Monday, September 2, 2013

POBB: August 28, 2013

Pick of the Brown Bag
August 28, 2013
Ray Tate

This week in the Pick of the Brown Bag, I discuss the many merits of All-Star Western.  I highlight the surprises in Justice League and delve into a build-up of Gotham continuity in Catwoman.  We discover the identity of the Reverse Flash.  Doctor Who: Prisoners of Time features the return of one of this reviewer's favorite companions while the cast of Futurama experience a whacky time loop.  Aquaman goes to war against the Scavenger, and the young Superman and Batman find themselves on Earth 2 combating a mischievous spirit.  We start though with Captain Midnight and Superman.

Captain Midnight is an entertaining read with typically excellent artwork courtesy of Fernando Dagnino.  Unfortunately, this issue does not advance the story until the near end.  Mind you, the Captain's indignation about Nazis like Fury Shark joining American society is perfectly in character.  I also liked the Captain's out of principle beat down on Agent Jones, the shady government operative who held him in custody.  I'm guessing the Marvel Universe never had a Project Paperclip.  I would expect to see such umbrage from Captain America and Namor but haven't.  Good on writer Joshua Williamson.

Superman is a place holder not really coming alive until the conclusion which reintroduces a classic villain from the Bronze Age. Readers do however learn of Lois Lane's fate.  She was tossed out a high story window in the Superman Annual.  The consequences are reasonable, but a lot of people are going to call foul over weak tea.  They might be disappointed that she didn't actually die.  Wouldn't have mattered anyway.  Somebody would have brought her back.  Still, there is a blunting of impact.  I would have preferred the whole thing be a projection on Lois' part, who was infected by the psionic virus that unites the Twenty, the former captives of Brainiac.

Superman makes a more potent presence in Justice League.  The conclusion to the Trinity War does not disappoint and intrigues with a light years of improvement over the typical piss-poor post Crisis plotting I have come to expect.

Writer Geoff Johns answers all the questions you may have with fairplay solutions.  What's affecting Superman ties into why he appeared to have killed a member of Justice League of America.

The revelation of the spy's identity is brilliant.  Best of all, the entire story is a double bluff.  DC's advertising was actually a deception.  The idea of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman coming to a head over the Superman/Wonder Woman relationship was a ruse that's only slightly played up a few moments in the book.

Readers thought the Trinity War consisted of the three teams clashing over Superman's actions.  That however turned out to be a complete fake-out.  At the penultimate hour, Johns introduced the Pandora Box, but this device also proved to be a red herring.  True the box affected the heroes, but it really didn't stain the membership enough to warrant calling this skirmish a war.

So, now, in the conclusion, Johns unveils the whole enchilada.  It is absolutely vital that you read this book before all the others because DC strongly hints at the truth in the new advertisements for Forever Evil, which results from the Trinity War.  Oh, and forgo the Comic Shop News while you're at it.  Batty and Beggers spoil the surprise.

The Justice League writers deserve a lot of credit for the success of this con job, but I would be remiss if I didn't mention the artists.  Uniformly, Trinity War benefited from breathtaking artwork.  This issue Ivan Reis contributes duplicitous expressions, massive big budget action and a remarkable moment of the shocking grotesque followed by a marvelous expression from a character who was mostly expressionless in the post-Crisis.  Onward to Forever Evil.

Jae Lee's artwork becomes more concrete in this issue of Batman/Superman.  That illustration of Wonder Woman is truly beautiful and unique.  It's not a pose swiped from a magazine.  It's not a depiction of a traditional Wonder Woman stance.  It's simply the consolidation of what Wonder Woman is in a single artistic caption.  The rest of the art isn't nearly as successful, but it's still worth viewing.  The visuals furthermore sport a better blend of shadow, light and color than the silhouettes too prominent in the last issue.

Writer Greg Pak's plotting is decent, with a mcguffin in the hands of the U.S. government secretly preparing a defense against against Superman, but Pak's characterization is the main attraction.  The dynamics between Batman and Superman and their younger selves as well as Wonder Woman and Lois Lane entertains with one-liners and oil and water relationships.  Even the long time friendship between Superman and Batman of Earth 2 hits a bit of enjoyable turbulence.

Perfection by Paul Pelletier, Sean Parsons and Rod Reis

Arthur and Mera create some waves in Aquaman.  The Scavenger took over Atlantis.  His mercenaries fight Atlantean soldiers.  The Ice King sends Mera's people after the escaping water-breathers.  All of this turmoil just serves to reunite Aquaman and Mera, and Aquaman's proclamation transcends common melodrama.

