Monday, January 28, 2013

Pick of the Brown Bag
January 23, 2013


Ray Tate

It's another bonanza of reviews from the Pick of the Brown Bag.  This week we check out two new Dark Horse titles: The Answer and The Black Beetle.  We'll also be sussing out old favorites like Bionic Woman, Birds of Prey, Justice League, Nightwing, Prophecy, Supergirl, Sword and Sorcery with Amethyst, Wonder Woman and Young Justice.

In Justice League, Ocean Master's forces rise from the water in number and exemplify the difference in the new 52 status quo.  This kind of loyal army would have never been at the human Ocean Master's disposal.  At best, he could have mustered a gang of scuba diving mercenaries, but he usually attacked as a lone sea wolf.  In the new 52 however the Atlanteans find Aquaman lacking, specifically the human half.

The Atlanteans have a point.  Not about hybrid heroes, but regarding Aquaman's skills as a leader.  The surface world did not launch the missiles at Atlantis.  They did however come from the surface, and Ocean Master responds logically to what appears to be an unprovoked assault.  This is not a pre-emptive strike.  

Aquaman's belief that he can broker a peace is sadly misguided.  Ocean Master may listen to reason but only once captured.  By fighting against the League, Arthur splits the team and mitigates their ability to work together as a fighting unit.

Writer Geoff Johns gives each League member a chance to shine, and the art team of Ivan Reis, Joe Prado and Rod Reis grant visual validity to all.  Batman instigates a classic, sneaky move.  Wonder Woman attacks hordes of Atlantean warriors, and Superman lives up to his name with a feat echoing one that impressed me on Smallville.  Even Cyborg gains a little bit more respect; although he still mainly functions as a Boom Tube escort.  Johns also cannot resist the urge to include a revamp.  With the cameo, he reverses another long-standing death of a female character.  Good for him.

Wonder Woman's team up with Orion continues to be an enjoyable experience.  The new 52 Orion is yet again a different animal than the post-Crisis and pre-Crisis version.  This Orion goes to earth in order to relax, not to brood.

Milan a god from an undisclosed pantheon that sees all calls the battle between Diana and Orion a draw.  Wonder Woman is only too happy to sheath her swords, which magically arise from her bracelets thanks to Hephaestus.

We discover the identity of Hermes' aide-de-baby snatch, but the mystery man in the arctic wastelands remains so even though bets are in favor of his being Heracles.

All of these goings-on in a meaty issue of Wonder Woman get grand treatment by Cliff Chiang and colorist Matthew Wilson.  The creative team furthermore inject a certain sprightliness to the reappearance of Hera's family tree.  In fact, the personae, the body language and the timing bring to mind Uncle Arthur's and Serena's welcome manifestations in Bewitched.

Nightwing and Supergirl I'm sorry to say are completely disposable.  Of the two books, only Nightwing advances the crossover story but not in an unexpected way.  Basically, the Joker just waylays Dick and ushers him to the Batman Family banquet in preparation for the next issue of Batman.  

It's clear from the dialogue that the Joker does not know Dick's secret identity.  He has only guessed that Nightwing was a former circus performer.  Given the vast number that have come and gone at Haley's, including by the way Boston Brand, there is no way he could have determined Nightwing is in fact Dick Grayson.  Plus, the Joker's nuts.  Rationality in his thoughts is fleeting on a bad day.  

Thanks to Eddy Barrows the issue of Nightwing is a gorgeous place holder.  Barrows seems naturally drawn to Dick's acrobatic routine.  Barrows'  sense of realism, enhanced by Eber Ferreira's tactile inking and Rod Reis' spectral shades, imbues an eerier quality to the nightmarish Joker scheme.

Supergirl on the other hand takes the plot to "H'el on Earth" nowhere.  The Flash breaches the Fortress and battles the Girl of Steel.  The narration is the only element of interest, besides of course Mahmud Asrar's splendid artwork.  

Supergirl is amazed at the Flash's speed and thinks he may be faster than Superman, thus adding to the much debated historical comic book conundrum.  In my opinion the Flash is the Fastest Man Alive.

