Monday, October 1, 2012

Pick of the Brown Bag
September 26, 2012


Ray Tate

Today in the Pick of the Brown Bag it's another zero week with All-Star Western, Aquaman, The Flash, Hawkman, the highly anticipated debut of Talon, Teen Titans and Superman.  I'll also discuss the Big Dog Ink flagship title Critter, and we'll visit the Alpha Quadrant with the TARDIS in Doctor Who/Star Trek as well as Phantom Lady and Doll Man.

"The Game is Afoot"

The fourth issue of Critter was okay, and that's a vast improvement.  The winning independent has been of late piss-poor due to the introduction of cat-themed, celebrity-status hungry super-team Purrfection.  Yuck. 

In this issue, writer Tom Hutchison and artist Fico Ossio at least focus on Critter's want to be an actual hero out to save the day and rescue the innocent.  Critter's roommate Gina also creates a new costume for her that's millions of lumens more brilliant than the nightmare she wore while enduring Purrfection.

On the other hand, Hutchison and Ossio introduce another publicity thirsty group of heroes called the In Crowd: Lasso Lass, Slipstream and Wing Boy.  We've met Slipstream before, and she's the only hero out of the handful that comes off as interesting and genuine.  Hutchison gives her a fascinating power that deserves more exploration; certainly more than the whole American Idol superhero phenomena he's got going as a major plot.  Hopefully, this obsession will end sooner than later.

Phantom Lady and Doll Man picks up where we left off.  Cyrus Bender is a Little Bad in the Big Bad Metropolis-based Bender family.  The family's patriarch killed Jennifer Knight's parents.  So, she's determined to bring them down.  Somebody will have to bring her down first.  

Two things immediately came to mind when witnessing this scene.  Compare the difference between the titillating Irving Klaw like bondage of the old Phantom Lady versus the actual life-threatening bondage experienced by the current Phantom Lady.
Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti employ the bindings for dramatic intent, but I'd be shocked if they weren't aware of the headlights meet rope history of the Phantom Lady.  

The humor underscores the imprisonment and provides relief.  Palmiotti and Gray give the scene an edge, but they don't want it to teeter into hardboiled territory.  They secure it to the realm of the superhero.  It's all in the execution.

Naturally, Phantom Lady doesn't so much as suffer a bean to the head.  Cyrus likes to play with his food, and his friend Warlock thinks he's nuts.  Warlock actually respects the Phantom Lady more when he refers to her as a cobra.  She's not to be trifled with.

Darrell Dane debuted as Doll Man at the end of last issue, but this issue, he enters in costume and rocket pack.  It's no real spoiler to say that Doll Man rescues Phantom Lady and takes her away to give her the tools to bring down Bender.  

What follows in the book is an overview of Jen's powers, training and her limits.  However, Palmiotti and Gray preclude the potential blandness of these scenes with dialogue tailored to the characters and an overall light touch.  It doesn't hurt that the scenes are so vividly illustrated by Cat Staggs, Tom Derenick and Jason Wright.

Gray's and Palmiotti's All-Star Western pretty much sticks to the old history of Jonah Hex but with deft Moritat artwork rather Ernie Chua mastery.  Palmiotti and Gray preserve Hex's Native American connections, the means by which Hex was scarred as well as his alcoholic father, but the duo also add the idea that Hex's father was once a decent man before he hit the bottle.  Woodson Hex's protection of his newborn son and wife from a Sheriff's corrupt posse exhibits remarkable heroism and ferocity, both traits prevalent in his son.  

Hex's father fills with hate as he quenches his addiction, but Hex's mother isn't exactly pristine either.  Her flaw lies in her weakness.  She could have taken Hex with her when she left his father.  She could have convinced the man she had taken up with to allow her son passage at least out of the hell he will endure.  She did not.

The writers offset the tragic past of Jonah Hex with an almost cheerful denouement.  Hex persevered and won.  He's a successful bounty hunter.  He bonded with allies like Nighthawk and Cinnamon.  He even crosses with women, old paramour Tullulah Black being his most recent bedmate. The actions of Hex's most recent past--risking his life in an inferno to save innocent strangers--indicate that he still can represent the best of humanity.  Frankly, given how life continuously kicked him in the ribs, Hex comes off as even more admirable.

In an amalgamated future, The Doctor wants Jean-Luc Picard and the crew of the starship Enterprise to parlay with the Borg to defeat the Cybermen.  Jean-Luc refuses, instead taking the tactical option of bugging out and letting the cyborg races fight to the death like pantomime horses.