Mind you.  Things appear to settle into a predictable pattern, but stick with Aquaman.  It seems likely that the Scavenger's comeuppance will wait for another chapter.  It seems likely that an effective death will go unanswered for, but Aquaman's declaration is an indication that Johns isn't doing things like he used to do.  The new 52 re-energized Johns' batteries, and he's writing with all the verve he demonstrated in Stars and STRIPE.  Aquaman pulls a stunt that's unlike anything you've seen, and that's really the theme of all the new 52 books.  We're going to wow you.  Consider me wowed.

Francis Manapul's and Brian Buccellato's artwork in The Flash floors you.  It would be enough attraction to warrant a purchase, but the rendering alone isn't The Flash's only asset.  Manapul and Bucellato also provide a satisfying reveal of the Reverse Flash's secret identity.

Readers should be so used to the identity of the Reverse Flash being Thawne, Barry's time traveling descendant, and that familiarity helps with the surprise.  I didn't expect a cast member to be the Reverse Flash.  

The Flash never had to deal with anything like the Reverse Flash before.  In terms of raw power, he's far worse than Thawne, and the artwork emphasizes the velocity and ferocity of the attacks.  Our Scarlet Speedster must also contend with Dr. Darwin Elias, the two-faced science wunderkind who manipulated the Flash since day one.  Elias thanks the Flash for saving his life by trying to kill him.  What a sphincter.

Manapul juxtaposes the battle between good and evil with the more domestic concerns of Patty Spivot, Barry's live-in lady love, who waits for him to show at her parents' anniversary party.  Patty knows Barry is The Flash, but this is her first taste of a hero's duty overwhelming personal responsibilities.  Traditional companion Iris West also enjoys a moment in the spotlight that's unlike anything previously seen.  Once again Manapul and Buccellato keep the reader rapt through a melding of fierce artwork, strong story crafting and choosing not to follow in the slipstream of history.

When it comes to time travel, Jonah Hex hates it.  His transport to the present of the new 52 Gotham City is a kind of extreme karmic payback for his doubting Booster Gold's story about being from the future.  Nevertheless, Hex adapts.

Already, he's wanted by the law for escaping Arkham Asylum and killing Dark Knight Returns menace the Mutants.  Hmmn, does this mean that Jonah Hex prevented the future of Dark Knight Returns?  It would certainly make sense.

Writers Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray aren't just interested in entertaining you wildly with Hex's foray into his future.  They also make some astute social commentary through Hex's scarred lips and effortlessly create two winning female personalities that could have come straight from the grindhouse. With Moritat at the art wheel, they also appear to have peeled themselves from the noses of WW II bombers.  It occurs to me that other writers and artists might have just used these two characters for sex objects, but Palmiotti and Gray display their wits, a surprising understanding of society and unusual dimension that expands their roles quite naturally.

In addition, Gray and Palmiotti once again demonstrate that Jonah Hex is a hero, and he deserves to stand midst the champions of DC comics, not Vertigo or some other off cape and cowl imprint.  Perhaps that's why in the cliffhanger he's given such sterling legal defense.

In 1989 BBC Controller Michael Grade fulfilled his wet dream.  He canceled Doctor Who.  In the interim, numerous books similar to those tying into the various Star Trek series hit the racks.  The difference however lay in the perception.  Frequently the authors felt that they were writing the canon of Doctor Who; basing a staid shared universe on a plan that was rejected by the series' producers.

Occasionally, you would get something from Paul Cornell, Keith Topping, Martin Day or Jon Peel that was as smooth and rich as Swiss chocolate, but by and large, the majority of Doctor Who books sucked and inflicted an enormous amount of pain.  The Doctor became a villain in these books.  His companions loathed him.  The hacks came up with ludicrous mythology for the Time Lords and the Doctor that had the audacity to contradict the very first episode of the series, in which viewers first encounter The Doctor and his granddaughter Susan.

Doctor Who however cannot die.  In 1996 much to the consternation of the professional fan fictioneers, Doctor Who returned and confirmed that the books were not canon at all.  The 1996 special entitled simply Doctor Who reintroduced the Doctor without changing a whit of what had come before.

The seventh Doctor regenerated into the eighth Doctor, Paul McGann, who became my favorite Doctor.  Not only wasn't he asexual as suggested in the books, he showed an interest in girls, and them, specifically Dr. Grace Holloway portrayed by Daphne Ashbrook, in him.

The 1996 special is the underlying fuel of the Russell T. Davies revamp.  Daphne Ashbrook was the right actress at precisely the right time.  She was pivotal to the series, opening a door that viewers were ready to enter.  As far as I'm concerned, she and Paul McGann helped steer Doctor Who from a fate worse than cancellation.  She's partially why I am still a Doctor Who fan.

