Monday, November 19, 2012

Pick of the Brown Bag
November 14, 2012


Ray Tate

The Pick of the Brown Bag investigates Batman, Batgirl, The Fantastic Four, Red Sonja, Superboy, Tarzan and Team 7.  We'll then finish the reviews with a double dose of Vampirella and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. 

Last issue, Team 7 infiltrated a levitating lockup only to find an Alien-like atmosphere that led to the discovery of what lurked behind door number one.  In the second issue, the seven slaughters the half-moon zombies.  

Despite bearing the colorful trappings of super-heroes, Team 7 are really sanctioned mercenaries.  Guns are their weapons of choice, and as you can see, they have no qualms when dispatching the victims of Eclipso's influence.  

Team 7 is a flashback.  We know this group does not last.  I'd wager the way each member confronts their own amorality will likely cause the schism.  For this issue, writer Justin Jordan hands the reins of narrative duties to Dinah Lance in order to show what led to her evolution.  The neophyte Black Canary begins even at this early juncture to question the mission.  She exhibits concern over the dead.  Mind you, she squeezed the trigger as much as Slade Wilson.  She most importantly recognizes that some things are too powerful to let loose in anybody's hands, however well-meaning.

Despite being tougher than ever, Wonder Woman, Batman and Superman would have been horrified by the abattoir Team 7 left in their wake.  Without a doubt the Trio would have found another way to deal with the Eclipso effect, and that's probably what the government finds so distressing.  Super-heroes do not merely represent a giant leap in human evolution, alien or supernatural intervention but also a philosophical challenge.  Super-heroes symbolize a better way.  Even a dark champion like Batman would rather reform his enemies not destroy them.  

Super-heroes are the antithesis to the neocon and self-serving politician.  The very presence of a mid-air prison is an affront to Utopian concepts.  Numerous sci-fi pulps fed the imagination with islands amidst the clouds.  SHIELD's Helicarrier is an extension of the Superman concept.  It's a big floaty defender of humanity.  Using the sky as a lofty cage just sullies the whole majesty and achievement of flight.  It's like a totalitarian government saying "we can take the sky from you."  Team 7 is their idea of what super-heroes should look like.

The notion of the Fantastic Four exploring the universe promises a wonderful return to form, and the comedy in the book seldom misfires, but writer Matt Fraction reduces Sue to worrying helpmate/mother.  Reed's not being honest with his family, and an ulterior motive underlying the exploration leaves a distaste in one's mouth.  

I just don't really care to follow the rationale.  Technically, I sort of already did when Roger Stern and John Byrne plied their trades.  Although, the cause of the problem was external and dramatic rather than internal and tepid.

Superboy has the opposite problem.  The thread running through all the Superman Family titles makes Superboy involving, and I liked Wonder Girl's new 52 characterization:

"I may be willing to risk my life for Superboy.  Doesn't mean I like him."

When the focus however shifts away from the Kryptonian ghost, or whatever the H'el he's called, the book became tedious.  The new 52 Titan Bunker is an embarrassment of ennui and reminds one of Vibe.

To be fair, I never really had any emotional investment in Superboy.  I really loved Karl Kesel's and Tom Grummett's Hawaiian set Superboy, and Young Justice was perfect, but afterwards Superboy just seemed bland.  The new 52 Superboy is slightly better than his immediate predecessor, but not as fun as the Karl Kesel Tactile Telekinesis Kid or David's stooge to Robin's straight man. 

Criminals never change their signatures.  A felon that's compelled to leave a quote from Ayn Rand in lipstick on his victim's mirror will always do that.  Lawbreakers can however change their modus operandi.  A burglar might prefer the window and steal jewels during one job but on another enter through the roof and hit the safe for bearer bonds.  

The method is flexible.  The signature is etched in the concrete of the abnormal psyche.  That's what's happening in the Batman Family titles.  The Joker changes his M.O.  Every one of his crimes must be a sick joke, but the execution of those horrors can fluctuate.

In Batman, Snyder establishes Batman and Joker encountered each other multiple times; the longer intertwined history however is gone.  At present, the Joker revisits all his crimes, and tweaks them, altering his modus operandi thus making him nearly impossible to predict.

Batman opens with the Dark Knight experiencing the Joker's birth pains.  Batman first encountered the Joker when the Clown Prince wore the Red Hood.  At that point, the Joker was merely a slightly twisted gang leader prone to violence.  During a chase, the Red Hood falls into a vat of chemicals and emerges as the Joker.  His mind and body fully devolved.

Batman like his animated incarnation is much smarter than the previous embittered bastard from the Etch-a-Sketch Universe that was.  This Batman for example devised an antidote for the Joker venom, just like the animated version of Batman.  He also knows exactly which chemicals the Red Hood swam through and knows that none of them should have affected the criminal the way they did.  Should have killed him.

