Sunday, October 11, 2015

POBB October 7, 2015

Pick of the Brown Bag
October 7, 2015
Ray Tate

The Pick of the Brown Bag roars back onto its self-imposed schedule with reviews of Aliens vs Vampirella, Angel and Faith, Barbwire and Groot.  I'll also review The Monuments Men.  The new book Rowans Ruin however is my first subject.

Rowan’s Ruin is a mediocre, weak tea horror story that’s just bucking for a miserable PG-13 rating, once pitched to an eager Hollywood.  Every cliche you can think of lies within these pages, and the innovation is practically nil.

The story begins promisingly enough with a woman calling 999 as she escapes something wicked coming her way.  For some reason instead of following the momentum, writer Mike Carey immediately bounces back to the incredibly tedious stuff.

Here, Emily and Kate, our protagonist, swap dwellings.  Some may argue that this is thoroughly modern, but it’s not.  All the swap does is create an artifice of currency.  It’s a mere contrivance to drop our heroine alone into a strange environment.  In this case, England.  So, the spooky can occur.  There’s very little difference between a residence swap and Kate inheriting an old house; Kate being lured there by a recently met friend only to find an empty house; Kate checking into an eerie inn, hotel, motel , etc, etc.

The switch won’t be the only conceit to conceal a chestnut.        E-mail has never been any different than letter writing.  It's just more immediate, and everybody knows one of the most famous uses of letter writing to assemble a horror narrative.

Carey also inflicts the selfie upon an unsuspecting audience.  That’s right up there with the lowest rung of horror.  Found Footage.

I mean this kind of crap ranks below torture porn which at least tries to be cinematic rather than do-it-yourself rubbish.  Found Footage Horror is kind of like America’s Funniest Home Videos only with jump scare attempts replacing hits to the groin.  Although most Found Footage Horror films do feel that way.

The only Selfie I ever wanted to see in media.

Rowans Ruin dredges on with Kate having a bad dream, but this dream isn’t apparently pertinent to the tired creepy she’s about to experience.  The dream is a repeat.  It would have happened had she vacationed in the haunted house or not.  So why is it here?

For the most part the goings on are uneventful.  

Oh, noes! Not the shadow at the window!

There's a good chance that Kate deserves what's about to happen to her.  Since she defies a cardinal rule of horror.

Never ignore the don't enter warnings, don’t open the book warnings, don’t go into the lake warnings unless you happen to be accompanied by one of thirteen men.

Not to worry.  Nothing happens.  There’s a whole lot of nothing that happens in Rowans Ruin.  Kate entering the forbidden room is just setup that would probably have violas or a piano playing a few notes of incidental music relating to the audience that you need to pay attention to this.  It'll be important later.  Way later.  Next issue or the issue after that later.

Trying to put the strangeness out of mind, Kate goes to the pub, and we have the single most enjoyable sequence of the whole damn comic book.

That’s funny.  Kate’s reaction is funny.  The hooligan’s behavior is funny.  His ignorance is funny.  Everything about the scene is just hilarious, but back to the alleged horror story…

Oh, no wait.  It’s a fucking love story now!  Son of a bitch!

What is this doing here? I mean what is this doing here! How did we get from the escape to this?  Damn it.  The love story stops whatever treacly velocity the tale had.  There’s not even a sex scene.  Fortunately as we reach the finish line for a race by congested snails, Kate takes a shower.

So not even tits then?  A G-Rated shower scene in an ostensible horror story!  No.  No.  I quit.  Here's an uncensored shower scene in a better horror flick; that’s not Psycho.

I give you Death Ship a thoroughly nasty piece of work, as horror should be.

And just in case you think I'm saying horror movies must have bare breasts in them to be good, here’s a superior terror film with no nudity in it.  

Invest the money you might have spent in Rowans Ruin and go see either movie.  You won’t be sorry.

In many ways, Angel and Faith is the antithesis of Rowans Ruin.  They start similarly.  A young woman runs away from a threat.  

The difference lies in the follow through.  Whereas Rowans Ruin drops confrontation in favor of an extra-long flashback, Angel and Faith carries the impetus forward.

Vampires flock to Magic Town, and they decide that Fred, the young woman running, looks appetizing.  Fred however is a recently resurrected associate of Angel’s, and she’s got a secret that the vampires will find most electrifying.

