Monday, February 25, 2013

Pick of the Brown Bag
February 20, 2013


Ray Tate

This week The Pick of the Brown Bag looks at Sword and Sorcery with Amethyst, Batman Beyond, Bionic Woman, Birds of Prey, Catwoman, Justice League, Justice League of America, Nightwing, Red Hood and the Outlaws and Supergirl.

I neglected to comment on DC's ongoing feature Channel 52, which debuted a couple of weeks ago.

This hilarious yet informative one-stop summary of events in the new 52 recasts DC personalities as newscasters.   Anchorwoman Bethany Snow is the only character that actually has newscasting experience.  Mind you, she turned out to be part of Brother Blood's cult in the pre-Crisis New Teen Titans.

Ambush Bug, who needs no explanation, tackles fringe topics.  The inspired choice of the Calendar Man re-emerges as a nattily dressed lifestyles reporter.  Still, nuts though, just in a different kind of way.

My favorite choice for reporter though is Vartox.  The preservation of Sean Connery in Zardoz recently reappeared in the first-rate Power Girl from Jimmy Palmiotti, Justin Gray and Amanda Conner.  His forte? Sports and Space.  

Jock and Geek all in one, but there's a bit of insight here.  In the DC universe, observing items outside our little planet is a given.  DC must have a daily science section in their news broadcasts and newspapers, which would be wonderful in reality.  

The conclusion to "The Throne of Atlantis" in Justice League rocks.  It's a massive team-up with an almost Shakespearean level of drama deftly illustrated by Ivan Reis and Paul Pelletier.

If a year ago you were to tell me that Geoff Johns was capable of writing such a rich, yet relatively brief chapterplay, I would have taken you to a bridge I was going to sell to you,  rethought my strategy and thrown you off it.  

Last issue, Johns revealed the identity of the Big Bad, and this came as a supreme shock. Vulko's reasoning for his Machiavellian schemes pays off in terrific scenes.  Vulko's plots in fact are so horrific that we bear a kind of sympathy for the devil in Orm, the artist formerly known as Ocean Master, a label the media slaps onto him at the conclusion of the story.

Johns bestowed remarkable depth to Orm.  He's a complex figure.  A warrior to his people that lacks any love for the surface world, allowing him to unleash a torrent of terror.  While you cannot condone his methods, you can still understand where his rationale lies.

Atlantis was attacked.  Orm meant only to protect Atlantis.  That we cannot fault him for.  Though, he should have investigated before arriving to a knee jerk conclusion that the surface world was the culprit.  

Nothing ends tidily in this story save for the reunification of the Justice League, but even that group is affected by the battle between brothers catalyzed by the utterly insane Vulko.

Dr. Shin gets what he wished, and he's sorry for it.  Mera suffers a terrible blow, but the League just may have a place for her in its ranks.  Auxiliary Leaguers such as Firestorm and Vixen get a chance to strut their stuff, but in a way they never wanted.  Pity also the Atlantean guard and their losses to the Piranha Men of the Trench.

In addition to crafting a superbly orchestrated conclusion filled with multifaceted takes on the characters we know and love, Johns whets the appetite with previously unknown continuity and foreshadowing.  Orm refers to Mera as a convict.  She indicates that the Atlanteans did something terrible to her ancestors; a history only only vaguely hinted at in Aquaman.  Hawkman acts bloody nuts.  The new Atom makes her appearance, and Zatanna fights alongside the Leaguers, thus preparing her place, as seen in the premiere issue of Justice League Dark.  

The League also guest star in this week's Supergirl.  If you haven't been paying attention, an alleged Kryptonian arrived on earth.  He claimed that he was an explorer from Krypton and that he met Superman's parents Jor-El and Lara.  He was so touched by these two that he chose the name H'el to honor their House.  So far, so good.  Except, He'l is not what he seems and he's bent on resurrecting Krypton, whatever the cost.

Due to the strength of the new 52 universe, time travel is nigh impossible, and when it can occur, it's a one way trip demanding great sacrifice.  H'el intends to make a time machine by using the earth's sun for its fuel.  This will leave the earth frozen and lifeless. 

A lot of people are going to say that the draw to this issue of Supergirl is the fight.  There has always been a side bet to the who's faster Flash or Superman question.  Who is stronger? Supergirl or Wonder Woman?  The question's still not answered.  

Writers Mike Johnson answers who is the better warrior and that is hands down Wonder Woman.  The new 52 Supergirl though is definitely more powerful.  In other words, the fight's not a given victory.

In my opinion the duel's really not as important as Supergirl's horrified realization expressed so eloquently by artists Mahmud Asrar and colorist Dave McCaig.  These painful visions signify Kara's vulnerability, her loneliness and her guilt over being used to usher the earth's end.  

These feelings are compounded by the simple fact that Supergirl doesn't really like the earth or most of its backward people.  Whatever her opinions, she never wanted to kill the earth and being a catspaw in the maniac's madness hurts.  Thanks to Asrar and McCaig, it shows.

The premise to Justice League's sister book is rock solid.  The United Nations formed Justice League International ostensibly as a backup for the League, to be an earth-based group to complement the League if for example the team happens to be offworld.  The U.N. sponsorship was less about control and more about global security.

Justice League of America is a product of paranoia and the potential for the Justice League to undermine the United States government's pretense of efficacy.  The government's ultimate goal is to dismantle the League, consequences be damned.  Sound familiar?

Naturally, the government gets their yes-woman Amanda Waller to head the Justice League of America recruitment party.  She chooses heroes that she believes will counter the League's roster.  This of course is short-sighted, and the belief that all these crimefighters will obey without question is a clear flaw in the plan.  

Steve Trevor is the other fly in the ointment.  Waller attempts to exploit sore feelings between he and Wonder Woman, but this  proves futile.  Steve unconditionally loves Wonder Woman and wishes her happiness with whomever she chooses.  

