Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Pick of the Brown Bag
March 6, 2013
Ray Tate

The Pick of the Brown Bag this week looks at Ame-comi Girls, Animal Man, Batwing, Detective Comics, Earth 2, Green Arrow, Legends of the Dark Knight, Smallville, Superman, Swamp Thing and World's Finest.

Happy Women's History Month

Fuck you, Arkansas

The new 52 separates life into three categories animal, plant and fungi.  The Kingdoms representing these sorts are the Red, the Green and the Rot.  These Kingdoms are neither science nor magic and operate by a different set of rules.  Magic tends to be a neutral force.  Good or evil, anybody can practice it.  It just sort of lies there to be found.  The Kingdoms depend on Champions to keep their numbers strong, and as a result, they pour much of the energy into that champion, even if these champions are not their own.  

The Parliament of the Rot sends Animal Man and Swamp Thing back through time and space to a point before Arcane exploited the Parliament to usher in a fungal apocalypse against the world.

In the case of Animal Man, Buddy arrives the moment Maxine voluntarily gives herself to the Arcane-infested Rot in order to save mother and brother, Ellen and Cliff respectively.  Jeff Lemire characterizes Buddy as massively more experienced and dedicated Animal Man whose connection to the Red has never been stronger.   

At the same time, Lemire demonstrates that as knowledgable and powerful as Buddy has become, Maxine is still the Champion of the Red.  She instinctively uses the power of Animal Man to score a true victory from the tragedy that could have been.  With that victory, Lemire adds another brick in the origin of Black Orchid.

Steve Pugh provides a naturalistic look to the entire cast and contrasts them with the nightmare creations of Arcane.  The battle scenes and the less physical moments of power take on a pithy texture that makes them stand out.

Yanick Paquette returns for the final issue of Scott Snyder's run on Swamp Thing, and the babe artist imbues Abbey Arcane with a transformational beauty that transcends mere good girl art.  Paquette's visceral duel between Arcane and Swamp Thing recall the finale of the first Swamp Thing film, and that's a grand thing as is the unique layout of the panels to give Swamp Thing a different feel from other comic books and distinguish it from the darkness of the Vertigo run.

Snyder's finale calls back to the origins of Swamp Thing and presents a clean slate for the next writer to come without diminishing the power of this impressive backwards Batman-Swamp Thing-Animal Man team-up.  I would love for DC to collect the entire Rot story, its preludes and its tie-ins in one big Absolute Edition.  It was that good.  

In the new 52, science is remarkable. Truly, remarkable.  The relatively low-level human areas of science catalyzed the rebirth of a hero.

Advances in the new 52's technology can also be seen in an outstanding issue of this week's BatwingBatwing takes place in Africa, the same continent where Barbara received the technology and treatment that healed her spine.  

As you read Batwing, you realize that the setting is an almost perfect mirror image of modern Africa married to a superhero universe.  Corruption is still rampant in this version of the continent.  Our hero David Zavimbe is a product of the horrors reflected by real world African despots, but this is also a place where flying armored sky pirates attack David's sophisticated headquarters the Haven.   

Judd Winnick left Batwing.  When Fabian Nicieza came aboard, it appeared DC took the  phrase hired gun literally.  Nicieza seemed to have one purpose; to eliminate Batwing from the new 52. However, as David dons his Batwing uniform at the conclusion, the purpose of the chapter turns.  It all feels more like a renewal not a eulogy.

As miraculous as the science of the new 52 seems, that science still has limits.  Because of the strength of physical laws, time travel and inter-multiverse travel is nigh impossible.  When it occurs, it's one way and at great cost.

A stranger came to earth a few months ago.  His name is H'el, and he intended to resurrect Krypton at the expense of the earth, in fact the solar system.  

H'el made great strides to piss off Superman.  First, he claimed to be a friend of Jor-El and Lara, hence his assuming the El name.  Second, he categorized Superboy as an abomination to be destroyed.  Third, he seduced Supergirl to his side.  