Snyder by choosing this route gives the Joker an almost supernatural beginning.  As if because of his mania, the Joker defied the laws of physics, and the dark forces of the universe responded to an unspoken prayer, turning him into something worse than he was.  A counter to the sanity and order Batman brings to the world.  To be sure this is metaphor not a literal influence.

With these ideas in mind, Snyder generates genuine drama that could be performed on stage through the dialogue: between Batman and Jim Gordon; between he and Nightwing and between he and the Joker.  The dialogue in this book expressing the vulnerability of the law-bringers is even better than that in Night of the Owls, and that's saying a helluva lot.

A lot of artists have taken a postmodern approach to depicting the Joker, opting out of traditional pencil and ink.  Grant Morrison's Arkham Asylum is a good example of this.  Dave McKean painted a Joker that was more like the embodiment of a death rattle. Greg Capullo opts to visually characterize the Joker in scenes such as that below:

The moment starkly contrasts the heroic imagery present elsewhere in Batman, and Capullo doesn't defy any laws of anatomy to convey it.  The pure oddness of the body language stands out as a blotch of the grotesque.

Batgirl catches the eye with Ed Benes demonstrating Barbara's unparalleled ass-kicking ability.  If people are still asking why Barbara had to be Batgirl, look no further than this scene.  

The entire package, the bright red hair blazing like fire, the blue eyes filled with conviction and experience, the muscular legs that may as well be fleshy, hammering pistons, even-though she's not wearing the costume, everything just screams this is Batgirl.  This is the character that made criminal armies run, not because she was a dark creature of the night but because she was a woman capable of laying waste to them.  Criminals feared Batgirl's skill, not because she cast a bat-like shadow.  No pretender to the throne could send a shiver up the spine like she.

When the Joker, appearing to know Barbara's secret identity, sends men to canvas the Cherry Hill area, Batgirl overcomes a moment of human weakness and uncoils as an artist that paints with her legs using blood and broken bone as her medium.  These guys don't know what hit them.  Babs leaves them cowering in fear of her.

Batgirl is however more than a mural of martial motion.  Writer Gail Simone employs twist after twist to craft a very emotional story in which Barbara might just have to give up her life outside of costume.  So there's a palpable sense of ironic loss as well as anger that the forces of crime pressure her in such a way.  The feeling also imbues depth to Barbara's roommate Alysia, who begs Babs to take her with her, wherever she goes.  That's a really interesting reaction.  It's as if Alysia becomes squire to Barbara's knight.  Babs' resonance empowers another woman so much that she wishes to follow her.  She's a magnificent human piece of art that Alysia wants to admire.

That however isn't the end.  The gist of the book can be described this way.  The Joker holds Barbara's mother hostage and then makes an astounding proposal that's quite mad and quite sick.  The proposal once again flashes a double-edged joke.  The reason why he kidnaped Barbara's mother becomes apparent.  The Joker does not know Batgirl's secret identity.  His boast in Batman was idle.  Instead, he chose Barbara's mother because of her connection to her father, and for a more material rationale that polishes the sharpness.

A bouncier antic for Batgirl awaits in Ame-Comi GirlsThe Ame-Comi Girls is based upon a toy line bearing some heavy manga/anime influences.  Thanks to Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray, this series is way, way better than it has any right to be.  

Last issue simply seemed to be one of the finest pilots ever made for a Wonder Woman television series.  In this issue, the writers let the reader in on a little secret.  The Wonder Woman issue appeared to include all of Wonder Woman's history in a nutshell, and that gem of a story is set in a universe that's girls only.  

Batman, Superman, Steel, are nowhere to be found in this cosmos.  Instead, Batgirl and Robin, Babs' cousin, Carrie, a nod no doubt to Carrie Kelly of Dark Knight Returns fame, always have been the Dynamic Duo.  Babs' arch-enemy is Duela Dent.  She's the Joker even if never referred to as such.  Oh, and the guru of mechanica in this universe is Natasha Irons not her Uncle John Henry.

Now, this kind of gender reassignment isn't anything new, but Gray and Palmiotti really think things through and look at how the change in sex would actually affect the characterization.  Natasha Irons for example is a pragmatic engineer and not a super-hero.  The Joker's identity is known to be Duela Dent.  There's no mystique in this sort of Steampunk reflection of the Clown Prince just murderous quirkiness. 

Catwoman lacking a love interest is vicious and quite willing to kill Batgirl just for kicks.  Harley Quinn is simply nuts.  She doesn't exhibit the twisted romantic love for her puddin' like our Harley.  

