Monday, January 7, 2013

Pick of the Brown Bag
January 2, 2013


Ray Tate

Welcome to the birth of a new year for the Pick of the Brown Bag.   This week it's All-Star Western, Batman Beyond Unlimited, Batman: Dark Knight, The Flash, Hellboy, Justice League Dark, Superman, The Teen Titans and Vampirella Strikes.

"I'm really going to miss these little chats we had together. You're the only one that could keep up with me."--Lex Luthor to Superman in Superman IV

The Superman/Lex Luthor dynamic was a different animal in the Bronze Age.  The writers in that era emphasized that Superman was an alien with a highly advanced alien intellect.  Lex Luthor was a larcenous scientist not a business magnate.  When Superman entered movie history, the more or less original attributes left an indelible mark on pop culture.

Writer Scott Lobdell characterizes Lex as more Gene Hackman than Michael Rosenbaum or Clancy Brown.  Humor laces the genius, arrogance and threat.  It's a fitting counterbalance.
Superman is back to being an alien intelligence, rather than a defacto human small-town boy.  Both incarnations of the Man of the Steel I should emphasize had their plusses and minuses, but I'll always choose brain over brawn.

Superman visits Luthor to confirm the horrors that he deduced H'el will unleash upon the world and indeed the entire solar system.  The kind of mad science Superman concludes refers to the idea of two-way time travel being nigh impossible in the new 52.  The germ grew in the final issue of Flashpoint.  Writer Geoff Johns suggested that the time/space continuum of the previous universe was weak, and that weakness resulted in permeability followed by instability.  

The new 52 has a spine, and Lobdell employs the strength to good effect.  The plausible science fiction explains Superman's reacquaintance with Luthor and it allows for engaging repartee between the stars of the book.  Lobdell in fact scripts one of the best conversations the antagonists ever had.

In the past, Luthor and Superman talked at, not with, each other. In this universe, Luthor and Superman share a mutual respect that allows them to parlay.  Kenneth Rocafort and Sunny Gho enhance the dialogue.  The artists relish the opportunity to better focus on the faces of individuals rather than the action, which is confined to jail defense set-pieces that operate and fail as quickly as sands flow in an hourglass.

Superboy guest stars in Superman.  He's partly the subject of Superman's and Luthor's conversation, and Superboy fans I suspect will be very interested.  These are not empty words.  In addition, the Justice League arrive at the finale, unannounced and unadvertised.  They amount to only a cameo, but it's a cameo illustrated by Rocafort and Gho.  So, that's certainly honey for the trap.

It always pays to flip through a book you don't normally read, especially nowadays.  Batgirl guest-stars in Teen Titans. Writers Lobdell and Fabian Nicieza establish Tim Drake's personal relationship with the Dynamic Daredoll.  Tim, alias Red Robin, knows Batgirl's secret identity.  He also observed her enough to predict her behavior.  More importantly, he arrived at the conclusion that he can trust her if entangled in dire situations, such as capture by the Joker.

Batgirl immediately answers the call and finds the Titans directionless.  She quickly assumes command and orchestrates a rescue mission; splitting the group into away teams to check the sites of the Joker's former crimes.  

Batgirl fans will definitely want to add this issue of The Teen Titans to their collections.  Lobdell makes Batgirl a requisite to the story.  Dialogue maestro Nicieza finds a suitable voice for her.  Combined their efforts characterize Batgirl well.  Take notes Brian Cunningham.  Writers other than Gail Simone can at the very least do justice to Batgirl.  You needn't choose somebody that does not care about or isn't professional enough to do their level best for this character.

Artists Brett Booth, Norm Rapmund and colorist Andrew Dalhouse furthermore cut a fine, imposing figure for Batgirl that grants her the visual resonance of an experienced crimefighter, perfect for her role in the Titans, who literally and figuratively look up to her.

"Death of the Family" readers will be pleased to know that this book deserves the mask it wears.  With the cameo of Batgirl and the lion's share devoted to the Joker taunting Tim Drake, Teen Titans feels like a component, rather than an extra leftover piece, of the major storyarc running through the Batman Family titles.  

If anybody gets short sheeted it's Teen Titan fans.  I still haven't too much of a clue as to who the Titans are, what their history may be and how they impact on Red Robin's life.  Blockade exhibits the most personality, and he's the one that doesn't have any previous involvement with the Titans books of yore.  Wonder Girl comes off as the strong one, wanting to face the music about whether or not Red Robin is dead.  I can say she's vastly different from the Byrne creation, but that's about it.  Kid Flash appears to be a toned down version of Impulse, but not too toned down.

There's not much depth to these Titans in this issue.  They come off as likable though, and that's certainly an improvement over the Teen Titans that were cobbled together from the superior Young Justice and generica during the post-Crisis.  Even the new characters express more spark than the former roster, and overall the attitude benefits from a sense of optimism.

Batman Dark Knight puts the finishing touches on Gregg Hurwitz's new 52 redo of the Scarecrow.  This chapter should have been an epilogue because Batman seemed to pretty much do everything needed in the penultimate issue: escaped the clutches of the Scarecrow, facilitated the rescue of his captive, blew up his headquarters and wounded the crap out of Jonathan Crane.  What more needed to be done?

