Monday, December 17, 2012

Pick of the Brown Bag
December 12, 2012


Ray Tate

It's a thin week for the Pick of the Brown Bag, but hopefully the quality will make up for the quantity.  

Batgirl fans may wish to refrain from reading Batman #15.  Scott Snyder inadvertently spoils the outcome of the Joker's assault on Mrs. Gordon, Barbara's mother.  However, on no account should any reader miss out on this issue of Batgirl.

This is the event many a Batgirl aficionado also waited twenty-three years for.  Batgirl beats the tar out of the Joker.  

Batgirl as presented in the past was no mean fighter.  In hand-to-hand combat, I ranked her just below the original Black Cat, who used judo and karate more than any other super heroine.

So, this issue is Gail Simone's tribute to Batgirl's prowess in battle.  After reading the chapter, you'll realize just how often Batgirl holds back a talent for maiming.  She's more than capable of killing a human being with her bare hands, quite possibly using a single blow.  She melds a knowledge of anatomy with elegant power to deliver intense damage.

Simone furthermore demonstrates Batgirl's raw cunning.  Batgirl matches wits against a highly organized psychopath and temporarily outmaneuvers him.  

The Joker has multiple aces up his sleeve, and in the end, he places Batgirl in another no-win situation, but for one brief golden moment Batgirl trumped the Joker.  

It's now difficult to discuss Batgirl without acknowledging the real world turmoil occurring behind the scenes.  Gail Simone was fired from Batgirl for not acquiescing to new editor Brian Cunningham's demands.  

After reading this issue, I've had some insight into what those demands might have been.  I suspect that the break may have occurred with the characterization of James Gordon Junior, Batgirl's brother.  

Having consistently boycotted the Batman books for approximately seven years, I never experienced the pre-New 52 characterization of James Gordon Jr.  Based on my friends' observations, I infer that James Jr. was a murderous, mutilating psychotic that would have felt snug at home in Norvell Page's The Spider.  Of course, he wouldn't last there long.

That's not how Gail Simone has been characterizing James.  Instead, she evokes only the beginnings of a psychopath.  As seen in Batgirl, the child James Jr. kills Barbara's cat and manipulates their mother into leaving the family; the child James threatened to take Barbara's life if Mrs. Gordon did not depart.  

However, although Simone frames James as emotionally detached, she has yet to have James do anything criminal.  He apparently grows up with Barbara and doesn't harm a hair on her head.  When Babs first becomes Batgirl, he observes her as he would a specimen.  Not normal behavior, but still nowhere near the level of bug-shit crazy I was led to believe James Gordon Jr. exhibited.  

In this issue of Batgirl, Barbara believes  James set her up to face the Joker.  He claims a different rationale.  James aimed Barbara at the Joker because he knew she would be able to save their mother.  Then, we have the following curiosity.

Taken at face value, Simone may be suggesting that James Jr. has indeed become slightly saner than he was.  Alternately, Simone may be attempting to make James less cartoonish and more like a true, empathically bankrupt madman.  

Given what Simone said about her dismissal, I suspect Cunningham wanted to honor the previous characterization of James Jr. and that he will likely be directing his new writer to victimize either Barbara's roommate Alysia or Barbara's mother in a wholesome torture porn scenario.  Despite the fact that the whole plotless horror fad has passed.

Neither move strikes me as valid to the character Simone reshaped.  Her stance about the casual means in which women were raped and slain in Dead Chicks Comics is well known.  So, herein probably lies the schism.  

I've had issue with some of Simone's past work and ripped her a new one for a reeking Justice League story.  For these comments, I'm probably still considered by Simone's many fans to be an enemy.  A compliment from an enemy is more overtly honest than a compliment from a friend.  

Gail Simone's writing has been spectacular on Batgirl.  Batgirl's characterization never veers into mediocrity and always reflects the iconic, instantly recognizable Batgirl from the past.  She created a rogues gallery that would have given Batman a run for his money, and she established a more satisfying dynamic between Batgirl and the Batman family.    

Simone dared to pare The Killing Joke down to its core. She kept the crippling as a pivotal moment in Batgirl's development but nothing else.  Through this choice, Simone not only refreshed Batgirl, she at the same time redeemed Batman. 

After being shot, Barbara didn't worry about the Joker abducting her father.  Thanks to Simone that never happened.  Barbara instead experienced a personal dilemma.  Barbara convinced herself that Batman would berate her horribly for letting herself fall victim.  Instead...

Simone's Batman is my Batman.  He would never rest until he exhausted every possible means.  He would find a way to repair Barbara's spine.  

Simone states that Bruce Wayne paid for Barbara's medical bills.  Throughout Simone's Batgirl run, she has been heavily implying that Batman investigated a procedure in South Africa that would facilitate Barbara's recovery.  I could ask for no better atonement of the character and outcome for Barbara.

I'm stuck buying Batgirl even after Gail Simone departs the book.  Normally, I leave as soon as the writer I like shuffles off, but Batgirl's a different story.  As long as Batgirl is walking, I support this title, not necessarily the people behind the title but definitely the character and her book.

