Saturday, September 20, 2014

POBB: September 17, 2014

Pick of the Brown Bag
September 17, 2014
by
Ray Tate

This is a short week for the Pick of the Brown Bag.  You can thank DC and Future's End for that.  This issue we look at Gwen-Stacy: Spider-Woman, Bionic Woman and Sirens.



When Gwen Stacy is bitten by a radioactive spider, she gains proportionate strength, preternatural speed, surface adherence, the ability to produce and shoot webbing as well as an eerie sixth sense.  Gwen immediately abuses these abilities for self-promotion, but the egotism doesn't stick.



Gwen's protective nature foreshadows her evolution into a superhero, but not before history slants at an even harsher angle to catalyze the birth of Spider-Woman.



Reinventing two Spider-Man tropes, Peter Parker dies in Gwen's arms.  Now, Gwen dedicates her life to fight crime and better the world in honor of the tragic emulation she feels responsible for.  

This was amazing.  For the first time in a long time I actually could read a Spider-Man related comic book without the burning memory of J. Michael Straczynski pimping out Gwen Stacy to Norman Osborn or without feeling rage over Marvel's decision to wipe out Peter's and Mary Jane's marriage.  Cause Mephisto, who never actually met Spider-Man before, was hurt by their love, dontcha know.  The whole idea of Gwen Stacy being Spider-Woman tickles the hell out of me, especially after the ending to Amazing Spider-Man 2 left me utterly disappointed.  What's more I could imagine Emma Stone portraying this vivacious web-slinger.  

Writer Jason Latour conceives a unique Marvel elseworld, in which the women traditionally associated as adjuncts in Peter Parker's life gain substance by becoming independent primary and secondary characters.  



Gwen is part of a band called the Mary Janes.  The group consists of leader Mary Jane Watson, Glory Grant, Gwen and possibly Sha Shan.  Dig deep for that one.  She's the Vietnamese wife of Flash Thompson in the original Spidey history.  Music however is the second most important thing in Gwen's life.

When Gwen puts on the elegant gorgeously hued costume of Spider-Woman, she becomes not just a knock-off of Spider-Man, but a singular champion of justice.  The powers are the same. The behavior and comedy is different.  Furthermore, Gwen has an advantage that Spidey didn't have.  She's a police captain's daughter. 



Why Can't Batgirl Do This?

The story picks up in the middle.  J. Jonah Jameson fomented a hate storm against Spider-Woman thanks to she being implicated in Peter's death.  The police have a warrant for Spider-Woman's arrest, and they're genuinely freaked out by her.  



I get the impression that in this universe, Gwen's the only superhero.  She's an unknown quantity, and her sole status grants a certain urgency to her crusade.  Latour demonstrates this difference overtly.  A super hero in common continuity turns into flunky slime in the parallel world.  He triggers the threat for the issue.  Our flunky's boss sees an opportunity to gain a debt from Gwen, not knowing that the hit on Captain Stacy is a hit on her father.  

The contract leads to a hellacious fight pitting Gwen against a vastly stronger and more massive foe.  This must be her normal.
  

We haven't seen the periwinkle fellow around before.  A big reveal ends the done-in-one with style.  In short, I would gladly put a Gwen Stacy Spider-Woman series on my subscription list.



Portrayed with stellar depth by Lindsay Wagner, Jaime Sommers and Steve Austin had been in love since they were kids in Ojai, California.  It was only natural that the famed astronaut would marry the tennis star.  Tragedy struck during a skydiving accident.  Informed by a remarkable performance by Lee Majors, Steve begged friend and boss Oscar Goldman to do what would have been unthinkable for Steve a few years ago.


The bionic couple seemed now to have it all, but the memory of their relationship generated agonizing pain in Jaime.  An operation saved her life, but it obliterated the memory of romance; thus freeing Jaime to be the Bionic Woman in her own successful spin-off series.  

The memory loss angle was a tragic yet life-affirming new beginning for Jaime.  It eliminated the potential criticism of the Bionic Woman being the rib to the Six-Million Dollar Man.  Indeed, The Bionic Woman was another ground breaking series that took advantage of the cultural watershed of the Equal Rights Movement.  It also satisfied the viewers moved by her "death" in The Six-Million Dollar Man that demanded the Bionic Woman's return.