Superman's not in a good mood, and you know what? I couldn't be happier.  Superman needs something to hit.  All the post-Crisis Superman seemed to do was float over wreckage and weep.  This version of Superman kicks ass effectively and exhibits a consistent, strong personality reminiscent of the classic model.

Superman isn't the only character impressing me these days.  Superboy was willing to discorporate himself in order to stop H'el from using the Star Chamber, but both he and Superman underestimated the wayfarer's intelligence.  Fortunately, in the previous issue of Supergirl, Kara woke up to the facts, and she becomes the key player in this battle to save the solar system.

In terms of plot, Scott Lobdell's story was airtight, and each piece of the Superman Family puzzle, put together with Tom DeFalco and Mikes Johnson and Green, offered an important section of the whole.  None of the chapters seemed superfluous, and only an annual detouring Superman and Superboy from the fight appeared skippable.

Too often plot usurps characterization when it comes to crossovers, but the cast in this underrated story suffered no such effects.  Superman acted the senior hero who saw right through H'el.  He also provided leadership to the Justice League when battling the monster. 

Superboy immediately became H'el's enemy through a natural antagonism, and the kid manned up to easily become the most unique and heroic cloned hero in comic books.  Beating out Batman Beyond, in my opinion.

Supergirl while taking the side of H'el did so with a rationale borne from deep loneliness that originates all the way back to her premiere where the human response to her arrival on earth was to attack.

The artists of all the titles Mahmud Asrar, R.B. Silva and for Superman, Kenneth Rocafort worked in concert to produce spectacular work.  Intriguingly all the artists  leaned toward the art noveau style fostered by such greats as Alphonse Mucha.  

Rocafort however is the king of new noveau.  His elegant, streamlined characters eschew the traditional bulky muscle man of the nineties and opts for a sleeker Man of Steel.  Tradition demanded ladies be demure, but Rocafort isn't afraid to introduce curves and muscle that doesn't disturb femininity or the aesthetic of the line.

The supernatural in the new 52 is much more prevalent on Earth 2 and offers more power.  There the Green Lantern fueled by his magical ring overcomes a most unexpected homage to Quentin Tarentino.

Previously, an unknown Big Bad targeted Alan Scott's train.  The mystic Green Flame saved Scott but could not save his lover Sam, or anyone else for that matter.  This issue, writer James Robinson clues readers on the rationale behind the train attack.

Green Lantern features in the B story.  The A story focuses on the rebirth of Dr. Fate, this time not Kent Nelson but Arabian archaeologist-linguist Khalid Ben-Hassin.  Though a neophyte superhero, a character who doesn't even want the power of Dr. Fate, he nevertheless already attracted an arch enemy.  

The Big Bad in this case is a classic old Dr. Fate villain, but given a sophisticated veneer in the characterization.  Think of him as a sort of Masterpiece Theater type redo recouping some traditional sorcerer trappings.  

This is where Nicola Scott's talent can really be seen. It takes great skill to bring verisimilitude in dignified gestures and constrast it with tights and capes.  The easy way to go would have been to discard the garments altogether and put him in a suit, but that wouldn't quite fit the trippy environs.  Besides, the well-dressed, business suited villain has become old hat.

Thrown to earth one during a fierce battle against Darkseid on earth two, Power Girl and Huntress find themselves far from mere observers of earth one's events.  In this issue of World's Finest earth one kicks both Kara and Helena in the teeth.  Holt Industries launched an attack on Power Girl's island, and the death of Damien Wayne reminds Helena how much she has lost.

Writer Paul Levitz has numerous surprises in store for readers of World's Finest. Kara zips around the world launching counter attacks against Holt, causing billions of dollars worth of property damage, but a surprise guest star will certainly make the faithful fan pause.  

Helena learns of Robin's death and she visits his grave at Wayne Manor.  What I like about this scene is that she expresses just the right amount of grief.  She really didn't know Damien Wayne, meeting him only in two previous issues of this book, but she learned quickly to appreciate having a "not-brother," which is such an unexpectedly lovely term.