DC should have fired Brian Cunningham, not Gail Simone.  I've never met Brian Cunningham before, but if I'm to judge him by the way he handled Gail Simone, I can only come to one conclusion.

Mr. Cunningham is a certified asshole.

When I was laid off from my real world job, the higher ups at least had the decency to face me.  This is normal protocol.  Mr. Cunningham didn't even accept the responsibility of his position to fire Gail Simone in person or at the very least via video conferencing.  

As of this moment I'm giving Mr. Cunningham fair warning.  These new writers pulled in on Batgirl better be giving their A game, and that game had better be at the very least a tenth of what Simone did.  If not, I will be your nightmare.  

I am no longer part of Comics Bulletin.  I have no editor.  I have no need to play nice.  As a free agent, I can post these reviews anywhere, maybe not the DC website, but that's one site out of how many?  

So, Mr. Cunningham had better sober up and attempt to justify the firing of Gail Simone with the second best Batgirl stories ever created.  I have a reputation on the internet.  Honesty often translates into viciousness.  Mr. Cunningham is on notice.

Scott Snyder follows a tradition begun by Raymond Chandler, whose prose was like no other.  Snyder incorporates logic, the science of deduction, reason and criminology into free verse poetic narration that serves as the spine of an emotional tale in which Batman must face an unsettling truth.  

Batman begins his observations by expounding on how the eyes can be a tell to a criminal's behavior.  Batman describes the Joker's eyes as little pin-prick pupils set into marbles, most of the time.  The Joker does not react like a normal human being.  His instincts do not function like ours.

Snyder then goes on to demonstrate the rhythm of the plot.  The Joker predicts how Batman will escape his trap only to be caught again by a desire to mete out justice quickly and efficiently.  Surprisingly, the Joker already demonstrated this particular stopgap in Catwoman.  So, Nocenti's story actually did at least mean something.  It foreshadowed the plot to Snyder's latest opus.

This moment then leads to the Joker doubling-down on his ruse.

It's easy to follow Bullock and learn what he does in his off hours.  He doesn't hide his identity behind a mask.  By determining the movements of those who have no reason to hide, the Joker reinforces the idea that he knows the Batman Family's secret identities.

The Joker's masterstroke occurs when he states to Batman that he left him his card.  This common turn of phrase allows Snyder to finally detail a legend of the Dark Knight started back in Frank Miller's Batman Year One.

Snyder finally provides the details, and these details allude to Tim Burton's Batman.  More and more, you see how these new 52 Batman adventures owe less to Nolan and Bale and instead echo the original doublet of movies in which Michael Keaton embodied the Dark Knight.

To be sure, artists Gregg Capullo and colorist Plascencia bring their own interpretation of carnival to the Joker's over the top crimes, but the method is characteristic of Jack Nicolson's Joker.  One can argue Snyder is saying that that the proto-Joker was Nicholson depicted in the more familiar look while the current day Joker is more like the abomination Heath Ledger brought to the screen.  Batman however remains Michael Keaton and exhibits growth: from enigmatic vigilante to defender of Gotham City.

This is what irks the Joker the most.  Batman has evolved.  Batman's not the man he remembers, but then he never was that man.  Batman presents three images.  He is hell to criminals.  He is kinder to the victims of crime, and he is himself to his family.  Snyder represents all of Batman in this chapter of "Death of the Family."  Furthermore, he demonstrates why Batman is the head of this crimefighting family, why he was recognized by the Shadow and Sherlock Holmes.  

The Joker hurts Batman by killing innocents.  The Joker's mind games do not affect him.  There is simply no way that the Joker can know any of the Batman Family's secret identities.  Nothing the Joker does can shake Batman from an adherence to logic.  Batgirl, Red Robin, Robin, Nightwing, the Red Hood still cling to belief.  Batman lacks such a weakness.  As soon as he convince the others that logic is the only application that can be trusted, they will all triumph.

A type of Joker takes center stage in another book this week.  Jimmy Palmiotti's and Justin Gray's Ami-comi Girls focuses on Duela Dent, the Joker's Daughter.

Originally, Duela Dent was a pre-Crisis figure debuting in Batman Family.  Turns out in The Teen Titans where she assumes the final identity of the Harlequin that she's actually the daughter of Two-Face.

Over the years, Duela popped in and out of the DCU, usually as a nostalgia marker lacking a true history.  This is the first time that anybody in DC reworked the concept.

Gray and Palmiotti ingeniously recreate this character as a damaged criminal's daughter, smoothly tie the Joker trappings into her origin as well as her hatred of the Bat, in this literally feminized world Batgirl.  They effortlessly explain how tragedy established her worldview and totally ignore the fact that they're actually producing novel-worthy characterization for a comic book based upon a line of manga toys heavily emphasizing sexuality in the most one dimensional means available.

It's easy to say that this Duela Dent is more interesting than the Harlequin.  Harlequin was simply a sane hero using pranks like really potent itching powder laced puffs to fight crime.  Some readers however balk at my opinion that Duela in Amicomi is actually a much more richer character than the Joker.  