The battle carries over to Superman's alien zoo, and that allows Asrar to create Wayne Barlow inspired creatures of all sorts.  We also meet an old friend before H'el shows up to vanquish the Flash and begin his plans for earth's annihilation and a misguided time travel mission.  Which is exactly where we started from.

Trained from childhood to follow the Court of Owls' lethal commands, The Talons are nigh unstoppable immortal assassins.  The Court sent a Talon to deal with each member of the Batman Family.  Gail Simone created the only sympathetic Talon amongst the psychotics.

Batgirl defeated the Talon sent to kill her.  That same Talon later saved her life, indicating an individualism that could not be extinguished by the Court's brainwashing techniques.  After these events, Batgirl's Talon became targeted for assassination.  

Though this Talon happens to be mute, the Court intended to silence her before she divulged their secrets to authorities.  Batgirl and Catwoman intervened.  Conflict arose in what to do with the Talon.  Catwoman refused to let her go back to jail.  Concerned over the Talon's safety, Batgirl agreed and decided to find a place for her in the Birds of Prey.

Writer Duane Swierzynski cleverly dubs the Talon Strix, which is the genus for owls.  Strix immediately acts as a contentious presence. 

Black Canary and Starling, who with Batgirl form the core of the team, seriously doubt Batgirl's sanity and jump to the conclusion that she might be mind-controlled.  This is an example of Swierzynski immersing himself in the lore of comic books.  Although the new 52 has featured thankfully little mind-control, it's a staple trope in comics, and a consideration for heroes when any one of them acts strangely.  Compare this to nobody figuring out that Spidey isn't in his right mind.

In terms of pure characterization, Black Canary exhibits a different concern.  In the post-Crisis, Barbara Gordon formed the Birds of Prey to be her legs.  In the new 52, the Black Canary established the team, in a bid to overthrow the Penguin and defeat Basilisk, a surreptitious arms dealer that's been skulking around this new universe throughout the Batman Family titles.  Black Canary reacts as a normal person might.  Flinching at the idea of Batgirl challenging her leadership.  That's an example of Swierzynski's pure characterization, free from the filter of comic books.  This kind of reaction could of occurred in any work.

Before anybody can act, Swierzynski throws a Condor in the works.  Now this is where Swierzynski exhibits a real understanding of each character.  Rather than immediately throw in with him and attack Strix.  Each character behaves according to her personality.  That generates immense fun and unexpected treats that allow artist Romano Molenaar to demonstrate his illustrative acrobatics, perfect sense of timing and deadpan delivery of comedy.  Later in the book, Molenaar will display an impressive rendering raw power to the panels.

Birds of Prey could have been just another change of the guard.  You know the type.  The roster adds and subtracts players, and there's some generic threat that lets them test their worth for the team.  Swierzysnki through evolves characteristic comedy through dialogue and excitement via personality clashes Molenaar, backed by Vincente Cifuentes' inking expertise and Chris Sotomayor's rich night colors turns the Birds of Prey into a vision of action-packed loveliness.

Batgirl fans definitely need to pick up Young Justice.  Trapped under Brainiac's force dome, Batgirl must face a Superboy bizarro clone, known as Match.

The Dynamic Daredoll smartly defeats her foe with tumbling, a plausible stock from her utility belt and sleight of cape.  It's an awesome Batgirl moment in an otherwise long, drawn out Brainiac story.

Reading Paul Tobin's Bionic Woman makes me hate Keith Champagne's Bionic Man vs. Bionic Woman even more.  Mr. Tobin gets everything right that Champagne got horribly, irrevocably wrong.

Jaime isn't disguised as a stripper.  In fact, she's not disguised at all.  In a smart suit, she visits her friend Nora, who was thrown off a roof in the penultimate chapter of the first recommended storyarc.  Both Nora and Jaime sparkle with personality, but Tobin clearly sets them up as opposites.  Whereas Nora is aggressive, impetuous and searching for a laugh, Jaime is restrained, rational and leaning toward dry wit.

Jaime meets Steve Austin, and Steve actually seems like a person rather than a block of wood.  Their non-date goes well, and the panels by Juan Antonio Ramirez neatly fold a span of time highlighted by a gamut of expression from both bionic humans. 

