Wednesday, March 25, 2015

POBB: March 18, 2015

Pick of the Brown Bag
March 18, 2015
by
Ray Tate

This week in the Pick of the Brown Bag….Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Star Trek and the Planet of the Apes, Simpsons Comics, Reyn, Princess Ugg, new Dodson project Red One, Legendary Red Sonja, new number one Invisible Republic, new Mignola book with one of the oldest characters in horror, The Frankenstein Underground, Batman/Superman and a double dose of Batgirl.


Julie's father the King intends to hold the princesses of the many lands hostage.  This may in fact be why he set up the school for princesses in the first place.  He’ll return the princesses for a price from each of the regions to enrich his domain to the point of superpower.  The King didn't count on three things.  Princess Ulga, her barbarian father and Ulga's influence on her fellow royals.


The tale begins with a duel against Malick, the King’s man.  The melee takes an unexpected course, and the twist catalyzes courage in the princesses.  They find they need no handsome prince to rescue them.  In fact somebody just may need to rescue the men-folk from them.  


Malick is no prince anyway.  Ted Naifeh introduced him as the pretty boy love interest, only to play with the conventions of the role.  He even played with the typical conventions that played on the conventions.  The result is what you see in the current issue of Princess Ugg.

When the wheel turns to ransom, Princess Ulga lives up to the promise she made to her mother.  Not only does she negotiate for peace between nations, she also progresses with the Frost Giants.  Naifeh turned them into bugbears through dialogue, but they appear much more benign when we meet them.   Lesson?

The conclusion to Princess Ulga's first story is worth every penny.  Naifeh’s unique art imbues the characters with life and emotions.  Often, the settings evoke remarkable beauty of exotic lands.  Part of this feeling can be attributed to colorist Warren Wugnich.  Princess Ugg would look a little flat without his warm, natural shades.


Legendary Red Sonja teams up with…Heh…See for yourself.


Why on earth wouldn’t you want to read this?  In addition to artist Aneke’s fantastic eye-candy, you get Marc Andreyko writing.  Marc “Manhunter” Andreyko.  So, the partnership between Red Sonja and Frankenstein’s second creature is about as feminist as you can get.  All right.  All right.  Let me, sweeten the pot.  The story also features at the cliffhanger one of the first mad geniuses in literature, but swathed in a whole new weirdness.  Trust me.  You want this.



Mike Mignola is cognizant of all the Frankenstein material that has come before him, including Agent of SHADE.  So instead of retreading all that, Mignola employs the unusual tactic of depositing the creature in Mexico.  Technically this isn't the famed figure's first displacement to Mexico.


Of course, the Mexican background of El Santo films is a given.  Mignola chose to position Frankenstein's Monster in Mexico, and he’s a smidgeon more literate.


The creature meets an old woman with the power to heal and learns of the Mexican gods.  That's certainly different enough, but Mignola escalates the bizarre upon introducing the Big Bad of the piece and his hench-things.


The Marquis is a collector of oddities.  Frankenstein's Monster certainly suits his criteria.  Ben Stenbeck illustrates the Marquis as if he were a white-haired Christopher Columbus, surrounded of course by vampire bat-nosed men.  I mean if you are going to do a villainous Christopher Columbus, bat-nosed men are a given, yes?

The Marquis' black-winged angel traps the monster in a dream-like state, and here Mignola shifts perceptions.  The supernatural phantasmagoria casts a plainer shadow in the real world and gives the reader an ample sampling of how Frankenstein Underground will work.


That of course is the opening to the newer seasons of Person of Interest.  The reason I bring it up is that Batgirl’s program, the one she lost in a previous issue, evolved into a life-form.  The trouble is that it’s nuts.


Batgirl needs to stop this crazy thing, and what I like about this issue of Batgirl is that almost everybody is wrong.  The A.I. isn’t Oracle.  The story's not Batgirl vs. Oracle.  That would be rubbish.  Batgirl wouldn’t need to fight.  Just climb some stairs.

The A.I. believes it’s the true Barbara Gordon because Babs used her brain to organize the data.  The program was meant to be a predictive algorithm, but the data set was too large for a normal computer.  So, Babs being Babs used the best computer on the planet, her brain.  It makes perfect sense when you’re bitter about being shot and paralyzed by the Joker.