Dynamite's first Bionic Woman series by Paul Tobin updated Jaime and restructured OSI.  Well-written and overall well-illustrated by numerous artists, the recommended series gave Jaime new bionic abilities, a previously unknown friend and an antagonistic relationship with Oscar Goldman and OSI.  In that series, Jaime tackled a group that harvested bionic parts for wealthy buyers and helped free the Fembots, the most memorable of Bionic Woman villains, from enslavement.



This new series is more in the vein of the television series.  Writer Brandon Jerwa, whose work I seldom appreciated before, neatly characterizes Jaime to tailor fit Lindsay Wagner's performance.  Artist David T. Cabrera draws upon the actress' appearance for the design.  Rudy Wells, Jaime's doctor and engineer, and Oscar Goldman also resemble the distinguished actors who essayed the roles.  They are not dead-on likenesses, but a good blend.  In addition, both men are Jaime's friends, not thorns in the side.

The story starts as a simple one that could have unfolded on the television series, and only relying upon seventies special effects.  



The cut-and-dried task actually could have also occurred in any period, and if you watch classic television, that's a theme.  Ignore some of the dated fashions, makes of cars and phones, of all things.  Most episodes of Bionic Woman still feel fresh.

Jaime finds a welcoming committee when she and her team of OSI operatives try to collect the satellite.  



Despite what new intelligence member Agnes may say, General Morales is far from friendly.  He admires Jaime's abilities in the same way a foodie might admire a toaster.



The satellite pickup turns tricky without nudging from Morales' duplicity.  That was another hallmark of the series.  Simple things suddenly become more complicated, and Jaime needs to use her bionic abilities in complex ways to prevent disasters from happening.  Morales simply takes advantage of any situation to place Jaime in peril and protect whatever his secrets may be.  Bionic Woman is not all Murphy's Law.  Jerwa includes judicious cameo appearances from Bionic Woman guest-stars that facilitate the feel of the series and set the time of the tale.

I picked up Bionic Woman expecting mediocrity, but instead, I'm adding it to my subscription list.  While I had issue with Jerwa in the past, he seems to understand the show and why it still holds in the hearts of fans.  Artist Cabrera definitely studied his subject and overall he presents an animated reflection of the television series while taking advantage of the comic book medium to translate some thing the series wouldn't afford to do.  Colorist Molina's desert shades further the illusion.



I had the opposite reaction to George Perez's Sirens.  I thought that this would be a sure thing, but I'm afraid it wasn't.  It's not that I didn't like the book.  I couldn't understand a word of it.  

As near as I can figure, the Sirens are a group of either a) immortals; b) time travelers c) time traveling immortals; d) time placed agents of some sort or e) all of the above.  The time-hopping threw me, and I'm a Doctor Who fan!  The characterization of the Sirens is more interred in the plotting, and they all seem to be connected to one woman known as her Madame Vizcarra or Highness.  That's really all I got.  Um...dragons seem to like them, but bad guys don't?

The jump-cuts, all the dialogue--and sister, there's a lot of it--period specific character casts combine with Perez's legendary attention to overload the senses.  I really wish I could say otherwise, but I came away from Sirens wondering what was it all about and what was it all for?


Tuesday, September 16, 2014

POBB: September 10, 2014

Pick of the Brown Bag
September 10, 2014
by
Ray Tate

The Pick of the Brown Bag is open for business.  This week I review Captain Marvel, Copperhead, Judge Anderson and Dawn/Vampirella.



Copperhead by Jay Faerber is a science fiction western, but despite the presence of aliens, it's more western than science fiction.  The sub-genre was popularized by Joss Whedon's Firefly.  Other laudable television series like Defiance have followed in Whedon's footfalls.

With her son Zeke in tow, a new sheriff, Clara Bronson, moseys into a problem-filled town.  The genre lovers reading that line probably didn't raise an eyebrow over the implication of a female sheriff.  I'd like to say that represents a shift in culture, but it sadly doesn't.