That sounded like a good plan, but in Doctor Who the plan that seems the most rational is flawed.  You don't attack Sontarans with bullets.  Even-though the potato-heads can be shot, they developed a contingency for defeating ordinary ammunition.  You can't let the Cybermen and the Borg fight because in the end, it's not an even match.

Amy Pond's courage and honesty, her faith in the Doctor sway Jean-Luc to entertain the Doctor's words and deeds, and in these scenes the creative team of Tiptons, Purcell and Woodward capture the charisma and lilt of Karen Gillan.  

With Amy's encouragement, The Doctor decides to lay his cards out on the table and take Jean-Luc on a tour of the future being rewritten.  He did something similar with Sarah Jane Smith in the episode "Pyramid of Mars," but not on such a grand scale.

All of these factors make Doctor Who/Star Trek a solid chapter in "Assimilation," but it's the flow of the Doctor's words which mirror the delivery of Matt Smith and his final Doctorish proclamation that make Doctor Who/Star Trek a jaw dropper.

Rob Liefield and Mark Poulton advance Thanagarian technology and culture.  Good.  They follow the pattern set by Justice League to introduce the Thanagarians as an actual winged race.  Even better.  They bring back Shayera.  Excellent.  They dump the reincarnation angle.  Fantastic!


This bloated, convoluted Savage Hawkman benefits from an astonishing interlocking tapestry of artwork characterizing plausible alien lifetimes, an extraterrestrial royal court and strange things that wheel in the sky, to paraphrase the Doctor.  

Illustrators Joe Bennett, Art Thibert and Guy Major should justifiably feel proud.  The art's so good that it would almost vindicate an oversize, hardback reprinting of the zero issue.  Almost.  Because Poulton and Liefield should be hanging their heads in shame.

The story's horribly xenophobic.  Emperor Provis, the ruler of Thanagar, listens to Katar Hol, presented as a pacifist on his home planet, and invites aliens from all over the galaxy to celebrate the recent peace.  Former enemies dine with new allies.  Alas, the Daemonites carry out the extermination plan for Native Americans discussed by some upper crust 18th century Europeans.  They introduce a molting virus that causes all the Thanagarians to lose their wings.

The optimistic hand of friendship gets hacked off by distrusting foreigners.  Oh, and by the way, why no follow through? If the Daemonites introduced plague, why did they not next invade Thanagar and conquer their old enemies?  

I'd like to think that this might be the writers suggesting that the molt and the alien presence on Thanagar was mere coincidence but the plotting just continues to wreak horrors on the reader's suspension of disbelief.  

Shayera's unbalanced bellicose brother Corsar succeeds Porvis and promptly invests Thanagar's economy in the magic beans of the Nth Metal.  Why?  Corsar says that it will help Thanagarians "fly again", but how? Oh, and they have spaceships.  I know it's not the same as soaring upon wing and prayer, but technically, these aliens haven't stopped flying, which begs the question of why did the Daemonites release the molt on this race in the first place? To punish them? Well, that seems stupid.  I mean Thanagar still has a space fleet, and it wasn't the boots on the ground or wings in the air that won their wars.  By the writing team's admission, superior starships and tactics won their wars.  The Thanagarians just liked to in addition bloody their beaks.

The mystical Old Ones, which the previous Emperor banished from the Court, guide Corsar.   Katar just acts as this ineffectual conscience that pipes up every second of the day.  He's like a tiny flickering Christmas light amidst a brilliant array of luminescence.  

Here's the kicker.  Katar is always wrong.  Give peace a chance? Daemonite Molt Party.  Don't listen to the Old Ones? Turns out there is Nth Metal in them Thanagar hills.  He's like the anti-Batman.

Corsar mines the Nth Metal at the expense of the land and the innocent miners.  No Quecreek Miracle here.  Katar of course cheeps protests.  From a practical standpoint, he's wrong again.  Oh, sure you can argue that ethically Katar's spot on, but the way this story is set up, pragmatism is what wins the day.  Ethics are for democrats.  Thanagar is the planet of neocon Republicans.

The Nth Metal is exactly what Corsar and the Old Ones think it is.  It's a means to give Thanagarians back their wings, well one Thanagarian.  So, there's the point.  Take away everybody's wings, just so Mr. Jiminy Cricket can get his back.  

Poulton and Liefield should have just retained everybody's wings.  There were other ways to make Katar a rebel, less annoying ones.  For example, just off the top of my head, what if Thanagar were conquerors, but Katar had the mind of a police man.  He believed in the law and justice and that's what caused the rift between he and the other Thanagarians.  That's a starting point.  Wiping out the wings of an entire race while preaching xenophobia, environment wrecking and war being the answer to everything except an unexpected Dune worm, just to get Hawkman aloft? That's just utter bollocks.

