Monday, July 21, 2014

POBB: July 18, 2014

Pick of the Brown Bag
by
July 18, 2014
Ray Tate

The Pick of the Brown Bag is saddened by the loss of James Garner who entertained throughout his acting career by playing up intellect over martial prowess.  Whether tricking Bruce Lee's agitated henchman to his doom as Philip Marlowe, outwitting Nazis in The Great Escape, swindling card sharks as Bret Maverick or bringing down the very foundations of criminal enterprises as Jim Rockford, James Garner always was a delight.


It's a short week in The Pick of the Brown Bag.  This isn't a reflection of the quality of the comic books, just the quantity.  On the docket, the penultimate issue of Legendary, the second issue of Princess Ugg, the current issues of Red Hood and the Outlaws and The Simpsons, the kick off to new Batman event Robin Rises and the relaunch of the Teen Titans.


Many writers admired Sherlock Holmes and his creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  Some even tried to write homage to the grandmaster and the great detective with their own pastiches.  One such person was August Derelith the progenitor of Solar Pons.  Writer Peter Tomasi is Grant Morrison's August Derelith.  Batman and Robin was the goto title for readers that longed for Morrison's version of Batman and Robin.

Morrison's Robin was Damien, the son of Batman and Talia, daughter of Ra's Al Ghul.  I say was because this happened to the little fellow.



Ouch.

Until a friend corrected my misconception, I assumed Damien to be the legitimate child of Batman and Talia from Mike W. Barr's and Jerry Bingham's Son of the Demon.  At the end of the book, Talia gives the child up for adoption, but I figured she just retrieved him.  I should have known better.  Comics rarely opts for the easy way out.

Ra's Married Batman to His Daughter in DC Special #15: Batman Spectacular

Damien's birth, while still demanding Batman and Talia consummate their marriage, for some reason also involved test tubes.  Damien definitely was not Barr's and Bingham's spawn.



Robin for me will always be Dick Grayson.  I never cared about Damien because he just seemed like a shoehorn character.  I never read about him either since most of his adventures occurred with Dick Grayson assuming the mantle of the Batman when Batman died, which I thought was a cheap trick and/or "Prodigal" remix.



I don't think Final Crisis counts in the new 52.  However, the moment, that is Batman's death, still works.  Darkseid just felt petty one day, opened a Boom Tube and tried to kill Batman as an example for the Justice League.  They still only met during the Justice League's debut and not since.  Batman's waltz through time and space also still works since he could have packed umpteen years and still only be gone a day.

I started reading Batman and Robin when it dropped the latter sobriquet and became a defacto Brave and Bold series, centering on Batman teaming up with the all-stars of the new DCU.  The thing about Batman and Robin is that it still resonated with the tyke's presence.  For me Damien served better as memento mori than as yet another Robin to cram into a burgeoning timeline.

Batman lost it big time when Robin died.  He decided that he lived in a superhero world, and it was about time that he started using superhero means to resurrect his son.  



He set on a quest that alienated him from the Batman Family and seriously pissed off Frankenstein, whom he dissected in order to discover the secret of eternal life.  

Batman finally accepted Damien's death as he received therapy from fighting the crime of the surviving McKillin twin and Two-Face.  Of course, it can't end with Batman reasonably content.
  
Ra's Al Ghul, Damien's grandfather remember, turned up and stole Damien's and Talia's bodies.  Ra's intended to resurrect both his legacies in Lazarus Pits.  Why didn't Batman use Lazarus Pits? That's a good question.  I suppose because continued exposure to the Pits' elements degrades the recipient's sanity.  Of course back in the day, it was a temporary condition, but I won't quibble.  Let's just accept that Batman had a very good reason for not wanting to resurrect his son in a Lazarus Pit.

The past eight or nine issues detailed Batman's hunt for Ra's Al Ghul and his son's body.  During this time, he met up with old friends such as Aquaman, Wonder Woman and--uh-oh--Frankenstein.  Fortunately, the eloquent creature of science was receptive to Batman's cause.  He threw in with the Dark Knight and some put upon Yeti.  Sentences like that codify why I love comic books.

