Monday, July 29, 2013

POBB: July 24, 2013

Pick of the Brown Bag
July 24, 2013

Ray Tate

Welcome to the Pick of the Brown Bag.  This week we look at All-Star Western, Aquaman, Catwoman, The Flash, Justice League Dark, Superman and Superman and Batman.

Another solid issue of Aquaman succeeds in dividing time between numerous plot threads while not losing sight of the prize of entertainment. 

Aquaman fights a long Dead King, the first king of Atlantis, and our hero learns some unsettling facts about the shared history of he and his people.

Speakng of Arthur's people, Tula, Murk and Swatt stage less than grand theft truck to embark on a road trip to Belle Reve where Orm, Ocean Master cools his heels.  This excursion could have really been be uproarious, but artist Paul Pelletier and colorist Rod Reis mitigate the integral humor of the situation with dramatic cinematography.  The scenario's still compromised by Geoff Johns' dialogue, which borders on the silly, but for the most part, the speech doesn't dilute the intent of the tale.

Other Atlanteans exhibit different points of view.  Johns introduces us to Urn, warden of Vulko, betrayer of Atlantis.  This impressive character with his loyalty to the crown and his duties has staying power.  He might be the most engaging pure-blood Atlantean thus far introduced.

Aquaman during his battle against the Dead King, frees his paramour Mera.  She in turn frees her people to raise an army.  Except, this army has a few surprises for our superheroic couple.  Add that to the Scavenger making his move, and you have an engrossing chapter in the growing saga of Aquaman.

The Flash tries to protect the forlorn Iris West from the Reverse Flash, who kills those exposed to the Speed Force.  In that spirit, Barry constructs a fetching costume to conceal Iris' Speed Force signature.

Writers/artists Francis Manapul and Brian Buccellato put together a zippy chapter in the Reverse Flash chapter play while building momentum on the subplot focusing on Flash mad scientist Darwin Elias.  

At the same time, they inject forensic detail to the tale and demonstrate how useful a lover with knowledge of a secret identity can be.

The Flash doesn't need to alter his voice in this scene or assume different body language.  Patty knows the Flash is Barry Allen.  So, she can tacitly lend credence to the idea that Barry, whose absence would normally be suspect especially to a reporter, is elsewhere and not speeding in scarlet.

Manapul and Buccellato as per usual make this issue a unique, artistic experience.  The illustration in The Flash looks like nothing else.  It's an infusion of color blending with figure drawing that blasts off the pages and facilitates the idea of The Fastest Man Alive.

Superman gains artist Eddy Barrows.  As a consequence the panels acquire a more traditional look as opposed to Kenneth Rocafort's European influenced illustration.  

Barrows' artwork is excellent, in what I surmise was an assignment in which he was pressed for time.  Barrows has a strong grasp of the Man of Steel as well as his supporting cast.

The scene with Cat grants insight into the Man of Steel's innate goodness, allowing him to put others' needs before his own.  It also establishes the split personality at work.

Action Comics #9 1939

Superman used to be two people.  Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter, was a disguise that Superman assumed.  The real man was Superman.  

When John Byrne and Roger Stern rebooted Superman, Clark and the Big Red S became mostly indistinguishable.

Superman #6 1987

The new 52 offers a different take.  Kal-El is incredibly kind.  We can see it in his thoughts.  Clark while mostly a nice guy is a somewhat exasperated front that Kal displays to people.  Kal's mostly Clark, but not quite.  Superman on the other hand is aloof.  He's polite to his friends and acquaintances and a take charge individual.  Nobody would mistake him for the distinctive Clark Kent.  

Writer Scott Lobdell makes each facet of Kal-El sound and behave differently.  Barrows in turn gives each alter-ego different body language.   The creative team's entire effort suggests a tribute to the way Bud Collyer lowered his voice on the radio and the old Filmation cartoons when Clark revealed the S beneath his shirt.

Although Superman is more about the characterization of our hero, there's still action, and Lobdell continues to center on HIVE.  Set a few ticks in the past, with respect to Action Comics, colossal cranium Hector Hammond invades HIVE, and the Queen of the realm fights back; revealing a link to a classic Superman villain.