Tobin had already planted the seeds for the gist of his tale on the first page, but he does something beyond merely presenting this classic adversary of the Bionic Woman.  In addition to the surprises from Jaime's nemesis, Tobin ties-in a mercenary squad just aching to be on the receiving end of Jaime's power.  This lets Ramirez strut his bionic action chops, and he doesn't leave the reader wanting.

In Ron Marz's Prophecy Red Sonja deals with Dracula's kiss as Kulan Gath brings the world down to its figurative knees.  Not much to say about this book.

Yeah, that about sums it up.  The bizarre team-up of licensed properties hasn't disappointed from issue one on.  The conclusion to this book would have to seriously fizzle in order to leave a bad taste in my mouth, and I don't think that's going to happen.  Especially with this penultimate issue's awesome cliffhanger.

Christy Marx creates a remarkable stand-alone story in Sword and SorceryWhen last we left Amethyst, she was fighting alongside of Justice League Dark.  This issue the defacto leader of the team John Constantine, uses the House of Mystery to transport Amethyst to Chicago.  The reason is delightfully normal, fitting a teenager of Amethyst's age.

Constantine by telling her the facts pulls off a smooth con that allows him to keep the gem that opens a portal to Nilla, Gemworld ala Themyscria, and puts her in his debt.  To be fair, Constantine acts much more like a hero these days.  He's a Leaguer for crying out loud.

While Amethyst indulges her earth favorite, a crazy Republican sorceress decides to snatch the princess in order to steal her power.  Oh, you may argue that the sorceress bears no party affiliation, but I beg to differer.  Rich layabout believes she's entitled to steal somebody's power and freedom while demonstrating poor research skills screams Republican to me.  

In any case, bitch witch gives subbing artist Travis Moore the opportunity to display a feel for the star, dynamism, supernatural tomfoolery and a little comedy on the way.

The Black Beetle is obviously derivative of the pulps.  Francesco Francavilla's champion is not as unique as the Shadow or the Spider, nor the Green Hornet.  The writer/artist basically checks off a list of pulp necessities for a hero to possess but doesn't do anything original with these traditions.  Of course, I'm not sure that Francavilla really wanted to do anything more than send a love letter to all of those mysterious, masked heroes of yore.

The Beetle is visually striking.  Francavilla's stunning illustration recalls such greats as Toth, Jordi Bernet and Kubert.  For once Francavilla's predilection toward oranges and reds works in his favor.  This all results in The Black Beetle being Francavilla's narrative sketchbook.  That's not a bad thing to add to your collection. 

Mike Norton's Answer reads more like a question.  How much love do Dennis Hopeless and Mike Norton have for Robocop?

The Answer uses a pump action shotgun to shoot a perp's ghoulies through the skirt of a hostage.  Just like Robocop.  Robocop however uses a futuristic gun with precision ammo and a tracking system that allows him to pinpoint the woman's flesh to hit the man behind her.  I'm pretty certain that even an expert marksman would have difficulty performing the same feat with ordinary ammo and no tracking system.

The Answer karate chops one of the hoods.  His dropped lighter sets the gas station/convenience store on fire, and it promptly blows up.  Just like in Robocop.  There the thug drops a cigarette in the spilled gasoline on purpose to destroy Robocop.  He just ends up looking silly when Murphy hands him his ass.

Most people will say Devin, the librarian protagonist/catalyst, is a copy of Barbara Gordon, but actually Devin is the best part about The Answer, and she doesn't reflect Barbara Gordon at all personality wise.  Rather this obsessive puzzle solver is an original creation with an authentic voice.  She was possibly inspired by Barbara Gordon, who was the role model for librarians everywhere.  Behind the mousy exterior beat the heart of Batgirl.

Devin is no Batgirl, and her weakness for enigmas lands her into trouble and an encounter with the Answer, who isn't a horrible creation but like Francavilla's Black Beetle more visually powerful than deep.  He's an archetype of the urban vigilante, but I've seen far worse, and Norton's artwork is quite appealing.  He also carries the illustrated narrative well.  Good for anybody with disposable cash, or wait for the trade.

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