The new 52 version of Steve is a winning interpretation free of the chauvinism from the Silver Age and the drippiness in other glimmers of Trevor.  Steve's in on this to turn the Justice League of America into a force for good, in spite of politics.  He also favors an ally with whom he shares a surprisingly long history, in this relatively new cosmos.

It's interesting that DC and in the fictional context, the government, tries to play up the budding romance of Superman and Wonder Woman as something big and threatening, when readership and the people think it's not.  A sort of Cupid's Benghazi.

The roster to the League of America is well known to anybody that's popped into a comic book shop just for a moment.  The changes to personality and purpose however may surprise.  Hawkman, in synch with his "Throne of Atlantis" cameos, for example appears to have gone mad.  

Vibe is still Vibe, but he gains extra powers.  Stargirl lives up to her name.  She's an idol to little girls, tweens and teens.  That's definitely what she should be, but her life isn't glamorous.  In fact, she appears to be stalked by a spirit with a familiar name.  I wish there were an emoticon for shoulder shrugging. 

This is not to say that any of these twists are bad.  It's way too early to determine such a thing.  Although, some of the rationales seem a little contrived, overtly planted just to give each member of the team a reason to join Waller's Expendables.  

Waller also pops in during a telephone conversation with Starling during a disaster of their own making in Birds of Prey.  Regular readers know that Starling turned out to be deep undercover in Penguin's nest when she met Black Canary and Batgirl.  She continues to spy on the Canary for Waller.  The reasons resonate all the way back to Dinah and Waller serving on Team 7, and Waller has for some reason bottled Larry Lance in a hidden lab somewhere.

The thoughts of Larry elevate Dinah's Canary Cry to devastating effect.  Writer Duane Swierczynski employs the catastrophe as focal point for numerous characterization-fueled plot points.  Batgirl immediately takes over the team.  Strix, the reforming Talon from the Court of Owls, sees the Canary as a threat and attacks.  Starling places herself more under Waller's oversight by having administration call-off a quickly dispatched Black Ops strike force designated to protect public utilities from terrorist attack.  New hero Condor proves to be a strong team player, and the evil Basilisk group launches a vicious Doctor Who styled attack on the team.  The frothy issue of action-and-intrigue packed drama is lovingly illustrated by Romano Molenaar, Vincente Cifuentes and Chris Sotomayor.

Ann Nocenti's Catwoman actually makes sense.  Finally we get a genuine heist unrelated to a crossover, and this issue seems more exemplary of the level where Catwoman will typically lie.  Not bad.

Nocenti strengthens the bond between Catwoman and her partner in crime Gwen. The narration gives readers an idea of what Catwoman's about.  The opening gambit in which Catwoman whips a group of drug dealers into submission exhibits her dicey morality.  The dialogue is much easier to understand and delivers a more appealing rhythm.  

While doing all this, Nocenti still maintains ties with the Batman titles.  Catwoman doesn't operate in a vacuum.  Nocenti discusses the new power player in the city Emperor Penguin, filling the void temporarily left by the Penguin.  She also mentions Batman's and Catwoman's on-again-off-again relationship.  Much improved.

Regular readers of the POBB will likely be surprised to see Red Hood and the Outlaws amidst the yield of comics books this week.  The inclusion can be simply explained.  The aftermath for "Death of the Family" is a well-written tragic study on Jason Todd and adds more timeline information for the new DC cosmology.

The new 52 gave all characters a new lease on life.  Freed from the decades drag of confusing, convoluted continuity and largely chaperoned by excellent writers, the lion's share of DC's champions benefitted.  Jason Todd was no exception.

Red Hood and the Outlaws received a lot of critical lambasting for Lobdell's portrayal of Starfire.  She apparently likes to sleep with both Jason and Roy Harper, but as I have stated previously.  Had Starfire been a man sleeping with two women, nobody would have batted an eye.  The question is do Roy and Jason deserve sex with Starfire.

Were you to ask me that question three years ago when the post-Crisis still reigned supreme, I would have said that Roy Harper deserved to be dragged through a field of cacti, then bathed in lemon juice.  Jason, well, he deserved to stay in his grave, but this is the new 52, and these characters lack responsibility for what their old incarnations may have done or represented.

Roy is now basically a juvenile slow-thinker.  Big improvement over junkie, and thank goodness he dumped his terrible 90s body armor.  He's back to his reliable Speedy look even if he calls himself something else, and he's a bowman, plain and simple.  The former sidekick to Green Arrow, who is therefore just a little younger than Batman.

Jason's sobriquet as the Red Hood is sheer idiocy, but it's due to a powerful meme associating him with the identity.  Most people think of him as the Red Hood from the post-Crisis.  That said, Jason is written vastly different from the Robin that everybody and his dog voted off the island.  

The Joker murdered his mother under the guise of an overdose and orchestrated his father's incarceration, where Mr. Todd died.  Batman took Jason in when Dick Grayson became Nightwing, and Dick chose that identity earlier than in previous universes.  

As this book establishes, Dick and Starfire were an item, when they were younger.  She and he founded the Teen Titans, presumably along with Roy.  Who the other Titans were remains a mystery since Aqualad, Kid Flash and thankfully Donna Troy no longer exist.  Beast Boy and Bumblebee are possibilities.

The end of Jason Todd was the same, death by crowbar wielded by the Joker.  The means were different.  While Jason was resurrected, Talia performed the feat via Lazarus Pit.  Superboy Prime did not punch time.  

Talia might have done this as a gift for her beloved Batman.  This issue demonstrates Batman still possesses deep feelings for Jason and guilt over perceiving to fail him as a mentor.  He    nevertheless exhibits a willingness to make amends.  The fact that Jason and his friends are welcome at Wayne Manor certainly speaks volumes.