It's Trinity War Season in the new 52 DCU.  In the first chapter, Superman seemed to slay a member of the Justice League of America.  

This led to a brief skirmish in the desert of Khandaq, birthplace of Black Adam followed by Superman ending the battle before it really started.

Defying the deceptive advertising campaign of DC, Batman and Wonder Woman stick by their historical friend.  They investigate the crime, from two different fronts.  Batman seeks a scientific explanation.  Wonder Woman believes Superman's recent encounter with the legendary Pandora's Box tipped the scales in corruption's favor.

To this end, Wonder Woman seeks the help of Justice League Dark to find the elusive Pandora, but unknown to the Amazon, she's playing into one of the traps set by the Secret Society of Super Villains, established way, way early in the premiere of Justice League.

The Phantom Stranger meets all the Leagues for the first time, and he comes with a warning.  Wonder Woman's quest for Pandora will lead to catastrophe.  Batman who didn't like the idea of Wonder Woman wasting her time on a mythical artifact immediately tracks her down, but things don't go well for Batman.  Teams split and reconfigure, taking opposite sides.  Still, to call this a war is a bit much.  Everybody wants to help Superman.  They just employ different tactics.

The Question meanwhile reveals the identity of Superman's manipulator, and the person of interest just might play into the Psi War that will be trending through the Superman Family titles soon.  To say Superman is angry is an understatement.

As you can see, Mikel Janin pulls out all the stops, surpassing past enviable efforts with his art in Justice League Dark.  

Janin furthermore loses none of his attention to detail, body language or aesthetic spacing when illustrating the plethora of heroes taking part in the Trinity War.  

Most impressive, as per usual, he delivered the issue in a timely fashion, and Jeromy Cox's vivid variegation is extra icing on a satisfying multi-layered superhero cake.

Comparing and contrasting different writers and artists has never been my baliwick, but when juxtaposing the artwork of Mikel Janin and Jeromy Cox to that of Jae Lee in Batman Superman, Lee leaves me wanting more.  

While Lee is a talented artist, and we saw that exhibited in the Batman Superman premiere, this second issue mainly consists of shadow puppetry.

You may argue that this is an example of artistic license, and the Batcave is supposed to be dark anyhow, but what's Lee's excuse when he goes down on the Kent farm?

I count nine pages of "full" artwork, and I'm being generous.  Maybe the shadows add a smidgeon of drama, but I think they're too overwhelming at times and not really a necessity.  It's the equivalent of too much air in soft ice cream.

That said, the story by Greg Pak is pure gold.  It's got comedy, action, pathos and an overall optimistic outlook.  Superman and Batman are older than their earth one counterparts, and they've accomplished much more than their younger incarnations.  In addition, Pak includes a guest appearance by....


Wonder Woman.

Catwoman was actually good.

That's the plot in a nutshell, but the intrigue and conflict arises from how Catwoman gains her equipment to safely explore the hole and the advent of the Gotham Underworld.

It seems that like Ron Koslow's Beauty and the Beast an entire civilization thrives beneath the sewer system of Gotham.  There may be some precedence for such a city state. 

Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray, in All-Star Western, established that officials back in the nineteenth century walled up a section of the city due to plague.  Perhaps the Underworld developed from the survivorship of that disaster.

Catwoman goes to Anne Nocenti's juvenile scientist Alice, introduced last issue, for help.  She has a price.

Once Catwoman meets the price in her own inimitable style, she descends into a wierd world populated by familiar and unfamiliar figures.  Although the superpowered denizens of the tribes just may put you in mind of Futurama's sendup of the various underground mutants populating science fiction, Nocenti grounds the group in Gotham lore to add another layer of complexity.

Dr. Phosphorous was one Batman's most dangerous foes, created by Steve Engelheart and Walter Simonson.  This was the enemy that Batman actually could not get close to, nor deliver punches to, without protections, such as a radiation retardant cape.

In the new 52, it appears that Dr. Phosophorous' radioactive nature has been tempered, or the villain's been given more control over this deadly force.  Since Catwoman decks him right out.

