Monday, September 16, 2013

POBB: September 11, 2013

Pick of the Brown Bag
September 11, 2013
Ray Tate

Only three comic books serve as subjects for this week's Pick of the Brown Bag: Fearless Defenders, King's Watch and Smallville.  So, it's a good time for a movie review, and this week it's Fade to Black.

My favorite type of cheesecake is the pineapple upside down variety from The Cheesecake Factory.  That's what Smallville feels like.  A piece of fresh pineapple upside down cheesecake.

Writer Bryan Q. Miller continues to thumb his nose at Warner Brothers' indecisiveness over Wonder Woman.  He demonstrates quite soundly that not only is Wonder Woman relevant.  She can easily, easily, be reintroduced for modern times.  Warner Brothers' media friendly rationale is pure bullshit.

Rather than go through the fable that her creator imagined, Miller eschews the games that allowed Amazons to compete for the title of Wonder Woman.  This makes sense since it was a forgone conclusion that Diana would win.  H.G. Peters' artwork, the Kangaroos that the Amazons rode, the culture of the Amazons made the fable worth viewing.

Everyone now knows this story, since it was also replicated--minus the Kangaroos--on Lynda Carter's Wonder Woman.  So, Miller comes up with a different way to explain Diana's journey to Man's World.  Miller furthermore integrates the reasons with Steve Trevor's protection as well as an overall look at Amazonian science, something I always appreciated.  

The Amazons were not entirely magical.  They developed advanced technology that allowed them to create a Utopian society.  Miller also includes a dig at destiny.  The Oracles can predict the most likely future, but it does not have to be.

Miller's recreation of Diana is truly distinctive from the versions that came before.  She resembles the Bronze Age interpretation the most, but Miller does something that I never saw any creator do before.  He includes amidst her pantheon of powers the ability of confidence.

Diana as you see in the caption identifies it as a super power, and it is here that he sublimely casts her as a role model.  Any woman can have confidence or strive for it but maintaining confidence in a world where assholes run amok is indeed a feat of strength.

In addition to that one word that resonates throughout the book, we see ample moments of Wonder Woman utilizing the gamut of her powers.  Miller opts for the nigh invulnerable Amazon that's level to Supergirl's strength and that makes for an exciting adventure brilliantly illustrated by artists Jorge Jimenez and Carrie Strachan.  

The D.E.O. and the U.S. military want Wonder Woman in chains, but for different reasons.  Miller connects Mr. Bones with a cabal of magicians including the Big Bad Felix Faust.  Faust has bad plans for Wonder Woman and Hippolyta, who gets the fairest shake since John Byrne decided to reconfigure the former Amazon queen as the World War II Wonder Woman; to take a stab at solving one of the problems left behind by The Crisis on Infinite Earths.

By this time, you may think there's no room for Lois and Clark.  Wonder Woman basks in the spotlight of Miller's writing.  Of that there can be no doubt, but the regular cast also enjoy Miller's special care.  

In a perfectly staged scene, the Superman of Smallville is quite willing to trust Diana with his secret identity.  Superman readily teams up with Wonder Woman and uses his powers to help her investigate.  Superman also catalyzes humor and distinguishes himself from his new 52 counterpart.  

Refreshingly, Miller eliminates any hint of jealousy that Lois Lane might feel over Wonder Woman, a common annoyance a lot of writers employed in recent years when the three met.  That included when Superman was married to Lois.  The Smallville Lois dated Steve Trevor.

Lois is so devoted to her eternal fiancee--surely they'll be wed by common law soon--that she defends him in a hilarious instance that draws the echo of Erica Durance into the dialogue.  Smallville earns my highest recommendation.

Guest-stars abound in Fearless Defenders.  Writer Cullen Bunn orchestrates a would-be boyfriend intervention.  This is a throwback to the embarrassing issue of The Avengers in which the image of Valkyrie debuted.  It turns out that the Enchantress was behind that mischief, trying to create strife between the male and female contingent of the team.  The story had a very chauvinistic message that didn't treat the Women's Liberation Movement at all seriously.  Kind of like Hal Jordan cubed.

Bunn inverts that issue.  The women are doing just fine thanks.  He gives ample example by juxtaposing the boyfriend bemoaning with the ladies battling well-known Defenders foes.  

These include the Headmen and the new Enchantress, as well as some goofy mobile monoliths.  The Headmen and the Enchantress operate under the auspices of Caroline LeFay, the Little Bad of the book.  Her mother Morganne would be slapping her head over LeFay's failed machinations, and her alleged Daddy Doctor Doom would have probably disowned her by now.

Numerous gags proliferate the dialogue in an issue funny throughout that's also packed with superhero goodness.  Things to look out for include the delicate balance between Valkyrie and her human host Annabelle Riggs.  

Readers knew their conflicting sexual orientations would be a problem, but Bunn actually treats the idea with a little more maturity and sophistication than past alter-ego problems; such as those in the Marvel Family, outside of their original adventures.  Writers just couldn't help going in the gutter.

