Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Pick of the Brown Bag
November 21, 2012


Ray Tate

The Pick of the Brown Bag delves into Baltimore, Birds of Prey, Catwoman, Critter, Justice League, Nightwing, Journey into Mystery with Sif, Simpsons Comics, Red Hood and the Outlaws, Sword and Sorcery with Amethyst and Beowulf, Supergirl and Wolverine.

The high-flying Condor introduced himself in the last Birds of Prey, by stealing Katana's namesake from the Dagger Clan.  The clan consists of red-suited Ninjas that have scores to settle with the Japanese swordswoman.  In this issue, the Birds concoct a clever plan to retrieve Katana's blade.

Two notable things.  I didn't expect the sword theft to be resolved so quickly.  In the former paradigm of writing, the recovery would have ended in the last chapter concluding a twelve to twenty-four issue storyarc.  I also love how writer Duane Swierszynski refuses to settle whether or not Katana's blade is indeed a soul-taker with one of those souls belonging to her husband, or if she's merely nuts.

The Birds give Katana the benefit of the doubt, but the reader hasn't a clue whether or not Katana's belief lacks a brick of foundation.  

During the pre-Crisis, Mike Barr and Jim Aparo, Katana's creators, instilled no doubt.  Aparo depicted the souls in the sword, and sometimes Mike Barr let them speak.  As with much in the new 52, this occult twist is up in the air along with the Birds.

Swierszynski borrows a page from Taken 2, by orchestrating most of the action in one setting, namely a skyscraper.  Swierszynski relies on the running joke of gravity as the Birds' greatest foe, but he uses the hazard inventively so that no gag is quite the same as the other.  One may also find amusement in the fact that none of the Birds actually possess the power of flight.  However, a moment allows the Black Canary to flaunt greater control over her trademark Cry.

When the Birds of Prey finally light, more action ensues.  Unexpectedly, the Daggers attack in force and give artist Romano Molenaar plenty of opportunity to flex his dynamic anatomy muscles.  As the Birds battle the pajama pack, comedy ripples among the one-liners.  Starling contributes a  particularly hilarious moment alluding to the revelation in the zero issue.  As usual The Birds of Prey earns my highest recommendation.

If your ex-girlfriends from a near immortal life are kind enough to put together a rescue team, you should probably be thankful for their warm thoughts.  Arrogantly quipping about the past results in pain.  

Writer Cullen Bunn makes this latest foray an absolute joy to read.  He manages to expose all the many faces of Logan in one comic book: spy, immortal, superhero.  Paul Pelletier in turn creates strong, traditional easy-on-the-eyes artwork that often bubbles with humor.  

Elsa Bloodstone fans however may be a little disappointed by the monster-hunter's lack of participation in this chapter. However, I felt the joviality and imagination in the writing more than compensates, and I'm buying the book for Elsa's guest-appearance.  

This is easily the best Critter issue since the horrid Purrfection storyarc began.  First Critter visits a police station with a low-tier miscreant whose capture she's known for.

Then in a two page spread--Fico Ossio is back! Thank the Cosmos--she proceeds to tackle every kind of criminal you can imagine.  Part of Critter's enthusiasm lies in the eternal struggle of good against evil, but Critter also uses this array of asskicking to atone for her hubris.

The catalyst for that ego-trip interrupts her girls night in with roommate Gina, but before that writer Tom Hutchison further reclaims Critter with a sharp, fast skit involving Gina, Cassia and a smart phone.  I'm simpatico with Cassia over this.  

I don't feel I need smart phone.  I therefore don't use them, and I don't know how.

When Cassia meets up with Purrfection, reconciliation isn't in the cards.  

Man, I've been waiting for this to happen.  Critter than proceeds to slap down the pheromone queen that seduced her into the group while reuniting the ghostly Josie and her beau Jason.  Finally, Paradox has a surprise in store for readers.  Oh, yes.  The slump is over.  Critter is back!

It seems to be a week for return to form.  This issue of Simpsons Comics is one of the funniest I've read for a long time.

Writer Ian Boothby checks out some literary classics and lets John Costanza, Phyllis Novin and Art Villanueva bind them in The Simpsons cartoon style.

Bart takes over for Dorian Gray, and instead of aging the tyke, Boothby goes modern with the idea of the picture taking the hits while Bart walks away smiling.  In addition to being a yuck-fest, filled with slapstick and wild expressions, the story carries an unexpected dramatic sting.