This to me is the best reaction I’ve seen from Babs after being confined to a wheelchair.  This is normal.  This is how a normal person would react.  Because the Powers That Be at DC were so bent on providing a positive role model for the disabled, they missed the fact that what happened to Barbara wasn’t a good thing.  It was a wretched event that should never have been ushered into continuity proper.  I’ve said that for twenty-five years, and you’ll never convince me otherwise.

The way in which Babs defeats the creature’s machinations resonates with violence.  The fight choreography should eliminate any concerns with Batgirl becoming too cute just because Babs Tarr illustrates characters in such a darn inviting style.

Now, that's a Batgirl dance I can get behind.

Batgirl furthermore cements the bonds with her erstwhile partner Black Canary.  They do this just as any male super-hero duo would, a team-up initiating some massive saves, ending in a positive victory.


Batgirl’s other book Endgame, ties in with something or other in the Batman titles.  It’s a wordless excursion into a zombie infested world where the victims have been infected with the Joker venom, and can probably be saved by the Big Bad Batman.

I don’t know much about Endgame, and this book I think is only meant to keep Batgirl involved in family business.  It’s a pleasant, wordless time-waster where Batgirl saves lots of lives, and focuses on one in particular. 

The art by Bengal keeps up with Babs Tarr and Maris Wick, but some of the colors seem off to me.  Would Frankie, who is black really turn pink even in the reflective light of a computer?  Oh, and  please stop giving Batgirl green eyes.  They're blue, baby.  




Blue.  

Anyway.  Batgirl: Endgame is for completist Batgirl fans.  Others may just want to stick to main title.


Batman and Superman finalize their battle against the Phantom King with expected cavalry rescues and typical deviousness from Batman.  


The cousins Superman and Supergirl do the heavy lifting against their brainwashed Kryptonian family and friends.  The heroes pay back the Kryptonian criminal with a helluva headache that's quite mean-spirited and in keeping with the new 52 heroes'  willingness to actually hurt the criminals they combat.  This is why the new 52 champions are so much better than their post-Crisis counterparts.  They seemed more concerned with holding back when fighting their super-powered psychotic rogues.  As a result, the villains appeared to run rampant.

Although there's tragedy associated with the aftermath of the Phantom King's attack that will resonate with the cousins, there's also a nice little upbeat surprise at the conclusion that very few readers were expecting.  If the issue seems abrupt, keep in mind that Batman/Superman is the finish of an excellent story arc featuring the most inventive use for Kandor in history.

Red One surprised me by being more than just cheescake.


Oh, there’s some choice slices to be had in this title.  We are after all dealing with the Dodsons, but Xavier Dorison’s central character Vera Yelnikov differs from the lovely Russian spies that habitually drop at the feet of Mr. Bond so readily. 

She would drop, and visa-versa, but seduction wouldn’t be necessary.  Although Vera serves the Brezhnev regime of the late seventies, the free-spirit grew up in Khrushchev’s Russia.  Khrushchev was until Mikhail Gorbachev the most liberal of Russian political thinkers to come into power.  He instilled numerous reforms to Russian society, and that environment would nurture somebody like Vera.  


In short, Vera’s philosophy and behavior doesn’t really match what we think of as typically Russian.  It may seem to be just Xavier Dorison’s whim, but I think some real thought went into building the characterization.  In any case, Vera is warm, appealing and feminist.  So, it’s very easy to like her.

Red One also seems less like a book where a Russian agent will go to America and become charmed by the patriotism and freedoms of Uncle Sam.  Instead, Vera is at the onset worldly and takes advantage of every opportunity her travels presents her.

Her knowledge of the United States is limited, but I imagine she’ll be a quick learner as the series progresses.  I also expect she’ll take advantage of the riches that the U.S.A. offers but still remain loyal to Mother Russia.  Yuri Andropov was on par with Brezhnev.  So, I can’t see her bucking the bear even after Brezhnev’s demise.


The Russian army sends Vera to the United States to eliminate the Carpenter, a homicidal maniac bent on cleansing whatever.  He has backing, tacit or otherwise, from another group of like-minded fruitcakes.


This is where I balk.  The massive group of protesters picket the premiere of a mainstream film because of apparently swearing and sexual content.  