Hawkman's former and future Justice League colleagues fare better this week.  Superman is surprisingly good.  I know.  It's a change for me as well.  The origin of Superman in the beginning was related in a few scant pages, with only mention of his parents.  Mainly writers referred to the doomed planet Krypton.  Over the years that changed.

In the Golden Age, talent based Jor-El and Lara squarely on the pulps.  They looked they might have come off the covers of Astounding Science Fiction.  Jor-El of course was brilliant.  Lara was originally just his helpmate until the sixties when one of the Silver Agers gave Lara an astronaut background.  

The Donner plan for Jor-El and Lara was much the same, albeit with more crystals and white clothing to reflect the New Age movement of the seventies.  This design would later inform Smallville.

John Byrne was the first to radically reconfigure Krypton.  He introduced clones, a savage history and emotional repression for the present day Kryptonians.  

Byrne's Jor-El was a rebel in more ways than one.  He admits his love to Lara as the planet dies.  The love they freely express isn't merely isolated to each other.  Like every incarnation before them, both parents loved their son Kal-El.  They loved him so much that they were willing to send him away, let others raise him, just so he might live.

For the zero issue, Scott Lobdell and Kenneth Rocafort relate a story about the new 52 couple Jor-El and Lara.  Nothing has really changed, except the levels of sophistication.  

It's not enough for Lara to be merely a futuristic housewife.  Oh, and please, no angry e-mails about my implying that housewifery is somehow beneath women.  Whatever floats your boat.  It's wrong for a housewife to be a housewife is she's not happy.  It's wrong for housewife to be a housewife if she was forced into the role by her husband.  That's what I meant.  All right?  Can we go on? Fine.  

In terms of story, Lobdell finds a much better use for Lara.  Turns out, she's ex-military, and that leads to some humorous as well as some exciting situations that Rocafort is only too happy to render.  

Rocafort's style looks like it came from Europe via science fiction great Vincent DiFate.  The artist's unique design scheme echoes to the pulps yet still possesses the illustrative acumen of modern art.  Drink in the attractive group of antagonists.  Their appearance reflects their advancement.  These aren't mere thugs.  This cadre is a group of sophisticated scientifically knowledgable terrorists with a rationale. They worship entropy.  They turn a scientific fact into faith, and that's why they're so dangerous.  

Of course, the point is academic.  Krypton will die, or will it? Sharp eyes will note a theme in the zero issues of the Superman Family titles.

Writer Geoff Johns lets the lush artwork of Ivan Reis, Joe Prado and Rod Reis do most of the talking in Aquaman.  One of the many cool things about this zero issue is how Reis integrates the previous flashbacks into his visual narrative.  We see Dr. Shin trying to apologize to Aquaman as Arthur escapes paparazzi, but in the background rather than the fore.  

Johns also deserves credit for seamlessly knitting the history of Aquaman hinted in the series with this unknown tale.  So, we watch Aquaman at his father's bedside but we also hear what Arthur learns from his father and learn why Arthur ran.  It wasn't pressure from the media, nor did he merely feel terrible about the death of his father.

As well as the integration, this issue of Aquaman stands on its own by detailing Aquaman's search for his mother and intertwining his search with other discoveries.  On the hunt, in a thrilling moment of wonder, Aquaman learns that he possesses the power to command the creatures of the sea.

Johns mingles these elements with an explanation on why Aquaman opted to be a hero to all people--sea dwelling and land lovers in the first place.  Previously Arthur had no real motivation.  This rationale however gives a core strength to Aquaman, making the character even less disposable.

Francis Manapul and Brian Buccellato generate more excitement than I thought possible in the recounting of the Flash's origin.  I've seen the Flash's birth by lightning hundreds of times, including the most impressive recreation, on television with John Wesley Shipp.  

For the new 52, Manapul and Bucellato add some practicalities to the accident that granted Barry his powers.  Buccellato and Manapul wrap Barry in bandages and place him in a coma.  The writers give Barry a police family that visits his bedside, and they also create an intriguing mystery involving the Flash's mother and father.  

Did Barry's father kill his mother?  We can tell he had a kind of motive, involving a possible divorce.  In the past he begged Barry to believe in his innocence.  In the immediate future he'll ask Barry to accept his guilt.  Did he do it? It's an answer I suspect we'll be saving for future issues.

