Monday, October 15, 2012

Pick of the Brown Bag
October 7, 2012


Ray Tate

Tucked in this week's Pick of the Brown Bag: Batman, Batgirl, Combat Jacks, Frankenstein Agent of SHADE, Honey West, MacGyver, Red She-Hulk, Team 7, Vampirella and Dark Shadows, Wolverine and the new toy-related Amecomi Wonder Woman.  I'll also review the new film Taken 2.

"Begin at the Beginning and go on until you come to an end. Then stop."--Lewis Carroll

Here are four reasons why you should pick up Ame-Comi Wonder Woman

Any questions? 

The fifth reason is that Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray produce a script that should be the basis for a new Wonder Woman television series.  They balance the idea of Amazon might and a wish for peace.  They characterize the sanest Hippolyta since the pre-Crisis.  No, scratch that.  Actually, Gray and Palmiotti's Hippolyta is even more competent than the original.  Steve Trevor is surprisingly likable, not patronizing, helpless, or equatively macho, and Wonder Woman is utterly awesome.  Brutal in battle, but hilarious when combatting with her mother, Diana exhibits a consistent exasperation with men.  Only Trevor impresses her with his intelligence and tact.

It feels like ages since Batgirl was stabbed in the back by Knightfall, yet it's been only one issue.  Perhaps, because the zero issue spanned a year of Batgirl history.  Perhaps, because Batgirl's back is a touchy subject.  Whatever the reason, Simone imbues the book with a sense of relief.  Page after page, Batgirl kicks Knightfall's ass.

Is this plausible? Yes.  Adrenaline, as Batgirl herself suggests, keeps Babs standing and dulls most of the pain.  No doubt, she also picked up a few tricks from Batman.  

Ed Benes who demonstrated his renewed investment in the DCU on the zero issue of Batgirl choreographs Batgirl's takedown of Knightfall.  Each of Batgirl's moves characterize her as a superb martial artist, and Ulisses Areola makes the bout a colorful one.  

As Batgirl beats on Knightfall, she psychologically analyzes her opponent's personality.  Unlike her assessment of Grendel, who she saw as damaged and possibly redeemable, Batgirl sees no hope for Knightfall.  Ironically, Knightfall ostensibly has the same ends as the Batman Family.  Her methods are harder and unforgiving.  To Batgirl, however, the degree that Knightfall seeks is unacceptable, and Simone pays off Batgirl's faith in humanity by giving her a respite from an unusual Gotham City source.  

Although Batgirl is advertised as a prologue to the Joker ushering in "Death of the Family," the connection to the arc is brief.  Indeed, the book ends with the remainder of Knightfall forming a Batgirl revenge squad that promises to trigger more thrills for the Darknight Damsel's audience.

Feel that charge of electricity in the air?  It's Batman.  Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo continue the rejuvenation of Batman by introducing the Joker to the new 52.  Technically speaking, the creative team did this during the zero issue.  With this chapter, Snyder confirms that the Joker was the Red Hood, a murderous, criminal gang leader, not the innocent dupe from The Killing Joke.  Batman in his early days chased the Red Hood through the Ace Chemical Plant, where the Joker escaped through a vat of unknown substances that altered his face into the parody of a playing card.

In Detective Comics, The Joker hired the Dollmaker to remove his face.  In Batman, the Joker reclaims his face, racks up a high body count, threatens Commissioner Gordon and places Harley Quinn in a position she has never been in.  

The Joker appears to have been hurt by Batman growing beyond their relationship.  In a tryst, Commissioner Gordon would be considered a third wheel, and obsession doesn't lend itself to threesomes.  Snyder however plausibly alters the traditional deconstructionist romantic relationship between Batman and the Joker to that of playmate.  He turns a sadistic love affair into a more sensible kindergarten "friendship."  That's why the Joker accepts Gordon.  So, in the Joker's mind, he has three friends he used to play with in the sandbox.  Those friends grew up and left him behind.  Not that the Joker can grow up.

The arc is called "Death of a Family."  The Joker's murders ultimately eliminates the Batman's second and third cousins.  His immediate family, Nightwing, Red Robin and Batgirl, who appear with perfect pitch dialogue, are The Joker's main targets.

Although Batman primarily can be classified as drama, artist Greg Capullo starts the book with an emphasis on genuine comedy with Gordon and his twitchy mustache sharing a joke with Harvey Bullock.  The scene turns to abject terror when the Joker arrives and begins a system of fear in the dark.  Capullo then reassures readers with a potent depiction of Batman.

