Pick of the Brown Bag
November 13, 2013
If you haven't seen it yet...a must view official seven minute prequel to Doctor Who "The Day of the Doctor"...I'll wait for you to come back, and you're welcome.
My thoughts on this important moment in Doctor Who appear at the end of the column.
Greetings from the Pick of the Brown Bag. In this blog, I review the week's best and the worst comic books. For this installment, I'll be observing Batman, World's Finest, Rocket Girl, Smallville and first issue fantasy Umbral. I'll also look at the new graphic novel Bandette and the film Thor: The Dark World. First though, warnings about the current Justice League of America, Batgirl and Nightwing.
Justice League of America repeats the previous issue. J'onn and Stargirl attempt to escape the same prison incarcerating the Justice League. At least, that's how it must work. Whatever the case, this is just a dull, beautifully illustrated exercise of spinning wheels in place. It's entirely skippable. Deja vu.
Batgirl and Nightwing so far claim the prizes for the most irrelevant and least entertaining "Year Zero" tie-ins. It took a lot of effort to push last week's Action Comics out of first place, but they managed it. The artists however cannot take credit in this dubious honor. Both art teams put their all into stories that deserved the effort of untalented kindergartners with Crayolas.
Nightwing takes place before prima donna circus brat Dick Grayson becomes Robin. The stand-alone draws upon the blackout instigated by the Riddler in Batman. When the blackout hits, Gothamites panic like lemmings. The chaos leaves Dick in charge of some kids who become de facto Teen Titans. The by-the-numbers tale factors in four dead characters--The Graysons, Raymond and Raya--to make the trip down memory lane extra superfluous.
Batgirl trumps Nightwing. Marguerite Bennett turns what could have been an innocuous survival story, outcome assured, into a vehicle for dank cynicism. Barbara Gordon must lead her yet to be cracked brother and innocent Gothamites through the hurricane, that Superman failed to stop or mitigate, to safety. Every bit of the journey, inconsequential.
The flashback could have been made better and more memorable very easily. All Bennett had to do was reveal that the character Babs met during the hurricane had been Batman in disguise. This would have negated the dystopian vision, foreshadowed the inevitability of Babs' transformation into Batgirl and through the shared history of Batman and Batgirl, embodied the whole with (gasp) relevance. Instead, we're stuck with this thing. You know what. Just. Fuck.
After reading of my disappointment, you just might be willing to give up. Don't worry though. There's a big bright light coming up on the horizon. It's the reflection beaming off of the Batmobile.
In the proper "Year Zero," Batman has never been better. The "old" version of the Batmobile bears the superior technology conceived from Bruce Wayne's brilliant mind while alluding to the lines of the 1930s Roadsters Batman used to drive.
The Batmobile is the source for the first moment of the sense of wonder that Batman instills. The optimism and technopolis World's Fair type of futurism contrast the horror of Gotham's villains. The villains of Gotham are a stain on a progressive society. They're not products of the civilization they despise. Rather they seem more like invaders or viruses.
Scott Snyder and Gregg Capullo reintroduce Dr. Death to new 52 mythology. The original Dr. Death was a monocled, goateed mad scientist. Most people remember his cackling like mad while his lab burned to the cinders. However, the lesser known sequel provided Snyder's and Capullo's inspiration.
For the day, that was pretty gruesome. He's much worse looking now. The monster's nasty murders immediately attract the Dark Knight to the scene, as well as the police that intend to pursue Batman. This includes Jim Gordon.
Snyder reveals new information regarding Jim Gordon and why Bruce doesn't trust him. It all originates from the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne as well as the undercurrent of corruption in Gotham City police.
Whereas all the other "Year Zero" books appear to be using the disasters that befell and in some cases will befall Gotham as their focal points, Batman only uses the blackout and the impending hurricane conditions as a backdrop. Snyder and Capullo concentrate on establishing Batman as the hero of Gotham City in the most stylish way possible. There's just no comparison.
World's Finest continues the hunt for the new 52 Tattooed Man, who Paul Levitz introduced last issue as a Tattooed Woman with a grudge against the fashion industry.
Helena and Kara investigate tattoo parlors in search of a lead. Kara though has another purpose. With her powers in flux, she attempts to get a tattoo. The results are expected.
