Monday, September 10, 2012

Pick of the Brown Bag
September 5, 2012


Ray Tate

Hello, and welcome to the Pick of the Brown Bag.  Thanks to a number of premieres and the infamous zero issues of DC's new 52, the yield this week is even larger than last week.  In fact, main competition Marvel Comics looks pretty anemic in comparison.

For once, the biggest news floating through the humanoshere, isn't the GOP's war against women, sexual orientation, science, or voters, nor is it "turbulent priests" molesting kids or trying to silence nuns.  No, today we turn to biology.  Mind you, former President Bill Clinton's speech at the DNC, was awesome beyond awesome.  It easily rates second place by a hair's width to this news item.

Scientists have discovered that eighty percent of so-called junk DNA in the human genome actually controls neighboring genes encoding for the probabilities of human disease.  These activated genetic switches amongst the "junk" are in fact stepping stones when explaining such things as why some people in the same family contract cancer while others do not.

"Junk" DNA is a frequent device used in science fiction to describe all sorts of maladies and mutations, but have no fear.  Few novels and television series need to be rewritten.  While eighty percent of the "junk" is actually useful, that still leaves creators with twenty percent of approximately three meters of DNA to play with.  For now. 

A more thorough foray into the findings can be discovered in the latest issue of Nature, and for a good overview, read the September 6, 2012 issue of The New York Times.  No subscription? Support your local library.

Fair warning.  I've decided to ditch the rating system.  I never used one when I first started the POBB on the usenet back in--geez, am I that old?--and it's just a little ridiculous.  I know some people like some shorthand for whether or not to buy a book, but honestly, if you can't figure out what I like or dislike from the first few paragraphs then I'm not doing this properly.  Oh, occasionally, hopefully only occasionally, the kick to the groin rating will reappear.  I kind of like that expression of misery.

Far From Zero

In general the zero issues of DC Comics present heretofore unknown facts about the origins of our favorite heroes, review those beginnings and/or paint the landscape of the new 52 in less abstract brushstrokes.

Ann Nocenti adds a prelude to Green Arrow's marooning on the island in which he sharpens his skills.  The incident on the oil rig draws in the fallibility of the Green Arrow from the seventies, but doesn't do much else.  

During the Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams run, the Arrow accidentally kills a criminal.  Green Arrow's guilt over the criminal's death sends him into a deep spiral of despair.  He renounces his superhero status, destroys his equipment and gets thee to a monastery.  

Nocenti uses the new 52 Arrow's miscalculation during a hostage siege to motivate the hero he will become.  Freddie Williams provides decent if busy artwork but Green Arrow is really only a supplemental purchase.  Likewise for Animal Man and Swamp Thing.  

Animal Man doesn't cover any new ground, but Steve Pugh fans will not want to miss it, and Scott Snyder in Swamp Thing dispenses with the organized crime angle causing the fateful explosion that swallowed Alec Holland and instead embraces a dubious Rotworld tweak.  

Batwing rehashes most of what we already know into a bona fide origin story competently told by Judd Winick and Marcus To.  G.I. Combat features the Unknown Soldier, but I'm sorry to say that the Palmiotti and Gray version pales when compared to the original master of espionage and disguise from the Bronze Age.  Having the new 52 Soldier be a master of combat just isn't interesting enough in a multiverse filled with martial artists, dead-eye shots and of course the Batman Family.

World's Finest is easily the best of the zero issues.  Here, we discover how Helena Wayne became the Robin of earth-two, under what circumstances she met Supergirl and how Darkseid and the war against Apokolips affected her life.

Writer Paul Levitz sticks to Supergirl's traditional origin.  The Superman of earth-two keeps Supergirl's existence secret.  The pre-Crisis Power Girl didn't stand for that.  Indeed, she wasn't kind or sweet, but abrasive and forward.  She mellowed a tad over the years, but just a tad.  

The clandestine Superman tactic of the Silver Age always catalyzed argument among Supergirl fans.  One camp said that it made Superman look sexist.  The other camp averred that the scheme simply kept Superman's and Supergirl's adventures separate.  I tend to stand with the latter.  

