Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Pick of the Brown Bag
June 5, 2013

Ray Tate

This week in The Pick of the Brown Bag, we discuss the merits of Ame-Comi Girls, Batwing, Detective Comics, Earth 2, Fearless Defenders, Legends of the Dark Knight, Red She-Hulk and Swamp Thing.  First though a quick review of the film Now You See Me.  No spoilers of course.

Now You See Me is everything you can possibly want from cinema about magicians that commit brilliant, bloodless heists.  The splendid ensemble cast integrates into a single acting force.  Nobody steals the film.  

The move is about intricate parts uniting to form a greater scheme.  There's comedy, action, a little subtle romance, but by far, it's the cleverness of the plot, the affability of the characters and the imagination of the direction that entertain throughout.  Furthermore, the story succeeds by pulling off the unexpected.  The narrative does not fall into the trap of trite melodrama.  So, put Now You See Me on your list.  It's a terrific movie.

Now, On to the Comic book Reviews...

The best part of Detective Comics is what's not seen.  Batman wipes out an assassination squad in two minutes between pages.  The implication's almost as good as his off-panel encounter against the Punisher...

...and it exemplifies the no-bull new 52 version of Batman.  The rest of the story is bog standard vigilante fare, followed by a boring Man-Bat backup.

Detective opens with a flashback.  Young Bruce Wayne kicks an assassin through a window only to shock, horrors discover...

It's Mio Out the Window

...the young girl he's been dallying with.  This catalyzes Mio's return to the sensei, most likely Ra's Al Ghul.  Her head bowed in shame.  

Thankfully, there's a solution.  She will train to become the ultimate assassin and in the future, Batman's present, harness shadow magic to gain four arms.
Let me explain why this sucks so much.  Layman's story depends on the cliche of young lovers being forced to fight each other as grown ups.  This idea was never bettered after Daredevil.  So, if you're going to challenge the Elektra/Matt Murdock dynamic, you'll have to do more than remix half-hearted Shaw Brothers chopsocky and a Thark from the John Carter adventures of Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Any time you go back into Batman's past to find a Ninja-like assassin, you can bank on the dull.  He's already beat this archetype again and again; what's to stop Batman from whipping another pajama clad ass?  Shurikens? Flashpowder? Bolos? Boomerangs?  Batman basically keeps Ninja tools in his utility belt, and once he used a simple cast iron skillet to waste a couple of Ninjas.

This Program is Brought to You Buy Skull Cracking Cookware

Two extra insubstantial arms won't tip the balance in the villain's favor.  Shadow arms have the efficacy of a cat-flap in a rhinoceros house, and face it.  These things are ridiculous.  Mio intends to kill her target at a distance.  All well and good, but she uses her vaunted shadow powers to cut open a circle in the window and employ a shadow crossbow to fire a shadow bolt at the ducky in shadow sight.

What rubbish.  Dealers in death have been making effective, lethal sniper rifles for decades.  According to wikipedia, glass cutters have been around since 1869.  I'm beginning to think that the sensei set up Mio as a long con joke.

Mio's shadow arms are impressive enough to be thwarted by Harper Row, who guest stars.  No bones to Harper Row, but she's just a resourceful, untrained aid to Batman.  Batman is the finest martial artist on the face of the earth and strategist extraordinaire.  What chance does Mio have against Batman if she can't outwit Harper Row?


The thing is.  Neither Harper or Batman were actually needed.  The nature of the defeat could have been orchestrated by Chief O'Hara.
The predictability of the tale is insulting.  Batman confronts Mio, and you know that great heights will equate to a great fall.  This is the second love interest Batman loses to gravity.  Mind you, since shadow arms are involved.  Mio goes poof instead of splat.  Bottom line.  Awesome artist Scott Eaton deserved a better story to illustrate.

In the final issue of Legends of the Dark Knight I'm willing to purchase, the ordinarily impressive Christos Gage puts together a pedestrian Scarecrow story that pales when compared to past efforts.