"The Selfish Giant" naturally concerns Homer in the part of the Gargantuan.  His terrible nature results in Mother Nature freezing his keester.  Along comes Ralph Wiggums to thaw his heart.  The sense of scale and proportion in this short is remarkable.


The last story is a weird one that turns Krusty the Clown, Side-show Bob and the rest of the carny company into fireworks.  

The bizarre tale features some prime comedy that depends on the continuity of the television series permeating the alternate reality.

Even the wraparounds securing the superior anthology offer comedy and insight.  A fine addition to the collection.

While Simpsons Comics celebrates libraries in Baltimore the play's the thing to capture the heart of the vampire king.  Some readers are going to be dejected by Lord Baltimore's lack of involvement.

Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden instead flashback and focus on Haigus, Baltimore's vampiric arch foe.

Haigus finds himself bewitched by a lovely ingenue and staging a play based upon Poe's "The Masque of Red Death."  

The last story in Simpsons Comics was outré and outrageous, but Baltimore takes the biscuit when depicting surreal, unexpected moments.  To explain would spoil the ghoulish surprises.  So let me just say, that these treasures are worth the price of admission.

Kathryn Immonen opens Journey into Mystery with a hysterical tribute to Sif and Shaft, yes, "the black private dick that's a sex machine to all the chicks."  

Simultaneously, Immonen also indicates that the speech of the Asgardians  evolved as Midgard placed cultural pressures on their society.  

All through the book, Immonen takes pleasure in updating the dialogue, and it's more than just the modern tongue with a few verilies thrown in for good measure.  Immonen changes the rhythms of the vocal translation.

Remember, the Asgardians are not actually speaking English.  They're speaking their own language, but modern Asgardian as opposed to "high" dialect from the Stan Lee and Jack Kirby years.  

Kudos also go to Clayton Cowles, whose lettering gets Immonen's point across with an old timey font that's not quite ancient runes or Times Roman.  His layout furthermore stresses the poetic intent of Immonen's words.

In terms of story, Asgard appears to be besieged with fire giants.  Sif comes to the rescue of Volstagg's family.  Later as she sups with them, she decides to pursue a course of action that she believes will hone her into a better warrior.  It's an intriguing almost Xena like direction for the character.  

Immonen however takes several diversions from the expected.  Artist Valerio Schiti and Jordie Bellaire swathe a sumptuous arras across the panels, and Sif her own bad self flexes crisp, bodacious anatomy when weilding her sword or scratching a dragon's itch.

Princess Amaya in Sword and Sorcery makes a choice that will affect her mother and her aunt, the evil Lady Graciel, but before this important decision, writer Christy Marx fascinates the reader with a world based on favors promised to various gem houses.  

One historically accurate scene in the book indicates a decidedly mature demographic target.  The observation shouldn't be construed as limiting.  Rather, the moment details the nuances in characterization.  Amethyst's new adventures do not delineate black and white.  There are shades of gray as well.  The House of Diamond isn't just a deadly rival.  Its members varry in temperament and behavior.

The Rich, Detailed Art of Aaron Lopresti

In the Beowulf backup feature, Tony Bedard plays cagey with callbacks to the DCU and of all things one major story arc.  Artists Jesus Saiz delights in Beowulf's effective barbarism.

I have no idea what's going on in Catwoman.  We discover who's behind the giant chess game introduced last issue, and the Joker pays a visit, but the whole thing is goofy.  

The Joker doesn't seem to be as lethal as he is in the other books, more like the animated series Joker with the occasional successful murder under his belt.  On the bright side, the story strips Catwoman out of uniform twice allowing Rafa Sandoval the opportunity to serve up some good cheesecake.

Meeeee-oooow, Baby!

Honestly, if Ann Nocenti weren't writing Catwoman, the internet would be abuzz at the apparent reduction of Selina to sex object.  Not that I didn't mind ogling.

Tom DeFalco puts together a very good issue of Nightwing pitting the grown Robin against Lady Shiva, much more mysterious in the new 52.  Mention is made of their mutual history, and a classic Batman foe serves as the keen mastermind behind a complex plot that involves Sonia Zucco testifying to the SEC.  

I do however question Dick Grayson's immediate assumption that Sonia's apology for postponing a business meeting is an overture for romance.  That appears to be naive sliver of horndog leftover from Nightwing's characterization from the previous universe.

