Monday, October 8, 2012

Pick of the Brown Bag
October 3, 2012


Ray Tate

This week in the Pick of the Brown Bag we look at Animal Man, Avengers Academy, Batwing, Bionic Woman, Detective Comics, Doctor Who, Futurama, Legends of the Dark Knight, Earth 2, Red Sonja, Smallville, Swamp Thing and World's Finest.

Congratulations to the Republican Party and their successful efforts to undermine voter--Oh, wait--The Pennsylvania Voter ID Law is not, repeat not, in effect this election, which means you do not, repeat not, need to show ID to any Republican stooge that demands it at the polls. 

Awwwww, poor GOP, it looks like your underhanded attempt to reintroduce Jim Crow laws have come to naught and President Obama will remain our Commander-and-Chief.  Suck it, Republicans.  Suck it.

Let the Games Begin

This is an interesting issue of Batwing because it positions Batwing in a role usually occupied by Batman.

Writer Judd Winnick and artist Marcus introduce a female African super-hero named Dawn.  She fights for the innocent being swept up by the mind-controlling menace known as the Goddess.  Dawn has personal reasons for this crusade, but like the Dark Knight's Family members, she's there to save lives.

Dawn looks like a street-level vigilante, a sort of more lively, more resonant post-Crisis Huntress, and she does quite a bit of damage to the cult before ending up over her head.  That's when Batwing enters the picture, just like Batman would have.

Now, Batwing hasn't been completely absent from the adventure.  In his secret identity of David Zavimbe, Batwing questioned one of the captured cultists, saved a South African city from being turned into a crater, courtesy of a brainwashed military officer and earned disdain from his fellow cops by being incorruptible.  Only female Officer Kia who takes cuts from the booty to maintain her standing amidst the brotherhood of the badge will speak to him. 

Ultimately though what makes Batwing so fascinating is how he interacts with Dawn, becoming the hero looked up to by all the innocents of Africa as well as his fellow champions.  I knew from the debut that Batwing would succeed where others failed.  He's the perfect bridge between Batman and a novel crimefighter, and you get the sense that David is as essential to Batwing as Bruce is to Batman.  He cannot be replaced.

John Layman debuts as the new writer of Detective Comics, and his first story is a tightly plotted opening chapter that still has a beginning, middle and end.  

On his nightly patrol, Batman uncovers a pattern of crime.  Too far away, he calls in Nightwing.  At the tail end of the chain, Batman finds a displaced assassin from Hong Kong that he deals with in quick fashion.  Meanwhile, Oswald Cobblepot plots a scheme to humiliate one of the wealthiest philanthropists in Gotham City.

Batman's sense of humor lacing the narration is the first thing you notice in Layman's story.  In the right hands, Batman can be hilarious, but his sense of humor is oh-so twisted.  Batman wouldn't find your average sitcom funny.  Come to think of it, neither do I.  Instead, he makes jokes about the pain he inflicts on the criminal population of Gotham, and you laugh with him not at him.  His creepy comedic chops perfectly suit his character and exhibits his contempt for law-breakers.  

The next thing of note is that this incarnation of Batman plays well with others.  Batman alerts Nightwing immediately.  Batman trusts his former partner.  He puts his faith in his aide-de-camp's skills.  The camaraderie represents a massive upheaval to twenty-three years of bad Batman characterization.  

Too many writers attempted to frame Batman as a loner and a misanthrope, which conflicted with even his earliest adventures when he killed his enemies.  

Batman is now as he should have been.  Layman works well in the new 52 paradigm.  Batman operates with a family--Nightwing, Batgirl, Red Robin--and a team of superheroes--the Justice League.  None of the teamwork takes the edge off however, and Layman demonstrates just how scary Batman can be.

Artist Justin Fabok illustrates the Batman with rare gusto.  He appears to know exactly how much of an honor he has been given.  So, he doesn't blow it.  Batman looks resonant yet realistic.

On the opposite end, the new 52 erased the Penguin's dubious and inconsistent history.  Layman characterizes the Penguin as one part Batman Returns, a grotesque bird, one part 1960s Batman, a vain criminal, but set in the superior web of history DC now forges.  