For example, Alan Grant's and John Wagner's Scarecrow from the Batman and Judge Dredd team-up Judgement on Gotham doses Judge Death and draws out a fear of cute, fuzzy animals.  Shades of Anya. 
The Denny O'Neil Scarecrow induced a fear of the Batman in the very people he wishes to protect.  Mike Barr's Scarecrow removed fear altogether to create reckless victims.  All new angles on an old Batman rogue.

Gage just produces an inferior variation on the Batman: Animated Series classic "Over the Edge," in which Batgirl under the influence of Scarecrow's fear gas imagines her death triggering a war between Batman and her father Commissioner Gordon.  

In Gage's tale, Batman succumbs to the fear gas and imagines a different dystopian solo future.  Gage evolves no suspense in this pessimistic scenario because you know that Batman will overcome the drug and that it's all fantasy.  None of the story is real.  The key to such chicanery is imbuing verisimilitude to the story we have been following forever, implying that it is the fantasy, and reality is a much darker, unhappy place.

Ray Fawkes follows Gage with a forgettable Batman/Catwoman short.  Batman just seems like a bully in this tale, and Stephanie Roux's excellent artwork is the only thing I can support.

A new Batman makes another grand entrance in Earth 2, but his cameo isn't the only element of Earth 2 worthy of your time. Hawkgirl trashes rat-riding Apokoliptan soldiers, and as you can see, this is all kinds of awesome. 

Courtesy of Yildiray Cinar

However, these scenes offer only tiny slivers in the otherwise talky, redundant lion's share.  James Robinson belabors his point by relating the origin of Captain Steel as Steel prepares to enter a fire pit left behind after the war between Earth 2 and Apokolips.  

Khan, the leader of the World Army just doesn't know when to shut up.  He goes on and on for six pages, and Robinson undermines the point of these words when he has Steel summarize the whole enchilada thusly.

One panel.  Just one panel.  So why did we need to listen to all that exposition?  Why didn't we cut to the chase and get on with the Fire Pit Diving?  Why glaze over the reader's eyes with a long speech of description?  Bloody hell.

I'm pleased to say that Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray infuse far, far more energy in their second issue of BatwingThis was an exciting read.

They begin with the duel between the super weird Lion Mane and Batwing.  Lucas Fox, son of Lucius, cracks wise as he uses every Bat-trick in the book to fight a villain who literally has delusions of grandeur.  In the process, Batwing makes Lion Mane an arch enemy.

The fun continues when Gray and Palmiotti look in on Lucus' home life, giving him a strong cast of family members whose personalities vary to create a conflicting tapestry of amusement. Palmiotti and Gray also take time to generate comedy from Lucus' private life and create yet another strong female character to befuddle our young Batwing.

When Gray and Palmiotti turn their attention away from Lucus, Batwing still stays interesting.  Their versatile use of the insectoid Marabunta--I think I had some toys like these guys--offers numerous moments of eyebrow-raising fancy.  All this and terrific artwork by Eduardo Pansica.

Palmiotti and Gray just hit all the right notes with Ame-Comi Girls This series based on a line of toys is way, way better than it has a right to be.  For those not in the know, the writers more or less feminize the DC universe.  For example, there's no Superman.  Instead, Power Girl's capsule crashed in Smallville.  However, she still has a cousin in Supergirl and dates Jimmy Olsen, not Lois Lane.

Gray and Palmiotti weave numerous plot-lines without dropping a stitch.  First the Star Sapphire gem corrupts Carol Ferris and amplifies her lust for Jimmy Olsen.  I still can only at best tolerate Jimmy, and Palmiotti and Gray offer more than a spoonful of sugar to make the bitter medicine go down.

Star Sapphire is one of those characters that just smacks of Silver Age male chauvinism, but the writers make good use of her in this opening gambit that highlights just how preposterous her motive is and demonstrates the limits to Power Girl's abilities.

There's no getting around this spoiler.  Power Girl meets the new Green Lantern in this issue, and the creative team establish how much of a threat this Star Sapphire is to a Lantern not romantically involved.

