Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Pick of the Brown Bag
January 30, 2013


Ray Tate

Last week was so overwhelming that first the Pick of the Brown Bag does some clean up duty with reviews of The Legend of the Wicked West and Witch Doctor Mal Practice.  This week's titles include All-Star Western with Jonah Hex, Aquaman, Batman Beyond Unlimited, Batman: Dark Knight, The Flash, Futurama Comics and Justice League Dark.

In Legend of the Wicked West, the Scarecrow, Tip, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion travel the world of Oz in search of their friend Dorothy.  In turn, the Big Bads of Emerald City send the Wheeler Brothers out for the bounty on the quartet.  

As usual, even-though re-imagined as a western, Tom Hutchison's Wicked West faithfully adheres to the works of L. Frank Baum.  Baum was a dark fantasy master years before the term had been coined.  He was also a feminist and an advocate for the intelligence of children.  Baum trusted his audience and laced his novels with sophisticated references that he knew would saturate their memories.  Cover character Tip for example is a very prominent and important figure in the books of Oz, and I have no doubt Hutchison will stay true to Tip's future.  He bears watching.

Although the movie bastardized much of what Baum wrote, it did observe the basics.  The Tin Man, the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion indeed accompany Dorothy on the brick road.  Hutchison naturally focuses on these fascinating characters. 

When our Tin Man Sheriff first encountered the Scarecrow, he intended to kill her, but now thanks to their experiences with Dorothy, the Tin Man respects her.  Still, the Scarecrow prefers the lion's company over the former sheriff's, and it's rather amusing that the "brainless" straw girl is the leader of the group in Dorothy's absence.  

On the flip-side of the coin, the Wheelers are quite grotesque, probably close to how Baum imagined them: like a Hanna-Barbera cartoon by way of the Brother's Grimm.  There's just something off-putting in figures whose arms and legs end in wheels.  It's a completely unnatural configuration that gives artists Allison Borges and colorist Kate Finnegan the opportunity to offer contrast amidst the otherwise often whimsical visual characterizations and the sunlit hues of the forest setting.

The mysterious orchestrators of the danse macabre in Witch Doctor Mal Practice sent a monster in luscious human form to infect Dr. Vincent Morrow with a deadly occult disease.  

This issue Vincent faces the figures behind the surgical masks and throws down against the monsters only to lose an ally in the process.

Writer Brandon Seifert pulls a fast one by tying tangential threats explored previously into the focus of the story.  Seifert once again comes up with imaginative uses for the terminology and the meaning of medicine within a supernatural milieu.  At the same time, he flaunts Dr. Morrow's hilarious, frequently abrasive personality that only temporarily softens during a stirring yet comedic recitation of a video will.

Artists Lukas Ketner and colorist Andy Troy do not disappoint when manifesting the monsters or humans sporting exotic, stylish fashions and malevolent sneers.  

Aquaman unveils the true culprit behind the attack on Atlantis and thus the retaliation against the surface cities.  You'll never deduce who is the mastermind behind the scenes.  I really could kick myself.  It all boils down to the new 52 being a different universe.  Just because this cosmos embraces most of the pre-Crisis more so than the post-Crisis, doesn't mean that it's not without original twists on characters we appear to know.

Before the superb Geoff Johns storyarc coalesces to the cliffhanger, we learn quite a bit about the new 52 Justice League and the various friendships that have formed since the tenuous beginnings.  Aquaman and Batman for example are on a first name basis.  This ties in with Batman having already met Mera, mentioned last issue.  Batman considers the League his friends.  Batman has friends, and he admits that he has friends.

Last chapter, Ocean Master captured the Justice League and dropped them under the sea to await judgement.  The League reservists cause much of the mayhem against Ocean Master's forces.  Who are the League reservists? The answers lie in another alliance within the League.  

Some new 52 fan favorites participate.  Others arise from the obscurity of the pre-Crisis.

