Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Pick of the Brown Bag
April 24, 2013


Ray Tate

Welcome to the Pick of the Brown Bag.  This week we look at All-Star Western with Jonah Hex, Bart Simpson Comics, Batman: Dark Knight, Bela Lugosi's Tales from the Grave, Bionic Woman, Justice League Dark, Superman, the final issue of Witch Doctor Mal Practice and Juipiter's Legacy.

Paul Tobin better meshes his two storylines running through Bionic WomanPreviously, I said that the threat to Jamie Sommer's school chum seemed tangential to the revolt of the Fembots.  Tobin though through stronger narrative control and casually delivered dialogue smooths the flow of the story so that it seems perfectly reasonable that these two threads would weave simultaneously.

Jamie does not seem so surprised when her school chum appears to be in on the setup.  Jamie's nonplussed attitude subtley characterizes her as an experienced secret agent enured to betrayal and things being not as they seem.  Still, she seems quite willing to  help her friend, recognizing that she's way outside her depth when tossing in with the terrorist organization Bratva.  

Taking these elements into consideration, Tobin shocks the reader with an unexpected moment violence, and in this way he frames Bionic Woman as a genuine drama.  Like Justified and Burn Notice, events can play overall light and funny, but when the atmosphere turns serious, it's deadly serious.  Because of the contrast, the switch carries greater impact.

Tobin's partners artists Juan Antonio Ramirez and colorist Mark Roberts facilitate the feeling by portraying Jamie as a warm, perpetually bemused individual.  Her facial features lean toward smiles and friendliness, even when dealing with cold-blooded killers.  Piss her off though, and you get scenes like this.  

Nope.  Not going to tell you what Jamie's doing.  It's too cool.

Ramirez and Roberts lend this feeling as well to the Fembots.  Generally speaking, the lady A.I. are supposed to behave non-threateningly.  They are subterfuge assassins swathed in sensuality and style.  Ramirez and Roberts deserve special credit for multiplying Fembot Katy's comely countenance through a plethora of sister androids yet never once forgetting to imbue each with lively body language.  The Fembots despite their sobriquet do not move stiffly or stiltedly, and you'll get no blank stares from these lovelies.

Worst Batman Dark Knight ever.  The plot inches along like a snail with congestion.  The incremental calcification includes Batman tagging Natalya with a tracer, the Mad Hatter targeting Natalya in one of the most contrived twists I've seen from writer Gregg Hurwitz and a mass murder similar to the Joker's much more horrifying act of homicide in "Death of the Family."

In order to get to these scintillating nuggets--excuse me a moment whilst I yawn--we must wade through the guest artist's lack of skill.  The Mad Hatter portion of the story exacerbates his madness, adding homage to the Silver Age Lex Luthor. 

Stupid in itself, and the fierce, eye-scorching color try and fail to hide the illustrator's shortcomings.  

In contrast, the Batcave is almost pitch black.  A Windows laptop throws off more light when unplugged.  The issue was clearly put together in an act of desperation to meet a deadline, and you shouldn't reward the people behind this slapdash for sloppy work.  Avoid this unnecessary waste of coin.  Skipping the issue won't disrupt the totality of the story.

Batman's partner in crimefighting, Superman must deal with a confusing alien invasion filled with bad puns.  On the plus side, Superman thwarts the visitors by using his noggin in conjunction with his superpowers.

Unfortunately, Superman then talks to himself.  

Meanwhile, Superman's paramour Wonder Woman attends a party Lois Lane throws.  For some reason, she impresses everybody just by standing in the doorway. 

I don't get it.  What's the hubbub, bub?  Rocafort illustrates Diana as a normal woman.  Sure, she's got a bigger bust than Lois, but it's not like a drumbeat accompanies Diana's sashay.

Never-the-less, the scenes with Wonder Woman offer some genuinely enjoyable moments.  Wonder Woman quickly assesses who's who and charms the cast with her savvy.  That's not a euphemism. 

Soon, though everybody acts abby normal--except Superman and Wonder Woman--because traditional Green Lantern villain Hector Hammond throws his psychic weight around the city to tamper with normal intelligences.  