Oswald Cobblepot in Batman Returns was literally dumped by his parents, but if you observe the scenes, you can also see that they were a well-to-do couple.  In the modern cosmology, the Cobblepots are one of the founding families of Gotham City, and the Penguin is the flip side of Bruce Wayne.  This as well alludes to Batman Returns:

"You're just jealous because I'm a genuine freak, and you have to wear a mask!
"You might be right."

The back-up tale in Detective is also worth reading.  Layman considers how and why criminals still try to operate in Gotham City.  Artist Andy Clarke renders highly detailed work that combines the traditions of different periods.  For example, "Miami" bears a look from the seventies.  Martin's all Sex Pistols punk.  Batman is a constant, unchanging force seen in the flashbacks.

Batman debuted in Detective.  He later received an eponymous companion title.  From there, he guest-starred with Superman in World's Best which became World's Finest then took over The Brave and the Bold.  In the nineties, DC would feature Batman in more books: Chronicles, Gotham Knights, Confidential, just to name a few.  The titles and formats were often different, the direction frequently the same.  One title however proved to be an exception.

Legends of the Dark Knight offered readers a reprieve from the badly written Batman of post-Crisis DC continuity.  The new 52 is mostly awesome.  No relief is actually needed.  If anything there should be a Legends of the Man of Steel, although Scott Lobdel could turn things around, but Dark Knight runs along the same lines as the previous title.  It however is an anthology of short stories.

In the absolutely rib-tickling "The Butler Did It!"  Batman finds his own hubris crashing down on him courtesy of a humble figure in the dark.  I'm not all that fond of Jeff Lemire's art as much as his writing, but his quirky cartooning fits the off-kilter mood of the tale.

The atmosphere changes and in fact literally disappears for J.G. Jones' gorgeous choreography of Batman's battle against Amazo, on and out of the JLA satellite. I haven't the foggiest idea what medium Jones uses, but if I were to guess, I would go with oil painting. 

The story neatly exemplifies what Legends of the Dark Knight is about.  Batman for example refers to J'onn, but the Martian Manhunter has never been a member of the new 52 Justice League.  The tale actually reads like an early Justice League animated series episode, but of course the lovely realism of Jones' art distinguishes it from that particular universe.  It's certainly not the DCU of old since Batman actually seems lively and human.  Rather, Jonathan Larsen's tale blends the best of worlds for pure entertainment.

The final story could have definitely appeared on Batman the Animated Series.  Illustrated by Nicola Scott, she designs Robin like Tim Drake, but writer Tom Tyler characterizes him as the jokey Dick Grayson, and his Batman's terse dialogue alludes to Kevin Conroy's gravelly voice.  The story is a sweetly delivered short in which the Dynamic Duo prevent a crime from occurring in Gotham City.

Batman returns in Smallville, although writer Bryan Q. Miller ingeniously suggests he never left.  He gives a good explanation for Superman's and Batman's toe-toe, and the Dark Knight comes up with numerous means to delay and negate Superman's powers.  The melee which lasts a good seven pages, emphasis on the good, looks beautiful when directed by Jamal Igle.   Marc Deering's inks enhance Igle's tight pencils and Carrie Strachen gives the entire book a broad palette, leaning toward the blue and red spectra of course.  

Surprisingly, the duel in Smallville represents the least humorous battle pitting Batman against Superman. Compare the battle in Smallville with say the brilliant means in which Batman stops Superman in Man of Steel, the ruse he sets up for The Dark Knight Returns or the Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams classic World's Finest turning Superman and Batman into friendly rivals, fighting usually for charity or on the behalf of a dying wish.  Nor is Batman secretly attempting to save Superman's life from a Kryptonite dragon ala Batman/Superman Animated.

In Smallville, there's no lightness in either hero's touch, no secret collusion, no past friendship or mutual respect.  There's a sense that these heroes really want the other one out of the way, and unlike every other tale, Miller opts for the obvious outcome, one eschewed by other writers.  Superman wins.

There's a remarkable order of calculation on Superman's part.  You don't expect such tactical expertise from the Big Blue Boy Scout, but that's just it.  Smallville's Superman is Superman how he would be in the real world.  Although he's a symbol for optimism and hope, he reveals an edge honed from the past ten seasons of the television show.  He symbolizes that these attributes of humanity need not be considered naive, weak or passive.