The artwork conveys the emotions of these two men as they attempt to reconcile.  Batman, seen in the dark, unmasked appears very lonely.  Jason in turn exhibits a kind of reluctance to confront the issues, and Batman's acceptance of Jason conveys a growing bond between them.

The closest either will come to a reconciliation makes the Joker's revenge all that more painful.  The cover for once doesn't lie, and seeing Batman rush to Jason's aid displays just how much Jason means to him.  This inrush of emotion from Batman is completely new and stirring.  It grants the finale to the issue far grander potency, beyond what anybody thought Jason Todd was capable of triggering.  Batman from the previous universes never once expressed such love for what was basically a substitute Robin, until he died.  The new 52 presents a Batman that's kinder and more overtly caring about his family.

Nightwing was small potatoes compared to Red Hood and the Outlaws.  Dick Grayson goes all angsty for a night, but Damien Wayne quickly talks him down.  Writer Kyle Higgins does evolve a meaningful scene between Dick and Commissioner Gordon, indicating that the Commish is indeed aware of Nightwing's history as Robin, and he feels more than a little responsible for the lad.

An encounter with Barbara Gordon at the funeral for Raya, whom the Joker humiliated and murdered, doesn't really add anything apart from Batman Family cohesion.  Though, during the meeting Higgins crafts excellent characterization for the Dynamic Daredoll and reinforces the idea that Dick's and Babs' relationship is strictly platonic, unlike a surprisingly risqué Young Justice in which Babs and Dick share quality time in two different periods with increasing levels of torridness.  

According to Channel 52, Dick is heading for Chicago.  In this issue of Nightwing Kyle Higgins clears the way, wiping out most everything Dick tried to build.  I wonder if Higgins planned to move Dick to another city or simply saw the new start as more logical given the Joker's attacks.  It looked like Higgins really intended to keep Nightwing as a Gotham hero.  Higgins had Dick invest in a controversial love interest--Sonia Zucco--and put down roots.  Haley's Circus was to become a permanent fixture for Gotham.  Of course, Higgins could have intended to show how "the best laid schemes O' mice and men gang aft agley."

Dick Grayson guest stars in this week's Batman Beyond, but he can't alleviate the boredom.  The first story institutes the Batman of the future building a vault for criminal casualties, which is a crap idea, and debuts a gruesome new for for Justice League Unlimited.  The cartoony illustration often takes artistic license too far.

Norm Breyfogle's artwork is perfect as usual but this damn story involving the Jokerz King simply won't stop, and it should have done so three issues ago.  It's ennui appears to be also infecting the Superman tale, which positions Superman in another Christ like pose while various Jiminy Crickets pop in as hallucinations or memories.  Feh.

Family is at the center of a strong issue of Sword and SorceryAmethyst returns from her excursion on earth to Gemworld.  Graciel, Amethyst's mother, reveals the final fate of her father and uncovers a betrayer in the House of Turquoise, to which Amethyst's father belonged.

Christy Marx continues to forge a world where different houses collude and undermine each other for mastery of all or simple survival.  The machinations of Mordiel, Graciel's sister, force Amethyst into action, and it's here that we see her true character as a peace-loving innocent forced to become a warrior, a designation that suits her.

I'll be very to see Sword and Sorcery go.  I'm a tough sell on fantasy, but Christy Marx and Aaron Lopresti charmed me with a strong female character draped in resplendent artwork. 

Last but not least, Paul Tobin's superb Bionic Woman functions on an ass-backwards narrative in which Jamie goes to Russia with Fembot Katy to rescue a previously undisclosed friend.  We don't know why Jamie's involved until the very end, and Tobin uses Jamie's memory loss due to her accident and rebirth as the Bionic Woman against her.  It's very likely the old Jamie would have perceived the deception, but the "new" Jamie can only observe and deduce the ties that bound.  

Jamie's new friend Katy is a hoot.  Tobin creates a plausible robotic personality without traveling down any obvious roots.  The clever repartee between Katy and Jamie eventually evolves Nora, Jamie's best friend, in a hilarious scene that works specifically because she's unseen.  

Nora's still laid up in a hospital back in the States, but that doesn't mean she can't embarrass Jamie by remote control.  The consequences of bringing in Nora derail the conversation into a frank discussion of sexual iconography and a laugh out loud funny moment where Katy at once disabuses a geek of his fantasies and re-instills them at the same time.  This of course separates a fembot from a manbot.

The entirety of the story benefits from an excellent visual narrative by artist Juan Antonio Ramirez who handles the action as well as the reactions and body language from the cast with equal care and strong execution.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Pick of the Brown Bag
February 13, 2013


Ray Tate

This week The Pick of the Brown Bag looks at the finale of "Death of the Family" in Batman, the first issue of Batgirl not written by Gail Simone, the premiere of Jeff Lemire on Green Arrow, Ann Nocenti's new gig Katana, a surprising Superboy and the intriguing flashback Team 7.  We'll also see if Dynamite's Bionic Man vs. Bionic Woman is up to snuff; hint, it isn''t, and check out the latest from Red Sonja.

Team 7 jumps forward to the present where Deathstroke acts much more human than he did in his own series or Batman: Dark Knight.  Expressing depth in a quest for Caitlin Fairchild, Deathstroke ends up confronting the present day Lynch on a ship floating above a future disaster waiting to happen.  Hint, it has nothing to do with Triumph.  Double hint.  Neither the Cruise Ship, nor the Insult Comic Dog.

In the past, Deathstroke recovers from being stabbed during his possession by Eclipso.  It's there that writer Justin Jordan tries to establish Deathstroke as capable of making a friend in Alex Fairchild, Caitlin's father.

