Monday, March 25, 2013

Pick of the Brown Bag
March 20, 2013


Ray Tate

Our columnacopia of reviews begins with Birds of Prey and follows through with Catwoman, Constantine, Justice League, Justice League of America, Nightwing, Red Hood and the Outlaws, Simpsons Comics, Supergirl, Sword and Sorcery with Amethyst and Wonder Woman.  Of course no matter how enjoyable the comics are this week, and they are entertaining, one item overshadows all.

Yes, it is wonderful.

DC hasn't depicted the sitting President in eleven years.  President Clinton attended the funeral of Superman, but after that, DC took a detour into an even more fictional landscape, namely Presidents Lex Luthor and Pete Ross.  The new 52 however establishes that Barack Obama is the current President of the United States.

Amanda Waller loathes the Justice League.  She established the League of America to kill the Justice League.  Amanda Waller is an extremist lunatic.  President Obama would not condone Waller's agenda.  

However, President Obama allows the formation of the Justice League of America to proceed, and this bothered me until I read the Matt Kindt/Scott Clark back-up vignette.  In the short, J'onn J'onzz creates a security situation that catalyzes President Obama's decision.  So, President Obama would not humor Waller, but he would foster a group of super-heroes to counter threats to the United States, should the Justice League be unavailable, or should the unthinkable happen and they be destroyed. 

The only member of League of America that might be on board with Waller is Hawkman.  Hawkman is basically nuts.  He will hit anything with a mace.  The rest of the League are likely to rebel.  Most of them such as the Star-Spangled Kid (Star Girl) and the new Green Lantern are actual heroes.  Catwoman is the wild card of the group, but she won't turn against Batman, unless he succumbs to the dark side of the force.  Contrary to popular thought, Catwoman does not want Batman devolving into a bad guy.  She's attracted to his innate goodness.

Numerous con games are in play within Justice League of America.  Among the vanguard, Steve Trevor and Green Arrow engaged their own long game.  They've been planning things as partners since issue eight of Justice League.  Steve is an above board kind of guy.  I suspect he and the Arrow have been gathering evidence to finally lock Amanda Waller up in an asylum.  He's just waiting for her plans to become politically embarrassing.  Then, he can deliver the coup de grace. 

J'onn J'onnz we discovered last issue has known Steve a long time, but J'onn's motives might be a bit more far reaching.  J'onn is not at all like the old J'onn J'onnz.  He truly stands alone.  He is not Mr. Justice League. Neither is J'onn villainous.  Rather, his long range aim appears to be the protection of all life.  He already tested the League and apparently found them capable.  So he probably intends to keep the League of America in check and a watchful mind on Amanda Waller.

In addition to these considerations, writer Geoff Johns generates humor and suspense.  The humor comes from such team interaction as Vibe moving his chair farther away from Hawkman.  Suspense arrives from the League of America's first mission, pitting them against the Secret Society, introduced in the epilogue of the Justice League's debut storyarc.  

There's an overall consistency between the darker, mature tone of Justice League of America, the continuity of the new 52 and the character design.  Because David Finch is behind the art, the Scarecrow looks accurate.  Finch illustrated the tatterdemalion of terror in Gregg Hurwitz's memorable Dark Knight.  Catwoman causes mischief by exploiting her sexuality.

Her unzipped catsuit isn't the only distraction.  A kiss between Catwoman and Trevor nets her his wallet.  A peek inside uncovers an honest connection between Steve and Catwoman.  They're both in love with superheroes.

Since the post-Crisis, Catwoman's and Batman's history has always been up in the air.  While Frank Miller reintroduced Catwoman in Year One, nobody liked the idea of Selina Kyle being a prostitute.  Various writers thankfully diluted the conception.  However, few built on the Batman/Catwoman dynamic that Miller replanted.

Most of Catwoman's and Batman's encounters ironically occurred in Legends of the Dark Knight and Jeff Loeb's and Tim Sale's Halloween books.  Sale was also responsible for the hilarious Batman/Catwoman short in Solo.  All of these appearances however lacked a solid basis in continuity.

In Catwoman's eponymous title by Jo Duffy, Chuck Dixon and Jim Balent, you never really got the impression that Catwoman and Batman actually knew each other.  It was in fact a then present day Catwoman Annual that posited Selina Kyle and Bruce Wayne meeting for the first time.  

In Batman Chronicles, Devin Grayson also made tiny in-roads in restoring Batman's and Catwoman's attraction by including Selina in a flashback, which most remember more as Batgirl's and Robin's first post-Crisis encounter.  In Gotham Knights, Grayson also implied a longer intertwined history through a dialogue between Catwoman and Nightwing.  Ultimately, Ed Brubaker and Darwyn Cooke late, late in the post-Crisis finally cleared the decks with a bona fide Batman/Catwoman relationship.