The story ends with Batman and Superman working together for the greater good.  Essentially, Superman changes Batman for the better, and that's something nobody could have predicted.

This issue of Smallville also pits Nightwing (Batgirl) against Green Arrow, who's busy unraveling a mystery on the side with his wife Chloe Sullivan.  The ghostly Tess Mercer matches willpower against her very alive brother Lex Luthor.  Being her spunky best Lois Lane gathers information for her superpowered intended and permits the World's Finest to get the job done.  All in all, a meaty, superbly plotted issue of Smallville that would have blasted the competition on television.  We'll just have to settle for another excellent incarnation of Batman and Batgirl in the comics.

World's Finest offers a tame stand-alone in comparison to the first arc in which Helena Wayne and Kara Zor-L fought the possible Apokiliptan menace of Hakkou.  This is essentially a really good inventory issue, a place-keeper and fine jumping on point for people who missed the first enviable knockout punch by Paul Levitz and George Perez.  He splits up the World's Finest team for solo flashback adventures in their more natural environs of light and dark.

Levitz transports Power Girl to CERN to investigate the possibility of using the large hadron collider to open a portal to the earth two universe.  Instead, something robotic comes out of the schism.  In Huntress' short, Ms. Wayne learns about candle-light vigils supporting rape victims.  Intriguingly, earth two since it was at war with Apokolips became more civilized.  So at-home-crime took a back seat to simple survival against Parademons and Darkseid's other forces.

Perez takes a breather this issue; his art only manifests as wraps in which Huntress tests Power Girl's limits.  Jerry Ordway makes a welcome substitute for Perez, or Maguire depending on your viewpoint. 

Ordway has had a history with Power Girl, but he most recently focused on the Kryptonian in two issues of JSA from 2004, with mixed results.  Excerpts from my reviews:

Jerry Ordway's Power Girl is a revelation of comic book beauty.  Ordway gives her the dignity and a musculature befitting her previous resonance as the earth-two Superman's cousin.  As expected, because Jerry Ordway is illustrating her as a woman instead of some throwback juvenile fantasy, she looks genuinely sexy and more important competent.  He gives her also an air of authority when in full uniform….

The big battle between Power Girl and the molten dude becomes undermined because somebody wanted to make damn sure that her breasts ballooned and her back be uber-curved to jut out her buttocks like apples agitated by acromegaly.  To add insult to injury, "ze leetle window" in Power Girl's costume is burned open to expose even more flesh!  This is a nauseating defilement of Power Girl when contrasted by her appearance in the last issue of JSA where Jerry Ordway honored the earth-two character…

My assumption was that the inkers sabotaged Ordway's artwork.  I never knew for sure, but bad inking can kill the intentions of any artist no matter how good he or she may be.  Of course, it could also have been the editor to blame, ordering the art be changed, or hey, maybe Ordway simply had a bad day.  Regardless of past reasons, in World's Finest, Ordway redeems himself.

In the new 52, Power Girl while still shall we say gifted isn't as bountiful as she was.  So, that more serious representation gives Ordway greater leeway when depicting Power Girl as a person rather than a pair of melons that happen to have a Kryptonian attached.  In a manner similar to JSA, Power Girl loses her clothing during the fight, but the loss acts as a gender twist to time-honored artistic license.  

I'd be shocked if this wasn't an apology from Ordway to all his fans for that lousy issue of JSA.

Ordway is mostly associated with the death of the Huntress in The Crisis on Infinite Earths.  It would have been nice to see him renew his artistic acquaintance with Helena Wayne again, but Wes Craig and Serge Lapointe produce an attractive, expressionistic visual that compliments Levitz's terse dialogue for Helena.

The scenario also underscores the difference between Huntress, daughter of the Bat and the Cat, and the generic post-Crisis Huntress.  The energy she possesses, the attitude is just so concrete, so vibrant and so much better.

