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.

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