the world of Legendary, don’t worry, all will become apparent.  If you’re new to the world of Red Sonja, don’t worry, she’s very easy to understand.  The Red Sonja of the comics is the She-Devil with a Sword.  That pretty much says it all, doesn’t it? The world of Legendary is steampunk.  So, probably, Red Sonja will also be packing other weaponry like rail guns or flintlocks depending on the mood of the author.  The Steampunk genre ostensibly began with the reimagining of the Victorian Age.  The devices you see in old issues of Popular Science arise in this science fantasy world despite the limitations imposed by that old spoilsport physics.  Bill Willingham created Legendary, and Manhunter writer Marc Andreyko contributed the previous Red Sonja mini-series involving Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein and Captain Nemo.  You don’t really need to know this in order to enjoy the current mini-series, but you should really check out Andeyko’s first Red Sonja foray.  It’s smashing.

The new story begins as many Red Sonja stories do, in a tavern.  The proper Sonja is an infrequent card player.  More of a drinker than a gambler.  This Sonja is much more civilized, and she quickly roots out cheater Thorne.  You’ll find that many of the Legendary figures mirror other literary sources.  For example, Vampirella mixed with The Prisoner of Zenda characters. The Phantom and Flash Gordon plied their trade in the world of Legendary.  I’ve reviewed most of them.  So, if you’re looking for more opinions, just hit the tag.  

Tobias Thorne appears to be a whole cloth creation. He is not Rupert Thorne from the Batman series, nor inspired by Rupert.  He reflects the Dickensian type of crime lord that forces Sonja to retreat in lustily portrayed illustration by Igor Lima.

The plot and characterization orchestrates her escape across the rooftops until writer Andreyko introduces a facet of Red Sonja that may surprise readers of her regular titles.

The first mini-series details Sonja’s acquisition of The Nautilus.  Once aboard Sonja’s troubles fail to ebb.  It turns out that somebody needing Sonja’s help witnessed the exchange and decided to follow the She-Devil.  Not a good idea, and the execution is just insane.

Nor is Andreyko serious.  He imbues a lot of comedy to the story.   He christens the girl Tesla.  She is one of a pair of star-crossed lovers that inveigles Sonja into their affair.  

No, no.  It’s not a triangle. The girl’s woeful tale is pure Romeo and Juliet plunged like a neckline into the world of Legendary Red Sonja, and Sonja is not accepting any pleas, until of course she makes the stupid mistake of turning back on reason, which adds to the caper.

Spirits of Vengeance started out strong and finishes strong.  The story began in a bar where Johnny Blaze met an odd man with a bullet in his gut.

This led to the formation of a team of seriously dark heroes.  Johnny sought out Damien Hellstrom.  He in turn called in his sister Satana and the vampire hunter Blade.  

Wait, says you.  Isn’t this a magic-based book, and isn’t your reviewer a tough sell on magic?  An even tougher sell on Christian mythology?  Absolutely.  This should give you an idea at the amount of work that went into the making of Spirits of Vengeance.

I find magic-based media weak because magic seldom has a basis in reality.  That’s where writer Victor Gischler began his pitch.  Angels and demons exist in the Marvel Universe.  Their exact nature is debatable, but they do exist.  Gischler suggests that a Covenant exists between them.  One Angel and One Devil meet to broker a peace in their eternal war.  There’s a flaw in the protocols.  The Covenant doesn’t bar humans.  That’s where the fun begins.

The laughing arch-demon is Damien’s and Satana’s father, and he just explained the plan to them like any old villain, but Gischler adds depth to the standard reveal because of the tumultous father-siblings relationship.  I mean.  He’s just being petty and gloating over the oneupmanship he seems to have pulled on his kids.  Spirits of Vengeance mostly reads as a pure drama leaning toward crime.  There’s a “patsy,” a scheme to upset the peace between two rival families and a group of tainted do-gooders trying to stop the whole explosive situation.  Of course, the boss’ goons try to ice them.  These goons just happen to be out of town talent.  Way out of town.

The angels act as policeman who rather than sit traditionally on the sidelines recognize the good work of the protagonists and clean up the larger mess.  Thus, like the classic turn in pulps.  The private eye can focus on getting the Big Bad.

