Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Pick of the Brown Bag
April 17, 2013


Ray Tate

Welcome to the Pick of the Brown Bag.  In this column, Catwoman, Justice League, Lookouts, Nightwing, Simpsons Comics and Wonder Woman are on the docket.  I'll also discuss the merits or demerits of Birds of Prey, Lookouts, Red Hood and the Outlaws, Supergirl and Sword and Sorcery.  

Justice League begins in the Batcave with a surprising infiltration.  Unfortunately, the Red Hood and Alfred interfere too late.

The identity of the mystery man provides some intrigue, but the interaction between Batman and Red Hood is far more rewarding.  Geoff Johns takes note of the happenings in Jason Todd's own title and bases the conversation on the closer relationship Batman now has with his prodigal son.  

The friendship, the fact that this version of Batman makes friends, foreshadows Batman's strong ties to the Justice League.  I love that Batman opens the previously off-limits inner sanctum to the League.  Granted, it's a logical step to test the security and track the intruder's movement, but the old paranoid Batman would have never allowed Justice Leaguers to roam freely about the Batcave.  Unless of course the editor wasn't paying attention.  There's greater consistency in the new 52.

The intruder's target appears to be one of the suitcases Batman keeps locked away.  These suitcases likely contain countermeasures for a potentially compromised League member.  Fans of the Justice League will recall that Mark Waid raised the idea of Batman thinking of ways to kill the League should they turn.  Coincidentally, this is when I turned away from the book.  

Batman would determine a means to stop the League but not kill them.  He refused to kill his enemies.  Why would he choose to kill his friends? I also never believed he would be stupid enough to record these plans and leave them in the Batcave for an enemy that learned his secret identity or an ally come puppet.  Geoff Johns' updating of the tradition, which really began with Cary Bates and Neal Adams...

...exhibits more sense and tactics.  While Batman's identity is known in the superhero community, few of the Dark Knight's enemies know Bruce and Batman are one in the same. He also installed safeguards, which we see the intruder overcome, and as his comrades in the League confirm, this was no mean thief. 

Due to the break in, Batman must call upon Superman and Wonder Woman, who stage a daring rescue in one of the fictional Arab lands of the DCU.  This is the kind of thing the heroes did all the time in the Bronze Age.  Having learned the art of disguise, usually from Batman, they would secret themselves among the victims or the villains and reveal themselves as wolves amongst the attack dogs.

Batman first confronts Superman and Wonder Woman about their personal mission and their budding romance, but it doesn't go as some readers might expect.

As you can see, Batman expresses no anger or jealousy, just concern.  Batman has strong bonds to these two.  Also, his statement describes exactly where he stands on the subject, on which side he will fall if or when Amanda Waller wages her insane war against the League. 

Aquaman artists Ivan Reis, Joe Prado and colorist Rod Reis provide the lush, lavish artwork.  Attention to anatomy, design, detail as well as cinema-styled angles make even potentially innocuous scenes something special.

Wonder Woman offers several points of interest for the reader.  Turning the fold out cover will reveal the surprise, and it's mostly accurate, except in execution.  

When Diana confronts Orion about his behavior, she does so violently.  That's perfectly in character, but it never should have come to this.  I'm not happy with the way Orion developed.  Flirting is one thing.  I think Orion's overt hitting on Wonder Woman is a mistake.  It borders on the burlesque.  The art by Goran Sudzuko however is stunning, especially with Matt Wilson's natural hues.

On the flip-side, writer Brian Azzarello takes Hera into a good direction, and this twist makes perfect sense.  After all, Hera is the mother of the majority of the Greek gods.  One of her characteristics is a love for children.  Her hatred for Zeus' illegitimate children is frequently tempered in myth.  Mind you, some times it's bribery that gets the job done.  This Hera however is far from the peacock feathered nude creature wandering the earth attempting to kill Zola.

There's no doubt however that Azzarello's original plans of making Wonder Woman a horror book went south.  It couldn't now even be classified as Dark Fantasy.  I don't really think an editorial edict necessitated the change.  Rather, horror trappings fall quickly when faced with an effective Amazon princess.

When Azzarello turns the focus to the prophecy--that Zola's demigod baby will smite the god that sits on the throne--he begins to line up the ducks that might be ready for a comeuppance.  Hera appeared to be premature in her assessment of the situation.  Baby might not have been gunning for her at all.

While it's become something of a trope to place the hero in a straight jacket and orchestrate a smack down on the bad guys with judicious kicks, both arms literally tied behind her back, it's still a striking visual if done correctly.  

Rafa Sandoval does it correctly.