I grew up during the seventies.  While the religious right did in fact gather strength during this period, they weren't as well organized as these screwballs.  This is something that would happen in the mid-eighties.  In a way, the seventies were a time of enlightenment.  Roe vs. Wade became the law.  The Equal Rights Amendment failed to pass, but at least it was a battle fought.  



Adult entertainment essentially became legal, despite Deep Throat triggering all sorts of trouble early in the decade.  Censorship grew dormant.  The religious right were justifiably labeled a lunatic fringe.  They could spout whatever nonsense they wanted, and nobody cared.  

The press furthermore didn’t take them seriously and seldom gave them soapboxes.  There was nothing like Fox News in the seventies.  Walter Cronkite was the bastion of journalistic integrity and every reporter wanted to be him.  So this, kind of protest at a mainstream movie wouldn’t have happened.  In fact the police of the day probably would have viewed such a flexing of muscle as charming and refreshing since most of the protests in the seventies involved Vietnam.  

Don’t misread.  Themes of religious hatefulness should definitely be exposed in any medium.  The more the sands of time fall, the more and more whack-jobs like that cease to be harmless, and the Dodsons’ character design for the leader of the movement Jacky Core is cunning.  The insane certainty in the cause gives quite a number of religious right escapees serene demeanors that conceal bilge. 


It’s twenty years too early, and the idea that the Carpenter and this gaggle could threaten SALT talks is absurd as is the idea of a woman being President in that era.  That won’t happen until 2016.  Although, I would have preferred a different catalyst for Vera’s excursion, the story’s nevertheless entertaining and the star a real draw.  Red One is a good B Book.

Squirrel Girl gets in a tangle with Whiplash on her way to deal with Galactus.  The deranged title continues to be a slap in the sensibilities, and there’s at least three things in the book that you couldn’t imagine to want to see.  



Doreen’s obsession with squirrels borders on genius.  Very few super-heroes use their powers with such unswerving and hilarious skill.  

The A and B stories in Simpsons Comics offers laughs galore as Lisa meets a previously undisclosed relation of Bleeding Gums Murphy and Homer becomes the most wanted man amongst VIPs for all the wrong reasons.  The way in which writer Ian Boothby digs his way out of the predicaments is inspired, and the artwork by Phil Ortiz, Mike DeCarlo and Art Villanueva on-model and stunning.


Star Trek and the Planet of the Apes is still wildly entertaining.  After making nice with Taylor, Kirk and the crew of the starship…Enterprise visit Cornelius and Zira.  Trading notes however can violate the precepts of the Prime Directive if you’re not careful.


I like that the Tiptons chose Scotty to be the most open with his Scottish burr.  The loquaciousness foreshadows his “how do we know he didn’t invent it” line in Star Trek: The Voyage Home.

Before Kirk and the others can get settled, the gorilla guerrillas of General Marius attack, and this means we get to see Spock use a Vulcan nerve pinch on one of the unlucky simians.  

That’s the kind of scene that makes a Star Trek fan giddy.  Also, on a personal note, I never thought I would use the phrase gorilla guerrillas again.  I love comic books.

The theme of the book is that wonderful chant “Ape Kill Ape” that accompanied the duel between Caesar and General Aldo in Battle for the Planet of the Apes.


The Tiptons through the gist also redeem the character of General Ursus, from Beneath the Planet of the Apes.  Ursus in that film was a bone-headed gorilla whose tactical skills were less than impressive.  Here, he seems reasonable, albeit skeptical, and loyal to Ape Law


I was absolutely right about Reyn.  We’re dealing with something bigger than sword and sorcery, and the writer Kel Symons and artists Nate Stockman and Paul Little never forget what drew you to the book in the first place. 


When all is said and done, Reyn is the tender story about the title character, a Warden, killing monsters.  Yeah.  It gives you a kind of warm feeling all over.


Last but not least, the Invisible Republic opens intriguingly with a reporter on a Dystopia looking for a good story.  He finds it in a random purchase that relates the memoirs of Maia Reveron.

It’s too early to say whether or not this title has staying power, but it’s got a grabber of a middle, and I like the humanitarian motif in Maia’s actions that contrast the behavior of her cousin, who rises to power and makes the narrative worth the broadcast.


