Monday, June 3, 2013

Pick of the Brown Bag
May 30, 2013

Ray Tate

Welcome to the Pick of the Brown Bag.  This week it's Annual season with Catwoman, Earth 2 and the defacto annual Smallville Season 11 SpecialFuturama Comics and The Wake as well as the all female X-Men and Justice League of America also make the list.

Created by writer Bill O'Connor and artist Ben Flinton, the Atom debuted in the 1940's All-American Comics.  Originally, Al Pratt possessed no superhuman ability.  He was diminutive, but like the embodiment of a Joe Wieder advertisement, he worked himself into shape to become a formidable brawler of gangsters, Nazis and fascists.  As time went on, DC's powers incorporated the Golden Age heroes into their cosmology.  The importance of the Atom grew.

From DC Special #29: Levitz, Staton, Layton, Tollin

Even before the Bronze Age, writers and artists tweaked the Atom.  In 1948, the Atom gained a genuine Atomic Punch and super-strength.  His premiere costume changed to a boring outfit more in keeping with superhero haute coutre.  However, the Atom always returned as he originally appeared sans powers.

The only adult male hero that could convincingly carry off short pants 

I always liked the original Atom, even more so than Ray Palmer, the size-changing earth one hero.

Earth 2 focuses on the new Al Pratt.  Writer James Robinson places Pratt undercover and in danger to bring a war profiteer to justice.  As the latest incarnation of the little fellow carries out his mission, he recalls his origin, the survivor's guilt involving atomic rebirth and the allies and rivals he encountered since becoming a World Army operative.  So, if you're keen on the new Atom, this issue is for you.  The trouble is that I couldn't care less about this version of the Atom.

I have never liked the giant man concept.  Let's take a dude that's on average physically stronger, usually taller than a woman and grow him so that he's about two or three times stronger and taller than a woman.  Sure, he outmatches men as well, but the giant man represents the height of male chauvinism. There are of course exceptions.

Hanna-Barbera's Meteor Man of the Galaxy Trio takes the concept of a giant man and turns it on its ear.  

Meteor Man is almost always impossibly out of proportion, but Meteor Man is an alien.  That fact excuses the differences in scale.  We don't exactly know what type of musculoskeletal structure he possesses.  Regardless, his metamorphosis has nothing to do with machismo.  The same can be said about Japanese alien superhero Ultraman, who battles giant monsters.  He's a titan for a reason.

Giant-Girl from Marvel Adventures Avengers defies convention because she's Janet Van Dyne.  Traditionally the Wasp and the low-powered girlfriend of Hank Pym, the alternate Janet, said, "Hell, why would I want to grow small when I can go big?"  Giant-Girl defies male power and expectations.

Fortunately, as the cover suggests, the Earth 2 Annual also debuts the all-new Earth 2 Batman.

If you're new to Earth 2, the Bruce Wayne of the parallel world like his pre-Crisis counterpart died in battle.  This new Batman is an unknown quantity, but what can be said is that he is a bad ass, and some of his imagery recalls other earth two Batman mythology. 

The Huntress observes the JSA 

On the basis of Batman, I can recommend the Earth 2 Annual.  His moments are brief, but they're memorable, and he earns a nice little vignette that has a beginning, middle and end.  If you're a fan of the Atom, bonus.

Why DC didn't refer to The Smallville Special as an annual is anybody's guess.  Its page rate definitely falls into the annual category.  Perhaps, because the focus shifts away from Superman, the book doesn't count as an annual.  

Clark does make an amusing appearance in the beginning of the story, but he quickly exits stage right.  The Special instead stars Batman and J'onn J'onzz, the Martian Manhunter.  J'onn appeared on television in the form of Phil Morris.  

Batman only arrived in the comic book spin-off of Smallville.  For reasons nobody can fathom, despite Warner Brothers owning the character, the powers running Smallville could never get permission to introduce Batman on the series.