The Justice League of America position Catwoman in Arkham Asylum to hear the inmates' idle chatter about the Secret Society.  While this Ann Nocenti story is easy to follow and sort of makes sense--the Secret Society did recruit the Scarecrow, it's not very interesting.  

Lunatic speak becomes tiresome in a short span of time, as does Jeremiah Arkham's attempts to screw around with Selina's mind using nightmarish methods that have been disparaged for years.  This isn't a caveat, per se.  Jeremiah Arkham is scum.  Batman doesn't trust him, and neither do I.  He's certainly no Bob Hartley, and Arkham's without a doubt one of the reasons nobody gets better in Gotham City.
Nocenti's story does provide greater evidence that Batman is well aware of the Justice League of America's threat.  I wouldn't be surprised if Catwoman turns out to be his operative within that bastardized League.  Batman would know if Catwoman were committed to the Asylum, and he would prioritize her release, unless he condoned it.  The only way that he would agree to such a turn of events is if the League's plans were already transparent to him.

Nightwing comes to Chicago, where the atmosphere is more compelling than the main story.  Chicago banned masked superheroes, due to a past catastrophe caused by one of the superhero community.  I'm not trying to be vague.  This is as much as we know.  

Presumably, the ban would still allow exceptions for Superman, Wonder Woman and Aquaman.  Chicago may express a disdain for vigilantes like Nightwing, but the Powers That Be there aren't dummies.  Meteorites fall outside the purview of local authorities.  You occasionally need an Amazon, but not a Nightwing.

Nightwing intends to suss out Tony Zucco, the killer of his parents, thought dead.  Tony Zucco's continued existence is a consequence not of the new 52, but of a historical paradigm shift.  The super heroes of the DCU do kill.  Never in cold blood, and monsters no longer have rights.  In the Golden Age, the champions we know had a sharper idea of right and wrong.

With that historical snapshot long gone.  Zucco has a habit of staying alive in any continuity you would care to name.  Now, he's back in the new 52, and Nightwing wants him.  Unfortunately, that's not where the story stays aimed.

Nightwing meets his roommate.  He's subletting.  He rides the rails, and he seeks an information broker.  Meanwhile, the Prankster, a local celebrity, delivers the ultimate punishment to a child enslaver that's ensconced in local government.

Personally, I think Higgins really could have cut to the chase in these disjointed episodes and improved the flow.  Nightwing could have simply started in his his new digs.  His narration would inform the reader that the apartment was sublet.  Better yet, Nightwing should have housesat.  This would eliminate an unnecessary character.

Nightwing's only visiting Chicago.  So, we needn't get to know his roomie.  It's not like Batgirl and Alysia.  Nightwing cannot survive long term in a city inimical to masked men.  The GCPD wanted Batman captured and incarcerated.  How Commissioner Gordon's relationship with Batman evolved is anybody's guess, but the League cemented Batman's good standing with law enforcement.

Higgins also adds to the disorientation by breaking the point of view.  He should have stuck with Nightwing and go forward from there.  Instead, he shifts the viewpoint to that of the broker and finally the Prankster.  The technique works better in novels with distinctive chapters and voices.  In a comic book it just creates a cacophony. 

Red Hood finally lost me.  New writer James Tynion takes the reader into deep continuity territory, and unlike former writer Scott Lobdell, Tynion doesn't explain enough about what's going on.  

Near as I can figure, Jason goes to an old guru to obliterate some of his memories.  Ooopsie, the little fellow takes all of them.  This is truly insulting.  The whole point of Jason's spirit walk in a previous issue was to accept himself as a whole.

On the trail, Kori and Speedy.  Kori gets little to do but show off her boobs.  Terrible, terrible grasp of proportion.  You realize of course that since those girls aren't restrained, Kori could actually knock herself out with just one.  She might even be able to smother herself given that the cosmic cachongas are each larger than her head.

In the lactose intolerant category, Speedy takes a spirit walk just like Jason Todd did.  It's neither as rich nor illuminating, more like lazy repetition exposing Speedy as an alcoholic and Green Arrow's former sidekick.  

Chrysty Marx's stint on The Birds of Prey continues to honor the great writing of Duane Swierzynski, who created this team and their new 52 personas.  For example, Marx already proved that she could write for Starling, Swierzysnki's whole-cloth conception.  She demonstrated a superb ear for Starling's wit.  Now, she does the same for Condor in a scene that also displays Batgirl's natural acumen and Canary's detective skills.  She also builds on Dinah's status as a martial artist in a flashback featuring a cameo of Team 7.

