Thursday, January 30, 2014

POBB: January 22, 2014

Pick of the Brown Bag
January 22, 2014
Ray Tate

Welcome to the Pick of the Brown Bag.  In this column I pick from my current batch, the most disappointing comic books.   This week we have a plethora of books to choose from: All-New Invaders, Batman, Batman and Two-Face, Birds of Prey, Doc Savage, Harley Quinn, Justice League, Supergirl and Wonder Woman.

In the All-New Invaders, the Kree attack Jim Hammond's new home, a Mayberryesque little town that doesn't know what hits them.  The Kree's mission.  To pick the brains of the Invaders in order to locate the pieces of a cosmic doohickey that controls Asgardians.  As reasons for reunions go, that's pretty pitiful.

The All-New Invaders is all-old-hat.  The plot consists of a piecemeal MacGuffin and tactically inept antagonists just tough enough to make the Invaders think twice.  Roy Thomas already wrote this story in The Invaders.  Wait.  What?

In Thomas' tale, Hitler simply bamboozles Thor.  No device necessary.  He just sweet talks the Thunder God into working for the Nazis.  Upon viewing this unlikely collusion, Loki probably laughed his ass off.  So endeth the Allied victory.  Thor of course comes to his senses the next issue.

The gizmo seen in The All-New Invaders is a rip-off of the Spear of Destiny.  The Spear is a bit of Biblical tomfoolery rarely discussed outside of comic book reading circles.  Supposedly a Roman soldier stabbed the crucified Christian savior.  Awfully unsporting of him.  Conspiracy nuts claim the Spear was passed on to individuals who became great and/or terrifying men.  This folklore legacy proved good fodder for writers of the Bronze Age Justice Society who decided that the Spear can grant the wielder control over any super-powered being.  The transference doesn't make a lick of sense, but the mere plot device became part of the litany that every DC comic book fan knew.

Writer James Robinson, as if sensing the weakness and derivativeness in his plot, tries to grasp a pedigree by swirling the tea of 1940s patriotic super heroes until only the dregs can be read.

Major Liberty was an actual, honest to goodness previously conceived superhero.  

I know.  That surprised me as well, and apologies to any readers of Asian descent.  In any case, the very fact that Robinson includes this obscure, foppish champion of justice in his book indicates that he won't be here for very long.

In addition to all of this bad will, the usually reliable Steve Pugh concocts one of the all-time worst versions of Captain America's costume. 

I've seen better at gay pride parades.  Compare this to Chris Evans' costume from The Avengers.  

As you can see, Evans' uniform looks a lot like the traditional star-spangled garb that served Steve Rogers since time immemorial.  Avoid.

Justice League also kills what should be some unpromising candidates, but Geoff Johns and Ivan Reis combine forces to make you actually feel bad about the deadly consequences of Atomika's revel.

The earnestness in the voice of the young hero, his want to serve justice and the chilling, realistic means in which he succumbs to death all inject gravitas in the scene.  Whereas Atomika's fun loving expression turns your stomach.  She's a remarkably ugly personality wearing a fashion model face and a bombshell body.

The two fellows murdered by Johnny Quick and Atomika were members of the dwindling Doom Patrol, and Professor Niles Caulder isn't the only familiar face you'll find in these pages.  T.O. Morrow, classic Justice League villain, in the new 52 is actually the esteemed colleague of Silas Stone, father to Victor Stone, and technical genius behind Cyborg, the focus for once of this issue.  

Geoff Johns earns points for having a black man help establish DC's flagship team, but thanks to Jim Lee's clunky design and Cyborg's ability to utilize a built-in boom tube, Johns largely sidelined the character as a token nostalgic unit of diversity.  Cyborg actually made a more active television debut on Super Powers: Galactic Guardians back in the late seventies.  

Johns though has been attempting to atone for this slight.  The cybernetic tech Silas and Morrow fused to Victor gained a semblance of life and became the Grid.  The Grid threw in with the Crime Syndicate.  Past issues indicate that the Grid is jealous of Victor's ability to feel, and it looks like Grid has something even more to hate about Victor Stone.  The angst puppy died.

