Monday, September 17, 2012

Pick of the Brown Bag
September 12, 2012


Ray Tate

Hello, and welcome to the Pick of the Brown Bag.  Today, we clean up with reviews of Smallville, Lookouts and Creator-Owned Heroes.  We turn to this week's batch of comics including the zero issues of Batgirl, Batman, Frankenstein and Team 7.  We'll also look at some licensed properties such as Vampirella and Dark Shadows as well as Doctor Who and The Saint.

Batman finally arrives in Smallville, the comic book that is.  Creators of the show tried introduce Batman on the series, and failed consistently over rights issues that frankly still confuse the hell out of me.  Warner Brothers owns Batman and Superman.  Smallville was broadcast on the CW.  What was the problem!

Anyway....As with Hank Henshaw in the first Smallville comics, an "actor," you may have seen him before in a smaller part, assumes the role of Batman.  The creative team also fashion his new costume with the limitations of television in mind.

Looks Better Than Bale if You Ask Me

In other words, rather than embrace the unlimited parameters of a comic book like Buffy the Vampire Slayer did, the creative team mimic the format of a television show and, though increasing their budget, they still act as if constrained by reality.  This is actually a good way to go.  Because of these self-imposed margins Smallville looks like no other on the rack.

Rather than adhere to tradition with Robin or Batgirl, the creators introduce Nightwing as an amalgam of both.  Of course there was some controversy over the statements made by writer Bryan Q Miller regarding Batman's Smallville partner.  If you believe Miller, Nightwing was meant to be Stephanie Brown.  This is not how she appears in Smallville.  So, the artists at least had a heads up on DC's plans, and I suspect Miller made his statements before he actually secured permission from DC.

Again this is the smart way to go.  Batgirl is known to be Barbara Gordon or Yvonne Craig by the general public.  Barbara Gordon appeared in costume in no less than six television series.  The people buying and more importantly downloading Smallville aren't necessarily habitual comic book buyers.  Stephanie Brown? Who's she?  We expect Barbara Gordon to be Batgirl.  There can be no other.

Because Smallville is a "television show" the creators do take liberties.  Despite her appearance alluding to her role as a librarian, Babs appears to be Bruce Wayne's personal assistant.  When the heroes are out of uniform, they exhibit a most appealing Avengers dynamic.  As Nightwing and Batman, they are a very tough and downright mean dynamic duo, with Barbara humiliating her targets while Batman scares the hell out of his prey.

When Batman meets Superman, it's an explosive confrontation.  I'm guessing that Batman reacted violently to Superman's interference because Batman believes if he gets in one good punch, he can escape.  Batman is sadly mistaken.

Superman in Smallville is effective.  Superman saves a bus-load of kids taken hostage, by a criminal exploiting stolen teleport technology.  Our hero follows that lead to Lex Luthor, but after questioning the villain, Superman deduces Intergang's involvement.  This conclusion leads Superman to Belle Reve where Bruno Manheim resides.  That's where Batman enters the picture.

Oh, and just in case you were thinking the historic team-up/rivalry overwhelms the personal subplots, you can think again.  Last issue, Lex found a way to identify Superman wherever he flies.  This issue, thanks to a little help from his friends, Superman and Lois have some well-deserved quality time in the Fortress of Solitude.  When Lois returns to The Daily Planet a lovestruck intern--he's into Clark--suffers her particular brand of Loisness.  It's an uproarious moment in which artist Chris Gross stretches his muscles toward the Kevin Maguire spectrum and doesn't do bad at all in the attempt.

A year to a year and a half ago new 52 time, Barbara Gordon was crippled by the Joker, but before that Barbara became Batgirl for the first time.  Batman's and Batgirl's zero issues reinforce the idea that DC's post-Crisis history is no more, and I say good riddance to bad rubbish.

The Killing Joke in particular no longer exists; given that it had all the trappings of an earth-two story, featuring Batman tooling around in a 1940s Batmobile and a photo of the original Batwoman, Bat-Girl and Ace the Bathound, it never should have been incorporated into the DCU in the first place.  The Killing Joke was the eye of the black hole that decimated all that was good in DC comics.

Just a shred of old DC remains, and The Joker's crime is no longer as powerful.  Batgirl is back.  Permanently.  Finally.  In fact, DC went out of its way to make her feel welcome.  The retroplanted, garbage Batgirl substitute and token lesbian Batwoman still pollutes the racks, but no other Batgirl ever was in DC comics.  In the new timeline, Barbara Gordon was, is and will always be Batgirl.  That's how it should be.  That's how it should have always been.

