Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Pick of the Brown Bag
April 10, 2013
Ray Tate

In this week's Pick of the Brown Bag we delve into the dark with Batgirl.  We'll search superhero fare in Batman, Batman & "Robin," as well as Fearless Defenders.  On the shady side of town Constantine searches for a mystical compass, with deadly potential. Team 7 and Deathstroke witness the abuse of ultimate power, and a madman gives his point of view in Superboy.

A Tribute to Margaret Thatcher

As I was putting together the current issue of the POBB, former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher died.  Nearly every conservative lauded Thatcher as his soulmate.  I can believe that, and I expected the President to send proper condolences.  Let's not whitewash history though.  Margaret Thatcher was a really lousy human being.  She wasn't the worst, but she certainly wasn't good.

Thatcher cut spending on public education, utilities and housing.  She raised what translates as a sales tax for almost everything in order to replenish what amounts to 9 billion dollars lost in revenue. Hardly the economic miracle worker some would suggest.  

In Thatcher's Britain, unemployment was the highest since the 1930s, and surprisingly, it could have been far worse.  Thatcher intended to let the British automakers, British steel and British industry in general die, unsurprisingly reflected in Mitt Romney's viewpoint.  

With young people on the dole, it was no surprise that their frustration turned to protests followed by rioting.  Workers went on strike due to looming job and pay cuts.  Authorities responded with astounding violence.  Thatcher later decided that unemployment benefits were a luxury, and there was so many more horrors for England under her purview.  It's terrible to wish somebody harm, but I can really sympathize with the Brits that have been making "Ding! Dong! The Witch is Dead!" a top-ten hit again.

Back to the comics...

Without a doubt this is the most continuity laden week of the new 52.  Nearly every DC book builds on established facts and coalesces a variety of titles through a surprise guest star and/or revelation.  You feel that the subject matter alone makes every book vital to your collection.  

As promised, Gail Simone returns to Batgirl with an end to the James Jr. subplot.  The whole story feels as if Simone simply ignored the setup by Ray Fawkes.  As a result Junior seems like a more effective psychopath.  Not that he wins or anything.  

Under Simone's watch, Junior lacks the comedic loser aspect that Ray Fawkes unwittingly imbued.  There's no nod to the dud of a hospital confrontation, nor mention of the staked bat James Jr. left for Batgirl to find.  Junior's hilarious Side-Show Bob inspired message of "I'm going to kill you, Barbara, but not right now" is nullified by the fact that James Jr. intends to kill her right now.

In Simone's Batgirl, Junior is still at large.  Gotham PD appears on the ball, and Junior deals with two officers that spotted him rather than simply mill around in a police heavy crime scene; as he did during the arsonist's attack on Batgirl.  

Simone generates the feeling that James, like a shark, hasn't stopped moving or done anything stupid.  The momentum of the narrative simply doesn't leave room for Batgirl's two-issue encounter with an arsonist.  Eliminating Fawkes' guest stint, which wasn't bad, actually betters Simone's tale.

Simone's book is darkly realized by Daniel Sampere, Jonathan Glapion, Marc Deering and colorist Blond.  The plot unfolds on a rainy night that suits the mood.  Junior falls into a trap that he thinks he set.  He attacks Mrs. Gordon and Batgirl.  Although James gets in a couple of good hits, Batgirl strikes out and delivers delicious poetic justice.  Mother also takes responsibility for the lunatic's actions.

With Simone's return, richer narration set in Batgirl's voice follows.  For instance, Babs relates her story to her roommate Alysia, who reveals her own secret.  Barbara condemns the Joker in her thoughts.  Not Batman.  Simone contradicts the schism in the Batman Family that the writers and editors are trying to establish.  She's in tune enough with the members of that august group to know that Barbara would not blame Batman for something he didn't do.

I would say that this is an epic conclusion, but we are talking about James Jr.  Simone instills him with some resonance, but not with the historical vibrations of the joker, nor the eerie ambiance of Mirror.  Dispatching Barbara's crazy brother is in a sense dispensing with a bad piece of history, a finale to the post-Crisis tampering of Barbara Gordon's origins.

Keep in mind when reading that James Jr. was created in the post-Crisis.  In one incarnation, he was the baby Batman saved in Frank Miller's and David Mazzucchelli's Year One.  Barbara Gordon was turned into James Gordon's niece; adopted by the Gordons, after her birth mother died in a car crash.  