In the next pages it appears Fred might have dreamt the whole thing, but this is a fake out for the reader.  Writer Victor Gischler and probably the showrunner—some guy named Joss Whedon—based the crossover between this title and Buffy the Vampire Slayer on the mixed up dreams of Angel and Spike.  So it seems even more likely that Fred may have dreamt the whole thing, but the incident is not a dream.  Angel guards Fred who dropped exhausted from the ordeal into bed, and Fred confirms that the prologue happened.

When Fred awakens settled she joins Angel, Faith, Giles’ Sisters and Koh in a kitchen conference.  The beauty of this is that you don’t need to know any of these characters.  By reading the distinctive dialogue, you’ll come to understand each one; comprehend the overarching plot and appreciate a well-written, energetic expository scene, in which the weird is juxtaposed with ordinary—Koh drinking tea.  

While the realism of the artwork, such as that capturing Eliza Dushku, imbues the scene with a natural feel.

The group splits into teams of two.  Faith and Koh find the local pub torn to shreds.  Rather than falling into the trap of blaming the hero for the moths that fly close to the flame.  Rory, the owner of the pub, instead says this.

It’s such a wonderfully written moment filled with the sincerity of people who need help because they haven’t been forged in battle.  Faith’s reaction is perfect.  Faith wasn’t always on the side of  good.  She bears the wisdom of atonement.  She’s taken aback by Rory’s request, and a little afraid she won’t be able to make it so.

The culprits behind the destruction are a brilliant addition to the flock of vampires.

Football hooligan vampires, serving the mistress Drusilla.  When her school for vampires—busted wide open by Faith last issue—fails, Dru is in the market for new muscle.  

Note the characteristic little touches like Dru preferring to go barefoot.

The hooligans are all kinds of rotten.  They’re rotten to Angel, the folk of Magic Town, and the more youthful vampires whose shells still bear the remnants of punk, emo and Goth.  The people that football hooligans in general hate.

Dru sends her new charges out on a mission, and this brings them into conflict with Angel and Fred, quickly leading to a potent and unexpected cliffhanger.  This book practically melts into the mind like an exquisite caramel does in the mouth.

Our other vampire book pits Vampirella against Ridley Scott’s Aliens.  The crew of an exploratory mission discovered an ancient Nosferatu city taken down by the Aliens.  Despite the best preparations, things go chest-buster in a short period of time.  The most surprising thing about the infestation is that it gestates in  Vampirella as well, but being a unique vampire has its advantages.

The script by Corinna Bechko is smart.  Vampirella and Lars don’t intend to do anything but save the incoming rescue team by locking them out and going on a bug hunt.  Unfortunately, Vampirella’s one hundred percent altruistic history weighs little against her otherness.

The crew make assumptions based on classic vampire lore and force Vampirella to fight both human and alien.  The humans however soon see the errors of their ways.  Alas, far too late.  In the end running and in Vampirella’s case flying seems to be the best option.

Quick and dirty Alien action against the vampire from the stars.  Vampirella vs. Aliens sells itself.

As does Barbwire and Groot, both conclusions to their first stories.  In the case of ten year old character Barbwire it's the finish to the first story in a new volume of hopefully a long run.

Part of the appeal of Barbwire is artist Pat Olliffe.  The title always benefited from good to excellent artwork, and I've been a fan of Pat Olliffe since his days on Untold Tales of Spider-Man.  Take a look.

The best way I can describe Olliffe is that he's got a workhorse ethic when it comes to detail and narrative.  In the vein of Bob McLeod, Rich Buckler, Graham Nolan and Kerry Gamill.  Damn good artwork with few frills.  Oliffe's illustration also packs the kinetic charge of the hot young artist.  That makes him perfect for Barbwire.

This isn't to knock Chris Warner's story, which is excellent.  Barb is in dire straights because her bar turned nightclub needed repairs after Wyvern Stormblud, the big bloke chasing her, wrecked it.  Left with few options, she tracks down the demigod, who’s way outside of her weight class, and seeks to capture him for the bounty.