In addition to the deeper history and Manapul's and Buccellato's spectacular neo nouveau art, the creative team chronicle the Flash's uniformed evolution.  A past encounter with a friend explains why Barry chose to wear a costume.  Manapul's choice of words, his command of dialogue resonates behind the rationale.  The boost of humor in Barry's deeds as the Flash, makes the Speedster's defeat of ordinary gunmen just as fun as handing a super powered rogue his comeuppance.

More of DC's past continuity falls by the wayside in Teen Titans zero.  Scott Lobdell and Brett Booth pare A Lonely Place For Dying the miniseries that introduced Tim Drake to the Batman mythos.  In that series, Drake observed that Batman experienced a trauma, the death of Robin Jason Todd.  Dick and Alfred help convince him that he should take on Tim as a partner.  

Of course, this is insane.  The concept of the kid sidekick, having a mature adult enable a son, daughter or surrogate to risk his life the way he or she risks his life amounts to child endangerment.  It's one of those conceits that you just have to shrug your shoulders over and accept as a comic book convention that won't be going away...ever.  It doesn't make sense unless you agree that all you're doing is reading a story, and the kid is just another character.

Lobdell keeps the idea of Batman's hurting over losing his partner, but the theme is all he keeps.  Originally, Tim's parents were well to do.  Tim's father was in Bruce Wayne's stratosphere if not exosphere.  A crazy voodoo dude murders Tim's mother and paralyzes his father.  I think they kill him later, since conflicting father figures really do not work well with the concept of kid sidekicks.  

Originally, Tim was smart, but he's not brilliant.  The status of Tim being a wunderkind was worked in way, way after Chuck Dixon's and Tom Grummett's Robin ongoing.  Lobdell reintroduces Tim Drake as gifted in both body and mind.  Tim was never a gymnast like Dick.  In Teen Titans he's a budding Olympic star of blue collar parents, but he's obsessed with only one thing, Batman.  He knows Batman isn't himself.  So, he sets out to find the Dark Knight and confront him.  Batman hopes to deter Tim Drake with a clever ruse that's also a beautifully constructed Frank Lloyd Wright inspired headquarters.  In addition, Lobdell factors in modern technological wonders.  Tim and Batman stay in contact through Twitter.  It's a bizarre but realistic twist.

Soon after his meeting with Batman, Drake attracts trouble thereby endangering his parents and cleverly taking them out of the picture.  They don't die.  Rather, Lobdell uses a real world organization to remove them.  The excision simultaneously forces Batman to adopt Tim Drake as his Red Robin.  Tim never actually becomes Robin.  

James Tynion Jr. and Scott Snyder follow up Snyder's Night of the Owls with sequel series Talon.  Calvin Rose had a poor childhood until he met an escape artist from Haley's Circus.  Well, nowadays in DC, if you say Haley's Circus, you know the Owls cannot be far behind.  They look upon the neophyte escapist as their latest Talon, assassin of the Court.

Everything goes swimmingly until Calvin feels regret over the Talon that he murders in the Owls' maze beneath the streets of Gotham City.  Haunted by the Talon's face, he continues working for the Owls but in a mostly non-lethal capacity.  

Calvin is more than a Talon.  Because of his skills, he's a ghost.  He can defeat any security and enter any edifice without a trace.  Most importantly, he can find a way out.

When the Owls give Calvin an assignment to end the bloodline of one of their investors' enemies, Calvin finds he cannot comply with the Owls' orders to slay an innocent woman and her two-year old daughter.  So, begins Calvin's escape from the Owls and what looks to be an awesome series.

The zero issue of Talon likely starts one year before The Night of the Owls.  The Court sends a Talon to retrieve Calvin Rose, now working as a civil technician on a bridge.  The Court wants him back, and we know why.  They have bats on their radar, and they need their best man, the one that got away to kill the Batman Family.  It's a great twist integrated with the DCU and fused to the old Fugitive premise.  

Talon is a real boon for Guillem March.  Heretofore only known as a babe artist, and responsible for a controversial Catwoman cover, that honestly wasn't as horrible as some people think, just a proportionately flawed tight draft, March shows that he is fully capable of not just illustrating knockouts and sexualized narratives.  He accentuates the drama, he draws emotion despite complete concealment.

In addition March demonstrates that he can render what he sees as well as what he imagines.  His illustration of ordinary objects, drapery, the way he drafts the design of a bridge, the way he constructs a car exhibit consummate skill.  Some may be surprised to see Kubert influences in his art.  Talon should settle any dispute over the limits of March's talent.

So ends another issue of the POBB.  Hope you've enjoyed the perusal.  Until next week.

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