Despite the Joker's relative success, Snyder and Capullo have already set him up for an equally long drop.  It's in Harley Quinn.  The normally loyal henchwench is truly petrified of her once intended, and it's my guess that she will betray the Joker just because this Joker essentially killed the Mr. J. she knew.

If we accept Batman: The Animated Series as a basis for the continuity, and that's really the only place Harley ever had a history with the Joker, then the Joker isn't just cutting through his own history to emerge as his old self from the original Bob Kane and Bill Finger stories.

So where do you put the metahuman menaces that you've captured? In a floating jail of course.  Team 7 must infiltrate the impossible prison in order to discover why the facility and Lynch's headquarters lost contact.  Hint.  It involves a classic DC menace.  

Through Lynch's narration, writer Justin Jordan delights in detailing the faults of a team doomed to fray and disband.  Deathstroke for example is a sphincter.  Fairchild is all about the paycheck.  Dinah Drake is too good of a person to be on DC's answer to The Dirty Dozen.

At the same time, Jordan adds depth and dimension to the characters who will likely carry Team 7 into the future.  Characters that we never met before like Summer Ramos, the second best pilot on the planet according to Lynch, will probably form the core of the present day group.  Assuming of course Team 7 survives the transition.

Jesus Merino has an intriguing task.  How does he equip and arm the team without making them seem like nineties rejects.  Of course, Deathstroke always will look that way.  He's a nineties character, but the others sport some sharp science fiction hardware, like funky goggles for flying sophisticated planes, more Trek than Youngblood.  As well, Merino keeps Dinah and Kurt svelte in their spywear.

Merino evokes the feeling that despite the presence of anti-heroes, Team 7 still takes place in the DC universe.  Although, he's playing with a group of sanctioned mercenaries and a horror setting, he never lets you forget that you're in a place of wonder turned nightmare.  That's where Blackhawk failed.  It seemed too far removed from the DCU.  Team 7 with its familiar names and the creature they fight remains firmly secured to the whole of the new 52.

Combat Jacks operates with the same plot as Team 7 but on a planetary scale.  An away team of marines, not mercenaries, descends on a terraformed planet that lost contact with the commonwealth.  Their investigation leads to death and giant pumpkins.

I can't say whether or not Combat Jacks is an ongoing series or a Halloween special.  This issue is definitely holiday themed, and Mark McKenna, Jason Baroody and Kate Finnegan deserve special credit for getting this book out in a timely fashion.

Writer McKenna makes excellent use of his gourdian menace and conveys his enjoyment of the hilarious pumpkin-related dissing and science fiction styled pulpy terror from the vineyard absurdity.  

Artist Baroody plays it straight with anatomy, proportion, realistic expression and streamlined tech, which makes the visual presentation an attractive poe-faced number that serves to increase the level of comedy.  The sublime colors of Finnegan further the pretense of a serious situation and not a zany antic.

Here's hoping that this isn't the last we've seen of Combat Jacks, either as a dramatic excursion in the field of space opera or as a comedy/horror foray.

In the zero issue of Frankenstein Agent of SHADE we learned the origin of the Frankenstein monster, and yes, it was similar to the Mary Shelley version.  More to the point, we found out about the device Victor Frankenstein used to create his masterpiece.  In addition, unlike Shelley's original, writer Matt Kidnt presented Victor as an outright villain obsessed with killing his creation.

For the past two issues, Frankenstein after quitting SHADE discovered a community of former SHADE operatives living inside the belly of a Leviathan from the sea.  This issue finds Frank leaving the monster for dry land at the behest of Father Time, leader of SHADE.  

SHADE is under assault by the Rot, the pervasion sweeping through Swamp Thing, Animal Man and soon Justice League Dark.  In Frankenstein, the Rot picks a rather unexpected representative for its particular brand of evil.  In addition to this twist, Kidnt introduces an unusual yet sensible second surprise for readers of Rotworld that justifies Frank's participation in the weird book storyarc.

Alberto Ponticelli produces powerful artwork detailing the rise of Frankenstein's greatest enemy and the ramifications of the Rot's assault on the DCU.  He also distinguishes Frank as the hero of the piece with imagery fitting the sobriquet.  Frank charging forth on a magnificent steed isn't as stirring as Frank leaping out of his plane to drive a sword through Luftwaffe aircraft, but what is? The symbolism is still unmistakeable and quite eye-catching.

