Pick of the Brown Bag
October 30, 2013
This week I examine the merits of two DC Annuals, Action Comics and Aquaman. We peruse the new title The Fox and Argus. Favorites Captain Midnight and a new Smallville special also make the list. Ben Lichius and Dean Kotz finished the pdf for backers of The Black Coat. So I'll be doing a rare preview review, but first last week's Lookouts.
Ben McCool's Lookouts concludes the would-be rangers' first adventure against the Sphinx. The solution isn't exactly fairplay but represents a writer's subterfuge.
McCool anticipates some of the negative responses to Lookouts by injecting much needed estrogen into the title. Previously, a few critics wondered why Lookouts appeared to be a throwback to Boy's Life, but this issue shows that McCool had already planned to add more women to the cast.
The plot runs too smoothly for the inclusion to be recent, and the female presence catalyzes the solution. So it's likely that this was a well thought endgame. The consequence is better than a gimmicky beating of the Sphinx at his own game or attempting to once more overpower the beast. The Lookouts tried and failed with these tactics. So the question is what changed. Read the latest issue to find out.
The Fox is actually an old MLJ character from the forties, but you may be more familiar with his adventures in the swinging sixties where he hung out with a go-go dancer and hoofed it as much as he fought crime.
The new incarnation of the Fox is a family man and a photojournalist. He hunts criminals to get the byline, but he is an honest champion. Although he exploits his sobriquet to put meat on the table, he also duels world threats, things that cannot be written up so easily. In that respect, he parallels Kolchak: The Night Stalker.
Dean Haspiel makes the art as fun as the premise and the prose. The Fox is literally very loose, with his floppy ears and a manic style of fighting. He gets the job done with panache.
Argus tells us nothing new and, unlike the recent Smallville, supports the traditional origin of Wonder Woman meeting Steve Trevor. He crashes on Paradise Island. She saves his sorry ass. Because the collision occurs in modern times, no Nazis. Yawn. At least it's nicely drawn. In fact the scene below is the best thing in the book.
Argus forms because the President doesn't trust the Justice League. The real President Obama, would probably have faith in the League, but this is the DC version. He comes from Chicago, just like real deal. That means, he comes from the Chicago that's presented in Nightwing. In Nightwing's Chicago, a horrendous past event triggered a ban on capes and cowls. As a former Chicagoan, the President's attitude in Argus is actually pretty moderate.
Nevertheless, you don't need Argus unless you happen to be a Deathstroke fan. Deathstroke attempts to kill the President but first tries to deal with his former Team 7 colleague Steve. However, Deathstroke throwing in with the Crime Syndicate doesn't make a lick of sense. Deathstroke is an assassin. He gets paid for killing. If the Crime Syndicate have taken over the world, money is immaterial. Logically, Deathstroke should be fighting against the Syndicate to bring back the economy. Whatever. Argus is too unimportant to worry about such niggling. It's three bucks you don't need to spend.
You can save five bucks by passing on the disappointing Aquaman Annual. Writer John Ostrander appears to be worried about the planet and loves writing about The Others. I'm concerned about the environment as well, but honestly, this kind of heavy-handed preaching is a little much.
The villain in question never once exhibited such ecological savvy before, and the new 52 freshness doesn't adequately explain her new focus.
As to the Others...meh. You would think that a group that's supposed to have a longer history with Arthur than he with the Justice League would act more experienced against a less than formidable foe. It's always bad news when I can't get worked up about a jungle girl, but Ya'Wara's gullibility, followed by her guilt is just annoying, and the Operative is as cranky as ever. What's more, whenever he calls his headquarters the Living Room, I cannot help but giggle.
To the Barcalounger, Robin!
The Action Comics Annual kicks off an extra-length introduction in a crossover between Superman Family titles. Surprise, surprise. Not only is this book entertaining, it's also special enough to warrant the price tag.
During a previous crossover, "H'el on Earth," Supergirl poisoned herself by stabbing a piece of kryptonite through H'el's chest. She sent the alleged Kryptonian traveler to his namesake, or so she thought. Instead, he was sucked back in time to a point before Krypton exploded. These plot twists appeared then seemed forgotten in previous issues of The Superman titles.
The annual indicates that H'el wasn't what he claimed, and this conflict in identity initiated a psychotic episode in which H'el continuously rewrote time. Rewriting time in the new 52 results in fraying the fabric of time and space. You produce temporary alternate timelines and an ultimate unstable reality. It's a spiffy application of "multiplying entities," ala Occam's Razor.
The Oracle, a being like Marvel's Watcher, summons Superman, Supergirl and Superboy to stop H'el from shattering the Omniverse. To this extent, straight from the movie Man of Steel, Faora teams up with the Superman Family to preclude H'el's tampering.
The annual reunites Scott Lobdell with erstwhile partner Kenneth Rocafort. Rocafort sets an Art Noveau Superman Family against a surreal alien arena and fitting cosmic backdrop.
A Little Dysfunctional to be sure, but mark my words. It will all end in tears.
Lobdell draws upon most of the continuity and character interaction that framed the Superman Family's original encounters. Supergirl for example sees Superboy as a threat, but she cannot bring herself to kill him although Kryptonian social mores demand it. Superboy of course doesn't care for Kara's bigotry. Superman thinks Supergirl is a loose cannon, but all three realize the enormity of the tasks they must perform, and this could be the end. So, they make their peace with each other in moving scenes.