Unfortunately, Selina cannot overcome the menace, and she yet again must accept being pressed into service, this time to be the messenger to another group living beneath Gotham's City streets.  Pretty engrossing, especially with Rafa Sandoval's composition and superb lithe depiction of Catwoman.

In other parts of Gotham City, a time displaced cowboy finds himself confined in Arkham Asylum, probably the last place Hex would be.

Writers Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti take great delight in smacking Hex around with culture shock from the most unusual places.  Cigarettes for example have a different taste than the old timey cigarettes you would see gunfighters sometimes roll and smoke.  Actually, this makes perfect sense.  Sherlock Holmes made a massive study of the different kinds of tobacco in the world as he knew it.  He'd be stymied in modern times using a cigarette as a clue.

More than flourishes, Hex pulls a rabbit out of his hat that he hopes might furnish his escape.  When Hex agreed to rescue Catherine Wayne, her husband Alan Wayne gave him thirty percent of Wayne Casino.  Arkham naturally consults Bruce Wayne, and low and behold, the Dark Knight Detective finds the answer in his ancestors belongings.

Before Batman can actually come invovled, Arkham himself discovers the truth about Hex's incarceration.  This leads to an escape that's impeded by a Mutant firefight which exposes Hex at his most lethal and his most human.  'effin' awesome.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

POBB: July 17, 2013

Pick of the Brown Bag
July 17, 2013

Ray Tate

This week, we're on time with Batman and Catwoman, Batman Beyond Unlimited, Birds of Prey, Justice League of America, Red Sonja, Simpsons Comics, Supergirl and Wonder Woman.

The Trinity War continues in Justice League of AmericaIn last week's Justice League, Superman seemed to fricassee a League of America member.  This goes down badly with both teams, and a slugfest breaks out.

A Scene Would Have Been Unthinkable Two Years Ago

Superman blames himself, and it should come to no surprise to anybody when he demands...

Yes, that's the Big Red S.  Every version of Superman winds up in jail at some point in his career.  The George Reeves' Superman also found himself behind bars.  You old universe holdouts who still want to see a boring Superman, an ineffectual Wonder Woman, an automaton Batman and a crippled Batgirl can go to hell.  The New 52 is awesome and in essence more accurate.

After Superman gets his wish, both Leagues lick their wounds.  Friendships do not form, and the Atom experiences buyer's remorse.  She turned out to be a League of America spy.  Even old friends such as Steve Trevor and Wonder Woman distance themselves, but one chain continues to be unbreakable.  The historical elder statesmen of the superhero genre, Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman, stick together.

Batman and Wonder Woman do not believe Superman to be responsible for the death of the League of America member.  They intend to investigate Superman's explosive behavior.  Batman observes and deduces.

Wonder Woman follows the trail of Pandora's Box.  When Trinity War had been first hinted at, DC made a big whoop-de-doo over a schism between Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman.  Thankfully, that was rubbish.  Despite disagreeing on the philosophy of each other's pursuit, Batman and Wonder Woman are on the same wavelength.  Though they do not know it, they are not alone.

Batman and Catwoman earns the most improved book award this week.  Batman still suffers from the loss of his son Damien.

However, he's no longer insane: leading him to do such things as disassemble Frankenstein to discover the secret of life.

Batman's past breakdown and overall nastiness is a little easier to take now that Peter Tomasi clues the reader into exactly when these books have been taking place.  

Batman for example beat Catwoman's motorcycle helmet to death in her feature title.  This issue, Batman replaces the helmet, with a note of apology.   That means Batman and... is a more or less daily log of Batman's life.  It runs concurrent with Catwoman.  

Superheroes in the new 52 apparently have some action-filled days.  I always thought that unless the story continued from issue to issue, weeks had passed between each, regardless of the comic book company.

Batman and Catwoman also sychronizes well enough with Batgirl.  When our title Daredoll appeared in Batman and Batgirl, Batman recognized her decision to rip off her bat symbol, but his state of mind precluded any empathy he felt for her situation.  Alternately, Batman as seen in the latest from Batgirl's title has already been assuaged by Catwoman's presence in Batman and Catwoman.  