Has it really come to this? Am I that desperate for a Tigra series that I'll stoop to reading Red She-Hulk.  Yes.  I am that desperate.  Anything for Tigra.

Still, with Jeff Parker writing Red She-Hulk how bad can it be? Not bad at all.  First, for those not in the know, Red She-Hulk is Betty Ross, Bruce Banner's ex-wife.  Her surprising transformation isn't without some merit.  Marvel's claim is that everybody who witnessed Bruce Banner's first Gamma Bomb test was exposed to the radiation.  It even makes sense that the radiation would have taken this long to affect Betty and her father who turned out to be Red Hulk.  Bruce was at ground zero.  Betty and her father witnessed the blast from the "safety" of the bunker.

It was humankind mucking about with primal forces that changed all that day into Hulks, and Betty took it as a warning.  Humans are not as smart as they think, and the army's nuts for trying to hack into the genome to create obedient super soldiers.  That's the premise of Jeff Parker's Red She-Hulk.  Betty's out to stop the program before it starts.

Art by Carlos Pagulayan and Val Staples

Reginald Fortean, love the name choice, heads Echelon the team of superhero wannabes, and the lion's share of the book devotes itself to depicting Red She-Hulk fighting the super soldiers as well as the source of the super soldiers' powers.  At first the uber-Janissaries seem evenly matched against Betty, but then you realize that Betty's just been testing them.  

It's not surprising that Betty might turn into the Red She-Hulk.  It is surprising that Betty has this kind of intelligence.  In the original Stan Lee/Jack Kirby stories, Betty was nothing special.  She was a pampered daddy's girl who had the habit of referring to Bruce Banner as a "Milksop" while making eyes at the handsome, mustachioed Captain.

We can trace some of Betty's increase in intellect to John Byrne's run in The Incredible Hulk.  There, all around idiot Doc Samson separated Banner from the Hulk.  The schism left a mindless Hulk lacking Banner's ability to stop his rage.  Banner intended to kill the Hulk and established "Hulk-Busters!" "I ain't afraid of no Hulk."  Betty was a constant presence on the team, and she was involved in the scientific end of things.

Whatever the reason, this increase in brainpower distinguishes Red She-Hulk from plain ol' She-Hulk, who has a fine legal mind but not scientific acumen.  Ironically, Red She-Hulk is more like another character John Byrne created as a gag on the Hulk for his Superman run.

Kitty Faulkner Alias Rampage

Vampirella was never meant to be read by kids.  That's not to say Vampirella was pornographic.  Far from it.  Oh, there were nudes in the backup stories, but Vee herself was modest.

Despite being one of the contenders for least dressed super-heroine in literature, Vampirellla seldom revealed much.  Side boob and shadowed nudity was perfectly valid, but the adult nature of Vampirella's adventures lay more in the sophistication of storytelling, the blood-drinking, always taboo, and Vee's opponents frequently being worshippers of Satan, Cthulhu or Chaos.  

Marc Andreyko and artist Jose Malaga use this issue of Vampirella to payoff the adolescents that were always reading with the hope of seeing our title hero doff her clothing or rut some lucky disciple.  

The issue is packed with nudity; none of it veiled as you can see the goods beneath the steam, and while the sex isn't explicit, the issue drips in it.  Artist Jose Malaga makes certain there's more than a modicum of taste and definitely a sense of proportion to all the couples involved.  Mind you, Vee, being as contrite as usual, dons more clothing than she normally wears.

There is a story here.  With Manhunter's Marc Andreyko, how could there not be?  We discover for example who has been abducting the women in New York City.  We already knew that the Ripper was involved, but in Dark Shadows and Vampirella, the mistress reveals her identity, another infamous historical personage leading to decadent mind-scapes eerily rendered by Malaga and colorist Thiago Ribeiro. 

Furthermore as Quentin and Pantha find common interest, literally and figuratively.  Barnabas and Vampirella clash when culture is the subject.  Now, some could construe this butting of heads as out of character for Vee, but her liberalism was a given in all her adventures.  She never needed to speak out.  In other words, throw a liberal in a room with Romney-bots, and you'll get an earful.

Andreyko includes a scene that would be in any other book a complete ripoff of Justice League where Superman fights Wonder Woman while under an enchantment.  The difference is that Barnabas and Vampirella are about as far away from the untarnished champions of DC as you can get, and the inside joke because of the protagonists' personae is thoroughly amusing.