This scene leads to more of that terrific interplay between the crimefighting partners and a reveal that explains why Helena wears a more modest costume than the post-Crisis Huntress.
The team splits up later in the book. Helena quickly finds the Tattooed Woman conducting her arsonist graffiti, and Power Girl schedules a flight into space to saturate herself with sunlight.
The scenes could be in any superpower based book, but what really puts these moments over is how Levitz deals with each as instructed by the characterization of his champions. The savvy businesswoman Karen Starr secures her secret identity in a realistic, humorous manner, but not before she has a comedic conversation with the pilot of the shuttle.
Huntress abandons a visceral fight against the Tattooed Woman to save her friend because she knows as invulnerable as Kara may be superheroes still need help. She learned that from Batman. Furthermore, the clockwork timing by artists R.B. Silva and Scott McDaniel mirrors the history of the legacies. Huntress reacts in an eye-blink. She's that fast. She's that prepared. Although afflicted, Kara moves with confidence and ignores risk. All of these elements pool together for yet another solid issue of World's Finest, the most consistently entertaining cape and cowl book DC publishes.
Bryan Q. Miller concludes his introduction of Wonder Woman to the pages and universe of Smallville. Faust set Hades free, but in so doing he unleashed the wrath of Wonder Woman and attracted the attention of Superman.
In this issue, Hades gives Superman two choices, neither of which he can abide by. So he picks door number three. In so doing, The Man of Steel preserves his honor while demonstrating that bad asses can wear primary colors.
Wonder Woman caps off this superb finale with comedy and genuine emotion. The entire story earns my highest recommendations, and if you haven't picked it up by issue, get the trade. You won't be disappointed. In case you're counting, that's two Smallville stories that are essential reading. One debuting Batman and Babs Gordon. The other Wonder Woman. Both tales effortlessly energize these old heroes for a new audience.
Some People Can Make Anything Look Good
The second issue of Rocket Girl is as good as the premiere. We open with our title hero Dayoung breezily making pancakes for her physicist hosts Allison and Ryder.
One of the tropes that always tires me is when a time traveler finds the future or the past an alien culture in which he or she cannot cope. Sure. A time traveler might be confused a little by the monetary systems or some pop culture fads, but by and large, what we have now is really a reiteration of the past.
This blog for instance was once on the usenet before the world wide web as we know it. In the past it might have been in a free newspaper or a pamphlet or on the back of a penny dreadful. In the future, who knows it may be an injection that can be read on the skin. The point is that the future isn't indecipherable and our ancestors weren't completely ignorant. The best time travel stories such as those in Doctor Who, Star Trek, Time After Time and Warlock all feature savvy time travelers, capable of comprehending the future or the past. In Rocket Girl pancakes are forever, as they should be. Dayoung quickly dopes out the twentieth century means to make them.
Rocket Girl of course is more than pancakes, and Dayoung is in the past for a reason. This issue we discover what time laws have been broken, and our heroine relays just how much she's willing to sacrifice to see history preserved.
It turns out that the Quintum Corporation created a real paradox, and the cover-up extends to the high. Dayoung represents a group of dedicated teens that are the only ones that can be trusted in the future. At least that's how its supposed to play out. Dayoung has traveled back in time essentially to preclude her future. That's really an extraordinary selflessness.
Along the way, Dayoung alters time and space by simply being in the past, and she doesn't stay meek. She attracts attention, from the news and the police, and interferes. She's saving lives that might have been lost if history took its proper course.
Amy Reeder's illustration is exuberant and inviting. She choreographs Dayoung's limber flight path, undercutting criminal episodes with knowing comedy. Dayoung completely overpowers the modern criminal in terms of gray cells and dynamics.
I'm a tough sell when it comes to fantasy. Anthony Johnston's and Christopher Mitten's Umbral looked low on magic and high on gorgeous artwork. So, I gave it a try and liked what I read.
The story takes place in a mythical realm of kings, queens, princes, sorcerers and thieves. Young Prince Arthir is a friend of Rascal a femme fingersmith. She possesses a magical mist, which the Prince wishes to use in a bit of magical experimentation...ah, you can just smell the star-crossed loving in the future, except, it won't be that simple.