For this special issue, Tomasi and artist Andy Kubert recap, economically I may add, and transport the reader to the story proper in which Batman, Ra's Al Ghul, Frankenstein and accompanying League of Assassin goons contend against a revamped villain and his army.  I hesitate to refer to him as a Big Bad, since he works for one, but he is no mean threat.  As it turns out, Ra's Al Ghul's method for resurrecting his grandson Damien required something besides a functional Lazarus Pit.



The Chaos Shard goes all the way back to the beginning of Batman and Superman, where the duo take a tour of earth-two before losing their memories of the journey.  The Little Bad wants the shard.  This also for some reason requires his snatching Damien's sarcophagus.  Way to get on Batman's bad side.  Batman may have turned over the Chaos Shard just to get it off the planet, but he has gone through hell to get Damien's body back.  If you think a cadre of plug-uglies is going to get in his way, think again.



I'm not going to lie.  Robin Rises isn't perfect.  The plot frequently threatens to collapse under its own weight. Tomasi's not above using contrivances and McGuffins.  Yet, it's hard not to recommend something that tries so hard to entertain, uses obscure but recent continuity and puts together such an odd team-up that you cannot help but grin.



Tim Drake, the Red Robin, orchestrates a daring rescue in the relaunch of Teen Titans.  Writer Will Pfeifer kicks off the newest volume with a school bus hijacking.  Bad news for the terrorists.  Wonder Girl happens to be in the vicinity.



In the new 52, Wonder Girl is still Cassie Sandsmark, but other than being blonde, she shares nothing with the John Byrne sidekick.  Brian Azzarello revealed early in his run of Wonder Woman that Diana is actually the biological daughter of Zeus and Hippolyte.  The whole molding out of clay origin was a lie.  Wonder Girl is Zeus' grandchild.  The daughter of a human mother and Lennox, Wonder Woman's demigod brother also introduced in Wonder Woman.  

Rather than being a superhero, Wonder Girl is a thief who doesn't mind killing the opposition.  Mind you, she doesn't actually murder the terrorists in Teen Titans.  She lets them die.  Though Cassie's accouterments may appear Amazonian, they are in fact magical artifacts acquired in heists.  The armor and gauntlets coincidentally grant her the same powers as her aunt.  It's really the only cookie-cutting going on.  Cassie for example doesn't care about her ancestry, and she doesn't like to be referred to as Wonder Girl, even though her feats ably illustrated by Kenneth Rocafort, describe her that way.  She also walks and talks differently than the Byrne girl.  Different duck, folks.  Similar plumage.



Also on board the new, new, new Teen Titans, Beast Boy returns in fine verdant form.  Face it.  He always should be green.  Pfeifer brings out that Doom Patrol edge in Beast Boy, albeit he's not as terminally-minded as Wonder Girl.  New character Blockade serves on the team as well as the revamped Raven, who I noted in a previous review was a much happier a character.  Still appears to be, maybe because she never met Wally West then Kid Flash.

Pfeifer's story is at the very least as entertaining as the school bus hijacking in Dirty Harry, and he juxtaposes the play by play detachment of terrorists with a meeting of top flight department heads at STAR, the terrorists' target to add a spin to the typical rescue plot.  Pfeifer and Rocafort imbue the whole episode with sly humor and they never let things become too tense.  Super-heroes are involved.  The kids on the bus will be safe.  There's no sense that the Titans will fail.  The enjoyment derives from how the Titans will win and the central premise, which lies centered in a philosophical science fiction concept.



Last issue in Red Hood and the Outlaws, Starfire took one look at a captured alien ship and burned a path out of SHADE.  This issue writer Scott Lobdell peeks into Kori's history and explains the reasons why she took flight.  I'm going a little spoilery here, but the revelations won't affect your enjoyment of the book.




Turns out that Starfire is very much a pretense.  Oh, the free love sexuality that has always been part of the character is real enough, but her alleged airhead persona hides the heart of a lioness that used a good will tour to free slaves all across the universe.  Evil alien species fear Starfire because of her reputation.  So while stupid slut-shaming humans pipe up about what little clothing Starfire wears or with whom she shares a bed, alien empires tremble at the thought of Starfire being in the vicinity.  It's difficult to believe that this wasn't Lobdell's plan from the very beginning.  



