Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Pick of the Brown Bag
December 27, 2012


Ray Tate

This week Pick of the Brown Bag investigates The Shadow Special and the latest new 52 crossover from Geoff Johns' Throne of Atlantis.  After the comic book madness I also review Django Unchained.

An unknown Big Bad takes over a naval vessel and launches missiles into the ocean.  This unprovoked attack on Atlantis forces Orm, Aquaman's full-bred Atlantean brother, to launch a counterattack on the surface world.  

Geoff Johns' latest fires on all cylinders.  From every angle, "Throne of Atlantis" makes sense.  The characterization is strong, and the Justice League itself seems less like a neophyte organization filled with squabblers and more like what the League always should have been.  The top tier protectors of the earth.

Orm's attacks on the surface world give Johns the opportunity to flesh out the new 52 universe, its champions and the way the supporting cast interact with the heroes.  

Johns appeared to have remembered Cyborg from The Super-Friends and included him on the team as merely a token character.  In this story, we get the sense of the man behind the machine.

Batman calling a hero by a nickname is a big deal, and Johns knows this.  He instantly grants Cyborg better cred through Batman's comments.  Batman possessing the humanity to check on another's father exhibits a remarkable change in the Dark Knight's former characterization and excellent comprehension on Johns' part.  If there's one thing Batman can empathize with its the relationship between father and son.  Johns will replicate this more richly characterized Batman when Mera rescues Commissioner Gordon in Aquaman.

Another clever use of identity occurs during the date between Superman and Wonder Woman.  The date itself is rather boring with the whole romance directionless.  However a truly noticeable moment occurs when Superman refers to Batman as "Bruce" in Diana's presence.  That's again a big deal.  I could write a book on the way Batman's secret identity fluctuated in the post-Crisis DCU.  For the new 52, Johns makes no bones about it.  Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman know each other. 

During the interim between Darkseid's invasion and Graves' assault on the League, Batman and Superman admitted to working together.  I imagine this hypothetical World's Finest case load occurred soon after Dark Knight in which Superman had to control a Venomized Batman.  We can also suppose Superman and Batman had off-panel encounters with Wonder Woman.

Johns gained fame in the comic book community for plots that take advantage of, often obscure, comic book history.  He was a sort of Grant Morrison without the application of the Mind Probe.

No! Not the Mind Probe!
Some may argue that "Throne of Atlantis" exemplifies Johns' strength.  However, as far as history goes, the animosity between Ocean Master and Aquaman is widely known to casual comic book readers and perhaps the layperson that watched Justice League from Bruce Timm and Company.  Indeed, the supporting cast that Johns employs in the adventure also reflects pop culture digested by generations: Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, Commissioner Gordon.  No, "Buckeye" Heywood here.

The plot lacks impenetrability and convolution.  This isn't a Blackest Night type of story requiring you to suspend oodles of disbelief.  Rather, it's a tale that combines a classic strategy--pitting one's enemies against each other--with Atlantean floods.  

Some may argue that the artist formerly known as Ocean Master is actually a Machiavellian mastermind out to foment war between the two environments, but I doubt it.

The original Ocean Master, a human, envied his brother Aquaman, and let's face it.  Aquaman did have everything: cool powers, hot wife, a kingdom and believe it or not respect.  The new 52 allowed Johns to clean that slate, and these changes negate Orm's rationale for attacking Aquaman and the surface world.  

Orm is the rightful and exalted king of Atlantis.  Orm as far as we know hasn't instituted any totalitarian edicts on Atlantis, and he genuinely appears to want to protect Atlantis.  Aquaman tried to be King, but the prejudicial Atlanteans wouldn't rally behind him.  He stepped down.  So, what does Orm gain by attacking the surface world?  Nothing at all.

Johns is joined on "Throne of Atlantis" by his usual Aquaman team of Ivan Reis, Joe Prado and colorist Rod Reis.  The illustrators take great joy in presenting an energetic Justice League.  Batman is in excellent form, in terms of physique and mystique.  In one instance, the Scarecrow's men threaten their hostages, and Batman, looking literally like a bat out of hell, shields them.  Superman and Wonder Woman perform some awesome feats of strength and stamina, but even these moments are outstripped by the beauteous Mera, especially gorgeous with Rod Reis' shade and awe, and displays of her astonishing powers.

Johns benefits also from artist Paul Pelletier on Aquaman.  I've been a Paul Pelletier fan ever since The Flash.  Ironically, Johns and Pelletier known for their Speedsters do not actually include one in "Throne of Atlantis." How good is Pelletier?  Let me put it to you this way.  Superboy and the Ravers was completely unnecessary and would have died quicker without Pelletier's precise pencils.  

Recently, Pelletier wowed me on The Fearless with his depictions of the Valkyrie.

A superb draftsman, Pelletier keenly captures the Justice League.  He brings his superb sense of narrative to the tale, increasing the human drama not just the action.  Furthermore, though Pelletier opts for a plainer style, his artwork gels with the more ornate technique of Ivan Reis.  These first two chapters of "Throne of Atlantis" earn my highest recommendation.

I wish I could say the same about The Shadow Special.  Scott Beatty comes up with a story suitable for the Shadow pulps, maybe even for those of the Spider.   Ronan Cliquet, who impressed me on several Marvel Adventures titles is at his most expressive with the man in black.