Johnston surprised the hell out of me by turning the fairy tale promise of a happy ending inside out and instead creating a gripping adventure.
At the same time, he casts intriguing characters expressing invigorating dialogue that carries the reader smoothly through a gorgeous tableau of rich, colorful designs.
Paul Tobin's and Coleen Coover's Bandette is exactly as I hoped it would be. The graphic novel presents an escapade starring the infamous Bandette, a young master thief who is also on the speed dial of Inspector Belgique. Bandette you see steals from criminals and doesn't truck with murder and hostage taking. She enjoys the thrill of thievery and outwitting her opponents and their lackeys.
Of course, there's always a danger in such a character coming off as arrogant, but it's difficult not to enjoy Bandette's exploits given a joie de vivre so evident in Colleen Coover's delightful cartoons. Her style hasn't changed an iota from Banana Sundays, X-Men First Class or Small Favors.
Coover's Parisian scenery and the many trophies in Bandette's possession however exhibit heretofore unexpressed detail in her artwork. These environs and ill gotten goods enrich the freewheeling mood and attitude of Bandette. It really reads like an all-ages European strip, inspired by sixties heroines like Batgirl. Tobin and Coover even borrow a tactic from Babs.
The plot however could be interpreted as darker than one might expect. Absinthe a gang leader who doesn't care for Bandette's niceties intends to eliminate her once and for all. As such he hires an assassin, trains snipers on her, and indeed a very disturbing murder may have occurred off panel.
His intentions are enough to engage Bandette's friendly rival thief Monsieur, who does not want to see this particularly colorful bon vivant femme fatale removed from the chessboard. Bandette in turn concocts the perfect means to fight back against Absinthe, and Tobin rather than propose a team up between Bandette and Monsieur offers a witty alternative that breathes some originality into the typical caper. Also of note, Tobin's repartee often comments on the chestnuts to be found in more serious treatments of the same things that occur in Bandette. While this contest of theft would indeed be marvelous to watch, readers will need to unfortunately wait until the next volume. Bandette whets the appetite.
Saturday Afternoon at the Movies
As usual the mainstream critics are wrong. Thor: The Dark World was exciting, funny and moving in parts. Best of all it was unpredictable. Once again, the team behind and before the camera remind us that the Asgardians are not truly gods but long-lived aliens. Thus, Thor is in reality science fiction, and this sequel more obviously so than the previous movie. Laser pistols and Asgardian swords and shields all gel nicely.
Chris Hemsworth portrays a Thor that thinks not just slams with his hammer. Furthermore, all that depth the willful son of Odin gained from the first movie doesn't just get thrown away. The filmmakers build from it. Tom Hiddleston's Loki was a marvel, and Christopher Eccleston--the Doctor--presented a totally alien evil.
There's more activity and range from the Warriors Three, Sif and Frigga--who honestly had to be Rene Russo. Natalie Portman imbues Jane Foster with a constant scientific curiosity, and her chemistry with Hemswroth makes the legendary love between Thor and Jane a living, breathing thing. Definitely stay for the scene after the credits. Unlike most Marvel films, Thor sets up Guardians of the Galaxy early. The very last scene after the credits is part of the movie you just saw. It's the reward.
"The Night of the Doctor"
Unlike some of the other mini-episodes produced for Doctor Who, "The Night of the Doctor" wasn't just a lark. It instead offers a decisive moment in the unbroken continuity of Doctor Who.
I was elated and sad when I heard McGann's voice. "I'm a doctor. But I'm probably not the one you were expecting." I suspected that we would see Paul McGann's Doctor regenerate in the 50th Anniversary episode, and I knew that I would feel more than a twinge of regret.
I liked the idea of the eighth Doctor still being out there somehow, in a limbo television realm where he doesn't regenerate. Of course, that's silly. I knew the eighth Doctor regenerated since the ninth debuted in 2005.
Seeing Paul McGann as the Doctor again was just wonderful. He has always been a favorite Doctor. So, although he basically loses in this episode; fails to impress upon Cass that he's a nice Time Lord, dies in the crash because he stubbornly refuses to leave her, caves in to the demand that he end the Time War, abandons his position as a renegade, "The Night of the Doctor" still feels like a triumph. A proper return, an acknowledgement that Paul McGann's Doctor is the first truly new Doctor, if you catch my drift. Paul McGann's Doctor deserves to regenerate, even if it's painful for a fan to watch.