Numerous imaginary stories appeared during the course of Superman's history in which Lex Luthor or another foe kills him.  The writers of that era were good to their words.  Once Superman died, Supergirl sought vengeance.  The writers weren't doing this to save face.  Sexism was rampant and commonplace at the time.  So they wouldn't even know how to define such a thing.  Instead, the writers paid off the reader with the logical consequence of Superman's death.  Supergirl becomes the protector of the planet, as he always intended.

The earth two Superman is definitely not keeping Supergirl's existence hush because she's an untrained girl cousin.  He does have personal reasons, but there is an actual war being fought against Apokolips.  The environs on earth two are more hazardous than those of earth one, and Superman will die, as we see in the premiere of Earth-Two.  Thus, it makes sense to keep Supergirl hidden as a literal secret weapon. 

Levitz created the Huntress with Joe Staton.  In World's Finest, Levitz factors in the new realities of the new 52 to imagine a new origin for, beloved by fans everywhere, Helena Wayne.

In the original story of the Huntress, Catwoman's henchman forged blackmail material to extort his former feline boss into committing one last crime. The semi-retired Batman answers the call, and tragedy strikes.

Batman vows to give up his cape and cowl forever.  He eventually becomes Commissioner of Gotham City, but Helena Wayne has other ideas.  She takes the guise of the Huntress, the toughest heroine of the pre-Crisis, and seeks vengeance for her mother as she honors her father.  

The relative youth of the new 52 plays a key role in Levitz's new designs.  Batman did not retire on earth two, and he married Catwoman while younger.  He and Catwoman are still active when Helena becomes Robin.  Although Batman objects to Helena risking her life as Robin, Selena...ahem...convinces Bruce that Helena is ready.  

Artist Kevin Maguire perfectly syncopates comedy that's wrapped in the history of the characters.  First Batman and Catwoman would fight.  Then they would love.  Nothing has changed although both heroes now fight alongside each other as husband and wife.  Neither their marriage, nor their child, cooled their heat at all.

It's a testament to Levitz's ability that he can recognize the potential of the setting.  Catwoman's death in World's Finest isn't as tragic as her death in the pre-Crisis.  She dies completely evolved as a defender of the earth, as Batman's teammate, his wife and the mother of Robin.  She in fact has had it all in a full, rich life.  Her demise triggers the creation of not just the Huntress, but the World's Finest team.  I cannot think of a better way for her to go.


Each death of each incarnation of Catwoman suits the world in which she lives, but the new earth two's Catwoman's life could have spanned a series of novels cataloguing the character's changes.  Although we don't really know this version of Catwoman, we know that something very special has been snuffed out by an underhanded trap set by Darkseid.  There is simply put no better comic book to buy this week.

The second best written zero issue surprises for two reasons.  One, it's a comic book I don't normally buy, and two, Peter Milligan writes the book.  

Although I loved his nineties Batman stories, Peter Milligan sucked on Justice League Dark.  His team was an unlikeable and just made me feel sad.  Stormwatch is a different animal.  Working together for a better world, Stormwatch consists of artists formerly known as the Authority and the Martian Manhunter.  Jenny Quantum explains it best.   Stormwatch is a family, her family, not just a superhero team.  They're the modern day Super-Friends.  

I would say that they have updated ideals, but The Super-Friends never spoke their opinions on sexuality and to assume they would have a Republican parochial mentality about gay marriage or a woman's role in society would be an injustice.  The Boards of Standards and Practices would have forbidden such talk, but on the whole, I'm of the belief that the Super-Friends would have reflected the values of Stormwatch not the Romney-bots of the world.  