James Robinson differentiates his Earth 2 from the previous model.  Behind the scenes, we learn an international effort, acting much like UNIT from Doctor Who, attempted to recreate wonders such as Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman.  Hawkgirl and Atom were two of the results.  They now team with the Flash and Green Lantern, the most inspiring gay superhero since Xena and Gabrielle.  Meanwhile, the actual New World Order decides to mimic the plot of The Avengers film.

That's not to say that I wouldn't still give Earth 2 four bullets back in my Silver Bullet days.  There's enough freshness to excuse the mirroring of The Avengers.  For instance, Green Lantern and Grundy could have easily paralleled the Rot from Swamp Thing and Animal Man, but the Grey behaves differently than the Rot.  

Whereas the Rot simply wishes to destroy and kill, the Grey acts malevolent for the purpose of rebirth.  The Grey's assumption is that the earth is done.  However, Green Lantern attempts to communicate with the Grey to convince it otherwise.  Putting aside the philosophical undercurrent, this gives Nicola Scott and colorist Alex Sinclair the excuse to go nuts.

When Swamp Thing enters the Rot, he finds himself in a future where the Rot won.  The cosmic disease took over all but a few heroes.  I'm sure Batman's still around somewhere, plotting one of his masterstrokes, but for the time being, the Rot doesn't want a Deadman like Boston Brand, and it can't touch a servant of the Green, like Poison Ivy.

Ivy's presence in Swamp Thing continues to bolster my belief that she makes a better hero than villainess.  She was great in her debut in Birds of Prey and made an effective ally in Dark Knight.  All of these moments allude to her richer characterization from Batman The Animated Series, and the spin off comic books.  

In Swamp Thing, she's almost valiant, and Yanick Paquette now comfortable in his proving positive that he can illustrate more than just babes, renders Ivy quite gorgeously.  She and Abby both look like actual women rather than slices of cheesecake.  The natural colors of Nathan Fairbairn furthermore separate them from the chafe of bad girl art.

Animal Man's journey into the Rot parallels Swamp Thing's trek.  Buddy Baker as well finds horror in the future but also hope.

Jeff Lemire saves most of Justice League Dark including my favorite Black Orchid, Beast Boy and surprisingly Steel from the machinations of the Rot.  It's disturbing to see Supergirl under the influence, but on the bright side Batwoman falls victim in flashback.  Old Animal Man fans will be amused to see Buddy Baker battling Hawkman.  An incarnation of the Thanagarian made a memorable appearance in the Grant Morrison series. 

Steve Pugh's and Yanick Paquette's art generally speaking compliments each other.  Both opt for a heightened sense of realistic proportion while detailing action-filled horror that echoes the Resident Evil films.  

The Rot acts in the same way as the T-Virus, using mass as raw matter to recreate humans into monsters.  Sadly, there's no Milla Jovovich present, but Animal Man is still worth reading.  Although you can skip either Animal Man or Swamp Thing since either essentially relates the same story just with different characters and neither overlaps.

The future's much brighter in Futurama Comics where the Planet Express crew get a science fiction makeover courtesy of Professor Farnsworth. 

Writer Ian Boothby injects some real science into the proceedings.  The crew must be transmitted to robot bodies in order to survive the inhospitable to organics atmosphere of a robot pleasure planet.  Think of it as a less lethal planet Venus.

At the same time Boothby adds depth to the Professor's son Ignar, the third stooge of Mother's trio of evil-doing sons.  Boothby also makes use of a classic tradition in sci-fi.  No pleasure planet is without a catch.  For example, the equal opportunity sex planet in Star Trek the Next Generation had a most lethal penalty for stepping on the grass.

Boothby cleverly uses the invulnerability of robots against reader expectations.  He introduces a really cunning trap that makes perfect sense in the Futurama universe and provides a superb punchline that boost Ignar's standing.

Artists Tone Rodriquez, Andrew Pepoy and colorist Robert Stanley let their imagination run free on the robot planet, and at the same time create resonable facsimiles of Fry, Leela and Zoidberg in the automatic.  As well, they incorporate actual suspenseful moments and a sense of dramatic wonder from the alien landscapes.