Red Hood and the Outlaws is in reality about nothing integral to their own adventures.  Rather it succeeds by overlapping a powerful guest star with the kick off of its part in the Joker-centered Death of the Family.

The Outlaws surprises by being innocuous and readable.  I've heard a lot of bad things about this book: the dumbing down of Starfire, the implied threesome with Jason (The Red Hood) and Roy (Speedy), the frank sexual talk.

In theory, I don't find two out of three of these things damaging.  Frank sexual talk is fine as long as it's truly honest and not a babble of terrible euphemism, fifties B movie smarm or modern, gross-out excess.  I also do not find three-ways bad.  The hero gets a girl and another girl?  Good for Bond.  Kori gets a guy and another guy.  Good for Kori.  

In any case, there's nothing like that in this issue of The Outlaws.  Jason gets lucky off panel with a smart stewardess picked up by the group last issue.  Didn't read that one, but it's pretty clear in Jason's narration.  She acts as mediator between our hero Superman and the Outlaws.

A Khund refers to Roy and Jason as Kori's consorts, but that can be interpreted a number of ways, especially since it's a Khund commenting.  As to Kori being dumb.  She's the captain of a starship.  So, we're talking advanced alien intelligence, and if she likes three-ways with her consorts? So what?  That just means she's in charge more ways than one.

Scott Lobdell's such an overall excellent writer, with a talent for repartee and characterization that I almost cared what happened to the Red Hood and Speedy.  For the record, I still don't.  I never liked these characters, but after this issue I do come away with a different read on Jason.  

Jason Todd is actually one of the last pre-Crisis creations from DC comics.  Originally, Jason was a ginger-haired aerialist that lost his parents to Killer Croc.  He becomes Bruce Wayne's ward  and later in Batman #366 Batman's Robin.

Jason was a duplicate of Dick Grayson, right down to costume.  The little, bland fellow even dyed his hair black, disturbing when you think of about it.  

Post-Crisis tampering gave Jason a low-level criminal origin.  He boosted Batman's wheels.  Later, Jason's past grew darker: his father murdered by Two-Face, his mother, who abandoned him, an associate of the Joker.  His mother literally leads him to his demise by crowbar.  

Nothing but women in wheelchairs were forever in the prior universe.  Superboy, a paradox from the pre-Crisis, punched time and reanimated Jason Todd.  There has never been anything stupider in a comic book.

The new 52 version of Jason actually comes off as a character, not merely a substitute Dick Grayson, nor edgier 90s Robin still better known through his resurrection via blatant idiocy.

Jason appears to be openly defying Batman just as a "teenage" act of rebellion.  He uses guns, the things Batman loathes.  He assumes an identity associated with a vicious gang from Batman's past.  The shtick all just seems like a cry for attention, and Batman appears to notice.

It seems that as far as Batman is concerned, Jason never left the Batman Family.  Good for Batman.  

Based on Jason's reaction to Superman, I would say that Jason's new persona leans toward paranoia, but as it turns out, in the new 52, only Batman seems to actually like Superman.  Maybe the Flash.  Kori's unimpressed.  Speedy's and Jason's opinions jibe.  

The animosity toward the Man of Steel leads to an inevitable fight, but Lobdell is aware of the stale nature of the slugfest.  He freshens the palate by using The Outlaws as a platform to demonstrate the extremes of Superman's power.

It turns out Supergirl isn't crazy about her illustrious cousin either.  Supergirl and Superman transport the apparently Kryptonian Dragon that wreaked havoc in Superman to Dr. Vertias for examination.  During the examination, Mikes Johnson and Greene enrich Kara's characterization.

Superman was raised to be human.  He likes humans.  Kara is a Kryptonian in blood and culture.  She never-the-less saved the human race from destruction twice now, and she doesn't particularly like humanity.  Not surprising given that all they do is attack her.  Kara however maintains a "humanist" philosophy.  Humans deserve to be saved because they are still a sentient species.  Kara's code of ethics makes her even nobler.

Greene and Johnson appear to be clued into Lobdell's Dr. Veritas because she seems perfectly in character here.  This new 52 creation, another devastatingly intelligent female character, knows Superman of old and acts as his personal physician.  A scientist, she's naturally curious about Kara.

Supergirl #14

This is a less focused issue of Supergirl, but the room to breathe actually offers an array of factors in Kara's new life.  One of those influences is the Silver Banshee.  Unlike John Byrne's creation, Siobhan is actually a cursed protagonist, and it appears her curse resurfaces this issue.  What this means for Kara is anybody's guess, but you really want to find out.