Monsters Unleashed’s David Baldeon furthermore adds to the worth of the book.  Originally, magic-based books were drawn like every other book, but that changed when Vertigo entered the fray and started to employ unique visions that balked against tradition.  These maverick illustrations became tropes in themselves.  Baldeon’s cartooning is refreshing.  Satana always looked hot as hell in comics, and her usual uniform comes from the same bolt as Vampirella’s swimsuit.  She’s a sexiful feast for the eyes.  Being a succubus, she’s supposed to be.  Baldeon with his lank designs and unembellished anatomy turns Satana’s tease into something else.  Satana is still beautiful, but she’s as well unearthly, elfin.  She’s a creature of myth and her exotic clothing is a second skin worn in complete comfort.

When Gischler invokes magic, it’s often disguised mythology.  In one issue, Gischler detailed the origin of the silver used to make the bullets that can fell angels.  The weapon is forged in a rationale for a sensible curse.  The smithy in a previous issue mentioned his ties to Norse works.  The fallguy’s henchwench Razan arises from Egyptian lore.  Then there’s "The Purloined Letter" aspect to Spirits of Vengeance.  Gischler laid out how the conclusion would play in the title.

Tim Seeley’s Green Lanterns starts out superbly with a group of heroes banding together to stop an everyday disaster and alleviate the victims’ lives.  Some in the comic book world see superheroes as no better than the fascists they fight.  Others see them as various metaphors.  I imagine how better the world would be with superheroes in it.  Humans are fragile.  We can die in so many ways.  None of which we wrought.  A superhero can do more than just stop a bullet.  She can clap her hands and dispell a hurricane.  In this case, the champions of DC divert a flood.

Afterward, Green Lantern meets up with the Bulleteer, one of Grant Morrison’s and Yanick Paquette’s Seven Solodiers.  She's based on the Golden Age Fawcett heroine Bullet Girl.  Seeley paints upon Bulleteer’s essential blank slate.  She knows the Night Pilot.

The revelation leads to all sorts of things.  Jessica becomes acquainted with Caper, the superhero version of Tinder.  Her swipes open up the book to Seeley’s humor; playing with conventions of male/female partners in crime and the fluidity of sexual orientation.  Mostly though it draws the Lanterns attention to a human trafficking ring that deals in low-powered, manageable superheroes.  Even if Green Lanterns fostered the worst art in the world, the title certainly doesn’t, I’d have to give it points for a highly original storyline.

I would however like to know what the hell is Power Girl doing on earth one? She went home to earth two a long time ago.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

POBB January 30, 2018

Pick of the Brown Bag
January 30, 2018
Ray Tate 

Brace yourself for a massive POBB.  This week I review All-New Wolverine, The Amazing Spider-Man: Renew Your Vows and The Apocalypse Girl.  I’m not absolutely sure that I’ll get to the tweets of this extraordinary yield of comic books, but if so, you can find them via #PickoftheBrownBag on Twitter.

Writer El Torres would like you to think that Apocalypse Girl is about a pimple and the title girl’s period, but these normal hum-drums are incidental to an otherwise fascinating post-apocalyptic mashup of ideas.  For example, in 28 Days Later, a woman needs to not only worry about zombie attacks, but also about being rescued by Christopher Eccleston’s Henry West.

This guy thinks its a great idea to rape women in order to Adam and Eve the decimated planet.  Every save is an act of fundamental betrayal.  El Torres addresses Henry West in The Apocalypse Girl.

Our fearless leader Mac starts out with a mad look in his eyes, but as the scene progresses, we discover his concern for Metis, the Apocalypse Girl, is borne out of humanity not commodity.  To emphasize the point, El Torres simultaneously uses him as a representative of the LGBT community.  In other words, Mac’s ethics are above board.  He has nothing personal or unsavory riding on Metis’ safety.  He just thinks its a good idea.

We get a glimpse of angel technology.  Thus, El Torres combines several conspiracy theories into one.  Angels as aliens.  Angels as warriors of the End Times.  Aliens in the End Times.  However, the angels cannot be considered the perfect, celestial beings of religious scripture.  Bigendered, they argue and bicker with each other.  Furthermore, the chance of losing the war against the devils persists. 

El Torres excels when characterizing the devils.  Rambo Borrallo impresses when visualizing them as crosses between Hieronymus Bosch and Maurice Sendak.  The devils entertain for the majority of scenes.  Their double speak thought balloons and strange powers uniquely amuse as well as unsettle.