The very open sexual tryst between Batman and Catwoman established by Paul Dini in the new 52 Catwoman debut surprised everybody, but that scene finally resolved the pre-Crisis flirtation these two characters always engaged in.  There was no doubt now.  Batman and Catwoman had the hots for each other and occasionally slept with each other.  

The blanket new 52 parity continues in Catwoman's title book.  Ann Nocenti finally gets in the groove.  Her Batman/Catwoman tale bounces repartee, and it's perfectly synched with the artwork of Rafa Sandoval.  This issue isn't just readable.  It's good.

Catwoman pilfered a collection of paintings from Gotham Museum last issue.  Batman liked those paintings and aims to teach Catwoman the error of her ways.

Nocenti's story isn't a playful romp.  Because of the recent traumas Batman faced, including the death of Robin, which subtly imbues poignancy to a Catwoman line, he's downright mean to Selina.  At first.

There's a gulf of difference in the way DC's creative teams treat the characters now from the way writers and editors handled them during the post-Crisis.  

Batman's anger is palpable, but he can be talked down like a normal person.  Batman regrets his more extreme actions, like a sane person would.  It doesn't take him a year to get better.  

He harbors deep feelings for Catwoman, and Catwoman practically broadcasts her love for him.  I like this kind of honesty, and Nocenti and Sandoval depict their relationship well.  There are hugs and kisses and rueful promises to make up for their argument.  

While Catwoman makes an attempt to get closer to Batman, Batman's not ready.  In the end, she recognizes Batman's vulnerability and  atones for her transgressions.  Batman in turn is determined to remedy his brutish behavior.  I look forward to Nocenti orchestrating the dance between these two partners again.

Nocenti's Catwoman was actually a pretty moving tale, but this week's most affecting Batman Family title is once again Red Hood and the Outlaws.

Last issue, Jason put on his helmet and discovered the Joker's contingency plan: a taunting hologram and a physical acid bath.  This issue, Jason retreats into his psyche, and we get a whirlwind tour of the events that made him.

I'm only mildly interested in Jason's history, but it does fill in some blanks.  What matters is that Bruce and Jason accept each other.  

This was something.  Writer Scott Lobdell reaches a milestone in Jason's mind as well as physical reality.  The timing, the inflated sense of time itself and the quiet illustration by Tyler Kirkham and Arif Prianto in concert produce a perfect comic book.  

I'm aware as well that I'm saying all these kind things Jason Todd, whom I never liked, in Red Hood and the Outlaws, which is a stupid concept and clumsy title.  Nevertheless, this latest exploration in the teen hero's life is a winner.

When Compared to Red Hood and the Outlaws, Nightwing seems seems the lesser.  Even-though the new 52 nullified Dick Grayson's time donning Batman's cape and cowl, the new continuity still allows that Dick knew Damian Wayne the longest.  This is when it's wise not to look too closely for an explanation and take the rewrites as presented.

Writer Kyle Higgins displays Dick's grief over Damian's death as well as others have, but at this stage in the game, Dick's anger and sorrow is a little too much.  We've simply been inundated by cumulative small responses from Huntress and Batgirl and larger reactions from Batman.  I skipped Tim Drake's requiem, but the culmination of grief from three of the Batman Family is quite enough.  Four, if you count Commissioner Gordon.

For the first time, Nightwing looks bad.  He sadly resembles the post-Crisis Nightwhiner.  Blame Batman for everything.  Batman didn't kill Damian.  He didn't bring the Joker's attacks down on the Batman Family.  Batman also didn't lie to his comrades.  Did the Joker breach the inner sanctum of the Cave and find out their secrets? Nope.  Batman kept telling his Family that, and nobody believed him.  Not his fault.  Batman also retrieved the book from the Joker's body.  Inside, he found blank pages.  Thus, confirming what he knew.  The Joker had been bluffing all along.

So, when Batman tries to do something nice for Nightwing, what happens? He unloads on Batman.  Maybe the snit isn't as grand as some of Nightwing's post-Crisis tantrums--Dick does listen to Batman at least, but his actions still mirror his former loathesome self. Oh, and the cover to Nightwing is a fib.  While Batman does guest star, Batgirl is nowhere to be found.  Mind you, DC recognizing the value of having Batgirl on a cover is pure gold to me.

Batman invites Nightwing to join the Justice League during their recruitment drive.  Nightwing rudely says no.  The League also have places reserved for Black Lightning, Blue Devil, Platinum, Firestorm, Black Canary, Zatanna, Vixen, Element Woman and new heroes Goldrush and a mystery guest.  Only three accept.