Meanwhile, the prodigy daughter finds herself working in a cyborg lab where the Wildcats get a new 52 remake, as does Hank Henshaw.  I know very little about the Wildcats, but Hank Henshaw comes as a surprise.  Jordan presents him as a dedicated scientist not a lunatic Superman hater.  He paves the way for a new Cyborg Superman type character, not necessarily an evil one.  Jordan also dispenses with the ties to space travel that ended up changing Henshaw in practically every continuity.

Next, Jordan humanizes Lynch as he demonstrates rare compassion for Dinah Lance, beautifully illustrated in Pascal Alixe's, Nathan Erying's and Hi-Fi's naturalistic depiction.  I can make an argument that the gents create good girl artwork or aver that Black Canary and Maxine are simply gorgeous women to begin with that look even more stunning under this creative team's tender, love and care.

Other cyborgs don't fare so well this week.  Bionic Man vs. Bionic Woman is woeful, nasty and sloppy.  Oh, and that cover of Jaime Sommers walloping Steve Austin is a complete fabrication.  They don't even thumb-wrestle. 

Oscar Goldman, here presented as a grade A rat, manipulates Jaime into following Steve's footfalls.  Last issue, Goldman assigned Steve to bring down a bionic brute that rips out hearts.  Not a particularly deep story but neither a well-executed exploitation tale.

Writer Keith Champagne fails to get the basic facts correct.  Jaime does not have bionic eyes.  She has a bionic ear. Champagne furthermore uses the bionic ear ineffectively.

"You dinna need a bionic ear if you can see the wee beastie in the corner of your eye, laddie."

One wonders what Jaime's waiting for.  Having spotted the gun and heard the gun, she just sits there and pauses for yonder idiot to finish pulling the trigger.  

Jaime had plenty of time when the flunky first drew the gun to sweep his legs out from under him.  She's supposed to be an OSI operative for pity's sake.  If that was too complicated a move, she could have reached out and simply crushed the weapon.  

From Bionic Woman #2 by Paul Tobin, Leno Carvhalo and Mark Roberts
Didn't really need to go very far did I?

In addition there were much more lethal ways for Jaime to counter the thug, but instead, she's limited by Champagne's lack of imagination.  Fine.  We'll say, Jaime stupidly let herself get shot as part of a cunning plan that backfired.

I'm going to grant an exception that the mole prepared and packed a special load; not merely bullets, which would tear Jaime's artificial skin but bounce off her titanium steel parts.

Jaime eventually takes down the henchman, but unfortunately, she eliminates herself in the process.  The unnecessary trauma of the whole scene gives the Big Bad the opportunity to waylay Jaime.  

Mind you, she really should have heard the car coming.

The ease in which the Big Bad brute captures and overpowers Jaime really irks me.  It's like Champagne just ignores Jaime's abilities and guile to produce an ultimate cage fight resulting in a dubious display of six-million-dollar shoddiness.

In addition to rigging the scales, Champagne lacks the courage of his convictions.  He backs away from misguided ideas introduced in the premiere lightning fast.  At first it seemed that our heroes hunted a barely coherent bionic beast that tore out hearts and plopped them into his chest--a preposterous notion to begin with. 

Now, it turns out the target's a bionic agent from the other side who was just luring Jaime and Steve out into the open.  The hearts are...I don't know…for kicks? 

I guess he'll be reciting Hamlet's soliloquy next issue.

Because of this lack of consistency the shift in characterization looks less like a plan and more like the lazy patching of one's mistakes.  

You've got one more issue to change my opinion about this insult to Steve Austin and Jaime Sommers, and I don't think you can do it.

Red Sonja Unchained opens with a surprising homage to Will Eisner.  That pop art was most unexpected given the subject.  Usually, when artists pay their respects to Eisner, they do so in a milieu that might have fostered the Spirit, a pulp comic strip, for example, not a tale of flashing blades.

After the first page, artists Jack Jadsen proceeds to exemplify his talent.  He depicts Sonja's beautiful face in various moods.  He illustrates her pulchritude set in obvious and not so obvious angles. 

He projects Sonja's stealth as well as her skill.  Jadsen's art looks especially becoming under former Lone Ranger colorist Marcelo Pinto's gorgeous blues and reds.  

As to the story, writer Peter V. Brett concocts a hearty brew for Sonja to wield her cunning, courage, conscience and clashing steel.  Her voice also rings true in the narrative, which is laced with her emotions.  

The first issue of Unchained stands out furthermore by being a good jumping on point for newcomers to Hyrkania.  Even had you never picked up a Red Sonja adventure, you can get the gist with this self-contained debut of the newest Sonja mini-series.

For those enured with the She-Devil's adventures, I recommend Eric Trautmann's take on the character in her regular title.  Trautmann will be leaving the series soon, but he hasn't lost any vigor when drafting a remarkable prose narrative in Sonja's viewpoint that imitates Robert E. Howard's descriptive character insights.  

The plot is somewhat reminiscent of a comic strip drama.  As the story begins, it occurs like a day in the life of Sonja and her comrades.  She just departed the torture prison of Oujulu, and now she and her companions ride off and camp for the night.

The story's excitement begins when a group of murderous nomads intending to rob Sonja and her troops discover that's easier said than done.  Things just get worse from there.

Ann Nocenti transports Katana to a section of San Francisco known as Japantown.  Japantown actually exists in the real world.  However, it's a thoroughly modern, bustling area boasting the Sundance Kabuki Multiplex Theater.  So, the whole kimono wearing, state of decay type atmosphere that Nocenti creates for Katana is a complete fabrication for the new 52.  In fairness, she does call the area a "hidden street" of Japantown.  Does it work? Eh.

I will say this.  Katana is the most easily understood of Nocenti's new work.  None of the weirdness associated wth Green Arrow or Catwoman manifests in Nocenti's Katana writing.  Instead, it's a basic girl with a soul sucking sword in a strange land kills a lot of ninjas type story, and who doesn't like that?  Worth watching for awhile.