Victor never wanted to be Cyborg.  His father in an effort to save his life created the Cyborg half of Victor, but now to save the earth, Victor accepts his identity.  He wants to be a Justice Leaguer.  This is a definite first and for the first time in a long time Cyborg gains dramatic impetus.  

It's very clear that Marv Wolfman and George Perez, the actual creators of Cyborg, were channeling some Ben Grimm into the Teen Titan.  Now, we have a Victor Stone that sees the benefits of being Cyborg, but it will be on his own terms.  

The turnabout gives Ivan Reis the license to disregard most of Lee's blueprint.  He goes back to the sleeker beginning and just to be on the safe side, throws in some new Robocop, also made in Detroit.

Rebirth occurs in Birds of Prey as well.  Christy Marx wants Batgirl. You can taste her desires in Birds of Prey.  She likes Black Canary, but she loves Batgirl.

The first clue to her goal occurs when she identifies Batgirl's life as "a mess."  It's Gail Simone's mess.  Her nauseating non-starter boy-caught-in-a-bear-trap-romance.  Followed by the not-gonna-be-Batgirl-Ninja in I fought the law cause I crippled-no, wait-stuck-a-needle in my brother's eye-Dad hates my alter-ego crap.

So, we're on the road to Gothtopia, the Big Stupid that wants to be an Event, and Marx is having none of it.  If we're going there, Batgirl's going to lead the Birds to kick Gothtopia's ass.  That's the plan, but Black Canary objects.

Black Canary recently reunited with her Popsicle husband, Kurt.  Amanda Waller preserved Kurt out of revenge.  The petty-minded bitch served with Black Canary on Team 7, and she noted the unstoppable canary cry Dinah developed when in the presence of her paramour.  So Waller recovered Kurt's body, kept it on life support, quicker than you can say John Peter Smith Hospital, and used it to throw Black Canary out of whack.  Amanda Waller hates super-heroes.  She hates people.  Probably hates puppies as well.

The Birds fought Condor's old group Basilisk, and Marx gives an in depth look at the newest member of the Birds of Prey.  She covers practically everything.  How he got his powers.  Where he received his flying suit.  Who he was schtumping before he attempted to put the consensual moves on the Canary.  Needless to say, Kurt on ice crimps Condor's nesting plans.

All of these swatches lie in the quilt of an overall arc that readers likely missed.  Marx introduces an immortal woman that rescued the Birds from Basilisk.  She gives weight to the immortal by relying upon anthropology, and she handles the everlasting insert through the flexibility and relative newness of the new 52.  

Introducing such a character in the post-Crisis would strain plausibility.  Of course, that never stopped anyone before.  However, with the new 52, it's no sweat at all since much of the DCU's history is still a blank slate.  The immortal woman mentions better known DC Energizer Bunnies to further secure verisimilitude, and here lies Marx's expert characterization of Batgirl.  Babs is buying none of it.  

Marx presents Batgirl as the arch-skeptic.  She asks all the right questions.  She looks upon a gift horse with suspicion.  She observes the immortal woman as she would a specimen.  Batgirl does not like the entire situation, and when Gotham needs her, but Black Canary diverts, she cuts her losses and takes the leadership of Canary's team.  You can argue that Batgirl was one of the founders with Canary and Starling, but it was actually Canary and Starling that began the group.  Batgirl reluctantly joined later.

The plot in Birds of Prey hops around a lot, but Marx keeps everything sewn up through the strong thread of Batgirl being a natural leader and detective.  For once it's an argument of philosophy that splits the team.  Black Canary believes and hopes.  Batgirl draws upon experience and logic.  

Batman is really different.  Scott Snyder and Gregg Capullo throw out almost everything except the costume, the bare bones origin and the equipment--even these elements return altered.  The corruption of the police is less Dickensian, and more realistic.  Snyder also dares to tempt Jim Gordon to the dark side.

Snyder distinguishes this issue of Batman by making it less centered on Bruce Wayne and more of a reflection on how others feel about Batman and his alter-ego.  Through Alfred's voice, Snyder introduces a new, groundbreaking reason why Bruce Wayne became Batman.  It's a stunning piece of psychological play.