Honey West returns this week, and she looks Anne Frantastic thanks to the Phantom's Sylvestre Szilagyi.  A curvy bombshell not a zero-sized waif.  Honey karate chops her way through the second part of a mystery with clues that sadly went adrift due to the time span between issues.

Writer Trina Robbins however recoups her losses by fashioning an additional stand-alone fairplay puzzle that connects to Honey's investigation.  Needless to say Honey dopes out the new crime.

Robbins as well as constructing a strong detective story enriches the plot with the presence of a shifty private eye out to sample the Honey Pot, or is that all his intent? Whatever the reason, Honey's pet ocelot serves as her protector, and Szilagyi perfectly forms the taut musculature of the dangerous kitty.

Ridiculed by Side-Show Bob on The Simpsons, a joke due to Richard Dean Anderson's mullet, parodied by Saturday Night Live's "MacGruber," MacGyver has not stood the test of time, but it's time to admit something.  MacGyver wasn't a bad show.  Formulaic, sure, but promoting brain over brawn with well-researched jury-rigged escapes and defeats of world threats.

Compared to what's available now and the heyday of television from the sixties, MacGyver still at the very least is a B show.  When considering the vast wasteland of television that stretched from the seventies until the nineties when Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Xena: Warrior Princess and the X-Files changed everything, that's an achievement.  If the transfer to DVD wasn't of such reportedly poor quality, MacGyver might even be remembered fondly and establish a new audience.

MacGyver returned in three television films of various quality: the least being an Indiana Jones knockoff, the best dropping Mac in London to prevent a nuclear holocaust.  In these films, Mac had shorn his hockey-hair for a more sensible cut and ditched the Phoenix Foundation, as much as an honorable necessity as a creative decision since Dana Elcar suffered from glaucoma during the final seasons of the television series.

The writer and creator of MacGyver Lee David Zoltoff surfaces with a new Mac adventure, but this time in a new medium of choice.  Now, if you ask me MacGyver is tailor made for comics, always was.  So really all you needed to do was get a comic book writer that watched the show.  Tony Lee appears to be a fan, and that's not really a surprise since MacGyver was more popular in England than here in America. 

In the comic book, MacGyver visits an old Biology professor friend of his.  The modern, cutting-edge tale concentrates on the value of genetic crop modification and a company with a name that rhymes with Monsanto.  Meanwhile, somebody put a hit on MacGyver and just for laughs added a ticking clock.  For every day MacGyver breathes, the bounty loses a million dollars.  I have to say that this is a novel twist to the hit man subgenre.

Art by Will Sliney and Ciaran Lucus

MacGyver has of course no idea what's going, but being the master of focus, he tables that issue, and concentrates on the matter at hand.  He naturally uses the objects around him to combat armed gunmen and escape from a makeshift brig.  An undercover Interpol operation spices the plot even farther, and since MacGyver and the hit man have no personal animosity their conversation is very entertaining.  Various characters also attempt to use Mac's reputation against him, but fairplay doesn't equivocate to naiveté.

Though it may surprise some readers of the POBB, after John Byrne quit The Uncanny X-Men, I seldom touched a Wolverine book.  I never got into the whole WOLVERINE movement of comic books that coincided with the dark nineties.  Still, this is the second month where I bought a Wolverine comic book.  One can be excused as being a massive fan of Alan Davis, but this issue of Wolverine isn't so easy to dismiss.  Perhaps this will help.

Better? I loved Nextwave.  I still miss Nexwave, and while the team apparently disbanded, they're still here and there in the Marvel Universe, mostly in character, sometimes a little bit more effective than they were in the comedic Nextwave.  Elsa Bloodstone is no exception.  She appeared in the hilarious Legion of Monsters mini-series, and now she makes a characteristic cameo in Wolverine.

On the other hand, a bad writer could have made me avoid Elsa Bloodstone's appearance like the plague.  Look what Peter Milligan did to Namora and Jimmy Woo, tainting The Agents of ATLAS in a manner similar to the ass who attempted to take over Clandestine when Alan Davis left the series.  Davis returned triumphant, dismissing the ass' designs as nothing more than young Rory's nightmare.  Wolverine was there as well.  See a pattern?