Jeff Lemire takes over Green Arrow, and I'm of two minds.  First, the book is extremely well written and welcoming for newcomers.  That said, I don't like scorched earth reboots.  

Three characters from the old series meet their demise.  However, I can see Lemire's reasons for eliminating them.  Dan Jurgens created these characters, and he's the only one that developed them.  Even then, not so much.  Ann Nocenti mostly paid lip service to the cast,  So, they were pure products of the new 52 and fresh enough to kill.  It's not like somebody eviscerated Speedy circa 1950, for example.

Lemire builds his own mythology in Green Arrow, which is fine because Green Arrow isn't iconic.  The archer is an archetype, satisfied by such heroes as Robin Hood, William Tell, the Black Arrow, the Golden Age Spider, The Arrow and of course Green Arrow.  

Green Arrow and Speedy were simply put Batman and Robin copycats.  Their Arrowcar was analogous to the Batmobile and the trick arrows substituted for utility belts.  Writer France E. Herron and artist Jack Kirby established the only substantial history for the Green Arrow.  

Herron is not widely known among fandom, but he was the co-creator of Captain Marvel Jr. and wrote adventures for Batman and Superman.  In Herron's original story, Oliver Queen falls overboard and swims to Starfish Island where he hones his bowmanship to survive and in the end encounters ne'er do wells hunted by the authorities.  When he captures these miscreants, his isolation ends.

Over the years other writers tweaked the origin with explanations of why Oliver fell overboard: from alcoholism to most recently a kidnaping gone wrong.  Smallville suggests that Lionel Luthor sank the boat, killing the Queens with the exception of Oliver.  

Whatever the tweak, the island remained.  Lemire readdresses the origin yet again, and his cleverness ties in with the main threat of the story while at the same time adding a surprising amount of depth to a character before he dies.  Recommended for even non-fans.

"I'll destroy you for this, you--"

The conclusion to "Death of the Family" is completely unpredictable.  While somebody does in fact die due to the Joker's machinations, that person's death comes as a shock.

The Joker's banquet turns out to be a sick Valentine's Day themed joke.  The Family, some of them, are in attendance, but Batman can do nothing to stop the Joker, or so it seems.

Snyder characterizes the Joker as a classic disorganized serial killer.  He seems intelligent when he's merely above average.  The plans of the Joker only worked because he played them out in a vacuum.  He alerted Batman only when the joke had been delivered, not before, but when you get right down to it.  Batman trumps the Joker.  There's no contest.

The Joker does not think ahead, or he can only think ahead so far.  Part of this block has to do with his inability to consider the consequences of his actions.  The Joker has been goading the Family into thinking that he knows all their identities and their secrets.  Batman firmly denied this, and the finale confirms Batman's acceptance of the facts.

Batman in fact reverses the tables on the Joker.  He cons the clown more readily.  That's because Batman can pretend to be something else.  Sane people can do this.  Crazy people can be just what they are, and Batman's never been saner.  The love the Joker feels is completely one-sided, and Batman accepts growth.  When referring to the family, Batman has this to say:

"...I have faith in them.  They make me stronger."

This is quintessential Batman.  This is the Batman that could have been made a reality, at least in the context of the fiction.  Gone is the psychopath.  Gone is the urban vigilante.  Gone is the friendless loner.  This is the Batman.

It's very easy to overlook the art in a story this good, but that would be a crime.  Greg Capullo illustrates the grotesque--the Joker's dinner setting; the hauntingly beautiful--the waterfalls in the Batcave; the good--Batman, the bad--a unique version of the Family going nuts and the ugly--the Joker with equal skill.  Jon Glapion's solid inks and FCO Plascencio's elemental colors reinforce the strength of the story. 

Batgirl takes place immediately after "Death of the Family."  So, yeah.  Batgirl makes it out alive and walking by the way.  Afterall, you don't see any evidence of a boycott, do you?

Ray Fawkes' Batgirl isn't bad but it lacks the personal touch Gail Simone imbues to the narration.  Fawkes chooses James Jr. as the observer.  Whereas Simone traditionally opts for Barbara Gordon's first person voice.

Fawkes very clearly did not want to mess up this assignment in any way.  His concentration is evident by the way he gives James Jr. a certain amount of empathy.  That cover incidentally is utterly bogus.  James Jr. as a raving maniac might have been the plan after Gail Simone had been fired, but Fawkes does not bring it to fruition.

Instead, James Jr. expresses admiration for his sister.  The key is that Fawkes makes the judgment ambivalent.  These opinions could be from an ally, a neutral party or an enemy, and the way Babs treats James indicates less fear and more pity, as well as a certain exasperated experience.  Their conversation on the phone isn't that different from a conversation Lisa and Bart Simpson might have, albeit focusing on a different subject.

Daniel Sampere, Vincente Cifuentes and colorist Blond, making his Batgirl debut, literally play with fire.  Batgirl's hunt for an arsonist gives the artist ample opportunity to run Batgirl through some spectacular gymnastic routines and martial art mastery all set in orange and red.

Superboy always seems like a marginal purchase.  I don't hate Superboy, but I'm not wild about him either.  However, his title overlaps in the "H'el on Earth" storyline.  So, I've been paying more than a cursory glance to the Boy of Steel, of late.  I flipped through the pricey annual a week or so ago, and it seemed to be completely tangential.  This issue however is simply outstanding and goes to show when Tom DeFalco is firing on all pistons, he's a force to be reckoned with.

The Justice League and Superboy are still stuck outside the Fortress of Solitude.  Inside, H'el plots the destruction of earth with the unwitting aid of Supergirl.  He implied that their time travel trip would not result in the end of the earth, and Krypton would be saved.  Hussah!

H'el is extremely powerful, and he really, really hates Superboy.  The kid wears Superman's armor because its the only thing that's keeping him together after H'el playfully attempted to dissect him.  That's hate.  H'el is a strange bird, even strange for an alien.  He loathes clones, such as Superboy, yet he claims to be a friend of Jor-El and Lara.  He saw Superman as a brother.  So, this happens.