Countering Hector Hammond, Orion who's "on a mission from god," head honcho Highfather that is.  The New God quickly diverts his attention from the brain-dead Hammond to a very surprised Man of Steel to kick off what looks to be an exciting and ludicrous battle between the titans.

Underused Justice League member Cyborg guest stars in the epilogue of The FlashRegrettably, the epilogue is really the only thing memorable.  Cyborg gains a bit more personality.  Batman gets name-checked in a surveillance routine that coincides with the Flash's loss of powers, and the Reverse Flash of the new 52 introduces himself ominously.

Before the final pages, non-powered, Barry Allen foils an attempt to break Trickster out of Iron Gate prison.  It's a mostly by rote plot with decent artwork but nothing spectacular like previous issues.

The Flash however makes for a great guest-star in this week's explosive Justice League Dark.  Jeff Lemire and Ray Fawkes team up again for a strong story in which somebody scampers off with the House of Mystery, JLD's TARDIS-like headquarters.

The issue is a great jump-on point.  Lemire and Fawkes essentially reintroduce Justice League Dark to new readers, without being obvious about it.  

Constantine opens the book at the races, where an attempt on his life turns out to be a comedic, cunning means of sorcery.  At the same time, Deadman, demonstrating his possession powers, chats to the JLD's former government liason Steve Trevor in an amusing moment that also clues the reader into the schism between the Justice League and the Justice League of America, created to destroy Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and the rest.  The League unlikely feel the same about the JLD, who exist to combat magical threats to the world.

Constantine calls the team together to meet at Madame Xanadu's, and this is where Lemire and Fawkes issue a change with the talented title artist Michael Janin.  

Xanadu used to be very tight lipped, but with her rejuvenation comes more openness about her prophecies.  She can still be cryptic, but most of her foresight is useful rather than color commentary.  She might have even said to Barbara Gordon, "Hit the Dirt when the Clown knocks in the Dark."

We have two monsters on the team this week.  Frankenstein Agent of SHADE continues to aid JLD.  Frankenstein resigned from SHADE during Rotworld, but that timeline no longer exists.  So, Frankenstein is still fighting on behalf of the secret organization.  Constantine also calls Swamp Thing, and this is a momentous occasion since Swamp Thing doesn't really know Constantine, except from Rotworld.  Ironic, since the occult conman was introduced Swamp Thing's post-Crisis title.  It's the new 52, baby.

The whole shebang turns out to be a clever shell game perpetuated by a classic Justice League foe that foreshadows Justice League Dark's participation in the Trinity War.  It just occurred to me that the Trinity may not be who we expect but may represent the three Justice League groups.

Jupiter's Legacy will soon be a christened a critical darling.  I'd expect nothing less in response to a calculated, cynical, exploitation of the superhero concept.  Rubbish is often mistaken for art.

Sheldon Sampson in 1932 takes siblings and college chums to an island where they inexplicably receive superpowers to become Golden Age crimefighters.  I say inexplicable because writer Mark Millar feels that the origin itself is unimportant, as long as we get from point A to point D.

Millar skips points B and C which likely consisted of champions of justice shutting down the Nazi war machine.  If Millar actually showed the Golden Age superheroes of his fiction fighting Nazis, the reader might consider those superheroes as forces for idealism and want more.  This would diminish Millar's central treatise: superheroes are actually a malevolent phenomena when not useless.  

I'm really, really sick of this argument.  It does not hold a drop of water.  For all the claims that superheroes represent fascism, not a single pulp hero from Doc Savage to the Spider supported the Nazis.  Not a sole comic strip hero from Dick Tracy to The Phantom ever once lifted a finger to help the Axis Powers.  Not one comic book hero from Aquaman to Zatara threw his lot in with the Third Reich, and the Ku Klux Klan's secrets were revealed on the Superman radio show.

The facetious drivel expounded upon in Jupiter's Legacy cannot be traced to the most minuscule shred in the fabric of history.  The heroes throughout time destroyed crime even if that crime was on a global scale, and that's because the heroes' creators and contributors frequently suspended their passions to go and do their part to fight goose-stepping terrorists, whom they disdained.