Without Batman to take the brunt of crime fighting, Batgirl becomes the more mature, cautious head of a hypothetical Batgirl Family.  Carrie is a completely novel creation.  She's incomparable to any of the Robins that have gone before her.  Batgirl's acceptance of responsibility allows Carrie to be a little wild, although not reckless, as a dramatic moment forces Carrie to grow up in the span of seconds.

In addition to mapping out an entire universe, Gray and Palmiotti have oodles of fun throwing the kitchen sink at Batgirl and Robin.  It seems at first that Babs and Carrie are just going out to paint Gotham red.  Poison Ivy's crazed assault on a hapless couple in the park changes that plan.  We then learn the whole diversion was actually a trap, and the femme fatales gang up on the Dynamic Daredolls.  Throw in an old school death trap as well as a startling revelation, and you've got yourself one helluva entertaining story, but the writing isn't the only thing I can recommend.

Last issue, Amanda Conner graced Wonder Woman, and that art turned out to be far, far better than the actual toy.  This issue Sanford Greene and Randy Mayor tailor the Ame-Comi Girls design for Batgirl and Robin.  Again, what we have here is talent that's just so beyond the actual product.

Greene illustrates a broad array of action packed panels sporting rich backgrounds and atmosphere as well as some quieter moments--no less animated--at home.  He puts the bad in bad girl, and he takes advantage of Gray's and Palmiotti's imagination, putting Batgirl through her paces and displaying raw worry from Robin over her cousin and comrade.

Another dangerous red-head makes the cut for this week's POBB.  Red Sonja learns of a new way to honor the dead from the army of her former opponent/former ally, but this occurs in flashback as she travails the frozen tundra to kill the final dragon brother.

Writer Eric Trautmann injects a tangible sense of melancholy into this issue of Red Sonja that tempers the She-Devil's hunt for the creature.  She's not reveling in this quest or kill.  Rather, this assassination must be done to meet a debt, and that debt is a product of sacrifice from the earlier chapters.

Artist Edgar Salazar and colorist Salvatore visualize Trautmann's intentions perfectly.  Close ups of Sonja's visage depict her sadness and determination.  Salazar and Salvatore excel when running Sonja through the action, and in the final moments when she delivers the coup de grace.  They furthermore never let you forget the climate through the condensation of Sonja's breath, a barrage of snow and the constant reminder of her fur cloak accessorizing leather armor rather than her usual chain-mail.

The way Sonja ultimately destroys the beast isn't exactly played by Marquis de Queensbury rules.  That gives the finale extra bite, and her technique mirrors Robert E. Howard's barbarous world in which too much honor certifies your death.  There's no such thing as dirty fighting or cheating.  Just winning to fight another day.

Robert E. Howard introduced Red Sonya, emphasis on the y, in a single short story entitled "The Shadow of the Vulture."  The short positioned Sonja at the heart of the Ottoman Empire, not Hyperboria.  Her ties to Conan were entirely a comic book invention that later informed a film and a short series of novels.  

Thanks to Chris Claremont and other writers, through the device of time travel, the more iconic She-Devil became immortal.  There are many immortals in literature but few actually eternalized by their creators.  Arthur Conan Doyle for instance retired Holmes to a beekeeping life.  We assume he will die.  His follower Agatha Christie killed Hercule Poirot.  

An exception proving the rule occurred with Tarzan's Quest published in 1936.  There Edgar Rice Burroughs concocted Kavuru Tablets which granted Tarzan and Jane, presumably his son Korak and his mate Meriam, immortality.  It is this immortality that serves as the core concept to Alan Gordon's and Tom Yeates' Once and Future Tarzan.  

In the future, the earth will change.  Much of what's been predicted happens.  Climate alterations affect the globe.  The current empires topple.  Humankind returns to tribal states, and evolution continues its inexorable march through the genomes.  

Tarzan remains Tarzan, and Gordon characterizes him with the insight of the books.  Tarzan is a man of jungle and civilization.  So, in Once and Future Tarzan, Lord Greystoke enjoys jazz, but he also watches nature take its course.  

Tarzan tends gardens but savages foes.  Tom Yeates who as far as I'm concerned doesn't do nearly enough illustration in comics brings the Ape Man in physique focus and taps into an earth familiar yet strange.  Tigers roam, but so do giant Venus Flytraps, the plant not the DJ.

In terms of plot, the one-percent still attempt to scrounge for power.  Their search leads them to Tarzan and the Kavuru pellets, the ultimate commodity.  Their soldiers are survivalists, but Tarzan also has allies some from before time, others right next door, and of course, his beloved Jane.  Once and Future Tarzan is a must buy for any Tarzan fan.