Without that armor, you would think that Superboy is down for the count, but I got to say, the kid's willpower is formidable indeed, and suddenly, I get what people see in this character.

After essentially pulling a Beatrix Kiddo to the millionth power, Superboy encounters the strange alien being known as Herald.  Apparently, his job is similar to that of the Silver Surfer.  Although his master Oracle doesn't devour planets.  He rather blows a horn that does something, or other.  Actually, what he does isn't that important.  Since he's not going to do it.

So, while DeFalco contributes to this pretty decent crossover, he builds on something else and fortifies the characterization of Superboy.  The more I see Superboy fighting alongside the big guns, the more I think he belongs there.

His plans for self-sacrifice go awry however when Supergirl impedes his mission.  Now, I love Supergirl.  I loved Supergirl when she was Superman's secret weapon in the 1950s.  I loved Supergirl when she grew into a sexy Kyptonian powerhouse during the Bronze Age.  I loved her when she went off to find herself in The Daring Adventures of Supergirl.  I loved her when she beat the shit out of the Anti-Monitor at the cost of her life in Crisis of Infinite Earths.  I loved the Helen Slater and Laura Vandervoort Supergirls.  I loved the Supergirl of the animated series.  I loved the Kelley Puckett Supergirl of the post-Crisis.  I really love the new 52 Supergirl.  That said.  I found myself rooting for Superboy.  So there you have it.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Pick of the Brown Bag
February 6, 2013


Ray Tate

This week Animal Man, Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight, Batwing, Detective Comics, Doctor Who, Earth 2, The Fearless Defenders, Human Bomb, Prophecy, Smallville, Swamp Thing and World's Finest are the picks of the brown bag.

After reading the premiere issue, I dismissed Fear Itself as yet another Big Stupid Event with main players acting out of character to serve the plot.  The tie-in mini-series however were another matter.  

In The Deep Stephen Strange put together a team of Defenders consisting of Namor, Silver Surfer, She-Hulk and new-character Loa.  I liked what I had read.  Writer Cullen Bunn didn't pollute The Deep with talking heads and deconstructionist dross.  He also committed no character assault.  

Bunn wrote scenes where the usually whiney Silver Surfer grew a set and smacked monsters with his surfboard and where She-Hulk, not red or blue, but She-Hulk, pitched a fastball special that launched Loa against traditional Little Bad Attuma.

When Matt Fraction's Defenders came out with a different roster, I wasn't impressed.  First, Cullen Bunn wasn't writing, and second, I didn't want that team.  I wanted the team from The Deep.

After The Deep, Bunn produced The Fearless focusing on another Defender Valkyrie.  Once again, this series was terrific, and you had to wonder if Marvel were willfully being blind.  Did they not see that Bunn wanted to write a Defenders ongoing series?  Finally, somebody started paying attention.

Bunn brings his sensibilities to the latest incarnation of the Defenders, and just as a reminder from whence his fame surfaced, Bunn adds Fearless to the title.  He should have called it Fantastic Defenders, but that would lead to misconceptions.

The story opens with a portent for Valkyrie followed by an attempted theft of Viking artifacts investigated by Misty Knight.  Bunn then introduces a new archaeologist character Dr. Annabelle Riggs.  

A song emitted from one of the relics Misty rescued causes supernatural mayhem but also calls Valkyrie for a timely rescue.

Fearless Defenders reads like a grindhouse film blended with Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends.  Valkyrie and the consequences of the viking artifacts bring the fantastic elements to the table.  Although even she gets down and dirty with swordplay wielded against an echo from the Shaw Brothers/Hammer cult classic The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires.

Misty Knight's fight against the thieving mercenaries on the ship allows artist Will Sliney to ply his martial arts illustrative chops, and the whole sequence mashes together the deadliest female fighter in cinema Angela Mao with Pam Grier's urban vigilante characters, like Coffy.  Ultimately, Misty's roots.

The back-to-back fighting is a classic image from chop-sockey pictures, and the short-hand dialogue crackling from Bunn's imagination emulates the terse speech from the heroes of 42nd Street.  Finally, as if you needed another reason to buy Fearless Defenders, Bunn and Siley as well as colorist Victoria Gandini seal their work with a kiss.

The Doctor traditionally has bad luck when it comes to luxury starliners.  The space yacht to the Doctor is like the Orient Express to Hercule Poirot.  Think I'm kidding? The fourth Doctor destroyed a drug smuggling ring on The Empress.  After deducing the murder of admiring private investigator Hallet, the sixth Doctor saved the human race from the Vervoids secreted aboard The Hyperion 3, and the tradition continued in his later incarnations with such memorable vessels as The Titanic.

The Doctor absconds with Rory and Amy to a starship bubbling with intrigue. Writer Andy Diggle brings back a welcome guest star from series and a finds a means to introduce her to even more of the Doctor's world, through another dip in the continuity pool.  

Our heroine's goal as always appears to be larceny, but a subplot of slave races planning revolt may factor into her motive.  Each luxury setting in Doctor Who frequently mimics Star Trek's command structure and mirrors the episode "Journey to Babel" in which Captain Kirk must host a group of diplomats aboard The Enterprise.  However, Doctor Who always introduces key differences.
Diggle characterizes the Captain of the vessel as a vainglorious sphincter who loves the slaving nature of his glorious empire, not the Great and Bountiful one the Doctor continuously gushes over.  Definitely not Kirk, and not even Zapp Brannigan from Futurama.  He's the kind of character the Doctor loathes, and I look forward to watching the Time Lord hand him his buttocks.

Artists Josh Adams, Mike Deering, Charlie Kirchoff bring the cast to life while keeping things hopping.  Their depiction of the guest star particularly stands out as does the quiet scene where the Doctor explains to Amy who the mystery woman really is.