I had to laugh at that.  Once these cliffhangers have been addressed, Gray and Palmiotti display Power Girl's organizational skills as she tries to free Supergirl from the thrall of Brainiac.  The first step is to call the Atom.

I'd be curious to know which female Atom came first Avril or Ronda.  Palmiotti and Gray with the Atom recalls classic Bronze Age adventures of Ray Palmer.

They however add several twists to engage the reader in the fight for Kara's life and sanity.  The clever means the Atom exploits makes for good science fiction problem solving, but don't relax quite yet.  Gray and Palmiotti transport you to Oa where the Guardians relate the tale of Sinestro.

Two artists,Eduardo Francisco and Derec Donovan, contribute to the book's look, but both are less manga influenced.  The overall design entertains and attracts while keeping a focused visual narrative.  Ame-Comi Girls earns my highest recommendation.
Two swamp creatures shamble onto stage this week.  New Swamp Thing writer Charles Soule agreeably demonstrates the differences between the new 52 Swamp Thing of Alec Holland and the old universe Swamp Thing.  Alec simply hasn't drank any Kool-Aid.  He's welcome in the Parliament of Trees, but he doesn't trust them.  He's not alone.  When he visits a former Champion of the Green, Alec listens to some good advice.

This trip down memory lane is due to Soule's creation Capucine, an immortal woman who seeks…

The legends says that if you kill Capucine, the remainder of her life will flow into you.  We've of course seen this before...

Soule does however create a different feel.  We're still in DC superhero territory for Swamp Thing so The Powers That Be chose an artist familiar with the traditions of comic book illustration.  Manhunter's Jesus Saiz is willing to explore and layout a different panel flow as well as protect proportion and human dynamism.

Man-Thing appears in this issue of Red She-Hulk, and it's mainly his appearance that makes the book mildly interesting.  Writer Jeff Parker evolved Man-Thing in his Thunderbolts title, but it's still amusing to hear the Man-Thing talk in Creole.

Parker also includes a great scene where Man-Thing demonstrates his trademark power--"For whatever knows fear, burns at the Man-Thing's touch"--and what appeared to be his ultimate state, the Protector of the Cosmic Nexus to Realities.

Parker also works in the original She-Hulk, and Shulkie's exploitation of Echelon, the Big Bad of the affair, is a sneaky, unexpected moment displaying cunning worthy of an attorney.  The actual Red She-Hulk parts of the book are fairly blasé.  

Red She-Hulk serves as the McGuffin.  She's what everybody's after, but when Parker tries to focus on her, attempts to give her the resonance of a false history, it's difficult to care.  Red She-Hulk is as much of a cipher as she was to begin with.

Fearless Defenders is a hullabaloo of femme superhero pulchritude.  Misty Knight calls in the cavalry...

...and as justice demands, Tigra prowls amongst them.  Greer's presence alone is enough for me to recommend Fearless Defenders, but writer Cullen Bunn injects humor into the dialogue to make every word a delightful morsel.  

The Black Cat substitutes for Spider-Man when regarding her peers.  She-Hulk realizes the implications of fighting alongside Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons.  New to me, the Tarantula demonstrates her mercenary qualities.

Thundra questions the reason why Valkyrie insists that Annabelle Riggs fight with the heroines, and this is where Bunn hints at a plan beneath the team-ups.  Bunn further must be given accolades for not overly promoting the likable character he created.  Riggs gets her moment in the sun, but it's tied into Marvel continuity and genuinely funny.

Bunn doesn't see any reason why the villains shouldn't benefit from a little sly wit, and so, Carol de Fey also exhibits some self-deprecating humor early in the adventure, and Mr. Raven her henchman takes a beating from Dani Moonstar.

Bunn's counterpart Will Sliney does a fantastic job depicting curves, composure and constriction of muscle.  Another artist might take advantage of the situation and turn the book into a cheesecake factory, but Sliney sticks to action and anatomic plausibility.  Highly recommended. 

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