Batman and Catwoman begins with even more continuity, however delivered smoothly.  Steve Trevor notifies Catwoman in mid-heist that he has a job for her on behalf of Justice League of America. 

Catwoman calls Batman for help, and he answers.  It turns out, Batman and Catwoman is the comic book in which Batman learns about the existence of Justice League of America.  

Since Batgirl also fits into this timeline, we can now say that Batman does not yet know of James Jr.'s participation in Amanda Waller's Suicide Squad.  It is likely Batman knows about Waller.  He was already aware of Black Canary, and both she and Waller served on Team 7.  He now knows that Waller is active once again and will learn about James Jr. during his investigation.  It still doesn't make the James Jr. moaning in Batgirl easier to stomach, but at least there's an explanation.

Even when setting aside the continuity and timeline interest, which admittedly may only fascinate me, Batman and Catwoman still delivers an exciting adventure that demonstrates the playful and respectful relationship Batman and Catwoman have.

Catwoman lightens Batman's load, a lot.  Batman discovers the true nature of Catwoman's assignment, but rather than express anger over being duped, Batman tears through the opposition.  

Patrick Gleason's and Mick Gray's evocative fighting cinematography turn Batman and Catwoman into a natural martial arts team, a costumed John Steed and Emma Peel.  It is an absolute joy to watch Batman and Catwoman decimate these bastards. 

One may argue that Catwoman set up Batman for his own good; having sensed something wrong with her sometime lover in her own title.  Indeed, Catwoman probably would have been able to perform Trevor's mission by her lonesome, but she sagely saw this as an opportunity for Batman to heal, from whatever damaged him.

After three or four issues of Batman going bat-shit crazy, Batman and Catwoman feels like a breath of fresh air.  Recommended for any fan of the Bat or the Cat.

In Birds of Prey the continuity becomes concrete.  Batgirl zooms away on her bike to battle James Jr....


then comes back traumatized by the whole affair.  


In addition to observation of the Batman Family timeline, Christy Marx promotes the Canary's smarts.  Starling betrayed the team by throwing in with Mr. Freeze to take down the remaining Owls.  So, Canary burns, sometimes literally, everything Starling associates with the Birds of Prey.

I'm ambivalent about the rest of the book.  Marx introduces a new team of super-villains led by a vaguely familiar Big Bad that follows the classic rule of sanity being inversely proportional to the eccentricity of the hat.

Black Canary's and Condor's relationship progresses, but I'm just not into them.  Strix returns from the non crossover with Talon.  Ultimately though, there's not enough hitting, leaving stellar artist Romano Molenaar nothing to do but visually twiddle his thumbs.

Adam Beechen introduces a new Batgirl to the future world of Batman Beyond, and for once, I actually like somebody wearing a Batgirl suit that's not Barbara Gordon. 

The reason why I accept this newest Batgirl is simple.  She's not a substitute.  Babs is still Batgirl in the same way Bruce is still Batman.  When DC introduced any other woman in a Batgirl costume--Helena Bertinelli, Cassandra Cain, Misfit, Batwoman, Booster Gold's sister, Stephanie Brown--it meant one thing.  DC was not going to heal Barbara Gordon.  My answer was always the same.  Screw you.

The new Batgirl fights alongside a fully mobile, fully kickass Babs Gordon.  That is fun, and the new Batgirl has a different personality than our ebullient Darknight Damsel.  She's surly, with a massive chip on her shoulder.  She has good reason.

The plot of Beechen's story is basically the GOP kills poor people by using Venom to inflate their muscle and escalate their anger.  When Babs and Batgirl confront the bastard behind this, they get treated like a woman under the thumb of the Texas Legislature.  Babs though as Batgirl notes could have easily taken down the Big Bad.  She just wanted to see what the new Batgirl could do once facing the Perry of the piece.  The terrific standalone is complimented by a backup that reveals whatever happened to the Metal Men.  This was just lovely.  Batman always liked the Metal Men, accepting them as they are and treating them as human beings.

