Monday, November 5, 2012

Pick of the Brown Bag
October 31, 2012

Ray Tate

This week in the Pick of the Brown Bag we look at Aquaman, Joe Kubert Presents, Phantom Lady and Dollman.  It's also Annual season with Avenging Spider-Man, Batgirl, Justice League Dark and Swamp Thing.  I'll also say a few words about Critter, Doctor Who and Legend of the Wicked West. 

In his own words, Joe Kubert never before wrote Hawkman and drew the adventures of the Thanagarian.  In his eponymous Presents, Kubert accomplishes both.  

Kubert posits that due to their mastery of flight and their ability to communicate with fauna the Thanagarians became in fact a peaceful alien species, rather than warlike, as successors have traditionally maintained.  

Kubert extends Thanagarian telepathy to include the whole of the animal kingdom not just birds.  The Silver Age Hawks could literally speak the language of birds.  Granting the Hawks telepathy indicates that Kubert wasn't a man stuck in his own time but an imaginative sort still fully capable of producing a sophisticated update.  In fact Kubert's reworking is actually easier to swallow as canon than the absolutely terribly written but extremely well illustrated zero issue of Savage Hawkman concocted by Rob Liefield and his editor.

Kubert's tale dispenses with numerous Golden and Silver Age elements as well as modern rewrites.  The marital bliss of Hawkman and Hawkwoman for example is gone.  Instead, Kubert amends them to friends and partners in the Thanagarian Police.  Given the dialogue, they have a reputation for being somewhat hedonistic and perpetually tardy.  The Hawks' superiors' reactions shorthand the adjusted personae.

The Hawks' mission like that of Klaatu from The Day The Earth Stood Still is to temper humanity's talent for self-destruction before it spreads out into the more civilized realms of the universe.  The tale still relates Hawkman's and Hawkwoman's advent to earth, but Kubert exhibits a more cosmopolitan outlook.

Rather than operate in a fabricated city like Midway and introduce themselves to a Commissioner Gordon clone like Commissioner Emmett, The Hawks first disembark in Africa.  So peaceful and environmentally responsible, they do not even harm the trees during their rocket's descent.

Kubert doesn't change everything.  While no Byth rears his ugly shape-shifting head, and his absence is refreshing, the author/artist still bestows a great pulpy look to the proceedings.  If it ain't broke, don't fix it.  

Katar, opting for a blonde Flash Gordon do wears a flight jacket like Shayera when piloting their ship, and the Hawks' craft is a plain rocket, not the more distinctive and less stealthy gold and green arrowhead.  Intriguingly, by de-emphasizing the projected future tense of the period in which he writes and embracing the pulp traditions of floating cities, rockets and streamlined yet sensible fashion, Kubert makes the layout less dated and more timeless.

The story certainly could have occurred in any period, and Kubert doesn't actually say when the Hawks arrive on earth.  Katar and Shayera uncover mass animal murder.  They trace the deaths to a village where they deduce buried secrets, leading to capture, escape and enforcement, all within a few economical pages.  An outstanding Hawkman and Hawkwoman story.

In the second feature, writer and cartoonist Brian Buniak turns the Angel and the Ape strip into a hilarious spoof of the Honey West television series.  Buniak's style is Burlesque, reminiscent of Harvey Kurtzman.  It's also remarkably versatile when displaying Angel's martial arts prowess.

The other two tales--a World War II Naval story by Sam Glanzman and Kubert's "Spit," weren't really to my tastes, however remarkable art wise, but frankly Joe Kubert writing and illustrating Hawkman is worth the cover price.  Plus, you get a bonus "Angel and the Ape" antic.

Phantom Lady and Dollman starts out with a bang and just keeps getting better as you read on.  Gray and Palmiotti are not really doing anything novel.  They're simply using their expertise to make the dialogue as interesting as the fight sequences.

At first glance, you would expect Funeralla, an eerie looking villainess, to be a humorless, sepulchral-toned thespian.  In a classic type of execution, she would speak somewhat like this:

"Your ebony force feels like a tepid breeze.  You cannot harm me."

Instead, Palmiotti and Gray give the hit-woman the dialogue of modern times.  Funerella reacts this way to Phantom Lady's Black Light energy:

"Only kidding.  Feels like a lovely emotionless blanket of fear draped over me.  Like a snuggie!"

Phantom girl has a few good lines at Funerella's expense, but she's a lot more pithy when battling her nemesis.  Her banter with Dollman however seeps with exasperation for the perpetual motion machine in his head as he tries to pry out the mechanics of Funerella's powers like a cook wheedling a secret, family recipe from a master chef.

The explanation for Funerella's powers satisfies, but the technobabble does not explain her main talent, making zombies out of living people.  Still, it's a good sell.  

