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.

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