For J'onn the story kicks off when he succumbs to a telepathic attack at home.  For Batman, the tale springs during a routine foray into Gotham's underworld where he and Nightwing (Babs Gordon) clean house.  An anomaly that Batman couldn't predict wounds Babs.

The action forces Batman to place her in a regenerative solution--no crippled for twenty-four years here.  While Barbara heals, Batman receives an unwanted visitor in the Batcave.

Rendered by the excellent team of Axel Gimenez, colorist Ranier Petter and a slew of inkers, you can tell that this close encounter isn't going to go down well.  In that respect, The Smallville Special reads like any other superhero team-up, but the battle between the two champions is brief, and they soon pool their efforts to hunt down the extra-ordinary person that injured Nightwing.

This story travels in very surprising directions.  While its trappings expand, the story becomes an involving detective story, fitting for the stars.  A nod to The New Frontier takes a few twists, and the finale clears a remarkable hurdle to become unexpectedly optimistic.  This is especially true given how people perceive Batman and the Martian Manhunter as dark heroes.  Along the way, Miller entertains though the character interaction and imagines how a television designed Batman might work.  To remind you that this is a Smallville creation, Miller includes some choice television-centric moments.  All and all, this annual by default really is special.

I could mention Star-Spangled Kid's plucky defiance of conservative nutbar Amanda Waller.  I could note the old timey Hawkman/Green Arrow barbs, but no Justice League of America is about Catwoman's promise.

What happened next in Justice League of America justifiably rippled through the comic book reading community.  The event however isn't as important as the characterization of the Batman's and Catwoman's relationship.

Selina Kyle debuted as a master jewel thief known as the Cat.  She wore no costume.  Her stealth explained her name.  She was a typical femme fatale, offering the hero sex not love, a partnership in illicit behavior.  

As time went on, Catwoman donned a costume and fell hard for Batman, but the duo never crossed the line.  They flirted, but Batman's steadfast adherence to the spirit of the law stopped him from ever consummating a relationship with the thief, until of course the more mature-themed Bronze Age.

On both earths, Batman and Catwoman became a couple.  On earth two, they married and produced Helena Wayne.  On earth one, they were partners in the pursuit of justice and in the bedroom.  Certainly, you saw nothing, but only the willfully blind would think they just held hands.

During the conservative post-Crisis, Catwoman's interest in Batman cooled.  Jo Duffy, Chuck Dixon and Ed Brubaker seldom involved Batman in Catwoman's affairs.  In the latter case, perhaps due to the influence of artist Darwyn Cooke, Selina and Batman at least became good friends.

In a bid to restore the DC characters to their former glory, the latest version of Catwoman debuted in the new 52 by having sex with Batman.  Their tryst shouldn't have been but was considered controversial.  Nobody studies comic book history these days.  Well, almost nobody.

The new 52 writers have been trying to build on the Batman and Catwoman relationship.  The couple aren't just friends with favors.  They genuinely care about each other.  

It's incredibly sweet that Catwoman knows, doesn't just believe, but knows that Batman will destroy the Secret Society over her death.  The possibility parallels Batman's Bronze Age rage over Batwoman's bona fide demise and the purported death of Batgirl.

Batman will avenge Catwoman no matter who gets in his way, and it's not just the Secret Society he'll destroy.  He will blame the Justice League of America for putting Selina in this situation in the first place.  The sands in Amanda Waller's hourglass are about to run out.  

It's also more than a simple question of vengeance or even the characterization of two classic characters.  Justice League of America represents a masterful deception by Geoff Johns and company.  As it turns out, the Trinity War won't be catalyzed by Wonder Woman's and Superman's relationship.  Batman isn't the wedge between them.  This has all been a red herring to disguise the true, more meaningful impetus.