I was a little nervous when I heard that the Supergirl team was departing, but judging by this current plot, the new Supergirl Scoobies have got a good act to follow.

Poisoned by Kryptonite after saving the world from H'el, Supergirl decides to take a cosmic road trip using an experimental scooter, she borrowed from Dr. Veritas.


Her first stop was a planet whose inhabitants can bring imagination to simulated life.  A giant monster appeared to attack these inhabitants if they are indeed a species and not a dream within a dream.  Supergirl dealt with it, and the Grand Poobah apparent welcomed her to imagine Kryptonian legends.  Naturally, there's something more to the whole scheme than making a young Kryptonian girl's wishes come true.

Last issue ended with the startling new 52 introduction of the Cyborg Superman.  Originally Hank Henshaw, the last survivor of a defacto Fantastic Four who gained nothing from radiation exposure except death, the new Cyborg Superman is a different animal.  

Supergirl sure didn't conjure him up.  How could she?  She never met him, and she certainly doesn't want what he's serving.

Michael Alan Nelson's plot is a little odder than the typical good versus evil tradition, and his dialogue for the Girl of Steel is riotous.

Artist Diogenes Neves makes up for the loss of Mahmud Asrar.  His Supergirl is appropriately deceptive.  While she seems to be an innocent teenager who wears her emotions on her blue sleeve...

...she's also a Kryptonian with immense power to put villains down.  In short, this is still the Supergirl we fans all want to see.

Writer Brian Azzarello after announcing Wonder Woman to be a horror comic book series mostly made good on his promise.  

Azzarello demonstrated the pettiness and cruelty of the deities with "good god" Apollo sending three innocent women plummeting to their deaths after he used them as vessels for prescience.  

Partner in crime Cliff Chiang clad Hera in peacock feathers and nothing more, to infuse primal terror in the hunt for the latest of Zeus' conquests, an earth woman named Zola.

Azzarello and Chiang of course could not go full throttle.  The presence of Wonder Woman made such an aim impossible.  Heroes stop the progress of evil.  They do not facilitate it, nor do they simply sit idly by and watch evil grow.

Wonder Woman has been most proactive in this new series of adventures.  She not only combatted and defeated the gods.  She also lived up to the intent of her creator Dr. William Moulton Marston.  

Marston saw his brainchild as an alternative to the machismo violence that he perceived Batman and Superman exhibited.  Wonder Woman in fact rehabilitated one of her arch-foes, Gestapo agent and scientist, Paula von Gunther.  After Marston, Wonder Woman became many things: traditional bellicose Amazon, wise immortal, certified diplomat, Modesty Blaise type adventurer.

Azzarello's Wonder Woman combines the best of all the worlds.  We first saw her at a hotel in London, not the usual milieu for the Princess, but perfectly reasonable given her past Nazi fighting, not yet recognized in the new 52.  Azzarello indicated that Wonder Woman was a seasoned fighter, not the neophyte superhero from the premiere of Justice League.  

A young, pregnant girl sought Wonder Woman's help, and the Amazon quickly established herself as Zola's protector.  Through the Hero's Journey, Wonder Woman learned about herself and her newfound siblings including the tragic Lennox, son of Zeus.  

Recently, Azzarello did something very unusual.  He introduced the new 52 versions of the New Gods in Wonder Woman.  The New Gods have never been before associated with Wonder Woman, but Azzarello makes it seem like such an obvious place for their premiere.  Artist Cliff Chiang reveals himself to be a secret Jack Kirby fan.  His streamlined clean art nevertheless expresses the flourishes of Jack Kirby's distinctive illustration.

The New Gods are distantly related to the Greek Gods, and Highfather, who we meet this issue as more knight and less hippie, ostensibly sent Orion to kill Zeus' and Zola's baby.  The Greeks fear that Zola's baby Zeke will usurp the ruler of Olympus.  So it seems that two different pantheons have the same information.  There was much more to worry about.

Last issue Orion, Wonder Woman, Hera, Zola and Zeke escaped the First Born, Hera's first son, via Boom Tube.  This issue Azzarello defines Wonder Woman and consolidates the careful characterization he developed for this latest incarnation of Diana of Paradise Island.