Kevin Maguire is on deck to bring his usual attention to expressive detail.  His subtle visual moments help quantify Helena's emotions, and I doubt any other artist could have pulled off such a quiet illusion of animation, nor an explosive kaiju contrast in which Batman becomes a symbolic giant monster plunging through a copse of forest threatening to reach Huntress in order to institute a devastating emotional attack.

The irony is, and it's evident in Levitz's story and Maguire's sublime vision for Batman, this is the moment where the Dark Knight would have probably welcomed Helena into his family.  He could use the company right now.

Power Girl returns in Ame-comi GirlsAdmittedly, this is a different version of Power Girl, but actually, I suspect what writer Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray have done is to imagine what their Power Girl would have been like had her brilliant series not be cancelled.  This would be about season three of Power Girl.  In any case, Gray and Palmiotti tweak their incarnation to adapt to a world where male heroes do not exist.  So, the Kents found Kara, not Clark, and Batman doesn't soar through Gotham City on batline.  Batgirl does.

In previous issues, we met Wonder Woman, Supergirl and the villain contingent led by Duela Dent, the Joker's daughter.  Duela made a deal with Brainiac.  The collusion led to all sorts of problems for the heroes.  Batgirl had to escape an honest to goodness death trap.  Brainiac took over Supergirl's mind.  Catwoman appeared to be killed.  

This issue Steel, Robin, Jesse Quick, Batgirl and Wonder Woman battle Supergirl on the surface and Power Girl finds a surprise waiting for her at the core of the earth.  What I like about Ame-comi Girls is how Palmiotti and Gray manipulate plot threads and juice dialogue with humor to distinguish their work from similar moments.  For example, Wonder Woman and Supergirl tangled literally during the "Reign of H'el" storyarc, and while Gray and Palmiotti use the same Wonder Woman tactics to slam the Girl of Steel, they execute them in a different way.  While something awaits Kara at the center of the earth, a plot twist in the vein of Doctor Who, Palmiotti and Gray expand on the possibilities and deviate from the expected with a different tone.

While Ame-comi has benefitted from an array of artistic talent, from Amanda Conner to Sanford Greene, we get a sampling of the book's staple artist Eduardo Francisco.  Francisco creates a collage of action while keeping the ladies in better proportion than the toys position them.  He liberally mixes and matches the ladies' figure design and their more traditional appearances.  At the same time, I have one caveat.  The colors are far too faint this issue.  They should have popped to compliment the potent dynamic battles and the charm of the scenes below ground.

In Smallville Bryan Q Miller balances the race for Bart's life and the glimpses of a nightmarish earth two now contained in Chloe's memory.  

In order to learn about the strange visitor to Smallville, Chloe underwent an experiment to link her mind with her counterpart.  Now, she remembers things that never happened to her including some intrigue involving the counterpart of her husband Green Arrow, and the deadly version of Superman known as Ultraman.

Our Superman guards Bart as he meets the legendary Jay Garrick.  In hearing Jay's story, we discover a new and clever origin for the Speedsters of Smallville continuity.  

This meaty issue also has enough room to turn its attention on the flinty Lois Lane, whose dialogue is absolutely priceless.  In trying to get to the bottom of Tess' message for help, she attempts to discover Lex's secrets through Otis, but the henchman proves to be too saavy to the ace reporter.  So, Lois calls in the cavalry in the form of another member of the World's Finest team.

The entire story runs like a well-oiled machine.  The dialogue and the artwork by Jorge Jimenez and Carrie Strachan ape the delivery and appearance of Smallville's cast.  Best of all the creative team treat this book like a television show, and while they now have an unlimited budget, the talent thinks things through and gives everything a realistic grounding.  For example, Superman's new duds echo a past Superman incarnation, but it's not a perfect resonance.  The costume still maintains the restrictions of modern design.