Bryan Q Miller offers a meaty issue of Smallville.  In addition to handling the monster-of-the-week elements, in which shadow beings living in a speed limbo stalk the Fastest Man Alive Bart Allen, Miller strikes a key chord in the developing thread of Tess Mercer, Lex's "dead" sister, haunting the bald billionaire.  He also returns to the idea of alternate universe Chloe crashing in a Kansas cornfield.

I placed "dead" in quotes because Lex stabbed Tess with a Kryptonian crystal, and that just may have saved her life.  Mind you, she'll need a new body since her original one was buried or immolated.  Still investigative reporter Lois Lane comes ever closer to the truth.  

The girl's obsessed with brining Luthor down, and it's personal.  Lex coated Superman with a substance that lets him detect the Man of Steel wherever he may be.  That keeps her perpetual fiancee out of reach.  There's nothing worse than a frustrated Lois Lane, and you can imagine Erica Durance achieving such a buzz-saw on the loose performance.

Meanwhile already married couple Chloe and Ollie banter about their baby and how neither have told anybody about their quiver of joy.  I like this scene for a lot of reasons.  One, the dialogue doesn't bore you.  Miller mimics the delivery of the actors.  Two, I like how the duo pass the time while they talk.  Three, the affection between the couple is remarkably evident in the artwork by Jorge Jiminez and  Carrie Strachan, and four, it's all subtly done.

Later in the book Chloe provides the channel in which Dr. Emil Hamilton, liaison to the Justice League, tunes in on the parallel incarnation's thoughts.  Miller sells this bit of science fiction.  He convinces you that it should work, and he uses it for a stirring cliffhanger.  Chloe doesn't see an innocuous other earth.  She sees death right off the bat.

Earth 2 soon overcomes the clunky exposition shared in the opening scene by new Hawkgirl Kendra Saunders and Khalid Ben-Hassin the new Dr. Fate.  Nicola Scott, inker Trevor Scott and colorist Alex Sinclair defy the dry humping dialogue.  However, during the conversation, we do at least learn that Kendra's wings are part of her and not just a harness she dons.  Yes! 

Things pick up when Khalid teleports to find the young Flash Jay Garrick checking in with his mom.  I like how writer James Robinson drops the pretense of secret identity for the loved one.  This avoids a lot of silliness and ramps up the action for an exciting encounter with government troops led by new 52 Sandman Wesley Dodds.  I should point out that although the names sound familiar, these "Wonders" are new.  For instance, Kendra shares the name of the post-Crisis JSA's Hawkgirl, but our Kendra carries none of the other avatar's angst, nor exhibits inexperience.  Our Kendra furthermore like the Silve Age police woman happens to be a weapons expert.

World's Finest amps the dynamism in the Huntress' and Power Girl's stay on earth one.  Writer Paul Levitz opens the book with a Haiku.  Oh, no.  I mean Haakou.

Levitz reveals the origins of the radiation eating monster that vexed Helena and Karen in their premiere issue.  It turns out that Apokolips had nothing to do with this creature's involvement.

The strike team believe that their task will be a milk run, but little do they know that Batman's and Catwoman's daughter recuperates in the sickbay.  George Perez makes a one-armed bona fide Huntress more dangerous than the two-armed generic model that DC kept forgetting to kill in Big Stupid Events.

Perez is still rushing through the artwork, but cosmos be damned if rushed Perez isn't a million times better than most.  What could have been a by-the-numbers mercenary squad benefits from Perez's molded armor and distinctive features that Huntress quickly messes up in nasty ways.  

As we see in a flashback energetically illustrated by Cafu, Power Girl acts as the conscience of the duo.  This differs from the original Kryptonian who really didn't at all care for humanity and resented her cousin when telling her to hold back.

The conclusion to Prophecy surprised the heck out of me.  As it turns out the most important players in this sensational under the radar crossover is in fact Red Sonja and believe it or not Alan Quatermain.

Red Sonja's hatred of Kulan Gath, expressed palpably in her lovely countenance by Walter Geovani and Adriano Lucus, proves to be vital to the event, and her acumen and experience in time travel feeds her with the insight to prevent the apocalypse begun by the sorcerer.  

Then, Quatermain having stolen the dagger in the second place, catalyzing Sherlock Holmes' involvement in the affair, atones for his crime by hampering the ultimate n'er do well from using the dagger to potentially recreate Gath's wave of destruction.

Perhaps the most surprising of all is that this humble and unhyped mini-series actually has consequences for the main characters. Prophecy is easily one of the finest licensed property crossovers in the last two decades.  It compares favorably to neoclassic DC/Dark Horse team-ups such as Batman vs. Predator and Superman vs. Aliens.

Prophecy was always a Red Sonja and company story.  Swamp Thing/Animal Man was always a Batman and company story.  The difference is that Batman as we know him never appears, and I wouldn't be surprised if Scott Snyder was inspired by the near Holmes bereft The Hound of Baskervilles. 

You can almost envision Bruce working behind the scenes, while still fighting normal crime, as Arcane makes his move and the Rot invades the planet.  He searches for Swamp Thing and Animal Man and notes their absence.  He calculates for their return.  He starts building the Bat mecha that will save the world, while probably still partaking in Justice League missions.  He inoculates Barbara with an antidote mixed with the Langstrom formula before he succumbs.  He relays a detailed plan on video feed and then laughs like his idol the Shadow because Batman has already beaten Arcane, and the dumb ass doesn't even know it.

I've happy to say that I predicted most everything Scott Snyder and Jeff Lemire had up their sleeves--including the metamorphosis of Batgirl into a She-Bat, but I can't take credit for forecasting the giant reset button at the end.  We all kind of knew that this would happen.  However, the exact means does come as a surprise, and even I, so in tune with what Snyder and Lemire were doing could not foresee all the little twists in store. So, although Prophecy is the better of these three somewhat similar-themed titles, Swamp Thing and Animal Man still have a lot to offer the reader.  