Cat Staggs, Tom Derenick and Jason Wright make for good door knockers.  Staggs' fight choreography takes advantage of the wackiness inherent in an undead foe.  
Phantom Lady and Dollman #3

Phantom Lady draws on tricks that she would probably never use on a living villain, unless perhaps one of the hated Bender family that murdered her parents, and the lack of gore keeps the story squarely in the superhero genre, albeit one that's a bit surreal.

Catwoman and Batgirl rarely encountered each other in the pre-Crisis, post-Crisis or the animated series.  You could have counted their combinations on one hand, the exception being the on-line cartoon Gotham Girls; the entirety a superb extra on the Birds of Prey DVD collection.  

With the Batgirl Annual, Simone corroborates the traditional history.  These two protagonists know of each other, but do not know each other.  Batgirl is aware of Catwoman's standing in the Batman Family, but in the new 52 timeline, the women rarely crossed paths. 

Batgirl investigates a series of arsons committed by homeless people.  Obviously these individuals are not the masterminds, and Batgirl seeks the puppeteers behind the crimes.  Hint.  They hoot.

At the same time, a man named Parsons, his identity meaningless and not a startling revelation, hires Catwoman to break the femme Talon that Batgirl fought during The Night of the Owls out of Gotham State Penitentiary.  In so doing, Selina, amusingly makes a friend.  

The jailbreak goes smoothly.  We expected no less, but all hell breaks loose when Catwoman learns the ultimate goal of her employer and his ties to the Court.  That's when Batgirl literally crashes the party, and she teams up with Catwoman for the first time.  

Deft characterization evident in two narrative points of view distinguishes Batgirl from Catwoman, giving each protagonist a unique voice.  Throughout the story, Batgirl exhibits expertise in detection as well as conviction in her pursuit for justice.  She's as tough as we expect her to be, but inside, sympathetic.  She is not an angst-ridden avenger, but then, neither is Batman. 

When properly characterized Batman and Batgirl are in this game for one reason, to save innocent lives from the criminal element.  Each character wears a cloak of darkness.  Batman's shroud is simply a snugger fit due to his origins.  Batgirl's loose.  Although she has gained greater solemnity due to her former crippling.  

Catwoman is a daring, risk-taker that balances cunning with experience.  Her entrance into the jail exemplifies these traits.  She is a master thief but not a villain.  She does not kill the innocent.  Ultimately, Catwoman possesses the core altruism of the Batman Family.  That's why she's a member, and her loyalty is without question.

Simone could have made Batgirl's and Catwoman's partnership light and giddy. Because the new Dynamic Duo face a clutch of Talons, the fight is anything but.  Instead, it's a duel to the death.  Simone underscores the stakes with the narration.  Batgirl and Catwoman believe they will die this night, and while Catwoman's thoughts remain hidden, Batgirl opines on Catwoman's bravery and integral goodness.

It would be difficult to top Adrian Syaf's, Vincente Cifuetes' and Ulises Arreola's artwork, which beautifies the regular issues of Batgirl.  Still, DC decided to push the envelope for one of their best selling titles.  Enter Admira Wijaya.

Frequently, the photo-look can lead to an innate stiffness in the characters or an unnatural feel, but Admira Wijaya illustrates naturally and dynamically.

Wijaya has help in the form of Daniel Sampere pencils for the last twelve pages, but in no way does this water down the artwork as some last minute fill-ins, I'm assuming, do.

This is easily the best Aquaman chapter in the Others saga since the opening.  Previous parts just appeared to spin their wheels, but this one presents an Aquaman that's trying to overcome his rage over Manta.  

Mera is a big factor in this growth.  The Others stick together as a team, even-though at first Aquaman attempts to push them away.  Furthermore, Vostok, the Other that Manta slew last issue gains greater depth.  At the same time, writer Geoff Johns through the ferocity of battle reminds readers that this isn't the Aquaman of The Super-Friends.  Most of the new 52 heroes are harder on their enemies.  They break limbs, not just bloody noses.  In addition, it appears that Aquaman is aware of Mera's former allegiances, hinted at in a previous issue.  So there won't be a gotcha.

Given a richer story, Ivan Reis', Joe Prado's and Rod Reis' illustration actually looks even better the usual fantastic.  The flashback with Vostok alive makes you feel even sorrier that he's dead.  Mera's scenes with Arthur as she convinces him to put on the Aquaman uniform carry more resonance.  The Big Bad's vehicle looks more formidable.  The damage Aquaman inflicts on Manta appears more affecting.  Nobody's going through the motions here.