U.S. Department of Justice
Office of Justice Programs Bureau of Justice Statistics 

We live in a bubble where we expect women to be equal to men.  Women as private eyes, police officers, sheriffs or leaders doesn't strike us as strange, but the reality is that women still do not even earn as much money as men when doing the same job.  Idiots in power keep trying to control their sexuality, and violence against women is considered normal even in the United States.  It's important to understand that what we read and watch is wishful thinking.  Gender equality is a must if we are to advance as a species.  We must make these fantasies a reality.  Until then, we must recognize the difference.

Faerber's depiction of primitive male behavior feels almost charming in its antiquity, but these persona are met by women everywhere, every day.
  

The sheriff gives the lecherous males a lesson in manners.  This as we'll seems normal, but the reality is that the average man is always stronger than the average woman.  That strength has been man's sole advantage, and too many are willing to use it.  So what this Sheriff Bronson does is quite amazing, even if it doesn't seem so.

Clara finds no help from her own men, but at least it's not due to male chauvinism.  Her alien deputy wanted the job.  So, he barely conceals his resentment.  Of course, he might not be a he to begin with.

Sheriff Bronson gets her feet wet in a domestic squabble conducted by green potatoes with a decidedly country twang...



...then meets the Big Bad of the story accompanied by perhaps the only major science fiction element. 


The purple skinned gents are known as Artificials, which raise the hairs on the back of the Sheriff's neck.  No doubt there's some bad blood there, or an homage to Ripley from the Alien films.  In any case, the Artificials don't fit the traditions or tropes of the horse opera.

Faerber's story is well-written, but it's not quite distinctive enough to necessitate a purchase for comic book fans on a budget.  His message about gender however is laudable and should be commended, even if it doesn't seem particularly special to us.  Remember.  Geeks breathe rarified air.  Artist   

Scott Godlewski's layout maximizes the action and intrigue while presenting an overall lean look that let's colorist Ron Riley's hues pop.  This area of the project provides the science fiction, with aesthetically tailored body armor and the aforementioned spuds as well as the enigmatic Artificials, but it also exemplifies the disconnect.  It's as though Faerber were writing a western and Godlewski and Riley had other ideas.

Will Judge Anderson meet her demise in the jaws of a gator? Of course not, but it makes for a good opening.  

Anderson emphasizes how unusual a fate this would have been, and it's true.  You wouldn't expect the Mega-City girl to wind up dead in the belly of a natural beast, in a swamp.  More like succumbing to multiple wounds sustained during the sanction of a criminal organization. 

Anderson and her fellow Psi-Judge, DeGroot investigate the appearance of psi-powered Mutants turning up to aid and abet at a crime scene. Psi-Judge DeGroot is Anderson's swamp-guide.  She possesses the unique ability to tap into the life force of her environment, this allows her to absorb the topography of the land in which the plant life dwells.



One of the things that makes this book worthy of your coin is the intelligence behind the story.  Writer Matt Smith immerses himself in the world of telepathy and telekinesis.  Anderson makes moves that only somebody familiar with psi-powers would make.  These tactics are still innovative and identify Anderson as an imaginative thinker.  The mind-set distinguishes our favorite Psi-Judge from your average everyday law bringer, even in her own field.

When Anderson and her fellow Judge combine forces, they find a slaughterhouse that leads to a legendary crime figure from Mega-City history.  Ashberry is the Keyser Sose of Mega-City.  Although, this fellow is very real, having encountered Anderson's erstwhile partner Dredd.

In between watching the detectives, illustrator Carl Critchlow demonstrates the exotica of the psi-realm.  These scenes could have easily drifted into the erotic, what with the traditional implication of nude astral bodies.  However the all-business attitude and Critchlow's depiction of restrained femininity keeps preserves the intent.



Joseph Michael Linsner's Dawn is part artistic mascot and part horror host.  As Linsner explains in his afterward.  He was inspired by Vampirella, who doubled as an action hero in her own adventures and the host of the B side features in her Warren magazine.

When a demon has a vision of being the father of a baby with two different colored eyes, he decides to abduct the most likely mothers: Dawn and Vampirella.  He intends to have the ladies fight it out and rape the winner; there's really no getting around that.