Tuesday, March 17, 2015

POBB: March 11, 2015

Pick of the Brown Bag
March 11, 2015
by
Ray Tate

Welcome to the Pick of the Brown Bag.  In this column, I review the best and the worst from the comic book racks.  This week  I'll review Justice League United, Shaft, Smallville: Continuity, brand new book Southern Cross, Spider-Gwen, a double dose of Vampirella and World's Finest.  I’ll also say few words about Altered States: Red SonjaCaptain Marvel and the current issue of Thor.  First, correction time.

Spider-Woman made her debut in Marvel Spotlight, which preceded Marvel Two-In-One by a month or two. 



Missed it by that much.


While Batman and Wonder Woman kick up the heat in the Batcave, Lois Lane succumbs to the insidiousness of Apokolips.  If you're wondering why I'm spoiling the events, I have a simple answer.  World's Finest takes place in earth two's past, and if you weren't aware of Lois Lane's death on that alternate planet, tough.  Lois' death was mentioned in the first few issues of Earth 2 and World's Finest when writer Paul Levitz's stars were Huntress and Power Girl.  You had plenty warning and oodles of time to catch up.


Lois Lane should die doing what she loves.  She should die in a state of steadfast journalistic integrity.  Her death also cannot be Superman's fault, through either neglect or impotence.  Levitz conducts the perfect death for Lois Lane.  That may sound a little ghoulish, but there's a right way and a wrong way to do these things.  For example, having two characters from a comedy suddenly go serious with one figure shooting the other in the head?That would be the wrong way.  Levitz also puts together her subsequent resurrection.  Don’t look askew.  The moratorium on such information is over.  Anyway, I'm being generous.  I'm not saying how Lois returns, and if you don't know, Levitz creates a revelatory moment at the conclusion that loses none of its power.

In addition to the elephant in the room, Batman and Wonder Woman ply their skills in metallurgy to create a surprising weapon.  The conclusion they both arrive at is faulty, but without other evidence, it's logical.  Intri interrupts their preparations, and it's bad news for her.  


The way that Levitz figures this first strike against Apokolips neatly embodies the themes of the World's Finest and recapitulates the perfection of death.  He gives dignity to a deity's end of days.

In short, this is the final issue of World's Finest before Convergence, and it goes out with a bang.  Exciting, engrossing, brilliantly written, drawn with verve by Jed Dougherty.  All of this entertainment occurs despite the fact that every thing in these final issues took place in the past, making explicit what was implied.  From the first issue to the last World's Finest was Paul Levitz's triumph.


Also outstanding, Smallville.  The conclusions to the fantastic television tie-in ends on upbeat notes and nostalgic call backs to the series.  This one I am spoiling because all the reasons why you should stock up on Smallville back issues or trades lies in the polished graphics depicting Bryan Q. Miller’s story.  

So…

S
P
O
I
L
E
R













A
H
O
Y

First, our heroes take care of loose ends.

Next, we get a superb farewell from old partners.

Somebody Save Me…

The beginning of a new era.

Babs Gordon remains hilarious.
Old friends get a new lease on life.

Lex Luthor admits to an inconvenient truth.

There's a new DEO...

The Queens introduce the new member to the family.

Superman and Lois have sex in a bathtub.

Justice League United ends well.  To stop Infinitus, Brainaic Five launched a cosmic means to contain the menace.  While some Legionnaires intended to finish Infinitus the old fashioned way, exposure to J'onn J'onzz and the champions that inspired them changed a lot of Legionnaire minds. 


J'onn forced himself to tear experience and consciousness from Ultra, the multi-alien that would have become Infinitus; thereby nullifying the danger to existence.  Brainy's solution wasn’t necessary, but the clock ran out of seconds.


Doctor Who fans will recognize the danger in Justice League United as a plot twist to Doctor Who 1996.  The Master opened the Eye of Harmony in the TARDIS.  The Eye is a link to the black hole of the same name from whence Gallifrey obtains its clean energy.  


Opening the Eye exposed the earth to the gravitational forces of the cosmic phenomenon, thus threatening to suck the planet into it.  The Doctor with the help of Dr. Grace Holloway closes the Eye.  I shan't spoil how since the means is tres cool and one of the many reasons why Doctor Who 1996 though Paul McGann's only full episode of Doctor Who is one of the best in the series.