Familiar faces new to the current DCU appear unchanged.  A handful are brand new creations.  All are outmatched, but both heroes and Atlanteans find themselves under siege after the Big Bad unleashes a new strategy with needle-sharp teeth.

While the League's proteges battle in a flooded Boston, the Flash deals with gorillas in Central City.  Grodd wants to represent the Speed Force, but he doesn't actually know what that entails.

Last issue the Flash calculated every tragic consequence resulting from a potential fight against Grodd.  This issue the Flash takes the only way out.  He acquiesces to Grodd's demands, surrenders, or does he?  It turns out, surrendering to Grodd isn't the same as giving up.

In yet another example of how the new 52 differs from previous cosmologies, Francis Manapul uses the nature of the Speed Force that he established in previous issues to full effect for a story that also divulges the contingency that separated Barry Allen from Iris West, the woman you expect to see with him.  

I'm actually rooting for the Patty/Barry relationship.  Manapul and Buccellato have done such an enviable job in creating a love interest from scratch that they make their pairing natural.  Patty furthermore stuck by and mourned for Barry when she thought the Flash had murdered him.  Now that she knows he is the Flash, her feelings for him haven't changed.

Manapul assumes his art duties for this issue, and it really had to be he and colorist Brian Buccellato.  

The story is just so reliant on the facts the creative team established in previous issues that any other artist would just feel wrong when presenting what appears to be the epic final confrontation between the Flash and Gorilla Grodd.

In Batman Dark Knight writer Gregg Hurwitz demonstrates that he has more than just a scarecrow in the backyard of his mind.  As the cover spoils, this issue pits Batman against Jervis Tetch, the Mad Hatter.  

The Mad Hatter was always a third tier Batman rogue.  His modus operandi never changed.  Even on the 1960s television series, David Wayne in bright red wig and mustache played him straight out of the comics.  Send up wasn't necessary.

We can thank Bruce Timm and Roddy McDowell for raising the Mad Hatter's crazy star, for it is they that gave this character a greater sense of pathos and threat.  They were the ones that turned a collector of hats who used a gimmicky hypnotic chapeau into a lonely, psychotic obsessed with an innocent girl that happened to be named Alice.

The Mad Hatter of the new 52 reflects both images.  He commits his crimes with mind-control disguised in hats.  He obsesses over felony.  In many ways, the Mad Hatter was a parody in the Lewis Carroll novels.  The current model in Batman is even more twisted and caricatured.

For his return, the Mad Hatter puppeteers a gang of kidnapers.  Why he wants a specific victims list is anybody's guess, but judging from murderous way he treats his flunkies, it's for nothing good.  Fortunately, the Hatter makes the same mistake he always makes.  He plies his trade in Gotham.

Batman performs a terrific feat with the Batplane that just makes you laugh aloud.  It's outrageous yet a practical and effective countermove.  It's also totally Batman. Kudos to Ethan Van Sciver for pulling off the timing for this stunt.

The rescue of hostages nets Batman the potential for something more, but Batman won't hear of it.  The response however triggers his visit to Natalya, Hurwitz's extraordinary love interest for Bruce Wayne.  I've compared her to Silver St. Cloud in previous reviews, and that comparison grows even stronger this issue.

Norm Breyfogle's art stands out, as always, in an otherwise mediocre Batman Beyond Unlimited.  The Joker King story started out having potential but petered out somewhere in the middle.  

I just fail to see how this subpar Droog warrants this many chapters, especially when he's fighting Batman, Bruce Wayne, Dick Grayson, Catwoman and the new Vigilante.  The Joker King strikes me as the recipient of too much love from writer Adam Beechen.

Superman's part in the anthology by J.T. Krul and Howard Porter pits the Man of Steel against Lobo.  It's amusing in places and decently illustrated, but it basically runs as expected.  Should have been a little more unpredictable and flamboyant.

Martian Manhunter fans will want to add this book to their collection.  His appearance isn't treated as a surprise so this is no spoiler, and his name is practically spelled out on the old timey frosted glass.  J'onn is in good form for this future tale, and Porter hasn't illustrated this hero since JLA.