So at first glance there's a lot to object to in this historic meeting, but are the objections sound?  I judge no.  Obviously, the implied rape is an unsavory element, but it's supposed to be.  Dude's a demon.  They don't play nice, and it's highly unlikely he'll succeed anyway.  The threat of rape is a perfectly valid plot device because it acknowledges reality, adds suspense and gives the hero of the story a potential escape.  Linsner isn't undercutting his tale with rape-as-titilation.  He's using the threat as a logical outcome from the subject.  

Then there's the scantily clad stars, but frankly you should have known what you were getting into when you saw the ladies' names.  Vampirella and Dawn always bare skin.  They're not meant to be kiddie super-heroes.  Besides, when Linsner's drawing rather than painting, his artwork leans toward the cartoony side.  The result is burlesque not eroticism.

To preclude bloodshed, Dawn suggests that she and Vampirella hold a story-telling contest.  Though freedom isn't in the bargain.  Dawn and Vampirella face a lust-filled demon.  He's not going to play fair. The demon of course knows his captives stall for time.  He believes they cannot win. but he's willing to give the ladies hope before he crushes it.  

Linsner's Dawn Vampirella winds up being less of a riff on The Tales of the Arabian Knights, which bears much more elegance than even the common definition belies.  Linsner's tale instead is far more innocent, abrim with humor, but with the potential, however improbable, for greater brutality.

In the frame of the anthology, Vampirella and Dawn are as you expect them, but in the vignettes, they take on different roles and behave as portrayals.  In other words, they are actresses.  



The necklace is something Vampirella or Dawn might wear.  So these tales are told within the ladies'  perspective.  Through the point of view, Linsner eschews an inherent problem with unrelated flip-sides in anthologies.  The tertiary characters are seldom as interesting as the hosts.  Having Vampirella and Dawn play different parts immediately invigorates the shorts.



After the strong space adventure for the premiere, Kelly Sue DeConnick opts for an all out comedy issue pitting Captain Marvel against Rocket Raccoon over the identity of the Captain's cat.



DeConnick uses the catalyst to kick off the next antic.  Artist Marcio Takara perfectly captures the amusing gestures and body language of all parties.  You'll be done with the book in five minutes, but you'll still be glad you bought it.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

POBB: September 3, 2014

Pick of the Brown Bag
September 3, 2014
by
Ray Tate

Welcome to the Pick of the Brown Bag.  My name is Ray Tate, and here's what I'll be reviewing today: Angel and Faith, Doctor Mirage, Futurama Comics, Justice League, Moon Knight, Scooby-Doo Team-Up, Shadow vs. Grendel and Vampirella.

If you're looking for reviews of the Future's End titles, look elsewhere.  I'm not falling for DC's latest lenticular cover scam.  Any story that tackles the future in either the DC or Marvel universe, instantly becomes irrelevant.

DC will not stick to the five years established in these books.  They couldn't even adhere to a one year jump during the post-Crisis.  I'm confident that five years from now I'm going to be reading a relatively unchanged DCU.   Now, on with the critiques.

In Eric Rogers' Futurama Comics, Leela rescues a ship endangered by everybody's favorite doofus Zapp Brannigan.


The bravado earns her a promotion by President Nixon's head.  She becomes the Captain of the Nimbus.  The Out-of-work Zapp wheedles his way into the empty position at Planet Express.  So twists the status quo.

You may think that Leela will make a dynamite captain, but Rogers plausibly demonstrates that the captain's chair itself is lethal to even the most competent star pilot.  Because Leela now has access to all the troops on the Nimbus, because she doesn't actually need to go planet-side, Leela's physical health deteriorates along with her common sense.  Meanwhile, exposed to actual work Zapp generates a gray cell.

The reversal of fortune is smart and funny, with enough room for some terrific character moments and apropos guest appearances.  Simultaneously, artists John Lloyd, Andrew Pepoy and Nathan Hamill produce a cosmic backdrop that's quite beautiful and unexpected for a funny book.


I've had a love/hate relationship with Geoff Johns.  He debuted with Stars and STRIPE, a stark, zippy contrast to a dark, repellent DC universe.  Soon after, I loathed Johns' stories.  His Justice Society kept getting worse and worse until it hit rock bottom with consistent sexism.  

At the denouement of the post-Crisis, Johns' writing was mostly incomprehensible.  That just may have had something to do with the source material.  No writer could really pull out anything good from the morass without softly rebooting: Ed Brubaker and Darwyn Cooke on Catwoman for example.  Johns appeared to return to his roots with the advent of the new 52, and this issue of Justice League exemplifies the skill I once credited Johns with.  