Jim Gordon, now a Lieutenant, details how a chance encounter with young Bruce Wayne changed his life, but it's more than simple exposition.  Snyder and Capullo break away from the tale for a well-placed flashback cleverly explaining the puppy that young Babs Gordon plays with.

May I just say how awesome it is to see Babs Gordon back in Jim's bloodline where she belongs.  The in depth focus on Batman is triggered by the surprising revelation of a secret behind Dr. Death that puts him square in the line of fire twice, with some sweet imagery by Gregg Capullo.

Batman is not a good comic book for the usual reasons.  It's the uniqueness and the grand ideas about a pop culture icon that warrant its purchase.

Batman and Two-Face continues revealing hitherto unknown continuity that adds depth to the characters.  It turns out that Batman and Two-Face were old friends; not Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent.  Bruce however was instrumental in orchestrating Harvey's redemption, and this ties in nicely with Scott Snyder's presentation of Bruce Wayne as a philanthropic innovator whom Gotham sees as a favorite son.  In addition, writer Peter Tomasi indicates the links between Two-Face and the McKillins.

In the present Batman lies beneath a fallen statue in a grave just waiting to be filled, but Two-Face has other fish to fry.  He wants to murder Erin McKillin to reap vengeance for his wife Gilda, whom Erin slew.  

Revenge is a theme in this week's issue, more so than previous chapters because we now see why Erin and Shannon saw Harvey as a turncoat.  He was their defense attorney before Bruce convinced him to become a D.A.  Ironically, Batman often the symbol of vengeance becomes the voice of reason and mercy.  He won't let either antagonist kill the other.  Of course, Batman's aim may be moot.

Mob party crashers decide to get rid of the whole lot of them.  Erin is a loose cannon.  Two-Face is a freak, and snuffing Batman would naturally be a boon to the criminal element.  Tomasi again acknowledges continuity, this time in a broader sense.  He explains that Batman must be killed anonymously.  If it is to be done, it must be done in secret.  Else, his super friends will take down the organization.  It's a nice moment where a mob leader without heady exposition demonstrates his skill sets and thinks of the consequences and the impact of a hit.

Tomasi furthermore cements his reputation as no mean Batman writer with the above moment of self-reflection.  The brilliant mosaic designed by Patrick Gleason spreads across two pages.  My scanner can't really do it justice, but if you enlarge, you'll see Batman in the present situation expressing his guilt over all the bad, sometimes insane actions he took in the past as a reaction to Damian's death.  

Frankly, I couldn't care less about Damian, and Batman's wrecking of the Batman family and his dissection of Frankenstein was tiring.  However, Tomasi classifies these moments as a breakdown in Batman's sanity which gives the character rare vulnerability.  Despite the accusations of psychopathic tendencies, no reader believes Batman to be crazy.  Tomasi showed Batman when he truly lost it.  This was a Batman who looked to the strange world he lived in for answers and a desperate chance for resurrection.  Now, Batman is back, and his return is welcome. 

And then there's Harley Quinn.  Man, what a hoot.  Not one iota of it affects continuity, figures into continuity or worries about continuity.  Unless, everybody else is going to base their versions of Poison Ivy on Palmiotti's and Conner's incarnates.

Harley learns of a clinic that euthanizes dogs and cats that nobody adopts.  She decides to conduct a kennel break, and she'll need help.  Enter Poison Ivy.

So, this is where I go into the whole lesbian subtext in the relationship between Poison Ivy and Harley that was established out of nothing in Batman: The Animated Series and greatly supported by subsequent Adventureverse spin-offs.  The truth is that we want this to happen, even if it wasn't intended.  

It's not just because male audiences are attracted to the lesbian mystique, to put it nicely.  Regardless of gender, we all want this relationship to happen because Harley's better off with Poison Ivy.  The Joker/Harley relationship is completely abusive.  It's mental and physical damage.  It only works, just, as slapstick in a cartoon, and "Mad Love" would be utterly painful to watch if not for Arlene Sorkin's hilarious inflections.  

The funny thing is that Poison Ivy's comic book history is completely heterosexual.  She started in lust for Batman.  She became a greedy, man-eating femme fatale from the Silver to the Modern Ages.  The Animated Series however impacted on Poison Ivy's history in amazing ways.  Late in the post Crisis, comic books began emphasizing her scientific acumen and depicting her as an ecoterrorist, which offered a satisfying rationale for her crimes.  The books however never touched upon the animated styled relationship between Poison Ivy and Harley.  Until the very end of the post-Crisis, Harley and Ivy never even met.