Batman, Batgirl and last week's Detective Comics link to reveal decidedly different incarnations of Batman and Batgirl.  Better versions.  Detective Comics isn't very good until you read Batman and Batgirl and realize that Batman Dark Knight writer Gregg Hurwitz wasn't actually following the old pursuit of presenting a cold, robotic Batman.  

In Hurwitz's Detective Comics, the mentally tortured wife of Bruce's sensei hires a ninja to kill her husband.  Her husband believed that sublimating the emotions is the only way to be a true warrior.  The murder of Bruce's sensei turns out to be key in the forging of a much more empathic Batman of the new 52.  The neophyte Batman learned from the killer of his sensei.  Don't lock up your heart and humanity because this way leads to betrayal and death.

The lesson informs Batman, and when Bruce returns home, he hugs Alfred.  At the time, I simply thought the backup story in Detective Comics was the result of problems in communication between writers.  Now, I see it as the beginning of a pattern.  Yes, Batman will become dark.  Yes, Batman will terrify criminals, but as we see in the future, he will head the Batman Family.  He will make friends with members of the Justice League.  He won't just be a part of the team; we've seen his welcoming attitude toward the Flash in Flashpoint.  He will romance Catwoman.  He will hold Barbara's hand in the ICU.  All of this arises from a single point in the maelstrom of Detective Comics.

Batman details Bruce's first encounter with the Joker in his guise of the Red Hood.  In The Killing Joke, the Joker is presented as a victim.  He's a stand up comic with a wife, and he's duped into wearing the Red Hood.  The gang suckered a schlep to wear the Hood to act as a target.

Writer Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo follow Gail Simone's example.  They throw out Alan Moore's deconstructive origin story for the Joker.  Snyder and Capullo go back to the beginning, in which the diabolical Red Hood was one of the Batman's first adversaries.  He never uncovered the Hood's identity until Robin discovers through criminological analysis that the returning Red Hood's hair is actually green.  When trying to escape Batman, the Red Hood swam through chemicals, and that is how the Joker arose.

Later in the myths, it's suggested that the chemicals twisted his already abnormal brain even farther, and that's where Snyder begins.  He presents the Hood as a joke-telling psychopath prone to violence and mass murder by poison, but nowhere yet near the insanity exhibited by his future persona.  Capullo in turn draws the Hood's head as elongated, sporting a half-grin.  He's only half-way to full ahead nuts.

Batman is a reflective comic.  Capullo expresses the wry humor of Lieutenant Gordon.  Gordon's twitchy mustache through the panels demonstrates youth and Groucho subtlety.  He and Bruce appear to be sharing a private joke that mirrors the body language and veiled meaning in Batman's and Gordon's conversation about The Dark Knight's and "The Joker's" pairing up against the Arkham inmates early in the new 52 series.  The Joker in this case was the disguised Dick Grayson.

Dick Grayson, Barbara Gordon, Jason Todd and Tim Drake all appear in the backup story by James Tynion and Andy Clarke.  The tale better insinuates the Batman Family siblings into Batman's timeline and cements their ages.  Dick is the elder.  Barbara is the second-eldest, as established in a previous issue of Batgirl.  Jason comes next and finally Tim.  Now we can see how a youthful Batman can have four Robins and one Batgirl at his side.

As this week's Batgirl reinforces, Batgirl fought beside Batman and Robin (Dick Grayson).  As Red Hood and the Outlaws indicates, she never met Jason Todd or Tim Drake as Robin.  We can then guess that Dick Grayson wasn't Robin long and took on the Nightwing guise when college age.  Jason only a few years younger assumes the role of Robin, but because of his upbringing on the streets, this harder figure conflicted with Batman who promptly fired him after a few months, half a year at most.  Death in the Family likely no longer exists and thankfully neither does Superboy punching time to reanimate the dead but not the crippled.  Tim Drake then became Robin, and finally Damian Wayne.  It's a tight fit, but it's a fit.