Before Justice League of America rolls around, Catwoman must deal with a foul bird in Gotham City.  Ann Nocenti's tale of two criminals vying over gems Catwoman stole and the pecking order of Gotham rogues is pretty darn good.  Maybe not perfect, but everything in this tale suggests that we should consider the Catwoman Annual Nocenti's proper debut.

The story starts with an exploration of an urban legend.  What is the significance of those sneakers on telephone lines? When I was growing up, they had nothing to do with gangs but whether or not an individual got lucky.  Nocenti has another unique perspective.

This keys into the Penguin's latest airborne assault method: unmanned drones.  Nocenti's updating of the Penguin's shtick is brilliant.  The in the news arsenal is a perfect extrapolation of the Penguin's motif.  I like also how she incorporates the Penguins love for feathered friends into the mix, and how she distances the woman from the cat.  Catwoman does indeed appreciate felines, but she's not in the habit of killing fowl for sport like her namesake.

Indeed, Nocenti displays all the facets of Catwoman's personality in this issue, and there's nary a hint of Black Museums or Deaths of the Family.  Instead, we see Catwoman as an independent criminal.  We observe her guile as she watches the police who hunt her through a camera she planted in their headquarters earlier.  We watch her risk her life to save one of her hunters.  It's all there: hero, sly thief, street level rogue, the hunted and the hunter.  Because of artist Christian Duce, she looks the part as well.

Brian Wood does the impossible.  He simplifies The X-Men.  You don't really need to know much of anything to enjoy the all female cast.  Wood writes it and Olivier Coipel depicts it on the page.  They're a chosen family of superheroes plain and simple.

The story starts with Jubilee escorting a tyke on a train to the Jean Gray School for Higher Learning.  I know a teensy bit of X-Men continuity.  I know who Jean Grey is, but here's the thing.  I didn't really need to know that.  

Marvel pissed me off when they turned Jubilee into a vampire.  Now she isn't.  I don't need to know why.  I just know that Jubilee is in the sunlight.  She therefore cannot be a vampire.  In fact had I not known what Marvel did to Jubilee, I would have been blissfully unaware.

Rachel is a telepath.  I know her backstory from Excalibur.  Still don't understand it, but you know what? Don't need to know it.  Storm is the flying chick with the mohawk.  Rogue the super strength gal.  Kitty goes through things.  All of this is apparent, and they're not really just out for mutant kind.  They save human lives as well as mutant.

Best X-Men comic book in thirty-three years.  Certainly the most easy to comprehend.

Scott Snyder and Sean Murphy's The Wake is fairly easy to enjoy as well.  It actually reads like a movie.

In order of their appearance...
Rooney Mara

Sara Michelle Gellar

Jeff Bridges

The Late Roddy McDowall

Jason Statham

Tommy Lee Jones

star in an oceanic science fiction tale that begins two-hundred years in the future on a water-logged earth.  What happens will no doubt unfold from the past where Homeland Security recruits marine biologist Dr. Lee Archer and others to explore a toothy mystery.  Recommended, especially in comic book form since artist Sean Murphy went out of his way to play with the traditional panel format of comic books to create a double-page widescreen palate that's best read issue by issue not as a trade paperback.

Ian Boothby celebrates Doctor Who's 50th Anniversary in a stylish time-travel story where Dr. Zoidberg utilizes Professor Farnsworth's invention in a most unique way.  The science is stellar in this hilarious fiction that gives Zoidberg the dignity of an intellect.  He dopes out what's going on, after a nudge by certain recognizable guest stars.  

The caricatures of these cameos by James Lloyd, Andrew Pepoy and Nathan Hamill are exquisite.  It's a shame that the powers of the two different companies can't get together and somehow release figurines of the illustrations.

Apart from the unexpected guests, the creative team are in fine fettle when depicting the crew of Planet Express, Mom of Mom's Robots, President Nixon and Zapp Brannigan in various points of existence.  At the tale's heart though is heart.  It's quite affable and for some an important moment of growth.

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