Jeff Lemire is really pumping things up in Green Arrow.  It's very clear that Lemire is attempting to raise Green Arrow to a mythic status on par with Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman.

Last issue, somebody destroyed a centerpiece of Queen Industries.  Unlike Power Girl in World's Finest, this entity, an enemy to Oliver Queen, did not care if anybody died in the destruction.  This issue, we learn the Big Bad is a rival not just in bowmanship but also big business.

Lacroix has never been seen in a Green Arrow book.  Lemire created him whole-cloth so revealing his identity is hardly a spoiler.  Neither is the way he transferred his attitude to his daughter.

Some might object to this approach, but this is a sad reality that Lemire exploits.  Ku Klux Klan members take their children to special meetings to be indoctrinated in their hateful ways.  The Nazis of course created the Youth Corps, a twisted version of the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.  

In reality, no hero would have a young sidekick with him or her, for fear of endangering that person mentally and physically.  The reality of evil is that it believes it is right.  It has no doubt, and therefore teaching kids its litany is perfectly all right.

Lemire balances the scales in Green Arrow by introducing a character on the side of angels, at least he appears to be.  The Magus knew Oliver's father and secretly has been watching the young Queen grow.  The history of these characters all begin at the Green Arrow's single mass of continuity.  Star Island.  

Star Island, where Oliver first made his trick arrows and honed his nascent survival skills, has been part of Green Arrow's history in the original adventures, in the pre-Crisis adventures, on Smallville, in the post-Crisis and the new 52.  Lemire with his additional cast members and smoothly transplanted history though goes farther than anybody, and that's what makes Green Arrow more intriguing than ever before.

In Detective Comics Batman mourns the death of his son Damien Wayne, but this sorrow is tempered with professionalism.  He has a job to do.  There's war brewing in Gotham City.  Oswald Cobblepot and his former aid Ogilvy fight for the right to be called Penguin.  Of course, sometimes smaller bands of mercenaries take advantage of the broader armies' battles, and Batman drops in on those sorry fools to demonstrate that while Batman may be sad, he's still freaking dangerous.

Along the way, writer John Layman and artist Jason Fabok appear to be implying that Batman is in fact an alternate version of the Michael Keaton Batman.  As you may imagine I have no problem with that. 

The Penguin in the comics never headquartered at the Gotham City Zoo, but that's where the Penguin goes to secure a cache of umbrella weapons.  Of course this was also the Penguin's headquarters in the best of the two Burton/Keaton Batman films Batman Returns.  The Penguin never had any upper class roots, until Burton had his parents abandon him in a Gotham creek.

At the same time, Layman and Fabok keep this book afloat in the new 52 Universe.  Ogilvy builds his empire with assassins from other books only marginally associated with the Batman Family titles.  In addition, he draws upon a device recently used in Scott Snyder's and Jeff Lemire's Rot storyline for a promising cliffhanger.

Want your Batman a little less tethered to new 52 continuity, DC obliges with Legends of the Dark Knight.  In the first story, Jeff Parker, yes, that Jeff Parker, relates a visceral simple story of Batman beating the crap out of some armed robbers.  Frequent Agent of Atlas partners Gabriel Hardman and Elizabeth Breitweiser bring the gritty story to life, but as dark as this tale is, the creative team still knows that Batman is a figure of optimism, and the victims that accept Batman as a champion of justice make all the difference in mood.

In the second story, Michael Avon Oeming finally gets to have a chance at Batman.  He writes and illustrates a Batman tale that would be right at home as an episode in Batman The Animated Series.  Filled with Batman's sense of honor, the story gains momentum with each panel until the tale reaches a satisfying end.

The third story is an eerie little number by Rob Williams and Juan Jose Ryp--who provided the art on issues of Birds of Prey and Nightwing.  What's nice about Williams' short is that it would have worked quite neatly as a straight up horror, but Williams knows that once he sets his work in Gotham, the plot must change.  Penguin narrates, and the foul bird expresses some surprising admiration for Batman.

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