Let's see if I can discern Millar's complex argument.  I'm not that cunning after-all.  It appears that Mark Millar is saying that if superheroes existed in our century, indeed throughout history, they would make no difference and succumb to the same pressures that affect normal people; turning them into a kind of sanctioned thug brigade…

...and/or hypocritical, egotistical prima donas, represented by kid heroes who abuse their powers to become celebrities and slackers.

James Bond saves the world 24/7.  He deserves all the sex he can handle.  The layabout toad in Jupiter's Legacy deserves conjugal visits with porcupines. 

His sister isn't much better.  She reflects the airhead celebutantes of the world, but you know what, celebrities that are frequent targets of media ridicule often do lots of good.  For example, Paris Hilton very quietly supports several worthwhile charities such as Cancer Research UK, the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Starlight and Clothes off Our Backs.  

In the fiction, Chloe Sampson supports an endometriosis foundation, if we're to believe her brother for brand recognition.  Endometriosis is an incurable real life condition, and to make light of it would be inexcusable, but I don't think endometriosis lies in the same category as cancer or AIDS.  Birth control pills reduce the risk of endometriosis.  Numerous medications can control the symptoms.  Surgery can be employed when the condition manifests severely.   

In real life, endometriosis organizations exist, but I must ask why would Millar pick endometriosis and not cancer, AIDS or a rape prevention organization.  I think the answer can be found in the overall unfamiliarity with endometriosis.  By picking a condition that's not as instantly recognizable as say leukemia, Millar eliminates the possibility for sympathy with Chloe Sampson.  Whereas if Chloe supported for instance victims of domestic violence, she would be doing something that a superhero would do.  Such a move would undermines Millar's entire premise.

Jupiter's Legacy tarnishes the actual legacy of the pulps, comic strips, comic books and the large family of artists and writers that gave us such entertaining adventures.  Because of Kickass, Mark Millar can write what he wants.  He chose this thing.  I hope that one day, he'll once again see superheroes not as the enemy but as the inspirations that they are, such as when he wrote Superman Adventures:

Superman Adventures #23

The dialogue burns with strong emotion as opposed to schmaltzy melodrama, and Superman may never have been so enraged as he batters Brainiac into the Arctic Circle...

Superman Adventures #35

Mark Millar winds the clockwork of a twisted little mystery that relies upon the Toyman's psychosis in Superman Adventures.  The Man of Steel in Mr. Millar's hands makes a surprisingly--well, not really. This is afterall Mark Millar--talented detective, fitting his reporter persona, but he is also a man who speaks with the voice of one who can defy gravity.
Without a doubt the most entertaining read this week is All-Star WesternWe begin the book with Jonah Hex investigating a recent shooting of gold prospectors.  He suspects this to be the work of Clem Hootkins and his Gang.

Clem thanks to artist Moritat bears a striking resemblance to Klaus Kinski's Loco from The Great Silence.

The most bizarre thing about All-Star Western is that this analogue from one of the darkest spaghetti westerns ever made, mosies into a pitch black comedy slaughter in what's essentially a throwback to The Brave and the Bold.  

You see, the surly Jonah Hex isn't accompanied by constant source of consternation Professor Amadeus Arkham.  Instead, Hex encounters, and that is the right word, time traveler Booster Gold.

I should explain that over the years I came to hate Booster Gold.  His self-serving attitude as he competed against Superman grated on me.  His role in an interminable company wide crossover and its dependence on football passes as the major turning point vexed me.  In Booster Gold's second volume, DC used the time traveler to explain why Batgirl's crippling actually made perfect sense in a DC Universe, filled with scientific wonder, magic and time travel.  Yeah, I pretty much loathed Booster Gold after that.

It's the new 52, and Booster's first foray involved the formation of Justice League International.  We know how that went down, but writers Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray get Booster just right.  This is how a time traveler from a Utopian future should act, and I think it's how comic book fans would behave if given the opportunity to wield great power.  

Booster pops up all smiles, wanting to have fun.  He accepts the responsibility given to him and tries to do the best he can, even though he's clearly out of his depth.  He has issue with Jonah Hex's use of guns as well as his cavalier attitude about the worth of life, but Booster recognizes the bounty hunter as more experienced.  At the same time, he's not about to just bow out.  Originally, Booster was no better than the bastards in Jupiter's Legacy.  Here, he's actually a good representative of the superhero community.  