Johns offers a superb follow up to his opening chapters of Justice League.  Previously, he reintroduced the Doom Patrol and shook up the traditional roster with the surprise additions of Lex Luthor and Captain Cold.  Lex furthermore discovered Batman's secret identity, and the parasitic Power Ring from the Crime Syndicate's universe took over another host.


Johns pulls a sleight of hand with the current issue.  He appears to concentrate on the measuring contest between Lex Luthor and Niles Caulder.  With the dialogue, he identifies neither as a good person, but Lex might be the lesser of two evils.

The duel and the background battles pitting Justice League against the Doom Patrol are actually smoke screens for the moving characterization of Batman.  If you look closely, he's in the background, inexorably nearing his target.


Kudos must also be given to artist Doug Mahnke whose timing in the scenes with Batman and Jessica is tantamount.


Scooby-Doo and the Gang team-up with the Super-Friends.  Writer Sholly Fisch generates the most plausible circumstances to explain the partnership between The World's Greatest Super-Heroes and the Mystery Machine.  Due to Fisch's masterful plotting we also get a terrific Supergirl cameo, gorgeously illustrated by artist Dario Brizuela.


The tale takes several ingenious turns all based on classic and well known DC continuity.  One such twist inventively exploits stupid post-Crisis amendments.  The result brilliantly transforms the perpetually petrified Shaggy and Scooby into heroes.  The camaraderie of both teams underpins the story, and the persona based jokes are as funny as those arising from the plotting.  Notable in respect.  Daphne chiding Fred, and Velma outwitting a legion of baddies.

Dr. Mirage returns to comics with a new number one and a new gender.  Written by Jen Van Meter, the book is a pleasant surprise.  You don't need to know anything about the previous Dr. Mirage to enjoy this one.  I knew of the character, but not the specifics.  


Van Meter introduces Shan, Dr. Mirage, as a psychic, occult investigator.  Now, I have a low tolerance for psychics, what with their not existing.  However, Van Meter infuses the concept correctly.  It's not just that Dr. Mirage is a psychic.  She's a psychic in a world that's tilted toward the supernatural.  So there's context.

Dr. Mirage distinguishes herself by connecting with the dead.  It's a classic flimflam, but Dr. Mirage is for real.  She differs from the con-men in several ways.  She uses no psychometry or seance.  It's not a performance, and she doesn't charge the desperate.  She simply concentrates and finds the ghosts to give the survivors peace of mind.  


Van Meter conceives of a poetic Achilles Heel for the new Dr. Mirage.  She can contact the dead, but not her dead husband Hwen.  Every time she engages, it serves as a reminder of her loss.  She's never happy doing these small favors.  She never can take pleasure in her good deeds.  The limitation grants Dr. Mirage grand pathos.

After the introduction where we also meet Shan's aide Leo, Van meter employs our heroine for a more lucrative project.  Working odd occult jobs for those that can afford her services is Dr. Mirage's bread and butter.  The monetary element pushes Dr. Mirage away from the super-hero field.  She instead seems more like an adventurer, and gives the book a classic comic strip feel.


The well-written premiere with rich, informative dialogue establishes a strong female hero in a realistic plot that's invaded by the unknown.  The schism between the two worlds is better defined by the artwork of Roberto De La Torre.  At times, his illustration recalls that of Jim Holdaway of Modesty Blaise fame. 


 Anybody familiar with my reviews knows that's a good thing.


Angel and Faith split the issue.  Angel gets his butt handed to him by a landlubbing gill-man named Catfish Bob.  He's rescued by old Buffy the Vampire Slayer alum Amy Madison, who had the misfortune of turning herself into a rat.  In the comic book Amy joined a team of also-rans to fight the Slayer.  She may swing both ways in Angel and Faith.  I mean of course the pendulum between good and evil.



Faith quit Deepscan, former Slayers now operating as private contractors, but another Buffy ally Riley Finn disappeared into the jungle to look for his wife Samantha, also introduced on the series.  Faith owes Riley, so she postpones her resignation.