So, what about Batgirl?  Originally, Barbara Gordon was considered "mousy."  In reality, she hid her devastating intellect beneath a guise of propriety as she worked in the Gotham City Library and disguised her brown belt with restrained demeanor.  Fed up with the way people judged her, Barbara intended to wow her friends, father and colleagues with the "The Million Dollar Debut of Batgirl."  She made her own sexy, dynamic Batgirl uniform and simply hoped to reveal herself at a costume party.  Her plans changed when she saw Bruce Wayne endangered by the Killer Moth.

Unlike the post-Crisis writers, Simone keeps the core of Barbara's origin.  Rather than become a martial artist in secret Barbara Gordon learns self-defense because she's the Commissioner's daughter.  The Commissioner's well aware of what Barbara can do.  In the old cosmology, Barbara began her career as Batgirl when older.  She already had a PhD.

Simone sagely takes Barbara's age in consideration as well as her introverted personality and dumps the party idea; perfect for a young woman, not a good idea for a teenager.  The change retains Babs' public shyness, which hides the fact that she's nuts about the concept of Batman.  Her eyes light up when she thinks of Batman, but it's not romance she's after.

Simone outfits Barbara through a very clever means.  The uniform's in fact waiting for her, and she puts it on to protect her psychopathic brother James Jr.  We can assume Year One if long gone from the DC canon.  This is not the child Batman saved during a motorcycle chase.  The Commissioner does not have an affair with Sara Essen.  Indeed, James Jr. coerces his mother to leave the family, detailed chillingly in a previous issue of Batgirl.

A cult/militia leader not the Killer Moth catalyzes Barbara's birth as Batgirl, and in a very strange way, Simone parallels the debut of Batgirl on television.  In that episode of the kitschy Batman,  the Penguin kidnaps Barbara with the intent to forcibly marry her and thereby bulletproof himself against the Commissioner.  In a very clever move, the Penguin hides in the apartment next to Barbara Gordon's flat.  He's right to think nobody would look for them there, but it also gives Barbara the opportunity to work her way along the ledge to sneak home and change into Batgirl.

Simone works the same idea but with a more realistic situation.  Barbara's taken hostage in the police department by a thug who uses her as a bargaining chip.  The thug intends to kill James Jr. mainly because he sees the psychotic personality lurking behind his eyes.  Junior's dangerous.  Barbara uses the tear gas attack to her advantage in order to change into Batgirl and defeat the thug.  Oh, and there's no henchmen around wearing uniforms that say "Henchman."

When the smoke has almost cleared, Batman appears, with the intent to rescue her, but she doesn't need the help.  Her actions instead impress him.  He even compliments her.  At that moment, Barbara joins the Batman family.

I can't say that this origin is better than the original.  Rather, like last week's World's Finest spotlighting a new death of the earth-two Catwoman, the origin suits the character within the new 52 environment, and Simone should be justly proud of reversing Barbara's twenty-three years of misfortune and recouping most of what makes Barbara Gordon special to her fans.

A different type of bat girl casts her shadow in Dark Shadows and VampirellaOf course the similarities are few.  Ed Benes illustrates Batgirl elegantly and has nothing to fear from bad breast artist Patrick Berkenkotter.

There's just really no call for drawing a woman like this, even Vampirella, who isn't shy about displaying her sexuality.  Indeed, being a vampire, she must issue seduction as part of the hunting process, but this is ridiculous and not at all sensual.  They look like rotting cantaloupes.

What's worse, is that the depiction distracts you from a decent story in which the proper Jonathan Frid Barnabas Collins mixes and matches with Vampirella on a stalk for a serial killer that has dared to snatch one of Barnabas' victims' descendants; under his protection don't you know.

Writer Marc Andreyko makes the duel between the vamps not just about strength but also attitude, and the often amusing dialogue paves the way for a weird team-up.  Andreyko also partners an incarnation of Pantha, who doesn't sport the ridiculous boobs of Vampirella, and the werewolf Quentin.

From vampires, we turn to a Modern Prometheus.  Mary Shelley never actually went into great detail about how the monster, whom she named Adam, arrived in the world.  She hinted that Victor Frankenstein used dead tissue to construct his eight foot tall beast and electricity to bring him to life, overtly disclosed in the Universal film with Boris Karloff.  DC's Frankenstein is even more twisted.

In Shelley's Frankenstein, Victor was a tragic hero.  The monster murdered his intended Elizabeth and his younger brother William.  Victor pursued his creation to the ends of the earth in order to destroy him.

