Monday, December 9, 2013

POBB: December 4, 2013

Pick of the Brown Bag
December 4, 2013
Ray Tate

Hello 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 look at Action Comics, Batwing, Earth 2, The Fox, Hellboy, Painkiller Jane and Swamp Thing, but first....

Screw the mainstream critics.  I liked this holiday special.  The tunes were catchy.  Lady Gaga and Joseph Gordon-Levitt performed a cool gender reversed jazzy version of "Baby, It's Cold Outside," and the special was equal parts Gaga and equal parts Muppet Show, in that format, with Kristen Bell as extra comedy.  By the way, a Muppet ate another Muppet on the show!  How much more Muppety can you get? I mean what do you want? I've never been a big Lady Gaga fan.  I respect her politics, but I have a greater respect for her now because it was her idea to include the Muppets.  I'm thinking this is going to become traditional alternative holiday viewing, like A Nightmare Before Christmas.  Okay.  Back to comic book reviewing.

Writer Greg Pak reintroduced Lana Lang in the Action Comics Zero Year issue, but nothing in the characterization singled her out as Lana Lang.  She just seemed like a cipher called Lana Lang.

When Superman arrives this issue he immediately reconnects with Lana, and because of that connection, Lana reads authentic.  Pak splits the narration between the two old friends.  Their insights and mutual history add more resonance and substance to Superman as well as this newest version of Lana Lang.

The reacquaintance happens in South America.  Lana's an engineer in the new 52, and she oversees a geothermal energy project.  Instead of tapping a new source of environmental friendly fuel, the crew inadvertently awaken a giant monster.  Cue Superman.

Even when putting aside the more satisfying Lana/Superman dynamic, this is a fantastic issue of Action Comics.  The monster arises in classic kaiju fashion, and artist Aaron Kuder has Godzilla and Gamera on his mind when designing the beast.

Beautiful.  As the story continues, we discover the creature isn't quite the expected menace, but that doesn't stop a South American government agency or perhaps American security contractors sending a secret weapon to stop the monster and Superman.  

In the new 52, the United States as well as other governments of the world do not trust Superman.  Since they cannot control him, they seek to terminate his contract with the masses.  It's an insane bias.  Why would you jeopardize the planet just on a petty whim? Sadly, in this political climate.  It's all too believable.  Pak imagines a clever means to threaten the Man of Steel, and artist Kuder orchestrates an exciting mid-air battle.  

When the beast must be stopped thanks to the exacerbation of the situation, Superman takes a humane approach leaving behind a grin-worthy penultimate scene that changes to a smart cliffhanger.  One of the best issues of Action Comics ever.

There's a new Swamp Thing in town, and he sucks.  Jason Woodrue, the artist formerly known as the Floronic Man, beat Alec Holland in a contest of conifers, and now Woodrue tries to impress the Green with acts of pure viciousness.

He first stops at Alec's old haunt where he tries to terrorize writer Charles Soule's wonderful creation Capucine.  Capucine is an immortal warrior under Alec's protection.  She's a sort of love interest in Swamp Thing and actually quite an infectious figure.  It doesn't hurt that Jesus Saiz makes her so striking a champion.

Woodrue next blunders with the notion that the various biota are at odds with each other.  It's an ecosystem friends.  Whereas Alec Holland worked with the champion of the Red to fight the Rot, Woodrue decides to pick a fight with Buddy Baker the Animal Man.  

Soule displays why Animal Man is a force to be reckoned with, even without a connection to the Red.  Dude can absorb the powers of animals.  Any animal in the vicinity, which means Animal Man can rip your arms off if there's a chimpanzee nearby and he sting you repeatedly if a wasp buzzes along.  Do not mess with Animal Man.

It's no contest, and Woodrue looks bad.  The beauty of this whole thing is that replacement characters are usually that.  Soule doesn't even pretend the change is permanent.  He doesn't even replace Swamp Thing's narration.  

Woodrue's challenge was just a precipitate of an interesting story.  I've got a feeling that Swamp Thing will be back in two issues tops.

Mike Mignola imagines one of his ghoulish fables. Hellboy merely adds color to what's essentially a war of wills between demons over the soul of one human.  The demons however happen to be grandmother and son which wrings the tale just one more twist.

Three soldiers decide they have had enough of the war.  They desert and make a deal with the younger demon in question.  