I like to think that this issue of Batgirl is the ultimate reward for readers like myself who hated everything done to Barbara Gordon.  Not just the crippling, but also her removal from the direct artery feeding the Gordon bloodline, her inclusion in the Suicide Squad, the whole does she know about Batman's identity or doesn't she game writers played early in the post-Crisis, the de-aging of the character so that she would be on par with Robin, just so she could have a retroactive romance that went absolutely nowhere.  Gail Simone undid everything done to her.  James Jr. is the final stone turned.  This is payback.

I don't think that its a spoiler to say that the cover to Scott Snyder's latest issue of Batman is one big fib.  Bruce Wayne holding a gun is total hogwash, but that's about all I can say about the centerpiece.  The story reintroduces a classic Batman foe, and in a certain way, the issue reconnects Commissioner Gordon and Bruce Wayne.  

In the Bob Kane and Bill Finger premiere, Commissioner Gordon was friends with Bruce Wayne not Batman, a wanted vigilante who killed criminals.  Over the years, that relationship fluctuated.  Once the post-Crisis rolled around, it disappeared completely, only drifting into view like a mirage when some writer felt a twinge of nostalgia that he wanted to share.

Batman's backup feature is also worth your attention.  Batman and Superman team up to fight the Mighty Jagrafess from Doctor Who.  

The team-up describes Batman's and Superman's more familiar working relationship stated in Justice League, and of course as tradition demands.  Writer James Tynion as well invests more thought into another tradition associated with Superman.  

Kryptonite can kill Superman, but magic hurts him.  John Byrne implied that magic affects any mortal being.  Superman being mortal received no deference.  Tynion treats the weakness a little differently.  

Tynion characterizes Superman as the ultimate creature of science fiction, and magic is an anathema that nearly defies the laws of physics.  Thus, Superman senses occult phenomena as a twisting of time and space, and his body reacts.  The sensation is stronger.  So is the effect to the storytelling.

Apart from these mere devices, Superman delicately attempts to speak to the man behind the mask about the loss of his son.  Batman deflects these attempts.  The parries describe a stronger friendship than the brevity of issues that these two have actually shared.

The loss of Damien Wayne informs Batman's actions in Batman & Red Robin.  A lot has been said about this issue over the internet.  Most believe the introduction of Carrie Kelly into the new 52 provides all the Big Hoopla, but it's not.  She's so not becoming Robin, and a costume party is the only reason why she's wearing an old timey Robin costume.

Damian was her friend.  He appeared to be taking acting lessons from her.  Batman's attitude toward her is genial, but he encounters her as Bruce Wayne to literally pay off a debt.  I'd be surprised to see her again.

Carrie plays only a tiny role in Batman & Red Robin.  The story is scattered and unfocused.  It's as if Peter Tomasi woke up one day and in the trance of half-sleep penned the loosely threaded episodes, licked the envelope, sent it in and went back to bed.  Ignoring any calls from an editor.

Unless we later find out that the Psycho-Pirate or some other emotion manipulating miscreant is behind Batman's behavior, Batman & Red Robin is one of the most bone stupid Dark Knight stories I ever read.  Let me tell you.  There are some real stinkers out there.  In fact the last thirteen years of post-Crisis Batman tales is with rare exception entirely forgettable.

Batman carries out a whack-job plan in Batman & Red Robin, and there is no way he would move a finger to propel the slightest contingency in this scheme.  What Tomasi has done is un-Batman.  

Grief affects people, but not like this.  However, I still love this issue, and that's because it gives me a concept that surmounts every idiotic element that should undermine the power of that idea.

Batman Meets the Frankenstein!

Although this issue of Batman & Red Robin lacks a single gray cell, I giggled like a school girl while reading it.

Another guest-star adds oomph to ConstantineUnlike Batman & Red Robin though, Jeff Lemire's story is strong even when subtracting the guest.  

Flipping the fold out cover spoils the surprise, but I'm not giving it way. Constantine's reaction to the encounter is quite hilarious, and it's good to see the figure in original form.  

For once, the post-Crisis didn't grind up this mystery guest.  Instead, a surprsingly literate series that fostered remarkable character growth, giving the protagonist a beginning, a middle and an end.  Only an event like the birth of the new 52, rebooting everything from scratch could have excused the return of the ancient spook.

Speaking of literate, Scott Lobdell's Superboy reads at once as a stand alone science fiction story and an integral chapter in the title.  The weirdo super villain Harvest seemed like a throwaway goofball, a kind of cross between the Time Trapper--the robes--and the Black Guardian from Doctor Who--the raven motif.