Things go awry almost immediately.  A misstep in unfamiliar territory alerts Stormblud, and he immediately disarms Barb.  Barb packed a weapon designed by her brother Charlie to whittle down Stormblud’s power levels.  After a chase, Barb traps her quarry in an old foundry.  By rights this should be enough.  By rights.

Warner's story from beginning to end drops Barb into various bad situations.  The tone is similar to the classic television show The Rockford Files.  If you haven't seen the series, please do.  Throughout the episodes, Jim Garner portrays a hard-luck private investigator named Jim Rockford who gets beaten up and seldom paid for his services.

Barbwire gets banged up though not badly by Wyvern since that would kill her.  Gravity is the culprit.  When things appear to look sunny, a semi-comical slap carries her backward.  Like Jim Rockford, Barb cannot get ahead of the game even though she found a way to play it from an angle.

Finally we have the knockout hit Groot.  Abducted by a bounty hunter, Rocket (Raccoon) saves his buddy Groot…

…from her clutches.  Through a long journey that took an economical four issues, Groot returns return the favor.  He's backed up by a cadre of unusual characters better suited for a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy book than a superhero story.

It all works though, but the bounty hunter proves to be a true villain and not just out for the bucks.  She captures Groot’s friends and this issue intends to kill them.  Groot may not be up to solving this particular problem.

Then again.

Groot is funny, warm and filled with action.  Writer Jeff Loveness draws a lot of humanity from these alien characters that appear to be the result of a recently discovered Chuck Jones experiment.  Kudos to artist Brian Kessinger.

The Saturday Afternoon Movie

The Monuments Men is a charming, understated movie that despite benefiting from a lot of early buzz ended up being a critical punching bag.  The docudrama details a small band of soldiers that rescued the art that Hitler and Goering stole.  

Everything about this movie flows beautifully, and I think that’s why critics hated it.  It’s not flashy.  It’s not gritty.  It’s not cinema verite.  It’s kind and matter-of-fact.  It’s the story about the Monuments Men who risked their lives so that anybody can go into a museum and see something that could have been destroyed by the Third Reich.  The acting is very natural and suits the mood, especially when the Monuments Men are struck in awe when they discover a new piece of work.  The characters also get along.  So I feel that the filmmakers should deserve even greater respect for creating an enjoyable work that doesn’t rely upon the friction between protagonists to generate a story.

The Real Monuments Men

A number of historians criticized the accuracy of the film, but there’s a difference between fact and fiction, and there’s a lot the movie gets right.  Furthermore, the film raises issues in history that just are not taught in the classroom.  For example, I learned that Hitler was a failed artist after I checked the fiction of Norman Spinrad’s alternate Hitler novel The Iron Dream.  A pitch black comedy by the way.  I’d like to think that people who see this movie might look further into the Monuments Men and the actual history of the stolen art and the men and women that saved it.

Monuments Men is based upon the non-fiction of Robert Edsel.  So clearly the script writers had a blueprint and chose when to discard and preserve the facts in order to make a visual narrative that has an airtight quality and never wavers from the central point.  Save the art.  Save the culture.  Save humanity.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

POBB September 30, 2015

Pick of Brown Bag
September 30, 2015
Ray Tate

The Pick of the Brown Bag looks at a short week consisting of two annuals: Grayson and Vampirella, the latest Wonder Woman 77 Special and the current issue of Justice League.

First, I'd like to address some honest and good criticism of my reviews.  She asked me not to single her out.  So I won't, but we'll call her Jane Doe--in honor of the awesome new series Blindspot.  

Jane suggests that using the terms pre-Crisis and post-Crisis just promotes artificiality in comic books and many prefer the historical designations of ages: Golden, Silver, Bronze, etc.  I've used the terms before, but I do see her point.  I tend to split comic book eras into two.  Three with the new 52.  So, when pertinent, I'll try to mix it up a little more.  What though to call the post-Crisis? How about the Rhinestone.  Glittery but cheap.

So by now you're beginning to doubt my disinterest in Grayson.  After all I purchased an annual, the traditional dog's unmentionables of any comic book series, and in a row after the most recent issue of Grayson.  The answer to this apparent contradiction is simple.   The annual establishes and/or strengthens continuity.  This is the story about the history of Superman and Robin.  