As weird as the apocalypse appears to be in El Torres' destroyed world, there’s still room to question what the Apocalypse Girl sees.  Her mother is in fact a mummy.

Metis took refuge in a museum.  She hears the voice of her mother in the form of the mummy.  Given the war between Angels and Devils and giant monsters destroying civilization, a mummy isn’t too hard to swallow, yet only Metis hears her.  So, this could just be a delusion created from loneliness.  The voice disappears when the gang reunites to fight the invading devils.

This bloody act and the nudity of the angels indicate that while the heart of Apocalypse Girl is an all-ages idea of overcoming the odds with the embrace of unity it’s in fact an excellent mature drama laid out in comic book form.

Jody Houser picks up Amazing Spider-Man: Renew Your Vows with the interruption of Parker Family Fun Day.  The Lizard interfered in the Parkers’ trip to Coney Island, but last issue, he made this startling request.

Inspired by 20th Century Fox’s The Alligator People, Stan Lee’s and Steve Ditko’s Lizard originally was the well-meaning Dr. Curt Connors.  

Connors’ attempted to heal the world’s amputees with the regenerative powers of reptiles.  This isn’t at all far-fetched.  Reptiles and mammals share a common ancestor.  Scientists in the real world progressively sought to isolate the genes associated with reptile regeneration.  They furthermore still hope to replicate the feat in humans.  

Over the years, Curt struggled with his dual nature.  The nihilistic modern age lobotomized Curt Connors in favor of his scaly alter-ego.  While Jody Hauser doesn’t reverse the process, she does grant the enterprise hope, familiar to any Bronze Age fan.

The meeting of the minds catalyzes a number of paths in Renew Your Vows.  The most obvious is a classic right vs wrong scenario perpetuated by a lunatic, or is he?

Houser takes a number of twists from the tried and true method, leading up to a killer cliffhanger.  But that’s only the physical attribute of the big reveal.  The less tangible qualities of the scene demonstrates Spider-Man’s experience and his willingness to impart that knowledge to his daughter.

Thus, creating a splendid moment of self-worth realization, also beautifully rendered by artist Nick Roche.  You may go into Renew Your Vows thinking that it’s a bit of harmless fluff, where Mary Jane has spider powers and she and Peter have a daughter, but when you come out you’ll find yourself most satisfied by a superb speech from Spider-Man, nuanced interactions and ethical quality.

The current story arc in All-New Wolverine started out with a group of crackpots called Orphans of X deciding to kill the X-Men.  Their first move, declaw the group by eliminating the Wolverine Family.

Tall order, but made a little easier thanks to the original Wolverine seeking out a Japanese sword master to anneal a blade capable of ending his son Daken.

Back in the day, nobody liked Daken, and why should they? He was a stupid, emphasis on stupid, Wolverine clone, that actually wasn’t, with two claws instead of three.

The designers of the character appeared to be saying he’s almost but not quite Wolverine.  Oh, and he constantly joins up with the villains.

That changed in All-New Wolverine.  In writer Tom Taylor’s view, Daken is essentially a misanthrope who received a taste of what it’s like to be a hero thanks to the events on Roosevelt island.

Taylor draws in the threads he’s been weaving since he first began the book.  He granted Laura a Robin in the form of her diminutive clone Gabby here now known as Honey Badger.  Gabby’s the voice of reason and the moral compass.  She’s also the one that convinced Laura to trade in her tights for practical battle gear.  It likely inspired her idea to defend her family.  

Taylor challenges Sabertooth’s statement, and he even convinces me somewhat.  I first encountered Sabertooth in Iron Fist.  He was essentially what Jaws was in James Bond and Dark Vader was in the original Star Wars, a henchman.  As with any X-Men character, his history became much more complicated.  Chris Claremont intended for Sabertooth to be Wolverine’s father.  That origin fell by the wayside, and instead Sabertooth became another product of Weapon X.  The Wolverines are victims.  That’s key to evolving a satisfying ending that doesn’t just rely on slice and dice but empathy and understanding.

Monday, February 5, 2018

POBB Harley Quinn Special

Pick of the Brown Bag 
The Harley Quinn Special
Ray Tate

Difficult to believe, but once upon a time, no Harley Quinn books existed.  I kid you not.  No, Harley Quinn.  No, Harley Quinn's Black Book, and no Harley Quinn team-ups with Betty and Veronica or gangs of Harleys.