All-Star Western and Justice League Dark surprised the hell out of me.  Justice League Dark started as a by-the-numbers rebels get captured by the corrupt government, but it turned into something quite different.  Even the little things work in Justice League Dark's favor.

In the opener the freshly killed after being freshly alive Boston Brand pulls a move I didn't expect.  The environment of the magically bereft land forces inveterate liar John Constantine to tell the truth.  The change opens a portal into Constantine's character.  Previously, Constantine was a selfish ass, but the new 52 version appears to be at heart a champion.  The trouble is that he sees heroes as chumps.  So he hides by a facade of lies and posturing.

None of the insight or cunning stops the Judge Dredd for this realm from capturing League Dark.  This is when you expect the book to go straight to the dungeon where the group stages their escape and overthrows the government.  Nothing wrong with that, but not really original.  Instead, Jeff Lemire and co-writer Ray Fawkes manifest a looming apocalyptic threat that interrupts the expected trip.

In All-Star Western the surly, convalescing Jonah Hex exhibits unusual intelligence for the time and remarkable empathy toward Arkham's sick mother, the character herself a clever revelation.  

We expected Joan Crawford, if not Arkham in drag prefiguring Norman Bates.  Instead, writers Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray, as well as artist Moritat, present a charming figure who suffers from a genuine mental illness, albeit an innocuous one.

Hex's reaction and stupefying behavior toward the old woman catalyzes a greater bond between he and Constance, the nurse that tended to his wounds and cares for Mrs. Arkham.  Constance's response is also surprising since glimpses of kindness in rough men tend to make women fall into their arms, in literature and movies anyway.  

Palmiotti and Gray instead have a lot of fun with the pair, turning them into a turn of the century Steed and Peel, which would make Tullulah Black Catherine Gale.  Hmmmn.  

Hex grows a bit more respect for Constance when she displays medical skill beyond her station, necessary for when a surprise guest calls upon the trio.  Hex's commentary also indicates that the bounty hunter lacks respect for all artificial mores, such as politics, not just the fussy ones.

In the backup feature, artist Phil Winslade just goes nuts with Tomahawk's bloody vengeance against the Colonists and the redcoat turncoats.

Last but not least, Ian Boothby basks in the glory of a hilarious Futurama adventure.  President Nixon mortgaged the sun to a planet called Holdem.  The Holdemites demand their rent, and to show they mean business, they seal the sun in a force field, thus causing the earth to rapidly cool.
Boothby expertly spoofs a dramatic theme of pulpy science fiction.  Numerous aliens and/or madmen have threatened to extinguish the sun.  Of course, thematically speaking, blotting out the sun is a Matt Groening tradition.  

Earth's government selects Planetary Express to deliver the check, but in the meanwhile Professor Farnsworth attempts to find an alternative way to warm the planet.  He might have succeeded if not for…

The Professor's crazy player on the other side reverts to his mad scientist nature and opts the polar opposite to Farnsworth.  He becomes a Mr. Freeze stand-in.

The point might have become academic if the check had been delivered on time, but Bender's strange predicament impedes Leela's and Fry's progress, forcing them to take part in  a Texas Hold 'em Poker Tournament.  They don't call them Holdemites for nothing.

This is where Boothby delights in showing off  Fry's special brain.  Immune to Brainspawn, possibly due to Fry being his own ancestor, Fry turns out to be the ace among the cards of Planetary Express. 

Artists James Lloyd, Dan Davis and Robert Stanley go for a traditional Martians Go Home look for the alien Holdemites while engaging in physical comedy from some of the subcast, such as Scruffy and Mr. Horrible Gelatinous Blob.  

The art team's version of Professor Wernstrom is particularly energetic, and the duel between the oldster scientists is positively surreal at times.  Imagine a geriatric Heatwave and Captain Cold in a forever war.  The star cast of Leela, Fry and Bender become almost straight men among an atmosphere of zaniness and science fiction design, but they're no less lively.

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