Azzarello makes Wonder Woman a warrior, but one that inspires others to greatness.  She's not the typical Amazon.  Azzarello already exposed them as the followers of Greek tradition, the rapists and killers of men, not the perfect Utopians who saw man's world as folly.  Fascinating enough.  Diana is one that forgives after kicking ass.  Her exposure to cultures outside of Paradise Island also gives her a more cosmopolitan world view.  She really believes that everybody can live in peace and harmony.  That in some ways reflects the George Perez Wonder Woman, but there's that ass kicking part of her that recognizes that peace must be fought for, and asses that need to be kicked are a universal impediment.

Oh, did I mention the Jackal Men of London?

Gail Simone takes over Red Sonja, and it's a little bit Black Adder blended with Magnificent Seven and a strong feminist slant.

The story opens in the past with King Dimath securing a city and rescuing its tortured souls from the dungeon.  Sonja becomes involved with Dimath in a unique way that may just upset some the She-Devil's fans, but Simone likes to defy expectation.  Sonja isn't Supergirl.  She can be overwhelmed.

The story skips ahead with Dimath calling on Sonja to help him thwart the Zamorans.

No not those.

Sonja becomes Dimath's general, and this is where The Magnificent Seven come in.  Sonja trains an army consisting of young girls and a few good men.  When she leads the group forward, she finds a surprise waiting for her in the saddle of the opposition.

Simone's Sonja is mostly the same from other versions, but she relaxes the character somewhat and tempers her anger.  For example, when a group of young brigands try to rob her, she tries her best to avoid combat.  She only picks up the sword when they leave her no choice.  Simone's Sonja is also a little smarter than previous treatments.  Simone furthermore pumps up the idea that above all Sonja is a heroic adventurer, not just a mercenary.  She follows a code of conduct.

If these tweaks disturb you, faithful Sonja followers should take heart in seeing Walter Geovani's and Adriano's Lucus' definitive Sonja illustration beautifying the book.

For those coming late to the story, Ned Flanders remarried Edna Krabappel in The Simpsons' "Ned n' Edna's Blend."  Writer Mike W. Barr bases his comic book story on this remarkable shred of actual Simpsons continuity.

In the past you could say that The Simpsons started up from scratch each episode.  That all changed with Maude Flanders' death.  Now, the thread you can actually follow is an interweave between Ned and Edna.

You don't really need to know everything that happened previously to enjoy Barr's tale, but in all honesty, you'll have a richer experience if you do.  For example, Bart's relationship with Edna Krabappel is for the most part adversarial, but several Simpsons stories reveal a friendship between the two.  Edna for example in a conceptive season took pity on Bart when he tried his hardest to study and still failed.  Bart as a prank began writing Edna love letters only to feel horrible when she fell too deeply for Jacques.  Bart also became an intermediate between Edna and Principal Skinner.  We get some of this kindness between the two in Barr's story.

Ned's parents are Beatniks, and that makes it easier for the two to spend time with the Simpsons, who have always been surreal.  Barr eventually evolves the story to a supremely satisfying finish where the Flanders reunite and find common ground.  Before that though, Barr finds comedy in the family dynamic spinning out with a centripetal force that ensnares all.  

The outstanding issue of Simpsons Comics is brought to you by Phil Ortiz, Mike DeCarlo and colorist Art Villanueva.  One of the things you notice immediately is how the relatively realistic body language defines this tale as more dramatic.  This isn't going to be a goof where elephants eat people.  The other thing immediately apparent is the overall happy look to the characters.  Barr's story doesn't rely on bitterness or slapstick to relate the jokes.  Ned and Edna are perfectly okay with the senior Flanders' spending time with the Simpsons.  Homer's delighted to find somebody who knew his rebel mother.  Edna's spirit isn't being crushed.  She looks positively buoyant as a result.  Because of the pure character design and this emotional uplift, you can imagine Marcia Wallace's voice as a blend of Edna's and Carol's from The Bob Newhart Show, and that works beautifully for this special issue of Simpsons Comics.