Once the wraparound finishes, Dan Jurgens handles the artistic reins, and he rolls with the momentum to introduce Lobdell's trio of short prologues for each member of the Superman Family. Lobdell and Jurgens give the reader a sample of what's to come from Superboy, Supergirl and Superman. If you like what your read, you can continue. If you want to cut you losses, at least you'll have an idea what's going on and who's where. That's a lot of value in forty pages with no, repeat, no advertisements interrupting the story.
Smallville is also a good addition to your collection. It's not a necessary purchase but it's smartly written and decently illustrated. More importantly, it expands on the continuity and characterization established in the series and the comic book.
The addendum focuses on the recently rescued Tess Mercer, Lex Luthor's sister, from the series. Luthor murdered her, but in the comic book, Tess survived through Kryptonian science and haunted Luthor inside his mind. Once they figured out what was going on, Superman, Lois Lane and the Justice League set Tess free.
Smallville writer Bryan Q. Miller examines Tess' second life as a human incorporated into an a.i. form. If you were unaware of this development, Miller makes it plain and expository free.
Miller contrasts Tess' altruism against Luthor's increasing callousness. Miller in fact mirrors Tess' role in the larger scheme of things to that of the Machine from Person of Interest. Since Tess is a human consciousness and not a new lifeform, she's a lot more personable rather than enigmatic, and she doesn't need to work through surrogates in order to protect the innocent.
"The Hollow" though is less about introducing Tess as a proactive force for good. Miller examines just how Tess stays sane, without a body and with a vendetta against the brother who killed her. She gets some odd but fitting therapeutic support, and in the end Tess finds closure as well as a future filled with optimism.
As the cover shows, Captain Midnight battles public domain comic book character Skyman from the 1940s. Yes. Everything's from the forties this week.
The two champions bore similar glider wings, and writer Joshua Williamson makes good use of the likeness, but he falters when trying to force the Captain to speak 1940s slang. The tale also attacks blind idealism, something that really needs to be harried, along with it's cousin jingoism. A good supplementary purchase.
The Black Coat returns thanks to creator Ben Lichius, artist Dean Kotz and Kickstarter contributors. Full disclosure. You'll see my name in the thank you page. I'm a long time fan of The Black Coat. I've been there since the start, years ago when nobody ever heard of Francesco Francavilla. Francavilla cut his teeth on this title.
The idea of a crusading, masked scientist fighting the Redcoats on the cusp of the Revolutionary War excited me. This was a different use of an archetype that I have only seen touched upon in Disney's The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh, based upon the Dr. Synn books by Russell Thorndyke.
Lichius expanded on the inventive germ of an idea by adding other appealing elements. Ursula Morgan The Black Coat's partner in treason against the British Crown is a pirate queen, and the Redcoats are only half of the problem. Other forces took an interest in the Colonials' sedition. Decidedly supernatural forces see an opportunity to overthrow both powers and dominate the world as they once did.
That's only the background. For this current production "The Blackest Dye," Lichius once again elaborates. He doesn't play it safe. He shakes things up, creates plausible conflict and weaves three different wars into a nice neat package that's knockout period gorgeous thanks to artist Dean Kotz.
Kotz though does more than just recreate the past or even amp up the swashbuckling. He infuses an effect that allows you to peer into the minds of the characters. You expect such deftness from an old pro, not a newer talent.
Ursula has the hots for Nathaniel Finch, alias the Black Coat, but she has a problem. She's married. Like Mrs. Peel, her husband is missing not yet declared dead. So she cannot move on, even though she sorely wants to.
The relationship between The Black Coat and Ursula reaches a tipping point in their latest mission. The presence of Nadia, a comely and martially proficient gypsy from the previous miniseries, immediately generates friction. Ursula was confident that nobody matched her or would serve as a match for Nathaniel. Nadia challenges that opinion, and suddenly, Ursula believes she has a rival for a man she cannot have. That's poetry, and Kotz's focus and fading technique subtly draw your attention to what Ursula must be thinking.
The very human drama plays on the wider scope of the 1776 battles and plots. On the forefront, The League intend to assassinate a very significant person from history. There's in addition a mole inside the Colonial camp. One of the Black Coat's men learns the cost of war. During this tragic lesson, the Black Coat inadvertently displays some of his failings.
The Black Coat isn't perfect. He's not Batman. He reacts badly to the situation, and he pays for the insult. His arrogance and pride also catalyze a loss in trust on an even grander scale. Lichius however strikes the right balance. He doesn't suddenly remove the veil from the mortal clay. The Black Coat's baser attributes were always there. At the same time, Lichius preserves the overall draw of his hero.
The climactic battle against the agents of the League offers thrills and surprises, while the battle for the Revolution continues. During these scenes, Kotz energizes the atmosphere. The depiction of the occult can often be a dull affair. The unbelievable and inexplicable moments can nullify the threat. Kotz keeps the spotlight on the danger to Lichius' very mortal characters not the lightshow.
In the final moments of this stand alone graphic novel Lichius evolves the situation and opens up the future of Black Coat to all sorts of possibilities. Simultaneously he produces more problems for the Revolutionary hero and the Pirate Queen to weather.