The Doctor Who 1996 special--you really can't denigrate it by calling it the TV Movie anymore thanks to David Tennants' Doctor Who specials--foreshadows so much of how we define Doctor Who today. Its glossy look. Its far better special effects. Its speed. Its dramatic content and the context of Doctor Who.
Paul McGann's Doctor was the first to take a romantic interest in his companion. The Doctor mentions a handful of companions in "The Night of the Doctor." I'm a little miffed that he didn't add Dr. Grace Holloway's name to the mix, but I suspect that was due to real-world legal issues rather than preference. It's very easy for Grace to appear in comic strips or comic books, but nettlesome for her to actually return to Doctor Who. I feel so cheated out of a Paul McGann and Daphne Ashbrook Doctor Who series. I don't blame Russell T. Davies for introducing the Doctor as a clean slate, but I do blame Fox and the BBC for dickering over Doctor Who in the interim.
Paul McGann's Doctor planted a great big boot to the stones of the self-proclaimed canonical books by revealing a secret. "I'm half-human, on my mother's side." Christopher Eccleston would imply that he was a father and a grandfather in the first series. We see Time Lord children in David Tennant's series. Matt Smith's Doctor explains that Time Lords became that way because they reproduced in the Time/Space Vortex. All taboo in the books of the nineties. Oh, and although the Doctor lists his Big Finish Audio companions. He doesn't include any of the companions made for the books. There's that high pitched shriek again.
But enough of the real...Let's talk fiction. "The Night of The Doctor" lays out some juicy allusions for old Doctor Who fans. The Doctor's ensemble is based on the Wild Bill Hickock costume he stole in 1999 after he regenerated. The Doctor actually uses his sonic screwdriver. In Doctor Who 1996 it remained in his collected possessions bag until Chang-Li returned it to him at the end of the adventure. The Doctor's thwarted by a Dead-Lock Seal, sound defense against Time Lords. Sonic technology though perhaps not invented by the Time Lords certainly is one of their trademarks.
The Doctor and the TARDIS look considerably more haggard presumably as a result of being unwelcome by his people again. He and the TARDIS looked quite good in 1999, and at that point, he was still in the Time Lords' good graces, relatively speaking.
The Doctor crashes on the planet Karn, introduced in the classic Tom Baker episode "The Brain of Morbius." The Sisterhood of Karn are not Time Lords but allies and under Time Lord protection. The Sisterhood employ the chemicals condensing from the Sacred Flame. The chemistry grants them eternal life, should they choose it.
The Doctor helped the Sisterhood in the past, but that was only after they intended to sacrifice him in order to reignite the flame. So the Doctor's lack of trust in "The Night of the Doctor" is perfectly understandable.
The elixir triggers the Doctor's regenerative process. This is the second time that the Doctor's natural abilities had to be triggered by an outside force. The first occurred when the third Doctor "died" from radiation poisoning, and one of his Time Lord teachers hidden on earth kickstarted his regeneration.
After the Doctor regenerates, the so-called War Doctor looks at his reflection and sees a young man. The War Doctor we meet at the end of "The Name of the Doctor" is an older man. This would suggest a very long war indeed.
There's an insider's joke here as well. During "The Brain of Morbius" the Doctor wrestles against the title Time Lord using a device, similar to the one that the Master exploited to steal the Doctor's remaining lives.
During the mental wrestling match, all the Doctor's faces appear, but a multitude of other faces--mostly from the crew--also manifest. The thirteen incarnation limit was introduced after the episode by Robert Holmes in "The Deadly Assassin."
The wrestling match has long been a thorn in the side of the continuity obsessed. Fortunately, there are enough faces to suggest that Morbius is simply losing and perhaps one of the younger faces is the first Doctor just as a young man. In reality, the crew had no idea that "Deadly Assassin" would limit regeneration. So, here on Karn, we're faced with another conundrum: a phantom incarnation or a true Doctor that bumps the incarnation count to twelve. Nice one.