Mr. Freeze offers to make a trade.  Starling for Strix, the former Court of Owls assassin that Batgirl and Catwoman took custody of in the awesome Batgirl Annual. During the encounter, Marx gels the team, which now includes Condor.  It's interesting to see Marx's handling of the only male amidst the Birds because he as well is a Swierzynski creation. 

As the story unfolds, we discover the cover is less of a come on than originally thought, but I don't believe that this is the end to the surprises and double-crosses.

Turmoil in the Gem Houses marks this issue of Sword and Sorcery.  In the House of Onyx, a not so favored son returns.  Linking Eclipso to the world of Amethyst is an inspired choice by writer Christy Marx.  His presence immediately increases the momentum of the overall story, and I suspect he will catalyze the tying of loose ends.

It's unfortunate that this series is on the chopping block, but you can already see the threads coming together.  Amethyst's friend and fellow princess Ingvie, gains the knowledge of her mother, who Eclipso killed last issue.  The Shadow Walkers of Onxy suffer immense casualties, and unite the survivors against the bloodthirsty, blue beast.  The House of Diamond falls with a beheading, collusion and betrayal.  

Remember.  This is all in one issue. Amethyst's mother Graciel falls to weakness from her battle against her sister Mordiel, and Mordiel's thirst for power seems likely to be tabled for the good of all Gemworld.  Amethyst herself? Promises vengeance and will likely be the Buffy to battle Eclipso.

Despite being packed with plot points and characterization twists, the book doesn't feel hurried at all.  We can credit that to Aaron Lopresti who provided the absolutely lovely artwork throughout the run and expanding the fantasy genre of comic books with his remarkable imagination and eye for design.  Lopresti here in addition must be commended for his control of the visual narrative, judiciously segueing from facet to facet, following Eclipso's desires for domination.

Because of the subject matter, a world of gems cannot be rendered in black and white.  I'm betting Lopresti imagines the colors as he illustrates.  The colorists demonstrate what a feel for the rainbow and skill with the amazing technology available today can do for a book dependent on opulence.

I don't believe Power Girl officially met Supergirl before.  I'd remember scenes like this even if not rendered in Mahmud Asrar's spectacular artwork and Dave McCaig's popping colors.

Now working solo, Michael Johnson does something original with the parallel universe concept in SupergirlUnexpectedly, it is through Power Girl that he sends Supergirl's kryptonite poisoning into temporary stasis.

Rather than rely on a clunky dialogued meeting between the two Maids of Might, Johnson crafts nuggets of speech that fit both characters and draws on only the gist of what occurs to inform the reader.  He relies on the reader's intellect to read between the lines as he insightfully employs the consequences of the new 52 to bring these heroes together.  

The cover to Lookouts gives you an idea of the attractive cartoony artwork and hints at a major plot point for the story.  One of Ranger Samson's Lookouts possesses a hitherto unknown power, amusingly highlighted in flashback, yet the best scene in Lookouts occurs in a tale within the tale.

One of the Lookouts, Lark, recounts a fable that may give them a clue on how to defeat the Sphinx that refuses to allow passage.  It seems that a young girl faced down the beast and with guile impressed the creature enough that it allowed her to live.  More to the point, it flew off to greener pastures.  I got a Buffy vibe from the moment.  So big kudos there.  Another female protagonist aids Boli in the flashback.  This integration of the sexes in the pool of bravery and adventure injects Lookouts with a much needed estrogen/adrenaline boost.

Carol Lay concocts a mystery birthday party for Marge in Simpsons Comics, and Lay surprises me.  It's not that I didn't think that she was capable of creating a feature length story, juiced with continuity.  Carol Lay after-all wrote Wonder Woman: Mythos, a prose novel I thoroughly enjoyed in 2003.  I simply associate her with shorter and more abstract stories in The Simpsons comics line.  Often her tales defy convention by being based purely on art or even sound, which is doubly challenging given the medium.

Nevertheless, Lay here creates a fairplay mystery within the world of the Simpsons, and it's equal to the number of mysteries aired on the television series.  Lay presents all the clues for the reader to witness.  Your job is to figure out what's going.  Some of the means by which she hides the enigma in plain sight are ingenious, and her twists to reach certain  conventions of the detective genre are comedic as well as effective.

Artistically speaking, Lay here uses the idea of specific models for cartoon characters perfectly.  I admit that I really didn't latch on to the idea of this particular culprit until Lay blatantly foreshadows the identity through commentary from one of the cast.  This would be the pity clue.

To say any more would give the game away.  By turning back to the introduction, and focusing on the face you can see a resemblance even when Lay keeps the antagonist's noticeable features hidden.  Suddenly, Clark Kent's glasses do not seem so poor a disguise for Superman.

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