The Joker had henchwenches before, in 1966’s Batman, and a kind of girlfriend in Legends.

However, none of these characters possessed the depth of Harley Quinn or fulfilled her role as an abused love interest that’s also the Joker’s lieutenant.

“The Joker’s Favor”

We can credit Paul Dini, Bruce Timm and Arleen Sorkin for propelling Harley to comedic stardom and the evolution of her character in Batman: the Animated Series.  

You expected Harley to appear in the Animated Series spin-off comics, and the Powers That Be didn’t disappoint.  What you couldn’t predict is her debut in the post-Crisis.

Harley Quinn premiered in a Big Bleak Stupid Event,
 a one-off “No Man’s Land” issue of Detective Comics.  From there, she found a better showcase under the aegis of Karl Kesel and Terry Dodson.  

That series lasted thirty-eight issues and continued to promote Harley as a resident of the DCU.   Gotham City Sirens followed teaming her up with Catwoman and Poison Ivy.  Again in context.

When Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti took over Harley's adventures, all bets were off.  Harley Quinn a genuine funny book was tangential to even the shinier, more optimistic New 52.  

Harley Quinn now fit only in the kinder version of the DC Universe that Palmiotti and Conner first brokered for Power Girl.  

Before Conner and Palmiotti say good-bye to Harley Quinn, they had to ask what would happen if she found a genie in a bottle.  I mean, it’s a burning question, yeah?

Harley spots the bottle underwater, almost drowning in the discovery.  Fortunately, Harley’s luck and Palmiotti’s and Conner’s blatant disregard for barriers between multiple earths draws in the first guest star.

The two talents genuinely like Power Girl.  The affection shows in the playful burlesque.  Harley’s got a massive girl crush on Power Girl, but the attention span of a fruit fly.

Djinn or genies in legend are remarkably evil spirits.  They've been bottled, jammed and trapped for good reasons.  Sydney Sheldon on the other hand saw the comic possibilities in genies.

As did Warner Brothers, Robert McKimson and Warren Foster with "A-Lad-In-His-Lamp." Voices by Mel Blanc and Jim Backus.  Not to be missed.

Harley Quinn shares the luxury of unlimited wishes and redos from both stories.  None of the traditional three wish nonsense.  The genie will grant any wish of its master.  Furthermore, Conner's and Palmiotti's genie is as benevolent as Jeannie.  The faults lie in the wishes and the wisher.

Harley quickly figures the ins and outs of genie "ownership" long before Major Nelson did.  So, begins a tour-de-farce of Harley's imaginative wishing with multiple artists to boot.  The much sought after Conner contributes the lion's share of the illustration for the anthology, and none of the other artists disappoint.  

The first deviation comes from Chad Hardin when Harley wishes something for she and the Joker.

That's still Conner.  Unfortunately, I can't show you any of Hardin's art.  This is an outrageous short due to the visual expression of the subject matter.  The resulting future for the Joker is a winner as well because it just turns the stereotype role inside out and upends the classic animated episode Mad Love.  Otto Schmidt then joins the party for dropping Harley into the Justice League.

The story goes horribly wrong because of Harley's flexible reality clashing against the stricter League code and the group's stubborn refusal to give up physics.

The League will return later in the pencils and inks of Conner when Harley makes the most out of an obvious desire. Before that, Harley takes a page from Doctor Doolittle.  This episode enjoys the success one expects. 

They next transport Harley to a desert paradise, but she finds it lacking something.  Sex.  The Bronze Age of comics discreetly introduced sex in the lives of super-heroes.  The post-Crisis operated on the Final Girl principle.  The New 52 on the other hand granted heroes healthy sex lives.  Palmiotti and Conner were only too happy to oblige this newish trend.  Harley figures that her perfect mate will be her male version.  What can possibly go wrong?

At some point I'm sure she would have come to the conclusion that many fans have.  Harley's perfect match is the Conner/Palmiotti Poison Ivy.  Perhaps, she didn't want to include Pam into her fantasy because on some level Harley knows these wishes will always result blowing up in her face.  

Harley decides that a greater dose of reality may remedy her predicament, but reality for Palmiotti and Conner happens to be Jack Kirby stalwart Kamandi.