Kara stays with Siobhan when on land, but last issue she gained her own Fortress of Solitude, the Sanctuary Beneath the Sea.  What an awesome addition to the Supergirl mythology.  

Within her Sanctuary, Supergirl actually seeks confirmation of Superman's identity, but the edifice's true purpose and it's a lovely thought is revealed this issue. 

Every Hero Needs a Place to Sleep Safely

We're not done yet.  The powerful entity that brought the dragon to Metropolis parlays with Kara, and sometimes his actions speak louder than words.  That's bad news for Superboy, but fortunately, Kara is soft-hearted.  I'd expect nothing less.  She's warm and fuzzy sheathed in a body of steel, and that's what Mahmud Asrar is so expert in capturing, the contrast between Kara's innocence and her amazing power.

Justice League benefits from a sound strategy hammered out by Wonder Woman and Aquaman against the Cheetah.  Geoff Johns makes a little bit more mystical sense out of the Cheetah metamorphosis, and turning Barbara Minerva into a criminal chameleon before she became the Cheetah is inspired.  

The identities allude to the entire range of Wonder Woman comics including her original title Sensation Comics, and this trip down memory lane is carried out all in one panel.

Weighing against all of this good will, Superman's and Wonder Woman's budding relationship.  I've never seen such dour tryst participants.  Lighten up for bloody's sake!  Also, what the hell's up with Batman spying on the couple? It's mucho pervy and really none of his business.  

Johns appears to be attempting to resurrect Batman's interest in Wonder Woman to generate friction between the Trinity.  It doesn't work.  

Batman's more of a player in the new 52, and the kind of friction Johns aims for depends upon passion smoldering from love, not dating.  In case you're keeping score, Batman is involved with Ukrainian pianist Natalya and Catwoman.  In his earlier adventures, Charlotte Rivers.

Tony S. Daniel created Charlotte for Detective Comics.  He takes over the artistic chores of Justice League this issue, but you can't really tell.  Daniel's work was a lot smoother and richer in Detective Comics.  In Justice League, he appears to be trying to imitate Jim Lee.  I would have preferred he stick to his own style, but in certain instances, especially when illustrating women he makes a better Lee than Lee.

The Captain Marvel back up feature is terrible, but we kind of expect that now.  So, it's not exactly a surprise.

Finally, Batgirl fans with disposable cash may wish to add Young Justice to their brown bags.  Batgirl's in the book for a heartbeat, but it's a rhythm that expresses the Dynamic Daredoll's intellect.

Whew.  That's it for now.  Be back here next week for another heap of comic book reviews in The Pick of the Brown Bag.

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.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Pick of the Brown Bag
November 7, 2012


Ray Tate

The Pick of the Brown Bag this week looks at Animal Man, Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight, Creator Owned Heroes, Detective Comics, Earth 2, Green Lantern, Smallville, Swamp Thing and World's Finest.  Let me begin however with a final analysis of the 2012 Presidential Race.

I called this race in August.  I knew the President would win the Electoral College.  It was a statistical likelihood that he would win the popular vote.  Admittedly, I did not predict such a sound victory.

My reasoning followed these lines.  The Republicans were working harder than ever to stop President Obama.  They pulled every dirty trick in the book and kept failing miserably.

Rich layabouts poured oodles of money that could have been used to reconstruct city blocks decimated by Hurricane Sandy into their pet lobotomized monkeys' campaigns.  All these damaged simians, while clawing at each other, laid into President Obama, in vain.

The money pits invested even more lucre into the blow-dried pampered dolt that would represent their party in the Presidential race.  Mr. Romney reiterated his disdain for the President.  He recouped some of the attacks his fellows set down.  Nothing happened.  

The Republicans attempted to smear the President with blatant lies.  Cheap, congenital idiots questioned the President's citizenship.  Members of the Republican Congress kept trying to frame the President as a dangerous Muslim inimical to so-called Family Values.  The GOP even tried to suppress the right to vote.  All these schemes smacked of desperation.  

The media insisted this race was a dead heat, but such promotion falls apart when you factor in the media's needs.  The Office of President had to be anybody's game in order for the media to relate a narrative, to compete for ratings, to justify the Star Trek graphics, to welcome the pundits chiming in nonsensically and the wasted time.  No media outlet likes a decisive victory.  They cannot make a sure thing interesting, and Fox News is in a reality all its own.  