The back up feature introduces Cody Barrow, ace circus gunfighter and trick rider.  This brilliant character made up from nothing and bearing the resonance of a Silver Age cowpoke fights werewolves.  Really, do I need to say any more than that?

In the latest issue of Witch Doctor's letters page, writer Brandon Siefert hopes that he tied up all the loose ends in Mal Practice.  Let's see.  Had the title character Dr. Vincent Morrow, his assistant Eric Ghast, the demonically infected Charlotte and cute consulting necromancer from Resuscitation kick the assess of the Big Bad's flunkies, check.  A Bram Stoker Award worthy moment from Penny Dreadful, check.

Imagine looking at Penny's actions and realizing that there was nothing you could do to save yourself from that thing.  Siefert and artist Lucas Ketner just send chills up the spine.  The Loogaroo in Penny's sights is going to die, and she knows she's going to die.  The fact that the creature is cogent makes this feeling even more uncomfortable to experience.

The good Dr. Morrow himself goes off to face the Big Bad that intends to spread the supernatural plague through an entirely plausible and practical method.  Siefert deserves kudos for the original means in which the battle between good and evil plays out.  Evil cheats, but Dr. Morrow while down isn't out.  The finale leads to a very humorous epilogue in which unknown forces plan bad things for Dr. Morrow and his crew, the Witch Doctor strikes a bargain with Charlotte, who gains a friend, and more embarrassment for Eric.

The latest issue of Bela Lugosi is a treasure trove for horror fans.  As always, the late great Dracula narrates the anthology, and all the writers of these voiceovers capture Lugosi's plum, dramatic delivery.

In the first story the talented Michael Leal reanimates the noveau zombie genre. "The Last Survivor" has all the trappings of a zombie film in which plague appears to bring back the dead, gruesomely illustrated by Nik Poliwko.  The twist however cleverly turns the idea on its head.

"The Mummy's Ring" by Sam F. Park facilitates Henry Mayo's illustration of a zaftig femme fatale about to discover that a mummy's curse cannot be broken.  I have a special fondness for mummy stories, and this one is an excellent reshuffling of Universal mummy tropes.

"Second to One" by Benton Jew is reminiscent of an EC nasty.  The tale of two long distance runners gains suspense from Jew's ghoulish sensibilities as well as comprehension of the runner's world.
Mike Hoffman known as a babe artists cannot help but add a strange nymph amidst a two-man play that looks to be shot on the Red Planet Mars turned green.  "Those Crazy Kids on Vlad 7" is a short but sweet gag horror with some notable monster art.

The awesome "Further Adventures of Dr. Vornoff and Lobo" by Joe Freire is a single page Robot Chicken inspired sequel to Lugosi's and Ed Wood's Bride of the Monster.  Freire soundly captures the voices and the unintelligible grunts of the stars as they seek out new blood for their experiments.

Finally, "Bloodwatch" by Lugosi descendent Jonathan Sparks is a juicily descriptive vignette that should not be skipped.

In "The Martin Chronicles" Ian Boothby bases his story on Martin's want for popularity, evinced in a subplot for The Simpsons episode "Bart of Darkness."  Martin coldly calculates that all he needs to do to gain popularity is to eliminate the second least popular kid in Springfield Elementary, one Milhouse Van Houten.  This leads to a battle of the brainy and the brainless for Bart's esteem.  The whole thing goes to phooey when Boothby introduces a hilariously contrived school rule.

As always Phil Ortiz, Mike Rote and Nathan Hamill bring the cast to life and make use of some infrequent guest stars, such as Allison Taylor from "Lisa's Rival."  Note also how the artists portray Bart's anxiety over making an ill-fated mistake that likely could not be avoided.

Tony Digerlamo in "Springfield Babies" spoofs the original Deadzone movie.  This leads to artist Dexter Reed's spot on Christopher Walken impression through a Matt Groening lens.

Ian Brill's "Nights of the Dinner Table" posits a midnight encounter that beautifully employs the chemistry of Homer and Bart.  This terrific father and son antic is enlivened by Rex Lindsey's sharp imitation of The Simpsons design and a sight-gag of fashion as the two dim male Simpsons attempt to disguise themselves.

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