Daphne Ashbrook's and screen writer Matt Jacobs' Grace Holloway returns in Doctor Who Prisoners in Time.  This wasn't Grace's first return.  She and the Doctor reunited for the Doctor Who Magazine comic strip, acknowledged in an afterword by then DWM alum Scott Gray.

Frankly it's wonderful that Grace is here.  The premise in the Prisoners of Time mini-series is that an unknown entity is kidnapping the Doctor's companions, from each of his incarnations.  For example, in the splendid first issue the figure snatches Barbara and Ian at the finale of a winningly sprightly first Doctor's adventure.  The enemy dares to capture Leela from the fourth Doctor's care.

Doctor Who 1996 wasn't always as highly regarded as it is now, and Grace was frequently dismissed, but in this story, she stands with the companions.  The producers of the comic book could have created a new companion for the eighth Doctor.  They could have used one of his companions from the BBC audios.  Instead, they chose to go with authenticity.

The Doctor returns to earth to ask Grace to join him.  She decides to go for one trip.  One trip with the Doctor can last a life time, and the Doctor proceeds to show her the many wonders of the universe before landing into trouble.

The plot is simple and takes a page from the episode "State of Decay," but instead of vampires, the Doctor finds a different menace.  Grace and her chemistry with the Doctor makes the story amenable.  Writers Scott and David Tipton replicate the dialogue and attitude of Daphne Ashbrook and Paul McGann, and you can often hear an echo of their voices as you read.

The writers and former DWM and Muppets artist Roger Langridge capture the easy, subtle humor of the duo.  They bring about the conflicting feelings to the pages.  Something few grasp is that Grace went through a whole gamut of experiences in Doctor Who 1996 that it sometimes takes a companion a whole season to experience.  In this chapter of Prisoners of Time, the Tiptons and Langridge display Grace's conflicting emotions in a whirlwind tour that never really feels rushed.

In the series, Grace is the one that got away.  The idea of the Doctor returning for her conveys depth to their relationship.  She's testing the waters in this adventure, deciding whether or not she can cope with the Doctor's breakneck lifestyle.  She can be afraid, but also express courage and never lose her intellect in the process.

In the end, whether or not the Doctor can convince her to join him is moot.  Like in previous adventures, Grace ends up in the hands of the enemy, and it's a more meaningful move in the enemy's game because Grace wasn't made up for the comic book.  She wasn't a kinda, sort of companion from the audios, or cosmos forbid, the books.  Grace is the eighth Doctor's only companion, and that's what gives the finale its punch.

You know.  I was torturing myself on how to review Futurama Comics.  There's no way to do it without really divulging the plot.  So...


The Professor invents a device to wipeout the memory.  This device resembles a washing machine, and it features a unique "on" button that's easily one of the most half-assed conveniences in the history of science fiction mishaps.  It even tops the handy device on the TARDIS known as HADS, a System that Displaces the time machine away from Hostile Action even if the occupants aren't inside.

Anyway this story is likely to give you a headache as it takes the guise of a Moebius Strip.  Fortunately, laughter is the best medicine, and you get good doses of endorphins between bouts of pain.  In lesser artists' hands visual continuity would be the first casualty.  Congratulations to Mike Kazaleh, Nathan Hamill and Karen Bates for being able to keep up with this topsy-turvy script from Patric M. Verrone.

Catwoman blows the mind in a different way.  Selina's goal is a simple one.  She's seeking to find the man who saved her life in the bowels of old Gotham City.  The Feds up above decided to cease rescue efforts for a fallen gang member and cement the hole that Penguin created in his bid to kill Catwoman.

It turns out there's a whole world beneath Gotham City, and I've been a sucker for such real world inspirations since the second pilot for  Kolchak: The Night Stalker aired.  Believe it or not, a city lies preserved beneath Seattle.  The maniacal, old god worshipping Richard Drew is a fancy, but there really is a city down below.

So given what we learned about Gotham City in All-Star Western and the whole giant cavern of bats beneath Wayne Manor, it's no surprise to find something awesome under the feet of Gothamites.

Writer Ann Nocenti milks this idea for all its worth and Rafa Sandoval gains beaucoup points for illustrating a convincing background for the pliable Selina to prowl in.  In addition, Nocenti surprises by picking up a seemingly discarded idea from a previous issue and using it as the catalyst for the upheaval in the finale.

Nocenti once again brilliantly characterizes Catwoman as a padding the line character.  We see her quite willing to act as ambassador to a marriage of diplomacy and as a spy for her tech contact Alice but unwilling to allow bacterial weapons in the wrong hands.  Accompanied by a strong narrative voice, Catwoman proves to be a winner, and I'm glad I rode out the issues in which Nocenti was just finding her footing.

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