Despite the angry Cyborg cover, Justice League is mainly a fluff piece, nevertheless attractively depicted by Manhunter's Jesus Saiz and colorist Jeromy Cox.  Saiz's Superman appears warm and friendly.  His Batman is dark but human.  Saiz's piece de resistance however is the Flash.  Saiz's Flash bears body language that matches his merry mien.  As to the many babes, well Saiz got the Manhunter gig for a reason.  The mystery guest looks particularly sensual in a modified traditional uniform. 

Although Justice League offers no serious antagonist, we do learn some more facts.  As of this issue, the League has been around for five years.  This length of time makes sense.  The characterization for the League feels genuine.  They've gelled, know each other by first secret identity names, and none of that annoying early conflict from issue seven manifests.  

Johns also inaugurates the Metal Men this issue.  Platinum provides the catalyst for conflict in Justice League.  Her personality overrides her robotic programming, and she goes on a rampage similar to what Jeannie might do if Tony Nelson were in danger.  Will Magnus isn't in peril.  Platinum simply and understandably wants to know where she is, how she got there and where the hell's her master.  Honestly, I blame Magnus for this fiasco.  Geoff Johns however is responsible for the first continuity gaffe in the new 52.  


Zatanna mentions that she is a member of Justice League Dark, but that's not possible.  She was a member of the Justice League before Dark.  She in fact used her magic to prevent Batman from joining the other Leaguers who had been defeated by occult menace Enchantress. 


The key of the new 52 is that all the books debuted during different times in the new history.  Justice League Dark and Batman: Dark Knight occurred in the future, with respect to the Justice League.  I've tried to rationalize the mistake a number of ways, and it just doesn't work.  The League never had a membership drive before.  Zatanna was already in the League when Xanadu inducted her into Justice League Dark.  The mistake however is a minor point, that few will probably notice.  However, it's alarming to see even the tiniest crack in the strongest continuity ever.

Wonder Woman battles Hermes, and it's an exciting melee that's fairly momentous, given Diana's historical alliance with the God of Speed.  The dialogue during the duel offers the reader snappy repartee with a crash course in the deity treaties founded during the series.

One of those pacts involves Orion.  The new 52 Orion is a little smarter and more playful than the old, dour New God.  Think of Conan the Barbarian but with some science fiction hardware.  Orion and Wonder Woman make a hilarious and effective team, and I hope he'll stick around to keep things interesting.

While Diana sends Hermes crashing, Ares attacks Ceres, and in the most surprising move from writer Brian Azzarello, Poseidon upsets the balance of power.  Even more impressive, multiple artists do not spoil this excellent conclusion.  Goran Sudzuka, Cliff Chiang, Tony Akins and Dan Green all blend quite well.

Mikes Johnson and Green as well as Mahmud Asrar appear to have taken a holiday from Supergirl, but that's all right.  Guest writer Frank Hannah crafts a solid issue that's tied into a lot of new 52 Superman mythology.  

That may sound strange, but actually the new 52 incarnation of Superman has accumulated a lot of lore in a short amount of time.  Most of these legends--such as Krypto--have a basis in his comic book history, but some such as Dr. Veritas are whole cloth creations.

Dr. Veritas is the science go-to-girl for an underground civilization, and she's been tending to Kara, who suffered a fierce case of Kryptonite poisoning after she skewered H'el with a crystal.  Kara makes for a less than ideal patient.

Dr. Veritas isn't the only Superman character interested in the Girl of Steel.  Lex Luthor, ostensibly imprisoned, but never the less in touch with the latest version of the Superman Revenge Squad, also sees potential in the Maid of Might.  
The Luthor of the new 52 is a mirror image of Clancy Brown's Luthor from Superman: The Animated Series and Justice League.  I would therefore wager that he sees Supergirl as a wedge against Superman, rather than a tool that's ripe for seduction.  Technically speaking, the post-Crisis Luthor never was intimate with the actual Supergirl.  He was involved with Matrix, the substitute Supergirl.

In addition to the forces hemming around Kara, Supergirl must battle a Lava Girl that just may be the new 52 version of Volcana, an awesome animated Superman villain voiced perfectly by Peri Gilpin.  So, a meaty inventory issue with decent art by Robson Rocha and competent writing.

The same can be said of Birds of Prey. Christy Marx however isn't a guest writer.  She's taking over the title and strutting her stuff this issue.  