Writer Matt Kidnt turns the creature's creator into a murdering madman.  He doesn't just use dead tissue to stitch up the glimmer in his eye.  He kills living men and women to harvest the raw material and power the furnace that will give the Monster life.

Upon gaining the spark of life, Frankenstein is appalled at Victor's lack of morality and promptly deals with him, though not fatally.  He sets Victor's victims free, and when he encounters Elizabeth, the meeting is a far cry from that of the Shelley novel.

Kindt compresses a massive number of ideas into one book, and I really wish he took the time to expand them because they're so intriguing.  This is the same feeling I had when Frankenstein starred in Men at War.  I so wanted to see a series where Frankenstein killed Nazis in inventive ways issue after issue and with G.I. Robot J.A.K.E. flanking him.

In this zero issue, we discover very quickly how Frankenstein's bride arose and S.H.A.D.E's continued involvement.  Frankenstein fights a baby-eating monster and as a result becomes a tribe member.  Victor pursues his creation with a band of period cyborg pirates to South America, not the Antarctic.  I suppose you could call them Steampunk, but that movement tends to focus on elegant clockwork and the beauty of steam-powered invention.  These gents are ugly, and artists Alberto Ponticelli and Wayne Faucher intended that homeliness.  In fact even the most unblemished of characters still has the reality of imperfection.

One of "Shelley's children" roams in "Trigger Girl."  Trigger Girl 6's body was based on the President's mother, and there's a reason for that.  "Trigger Girl 6" easily represents Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray at their most outrageous and original.  It's very clear to me why they had to make their own label Creator-Owned Heroes in order to publish this story.  I can just imagine the pitch.

"It's Kill Bill meets classic Disney cartoons!"

Even the most adventurous publisher would probably take a pass on it.  A pity, because the story makes sense, relates a message without preaching and follows a narrative principle you might have learned in English class.  The events and lessons a character learns within a story change that character by the end.

Steve Niles and Kevin Mellon also earn points by crafting the first comedic post-apocalypse story that I've ever read.  The only thing that comes close to approaching the humor is Cherry 2000, and although light, I don't consider that movie an outright comedy.

The Road Runner/Coyote conclusive chase, the self-deprecation of the ostensible hero and the hillbilly behavior of the mutants all classify "American Muscle" as an absurd jest.  The usual articles, an interview and a short sketchbook by Mellon complete the entertaining package.

Another independent, this time from Cryptozoic, Lookouts certainly demands your attention.  The art on the cover reflects what's in the book, but the story isn't quite so innocent or cartoony.

The writers pit their gruff Ranger and his plethora of diverse students against a rare beast, so beautifully rendered I almost wish I could spoil it.  The thing however is not a Disney animal but a murderous monster that wipes out a family of four thankfully off screen.

The packaging for the new IDW Doctor Who Special is nothing short of gorgeous.  The Special sports lovely paper stock and a square-bound spine.  It's a definite step-up from the Marvel Annuals which even with Alan Davis' artwork felt disposable.  Of course, the question is does the interior match the quality of the exterior.  I'm happy to say that all four stories are illustrated and written with flair.

In the first story, the always welcome Matthew Dow Smith with textural colors by Adrian Salmons illustrates the sandy environs of Morocco for the Doctor's encounter with an old enemy.  It's great to see these things again.  Their plan follows the m.o. of using humanity's own unification and numbers against it, and the Doctor's brilliant yet simple means to defeat them is classic to his characterization.  Who knew Len Wein was a Doctor Who fan?

In the second tale the Doctor encounters a lost alien and finds himself on the run from Time Lords.  What? But, the Time Lords are locked in eternal battle with the Daleks, courtesy of the Doctor.  How did this lot escape? Writer Richard Dinnick pulls same trick on the reader that Tony Lee performed when the Shadow Proclamation put the Doctor on trial.  We've really got to stop falling for this.  Josh Adams provides good, solid artwork with rainbow wielder Charlie Kirchoff.

In the third tale, the Doctor saves one of his friends from alien hit-men that invade Alcatraz.  That plot could suit any character, but The Doctor's method of rescue depends on his intrinsic sense of whimsy and of course time travel.  It's all whacky fun by Tony Lee and Mitch Gerads who makes the panels seem like consolidated Radio Times covers.

Mark Buckingham, yes, that one, contributes realistic artwork for the Doctor's encounter with a Nazi spy.  Andy Diggle characterizes the Doctor as a finder of trouble and demonstrates the penalty for any that do not heed his warnings.