As it turns out the Scarecrow had one more trick up his straw-filled sleeve.  He started gassing Gotham with his deadlier, more potent fear gas.  This should seem like either an afterthought or a kickoff to a new story, but Hurwitz surprises the reader by ending the tale through a clever, unexpected and rousing means that demonstrates just how much Batman is willing to give in order to save Gotham City.

Along the way, Hurwitz imbues Damien Wayne with far more depth than I thought possible.  Whenever I accidentally read about this character, he came off like a little sphincter.  For the first time, he really does seem like Bruce's son.  Part of that feeling is owed to David Finch's remarkable artwork.

Finch doesn't just make Batman look mean, powerful and resonant.  He dramatizes the entirety and bestows to the cast renditions of subtle and not so subtle emotion.  It's difficult not to be affected by Damien's haunted expressions and Batman's somber funeral march.

The new, satisfying vision touches all the characters including the new ones.  Batman must have taken something away with his latest brush with death, for he enjoys some down time by attending the concert of one of the most multifaceted of his love interests.

Natalya Trusevich could very well be the next Silver St. Cloud, and kudos to Finch for elegantly meeting the challenge of depicting song and music in art.

While Batman Beyond Unlimited's Norm Breyfogle makes the battle between Terry and the Joker King action-packed, the whole exercise feels tiresome, as if this battle should have ended last issue.  That may be because the Joker King just really doesn't cut it as a villain, and he certainly doesn't warrant an homage to Get Carter's finale.

To quote Crow T. Robot from Mystery Science Theater 3000: "No matter how much the movie insists that there's tension, I must respectfully disagree with it."

Bruce Wayne has his umpteenth heart attack while fighting the Joker King, and that's dangerously encroaching into Aunt May territory.  It would have been much more invigorating to see Bruce clean this punk's clock.  I know he was suffering from liver failure.  I know it's not realistic, but it would have been entertaining, and that's all I ask.  The very idea that a lesser Joker can get the better of Batman is preposterous.

The once and future Superman offers a better quality story.  Aliens believing the Man of Steel to be the annihilator of worlds attack our confused hero, in vain.  I suspect much was lost in the translation of the alien bedtime stories that made Superman into a bogeyman, but for whatever reason, the alien's plan B is a corker.

This issue of All-Star Western is rather ordinary, but it's ordinary for All-Star Western not really anything else.  Jonah Hex faces off against Mr. Hyde in the main course, and Arkham embarrasses himself when under the influence of Dr. Jeckyll's formula, but Hex lacks a foil since Tullulah Black left Gotham City with the Barbarby Ghost, and he has been in much more outrageous and violent scrapes.

The backup story is actually the star attraction.  Tomahawk and General Lancaster go at it in a knock-down, drag-out fight that wouldn't be out of place in a grindhouse.

The Flash, though saved by the time-hopping ape Solivar, still suffered a critical wound and keeps him out of the action.  So, this issue consists of the Rogues saving much of Central City while Patty, Barry's paramour, learns of his secret identity.  The art by Batwing's Marcus To is decent, if rushed, but everything changes as the Flash wakes up and Francis Manapul takes over.

That is an exciting, symbolic use of two different artists.

Hellboy gets well weird when Mike Mignola reveals how the demons of Hades make Hellboy's army.  

This is the kind of imagery that loses everything in description.  It's all tied up into one great big ball of eeriness that depends upon Mignola's unique outlook on horror.  I don't even think this kind of torture has any precedent, yet it's such a ghastly idea and one that doesn't rely on the expected.

Tom Sniegowski returns to Vampirella in Dynamite's second title Vampirella Strikes.  It's really no surprise how good this reads.  Sniegowski turns Vee into a quasi private investigator that walks the mean, gory streets while quoting Nietsche.

Artist Johnny Desjardins casts Vampirella's world in sharp shadow while detailing the lovely monster slayer's traditional appearance though not in the European styled swimsuit that while striking unfortunately too often resulted in Vampirella being misclassified as a mere T & A.

Tom Sniegowski's tale becomes less interesting when he shifts the focus away from Vee, including her sterling narration, to a new character of his own creation, but Sniegowski and Desjardins make Vampirella Strikes a worthy addition to your collection.  I say that even with a predilection for the original alien origin, which Sniegowski eschews for a more Biblical myth.

Finally, Jeff Lemire with Ray Fawkes keeps Frankenstein in excellent voice and makes Justice League Dark a cast effort.  Tim Hunter and Zatanna unknowingly teleported to a realm where magic gets a Vitamin B-12 shot.  Meanwhile, Constantine and Dr. John Peril find a clever means to bring the team to this world.  The uptick in supernatural energy affects some of the roster in unusual ways, making this a must buy for Black Orchid and Deadman fans.

Ultimately, a setup issue that could have been relegated to the phrase "Wait for the trade."  Justice League Dark benefits from Michael Janin's and Jeromy Cox's superb illustration of Zatanna's absolute joy at discovering that her magic is finally up to snuff.

Overall, a good week for comic books.  That's it for now.  Join us again next time for another foray into the comic book racks, and if you haven't downloaded the Doctor Who Christmas Special, you really need to.  It frames the rest of the season, produces several new, running surprises and reintroduces an old foe for a new audience while not just preserving the past but setting it up in one of those time twists Doctor Who is famous for.

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