Well, it's the new 52, and Poison Ivy became a ubiquitous character in the new 52.  She even became a protagonist in Birds of Prey, where she first cultivated a history that mirrors her Animated Series incarnation.  Now, Palmiotti and Conner present for the first time a definite hint that Ivy wants to snuggle with Harley.  Whether that love is requited or unrequited lies in the interpretation.

Ivy's not quite as nuts as she is on the cartoon.  Her preference for plants is tempered with a respect for the entire life chain.  Her problems stem entirely now from humans, and even here, it's only certain ones.  For the most part, Ivy got along with the Birds of Prey.  She even saved innocent human lives and when finding herself in a difficult decision asks Batman for help.  Snyder cast her as a champion of the green in his Rotworld masterstroke.  Conner and Palmiotti complete the nourishment by introducing the final element of love to the character.   Only the future will tell if Harley and Ivy will continue as some kind of item in the more serious books from DC. 

Brian Azzarello also brings up sensuality in Wonder Woman, but this doesn't consist of erotic imagery or a boring, safe date with the Man of Steel.  Instead, he dares to address what most writers eschewed: loving submission.

William Moulton Marston was a man of many talents.  He created the lie detector.  No, really.  He was a renowned psychologist, and he invented the lie detector.  He also looked upon the machismo of heroes such as Batman and Superman in disappointment.  

Marston had a singular idea about feminism that he shared with his wife and...ah...their spouse Olive Byrne.  The Marstons and Olive Byrne shared an ideal tryst, and Marston had children with both women, which Mrs. Marston, a psychologist and educator in her own right, adopted.  The traditional concepts of a patriarchal society did not appeal to any one of them, and cosmos, knows what their bedroom antics looked like.  Vanilla it wasn't.

Marston was not a sadomasochist as some so often misinterpret.  He referred to dominance and submission in a completely different manner.  Bondage was part of it, but never to induce pain.  Read his books and articles if you want to learn more, but the point of this all is that Wonder Woman submits to the Moon in order to secure her help in tracking down Zola.

This is really the first time any writer ever dared to broach the subject, and Azzarello I think nails it.  The Loving Submission of the Amazons is exactly how Marston meant it to be.  A counter to violent, male dominance.  The allure of women brings down the beast with less muss or fuss.

In contrast, Apollo rains down violent male hell on the First Born, and he really doesn't want to do it.  All he wants is the First Born to pledge fealty to him.  If you look at all the torture Apollo carries out, it exemplifies what Marston saw as the way men made the world.  Marston was an uber feminist and somewhat misunderstood by his critics.

You can argue that the gods cannot be judged by humanity.  Azzarello's version of the Greek Gods definitely eliminates the idea of they being ancient aliens, like Asgardaians.  They simply see no kinship with humans, and their mind-sets are completely incomprehensible.

Dio for example decides to take Zola for a truffle hunt.  He invites some guests for the festivities, but little do they know that they're about to undergo a godly metamorphosis, and for Dio, that's an okay thing for him to do.  He probably intends for the transformation to be temporary.  He apparently has performed this kind of trickery before, but he sees no ethical quandary at all.  

However you interpret it, there's more going on in Wonder Woman than meets the eye.  It started with Diana attempting to protect Zola and her baby.  It turned into an exploration into how the gods are unlike us, and always had an eye on Marston's philosophy.

Supergirl suffers from a split personality.  On the one hand writer Tony Bedard creates a perfectly reasonable aftermath from Kara's and Lobo's battle, which resulted in Lobo's death.  The cosmic bounty hunter doesn't stay dead for long, and he wreaks havoc in the Block, research home of the most interesting addition to the Superman mythos in years, Dr. Veritas.

Bedard then goes on to explain the ins and outs of the Block, how it came to be and why everybody on board save the specimens ended up looking like Dr. Veritas.  He goes on to establish a friendship between Dr. Veritas and Supergirl, which is genuinely sweet.  Finally he comes up with some really clever tactical moves that seal Lobo's fate.