Lobdell relates Harvest's story, and it's a doozy.  The tale casts Harvest in his own words as a hero that knows the world will cast as a villain.  We'll be kind and call him an antagonist.  Although I think he's still a short-sighted maniac.

Harvest comes from a future that never will be, probably one of those timelines that erupted from the pre-Flashpoint Flash's tampering.  He traveled into the past, not knowing that the past was now the new 52, forged from the new 52 Flash's restoration of time.  He won't be going back.  The new 52 as implied in Flashpoint is the strongest of all DC universes.  Time travel is a one way trip.  Harvest traveled in time at great cost, mass, and that's why he looks the way he does.

Harvest regressed back in history to find a means to prevent his future from happening.  His goal is to raise an army to kill the metahumans.  This is why he introduced something called the Culling, a more or less interesting crossover occurring between The Teen Titans, Legion Lost and of course Superboy.  As the name implies, Harvest kept testing the generations of heroes that arose.  Presumably he avoided the Big Guns because he felt that they were not as moldable as the younger crowd.

Harvest places his biggest bet on Superboy, but not the Superboy of the new 52.  That Superboy is the clone he produced of the original.  

Superboy isn't a clone of Superman.  He's not the product of a slash-fiction DNA marriage between Lex Luthor and Clark Kent, the weird parentage of the post-Crisis Superboy.  Superboy is unique.  

Technically he's a clone, but of a paradox being.  However, Harvest uses the DNA of the new 52 analogues of the original Superboy's parents, and that changes everything.  The intiguing notion simultaneously explains why Supergirl recognized Superboy as a clone, Kon-El, and why Superboy is in fact beyond this label.  Highly recommended even for those that aren't fans of the character.

Realistically, Wildstorm's Majestic is a Superman clone, or analogue if you prefer.  In the new 52, the character is a human being, genetically triggered by Lynch, formerly the caretaker of Gen-13, and his group of mads.  

DC cancelled Team 7 way too early.  Justin Jordan placed Majestic on the team in secret.  He now reveals how Steve Trevor became mixed up with the group and how Dinah Lance received her Canary Cry.

Jordan pulls the veils from the undisclosed in a dramatic demonstration of what super-powered individuals can do.  This may explain why Amanda Waller wants to kill the Justice League.  Mind you, she's still nuts.

In Deathstroke Jordan reveals the aftermath of Majestic's attack on Gomorrah, a former rogue state in the DC Comics.  The consequences even demoralize the lethal Slade Wilson, here presented as far more gray shaded than the jet black of the venomized killer in Batman: Dark Knight.  More of this characterization might have saved the book from cancellation.

In any case, Majestic returns and Lynch concocts a plan using Deathstroke and his family as catalysts.  Things go awry right from the start, leading to an even more terrible outcome that I really can't see smoothing over without Justice League intervention.

It's no real surprise that Jericho turns out to be the prime villain, but the new 52 makes no bones about it.  There's no attempt to suggest he's anything but evil.  It's also a surprise to see Grant alive and well, since his death in the pre-Crisis Teen Titans is what set Deathstroke off in the first place.  Furthermore, Deathstroke's daughter Rose, who matured in the post-Crisis, now stands as a contemporary with her brothers, and that temporarily changes Jericho's mastery of the situation.  It seems the sisters are doing it for themselves this week.

Cullen Bunn's immensely entertaining Fearless Defenders offers a splendid explanation as to: why Hel would care what happens to Asgard; what Hippolyta, the Queen of the Amazons, happens to be doing fighting alongside the death goddess, and why she intends to join Valkyrie, Misty Knight and Annabelle Riggs.  

Bunn replicates the idea of a team that doesn't really want to be a team, but band for the sake of the entire world.  The Fearless Defenders quest to free Dani Moonstar, captured by Caroline Le Fey and Mr. Raven and preclude the return of the Doom Maidens, a kind of Norse version of the Manhunters.  They succeed on one task, and failure to perform the other leads to fighting, snappy repartee and hilarious color commentary by Le Fey and Mr. Raven.  Outstanding.

Demon Knights isn't my usual fare, but the enticement of Hippolyta and the Amazons fighting an army of vampires was too juicy to pass.  Writer Robert Venditti does not disappoint.  The self-contained massacre is a treasure trove of dark comedy and abbreviated war.  

Best of all, I didn't feel like I was coming into the middle of something.  Vendetti skillfully informs the new reader about the current doings of the Demon Knights while entertaining and moving the story forward to a satisfying conclusion.  Artist Bernard Chang offers a strong tableau of illustration free of busy lines yet potent on detail and emotion.

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