Cullen Bunn wowed me with The Deep, a mini-series that I expected to hurt.  Instead, Bunn put together a team of defacto Defenders that were exhilarating.  Unfortunately, Marvel took this to mean that readers wanted to see another group of Defenders being ushered in by a different writer.  Bunn then knocked me over with Fearless in which Valkyrie takes the center stage of awesomeness.

So, I guess Wolverine is the big time for Cullen Bunn, and Bunn does it again.  Do I know anything about Melita and her relationship with Logan.  Nope.  Neither does he, and I haven't a clue about his selective amnesia.  Who is this Vanessa Baker Tinkerbell that keeps popping up? No idea.

Bunn though puts it all together along with Elsa Bloodstone's guest appearance to craft a free-wheeling, catch-up or die adventure.  Now, the cover although dull isn't exactly without merit.  Bunn sets up Wolverine in a flashback that's exactly like an Indiana Jones excavation, but with one crucial difference, Wolverine doesn't need to use his brains to avoid the gauntlet.  He just runs through it and lets his mutant healing factor deal with everything.

Paul Pelletier and David Meikis, who puts a smooth polish to Pelletier's pencils, punches up the action in these scenes and those with Elsa.  They go positively whimsical when Vanessa Baker shows up.  It's this kind of flux that you just don't expect in a Wolverine comic book that makes it all worthwhile.

Taken 2 is about vengeance.  The relations of the Albanian slavers that ex-operative Bryan Mills decimated in Taken target he and his family, and as a result the sequel to Taken isn't a chase.  It's an extraction.  

There's a miniature chase to be sure, but it's not like the relentless pursuit across multiple platforms of transportation and settings that Bryan undertook to save his daughter Kim Mills; embodied by actress Maggie Grace.  That chase sped through the whole film.  Taken 2 largely takes place in one location.  There lies the challenge.

Lots of low budget films use two actors, one closet and a lot of imagination.  Most often these movies fail because no matter how good the intentions or the actors, the setting is static.  

Taken 2 centers most of the the action at the way-station of the criminals, but the cameras fly to the rooftops of turkey, the direction follows the hidden dungeons below.  Despite being largely confined in one place, Taken 2 moves, and as a result it succeeds at the core.  It replicates the adrenaline rush of the first film without copying it.

Liam Neeson is a very interesting actor.  He could have been one of those dry, staid actors that do Regency films and that's it.  He in fact did a few of those period pieces, probably as a result of his portrayal of Oskar Schindler, who is in Schindler's List make no mistake as much of a symbol of good as Neeson's first heroic portrayal Darkman.

Neeson instead of becoming known for the Edwardian frocked gentleman embraced his roots and took on roles in which he cut through an Albanian slaver network like a laser beam through gold, led the A-Team as Hannibal Smith, fought off wolves in Alaska and conveyed the intensity of a man with "a very particular set of skills." 

Taken spotlit an underbelly of corruption in Europe and a Balkan criminal network victimizing women, but the theme still lacked overall misogyny.  Rather it just seemed that the movie revealed for some, confirmed for others a sad truth.  Some subhumans, emphasis on some, see women as chattel and commodities.

In Taken 2, Kim a veteran of trauma, actually becomes a protagonist, not as tactically impressive as her father who proceeds to systematically ends the Albanian legacy, but still effective in her own right as a resourceful, smart girl who learned from her horrendous experience.  That shared history furthermore allows Bryan Mills to see his daughter as an asset.  

Famke Janssen has an even more difficult task of conveying strength while being completely helpless.  Needless to say, she makes Lenore warmer to Bryan and harsh to the avengers of evil men.  At the same time, she is not Mrs. Peel.  She is a normal woman thrown into an abnormal situation.  She acquits herself as well as anybody possibly could have.

There is simply no way that Lenore can run, hide or free herself from the literal chains that hold her down.  Credit the filmmakers and the writers to make all her misfortunes just that.  They catalyze her capture by fouling Bryan Mills' characteristic belief in the perfect plan.  He can't predict everything, and just one tiny butterfly throws his entire scheme into chaos.  As a result, Lenore is taken, and not through a mistake she, the woman makes.

After seeing Taken I really didn't believe there would be a sequel.  I thought logistically how could there be? If you abduct Kim again, you would create the pretense that she just attracts trouble and turn high impact drama into unwitting comedy.  I'm happy to say that Taken 2 is a different movie, one that grows organically out of the first film.  

1 comment:

  1. You know, Taken is a guilty pleasure for me, and I'm sure now I'll buy this one on DVD too.