Writers Tim Seeley and Tom King open the story in the past where Batman and Robin with Superman tackle Blockbuster.  On the surface the flashback offers some high-octane hijinks with a Silver Age Batman villain and Superman along for the ride.  You can enjoy it for just that, but there's a ton of history in this interaction that merits consideration.

For the most part, Superman and Batman were compadres in the Silver and Bronze Ages of comic books.  They had a tiny blow-up when Batman quit the Justice League and formed the Outsiders before both groups brought them back together again.  However, friendship is Batman's and Superman's natural state.

I've always felt that Superman thought of Robin as a friend of a friend.  He liked him well enough, but he was a boy, Batman's boy, and unlike Batman who was like Supergirl's Uncle, the Silver Age Superman wasn't the Uncle type.  In the Bronze Age, Superman rarely encountered Robin without Batman, but they got along well enough.

When DC rebooted the heroes after The Crisis of Infinite Earths, Superman and Batman were no longer friends.  At best, they respected each other.  However, that didn't stick for long, writers began to throw spanners into the works of the Crisis.  Previously we could assume that Superman at least knew of Dick Grayson, but he likely never encountered him, that was until a single issue of Legends of the DCU.

That issue informs the Grayson Annual.  Batman's attitude here reflects the attitude of the Batman in Legends of the Dark Knight while preserving the new origins of the heroes in the new 52.  

The Grayson Annual departs from the conclusion to Legends of the Dark Knight, in which Robin agrees with Batman.  Superman is not human, and you shouldn't hang out with him.  

It appears that the uncle roles have been switched, and Seeley and King envision a longer history of Superman and Robin working together, which makes sense of course.

While I never ascribed to Batman the kind of automaton that many readers preferred, I admit that Batman keeps his feelings, other than rage, close to the vest.  He does not express a lot except to his closest friends, and even then there are limits.  

So the boisterous Robin would have gladly warmed up to the more off the cuff Superman.

With these preliminaries established, the Dynamic Duo of Red and Blue take on a weird cult that's sort of Hostel mixed with @midnight on the road with Mad Max.

Superman and Robin take care of business and enjoy the continuation of a longer friendship than they had in any other age of comic books.  Artists Alvaro Martinez, Raul Fernandez and Jeromy Cox almost makes you forget about Superman's lousy haircut.  These aspects make the Grayson Annual worth considering.

Justice League continues to be riveting entertainment.  The war against Darkseid rages on with the dark god badly outnumbered not just by the League but also by his daughter, his one time mate and Moebis the thing responsible for killing earth three, the Crime Syndicate's world.

At the same time Batman now fueled by the knowledge of the Moebis Chair, totally screws with Hal Jordan.  


Meanwhile Superman corrupted by the energy of Apokolips turns on Lex Luthor.

And a great time was had by all.  The only bad thing I can say about this Justice League issue is that it almost reads as too short.  However, it bears the surprising ability to function as a stand alone or a chapter in a saga.  The feeling reminds me of the Bronze Age League.  You could pick up those issues and never feel lost or cheated, and when you collected the rest of the story you felt even more satisfied.

The Wonder Woman 77 Special is a must buy for any Wonder Woman fan.  Marc Andryko, known for his hardboiled writing, once again brilliantly characterizes the kinder Lynda Carter version of Wonder Woman in two full-length meaty tales and a vignette.

The first story reintroduces the Cheetah, and the nineteen seventies Cheetah is the same Cheetah you've been reading about for years.

Drew Johnson and Richard Ortiz with Romulo Fajardo

Petty emotions trigger the rebirth.   A poorly renamed Smithsonian opens a Wonder Woman exhibit at the expense of an archaeological showcase curated by the Cheetah's alter-ego Dr. Barbara Minerva.  The Cheetah gains some new powers, but this proves to be no match for Wonder Woman.

And there's more.  The best thing about this story is how Andreyko relishes proving the Cheetah wrong.  She's completely unsympathetic because of her hatred for Wonder Woman is unfounded.

Wonder Woman hadn't opened up her own section of the museum.  Somebody else did to honor her service to peace and justice.  She refuses to succumb to the Cheetah's ethical  traps.  She will not hurt the innocent people victimized by the Cheetah's whims, nor will she injure the beasts that fall under the Cheetah's control.