Whereas the lion's share of annuals, especially DC, used to be stand-alone, forgettable items with loathsome artwork, most of the new 52 annuals continue the story from the main series and/or integrate with the entire continuity.  The Justice League Dark Annual is a surprise keystone story.

Last issue in Justice League Dark, John Constantine, in the House of Mystery chased Nick Necro, in the House of Secrets through time and space.  The reason? Nick Necro abducted Zatanna.  Perhaps the most shocking thing about this story is that Constantine actually has genuine feelings for the sorceress.

This issue Constantine gathers his forces.  In addition to the regular team, Madame Xanadu rejoins.  Constantine recalls Andrew Bennett, and Frankenstein, no great spoiler since his participation with Justice League Dark has been advertised quite a bit.  The real surprise is the fourth cameo, starring in another title, where Constantine meandered through, seemingly without true incident.

With the eagles gathered and landing in Nanda Parbat, all that remains is stopping Necro.  Necro in fact is quite willing to negotiate.  He wants the Books of Magic, but he cannot possess them until Timothy Hunter is dead.  No problem.  Constantine never much liked the brat.

Needless to say, there's a massive con in play, and it all rests upon Constantine laying out a plan.  This in itself is unusual since Constantine is a loner.  However, in Justice League Dark, Constantine demonstrates team spirit, and writer Jeff Lemire convinces you that this camaraderie really is possible.  

Mikel Janin's realistic illustration, accented by Ulises Arreola's use of natural color shading, is perfect for the title.  The two new members of the team exhibit the long range of his talent.  Frankenstein is a grotesque hero and our mystery champion displays the finesse of a warrior, despite being relatively new to the game.  Watch as well the subtle expressions Zatanna wears when needling Nick Necro.

This is the issue where Justice League Dark really gels, and it shouldn't be missed.  I don't particularly like John Constantine, never did, but I found myself rooting for him.  Black Orchid, why I'm in on this title, enjoys some great moments, and in general each member gets a share of the spotlight.

Then there's Maude.  The Swamp Thing Annual feels like an annual.  The main story is completely removed from the overarching tale being related in Swamp Thing, Animal Man and Frankenstein Agent of SHADE.  It reads like an elseworld in which Alec Holland, Anton and Abby Arcane meet under different circumstances.  It doesn't exactly contradict the fresh new 52 history or previous legends, but it uses the old bugaboo, "and their memories were wiped out" at the end to explain why neither Abby nor Alec remembered their encounter.  Becky Cloonan however is a perfect choice for relating the admittedly cute love story set against the backdrop of Anton Arcane's madness.

The ever-lovin' Blue-Eyed Thing guest stars in Rob Williams' Avenging Spider-Man.  This annual would be considered pretty ephemeral to Spider-Man fans, that is fans of Spidey currently involved in his oh-so-thrilling serial adventures.  I hear that Alpha story is something.  Yes, sir.  Might be the next Snapper Carr or dare I say it Waverider.

Anywho, Spidey investigates Frankie and Spags, two brothers who happen upon an alien device that sets people off.  This is bad news for Spidey since he apparently owes the Thing some money from their last poker game.  The story's thin and really acts as a directional map for snappy-Spidey-patter and his ludicrous interactions with the Thing and Franklin and Val Richards.  This is way better than FF.

People looking for a good super-hero/super-villain match up need to look elsewhere.  The head villain is a spoof on…Eminem, I'm guessing named Top Dog.  He's kind of reminiscent of semi-regular Sugar from Burn Notice.  The presence of this lack-wit only comounds the comedy.

Unlike some Annuals, Avenging Spider-Man sports some dynamite artwork that while being from the traditional non-campy school of super heroics still delivers the punchlines smoothly and expertly.  Kudos also go to Dave Livesay, whose inking I had problems with in the past and the summery colors of Chris Sotomayor.

Doctor Who was all right, but the ending is kind of a let down.  The identity of the mystery being remains secret.  My money is on the Valeyard, the sum total of the Doctor's evil consolidated into one hypothetical being.  Responsible for putting the Doctor on trial.

Critter was meh.  It looks like Tom Hutchinson is trying very hard to dig her out of the hole he dropped her in, and the kick-off to the new story with the avenging of a dead super-hero looks promising.  Fico Ossio is sorely missed however.  

Ignore the cheesecake cover, Legend of the Wicked West boasts strong art by Allison Borgias and Kate Finnegan.  Here, Hutchison takes the Emerald City literally and in doing so facilitates the construction of a slave labor camp.  The Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion languish in prison, waiting for Dorothy Gale to recue them.  Instead another denizen of L. Frank Baum's world takes up the task.  Given the history of this character, I look forward to see what Hutchison will do with him.  This worthy series deserves a wider audience.    

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