Slavery is at the heart of the story, and Lobdell takes a page from Men in Black to return Starfire to the present day.  Aliens live among us, but there is no secret organization attempting to gel their presence with humanity.  Instead, they stay hidden, harbored and protected in a human city, probably in exchange for riches.  It all works well enough until they realize that Starfire allowed them to live there, probably due to their lack of threat, and it's eviction time.

The lion's share of the tale goes to Starfire, although Roy and Jason provide humor when they discover the latest member of SHADE's secret life.  Jason should really read Batman's files once and awhile, now that he's welcome back in the Cave.

Princess Ugg's second issue is a little disappointing as creator Ted Naifeh goes for the obvious jokes associated with the usual fish out of water story.  



The art of course is fantastic, but I expected something a little more than Ulga's lack of skills concerning princess duties.  Things will probably pick up more speed during the third issue.

Legendary is also predictable, but its predictability relies upon expert foreshadowing from concept creator Bill Willingham.  If you hadn't pieced together the lovely Magna Spadarossa's secret, you really should consider going back to school for remedial studies.



The man guarding Spadrossa this time around is Silver Star, an obscure Jack Kirby creation given a much more hilarious personality by Willingham.  In addition to solving the mystery of Magna, Willingham also shows how this alternate universe arose and why though steampunk in design the science is actually quite advanced.  In a way, Willingham also turns the idea of ancient astronauts by Erich von Daniken on its ear through the subtly employ the planet's educator's more open personality.  All in all, a well thought out exploration into a familiar yet strange world. 


Writer Ian Boothby and artists Phil Ortiz, Mike DeCarlo and Art Villanueva put together a continuity comedy fest in this week's Simpsons Comics.  Continuity? In The Simpsons? Surely, you jest.  Although generally reverting back to the status quo at the episode's end, The Simpsons does favor some continuity.  Boothby for example points out that Homer went to college, but what we didn't know is that he took out a student loan.  

Homer's debt sends him running away from Elliot Ness stand-in Rex Banner, former IRS agent now debt collector.  The dedicated Banner chases Homer all through the adventure, and he finds his prey surprisingly wily.  The crayon must have shifted.

While all of Homer's schemes pay homage to Warner Brothers cartoons, you have to give him credit for actually paying attention to what might work.  Boothby also tributes Pierce Brosnan's and Renee Russo's superb Thomas Crown Affair.  Eventually, Banner becomes wiser to Homer's ploys.  Thus, the die becomes set.  


Where to begin.   Springfield's Child Welfare Services declared Marge, seen here in the image of Maude, the deceased Flanders, and Homer unfit parents and placed Bart, Lisa and Maggie in Ned's and Maude's custody.  They almost baptized the Simpsons kids and would have made them Flanders.  Of course this whole ruse flows from the love/hate relationship Homer has with Ned.  It's not one-sided.  Deep, down, Ned hates Homer as much as he loves him.  It just takes a lot to make that hate seethe to the surface.  Usually, it's Homer's acts of kindness that do it.  Ned can suffer Homer's buffoonery, but not when he's trying to be nice.  Boothby cracks that egg with elegant inadvertent Simpsons' means.

In the end, Homer's final plan unravels, and the above scene occurs.  This is not the end however.  Boothby cleverly finds a perfectly goofy ending for the whole enchilada.  

Ortiz, DeCarlo and Villanueva delight in cartoony escapes Homer make and Rex Banner's send-up of the famous T-Man.  The tough bird allows for some enjoyable cameos, and the art team's take on the Simpsons as Flanders is slap-happy fun.  Of particular note is the art within the art.  Since Boothby refers to Marge's hobby of painting established in the television series, the illustrators take the opportunity to play with the well known portraits tainted by remarkable likenesses.

Monday, July 14, 2014

POBB: July 9, 2014

Pick of the Brown Bag
July 9, 2014
by
Ray Tate

The Pick of the Brown Bag this week focuses on Batgirl, Birds of Prey, Black Dynamite,  Justice League United, Smallville: Lantern, World's Finest and the new book Death Vigil.