Kamandi only operated once without Planet of the Apes homage, and in Harley Quinn he's no different.  The plethora of anthropomorphic invaders forces Harley to go back to a much more innocent time courtesy of Ben Caldwell.  

Here's another example where Palmiotti and Conner twist expectations.  Harley's reduction to infancy is actually the punchline for a number of genie stories.  Conner and Palmiotti however dope out that the genie is smart enough to recognize the demands of its master no matter how tiny.  

The wishes keep coming, until finally, Harley reaches her last straw.  What happens next isn't the tried and true method for genie disposal.  Instead, Palmiotti and Conner come up with something more interesting that allows them to fall back on Harley Quinn's intrinsic themes.

Palmiotti's and Conner's last issue of Harley Quinn begins with Harley and Ivy behind bars.  No, Batman didn't put them there.  He's apparently still cool with Harley and Ivy.   The story of how unfolds.

After securing rooms, Big Tony, Queenie, Harley and Ivy go to the bar and grill to invert well worn cliches and mine them for comedy gold.

This is what lands them in jail.  Palmiotti and Conner during this gag, slap in a brilliant meta joke that echoes Ryan Reynolds' days on the laugh out loud funny sitcom Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Shop.  Just now collected on DVD from Shout Factory.  Awesome, people, a must have.

Harley’s parents bail she and her friends out of the pokey, and it’s homecoming day.

Palmiotti and Conner go through the traditions of family, and artist John Timms has a lot of fun bringing animation to the brothers’ antics.  He gives everything an almost Chuck Jones fuzziness.

As Ivy sleeps, and the brothers sleep it off, Harley schemes to visit her second family, and they have a surprise for their clown mistress.  From there it's champagne wishes and one last double-entendre in an ending that recalls Palmiotti's and Gray's final issue of Jonah Hex.

Frank Tieri’s first issue of Harley Quinn came out a week after Jimmy Palmiotti’s and Amanda Conner’s last.  As you can see, Conner is still providing the covers.  Iani Miranda who partnered with Tieri on Catwoman provides the illustration.  You might not recognize Miranda’s elegant linework.  Colorist Jeremiah Skipper imbues a darker sheen to the whole book.  Not bad.  Just different.

Tieri still keeps a lot of what Palmiotti and Conner introduced.   Coney Island still serves as a backdrop.  Big Tony opens the story with a drunken head-butting contest followed by an abduction.

The Gang of Harleys return as does Red Tool, but Harley is in a funk for this issue.  So, it’s difficult to determine where Tieri will take the character.  Other than the funk of course.

The comedy in Harley Quinn detaches from the zany.  Tieri instead opts for a running gag of comparing the whole investigation into Tony’s abduction as a Scooby-Doo plot.

You’ll get no complaint from me on that front.  It’s fairly obvious that Man-Bat has something to do with the whole shebang, but Tieri puts in several twists.  The question is whether or not these twists are still tangential to the DCU proper, or if Harley Quinn takes place in the DCU.  I’d still go with no.  

For one thing Jeremiah Arkham actually seems like a decent human being that actually wants to help the criminally insane.  He also appears to regard Harley as no threat.  Otherwise why would he allow Harley wannabes outside the bars of his asylum?  Regardless, Tieri's Harley Quinn is well written, funny in places and actually a decent fair play mystery. 

The second issue of Frank Tieri’s Harley Quinn is equally entertaining.  The Harley-Bat swoops down on unsuspecting Coney Islanders, including her friends.

Traditionally, Man-Bat and ilk possess super-strength and claws that rend through a human like a grater through cheese.  Harley’s holding back.  

The fact that she’s holding back answers one of the questions.  Harley Quinn is still tangential to the New 52 proper.  The Harley of the Suicide Squad is quite insane and more feral than she is here.  She's a friggin' Man-Bat.

As the graphic demonstrates, Harley decides to rescue her friends from the murderous Man-Bat.  The Scooby-Doo jokes and the outright gags fall by the wayside.  Instead, Tieri makes the whole exercise quirky, relying on the eccentricity of Harley's hodge-lodge cast.  Tieri furthermore arrives at a satisfying explanation ushered by intelligent questions voiced by a strong female character for why Man-Bat chose a course of action bound to clash with Harley Quinn.