Dark Shadows fall on Vampirella.  Ensorcelled, the vampires cross fangs in a sex sauna.  As the cops break in, we see the toothsome twosome break free from the spell and in a mutual regard for human life restrain themselves from doing any real damage to the police.  In a goofy way, the duo replicate the kind of whitewash seen in the Super-Friends.  Rather than actually strike their foes, the heroes would sweep them off their feet and tie them up.  Vampirella and Barnabas hypnotize, bonk and splash the cops.  The juxtaposition is hilarious. 

We have two conflicting ideas.  A sex club setting with Vampirella and Barnabas clad only in robes, and the police in riot gear.  Rather than act like vampires, Vee and Bee behave like really, really civilized human beings.  These scenes along with writer Marc Andreyko's dialogue just left a smile on my face as I marveled at the strong illustrative ability of Jose Malaga.

Vampirella concludes her foray into the Red Room, and Dan Brereton once again proves that he's as good a writer as he is an artist.  Brereton rarely scripts for somebody else's creation.  Usually, he writes for his own characters the Nocturnals or Giant Killer, but Vampirella belongs to everybody, and he appears to have an affinity for the fanged hero.

Brereton adds a facet of sorrow to Vampirella's repertoire.  She doesn't mind ripping off a vampire's arm, gutting a fresh worm thing, but she attempts to talk an ancient evil out of her want to stay and feed.  It's almost as if she regrets ending something that's lasted so long.  It helps that the beast isn't a mere monster but also an intelligence, and Vampirella almost respects its longevity.  

In so doing, Brereton actually emphasizes Vampirella's relative youth when compared to all the foes she usually faces.  The forces of chaos are Lovecraftian in age, but Vampirella arrived on earth in the sixties.  The elder god refers to her as a child.  She's not wrong.

Brereton reveals the relationship between Vee's ally Rigger and Carrie, the wild teen dressed as Uma Thurman in Kill Bill.  It also turns out that she's less a victim and more of a psychotic.  Vee treats her accordingly.

Dan Brereton handling art and script is about the only thing that could have made the series better, but Jean Diaz does a remarkable job in capturing Vee's ferocity as well as the expressions that sell Brereton's words.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was a primal scream for womankind, written by a very sympathetic man.  It sparked a trio of extraordinary Swedish films, introducing the world to Noomi Rapace, and to date spawned the first of three American adaptations in which Rooney Mara gave an Oscar winning performance as Lisbeth Salander.  She didn't win, and that's a crime against good taste as far as I'm concerned.

If you've read the books, seen the movies, you're in this for curiosity.  How will DC approach the material?  Surprisingly, faithfully.  DC in fact is very determined to avoid any malicious criticism.  To that extent, they hired a very good female crime writer to bring The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to graphic novel status.  

Denise Mina, who writes the Paddy Meehan novels, enriches the graphic by bringing in some of the items dropped from the films.  I particularly liked Lis' relationship with her boss Dragan.  It made sense to cut these scenes in the movie, but leave room in the graphic novel.  

Mina makes Mikael Blomkvist's sex drive much more easier to accept; Blomkvist's libido is reduced in the Swedish movies, which makes him remarkably lucky when the bisexual Lisbeth decides he's worthy of her.

The graphic novel is surprisingly long, more so than the films.  If you experienced any of the cinema, you'll be surprised that Mikael doesn't actually encounter Lisbeth in this volume.  His affairs therefore seem to be portioned out over spans of time.  The length raises another point.  The production isn't complete.  However, that's not a liability.  

If you've never read any of Stieg Larsson's books or seen the movie adaptations, move along.  Accept that DC done Stieg justice.  The following paragraphs spoil a couple of major plot points.  I'll wait.

The book encompasses Mikael returning to his boyhood playdate house, his search for the truth about Harriet Vanger and Lisbeth's initial investigation into Blomkvist.  Nils Bjurman's cruel, monstrous rape of Lisbeth is the penultimate event, but the book ends on an a happier note.  Lisbeth's revenge.  It's a good collection of chapters from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and lays out some excellent editing choices.

The book pulls no punches.  Emulating every adaptation since, artists Leonardo Manco and Andrea Mutti, Guilia Brusco and Patricia Mulvihill show the horrors Lisbeth faces in Bjurman's bed.  With no acting or music to set the mood, the art must accomplish everything, and it mostly does.  Observe this moment of mood and atmosphere which serves to define Lisbeth's confinement by the state.

Excellent paper stock makes the colors pop and the art extra crisp.  The book appears to be perfect bound, glued, but sturdy.  The asking price is twenty bucks and clocks in at about 70 or more two-sided pages lacking ads.  I'd say you get more than your money's worth.

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