Writer Vincent Gischler has an excellent handle on these characters and artist Will Conrad returns to keep the photorealism to an all-time high.


Nancy Collins opens Vampirella with some old fashioned narration that details what Patrick Berkenkotter's art design cannot capture.  

Collins' words sound as if they're coming from her latest novel, and that injects depth to the horror comic book.

The every man follows an obvious lure to his doom, and in the climax of death Collins lets Berkenkotter's art do the startling with the visual of Vampirella's latest target, the  Scylla from Greek myth.

Vampirella, or Ella as Collins nicknames her, must hunt down specific vampires and feed from their blood in order to prevent her possession by evil goddess Umbra, represented by the crescent brand on her breast.

Ella reconnoiters on the beach where her natural beauty attracts an admirer and guide.  


Vampirella is one of the few vampires in literature that isn't bothered by sunlight.  In fact she tends to bask in it.  The idea of sunlight incinerating a vampire is pure Hollywood myth.  However, vampires were traditionally depicted as "lethargic" in the day time.  Oh, and for the record, decapitation always works.  Staking is also very popular in folklore, but depending on the culture, the practice is frequently tree-specific.

Vampirella ends up being a straight forward affair in which Collins continues to solidify Ella's characterization through contrast against scenes where Umbra appears to usurp and her Nostferatu benefactor Drago exhibits humorous pragmatism.

Collins is such a good writer and Berkenkotter such a craftsman that you really don't need much more for your enjoyment.  However Collins provides a nice twist at the climax that's full of dark comedy and modern context.


In the late 1980s, Matt Wagner created Grendel, a master criminal with a reincarnated essence.  Grendel is best known as Hunter Rose.  He's as charismatic and as knowledgable as Patricia Highsmith's Ripley and as much of a bloody psychopath as Leatherface, although he uses a more elegant weapon than a chainsaw.


The Grendel returns after a long absence to face the Shadow.  After acquiring an ancient urn and reading the incantation on a parchment, Hunter Rose travels back to the time of The Shadow.  His timing is impeccable.


Needless to say, Grendel intends to fill this vacuum, no matter how much the imposition damages history.  To get to the top however will require Rose to step over The Shadow's corpse.  He'll find that a little easier imagined than managed.


While Wagner's Shadow is darkly poetic in his crusade against crime, he's a little too robotically portrayed outside the arena.  Even when play acting as Lamont Cranston, the Shadow is one-dimensional.  This seems to be an obvious conceit that allows Wagner to explore The Shadow's relationship with Margo Lane.


I don't like to compare writers with different styles approaching the same character, but Wagner's interpretation of the Margo Lane/Shadow relationship just seems completely off.  His Shadow is also somewhat one-dimensional.

Ron Marz a few weeks ago portrayed the Shadow and Margo as an ideal team in The Shadow Over Innsmouth.  The Shadow also appeared to have fun violently debunking the Deep Ones.  Gerard Jones in The Shadow Strikes presented the Shadow with all the depth Walter B. Gibson imbued, and he can take even greater pride with his characterization of Margo Lane.  Gibson never liked dealing with Margo Lane.  She was a character from the radio show foisted upon him.  Jones turned her into a willing compatriot who gladly took part in the Shadow's crusade, perhaps for atonement.  Jones hinted that Margo was tainted somehow, and the Shadow protected her secrets.

I find Wagner's treatment of Margo a little patronizing.  All of the Shadow's agents were loyal because they believed in what the Shadow accomplished.  A Shadow agent seeking a life outside the work is almost sacrilegious.  The Shadow did not pressure his agents.  If we take the words of the Shadow spoken to Harry Vincent as a motif in the pattern, we see willful obedience in exchange for a higher purpose:


Moon Knight marks Brian Wood's debut as writer.  For the most part, he does a fairly solid imitation of Warren Ellis, just as well as Greg Smallwood standing in for Declan Shalvey.  You'll notice the difference quickly.  Wood's Moon Knight is chattier, and Wood is less likely to let Smallwood's artwork do the talking.  Ellis choreographed a near wordless issue for Shalvey to spotlight; don't bother looking for the review.  It was impossible to critique.  It's not that Wood's Moon Knight is bad.  Far from it.  It's just not different enough.  Ellis and Shalvey produced something really unique.