If these character assaults had been embraced, if the reverberations from illegal maneuvers had deterred the populace, Romney should have had well over fifty percent of the vote in nationwide polls.  Only Republican friendly states placed Romney ahead of the President, and even those biased polls reflected low numbers.  My conclusion.  Romney lost before he began and he would never achieve the momentum necessary to topple President Obama.

Congratulations President Obama.  I'm glad I voted for you.  Let this be the start of a new Golden Age.  Enough waxing.  Let's get to the comics.

In addition to the usual intriguing articles about the business of producing comic books, creating art and writing, Darwyn Cooke stops by Creator Owned Heroes for a trifle tributing Alex Toth.  I found the metaphor of Alex Toth's growth as an artist and decay as a person to be heavy-handed and not one of Cooke's best efforts.  Fortunately, the two other tales make up for the short-short's inadequacies.

"The Black Sparrow" imbues a moody atmosphere through neorealism that mirrors the period setting.  The story reads like a particularly eerie Night Gallery episode.

The last chapter of "Killswitch" struck me as being too James Bond.  In this second part Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray distinguish their hit man from Bond and drop him in a particularly unshaken plot, which makes room for one of those bizarre, entertaining appearances that Gray and Palmiotti frequently include in their works.

Nice art as well.  You can tell just by looking at him that this cop is one dirty hombre.

Earth 2's first arc ends favorably with an impressive display from Alan Scott as he dopes out a means to stop Grundy.  Old comic book aficionados will grin at the allusion to the old GL's battle against the swamp zombie, and the means behind the familiar end offers a smart explanation that factors in Grundy's new ties to the Grey, itself a parallel to The Rot on earth 1.

Despite some controversy over the decision to have the newest version of Alan Scott be gay, Earth 2 ends up being a valid amalgamation of new and old.  These fresh takes of classic champions possess different attitudes but still seek to serve justice.  Only Terry Sloan blatantly defies the model, and that model is best known for dying in an issue of Justice League of America.

Well, I never thought I would be buying Green Lantern, especially when written by Geoff Johns, but the Justice League guest star, and I'm supporting this new reconfiguration of the League in the new 52.  

Without a doubt, the League could stand some improvement, but compared to the incarnations of the past, this one is relatively high in my ranking: Bruce Timm's Justice League, Grant Morrison's JLA, the Bronze Age League, Super-Friends, the new 52 Justice League.

The League assess the new Green Lantern, and he acts surprisingly rational.  I loved that he doesn't fight the League.  Instead, when they try to take off his ring, the emerald band lashes out, forcing the inevitable battle.  This shows Johns actually taking the time to hash things out.  We've seen too many slugfests that haven't a rationale, and Johns' self-awareness triggers his writing a way that seems organic to the continuity.    

Johns characterizes the League extremely well.  Perhaps because he has fewer pages in which to portray the heroes, he must eschew the soap opera dross and pare them to the bone for the gist.  As a result, the Justice League incentive pays off.

For those more interested in the latest ring bearer, the new Green Lantern is a pretty enjoyable character.  Hooked on cars, level-headed and altruistic, he doesn't fit any stereotype, nor does he follow in any other Green Lantern's footsteps.  Although, he's closer to Kyle than Jordan.

Hal Jordan and his partner Sinestro--what the hell--appear to be trapped in some limbo of the Guardians' design.  They're not the only denizens of the cosmos trapped.  The Doctor's secure in the Pandorica.  Oh, wait.  That's just a remarkable likeness, and it's not the Doctor but the stalwart little Blue people.  

The renegades no doubt will supplant the Time Lords that were crazed by the Time War against--sorry, the Guardians of the Universe once defeated.  The Doctor Who comparisons are unavoidable.  However, if the book only ran on the underlying themes, I'd be pissed off rather than amused. 

Doug Mahnke enhances Johns' writing with a rich tapestry of superhero goodness.  His League looks powerful and capable.  His Flash is particularly lively, and the new Green Lantern, reflects racing in his imagination of green escape vehicles.  Mahnke visualizes The Big Bad attack dogs of the Guardians as cosmic versions of the Trench from Aquaman, and he brings a decadent feel to guest villain the Black Hand.  Lots of things apparently happened to this low-key bank robber, but Mahnke sums them up in his depiction so you don't need to know the details.