With every action Wonder Woman takes, she proves herself to be the better person, even though she wishes not to partake in such a contest.  Wonder Woman is humble.

The second story equally impresses despite the introduction of a new antagonist, rather than relying on a Wonder Woman classic.

Cat Staggs and Fajardo

The story revolves around nuclear concerns of the nineteen seventies, still prevalent now.  My own bias?  I believe nuclear power if done correctly can be a remarkable resource that may eventually free the world from fossil fuel dependence and ultimately benefit humankind.  If done correctly, because sister, when nuclear power goes wrong it can destroy us as if we were fleas.   It's fairly clear in Wonder Woman that something went wrong indeed.

Wonder Woman approaches the problem the same way she does in any situation.  She's merciful toward her nemesis.

Furthermore, she sees right through politics and corruption to penetrate the defenses of the guilty.  

There's just one problem.  One of the beautiful things about Andreyko's story is that he not only establishes a new foe for Wonder Woman to contend against, he reimagines a cult favorite of comic book fans to guest  star.  This group presents a whole new set of variables, but you'll have to read about Wonder Woman's encounter with them yourselves.

In the vignette, Wonder Woman becomes entangled with an old family tradition and domestic violence on Halloween.  This reads as you might expect.  Perfect, with Wonder Woman's words absolutely pertinent to the now.

Jason Badower with Brett Smith

These stories which should be silly are instead inventive and meaningful because they say something.  Wonder Woman in these tales is an icon, not just a superhero or goddess.  She's kind and courageous.  She searches for solutions to the problems.  She doesn't just hit them.

Hiring a feminist-minded writer like Marc Andreyko is nothing short of genius, and pairing him up with artists that can do photorealistic while retaining the kinetic fluidity of the comic book narrative gives the reader her money's worth.

A lot of writers choose a scorched earth policy when departing a title.  Others simply leave the slate blank for future scribes.  Nancy Collins isn’t doing that.

I kept expecting something to go wrong with Vampirella’s induction into the beautiful idea of the KABAL, but it doesn’t.  By the end of the story, Vampirella is a full KABAL agent.  Collins instead of employing something inconceivable to turn the wheel back to the status quo builds on the history she added to Vee’s immortal life-span.

Collins introduces more KABAL agents with ties to famous horror stories.  Some are expected but no less welcome.  Others surprise and demonstrate Collins’ not mere talent as a horror author but also the research and knowledge she’s accumulated in making herself a favorite amongst horror readers.

Vampirella’s induction ceremony—because the KABAL is a group of monsters and occultists—takes pause when the Prometheus Society invades the inner sanctum.

Their target is a fair exchange with one of those surprises I was talking about and Dr. Faustus, one of the immortal masterminds behind the plot of Nancy Collins’ second story arc; both of which I highly recommend.

One of the neat things Collins does in the KABAL is treat it like an espionage agency.  She brings in all the tropes from the genre but twists them in a way that suits horror, or dark fantasy if you prefer.

Partner in crime Aneke serves a lot cheesecake.  That’s a Vampirella tradition, but one needs to keep in mind that the magazine has always been for adults.  Mostly the comic book as well.  All of what's seen in the annual is tame anyway.  Modern age Vampirella isn’t explicit.  You just enjoy cleavage from numerous participants.  The women are sensual but not sex objects.  The difference lies in the deadliness.

Vampirella’s and Madame Evily’s targets are monsters.  So, it’s difficult to feel any sympathy for them.  Neither Collins and Aneke promote such empathy.  Rather, they dip their fingers in seriously dark comedy.  When Vampirella fights humans or devil cults she becomes a horror heroine.  When she battles the forces of darkness, Vampirella transforms into a straight up action story with monsters.  Thus it has always been.

Previous Vampirella stories by Collins dealt with defying a curse and saving the world from a plague.  Although not without humor, these tales were much more dramatic than this wonderful double-sized lark.   The annual also paves the way for the newest writer.  I’m glad for this.  Given the Vatican’s history of abuse, corruption and callousness it was always difficult for me to imagine Vampirella being an agent for even an alternate universe Vatican.  She fits better fighting alongside monsters who though not necessarily good help humanity.  Long live Vampirella, Nancy Collins and the KABAL.