Technically, the Shadow is good and solid, that is if you know nothing about the Shadow.  I'm afraid that I know "what lurks in the heart" of Walter B. Gibson's character, and it's not this.

Gibson did not create the Shadow.  The Shadow began on radio as a narrator, graduating to bona fide protagonist with the "ability to cloud men's minds."  A wide chasm separates the radio Shadow and the written Shadow.  On the radio, the Shadow was invisible.  In prose, the Shadow was an arch-magician just like Gibson.

Gibson, like most magicians, found the idea of the occult ridiculous.  He instead made the Shadow a master of hypnotism; a spymaster with a network of agents; a maestro of smoke and light that only appeared to vanish in thin air and reappear with two signature .45 caliber automatics.  Gibson's Shadow is one of the most fascinating characters in literature, but unlike the Dynamite version, he never was supernatural.  

The Shadow's powers irk me something fierce, and in some cases, they're really unnecessary.  The Shadow could have had one of his agents--Clyde Burke for example--pull all the information on this poor girl rather than peer into her soul and judge her so harshly, or is he really presuming all of this based upon his "recognizing the darkness" in his former friend?  

The Shadow depicted above strikes me as exceptionally chauvinistic, unlike the stars of a similar scenario from Men in Black.  Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith as Agents K and J use the Neurolyzer on Edgar's very clearly mentally abused wife Beatrice:

J: "That weak-ass story's the best you can come up with?"

K: "On a more personal note Beatrice, Edgar ran off with an old girlfriend. You're going to go stay with your mom a couple nights. You're gonna get over it and decide you're better off."

J: "In fact, you know what? You kicked him out! Now that he's gone you're going to go into town.  You go to Bloomingdales and find some nice dresses.  Get yourself some shoes, you know…maybe you can get a facial. And, uh...Oh, hire a decorator to come in here quick cause...damn!"

I can't cry foul over Margo Lane as much as I can the Shadow because Margo Lane was only used in Gibson's Shadow stories under duress.  She was no Myra Reldon, the Shadow's only female agent until Margo Lane.

Margo was more damsel in distress than competent operative.  Most readers that remember Margo Lane recall the Denny O'Neil character from DC comics The Shadow.  O'Neil took liberties to make Lane more like Myra Reldon.  

He used Margo in the comic books simply because her name was more recognizable than Myra's.  Radio was the television of its day.  Margo Lane replicated as memes do.  She is now a staple in the Shadow myths, despite Gibson wanting really nothing to do with her.

What I can say without question is that the idea of the Shadow's operatives being afraid of their spook in chief is completely wrong. 

The Shadow's agents are in on the joke.  Sure, the Shadow amazes them, and few know who the Shadow really is, the full extent of his trickery or even why he decided to destroy crime, but they are not afraid of him.  They know that The Shadow is flesh and blood and in spirit a good man.

The Shadow's laugh chills criminals to the bone.  It beckons their demise.  For a Shadow operative, the Shadow's icy laughter heralds liberation.  The Shadow explained to his agents that he would risk their lives to pursue his goals, but not callously.  If an operative finds himself pinned down by gunfire and he hears the Shadow's laugh, then he knows the scales are about to be tipped.

Margo's reaction in The Shadow Special is absurd, as is the whole sequence.  The Shadow might be a strange bird, but I don't think he sleeps in his clothing.  Who the hell does that?  The entire chain of events is a gratuitous stupidity.

Last but not least, Django Unchained is worthy of the name Django.  Quentin Tarantino's film is an awesome, violent three hours that feels like a half-hour.  The performances all around are exquisite.  The actors just bury themselves in their characters.  I don't believe I've ever seen Jamie Foxx so expressively taciturn, and Christoph Walz who produced a hideous Nazi for Inglorious Basterds here portrays a good German protagonist with grand ease.  Leonardo DiCaprio is exceptionally evil, and it's a nice little full circle turn for him.  In one of his earliest roles in the needlessly maligned Quick and the Dead, DiCaprio co-starred as a good cowboy.

As the slave Django becomes the hero Django, Tarantino captures the period.  Perhaps some of Tarantino's ideas are apocryphal or exaggerated in movie homages, but his crystallization of the antebellum South is an alien world presented on screen for all to study.  This is a weird circle where not all blacks meet the stereotype image of the slave.  Some through education or beauty become for all intent and purpose part of the slave-owning cycle.  These slaves earn the hatred of their fellows.

The only blacks that are free are those possessing the papers stating such.  On the opposite end of the scale, if you're a slave, you can be beaten for cracking eggs.  Yeah.  This is a far cry from the gentle, positive depiction of slavery in Gone With the WindDjango pulls no punches when mirroring the evil in slavery. Rape, murder, casual contempt.  It's all here and belongs here.

While slavery is always the underlying motif in Django, the film entertains in other ways.  It is frequently hilarious, turning dead serious, as if a switch were flicked.  These changes in mood always feel evolved rather than jarring.  The story centers around bounty killing, and our men encounter some classic figures from the western genre, embodied by choice guest stars that nobody saw coming.  Django also rises above solely being the shattering of chains or even revenge.  The narrative relates the title character's search for his lost love, just like the original song's lyrics imply, and that's I think even more powerful a hook.


  1. Can there finally be a Justice League story worth jumping on for? I haven't bought an issue since the first, but Pelletier + Mera is a strong hook for me!

  2. This one looks pretty good. Could go screwy, but two chapters in a row is a good start.