"Hah! Hah! Tommy has two daddies! Tommy has two daddies!"
"It's Superman!"
"I was flying overhead when I heard you taunting poor Tommy.  Why the teasing, kids?"
"Tommy has two daddies, Superman! It's weird!"
"Not at all.  Lots of kids adopted and otherwise have two daddies or two mommies.  What matters is that these children have parents that love them, as much as your parents love you."
"Gee, Superman.  We never thought of it like that."
"Uh-oh.  Looks like trouble on the moon!  The Prankster's about to vandalize Neil Armstrong's footprint!  Got to go, Kids.  Up, up and awaaaaaay!"
"Hey, Tommy, we're sorry."
"Yeah, we were jerks."
"That's okay, fellas.  Let's go play some B-Ball!"

In any case Adam-One, Stormwatch's Benjamin Button, informs the reader and Jenny Quantum of the Jennys that came before her.  This turns her into a quasi-Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  Appropriate since former Buffy artists Will Conrad and Guy Major are responsible for the sumptuous realism that swathes the visuals.  

The artists put a lot of charm in the scenes, but they shouldn't be given sole credit.  Milligan injects the dialogue with an equal amount of caring between the two teammates, and reveals a well reasoned history tying into one of DC's other new 52 teams.  

Milligan samples the group's antics in episodic events, some plausible--Princess Jenny meets King Arthur--and others ludicrous--the dolphin invasion, a ridiculous notion pre-parodied by The Simpsons twelve years ago.  Stormwatch furthermore presents a vital clue to the future of the DCU.  It's a portent of doom echoed in last week's sneak peaks in Justice League and this week's Earth Two zero issue.  World's Finest brings the heroes in focus.   Stormwatch reaches out for a broader view of the new 52, the team's place in the DCU and the future, which hints that DC hasn't finished dominating the comic book industry.

If you notice the cover of Earth 2 you'll see a stranger among three of the most recognizable heroes.  The identity of the stranger is critical, for this ally's avatar operated under another name back in the day.  He's an old hero from the forties, and his new name reflects a new attitude that clashes with the stalwart champion of yore.  This was necessary.

Although the guardian's resurgence was largely due to his death in the pre-Crisis, if you're an admirer of the superhero concept, then you really do not want to see these guys dragged through the mud.  So with that in mind, writer James Robinson very thoughtfully rechristened him.  He may share the same identity with this new embodiment, but that's all the two characters share. The 1940s hero remains untarnished.

In Earth 2, ally becomes enemy in a series of flashbacks lushly rendered by newcomer Tomas Giorello and colorist Nathan Eyring.  

There's almost a Gene Colon nuance to the shadows, but a stronger command of anatomy, offering an ideal mix of evocation and concrete physique.  

As you can plainly see, Catwoman does not appear in this issue.  I suspect that DC didn't want to undermine her debut in World's Finest but forgot to edit the dialogue.  Communication snafu aside, Earth 2 stacks up as a pretty potent read with a strong motivation for a foe that's right under the Trinity's noses. 

Not all of the good team books are zero issues.  Guarding the Globe presents a for all intent and purpose new team of diverse heroes that patrol the world.  

Because Phil Hester is writing and Todd Nauck, of Young Justice fame, illustrates, Guarding the Globe is a wholly entertaining book that's superior to the last arc of Justice League.  
Hester offers just the right blend of action and personal drama, with a good dose of humor and thought in dealing with the long-term ramifications of alien invasion.  Hester deals with the real life problem of autism in a non-sensational way, and he economically introduces the cast with such skill that you may already pick favorites by the end of the story.  Japandroid is mine.

The Mighty Crusaders consisted of the Fly, Flygirl, Jaguar, the Web, the Shield, The Comet, the Black Hood and some lesser players from the Red Circle Archie comics books.  Some may be surprised to learn that only one of those heroes, the Jaguar, arose during the Silver Age.  The rest of the team operated individually in the 1940s, and the Black Hood, a rather blatant Phantom imitation, even manifested in a few pulp magazines.  

The actual team formed in the sixties but didn't last long.  In the nineties, Archie partnered with DC to return the Red Circle heroes to comics.  Soaring under the banner of Impact, a pool of talent illustrated the adventures of new versions of the Archie characters in uniformly enjoyable adventures; Mike Parobeck, Rick Burchett, Tom Lyle, Jose Marzan Jr. all graced the line.