The harvesters of the bionic parts decide to sink the ship that Jamie merely threatened to keelhaul.  Mind you she did back up her threat with a bionic punch that sent the ocean rushing in.

The launchers of the s.a.m. (surface-to-air-missile) intend to net Jamie from the drink.  They're unaware and do not care about Jamie's friend Nora, which is a mistake as they will soon see, nor their former man with the scalpel.

Artist Juan Antonio Ramirez keeps the visual narrative clear and dynamic, as Jamie refuses to let these reapers get the upper hand or jeopardize her friends' lives.  Tobin's story smartly exemplifies Jamie's wits and her toughness.  He also inveigles a guest appearance by one of Jamie's old friends and uses him as a double-edge to coax out humorous jealousy from Nora, who sobers up rather quickly when she realizes her chances with Jamie are slim to none.  Nora's such a great character, damn dangerous as well.

Leslie Charteris created the Saint in 1928, but you probably encountered him as the suave, sophisticated Roger Moore in the ITV television series from the sixties.  While certainly valid, Roger Moore's Saint was scrubbed quite a bit for the audience and probably to better suit Moore's easygoing personality.

In the novels, the Saint is ruthless and has no qualms when killing a villain.  In The Saint in New York for example, Simon Templar entertains a kidnaped child by slaying her abductors.  He is a prototype pulp hero:  his enemies monstrous like those of the Spider but without the Grand Guignol flourishes and his cold dispatch of justice equal to the Shadow.

Science fiction author Mel Odom and freaking great artist Eduardo Barreto adapt a Leslie Charteris short story, the "Sizzlin' Saboteur," for this low-priced preview of the full comic book.  Charteris believe it or not wrote the Saint's stories until the 1960s, including some of the teleplays in the Roger Moore series.  This story set in 1942 was published in the 1943 collection The Saint on Guard.

Right from the opening, Barreto reels you in with a horrific depiction of being burned alive.  The most terrifying thing about the scene is that he doesn't actually show the murder.  Instead, he foreshadows it with fiery colors and depicts the steps to the homicide.

Later our Saint encounters the aftermath.  Without a photorealistic appearance, Baretto's Saint still evokes Roger Moore's "the infamous Simon Templar" if he had portrayed him in the forties.

The Saint is easily one of the breeziest characters Barretto ever illustrated.  He's usually known for figures that might have burst from Men's Action magazines.  Odom's first person narration and dialogue neatly characterizes Simon Templar.  He captures the dry wit in his voice and choice of phrasing as well as the hero's intelligence.

The most anticipated of the DC Zero books is Team 7.  The reason why is simple.  This is essentially DC's ground floor book.  It's where we hope to learn the history of DC.  Already, we know that Superman and the Flash are two of the first superhumans known to the public.

We also know this team will implode, and learning the reasons why these characters will split is kind of interesting.  Will these rationales be based upon further sightings of capes and cowls?  Will differences in philosophies clash to breaking points?

Dinah Drake, Kurt Lance, Slade Wilson, Cole Cash, Amanda Waller, Lynch, Alex Fairchild and then came James Bronson and Captain Summer Ramos comprise the team.  Oddly enough, there's nine members to this Team 7, but I'm sure that will be explained by the deaths of two.  Possibly the ones we never heard of before.

In any case, the seven formed to combat superhumans counts amongst its roster some familiar names.  Dinah marries Kurt, and she becomes the Black Canary, whom Batman knows and feels unimpressed by.  Slade Wilson gains his Deathstroke gear during the outfitting of the group, and Cole Cash dons his Grifter mask for the first time--no explanation on why only he is masked.

Justin Jordan scribes a competent gang-getting-together story.  He characterizes Dinah as the mvp, a wise decision, and pours in enough action to make Jesus Merino and his fans very happy.  Merino's artwork hasn't changed all that much from his Star Trek Voyager days.  It's just gotten sharper and more fluid.  Nathan Eyring's colors are particularly notable when depicting Dinah's cold-blue stare and the familiar hair color of Alex Fairchild, a second hint in case you've missed the connection.

Well, there you have it, all the books I missed last week combined with this week's yield gives you a particularly meaty POBB.  Next week, the usual suspects and a review of Walt Simonson's The Judas Coin.

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