Animal Man feels like solid superhero fare.  It plays as a de facto elseworld where the Rot won; leaving behind a hodgepodge of heroes that know they're not the Justice League, even if two of them are.  Indeed, these champions still believe in their hearts that Batman will somehow pull all their asses out of the fire.  I share that belief.

Jeff Lemire is totally on board.  Despite Animal Man and Swamp Thing being vital in the fight against the Rot, Lemire foreshadows that the bat in the belfry will be instrumental in bringing low the Rot.  Another writer would balk at the idea of giving the limelight to the Dark Knight, but if this hypothesis holds true, it's indicative of how the new 52 differs from the previous mishmash universe, how the writers are in complete concert.  Egos mostly put aside to create the most entertaining, integrated mythology.

Obviously it's still too early to say whether or not Batman himself is amongst the living, just waiting for the right moment to strike.  Mind you, I don't believe Man-Bat is in the Cave as a  preview cover to Swamp Thing suggests.  

I think Man-Bat is actually Batman.  He probably thought the best way to guard the weapon against the Rot, perhaps something only Swamp Thing or Animal Man can use, would be to become a monster.  So, he injected Kirk Langstrom's formula.  That's my guess anyway.

Putting aside all of this intrigue and thought, Animal Man still interests in a number of other ways.  First, Buddy Baker is in good form, and that's arguably the most important asset. 

Second, Lemire introduces more hints at the Black Orchid's origin.

Third, callbacks to nostalgia add a layer of amusement.  Beast Boy and Cyborg never met in the new 52, but Beast Boy and Steel act like the old double-act from The New Teen Titans of the pre-Crisis.  Fourth, just when you think you have this book figured out, Lemire stings you with an awesome cliffhanger that in itself possesses one of the coolest of easter eggs.

Although less occurs in Swamp Thing than in Animal Man, this issue of Swamp Thing is still a lot of fun.  I can't really reveal what happens in Swamp Thing without ruining the surprise, but let's just say that Scott Snyder likes Godzilla films and allow that clue to marinate in your minds.

As in Animal Man, Swamp Thing turns Batman and the Batcave into near fable.  Swamp Thing, like Animal Man, also intends to journey to Gotham in order to find the device that Batman made to destroy the Rot.  In many ways, Rotworld is a variation on the Oz novels by L. Frank Baum.  Swamp Thing (Tin Woodsman) and Animal Man (The Cowardly Lion) are the travelers down the Yellow Brick Road to seek Batman (The Wizard.)  In addition to these attributes, Dead Man (The Scarecrow) makes an excellent foil for Swamp Thing, and his creation of a Pea Pod to sail into Gotham is rather inspired.  

The fact that Swamp Thing knows who Superboy is suggests that this rewrite of the timeline still occurs in the future of the new 52.  Although all the titles are slowly converging to a relative present.  Detective Comics is one such title.  

Previously in the Detective Comics, Batman was involved with Charlotte Rivers.  You can argue that this was Tony Daniel's influence, but the multiple period settings facilitated a personal choice in love interests and casts.

John Layman brings Detective Comics up to date.  Batman is now dating Natalya, the Ukrainian pianist, from Gregg Hurwitz's Dark Knight.  We see her in an Ivy-induced hallucination.  Batman's attitude toward Ivy becomes increasingly optimistic, and this direction ties in with the events occurring in Birds of Prey.

Black Canary established the Birds of Prey soon after meeting Starling and Batgirl during her infiltration of the Penguin's floating nightclub the Iceberg.  Canary later inducted Katana and Ivy.  Batman appears to know Black Canary from her days on Team 7. When he encounters the Birds of Prey during The Night of the Owls, he remains unimpressed, regarding Black Canary as "sloppy."  Batman however respects Batgirl, and he tolerates the Birds of Prey as a result.  

Between this time and the setting of Dark Knight, Batman sees the Birds of Prey as viable.  For that reason, he returns Poison Ivy to the Birds of Prey after rescuing her from Bane. He feels the Birds is a good place to reform Ivy and where she can use her power for good. 

More than ever, Batman wants to turn Ivy, not imprison her.  This is largely in part because of the new 52 embracing the Bruce Timm model for Ivy, turning her into an eco-terrorist rather than a damaged woman obsessed with Batman.  

Ivy burned her bridge to the Birds of Prey when she forced them to do her bidding.  Batgirl however escaped, and Batman found the antidote for the Ivy toxin, freeing the Birds.  This occurred "off screen" during the interim when DC published the zero issue.