Batgirl appears in two books this week.  First, in her own title, she teams up with the Huntress and Black Canary to battle Knightfall.  There's the typical misunderstanding that happens when super-heroes get together the first time.



Writer Gail Simone's rationale for Batgirl is on par with several other writers when it comes to superheroes beating each other up.  So I can hardly complain, and I applaud that Simone's aware that Huntress is now a different person and reacts differently.



The inaction parallels Batman's tactic, when he tried to make amends for his past loony behavior against Frankenstein.



Huntress doesn't know what's going on with Batgirl, but she knows that she and Canary are two of the good guys.  Being Batman's and Catwoman's daughter, she can take some punishment, which Batgirl hands out in spades.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Knightfall believes she's Gotham's savior and has given the criminals of the city an ultimatum.  Get out or get killed.   Even the Shadow and the Spider were more specific.  Knightfall's methods have become more extreme, indicating an escalating madness.  Her team of like-minded super powered lunatics aren't enough.  The vigilante expresses a penchant for amputation and bombs.
  

As well as threesomes, which amused me, as it's the typical bad boy behavior gender-reversed.  This scene will probably draw some flack from the more prudish sectors of the Internet.  Frankly, I would say that three-ways would be fair game for some superheroes--Power Girl for instance.  In any case, sexual openness is a traditional expression of lawlessness.  So I don't see any problem with the scene.



I do have a problem with roping in Barbara's transgendered roommate to the hitching post of the plot.  Bad Michael, one of Knightfall's henchmen, trying to persuade Alysia and her girlfriend to plant a bomb? That's just too contrived and goofy.  It's furthermore too blatant a gimmee to the detective in this story.  I'm not keen on Batgirl's lack of confidence in the narration either.  Simone seems to have lost Barbara's internal voice, which used to be strong and certain.  



I might have chalked this hesitance to Batgirl experiencing stress.  Her war against Knightfall takes place around the time of the events transpiring in Batman Eternal.  There somebody framed her father Commissioner Gordon for mass murder.  However, she only sounds a little bit better than she did when she decided to stop being Batgirl, a rubbishy plotted mess that forced my decision to take Batgirl off my subscription list.

Of course, the albatross tied around her throat may also explain her lack of internal conviction.  Babs now thinks of Ricky, the car-jacker with a soul, as her "boyfriend," and that made me throw up a little in my mouth.  Why Gail Simone fell in love with this lousy character, I'll never know.  I would sooner have seen Babs become involved with that drip Jason Bard again.



I have a shot at getting lucky with a hot red-head.  How can I prevent that?

On the bright side, Batgirl faced with unfavorable odds does the rational thing and calls in the troops.  I have to admit.  I didn't think Simone would engage the smart move at the end of the book.  

She surprised me. 



Birds of Prey pits Black Canary against Amanda Waller in a knock-down drag-out fight, over Kurt Lance.  Waller and Canary used to serve on Team 7, a government black ops group.  During their tenure, Black Canary gained her sonic cry; Deathstroke became a killing machine, and the team destroyed the island of Gamorra.  Worse for Canary, she believed that her husband had died in the ensuing disaster.  

Waller began exhibiting a presence since readers learned that founding Birds of Prey member Sparrow was actually Waller's spy.  It's during this time readers discover that Waller secured the comatose body of Kurt Lance.  Dinah believes she has the answer why.



That's unlikely since Waller is incapable of exhibiting feelings outside of the acid range.  The whole Suicide Squad versus Birds of Prey showdown turns out to be a means to an end.  Dinah took advantage of Birds of Prey sponsor Mother Eve's want to do good to set up Amanda for a fall at her hands.

Dinah's ploy doesn't suit Batgirl, but she backs up her best friend's plan and takes out her frustrations on Harley Quinn.  Writer Chrysty Marx though focusing on the duel between Waller and Dinah adds depth to her story by remarking on Batgirl's history with the Joker.  