Frankenstein gains some remarkable power in Animal Man.  Black Orchid kicks a lot of rotting ass.  Swamp Thing uses a Batman staple to gain strength and stamina.  There's this moment…

Swampy and Buddy really do go beyond the call of duty in this story, and Arcane is sicky, sick, sick, sick.  

The way in which Buddy taps into the Red, the animal kingdom, is unexpected, clever yet foreshadowed.  The death of one hero recalls the sacrifice of Anya in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  The use of the rot-infested Cyborg is a keeper.  As is this awesome crossover.  

Created by the founder of DC Comics Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson and Superman's sires Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, Slam Bradley, believe it or not, debuted in the very first issue of Detective Comics.

Slam started as a private eye in the vein of Mike Hammer and Sam Spade.  His place in history however would soon be usurped by a colorful wave of characters and one really dark one ushered in by his originators' Man of Steel.  

Slam flickered back into the Bronze Age one or twice before making a bigger splash in the post-Crisis.  He briefly returned as a police detective to the Superman titles during the Byrne/Stern era but soon returned to his roots as a gumshoe when Ed Brubaker and Darwyn Cooke reintroduced him in the modern Detective Comics.  In that chapterplay, he investigates the apparent death of Selina Kyle.  He of course would next become her partner in non-crime, in the justifiably lauded series Catwoman.

While Slam technically still hasn't shuffled into the New 52, we have this splendid issue of Legends of the Dark Knight to sate us while we wait.  Josh Fialkov portrays Slam as an aging, unlucky detective.  Artists Phil Hester and Eric Gapstur toughen the old crime fighter as if he were a piece of human beef jerky.  

Slam butters his bread by taking photos of cheating husbands and wives.  He tries to keep away from the big cases and sees himself as a little fish in a big pond filled with capes, cowls and freaks.

While on a case for a paying client, Slam witnesses a brutal murder, and though he leaves evidence behind for the cops, he finds himself under the Bat-Signal.  Gotham PD and Batman believe him to be a killer, and things just get much worse from there.

Part of the fun is seeing how the costumed world kicks the crap out of Bradley, but he steadfastly won't fall down.  In the end Batman reassesses the evidence and knows that Slam's been framed.  This leads to a terrific team-up between Dark Knight and Down-on-his-Luck Dick.  Here's hoping when the Powers That Be reintroduce Slam into the new 52, it's as good as his return in Legends of the Dark Knight.

Fairplay mystery is the theme of this week's Detective Comics.  While the story is still ostensibly related to "Death of the Family," it's more of a singular entity.  Batman deduces the identity of the new villain and alleged Joker aficionado The Merry Maker.

You'll notice that this stylish character bears no resemblance to the Joker, and that's a clue.  It's not the only one.  Clues lie in plain sight for the budding detective or mystery buff to find.  All you must do is observe the facts of the case and thread the needle.

Cerebral moments take the center stage in Detective Comics, but Jason Fabok still demonstrates Batman's skill as a martial artist.  He and writer John Layman indicate Batman's sense of humor through the utilization of the latest Waynetech.  There's plenty of daring on display as well as Batman's vigilante elements.  Although Detective Comics has, let's be honest, shall we, absolutely nothing to do with the Joker and "Death of the Family" it's still well-worth your time.

By now you probably know that Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray will be taking over the reins of Batwing.  What this entails is anybody's guess.  Most believe Gray and Palmiotti will be introducing a new Batwing.  I'm not so sure about that.  However, writer Fabian Nicieza certainly adds fuel to that fire.

Last issue David Zavimbe arrested Ancil Marquesbury for murder.  Ancil is the son of a rich, white industrialist.  Doing the right thing earned David a scarlet letter.  

His colleagues on the already corrupt police force shun him.  Hell, they tried to kill he and the young witness last issue.  His former friend Kia, who is the most sterling of the pack of badged thieves, also won't give him the time of day.  

In addition to the personal cold shoulder, Nicieza goes after the Batwing persona.  An armored assassin clips Batwing's namesakes.  The bad guys attack the Haven, Batwing's headquarters.  Another mercenary with a familiar face appears to have given up fighting the good fight, and ends up turning a gun on David.  

Yeah, it would be difficult to find some more symptoms of going down in flames, and if this were DC's plans for the fledgling Batman Family member, it would explain why Judd Winnick left the book.  Well at least Fabrizio Fiorentino and Peter Pantazis make it a pretty Hindenburg.

I will probably at least try the new Batwing even if the title character is a new man.  Normally I wouldn't.  I'm fundamentally opposed to scorched earth policies, and I genuinely thought Batwing was pretty darn resonant in his own right.  However, Palmiotti and Gray were responsible for bucking up my spirits in the darkest days of the DCU.  

Power Girl was the last thing I bought from the old DC, and I left when the PGA left.  A being Amanda Conner.  That was good in a way.  Michael Straczynski with the devastating stroke of the single worst comic book issue of all time forced my decision to conduct a total boycott.  I would have hated to drop Power Girl.

I thought the boycott would last forever, but Batgirl walks again.  So long as she walks, I make mine DC.  Batwing was a personal favorite.  I don't know what's going to happen, but the animosity I harbored for DC Comics long since passed.  I also owe Palmiotti and Gray.  That said, I will always be objective.

The Human Bomb isn't without entertainment value.  Jerry Ordway creates some unusual imagery with a slew of red "androids."  The new Bomb's ethical backbone is winning, but ultimately, this issue lacks the focus of the startling premiere, and the characters jump around too many settings.  Although I appreciate compressed storytelling as opposed to padded dreck, this story really needed some breathing room.  Still, the next chapter looks promising.