Mignola's Hell frequently varies little from some of the environments that Hellboy found himself in as he wandered the globe looking for a purpose outside of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense.  He first finds himself in a courtyard similar to the one where Jules Dulot left behind his mortal coil.

Their journey takes them to a cemetery where they meet the grandmother, and though a relation to the bargain hunter, she's actually quite amiable.  

Then Mignola unfolds one of his trademark macabre scenes in which monsters have a civilized conversation over wine.  It could be blood, but I tend to lean toward wine because that seems more inappropriate given the nature of the conversationalists.

There are two kinds of Hellboy stories.  One revolves around Hellboy hitting things with his big, metal club fist.  This story exemplifies the best of the other type in which Hellboy acts as master of ceremonies to a bizarre undersurface.

Painkiller Jane protects a Saudi princess from a hit squad while her detective partner Maureen tries to wheedle out the identity of the money man.  There's not much to this new Painkiller Jane series.  It's just Painkiller Jane kicking ass on Fire Island where the princess gets exposed to Western culture, but not in a heavy hand-handed way.

Artists Juan Santacruz and Paul Mounts beautifully illustrate the near feral attempts on Jane's life.  Palmiotti encourages the reader with plot twists like bringing in Jane's doctor friend Seth and generates second thoughts in one of the hit men to keep the princess alive for an even more lucrative purpose.  All in all, an excellent mini-series so far.

Batwing under the guise of a Bloodsport athlete infiltrates the stronghold of Charlie Caligula, the pissed off rich big bad who wanted to buy back a diamond mine from Bruce Wayne.  

Writer Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray amusingly reveal that the avarice of Caligula is more about diamonds.  The explanation is a giddy little thing that has just enough verisimilitude to be science fiction and whacky enough to be fun.

Along the way, you get a cover of Enter the Dragon and one of Gray and Palmiotti's strong female characters, draped in the action-packed wardrobe fashioned by Eduardo Pansica and Julio Ferreira.

Though Caligula's actions occurred in previous issues, they're not required reading.  This Batwing adventure acts as a standalone.  So even though this isn't technically a good jump-on point, because of the impending doom of Gothtopia, it's a good issue to sample Batwing and decide whether or not to continue after the Batman Family Forever Evil time waster ebbs. 

Earth 2 should be dull about now with a Darkseid influenced Superman wreaking havoc on the parallel planet, but Tom Taylor and Nicola Scott continue to stir interest with the actions and the identity of Batman.

Batman penetrates World Army's super-powered prison to free heroes vital to his strategy for rebellion, but Taylor spreads around enough doubt and evidence to fuel the mystery.  On the one hand, Major Sato suckers him with a rookie ploy.  On the other, Lois Lane recognizes him.

General Sam Lane last issue imbued his daughter's mind to the Red Tornado robotic body.  In case you were confused by Lois' shiny, new carapace.

Batman implies that he's not Bruce, but he knew our Dark Knight.  The obvious answer is Dick Grayson, but I don't know that Dick exists on the new 52 Earth 2, and Huntress was the only Robin introduced.  Of course, the earth one Batman had three Robins.  So it's just possible that Batman of earth two had two, with Dick Grayson being the first before Bruce married Catwoman and fathered Helena Wayne.  Oh, well.  At least, we can say that he's not Terry Sloan, the former champion who betrayed his world.  In fact, Taylor has a very interesting take on Terry Sloan.

According to Sloan, he did what he did to save the world.  Well, you expect that to be true.  It's the in thing to do.  Make your villain a tragic hero, but that's not exactly new.  Taylor instead portrays Sloan as a self-serving weasel who doesn't stack up to his stranded earth one counterpart Mr. Terrific.  

I find that stark contrast refreshing.  Sometimes its better for a villain to be a villain and a hero, a hero.

Dean Haspiel and Mark Waid opened their new take on MLJ's The Fox at street level.  The second issue takes a hallucinogenic turn.

The Queen of Diamonds transports the Fox to a planet where dreams are the order of the day.  So, while there's not much genuine conflict, the art by Haspiel and colorist Allen Passalaqua, who deserves the lion's share of the plaudits, produce arresting imagery that's also a kind of throwback to a simpler idea of how people dream and fantasize.  

You don't get illustrations meant to instill terror or realistic mirrors to what one might see in a nightmare.  Instead, you experience weird off-kilter drawings that work quite well with the themes.

Good-bye Fearless Defenders.  You were too good to be amongst the Marvel products.

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