In Justice League United, evacuation of Thanagar seems to be the logical next step, but the Legion has an ace in their deck of many cards.  Dream Girl foresees another solution that’s also part of the Doctor Who canon.  Now, you might think that I’m complaining about the closeness of Justice League United and Doctor Who.  I’m not.  There’s quite enough variation, especially with the geopolitical factors, in Jeff Lemire’s story to classify it as genuine tribute rather than rip-off.

In addition to the Doctor Who like scope to the plot, you also get another dynamite scene with Supergirl.


This is after the Star-Spangled Kid makes an apropos literary reference before blasting the snot out of the shape-shifting Byth.  Old Legionnaire fans will get a kick out of exactly how Brainiac Five harnesses science while factoring in magic for the equation and a tantalizing reference to his relationship with Kara in the future.


During the afterparty, Lemire orchestrates a traditional change in Legion Leadership.  He brings the influence of the League home and gets rid of a problem he created.  Apparently, Brainiac Five had no qualms over changing the past in this instance, and the League agree to stick together.


If you’re like me, you’ll love a Lis Salander like sister of a possible murder victim boarding the Orient Express in the form of a starship that’s shaped like a luxury liner.  


And if you don’t?  What the hell is wrong with you, and why are you reading comic books?  


Writer Becky Cloonan begins Southern Cross as an Agatha Christie novel in space, but there’s definitely a chance that this will not be a fairplay mystery.  


On the other hand, it’s not likely to rely on the pulpy tropes of secret doors and such either.  Doesn’t matter.  I’m in.

There’s a lot absent in Cloonan’s story that would have been welcome in Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Captain Marvel.  Cloonan focuses on the characterization and the plot.  


She’s confident that Andy Belanger and Lee Louridge will sell the space accoutrements without the dependence on mind numbing technobabble.  


The infodump in Captain Marvel does pay off, with more than a modicum of comedy, but the lack of engineering jargon and the escalation of the mystery form is much more enticing.

Brandon Jerwa's Altered States Red Sonja inverts the classic Marvel Team-Up.  Chris Claremont and John Byrne deposited Sonja in Manhattan to fight Kulan Gath once again.  Jerwa drops an unsuspecting museum curator in the resurrected body of Red Sonja in Hyperboria.  Fun, undemanding and well illustrated.  A good auxiliary purchase.

The second issue of Spider-Gwen is a winner with Gwen escaping certain death after being dropped at a great height by the Vulture.  Gravity and Gwen really doesn’t mix.


Yeah, Peter Porker is back to provide hilarious commentary.  Writer Jason Latour thus preserves the relevance of the Spider-Verse saga, giving credit where credit is due without undermining Spider-Gwen’s character.


After sort of recovering from her harrowing death defiance, Gwen visits the Mary Janes to find an offer of reconciliation waiting for her, but she’s got more important problems to face.

Gwen’s father meanwhile covers for his daughter in the face of old friends Frank Castle and you never would have guessed Jean DeWolff, one of Spidey’s first police contacts that didn’t hate his guts.  Where’s the cute beret Jean?

We also get a glimpse of the Kingpin in this universe, and he’s the same as he ever was, but man Matt Murdock is just slimy beyond slimy.  In summary, Spider-Gwen engages her first cliffhanger escape and begins to take responsibility even in a concussed state.  Old friends with new wrapping reappear, and you actually feel sorry for the Vulture.  I like the fast progress, and it’s only the second issue.


Thor also amuses with Odin and Odinson attempting to discern the identity of the new Thunder Goddess.  The two act like a mean-spirited Clouseau and Kato, and most of Asgard is getting tired of their childishness.  On the downside, whose bright idea was it to give Jane Foster breast cancer? 

Oh, yeah.  I forgot about the price.  That price would be no cancer.  Does breast cancer actually need to be represented in the comics if it’s not there  to specifically inform? Especially on an alien world with alien technology that seems virtually magical?  I haven’t seen Hawkeye or Daredevil need to worry about testicular cancer on earth.  If Asgard is too mystical for Jane, couldn’t Lady Sif, just as an example, transport Jane to another planet or another time where medicine is sufficiently advanced enough to eradicate the cancer?  



Breast cancer kills  40,000 women per year and forces survivors to undergo horrendous treatments and preventions.  How’s that for a reminder?