Condor also gets a good showing.  The new character performs impressively against the fan-favorite Batman rogue Deathstroke.  Strix takes on Harley Quinn, much more lethal and insane than her out of continuity title.  Batgirl also takes on the humongous King Shark, and by orchestrating such a fight, Marx clicks Babs firmly into place among the Batman Family.  Fighting foes whose power far outstrips your own and overcoming these fiends is kind of a Batman Family signature.



Huntress and her partner Power Girl take one last look at earth one in World's Finest.  Paul Levitz concentrates on the differences of the personae in each of his creations, before granting them one last battle against Apokolips henchman Desaad and his personal complement of Parademons.

Levitz opens the story with Huntress' sweet tooth and Power Girl's appetite for hedonism.  He follows through with a playful exchange of skill.  Ends Power Girl's financial ties in a show of philanthropy, which is a nice turnabout given Huntress being the daughter of the prime philanthropist of both earths. 

Most wouldn't consider World's Finest eventful, but the thing about World's Finest is that it doesn't have to be.  Levitz is so in synch with these characters that everything he writes about them is worth reading.  They come alive, and this is the closest thing to a comic strip in DC comics because Levitz is consistent in his storytelling.  The adventures of Helena and Kara follow a seamless line that actually starts with the Huntress mini-series published without fanfare early in the new 52 and will end with his finale.  Levitz builds on the pair's characterization throughout the series while relating entertaining episodes of their super-hero partnership, which unlike others remains rock solid throughout.

Tyler Kirkham joins Levitz this issue and his illustration beautifully captures the heroes' moments of reflection, food, fun and action.  As usual, World's Finest is not to be missed.



In the penultimate chapter of Justice League United's debut story, the Martian Manhunter assumes command of the collective consisting of Alana, Animal Man, Green Arrow, Hawkman, Stargirl, Adam Strange and Supergirl.  This is the most J'onn's J'onzz has sounded like himself in years, and let me just assure you, that's before the new 52 burst on the scene.

Before J'onn resumes his leadership status, Lobo last seen having his ass handed to him by Hawkman decides to finish what he started with Supergirl.  Big.  Big.  Mistake.



The only thing different about the new 52 Girl of Steel from her pre-Crisis avatar is that the sweetness she had as an adolescent Linda Lee never developed.  Of course, maybe had earthmen not immediately attacked her, she would have had a few moments to appreciate this planet's beauty and people.  Alas, the epiphany never occurred, but Supergirl mellowed to a point where she is now quite willing to stick with the good fight.

Writer Jeff Lemire also takes advantage of another change in the new 52, and by doing so he finally gives an old fan favorite a moment to recapture his glory.



In addition to these moments and Mike McKone's smooth as butter artwork, Lemire also defies convention by switching Byth's dance partner.  It's here we learn that Byth is becoming a major player in the DCU, and in a bizarre, humorous twist, Lobo appears to be turning into his well-paid henchman.

Smallville: Lantern concludes with a big Justice League send-off.  John Stewart in a previous issue recruited Kal-El as a Green Lantern.  While Superman practiced using his new power, an old foe of the Green Lantern Corps reared its ugly head: Parallax.

That name should immediately induce a sympathetic headache to any comic book reader within a three hundred mile radius.  At first Parallax was Hal Jordan gone nuts.  This upset Hal Jordan fans, amongst which I do not, repeat do not, count myself.  So, the Powers That Be undid the whole Jordan gone amok thing and conjectured something ridiculous involving the color yellow, fear, yellow rings and space possession.  At one point Jordan became the Spectre because of Parallax.  Somehow.  It's all irrelevant.  Hal Jordan isn't the male chauvinist pig that he was.  He's just an overall jackass, which is far more palatable.  He never went bananas, which is apt given the color.



Scribe Bryan Q. Miller pits Superman and John Stewart against Parallax, and without that confusing Hal Jordan history, Parallax is a straight forward cosmic parasite that feeds on fear.  Boom.  We're done here.  To facilitate his dinner habits, Parallax spreads yellow rings to compatible individuals.  Namely, those who let their fear guide their actions.  The gifts of Parallax create a disaster that gives everybody in the cast something to do, especially Batman.