The bad of the book however involves preparing Kara for the Red Lantern ring, which is without a doubt the stupidest and distasteful inclusion in Supergirl's history.  Supergirl fans will not stand for this inexplicable change.  You cannot turn Supergirl into a Red Lantern and think there will not be consequences. 

We're supposed to accept Supergirl's growing resentment of her cousin foreshadowing her wearing the hate ring.  Well, that's rubbish because in the story Supergirl refers to, she reconciled with Kal-El, and while she loathed the idea of sacrificing Krypton, she accepted the inevitable.  As the book ends, writer Scott Lobdell suggested that Superman unwittingly pulled a Doctor and saved but isolated Krypton in for all intent and purpose another universe. 

Furthermore, Supergirl's belief that she broke her friendship with Siobhan, the host of the Silver Banshee, is short-sighted.  All she really needs to do is fly back to the apartment and say, "Hey, listen, I'm sorry I was an ass back there.  You see, I had a lot on my mind.  I was dying of kryptonite poisoning which put me in a bad mood."  There's not enough hate in Supergirl to warrant a ring suddenly popping onto her finger, and these blatant attempts to convince me otherwise just make me want to drop the book sooner than later.

The second issue of Doc Savage is better than the first.  Writer Chris Roberson delves deeper into the mythology of Doc Savage and incorporates such well known trademarks as the Fortress of Solitude, no copyright infringement, Superman's creators borrowed the idea from Doc Savage, and the Crime College.  

Fortress of Solitude is self explanatory.  The Crime College lacks such simplicity.  When Doc defeated his foes, he didn't hand them over to the authorities.  He determined the American penal system flawed.  Instead, Doc took criminals to the Crime College.

Over the years, writers became nervous about the Crime College.  Mike W. Barr in DC's Doc Savage series argued that Doc actually conducted lobotomies at the Crime College, but at the time Doc was unaware of the ramifications of the operations.  

Lobotomies were extremely popular in the thirties and forties.  Doctors even treated the procedure like a sideshow, going town to town to perform on willing participants.  PBS showed a particularly chilling documentary detailing exactly how common lobo times were and how snake-oil salesman ballyhoo helped spread the false sense of utility.  The reality of the lobotomy at the time is why I don't believe Doc conducted any.  

Doc wasn't the man of his time.  He was the man of tomorrow.  He was a figure of science fiction, not science fact.  Doc somehow destroyed the criminal elements of his subjects by operating on them.  Somehow though he preserved their personalities.  Their criminal past was but a memory, and they would look upon these remnants as if they belonged to  somebody else.  

Doc knew more about neurology than the esteemed medical community of the period.  Doc also didn't just snip here and there.  He re-educated criminals so that they could enter back into society.  I think it's more than likely Doc used a variety of techniques to cure and treat the disease of crime.  Lobotomy is just too simple and unsophisticated.  Since such practice was common, Doc could have simply turned criminals over to the authorities for an eventual visit to the ice-pick happy quacks of the time.  Instead, he mistrusted the establishment, and took on the responsibility himself.

The Crime College serves as the setting for this issue of Doc Savage, and while criminals do not wish to undergo any treatment that would effectively nullify them, it's important to pay attention to the dialogue and see how different Ham and Monk act toward the soon-to-be-patients.  Outside of the College, they fight bad guys.  Inside, they will take part in the grand experiment that will allow them to become productive citizens.

While Doc ultimately solves the problems the criminal organization presents, his cousin Pat Savage becomes the muscle and the exemplar of courage.  This is where Chris Roberson differs from Lester Dent and others.  Doc always wanted Pat kept out of the action, but Roberson suggests that she acted in his stead more and more as the years pass.  Part of this flip you can argue is due to the changing attitude toward women, but I don't really see Dent as a chauvinist.  Rather, I think Doc wanted to keep Pat out of danger because she was Pat, and his only relative.

Regardless, Roberson does a superb job in bringing Pat to life, and artists Bilquis Evely and Daniela Miwa perfect her image to the pages.  This is exactly who I thought of when reading the adventures of Pat Savage.

There you have it.  Next week, hopefully there won't be any snow delays.

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