Batman's more optimistic approach to his enemies marks a remarkable development.  In the previous universe, he lacked a shred of optimism.  In the new 52 it appears that he just might actually be able to cure some of his enemies of their madness and harness their criminal tendencies toward lawfulness.

For the moment though, Batman must deal with Ivy's worst enemy, herself of course.  He finds a cunning means to combat Ivy's pheromones, and the story's wonderfully elliptical since all roads lead back to the Penguin, who is turning out to be a major behind the scenes villain in the new 52.

Jason Fabok accompanies Layman on Detective Comics.  His art is much as you see on the cover.  However, the cover doesn't capture the fluid animation that he manages to convey in addition to the intense detail he puts into every panel.  Jeromy Cox continues to make the Dark Knight's cases more colorful with vivid greens and red fighting blue gray against a rust red dusk.  Andy Clarke also returns with sinewy artwork for this issue's back-up feature as Layman gets inside of Ivy's head.

Damien Wayne makes a guest appearance in Detective Comics, but I still can't stand the little snot.  Paul Levitz however in World's Finest almost made me like the little bastard, and that's even with his beating on one of my favorite characters Huntress, Helena Wayne, the daughter of Batman and Catwoman.

Levitz characterizes Damien as an arrogant but skilled martial artist that might have chop-sockied out of a seventies Hong Kong flick, and that persona works! That persona works better than anything that's been.  Remember, I tried Batman & Robin.  There's a reason why it's not on my subscription list.  Every subsequent guest appearance by the twerp has been painful to experience, but Levitz has got him.  He's found a means to preserve the "edginess" that fans like without having Damien grate on an audience that couldn't care less about him.

When Huntress intends to siphon off some money from Bruce Wayne, she finds Damien waiting for her.  Huntress holds back when fighting Damien.  Although she constantly humiliates him with taunts over his inadequacy as Robin.  She should know being a former Girl Wonder, and as they fight they recognize each other as brother and sister.  

Damien doesn't know the meaning of the word restraint.  He's willing to kill the Huntress, but he can't win.  Helena has something Damien will never allow himself to have.

If that scene had been broadcast, I would rewind it and replay it until the moment burned onto the screen.

Outmatched, Damien tunes down his anger and viciousness.  He almost becomes reasonable, and that's when he learns that the trail of money he followed hasn't led him to Helena.  She has only borrowed money from her Uncle Bruce twice.  Somebody else is using Bruce Wayne as their piggy-bank.

Kevin Maguire contributes the lion's share of artwork this issue, and how lucky we are.  It's his mastery of expression and body language that injects energy into what could have been a boring slugfest between siblings.  Instead, we witness a fantastic display of the world's finest martial artist and her brother from another earth as well as faces that display the emotional gamut underlying the battle.

I'm honestly not a fan of Ben Templesmith's style.  This sort of edgy defiance of classical anatomy.  However, he does bring out a lot of the black comedy in a one-stop Joker story by B. Clay Moore in Legends of the Dark Knight.  I actually found myself laughing at the sickness in the gag, and Moore's punchline with Batman is particularly clever. 

Batman appears in another book this week, and this book, my friends, is awesome.  The cover appears to be a gimmick.  

I mean shooting Superman with Kryptonite bullets first of all seems too simple to achieve, and it should put an end to the Man of Steel.  Believe it or not, this actually happens.

Art by Criss Cross and Marc Deering

That in itself is stunning, but what Bryan Q. Miller does with the scene is far more inspiring.  He uses it to cement the trust and friendship between Batman and Superman.  The scenario finally establishes the entire Justice League, with Batman and Nightwing using the "party line."  He employs the scene to not just to build on the suspense but also to demonstrate Lois' love for her Big Red S.

The pivotal moment in Smallville furthermore drops the flag for a car chase like no other.  Had this been on screen, the audience would have cheered at the same time, and the sound wave would knock the earth a couple of inches off its axis.  It's that good.

As you can see by the examples of artwork I pulled, we're talking some fantastic likenesses to Tom Welling, Erica Durance, Alison Mack, Justin Hartley and unnamed actors portraying Batman and Nightwing.  

Colors by Carrie Strachan

The special effects handled entirely through the masterful illustration of Chris Cross never the less take on life that mimics what would be seen on television or on the big screen.  I cannot stress this enough.  Smallville is a must purchase.

Next week, in addition to the usual madness, look for a review of the graphic novel adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.