In JLA/Avengers Hercules and the post-Crisis Wonder Woman meet on the battlefield, and Wonder Woman doesn't take too kindly to him.  The DC Hercules raped her mother.  Hippolyte is a different kind of woman in the Marvel Universe, and Bunn confirms that the Marvel Hercules and Hippolyte had a consensual if unsatisfying tryst.  

After the Silver Age, Dr. Strange became quite the player.  Bunn and artist Will Sliney nail that characterization and give the put-upon Clea a backbone.  It should be noted that Dr. Strange wasn't really singled out to be this figure.  Magic however was always related to the New Age, with its crystals and Pyramid Power.  The New Age believers were mostly leftovers from the Hippie movement, and Hippies of course promoted free love.  So, it was a natural fit that Dr. Strange would be the Hippie turned Hef of the Marvel Universe.

In addition to the surprise inclusion of one of the most obscure characters in the Marvel Universe, Bunn revisits the still strong relationship between Iron Fist and Misty Knight.  Their affair was a groundbreaking one in the seventies.  One of the only interracial loving in comics.  Not counting aliens.

The Defenders of the Earth return in King's Watch.   Awesome Agents of Atlas writer Jeff Parker does not disappoint with the first Dynamite team-up of The Phantom, Mandrake and Flash Gordon.  Along the way, you can expect Dale Arden and Lothar.  Best of all the Phantom isn't hawking blueberries.  This is the Phantom.  

Skull Ring, check.  Good Symbol Ring, check.  Twin .45 automatics, check.  Hero, check.  Devil, check.  Most important of all purple body-suit, check.  Screw you, streaky, sticky Phantom. 

I'll be completely honest here.  I don't give a rat's behind about the rest.  I'm in this for the Phantom, the accurate portrayal of the Phantom.  Artist Marc Laming delivers.

Billy Zane would have looked incredibly lame squelching around in a speedo.  Isn't that a scene from 50 Shades of Periwinkle?  Besides, Stephen King already beat Dynamite to the Hawaiian Punch.

Although I really only care about the Phantom, I will say that Parker's Mandrake is strong, and this is probably the only time I ever felt remotely interested in Flash Gordon.  Parker takes the most detours with the blonde All-American and his cast.  Some traditionalists may find them a little off-putting.  For example, Professor Zarkov is a surly fellow and apparently has a good or bad liver.

Dale Arden was introduced just as Flash's girlfriend.  In the glam film by Dino De Laurentis, Dale became a reporter.  Parker preserves the movie role and updates the heroine for modern times. 

Lois? No. De Laurentis.  Seriously though Lois and Dale share very little in common.  Laming's Dale Arden bears a unique face and a different hairdo than the brunette firecracker from Metropolis.  Parker gives Dale a harder edge.  Lois is frequently comedic.  Dale Arden is tortured by her dreams and steely.

King's Watch posits a breach in a dimensional gate that allows phantasms to pursue individuals in their sleep and unusual creatures to roam the earth.  As well, the plot creates an opening to relate Flash Gordon's origin story.  You can readily see the three legends combining forces.  Parker wastes no time. 

Lothar encounters the Phantom in a pulpy episode.  Mandrake cannot be too far behind.  As you can see from the examples Marc Laming's artwork continues the illustrious traditions of Alex Raymond, Ray Moore and Phil Davis.  Best of all nobody gets slimed.

The Saturday Afternoon Movie

Fade to Black is a wonderful surprise.  Character actor Danny Huston, most recently seen as Ben Diamond in Magic City, embodies a young Orson Welles.  The factual actor/director becomes entangled in a murder mystery while filming the infamous Black Magic, where Welles portrayed Cagliostro.  

Welles filmed Black Magic in Italy.  After World War II in 1948, Italy was a chaotic place.  The unrest serves as a constant backdrop to the story, giving viewers a history lesson.

Accompanying Welles on a foray for the truth, Diego Luna acts as Welles bodyguard and savvy Watson.  Paz Vega plays the object of desire, and desirable she is.  Christopher Walken shows up as a displaced American State Department Official.  He is not playing Christopher Walken.  The whole cast offer deft performances.  

Fade to Black shouldn't be missed by anybody that likes a twisted tale.  Fair warning.  Just because this movie casts Orson Welles as a character in a play, the viewer should not expect a locked-room puzzle or a tame piece of fluff.  This is a story about corruption and has the flavor of a hard-boiled private eye case.  

A well-shot period piece that looked to be have a respectable budget, Fade to Black is ably brought out by the Image disc's impeccable widescreen presentation.  The sound is clear, but you may need to raise the volume when important whispers drift across the screen.  Extras consist of previews and a trailer.  The DVD is still in print and available at most online retailers.

1 comment:

  1. Hello
    sorry for the off topic, but I have just discovered your blog searching after Dr Who stuff and... at least! Someone who thinks like me inabout the toss and drivel the Virgin books were! I'm a fan of the 8th Doctor (most underrated doc ever) and I loved your review of prisoners of time. I just would love to read your reviews of the Virgin books, I'm in for some laughs (Time Champion?? what a load of bollocks, the Doc playing chess with the universe, companions as a pawns, starting adventures while having all the baddies defeated in advance, etc... my... when the good Doc stopped being fun and started being an arsehole??)