Given a blank slate, Palmiotti and Gray create a remarkable psychotic.  Her entire childhood is based upon a lie.  Her father isolates her from the rest of the world.  He might even be sexually attracted to his daughter.  I don't think he molested her.  In fact, he appears to recognize his sickness, and for that reason creates the pretense that hide and seek was originally meant to protect children from pedophiles.

It is during such a game that Duela encounters real life bats, and she becomes another one in a million; the chance encounter perhaps refers to her father's penchant for gambling.  The criminal life chosen by her father forces them to take drastic measures to heal her wounds.

Tragedy strikes when Lieutenant Gordon faces off against her father, but in all irony, Batgirl is unaware of that the man who crippled her father is in fact the sire of her archenemy.  Duela is of course unaware of Batgirl's secret identity, and in true Joker fashion, she does not care what face lies behind the mask.

Unlike the Joker, Duela really is a creature of chaos, which neatly upturns Two-Face's black-and-white coin flip as well as strangely supporting it.  Nobody is safe from her, and that's why she colludes with the impending world threat.

In addition to holding multifaceted madness to the light, Gray and Palmiotti continue to populate the Ami-comi Universe with femme hero equivalents.  We already met Natasha Irons, Steel.  This issue the Flash zips through as Jesse Quick.  Some will recall that Wally West once gave the title to Jesse in order to force Impulse to work harder to be his successor.  Kind of lousy.  Palmiotti and Gray christen Jesse the Flash, there is no other, and they grant her XS's crazy speedy tangled speech.  All in all an attractive amalgam.

Ted Naifeh and Randy Mayor team for art duties.  Naifeh stylizes his characters, but once again, manga's not on the artist's mind.  Rather, he keeps the Ami-Comi Girls cartoony enough to satisfy the toy design, and he dismisses the overt displays of cleavage and shaven nethers, save for the cover, in order to present a more modern, often practical look that eschews pin-up posing.

As you can see, Naifeh frequently closes on the character's faces to accent emotion, and because of that he preserves Gray's and Palmiotti's intent, which I'm sure is to simply present a world of female super-heroes and villains and be dramatic about it, rather than burlesque.

Superboy was actually good this week.  It benefits from the "H'el on Earth" Superman Family crossover.  Throughout the previous chapters of the arc, H'el, a pretend Kryptonian who claims otherwise, pretty much used Superboy as a punching bag.

Last issue, H'el intended to kill the youth only to find Superman quickly smacking the pale off his skin.  Meanwhile, Supergirl protected Superboy.  The tables turned however.  H'el fed Supergirl an image of betrayal, and that may have affected the Girl of Steel more than she may admit.  On the other hand, she may have deduced the ruse and merely plays along to find out what H'el wants.

Supergirl cameos in this issue, but the lion's share belongs to Superman and Superboy.  It's the first time that Superboy intrinsically worked.  I had a lot of fun reading the original Superboy stories set in Hawaii, but these stories could have been built around any character.  They just happened to be about Superboy.

"H'el on Earth" delves into Superboy's clone nature and his ties to Krypton.  Superman makes an unusual discovery regarding Superboy, and this will no doubt impact later in the story, but it's a good setup that makes use of Superman's New 52 look and cleverly reveals a secret Superboy didn't even know he possessed.

For this issue a slew of artists finish the breakdowns pencilled by Ron Frenz.  The final product's appearance doesn't matter one whit.  You can so very easily peer through the gloss of shadowy inks see Ron Frenz's artwork explode from the pages.  His exciting, angular anatomy crackles through the panels and really bestows to Superman some class.
I wish I had more to say about Frankenstein Agent of Shade, but as per usual, Matt Kidnt is the artist's friend.  It's not that there's no dialogue or plot,  It's just that Kidnt lets Alberto Ponticelli speak through his stunning, heroic depictions of Frank battling the forces of Rot in his own unique fashion.

I furthermore cannot explain what happens since a picture is worth a thousand words and also one great spoiler slap.  The images are so damn cool, but to reveal any of them would be a crime.

Suffice to say that Frank deals with the Rot things with a little help from his friends and a massive demonstration of exact violence.  Edgy.  This imagery isn't as potent and giggle-worthy as Frank deciding his plane is getting in the way of his slaying the Luftwaffe during World War II, but damned if it doesn't try to tickle you as much.

Our final book is a mix of expected violence and unexpected cagy shenanigans courtesy of a short-tempered Canadian.  Wolverine concludes his partnership with Elsa Bloodstone, terribly underused and keeps his promise to the Dreaming Maiden, she who will envision the world's end. 

Meanwhile, we meet the rest of the Covenant in person, and Wolverine expresses some surprising restraint, sparing the members if they stand down.  It's funny.  Wolverine used to be the poster child for Berserker Rage.  Now, he's a more pensive experienced professional.  He's come a long way from almost turning out to be a mutated Wolverine from the High Evolutionary's brood.

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