Batman isn't the only hero to earn super-cool moments.  Green Arrow suits up to defy Prometheus, the Grant Morrison update of the Calculator.  Prometheus uploaded all the data on his targets to a personal computer synched to his brain and then processed the information to defeat each of his intended kills.  In Smallville, Prometheus is a skillful mercenary capable of defeating a small DEO contingent and severely damaging fan-favorite character Chase Cameron.  He defeated Green Arrow almost as an afterthought.  It rubbed the emerald archer the wrong way.

Meanwhile, the Man of Steel faces the source of the problem head on by precluding Parallax's major victory, altering the Green Lantern Corps' protocols and finally using Kryptonian super-strength to kick Parallax's ass back to the dimension it spate from.  

There's of course more to the engrossing story which features Mercy, Chloe Sullivan, Nighting, Wonder Woman, Steve Trevor and many more.   I hope you'll be intrigued enough to pick up Smallville: Lantern.  No matter the subtitle, Smallville is the logical extension of the television series and just as entertaining.  




People enured to Stephen Sejic's digital realism in Witchblade are in for quite a delightful surprise when they read Death Vigil.  In fact even if not familiar with Sejic's typical artwork, you will be surprised just by the contrast of the content and the title.  Death Vigil conjures up the image of some direct to Blockbuster video eighties action bacchanal starring Dolph Lundgren's little brother Skippy, or perhaps some dank, incomprehensible period Vertigo fare with artwork that looks like the result of splattering cat innards on a canvas.  Instead, you get this.



Death Vigil sports Sejic's most playful and personally styled illustration.  The characters lean toward the exaggeration of cartoon rather than the photographic.  Not that Death Vigil is any less detailed than Sara Pezini's world.  It's just emphasized differently, and there's a greater sense of bemusement and expression.  

In terms of story, Death Vigil is a cross between a Hammer film and a superhero book with a good liberal dose of Bwa-Ha-Ha-Ha-Ha comedy.  The tale turns  the Grim Reaper who looks a helluva lot better than her storied skeletal appearance and her group on immortal friends against Necromancers out to do cosmos knows what for who knows what reason.  Don't misread.  I'm not suggesting the book is vague.  I simply never understood the Necromancers' want to bring back old bastard gods to ravage the world.  It's not like any bargain they make with these entities will be kept.

Sejic on the other hand personalizes the central Necromancer's desire.  

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The douche needs a sacrifice to appease the dark god in question, in order to bring back his father.  Dickweed's sorrow over the loss of his dad, is completely understandable, but his deep-end resurrection scheme is completely asinine   A normal person would have started his life over with the opportunity knocking, but this sphincter not only squanders the chance, he also takes some arrogant pleasure in the emotional manipulation he unwittingly engaged in.



What a mother...

Anyway, any sympathy you may feel in his ends diminishes with his means, and this is where Sejic departs from the Hammer basis of "virgin" sacrifice by some Satanic lunatic. The Grim Reaper referred to as "Bernie" and her team have a purpose.  In a terrific little twist akin to the core of Buffy the Vampire Slayer the victim becomes strong.



Hailing from Top Cow, Death Vigil is for anybody looking for something a little different from the usual occult fare.  Sejic even distinguishes Bernie from Neil Gaiman's sweet, lovable version of Death.  Highly recommended.



Black Dynamite meets up with his new associates to discuss the Illumanti's latest scheme.  It involves a Buddhist monastery and physical manifestations of martial arts moves.  The goofy tale could have sprung from any serious seventies exploitation movie, but writer Brian Ash quickly departs from the sensible action-fare and takes a different approach that suits Dynamite to a tee.



Dynamite's words sing in the hearts of the typical pacifist monks that can be found in dozens of B-Z cinematic treats.  The impact of Dynamite's words offers a riotous, wrong, ever so wrong, finale that in addition results from all sorts of monster ass kicking.

Just when you think the book can't become funnier, an epilogue resurrects the Big Bad in a brilliant done in one alternate universe parody of infamous schlock.  It took the movie its entire idiotic length to accomplish what the Black Dynamite people do in two pages.