Now, Archie, one of the most consistently successful comic book companies in the history of the industry, is publishing the Mighty Crusaders.  On the back of the cover, some goof compares this book to Watchmen.  This is like the anti-Watchmen as well as the anti-Before Watchmen.

Whereas Watchmen introduced the whole idea of deconstructing heroes and giving them highly mortal feet of clay, Mighty Crusaders is simply a really good legacy book.  One of the Crusaders isn't a traitor out to save the world by killing the others.  Instead, the Crusaders have matured, maintained strong bonds as a team through the years and vanquished most of the evils of the globe.  In short they won.  

The victory itself offers a difference in philosophy.  The heroes are not bored with peace.  They're not without purpose.  Rather, they simply have become fighters against political injustice, pursuers of science and good parents.  The story begins at a place where the heroes are happy.  It's a big difference from Watchmen, which is suffused with angst.  In fact even the old pre-Crisis Justice Society wasn't as happy as The Mighty Crusaders.  

The Crusaders meet for an anniversary dinner, and this time they've brought their sons, daughters and proteges with them.  As the kids get to know one another and renew old acquaintances, an old enemy crashes the party and wreaks havoc.  Fortunately, one of the Crusaders never believed the fight could end, and he made preparations.

Writer Ian Flynn charges the dialogue with familiarity and camaraderie.  He crafts a simple plot that obviously lays out the path for the next generation but in a way that just seems suitable for these neophytes.  Artist Ben Bates demonstrates a mastery of cartoon style, but make no mistake although Mighty Crusaders appears to be all ages, there is still gravity in the story which Bates dramatically visualizes.   Gary Martin usually associated with Steve Rude and Nexus contributes a crispness and clarity to the art, and Matt Herms adds special effects through color.  As well he emphasizes the drama through blood red.

The usual suspects on my subscription list do not fare all that well this week.  Vampirella is a mish-mash of confused writing and features an artist who wants to illustrate Vampirella well but nobody else.  This leads to a sub-par presentation.  Damn fine cover though.

Avengers Academy is depressingly cliche.  Last issue, the highly annoying Jeremy Briggs took away the powers of the Cadets.  This issue they get them back, and artist Di Vito tries to inject power into the moments, but we always knew that Hazmat and Mettle, the characters who want their powers the least, would of course step up to retrieve them for the common good.  Gage works best when his touch is light.  This was a heavy-handed story.

I could not for the life of me follow the narrative in Thunderbolts or Dark Avengers or insert new title here, which for this time traveling issue is a Judge Dredd spoof, juxtaposed with an assault on T-Bolt HQ and adventure on the moon with also-ran villains indentured into heroism.

Thor seems like a fairly straight-forward kind of hero.  He's a guy with a hammer that likes to wreck things with said hammer.  Once Matt Fraction talks about Odin and Frigga, or Freya if you prefer, I've fallen off of the ship and need a life preserver.  

If memory serves, The Vanir are supposed to be the Norse version of the Fates, but here, they are another race of beings, nationalities, what the hell?  Frigga appears to be one of them, and this sends me out farther with the current.  

I was pretty happy with Frigga being the leader of the Valkyrie, as she is in myth.  It sort of made sense.  Having her be one of the Vanir just clouds up the elegance of her more prominent warrior role in the Marvel Universe, and when did Odin become such a sleaze? Bad enough he was a complete jackass in the Fear Itself fiasco, but this?



Thor however happens to be gorgeous thanks to Alan Davis, Mark Farmer and colorist Rod Rodriquez.  I'll wait for this baby to be collected.

There are plenty more comic books in the Brown Bag: Smallville, Lookouts, Damsels, Detective Comics, Fathom, Creator Owned Heroes.  These will have to wait for next week.  I only review the books I have actually read, and frankly, this hellacious truckload of books just left me overwhelmed.  Hopefully, I've left you all sated with the many I've commented on today.

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