You might wonder why IDW is renumbering Doctor Who even if the Doctor hasn't yet regenerated and Matt Smith's number eleven is still adventuring.  The answer lies in series six.  Presumably, everybody has now caught up on the ramifications of that season and now the book doesn't have to be so mum.  In addition, Andy Diggle takes over as writer and Mark Buckingham introduces himself as the Doctor's artist with water color mimicry by the reliable Charlie Kirchoff.  

Diggle proves himself to be a Doctor Who fan of old.  The Doctor has attempted to see the Great Exhibition on numerous occasions in the series, failing consistently as well, but finally the Doctor escorts Amy and Rory Williams (The Ponds) to the grand Victorian event.  Of course, it's at night and there's all sorts of time travel conundrums at work including perhaps a second Doctor roaming about.

In short, if you're a fan of the show, you'll love the series.  If you like excellent, stylish artwork, then you'll like IDW's latest Doctor Who, and if you're just interested in being distracted for a few minutes by an enjoyable tale, this is for you as well.

Jamie Summers takes down the Mission.  The organization consists of a group of criminals and ethically challenged doctors that prey upon those bestowed with bionics to cater to the sickly Romneys of the world.  

The pure certainty in which Jamie systematically decimates the Mission is almost comical more so with Dan Leister perfectly carrying out the timing dictated by writer Paul Tobin. 

Apart from the sheer use of bionic strength, Jamie's strategy also carries some heavy weight against OSI, where Oscar Goldman appears to be having a stroke after seeing what Jamie did.

Jamie no longer with the OSI appears to be punishing them for not taking better care of their agents, and she definitely has a point.  Jamie's solution to the problem will have ramifications to the agency and the U.S. government.  This will no doubt make her even less of a person non grata in the intelligence community despite her effectiveness.  Of course, that might have been part of her plan, given how Tobin characterizes her as a genius level intellect.

The Mission may be dead, but a new menace rises from the ashes.  However, he may just prove more dangerous to his friends rather than his enemies, which include Nora, Jamie's friend who experiences unnecessary guilt over an accidental shot that caused an explosion ending one of the Mission's operatives.  The finale alludes to the original Six-Million-Dollar-Man pilot which was less slow motion antics and more a dramatic exploration of how a man might cope with becoming a cyborg, just as in Martin Cadin's novel on which the television series was based.

Red Sonja is also worth a look this week.  The She-Devil discovers honor in her opponent in Eric Trautmann's nasty little tale of duplicity.

Like a Robert E. Howard novel, the story catches the reader off guard, with what appeared to be a simple problem of barbarian hordes pillaging villages.  Sorcery and an a wizard's evil children complicate matters and instill a rage in Sonja that smolders thanks to artists Edgar Salazar and Adriano Lucus.

Last but not least, Avengers Academy bows out of the Marvel Universe with a farewell football game pitting Cadets against Wolverine's school of mutants.  Writer Christos Gage meets the potential for the comedy, but surprisingly most of it comes from Wolverine and his various opponents, which include Hank Pym and Tigra.

That's pretty much all you needed to sell me on the book.  Wolverine vs. Tigra is fan service even when Grummett positions her tail so abominably.

I shouldn't be the one telling professional artists how to draw Tigra, but why on earth would you make her tail a second spine?  Logically, it should arise out of the coccyx or tail bone, just above the rear, like this.

Bad tail placement aside, Tom Grummett has a lot of fun with Jocasta tasing players who use unnecessary roughness, and Ice Man and Hawkeye make a hilarious double-act.  Hazmat, Mettle and Rockslide supply a triangle of laughter as does Quicksilver and Warbird.  

I notice that not everybody likes the Shiar.  I suspect John Byrne might have something to do with that.  His likeness was called by the Watcher to witness the trial of Reed Richards, and he referred to Lillandra in most unflattering terms.  Technically speaking the Shiar didn't actually kill Jean Grey, they wiped out the Phoenix, but after that the perception of the bird people changed.

Avengers Academy isn't all fun and games however.  Finesse comes clean with X-23 about who actually killed Jeremy Briggs.  Kitty Pryde has a heart to heart with Veil, and the scene expresses how much the once youthful Kitty has grown.  Filled with sagacity to impart, Kitty is definitely teacher material.  One more issue to go until the terrible Avengers Arena begins.

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