Vampirella features in two titles this week.  In her steampunk series  Legendary Ella hires new help for the scarlet club meets some important players in the city and watches her enemy's satrap burn down while playing cutesy with the coppers of the period.   It's here that she gains a kind of secret identity.  Outwardly she is merely a humble conveyer of drink, good food and entertainment.  Behind the mask of civility lies the altruistic vampire that threw in with a group of heroes responsible for tearing the collusion of villainy a new one.

In this issue of Legendary,  Vampirella investigates an airship mystery.  The writers pull a Verne name out of the hat.  I don't know if the inclusion of the so-called Master of the World was a Bill Willingham notion or a newer idea from writer David Avallone.  


One thing I can say with certainty, the cameo of a famous reporter is all his, and it's these tidbits along with examples of Vampirella's supernatural abilities that makes Legendary Vampirella such a kick to read.


Vampirella is a little more serious and literate in Nancy Collins' tale.  The horror author pits Ella Normandy against her almost-brother Cain.  As I have said in previous reviews, I prefer Vampirella being an alien hero, but I can still enjoy the more Christian touches if done well.  Adam's first wife being Lilith, for example, who also begat the original demons of the world during a lust-filled eternal binge life. 

Lilith as seen in Vampirella wasn't Collins' creation.  Cain is.  As a child when I attended what was called Sunday School even though held on Saturday, I was taught that Cain was the son of Adam and the first murderer.  So ends the lesson.  

Even at a young age, I began to question Biblical tenets.  Already a mystery aficionado, I studied Cain sharply.  How could Cain commit a crime unless tainted with evil in the first place?  Or was this a case of bad parenting?  Neither seemed to make any sense given the information I had.  The whole jealousy in the face of a supreme deity thing struck me as indicating a really fragile psyche.  

Collins gives me a much more mythological Cain, eliminating Biblical ambiguity and nonsensical characterization.  Collins' chap is an immortal whose skill at agriculture works in the Big Bads' favor.  Artist Patrick Berkenkotter perfects a slightly skewed benign appearance for the killer that would make you look twice but dismiss the uneasy feeling as overactive imagination.


If you haven't been paying attention, a group of fatigued immortals conceived a half-baked scheme to end their existence by first exterminating all of humanity.  To this end, Faust synthesized a virus that turns humans into savages.  Cain being a farming genius spreads out the anti-love in the food that humanity eats.


Vampirella, the witch Miss Evily and werewolf operative Tristan investigate the latest outbreak.  The plague is treated seriously, but Collins lightens the proceedings by distinguishing her monsters with a nuance of action film normalcy.  

You can easily imagine Bond doing that.  The scene presents a neat contrast to the traditional creatures of the night.  It also simultaneously upholds and contrasts the idea of bad guys and gals being the only characters with libidos.  Despite the Cabal in appearance defending humanity, they are only ostensibly helping themselves to keep outlandish loons in check.  Thus preventing humans from discovering the occult underworld and dealing out extreme prejudice.


Shaft locates his quarry this issue by asking the proper question.  Writer David F. Walker defines John Shaft as no mean detective.  He will become even sharper and meaner, but right now, Shaft is not a person you want to mess with. 


The episode exemplifies the exploitation ethic of the nineteen seventies, but it actually has an older history.  The fellow Shaft pastes in this very painful looking sequence is uniform regardless of the color of the star.  His type plagued private eyes all over the cinematic landscape, and he originates in the nineteen thirties and forties, slapping around gumshoes.

In the seventies with all the protests falling out of Vietnam concerns, a certain well-armed, quasi military group seemed to become the enemy of the people they swore to protect.  So this kind of corruption appears apt in the seventies setting of Shaft.  The hapless gent Shaft whups is the first of many.

In conjunction with the case, Shaft finds himself facing the man that catalyzed his career.  Former boxer Bamma Brooks, and his boss, Junius escort Shaft’s encounter with Vernon Gates, “the most powerful man in Harlem,” and he divulges more information for Shaft to follow.

In the end, the task of finding Marisol Dupree is all window dressing for Shaft.  At the conclusion, we discover that he hasn’t just been surviving, which is how events played out on the surface.  He’s been tracking the killers of his beloved Arletha.  Shaft has been in control the entire time, and there will be hell to pay. 

On the current episode of Elementary...


...A lovely surprise for MST3K fans.