Marx demonstrates her knowledge of characterizing the Birds by keeping an even keel with what Duane Straczynski did.  Although, Marx doesn't make any use of Starling's wit, which is a pity, she does mimic her pattern of speech.  Starling is easily the best new creation to come out of the new 52.  Under Straczynski's aegis, her personality was outrageous, and she acted as both comic relief and genuine, off-kilter professional.  I hope Marx continues the antics.

Marx demonstrates acumen with regards to the new 52 in general.  Mr. Freeze is the Big Bad this issue, and he's looking to shed a few owl feathers.  This naturally puts him at odds with the Birds who now count Strix, the sympathetic Talon created by Gail Simone and Joe Benes, amongst their flock.

Marx appears to relish Strix.  She immediately gets the ambivalence Strix expresses toward the Canary.  Strix recognizes the Canary as a threat, which is why she attacks her all the time, but she also sees the Canary as much a victim from unknown forces as she, which is why Strix rescues her just as frequently.  In addition, Strix is friends with Batgirl.  So it would be bad manners killing off one her older friends.  Artists Romano Molenaar, Vincente Cifuentes and Chris Sotomayor ease the transition between writers with beautiful action and gorgeous violence as well as icy depictions of deadly cold.

Christy Marx explicitly links Eclipso with Gemworld (Nilaa) in Sword and SorceryGuest-star John Constantine pulls a fast one that rids the earth of Eclipso but dooms Nilaa, or so you think.  Constantine double-crosses not just Amethyst but also Eclipso.

Upon reaching Gemworld, Eclipso behaves as you might expect.  This means somebody dies, and another member of the Gem Royalty becomes empowered.  A romp involving the heir to the House of Turquoise contrasts the drama of Eclipso, and Aaron Lopresti handles each mood equally well.

Jeff LeMire's Constantine offers an strong debut that delineates Constantine's characterization and how he differs from both the darker Vertigo version and the lion's share of champions in the DCU.

Constantine's underlying motivation appears to be fear.  He is afraid of magic.  He thinks that it's too powerful to be wielded by practically everybody.  If you were to ask him, he would probably say that he shouldn't have it either, but to quote the Doctor, "Who else is there?"  

Constantine employs magic and magic users to prevent the Big Bads from possessing it.  That's where you could actually classify him as a hero.  

In this issue, LeMire introduces the corrupted descendent of Sargon and sets the battle at the real life ice-hotel that served as the backdrop for the last James Bond film Die Another Day.  A magical relic lies in the hotel, and John wants prevent Sargon's whelp, or anybody else for that matter, from obtaining the object.  It's simply too dangerous.  

LeMire ties in the previous owner of the artifact with the so-called "the wickedest man in the world" Aleister Crowley.  As far as wicked men go, Crowley was a bit of a dud.  He wasn't a criminal.  He was just some loony into magic that liked consensual sadomasochistic orgies.  About the worst that you could say about Crowley was that he was anti-Semitic.  So, LeMire wisely evokes the name of a different Aleister and escalates his practices with murder and cannibalism.

Constantine is no angel.  In his pursuit for the greater good, he appears to catalyze the death of the innocent.  Technically, he did say run, and there's no doubt Batman or Superman would have carried out this mission in a different way that risked only their lives.  Constantine looks out for his neck, but then you can say that his actions do save the lives of millions.  Anyhow, Constantine bears watching.

Last but not least, the Bongo writers celebrate Simpsons Comics 200th issue with a fine collection of tomfoolery.  The cover itself is a wraparound goof depicting the entire cast and guest from another series.

It's fitting that Ian Boothby takes the first story slot.  Boothby is an elder statesman.  He kicks off the longest of the shorts with a preposterous sendup of the one percent.  Unfortunately for them, there were witnesses, including Lisa Simpson, the least likely bamboozled resident of Springfield.  It takes some fancy footwork from Diamond-Joe Quimby to appease the crowd, and this somehow leads to a history lesson with lots of poetic license.

Artists Phil Ortiz, Mike DeCarlo and Art Villanueva illustrate not just the regular cast including the third tier players but also Groening-ized famous figures and familiar looking parodies of misplaced animated classics.  The sight gags and comedic body language offer an entertaining wonderment that goes loopy with a bizarre punchline that kind of refers back the beginning but it's an odd one.

In "Moe Meets His Match" writers Tony Digerolamo and Max Davison come up with a cockamamie love story that also puts food on the table at Moe's.  Admittedly both these ideas have appeared in two episodes of the series but Digerolamo and Davison freshen the mix with a sparky personality for Moe's dame and terrific bits from Homer.

Artists John Delaney, Andrew Pepoy and Nathan Hamill give this story extra dimension special roundness to the character design and multicolored shading.  They at times resemble Muppets had Groening created them.

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